Chapter 6 - Reds’ Little Collector

 
Art by  Seo Kanori

Art by Seo Kanori

 

WARNING FOR CHILD DOING VIOLENCE, MINOR CHILD DEATH, GROOMING, NIGHTMARE, FIRE, BURNING BUILDING.

Fire, everywhere. Sweat plastered hair to her brow. Her chest hurt where the fire had licked across it. High pitched cries of desperation and tiny hands thumping against locked doors ran counterpoint to the crackling inferno. The smell of burning flesh filled the air. Her stomach growled. It reminded her the one time she had barbecued meat. Her mouth watered at the memory.

She coughed. The air here was thick with a strange white dust, it made her feel lightheaded but energised at the same time. A couple of kids made the same climb from one window to the other via the outside ledge. After the boy fell, not many attempted the same walk.

Another beam fell with a crash, the others whimpered and flinched. All of them were beyond screams, they were all tired and scared. She recognised the hallway, there was a flight of stairs that to the ground floor here. Hope flared. They had a chance to get out.

Where are all the teachers?

Glancing behind her, two pairs of scared eyes stared back. One of them spoke a name, but a high whine rang in her ears. She winced and shook her head, the pain lingered. A frown creased her brow as stray knowledge popped into her head. The boy, she remembered. His name was Thomas. His hair, used to be a blonde so light it was almost white. It was now all dark and grey thanks to the soot. The girl with curly ginger hair and fair skin had tears streaking down her face. “I want to get out of here,” she wailed.

She frowned. The girl’s name was a vague memory tickling at the back of her mind. “Emma?” she coughed.

Emma ignored her. She watched helplessly as the girl cried harder. Frustration and impatience made her turn away, she had no time to be coddling little girls. Instead, she looked around. Flames danced across her chartreuse eyes, making them seemed more yellow than usual. The familiar had turned unfamiliar as the conflagration threatened to seal off all their escape routes.

“There!” Thomas yelled, pointing at the stairs through the smoke.

He didn’t wait. Legs bounded towards the stairs and the girls followed. Pain and fear forgotten as salvation awaited. Short legs took the steps down fast, two at a time. Lungs heaving, taking in more and more of the strange white dust. All of them coughed harder, but it didn’t deter them. There was fresh air wafting up the stairs.

Then, an audible groan.

She froze while the other two ran ahead. The wooden stairs worn down by years of kids running up and down it felt hot under her bare feet. Before she could voice her worries, the stairs groaned again, louder this time. It shuddered under their frantic pounding feet.

“No!” she shouted.

Emma plunged feet first through the stairs. She screamed, her freckles stark against her pale skin. Her fingers digging and scrambling against the wood as she tried to find the slightest bit of grip. Her nails left bloody gorges in the wood, but it barely slowed her slide down the hole. Her arms splayed straight out were the only reason she hadn’t fell through completely.

“Help!” she cried.

The fire had reached the lower level and it was licking the stairs from the bottom, weakening it. She didn’t know how much more the stairs could take. Emma shrieked in pain while she stood rooted to her spot, frozen in indecision.

Thomas didn’t hesitate. A step forward, he flung his hand out, reaching towards Emma. Their finger tips brushing but not finding purchase. Then, a crack. She watched as Thomas’ foot plunged through the step. He tipped forward, his balance foiled. All apprehension cast aside, one hand wrapped around the bannister, the other reaching towards Thomas. She caught his arm. Her grip was firm and solid around his wrist.

“Please help me,” Emma whimpered. “It hurts!”

Thomas’ fingers flexed, inching its way towards Emma’s white knuckled ones. “I’m so close!” he yelled. “I can get her, just a little further!”

“It’s too dangerous! The stairs can’t take much more,” she cried, her arms burning with the strain. “And my arm isn’t just going to get longer!”

Thomas turned to Emma. “You’ve got to reach up to me,” he implored. “You can do it!”

Emma cried as she tried to push herself up but her elbows trembled from the mere effort of keeping herself up. With tears cutting streaks down her soot stained face she pushed herself up only to slide further down, her arms barely managing to catch herself in time. “I can’t, I can’t. I can’t do it.”

“Emma, you can do this. One quick move!” Thomas shouted, unwilling to give up.

