Friendship is an Enigma
I passed out on the cold hard floor in the subbasement of the Jefferson Memorial. The last thing I remembered was watching Charon draw himself into a small ball. I knew what I was doing was…not wrong, but…egregious. To get out of the worst of things, you often had to go further down. He needed to be broken before he could live. I just didn’t think he would…he didn’t kill me, but he could have. I still felt immense fear and guilt as I drifted off into unconsciousness, though. What if I was wrong?
When I woke up, Charon was still in the same place a few feet away from me, but he didn’t show any signs of realizing I was there. I sat up on my elbows, wincing slightly as I did. I was wracked with pain. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there, but the pain in my ribs and my chest were still vibrant. When he landed on top of me, I felt more than one thing break at once. My throat was on fire where he’d pressed the blade to my skin. And his heated eyes on me…He had enjoyed my company and I threw it away willingly, for his sake.
I hurt all over, and it was hard to move, but I couldn’t stay here anymore. When my feet were planted firmly on the ground and I stood as tall as I could, I collected one more stimpak from the table before I left the room. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Charon before I left.
The stimpak helped, but I still felt weak and drained. I started up the stairs slowly, but each step I took away from him felt like a goodbye. Maybe I’d get the chance to see him again some day once my notoriety died away. Perhaps I’d get the chance to explain myself. However…it would be best if I never saw him again. I only hoped he would live.
When I left the memorial, it was afternoon. I must have been unconscious for nearly a day. I stood on the spot, weighing my options. I thought it would be best to stick to the open Wastes rather than travel near the Citadel again. I started south down the river, constantly looking out for others. I was unarmed now and extremely vulnerable. Luckily, I saw no one and was not attacked.
About a mile or so down the bank of the Potomac, the river ran dry, and I was able to cross. Old vehicles and artifacts lined the river’s bare floor, and I manoeuvred around them carefully, not because I didn’t want to disturb them, but because I felt that I was treading on dangerous chances, and if I made one mistake I would fall and stay down. I reached the other side quickly, and I departed west again, heading for that garage my father had spoken of. There I would find the entrance to Vault 112. I could only hope that that was where he would still be. Since nearly two months had gone by since he had made those recordings, I only assumed he had moved on, but I still hoped I could stop looking and put everything behind me.
Hours went by, and I started to feel more sore and sick. The horizon seemed to be crawling farther away from me. I was thirsty, hungry, and very tired, despite the fact I had had several hours of rest. The sun was extremely hot as well, and it worked against me, beating me with waves of heat. My fingers and toes were tingling; an uneasy feeling resided in my stomach. I hoped that wherever I was going had the means necessary to treat me. I’d never felt this depleted. Being shot was a horrific pain, but it was sharp and instant, and this…
Perhaps I was arrogant to think I was cut out for survival. Perhaps, after all that had happened before, I’d just gotten lucky with everything.
I could see Tenpenny Tower looming in the distance. I’d never been this far west, so I had never seen it before, but I heard several stories of the notorious apartment complex from across the greater D.C. area. I planned to keep clear of it out of principle. It dressed itself as an accommodating centre for civility, but I was certain my luck would come to a crashing end in Tenpenny’s abode. But as I travelled farther west, I felt closer to desperation than I could ever remember, and I seriously considered begging for sanctuary at the gates. It was likely that I wouldn’t make it to Vault 112 in a day. I would have to find some refuge, somewhere to recuperate…
I accidentally tripped over my own feet, and I stumbled forward onto my hands and knees. My breath came in like being sucked through a straw and left with a high-pitched wheeze. I could feel another wave of nausea coming on, and I clumsily brushed my hair over to one side before the sick came pouring from my mouth. I had become so used to vomiting that the feeling was somehow muted. As I spit out the last of it, I started to climb to my feet again, but my knees wobbled dangerously, and I collapsed a few feet away. Instead of landing on my hands and knees this time, though, I fell heavily onto my side, but the ground felt soft, like my body had gone numb and I could no longer feel.
I tried to pull myself up into a sitting position at the least, but my arms shook with the effort. Worry hadn’t been a threat before then.
I thought about all that had happened then, all the people I had failed. I wondered when Carol would learn of her son’s ill fate. I thought on Amata, whose father had been stolen from her by my hand, and how she was living her life now. I could see the faces of the fallen in Paradise Falls, the eyes of the accusing when I ran from Megaton. My father’s smiling face was starting to fade in my memory. Even his voice sounded strange to me when I had played the recordings.
