That was the sound Armin’s companion was making. His breaths had turned to soggy coughs, and Armin didn’t know what to do. It was far too late to call for a Medical Officer… and the stuff at his house was only the basics for first aid. He didn’t know how to fix a stab wound, especially one that was creating such a sickening mess.
“I’m…uh… we’re almost there.”
“Cut you a deal,” the Bleeding Man groaned between bursts of that terrible choking sound, “you get me inside and I’ll do my darned’est not to die on you. ‘Kay?”
Armin stopped the Tram, then let it connect to his house. Never before had he realized how slow the thing was–the gears turning and clunking into their proper place, the sirens in his own house blaring. For the briefest of seconds Armin was afraid Murf had forgotten to give him the universal keychain that could unlock his door from the outside, but then he found it, tossed underneath the front seat.
“Not… not like I’m tryin’ to rush ya’….”
“No, no, I got it. Let’s go.”
And then Armin was dragging him again. The Bleeding Man didn’t complain, just continued to cough and staunch the wound. With a giant heave that left his arms numb and shaking, Armin lifted him onto his couch (Mom would hate this mess….), and ran into the kitchen for the first aid kit.
The Bleeding Man was a little quieter when he returned, eyes closed tightly both in pain and in the concentration he needed to just stay alive. “I–I don’t know–”
“I’ll w-walk you through it,” the Bleeding Man interrupted. He was talking in sharp groans, like when a video online became pixilated and choppy. “Here’s what–what you gotta do.”
Armin followed the instructions: he cleaned the wound. He checked to see how deep it was (“Feels deeper… are you sure?” “Ye–yes.” “Okay… okay… movin’ on.”) He then, shocked and with a shaky hand, began to repair the wound the way his mother would have darned his jeans. The Bleeding Man kept his eyes closed as Armin used a needle and thread (“Sterilize it first! Get a match or something and stick the needle in the–the flame–good, good, now… now get to it.”) to close the wound. When he was done, there was a very messy scar that would have looked better on a doll than in someone’s flesh. The area was still stained red, and there was a bloody trail stretching from the door to Armin’s couch. The Bleeding Man’s breathing had calmed, and his tightly shut eyes and relaxed.
He was asleep, and Armin was shuddering.
He stood there, staring down at the nameless Bleeding Man. His hands were wet and sticky. Scared tears were prickling at the corners of his wide eyes.
He lowered himself into a sitting position on one of the few clean spots on the floor, watching as the Bleeding Man’s chest raised and lowered, completely oblivious to the panic that Armin was feeling. The worst was over for the Bleeding Man… but it had just begun for Armin Fisher.
He had just witnessed a crime. That was the first thing that Armin realized. When was the last time something like that happened? Not the digital warfare that people (like Thiele) sometimes used to increase their friends list. This was more than hacking or spam… this was something physical, something that probably hadn’t happened since before the Great Fissure.
Armin was living in history, but how?
How was it that two people had been outside? How was it that they had stood there, with the chemicals surrounding them, and argued until it culminated into a passionate fight? Hem-V’s adversaries tended to sizzle and peel as soon as they went outside… that’s how the chemicals worked. They were swift and merciless.
But there was the Bleeding Man in front of him, perfectly whole save for the stab wound. It was as though the chemicals hadn’t affected him at all.
Armin leapt up, running as far away from the Bleeding Man as he could get. His back hit the wall, and he wished he could climb up it, farther from the scarred mess on his couch.
He had brought home a Twicken. Armin was sure of it. There was no other explanation. The Bleeding Man and his dead companion must have both been Twickens… and they had turned on each other. Everyone knew Twickens were bloodthirsty cannibals. They must have failed to break into an innocent’s house and, in a fit of mad hunger, had turned on each other. Yes, that was the only answer that made sense.
Armin moved against the wall as though he was traveling alongside a cliff, keeping the Bleeding Man in sight. As soon as he woke up, Armin would have a live, ravished man-eater in his own house.
What had I been thinking?
Armin ran the last few steps into the kitchen. He threw open a drawer where a knife was glittering innocently. A moment’s hesitation–long enough to see his reflection, all blood-speckled and extra pale, staring back at him–and then the hilt of the knife was in his hand and Armin was back at the couch, standing over the Twicken.
He didn’t look particularly ferocious when he was sleeping. His dark brown hair was sprawled over the pillow and his angular face was lost in dreamless sleep. He had thick eyebrows and a long nose. There was a little bit of stubble on his chin. Nothing all that unusual about him, really.
Armin shook his head. He couldn’t think like that; the worst thing about Twickens was that they looked like everyone else. He couldn’t let that lure him into a false sense of security. Hem-V’s old sidekick had done that once, and he’d paid for it with some of the goriest special effects to ever grace the interweb.
He raised the knife, placing the point right over where the Twicken’s heart would be. He waited, taking in heavy, trembling breaths. The Twicken didn’t do so much as stir.
Do it… just do it.
Isn’t that what the Governance said to do? They said that Twickens were like wild animals, better to destroy on sight than to give them the opportunity to kill you. It was survival of the fittest, and, in this moment, Armin had the upper hand.
He dropped the knife, watching it slide lamely across the Twicken’s chest and fall to the carpet. Armin just couldn’t bring himself to interrupt a heartbeat when it was midway through its speech; he couldn’t force it to stop.