Emma looked at Thomas and herself. With a grunt, she tried again. Her face red from the effort, her arms trembled. Emma had her arms straightened, her weight braced against them. Now all she needed to do was to push herself towards Thomas and take his arm. Her legs kicked against air and her body jerked forward.

Thomas grunted as he reached out, straining their linked hands. It was going to work, it had to. Emma’s eyes met hers. Hope and relief just less than an inch away. The tips of their fingers caught. They intertwined for a split second. Then, Emma slipped. Her hands were sleek with perspiration. She had no grip or strength left. Gravity was a harsh mistress. Without even time to scream, Emma’s fingers slipped through Thomas’.

And, she was gone.

But it wasn’t the end. It wasn’t the clean end of a thump like the boy who fell from the ledge. Emma’s screams went on relentlessly. She begged and begged for help that wouldn’t come.

Thomas and herself froze in their position of safety. She wished she could clap her hands over her ears. This was hell. Her breath was caught in her throat. Emma’s high pitched screams changed in its timbre, it grew husky and then hoarse and finally weaker.

It lasted for an eternity.

Thomas’ eyes wide and stricken caught hers. Her lips trembled as cold sweat broke out across her back despite the heat. The stairs groaned again, this time the hole Emma had fell through widened as more of the stairs were lost to the flames below.

“Come on!” she yelled, finally breaking out of her shock.

Her arms felt like they were going to come off her shoulders as she pulled Thomas back to safety. He worked his foot back and forth, widening the hole so that he could work his foot free. Splinters stabbed at his ankle and the motion rubbed his skin raw, but he kept at it, hissing and wincing all through it. With a final grunt of effort, his foot came free and they scrambled back the way they came. The pair were tired, breathless and more scared than they had ever had been.

Thomas glanced around, anxiety rolling off him in waves. she had no time to sit and be helpless but smoke and flames had made her disoriented.

“Come on,” she said, tugging at Thomas’ arm. “We can’t stay here.”

The white dust was thicker here. With a hand covering her nose and mouth, she did the only thing she knew to. She picked the direction where it was cooler and walked. Thomas followed closely behind.

She racked her brains as they walked. She had explored much of the home, even the forbidden teacher’s level, via the air ducts. They had only one more level to descend. Just one more and they’ll be safe and out of this burning inferno that their home had transformed into. She spun around, scanning their surroundings as recognition hit her like a ton of bricks.

“I know a way out,” she shouted, excited. “Come on!”

Breathlessly she led the way, tugging Thomas along. She didn’t stopped at the junction, she picked the left branch without hesitation. It led to the teachers’ sleeping quarters. And they had a laundry chute that led to the basement. But between them and their escape was more fire. This time hotter than it had ever been before.

Already, she found the floor boards too hot for comfort. It was like standing out on hot tiles in the middle of the afternoon. She fought the urge to dance on the spot as she concentrated on the hallway. Parts of it had already fallen through. Exposed beams with fire licking up them. It was the only way to cross. But it wasn’t a long way to run. It was just a hop, skip and a jump away, she tried to convince herself. One hand over her nose and mouth as she tried to breathe through the smoke and dust, the other tightly laced in Thomas’

“Not there,” he whimpered.

Her jaw clenched, her heart slammed against her chest as she said, “This is the only way I know.”

“I can’t!” he yelled, pointing at his ankle. It was raw and throbbing. He had left a small red trail of bloody footsteps. “I don’t want to die.”

“It is the only way!” she repeated, as if yelling louder would convince him.

He shook his head, baulking at the prospect of heading into fire again. His breathing was coming in quick and shallow.

“Yes,” she insisted and dragged him along.

She intended to rush through the hallway as quickly as she could but Thomas’ ankle hindered their progress. Frown set between her brow, her jaw tightened, she was determined that they’d both get through this. Her grip on Thomas was the only thing that kept her from flying apart herself.

Heat and fire assaulted from all sides. The narrow beam merely one metre long, but it might as well had been a chasm. Thomas weeped and hobbled, his grip white knuckled tight around hers. “We’re going to do this fast,” she instructed, “Just follow my lead.”

