The Quandary 902

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Chapter 8

Rain has begun falling steadily by the time I withdraw from the squat storage facility. It drops from the sky at a constant patter, covering everything in a fine layer of clear rainwater. I pull my hair back from my face and secure it with a band. Although I understand that my orders are to return to my quarters, I can’t help but be tempted to seize the opportunity to explore my surroundings. I hear the squish of mud beneath my heavy boots as I pace from the door of the second warehouse to the dilapidated textile factory from which I emerged. Placing my hand on the handle to the door I feel the cool, wet metal beneath my fingers. My hand drops to my side. I have no desire to place myself in the confines of the small basement habitation.

I direct my gaze towards the extensive fields and asphalt lot in front of me. I’d like to search for the source of the rushing water sound, but most likely it comes from some place beyond the metallic border. I set my sights on the city of tan tents and pick my way though the open aisles, on occasion glancing through the flaps to see that the majority of the tents act as temporary housing. I suppose the area inside the warehouse is too small and filthy to properly accommodate the numbers here. If I had to make an estimate I would say there’s well over a hundred and fifty people living in the compound’s small borders. Each dwelling seems to be fairly uniform in content; four cots, some neatly made, others with blankets thrown haphazardly to the side, and an occasional chair. Some of the people appear to have added the personal touch of a photograph or book. The majority of the residences are barren.

One of the tents appears to be smaller and in slightly better condition than the rest. My curiosity flares and I decide to push aside the flap and examine inside. Most of the features are similar to the rest, albeit significantly cleaner than the others. Unlike the others it possesses only one cot, a chair, and a dingy metal desk. The desk is stacked high with books, ranging in several sizes and colors. Some appear to be newer; the pages are fairly white and crisp. Others are yellowed and tattered. All of them are stuck full of colored tabs marking various pages. I run my hands along my arms, trying to rub some warmth back into them. The rain has long since drenched through my cotton shirt and the thin grey material sticks to my skin in several places. I peek to my left and right for the owner of the tent before stretching out my hand to brush the canvas tent flap aside.

I am about halfway inside the door before I hear a man’s voice, deep and infuriated, crying out, “Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

I sigh and turn to face him. He must have rounded the corner when I wasn’t looking. It takes me a moment, but when he comes closer and his face is no longer distorted by the jagged fall of water, I recognize that it’s my former guard. His face is splotchy and red, he puffs out his large barrel chest as he tramps towards me in short strides, fists clenched and swinging at his sides.

“Get away from there, get back, now!” he roars, pointing an accusing finger towards me. I back away from the entrance, holding my hands up in mock surrender.

“You got me. Calm yourself.” I say evenly.

If I had really expected him to be overjoyed by my submission to his demands, I would have been sorely mistaken. His face scrunches up in a distorted mask of rage and he reaches a meaty paw forwards, gripping me roughly by the wrist. He drags me a few feet from the tent before dropping my arm, placing a rough palm against my shoulder and pushing me forward. A few curious heads poke through the flaps in the tents, alerted to some commotion by the shouting of my guard. I spin around, teeth clenched.

“I should warn you, I do not like being pushed.” I sneer. Unbidden the ringing sound has made a reappearance and the scene around me starts to shift. Everything appears warped, like someone took a photograph of the world and teetered it on a corner.

My guard squints his beady eyes, somehow managing to make them disappear even further into his round face. “I don’t care what you like. You don’t have any business roaming around unescorted. Where is your guard? What did you do with him?” His garbled words are barely breaching through the muffling barrier in my hearing.

“I did nothing,” I say, hotly. “I was not given an escort.”

“Bullshit.” He growls. “You don’t get to just wander free. Now what did you do to your guard?” A thrumming has picked up to accompany the ringing sounds resonating in my head.

Raising my chin, I meet his gaze full on, grinding my teeth. “No one was assigned to watch me. I am free to return to my quarters unattended.”

“You’re lying! You had to have done something to your guard— you killed him didn’t you? Didn’t you!” He shrieks. He makes another pass to seize my arm. Bad idea. Through the haze of sound I have enough presence of mind to side-step his reach, shoving his hands away in one fluid move. While he is disoriented and off balance I land two quick blows to his gut— he doubles over for a moment, stunned, but quickly rights himself.

“You bitch.” Growls the guard, “You’re gonna pay for that.”

By this time a significant crowd has gathered to watch the show. No one moves to help him. The men and women gathered stay clear, giving us a wide berth of space. I see one man make a motion to intervene, but the motion of the dark-skinned woman from the warehouse stops him. They all hang back on the fringes, observing quietly.

He makes a run at me, this time prepared for a full-on attack. While he has significantly more body mass to throw around, his movements are clumsy and predictable. Unwittingly, his beady eyes show me where his hands will be. He makes a go at my neck and I swat his arms away, keeping my hands up near my face to deflect his blows. At one point his right arm sails past my head and I make a grab at his hand, twisting a finger back until his whole arm is forced to follow or allow his finger to be broken. With his arm bent behind his back his balance is poor— I shove him forward, landing him in the mud. His once pristine uniform is now covered in dark patches of grime. I’m breathing hard and my shoulders shake.