Then I thought of Charon. I gasped as a knifing pain shot up my ribs, and I was certain it was from despair instead of injury. He was the last friend I had, and I sacrificed it for his future. Would I die with him hating me? Would he ever know that…Charon…
As I lay in the dirt, my thoughts started to drift from the dark to the heartwarming. There was a permanent tickle in my throat that made me cough every other breath, but a small smile came to my lips despite the discomfort. I thought about the way he would strut behind me silently, always holding his gun like all he wanted to do was fire it constantly. I could remember my hand placed gently on his chest with his gun in my face; the way it felt when he brushed my hair away from my neck; the way he had looked at me before I dropped part of him into the fire. I realized then that Charon’s rotting appearance and dead eyes meant nothing to me. Nor did his foul attitude ever really perturb me. It was an odd friendship, one that couldn’t ever have been built and mended on words. But it was there. Just being there was all I needed.
I tried to say his name, but the sound never came. I started to feel myself being pulled into the dark, and I fought feebly to stay awake, but the fatigue was so strong. I started to think of what my last words to my father and to Charon would have been, but I never completed the thought.
I caught up with her a couple miles south of Tenpenny Tower. It was impossible to tell from my distance if it was actually her or not, but I could see the way the figure was walking, with slow movements and staggering steps, and I knew it had to be her. I was on top of a slight hill, so I could see her in the distance, a small speck in an endless desert. I wanted to stop her and drag her back to Underworld to get treatment, but at the same time, I was…I dunno, nervous. It was like I was embarrassed to see her again. But when I saw her trip, fall, and lay still, embarrassment seemed pretty fucking fickle to be worried about. I ran for her.
When I got close, I started to slow down. Didn’t know what I’d find when I got to her, and suddenly I really didn’t want to know how bad it was. My worst fear was that she’d simply keeled over and died. I never thought I’d be one to say I had fears that weren’t related to breaking the contract, but I knew what it was as I walked up to her. Her hair was blown over her face and she was still. I paused a few feet away to get a grip, then I slung my shotgun over my shoulder to kneel beside her.
I kind of just sat there for a second, trying to look at her face through her hair. I brushed it away with the back of my hand, looking into her face. Her eyes were closed, her mouth was open slightly, and a thin breath rattled from between her lips. Well, at least she was alive, but not by much. I realized I’d rested my hand on the side of her face from where I’d brushed her hair away, and I withdrew it quickly, like she’d know.
Tenpenny Tower was close, but they weren’t about to let a ghoul in, and even if I just left her on the doorstep to get taken in, they’d likely let her rot before they picked her up. Megaton was the next closest place, but like Tenpenny Tower, we were more likely to get lynched than helped. Underworld was at least a day away, and that was if I ran the whole thing, and those guys probably hated her as much as everyone else seemed to. That was where she’d be most likely get the help she needed. I’d make them.
What was I doing? She’d cut a pretty deep gash in me by destroying my contract, and even though I felt now like she’d done me a favour, I owed her nothing. When you get down to the bottom of it, she was my fucking slaver. Now she wasn’t and I had the right to just leave her there in the dirt. In the beginning, that’s what I would’ve done. That was when I didn’t give a shit about anyone, though. I didn’t want her to die. I really didn’t want that. It was a little hard for me to recognize that and label it, because all I’d ever known was how to hate everyone like I was their personal undertaker.
I pulled her into my arms as I stood. She was dead weight, but she still felt small and fragile. This was her at her most helpless. She felt more alive when I carried her into Underworld, riddled with bullet holes.
I started off back east.
Once in a while, she’d twitch or shift herself around in my arms, but other than that, she showed no sign of being awake. She’d mumble occasionally too, but nothing coherent. Her head was propped up and cradled between my arm and my chest, making her look more the kid than ever. It felt totally fucking weird that way. Since it was just me now, and no one else was around to call me out on it (including her), I stared at her face every now and again. I didn’t want to miss it when she woke up, or when she…no. She wasn’t a helpless kid. She’d pull through. Just like she knew I would.
But there’s only so much good you can see after the bad is all that’s left. Dark circles surrounded her eyes. She was more thin and hollow than before. When I reminded myself of that, I looked away quickly and picked up the pace a little bit. Gob all over again.
I was making good time when dusk was making its appearance. I was on edge. If anything or anyone attacked us, especially in the dark, I’d be at an obvious disadvantage, not being able to collect my shotgun or my knife. But if we stopped, it could mean her life. I’d keep going through the dark until I made it back to Underworld. I didn’t know if I had any time to spare to rest for the night anyway, and even if I did, I wouldn’t. She seemed fine enough sleeping in my arms, and I didn’t need any more sleep, anyway. Even if I did want to sleep, all the thoughts buzzing in my head wouldn’t let me rest. I was passing a tall rock formation on my right side when I heard someone yell.