He nodded tightly, cringing away from the fire. She took the first step forward, the beam groaned but held. Her bare feet unbearably painful as she shuffled. Then, Thomas yelped. One moment she was balancing precariously two feet on a hot beam, the next she was clinging onto it by her fingertips.

Their eyes met for a second before her grip failed her. She plunged to the flames below with a scream.


Nike cried out as she sat up.

“Shut up!” Cutter groaned from the side and he turned over. He pulled the flap of the sleeping bag over his head.

She ignored him as she took breath after shuddering breath. Pressing the heels of her palms against her eyes, Nike attempted to push the dream away.

I fucking hate these nightmares.

She wriggled out of the sleeping bag and rubbed her arms to fend off the morning chill. Everyone else was still asleep. Nike envied Cutter’s ability to fall back to sleep so easily. She sat still for a bit before her growling stomach forced her to seek sustenance.

Nike started the day how she usually would. With a little smile on her face, she grabbed her towel and headed to the shower. She much preferred using the showers while the boys weren’t around. It wasn’t showing her naked body that bothered her but the leering looks she was starting to get from them that made her uncomfortable with her body. It was a new thing that started recently.

I don’t think anything has really changed.

She ran the soap over her body, poking slightly at the blobs she was starting to develop on her chest. They were wisps of hair growing between her legs and under her arms. She didn’t think much of them. If it didn’t hurt, she didn’t think there was any cause for concern.

Nike towelled off and pulled on a fresh set of clothes. Even after being with the Reds for a few months, she never stopped marvelling at having clean clothes to wear every few days. Sure, washing them is a pain but clean clothes! The feel of cotton over skin was luxurious especially when they fit. Her unruly black hair was getting a little long, she pushed them out of her face but they flopped over her face again. She growled as she tied them back in a messy ponytail.

She headed back to the sleeping quarters. Everyone else were still snoring away. She pulled on her omni-tool, made sure her little blade Cutter gave her was secure in her red high top sneakers before she left.

Instead of taking the long way around to the main gate, she hoped over the fence with a quick leg up using a crate pushed right against it for that purpose. The morning air was crisp. It had rained the night before. The scent reminded her the white dust in her dream. She took a huge lungful and smiled.

“Today is a good day,” she said.

Nike turned towards the outer edges of the Slums. It was her job to do the rounds, collecting protection money owed to the Reds. She didn’t give it much thought. It was a job and she would do it. After all, Frank put food in her belly and provided her a place to sleep. Being part of the Reds was the first time Nike felt like she belonged. The tiny voice that warned her not to trust them had been quiet, lulled into silence when her needs were met consistently. As irritating Scars could be, he looked out for her. Cutter taught her blade work while Tenner taught her basic mathematics. They might be mean bastards with their words, but their actions told her, she was one of them.

Nike tapped at her omni-tool and brought up the latest list of scans she had made. She cycled through them, reading the words out loud, committing the meaning and the way things were spelt to her memory. She enjoyed learning. New words no longer frustrated her. They were a chance for her to scan and learn new things. The omni-tool had been her single favourite part about joining the Reds.

Her legs took her down the familiar street. The alleys no longer scary because these were places she would hang out if Frank didn’t need her. Small time gang members no longer gave her problems after they saw her with the others.

She had scanned most of the interesting bits along the route and once she ran through her words for the day, she was bored. With nothing else better to occupy her time, Nike pulled up some music on her omni-tool. With a tap, she put the music on shuffle. A ukulele started strumming, and a fun little tune started playing.

Today there is nothing stopping me

Nike grinned and skipped along to the beat. She had to admit she enjoyed the songs Scars had packed her omni-tool with.

There’re not red lights on the street

With head bobbing, she waited at the street corner. She made it a point to stop by the same time every day. She whistled. A brown and white mongrel with one floppy ear and one pointy ear popped his head out of some cardboard boxes. His tongue hanging out in a smile. “There you are, Burger!” she called.

Open highways there is no limits to my speed

Nike was overjoyed when she found him again. So happy she make sure to name him properly this time. He was no longer merely Dog but Burger, named after her second favourite poster.

She was sure, she had lost him for good that day when he took off after Frank and the others came upon her. He might have returned to her little hovel but she wasn’t allowed out from the base to return and check. It was completely by accident she found Burger again. And she was glad to have done so.

