Before we dash around two pits, I hear the whistle cutting through the snowfall. High and shrill, it tells us: Another officer has discovered the body we left behind. It pipes three times fast, pauses, three times fast. Over and over. It’s code.
Not many people know the officer’s codes. We hear the rumors, of course. Two fast two slow mean a drunken brawl. One slow, three fast mean runaway thief. And I’m guessing three fast mean officer down. And nothing attracts officers faster than one of their own being hurt. And if I actually killed the guy, I don’t have much hope in the Pits.
It sucks that there is nowhere else. The snow has destroyed every other home we might possibly live.
So… I have nowhere I’m welcome.
Except the Plaguer Camp.
No, let’s not think about that right now.
Kaynie is breathing heavily by the time we round a third pit. “What? Didn’t you ever run for your life before?” I ask.
“Not exactly,” she gasps. She skids to a stop. “I just need a moment.”
I look behind us. In the snowfall it’s hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure no one is chasing after. “OK,” a say, “Why did I just do that?”
“Because you were protecting me.”
She sighs. “My father died. I was coming to get a pyreman. I wanted to serve him one last time.” She stops. She’s pressing her lips together.
I’ve seen that look before. I put my hand on her shoulder. What did Tannen always say? “It’s ok to cry. Let it out. You’re honoring him by remembering him.”
Her eyes flick at me and her nose wrinkles just a little bit. “I don’t need your pity,” she spits. “I need your protection.” She flicks my hand off her shoulder. Her eyes are getting a little puffy, though.
I nod. All right. No lines, then. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m new at this.”
“Great.” She looks away from me. “We should talk when we get someplace safe.”
“Good. Let’s go.” I lead away into the dark. We’re not sprinting anymore, so Kaynie’s able to keep up. We don’t talk. I can tell by her breathing that she’s still working hard to keep herself under control.
We thread our way across the Lattice until we reach the Scar. The great failed trench lies desolate below us. Kaynie shivers. “There’s nothing here,” she says.
“That’s why it’s safe,” I answer. “After all the heat dissipated, they realized that pits held warmth better. No more lines; just circles. And that means no one looks at the place.”
Most pits have a spiral scaffoldwalk leading to the caves that radiate from the center. The Scar, though, can’t work that way. It never did. Stretches of ‘walks still line the deep trench, but they’re pretty beat up. Not even the poorest of the poor go here. Some say it’s haunted.
I’m not scared of ghosts. I deal with dead bodies all the time.
I walk along the solid ground at the top of the Scar, following it for a while. “I stayed here for a while. A long time ago.”
“You think people choose to be pyremen? The only people who work with the dead are the ones that can’t find heat any other way. And most of us try something – anything else first.” I crouch next to a bridge leading across into the snowy darkness. Ice coats the aluminum boards. Was this the one?
The pipe handhold has been scratched in many places. I examine it. These a triangle with a cross in the center grabs my eye. Yep. This was the one. I walk out onto the bridge and lose my footing for just a moment. “Careful,” I say.
Kaynie heeds my advice. We make our way out.
“The entrance is on the other side.”
“The entrance to what?” she asks.
“When I said no one looks at the place, I lied. There’s one group of people that meet here, and they’ll take us in.”
“Why can’t we go back to the pyremen?”
I don’t answer.
I also don’t know if they’ll take me back. They’ll take her for sure. Me? That’s another story for another day. I hope, anyway.
“I said, why can’t we go back to the pyremen?”
I concentrate on not slipping.
I spin. “Shut up. If you waste energy shouting, you’ll lose your heat a lot faster.” I turn and concentrate.
The bridge stretches across the chasm. Ice has built up so much since the last time I was here. There’s only a pipe handhold on each side; it would be easy to fall. And then I’d be just like the officer. The one I killed.
The boards creek under my weight. I suppose I’m bigger since the last time I was here. Being a teenager will do that, so I’m told.
The wind rattles against us. Snow swirls around my arms.
“They want me dead because then they can take over my father’s business. And all his money.” Her voice is quiet.
“You’re used to this?”
“Dad always wanted a boy, but he put up with me. Trained me. Told me I’d be a target and I had to be able to protect myself.”
“You didn’t do so good protecting yourself.”
“I was distracted.” She pauses. “I miss him already.”
“He’s a hunk of meat. He’ll burn like everyone else.”
I don’t hear a response. Well, she said she didn’t want pity. So there it was. The truth. A dead body is a dead body; it doesn’t matter if it’s someone you love. After death, we’re all the same.
“You’re a bad pyreman.”
“Yeah, well, thanks. I knew that.”
The bridge shakes under the wind. I stop moving and cling to the handholds. My feet slide a little under the wind pressure. Something moans in the structure.
“Come on,” I tell her. “We need to move.”
We struggle against the wind. I glance back and see her hair whipping all around her face. I’m glad I don’t have that problem.
Step after step, we make it across. I sigh as my feet touch solid ground again. Kaynie does the same. Then she hits me in the shoulder. “My dad’s just meat?!” she shrieks. She hits me again. “He’s just like everyone else?” Her voice is going up in pitch. A lot. She hits me again.
I’m glad my coat is real thick. I can’t feel much pain with the beating.
“My father is a great man! He’s not just meat! He’s a person and I miss him and I want him back and he’s not gone and he’ll always be with me!” She’s hitting harder and faster now. I just stand there and take it. I mean, what am I supposed to do? I don’t know. I’m not used to girls hitting me, except Tala, but I usually giggle when she hits me because it makes her laugh. I don’t think I should giggle now.
She’s sobbing now. Uncontrollably. She’s just hitting me and crying and screaming things I can’t understand between the squeaks in her voice and the sobbing. And now my shoulder’s starting to hurt. I take a step away. Oh. I didn’t know she could hit faster. OK. I guess I’ll just stand here.
“You need to stop hitting him now.” The voice startles us. We both jump. Kaynie moves to hide behind me and then stops herself.
I spin toward the confident, resonant voice.
It’s him. It’s Eli. His broad shoulders accepting the snow, his nose flat against his head, his confident eyes twinkling.
It’s the one who threw me out into the snow and forced me to join up with the pyremen.
Read the next post here.