I dropped to my haunches, turning on the balls of my feet to see where the shout had come from. There was a group of Wastelanders all standing around in a circle, arguing. I thought maybe they’d spotted us and were debating whether or not to charge, but they kept bickering to each other like married couples. There was still enough light for me to see them. I could pick out a couple of familiar faces, including Jericho’s. They were all thugs from Megaton, probably sent out by Moriarty. Probably out looking for us. I was too far away to hear what they were saying, but I heard Jericho shout in another guy’s face, saying, “They’re not gonna be this far out south, you fucking twat! We should be in D.C. now!”
The other guy snapped something back, and Jericho turned away from him, cursing out loud and kicking the dirt. “All right, we stay south, but we make our way east, all right?”
After a little more bickering, they started out. I couldn’t keep travelling tonight, not without getting noticed. I thought I’d let them get a few hours head start ahead of me, maybe give them enough time to circle away out of our path. I looked up to the rocks behind me, and I noticed a deep hollow in the back. Making sure I wasn’t in eye shot, I kept low to the ground and climbed the slope towards the cave.
It was small, and a little too short for me, but it was deep enough that we could stay at the back and not get spotted easily. Trying to be careful, I got to my knees and laid her down. She didn’t so much as stir. I spent a minute just staring at her. Her breathing had become thinner, and her brow was furrowed.
I sat there against the rock wall beside her, pulling my shotgun into my lap and keeping my eyes on the cave entrance, waiting for one of those fuckers to stumble across it.
Half an hour passed when the world went dark, lit only by a bit of moonlight. No one was coming and no one would. We were safe for now, but I couldn’t risk carrying her out in the open, not when the Megaton bunch were on our trail. We’d be done-in pretty quickly if that were the case. Between watching the entrance and her, it took me a while to notice that she was shivering.
In the Wastes, it could get real hot during the day in the summer months (supposedly—I couldn’t remember what weather was like in the Wasteland while I was in Underworld, but I heard it through other conversations) and really cold during the night. I couldn’t risk trying to build a fire in the cave—that would’ve been like asking for the world to come fuck us up. I had nothing else to keep her warm either. Shit…she should’ve known better than to go prancing about the Wasteland with a broken body and enough radiation poisoning to burn out her organs.
She kept on shivering, and I kept on pretending there was no option to do anything about it. You can only go so long seeing someone struggle without giving them a hand. But, ah…fuck. I woulda preferred to take the yao guai on again.
I moved my shotgun out of my lap Without looking at her I grabbed her shoulders and pulled her onto my lap. I let my one arm rest across her, but I straightened out my legs and leaned back a bit, like I was trying to avoid touching the rest of her. That was more than I was able to put myself through. As far as I could remember (now that I had most of my memories back) I had absolutely no experience with personal space or physical contact with other people, let alone women. I felt like a fucking dumbass, though, squirming like I was. I was just trying to keep her warm. That didn’t stop me from thinking about it.
Here I was, some old pervert holding this sick girl in my lap, remembering the things I’d kept buried that should’ve stayed buried. I remembered the dreams that I had about her that I didn’t want to admit to. It was probably a self preservation thing. I mean, a lot of men probably had the same kind of thoughts about her, but for me, it was a shot in the fucking dark. I was less appealing than a cup full of brahmin shit. That didn’t stop me from remembering how her legs felt wrapped around me in my dream.
She shuddered and I flinched. I squeezed my eyes shut. For some god damned pathetic reason, I didn’t want to lose the feeling I had about her. I used to hate people like that. Then again, I used to hate everyone.
The moonlight bounced off her hair, making it look silver. I remembered the first night I was in her employ, seeing her propped up on her elbows, looking at me with something similar to sympathy, and how she looked like something out of a fantasy, like she was too good to be true, maybe. My hand twitched as I considered reaching for her several times, and I finally did before I could stop myself, resting it on top of her head.
Her hair was surprisingly soft and silky, considering she’d been out in the Wastes for weeks without a proper bath. It should’ve been full of knots, and it should’ve felt matted, but it felt like luxury. I kept thinking of how I should tear my hand away from her head and stop touching her then, but I kept it there. It felt like stealing. I had this paranoid feeling that she’d wake up and yell me hoarse. That might’ve been a good thing, if she was in a fit state to yell. After a minute or two, I gave in to the impulse to stroke her hair.
Now I’d done it—I was a full-blown bitch. I was really glad no one could see tall, intimidating Charon petting some girl’s hair. That didn’t change the fact that it felt…nice, even calming. As I stroked her head again, I let my fingers run through her hair, but then I stopped. That calming feeling died out really fast after that pulling feeling. I lifted my hand, fingers rigid, and I held it in front of my face, looking at the clump of silvery hair that I’d pulled from her head. The strands lay limp in my hand, floating about a bit in my fingers like a hanged man’s clothes in the breeze.