Armin glanced between the knife on the floor and the peacefully sleeping Twicken. He couldn’t just let him lay there. After a moment’s consideration, Armin realized what he had to do.
He ran into his bedroom, found his spare sheets, and began cutting them into long strips. Within minutes, he had used them to fasten the Twicken’s hands and feet to the couch. He returned the knife to the kitchen drawer, and turned his attention to the next task: cleaning up. The smell was starting to get to him.
“A good guest should clean up after himself.”
Armin froze. He was on his knees, arms stretched out in front of him with a bleach-soaked sponge. He didn’t turn when the Twicken spoke, just listened to see if he would say anything else.
“I mean, I should, but–” A groan and then sounds of awkward movement. “Um… any reason why I’m tied up?”
Armin didn’t answer, just continued cleaning. Scrub forward, then back, forward then back.
“Hey, did you hear me? Why am I tied up?”
Don’t let him know that you know what he is. Just ignore him, ignore him….
“Hey, Cinderfella, what’s with the bondage?”
“Just a good idea,” Armin muttered.
“What do you think I’m gonna do?”
Really don’t answer that.
“Well, I can’t go anywhere. I don’t feel up to it. I mean, if you’re this starved for company–”
“No! I just don’t want you eating my brains!”
“Eating your–oh.” And then the Twicken did something very strange: he started to laugh. It was a loud chortle, and Armin leapt up, staring at him.
“I don’t care for brains,” the Twicken chuckled. “I prefer livers.”
Armin clutched his abdomen and backed away; the Twicken laughed even louder.
“Joking, joking. I’m not a Twick–well, I guess I am, but not how you think.”
“What are you–?”
“Listen, kid, I’m really tired. And you look busy.”
“Yeah, I’m–oh crap!” Armin stared at the clock. It was almost 4:00 in the morning. He’d been up nearly all night cleaning his house. “I’ve gotta go!”
“Where ya’ goin’?” the Twicken asked, sounding slightly worried.
“I’m a Drafter, and I’m supposed to–well, it’s a long story.”
“Oh, right, that scuba suit you had on,” the Twicken replied, nodding to the chair where Armin had tossed the safety suit. “Right, go on.”
“I–I will.” Armin began to throw the safety suit over his clothes, but stopped mid-dressing when the Twicken, unexpectedly, asked:
“What’s your name?”
“Your name. You got one?”
He hesitated, then answered, “Armin. Armin Fisher.”
“Mine’s Satchel, and I don’t like my last name, so it’s utterly inconsequential.”
“Oh.” Armin thought he sounded really smart for a chemical-deranged cannibal.
“Can I ask you one favor?” Satchel asked as Armin was lifting the helmet onto his head.
“Don’t tell anyone about me, ‘kay?”
Armin didn’t answer; that had been exactly what’d he’d been planning to do. He’d decided to tell whatever Governance official came with the delivery tram, and he was going to get that dangerous Twicken out of his life.
“I mean,” Satchel continued, closing his eyes once again. “I know you’ve already done a ton for me, saving my life and all, but don’t tell anyone. At least give me the chance to state my case. Aren’t I worth that? If you still wanna tell after that, fine, whatever, but… don’t I deserve at least a chance to talk to you?”
Armin didn’t answer. Satchel looked as though he was losing whatever energy his unconscious sleep had given him.
“Please,” Satchel muttered, but before Armin could answer, he was asleep again, and Armin had only seconds to stare at him and wonder before turning to the door and beginning his journey to Murf’s house.
“Cuttin’ it close, kid.”
There it was: the first lie. Armin didn’t know when he’d made the decision to succumb to Satchel’s wishes. On the drive to Murf’s? When he had first stepped onto the tram?
Or when Satchel had added, so weak and desperate, “please”?
It was likely the latter, and even more likely a fatal mistake. People didn’t just harbor Twickens. That was like building a bomb in your kitchen. Had Hem-V taught him nothing?
Apparently, because the Governance official came and went (with Armin hiding quietly in Murf’s bedroom; the Governance would never discover that Murf had taken a break from his duties). Armin listened as the Governance official finished delivering the rations for the week, along with one nuptial officer for a couple on the south side of the compound.
“Playing matchmaker today, kid,” Murf began, more cheerful than usual. “We’re delivering a bloke to a lucky little lady.”
“Great,” Armin said with a wan smile. “Let’s get going.”
Those three simple words began the day. They started their journey at the house with the little twins. (“I’m sorry,” the wide-eyed mother apologized. “They require a lot of attention. Memphis, go sit with your brother.”) An hour later, the tram added an extra passenger: an anxious, dark-skinned young man, who kept asking the Nuptial Officer questions and pacing throughout the small space. He met his new wife right before lunch, and they held hands, awkwardly, for the very first time right as the Nuptial Officer pronounced them man and wife. The Nuptial Officer stayed with them for the rest of the day, even eating lunch with them. He raised an eyebrow when Murf mentioned the missing table cloth.
“Where is it? My wife made it special.”
“Is it not there?” Armin responded, a little too quickly. “Weird. Let’s get eating, okay? We’ve got a long day.”
Murf squinted his eyes at Armin, as though he was trying to see him a little more clearly, but shrugged it away. Armin downed his crackers in record time, thinking that subtlety was not his strength. Oh well, whatever got him home faster.
Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021