Come and ride with me

He trotted up to her and waited patiently. She dug into her pocket and tossed him the scraps she saved for him from the night before. His strong teeth made short work of the bones. Nike ruffled his fur and gave the dog a firm pat on the rump. He looked up at her. She shook her head at him. “That’s all I have got,” she said, “if you want more, you got to come with me.”

Burger barked. “All right,” she laughed, “Let’s go. But I got to work first.”


By the time she done with her stops, she had broken out in a sweat. The crisp morning air was replaced by balmy heat as the sun started to bake the concrete again. Burger always accompanied her on her runs. He would wander off, licking at anything and everything he could get his snout into, but he’d always come back when she was ready to move on.

“It’s that time again,” Nike called as she stood with a hip cocked facing the next stall.

Davis glared at her from inside his shop. His hand curling into a fist. Burger sniffed blithely at his wares. Nike kept her eye on Davis. She never make the same mistake twice. “You don’t want to do that, you know what happened to your neighbour the last time he threatened me,” she pointed out, fishing out the blade from her shoe.

Burger’s head perked up, picking up on the tension in the air. He growled at Davis as he flanked her. She flicked her blade open and smirked as the man flinched. Cutter had taught her and she always learnt her lessons well.


“You’re small, short and light, that’s three major disadvantages,” Cutter said as he tightened the zip-ties holding the man to the chair.

The man moaned through his gag, rocking the chair back and forth. “Shut up,” he backhanded the captive.

Nike watched closely. “Now you can’t do that since you lacked the muscles and the mass,” he went on as if uninterrupted. ‘’So you’d have to hit first, hit hard. Make sure it is bloody, make sure it is flashy. You’d only have to do it once and it is usually enough for most.”

She nodded. This wasn’t her first lesson. It had ceased to bother her, the sights, sounds or smell. “Now see this,” he said, pointing out some spots on the captive. “Avoid those if all you want is to give a little lesson. Go for them if you want the lesson to be permanent.”

Cutter handed her a blade similar to his, albeit sized for her hand. “This is small enough for your hands, we can upgrade it as you get bigger.”

The man’s eyes widened, he struggled with renewed effort. Cutter grinned at the captive as he showed her how to open the blade single-handedly in a safe manner. Nike pulled down on the lock between her thumb and index finger and swung outwards. Letting it go of the lock at the right moment to lock the blade in place. She looked up at Cutter for approval.

He nodded, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a natural.”

She grinned, repeating the motion over and over again.

“Next is actually using it.”

She looked at the blade then at Cutter. A foul smell came the captive as golden liquid soaked through his pants and dripped to the floor. She backed away, disgust curling her lips. Cutter laughed. “Look at him! All scared of a little girl.”

“I’m grown, Cutter! I am not a little girl!” she scowled, brandishing the blade at Cutter.

He grunted and tugged the blade out of her grip. “Never point the blade at someone and not be willing to follow through. A drawn blade is a promise, it is a threat. You do not threaten someone you’re not willing use the blade on,” he growled, gesturing at the wild-eyed captive. “Now let’s see how grown you are.”

Nike eyed the blade then at the captive. “Stick him,” Cutter said.

She took a deep breath and plunged the blade into the captive’s thigh. She let go when the captive tried to jerk away. She stared. The blade was sticking out of his pants. It looked almost comical and unreal if it wasn’t for blood oozing from the wound.

“Deeper.”

Nike looked at Cutter, eyes now as wide as the captive’s.

“Deeper!” Cutter repeated.

She let out a cry and pushed.

Nike remembered the feeling of steel sliding into flesh, how she needed her entire body weight to sink the blade down to its hilt. The captive’s screams grew louder and more high pitched as the red patch on his pants grew wider and wider. Nike couldn’t quite get her fingers to let go. Her hands felt stuck to the handle.

Cutter laughed, “You have got guts girl!”

He slapped her on the back, the motion jarred her fingers from the blade. She stared at it, midway between horrified and proud. “I did good?” she gasped apprehensively.

Her only answer was an approving grin.

Lyrics taken from Lucky Day by Dustin Paul