A low grumbling has started in the crowd. Clearly displeased, they mutter amongst themselves. Occasionally I overhear phrases spit like curses. ‘Abomination’ and, ‘monster’ and once even the suggestion that, ‘someone put it down’. I rub my temples in an attempt to distill the intensifying pressure in my head. Angling my body towards the crowd, I’m prepared to pick my way through back to the derelict textile factory when I hear the squelching of mud underfoot in a hasty rhythm. Turning, I see that the filthy guard has risen from his position on the ground, charging towards me at full speed. I allow him to continue his charge, pulling away at the last second, just far enough to get enough momentum to angle a strong kick to the small of his back. He cries out in surprise, and in that same moment I am on top of him. The thrumming in my ears is all I can hear anymore. I am vaguely aware that a uproar has begun in our no longer silent audience. The energy from the crowd is pulsing with outrage. I can’t pay attention to it. People cry out angry slurs and it is obvious that the crowd is foaming at the mouth for blood. My blood.

Save for that one man, no one has made a move to defend Darrow, which makes me think he isn’t the kind of person that is worth defending. But regardless of what public sentiment towards my opponent might be, I have attacked one of their own and that is unforgivable. I can feel it. They will come for me in the night. They will hold me accountable for his injuries and it won’t matter who made the first strike. If I had been capable of losing this fight they might have pitied me. Instead I will win and they will despise me for it. I am not like them. That hatred will fester and the residents of the New Order will crave revenge.

I cannot fear for my own life, but I will make them fear for theirs. I will show them what becomes of those who think that because I am alone here I am helpless.

On top of him, I elbow him sharply in the throat, forcing his breathing into a labored wheeze. My fist cracks against his jaw, his nose, and his temple in an unending barrage of blows. The crowd around us has ceased its murmuring and all has gone quiet. The only sound left is the rhythmic cracking of my fist on his face.

One particularly forceful punch to the lower half of his face causes me to split my knuckles on his teeth. Blood runs from my hand in a river, mingling with the gush of scarlet pouring from his mouth. My arm draws back and midway through the fourth hit the scene shifts. It’s a similar one, although the mob in this vision is howling loud primal noises, shaking their fists and beating their chests. The air is drumming, alive with an infective animalistic viciousness. Beneath me is a boy only a few years my senior. He has pale alabaster skin and bright blonde hair that shines through the stains of crimson blood gushing from his multiple wounds. My vision changes once more and I am back in the camp. With every beat of my fist across the guards face, my vision alternates back and forth. The guard is choking on his own blood. The boy does the same. The guard tries to form words. The boy loses a few teeth. The guard’s dark eyes loll back into his head. The boy’s are still and open.

Blinded by the white-hot rage and disoriented by the clamor in my ears I am taken completely by surprise when a pair of rough hands grabs me by the shoulders and wrenches me from the supine body beneath me. I thrash in the grip of my second assailant in an attempt to shake myself free, but their iron hold keeps me in place. I am marched forward outside of the circle, lashing out and gnawing my teeth.

“Stop that. You’ll only make things worse for yourself.” Evander’s quiet icy tone breaks through my rage. I continue my efforts to yank my arms free, but I am fatigued, and in terms of sheer brute strength Evander dominates me. It’s unlikely I can shake his grip without pulling my arm out of its socket.

Evander continues commanding me forward with frequent shoves, and when we are at a considerable distance from the mob of observers he pushes me forward through the entry of one the canvas tents.

He snatches the canvas in one of his hand and jerks it closed, leaving us with only the daylight filtering through the thick material. He spins and takes several strides towards me, grey eyes maddened with rage. The left side of his mouth pulls up, baring his sharp canines.

“What the hell was that out there?” he demands.

“It was a disagreement. That’s all.” Evander takes advances further, coming dangerously close. The mocking smile from earlier has vanished. He towers over me, engulfed in his shadow I can understand how others could be intimidated by his stature. Instead of stepping back I angle my body more openly towards his, raising my chin defiantly. Our eyes meet and are briefly engaged in a hostile exchange. Neither of us makes a move to step down. After a few beats of competitive silence, he speaks.

“You just made a spectacle of yourself. Do you even realize what you’ve done?” Evander’s voice is all frost and menace. When I don’t respond he makes a disgusted noise and backs away. “You idiot!” he exclaims, running his hands through his dark hair, leaving it sticking up in odd directions. “You’re— you absolute moron!”

I scoff. “Maybe instead of insulting me you could try explaining yourself?”

He rounds on me. “You don’t get it, do you? Do you understand how they’re going to see this? You almost killed one of them. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t suffer permanent brain damage.”

“I don’t really see how that’s different from before.” I reply snidely.

Now it’s his turn to scoff. “Let’s make one thing clear here, okay? You—you aren’t like them. No matter how Naomi tries to rope you in, you will never belong with them. You’re an outcast. They will never see you as a partner, or comrade, or friend. You will only ever exist as a threat, and they will monitor your every move and if you step even a fraction of an inch from your designated place they will eliminate you without a second thought. You aren’t like them. You won’t ever think like them. You can’t.” His eyes darken with intensity. “You can’t feel things the way they can. I know you can’t.”

“Even if that were true, how would you know?” I demand.

“Because I can’t feel anything either.”

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