I lowered my hand from my face, dropping the clump of hair to the side and putting my arm over her again, pulling her closer. Keeping her close was all I could do.
The only time I could remember feeling vulnerable was when Paul Hannon invited me to the Vault-Tec Class Dance. We were seventeen, but I’d never thought of any boy in such a way, so the invite surprised me. I spent my whole life avoiding everyone, save for my father and Amata, and I hadn’t spoken to any of my other peers since my tenth birthday. I was cold, reserved, and according to popular opinion, bull-like, so when Paul asked me on what could have been classified as a date, I felt like an animal caught in a trap. The uneasiness spreading within me was unbearable, considering I had never felt it before, so the only thing I could do was withdraw myself further. I did not give an answer to Paul, nor did I talk to anyone for a few days, not even my father. Eventually, he sniffed me out, and one night he cornered me as I came in from work, before I could retreat to my room. I thought he was going to start by trying to pry me open and get me to tell him what was wrong, but he already knew. After he asked me to sit with him, he gave me a lopsided grin, and said, “I heard Paul asked you to the dance.”
My face lit up like a red light, and he chuckled heartily for a bit. I looked away, and after fidgeting inconspicuously for a moment, I gave a small nod.
“And?” he prompted, leaning forward on the couch and placing his elbows on his knees. “What did you say?”
“I haven’t said anything. I’m not going.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, giving a warmer smile. I didn’t look him straight in the face to see it, though. For some reason, I couldn’t. “Is it because you’re nervous?”
“No,” I replied honestly, “it’s because I’m not interested.”
“Well, I suppose you can’t be forced into liking someone,” he said, leaning back on the couch, “and I know I should be glad I don’t have to worry about chasing boys off of you with a stick, but…is there something else wrong?”
I felt like I was a small test subject in a Petri dish being scrutinized by a board of scientists. Which wasn’t far off; there was only one scientist, in this case. I squirmed a bit in my chair, steadfastly avoiding his gaze. “No. I’m simply not interested.”
“The only person you seem interested in is Amata.”
I could feel the colour in my face deepen. “She’s not…I’m not…It’s, um…” He gave me a bemused look before it dissolved into amusement and he laughed out loud.
“Oh, I didn’t mean that!” He laughed, shaking his head. “All I mean is, in all these years, you’ve only had her as a friend. It seemed you never gave anyone else a chance. It wouldn’t hurt to make new friends, maybe socialize a bit with others.”
“I’m content. I just don’t take to anyone else my age. They’re…different.”
“Yes, I know.” He gave me a knowing smile. “I was just afraid that you’d clung to what was familiar and were too scared to give others a chance.”
I was about to disagree with him, but I looked away, considering it. “The only people I will ever meet already live in this Vault,” I replied, folding my hands in my lap. “I won’t have the chance to meet…the right person. And I’m fine with that.”
He looked at me wearily, then nodded his head with a sigh. “As long as you’re happy, honey,” he said with a smile. He slapped his hands on his knees lightly, sitting up straight. “Well, while we’re here, is there anything else bothering you?”
It sounded like he was a salesman, trying to sell my worries away like they were junked parts. I knew he meant well, but the gesture just sounded misplaced for him. “You’ve spent your years only speaking with me and Jonas,” I said, trying to sound anything other than accusing. “After mother died, didn’t you shut everyone out?”
First his eyebrows rose, then his face fell. He sighed again, looking away from me and rubbed his eyes. “When your mother died, I felt alone. More alone than ever. I suppose you have a point…I don’t take to most people in this Vault either. The selection for friends isn’t exactly diverse, is it?”
“Do you think…” I hesitated, feeling that unfamiliar sensation of embarrassment seeping back into my stomach, “you’ll ever fall in love again?”
“Hah!” he laughed, though something about it was humourless. He shook his head. “I was a done deal a long time ago.”
“I suppose I wouldn’t mind companionship,” I admitted, staring intently at my hands. “But if I’m to spend the rest of my life alone with Amata as my only friend, I’m happy with that.”
“Well…then I’m glad.”
“I wouldn’t give up hope just yet, though,” he added, rising from the couch slowly and heading for his room. “You just might meet the right friend some day.”
I didn’t believe it, but I couldn’t help feeling wonder about my future; what might happen, who I might befriend in the Vault. People changed all the time. Maybe I already knew him. There was something liberating about free will, not knowing where the pieces might fall next.
He patted me on the shoulder. I looked up. “Good night, Dad,” I said, showing my teeth in a cheeky grin. I always called him father, and I reserved “Dad” for the rare moments I felt warm-hearted.
He chuckled briefly, returning my smile. “Good night, my little star.”