The Story Of Who
Beyond the long metal hall laid the paradise all girls-in-training dreamt of. The red-curtained extravagance that the public was promised—the part of the Block we pretended to live in when we had to serve.
It was a habit to keep your feet moving irregardless of how much of your fellow girls' blood was spilled during the meeting. You were always aware of the soldiers' eyes on you—their hands fixed to the triggers of their Sols, ready to put you down at a moment's notice—and your unimportance. When you learnt to see yourself in terms of how much money an hour of your time was worth, how could you waste time walking to your destination?
My feet, slick with the cold blood of a girl whose name I had never been expected to remember, slipped on the floor as I walked. The hem of my dress threatened to trip me as I forced myself into the hurrying pace of the people around me.
All I wanted to do was slow down, breathe, and relive the moment. Even with my eyes closed, I could see the golden flash of light from the barrels of the rifles as they fired; the quickened breaths of the veterans who were too used to death to make a sound; the muffled screams of the ones who couldn't pretend to be heartless.
No one reached out to steady me. I didn't expect them to. They shuffled around me like wraiths, back to what they knew, away from blood-smeared floors and splattered walls. Back to their stages. Back to the spotlight.
I felt Matron Elsa's stare follow me as I walked. Somehow, she could always find me, even in a sea of a hundred girls. As her presence drew closer, my eyes scanned the river of red dresses in search of Joy. The scent of charred skin hung heavy at the back of my throat and my eyes were beginning to water from the strength of the memory. I couldn't get rid of the screams.
An arm wrapped around my waist and pulled me into the crowd, against the flow of traffic.
I felt my heart poundalready imagining a hundred awful scenarios that ended with me bloodied and bedridden for weeks, until a rogue-dusted cheek pressed against mine and the familiar scent of camomile engulfed me.
I sucked it in greedily and leaned into her touch, seeking comfort I didn't deserve.
"Do you think…" Joy's hands drifted up to grab onto my shoulders as the girls walked around us. No amount of rogue could hide the pallor of her bloodless skin. She looked more ghoul than human, less substance than the formless whispers that now tickled my ears.
I pressed my hand to her cheek and watched it tremble.
"Do you think she will be alright?" she whispered, glancing uneasily at the checkpoint ahead of us and the armed men who guarded it. Once we crossed it, we wouldn't see each other again till we shed our masks at midnight and allowed ourselves to be more than objects again.
"Till tomorrow," I whispered back. "Tomorrow, she will…"
[Help me. Help me.]
One of the girls had tried to run. When the lasers tore through her, I felt her warmth wash over me, her blood on my cheek and her last thoughts rolling painfully over my skin.
She landed on the floor, twitching in a pool of red that had stained my bare feet. I felt the little thoughts that made her course through me, heard her beg, so I…
I told her to [Die].
They didn't mind killing us. Should I mind killing them? I could kill them all right now. The matrons. The soldiers. The girls who were too far gone to be saved. Then we could escape, we'd be free.
"Are you listening to me?"
Better death than a life of suffering...
"Who!" Joy grabbed me by the shoulders. My hand slipped down her face to fall between us. I felt my heart race, and through the corner of my eye saw Matron Else making her way towards us.
"Permanently balded and downgraded from servant to slave? How could she be okay?" The scream tore through me, rousing the fire that had died out in my lungs. I shoved Joy away before I could see her tears. Not now. Not now! "Maybe if she finds a good owner."
I could feel control slipping through my fingers, even now with them plastered to my sides. Calm. Calm.
[You killed her]
I stared at Joy blankly as the other girls pushed past us to keep moving forward. She didn't look away. Not when the crowds began to melt around us. Not when Matron Elsa wove her fingers through my hair and forced me to the ground.
[You killed me]
When I raised my head to find her, she was gone.
"Now, now, young lady," the cane swished through the air oppressively to lash the wall behind me, "this sort of behavior isn't one we tolerate."
The thin bamboo snapping against my calf had red hot pain shooting up my leg. I squeezed my eyes shut and gritted my teeth, focusing on regaining balance on the one leg I stood on. "Thank you for correcting me, Matron Elsa."
"Starting a fight right before the start of business," the woman slapped the cane across my back and uncomfortable heat crawled up my spine to settle at the base of my neck where my newest brand sat, "are you trying to rebel?"
"No, what?" Another strike, this time across both my outstretched palms.
"No, Mistress," I forced the words past my clenched jaw with as little annoyance as I could manage, "I was not trying to rebel."
"I think the lesson with Bess wasn't enough to educate you." She circled me once then stopped in front of me just as the lights in the office came on. "How many roommates does that make now?"
"Eight," I murmured, silently recounting their names. Flower. Glee. Glow. Red. Quiet. Dodo. Sea. Bess.
"Speak up, girl," she hissed. "I didn't waste time teaching you English so that you can mumble."
"Yes, eight." She sighed and tugged off her bonnet. Her curly locks spilled down her shoulders and back. "How many lives have you ruined with your disobedience?"
"I have done everything you've asked."
"Yes." She set the cane on her desk and rounded it to settle into her chair. "Reluctantly."
"Why did you Scalp Bess?"
"She wasn't making enough money for me."
"She is one of the most popular—"
"A trend that is quickly fading, I assure you," she cut me off and sneered. "In a few weeks no one will like her type anymore. Best to sell her while she still has some value on the market. You on the other hand have managed to stick around for so long… Instead of barging in here to complain, you should be whispering your little secrets to your friends so that they live a little longer."
"You dragged me here. In full view of dozens of girls."
"Talking back, I see," she said as she flipped through one of the files piled on the desk. "It seems that the cane has lost its effect. You have always been the most troublesome one."
"Why are you doing this?"
She slammed her palms against the desk and scowled. "You know why."
Behind me, someone knocked on the door and popped their head in. In the blink of an eye, Matron Elsa's expression changed into her ever-disappointed, motherly visage.
"Excuse me, Matron Elsa," Matron Ann said, "but that soldier is back."
"Give him whoever he wants," Matron Elsa answered dismissively. "You don't need my input for this."
"Yes… Well," she cleared her throat, "he wants Who."
"Who." The younger matron confirmed with a quick nod of her head in my direction, only to grimace when she saw the blood dripping down my ankles.
Matron Elsa frowned. "No one else is available?"
"He has gone through all the other girls in the Block and says that he's not satisfied."
"Tell him that Who is unavailable."
"I already did, but he said he won't leave until he sees her. The others are really annoyed but they can't handle him."
"Soldiers are really free these days." Matron Elsa got to her feet. "You may stand at ease now, Who."
I bowed my head and lowered my leg back to the floor, ignoring the way my muscles burned and twitched. "Thank you, Matron Elsa."
"Who disturbed the peace of my workspace. No dinner or makeup for her, for the next three days," she told Matron Ann then jabbed a finger in my direction. "You. Go see the soldier. Be smart about it, or else!"
Being smart meant giving excuses if he saw the marks on my skin. It meant hiding the fact that I'd been punished while without having makeup to cover up my scars with.
I managed to curtsy, forcing both my legs to cooperate after one hour of standing on only one. "Of course, Matron Elsa. I only hope to please you."