It’s been a while, but I’ve finally had time to write again. If you need a refresher on what happened last in this story (waaaay back in April), then check out the last chapter here.
Armin had run into his house, bidding the Nuptial Officer and Murf a too-fast good night. He had whipped off his helmet and nearly tripped getting out of his safety suit, sprinting into the living room… and then he had stopped dead in his tracks. The makeshift ropes he had used to tie the Twicken to the couch had been torn apart and were now lying on the couch like dead snake skins.
Why didn’t he kill the thing when he’d had the chance! Now it was loose… and surely hungry. First, it would corner him, licking its lips, right before it would begin its feeding frenzy. Then, satisfied and energized, it would leave his house, searching for its next fix….
What if it went after Murf’s family? Or those twins? Or that newlywed couple? Or–
“You don’t have mouthwash do you?”
Armin yelped and jumped backward, against the wall. He reached for the nearest thing–an empty rations box–and thrust it in front of him like a shield.
The Twicken was leaning against the kitchen doorway, a goofy smile on his face. He looked healthier than when Armin had left him: his eyes were brighter, his hair and skin completely clean of any residue, his skin a deeper shade of bronze.
Bronze? What kind of color was that for skin? It looked unnatural, as though someone had painted over the should-be pale color that everyone else had.
Yet more proof he’s a freak, Armin thought, brandishing his cardboard shield with what he hoped was a courageous flourish.
Satchel chuckled. “Calm down, Lancelot.”
“I told you my name is Armin.”
“Right, sorry–I’m terrible with names.” He laughed again, and the sound wore on Armin’s nerves like an elephant on a piece of thread.
“Stay where you are!”
“Or what? You’ll give me a papercut?” A little snicker. “I think you and I both know I’ve had worse.” He motioned to his stomach, where the poorly-mended gash was now hidden by a clean t-shirt.
“Hey,” Armin shouted. “That’s my shirt!”
“And pants. I also used your shower. I hope you don’t mind, but I… well… godliness is next to cleanliness–wait, no, it’s the other way around.” He shook his head in mock-exasperation. “You know what I mean.”
“Listen, you need to just stay away from me.”
“I don’t need to get close for you to hear me.” Satchel relaxed all his weight against the doorway. “Though I’m still a little weak-kneed. Would you be so kind as to grant me a seat?” He motioned to the couch, where the blood stains Armin had been unable to clean were already starting to turn brown.
“Uh… okay, right.”
Armin stayed where he was as Satchel reclaimed his place on the couch. He sat with a comfortable groan, stretching his legs out so that they rested on the coffee table. “Much better. Man, this is so not like me. Normally, I’m the life of the party.” He looked at Armin, who, between the frozen stance and pallid complexion, resembled a wax figure.
“You’re a twitchy little fellow, aren’t you?”
“And you’re a Twicken.”
Satchel sighed. “I think our problem is rooted in a disparity of definitions.”
“Disparity–noun, meaning difference.”
“I know what the word means, I just–”
“Don’t get how it fits in the situation.” Satchel nodded to himself. “They never do. Though, I promise, Lancelot, I’ll explain.”
“My name is–”
“Armin, right, right, I know that. It’s called a nickname.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Really?” Satchel shrugged. “Okay, whatever. But sit down one way or the other. Ain’t no dragon ‘round here.”
Armin was convinced he was speaking in tongues. Did Twickens do that? Either that, or he was trying to use some sort of weird mind trick. One way or the other, Armin wasn’t going to fall for it.
“I’m good here.”
“Fine, whatever. Doesn’t stop me from–”
Satchel froze. “What’s that?”
“My dad!” Armin exclaimed. He dropped the box and ran to the computer.
“Not a word, please!” Satchel begged, and his cool demeanor was suddenly replaced with panic as he ran into the kitchen, clutching his side the entire time.
Armin hesitated. He’d let chance after chance slip past, and now his best opportunity for losing the Twicken was waiting for him to answer the video call. There was no way he was letting this one go, too.
“Hey, Dad,” Armin said, taking a seat at the computer. Rune Fisher looked livid.
“So you do remember our arrangement of talking each night?”
“Of course I–oh.”
“Oh? You completely forget to contact me last night, and all you can say is ‘oh’? You’re a Drafter, Armin, and I had no idea where you were. Do you have any idea how worried–” Rune stopped.
“You were worried about me?”
“It is not in my business to fail, and that includes parenting,” Rune answered simply, though he couldn’t quite meet Armin’s eyes.
“I’m fine, Dad.”
“I can see that. Though your carelessness makes me seriously doubt whether your current living arrangements are plausible.”
“One thing. I ask you to do one thing each night, and you completely neglect–”
“Only one time!”
“That is no excuse, Armin. I see you didn’t even add anything to your profile–no Quips, no comments, nothing–yesterday.”
“I was busy.”
“With what?” Rune asked suspiciously.
There was his opportunity–all dressed and ready to greet him–and all Armin said was:
“I’m not a baby. I don’t need you knowing every second of my life.”
“Your life is only as real as the world you create. And this is the second time you’ve been absent from it. A seventy-two hour absence not long ago, now this….”
“I had a good reason last time!”
“A little heartbreak? Armin, that’s no reason to unplug! Quite the opposite. Connect more when there’s something huge in your life. Make your life bigger with it. That’s why the Governance uses the interweb, to–”
“Maintain inter-knowledge and protect inter-peace. I know, Dad. Anyone who’s sat through five minutes of a lesson would know that much!”
“Stop taking that tone with me!”
“Stop acting like a paranoid freak, I’m fine!”
Rune deflated, though his stare didn’t waver. Armin kept his eyes even with his father’s: brown meeting brown through wires and digital signals. Armin was breathing heavily; Rune appeared calm. When he spoke, it was in a much lighter, controlled tone.
“You’re a teenager,” he began. “A little attitude is to be expected, but I suggest you get it out of your system before we talk next. I do not appreciate it, Armin.”
The screen pixilated for just a moment, and then went black, NIC’s emblem replacing his father’s face. Armin didn’t move. It wasn’t until Satchel was directly behind him that he even looked away from the screen.
“Your Dad sounds like a real disciplinarian.”
“He likes to think he is. He’s nothing but a Governance worker, though.” Armin met Satchel’s eyes. “Just a cog in the Governance, but the brain that controls me.”
They both turned away from the computer; Armin took a seat in the arm chair, Satchel on the couch. There was a silence that could only come after a fight: careful and delicate, like a perfectly set table, waiting for someone to pull the tablecloth out from underneath it.
“Thank you, by the way,” Satchel began. He looked straight at Armin, and he saw for the first time that Satchel’s eyes were a bright green. “I’ve built up quite a life debt to you. I know you think I’m dangerous, and you’ve had ample opportunity to turn me in. You haven’t. I won’t forget that.”
“Good,” Armin muttered sarcastically. “Does that mean you’ll do me the favor of knocking me out before diving into my flesh?”
Satchel released a nervous chuckle. “I think that’s where we need to start, Armin. First of all, my definition of a Twicken, and yours are very, very different. And only one of them is right. Guess which one?”
Armin didn’t answer immediately. “That’s what a Twicken would say. They’re masters of trickery, you know.”
“Oh, we’re masters of something alright, but what you call trickery, we call education.”
Satchel grinned mischievously. “Tell me what you think a Twicken is.”
Armin gulped. “It’s someone who’s lived outside with the chemicals, and built up a resistance to it–”
“How does that work, exactly? If the chemicals immediately kill anyone who comes in contact with them?”
“Um… I don’t know… over generations–”
“But they burn and sizzle immediately, don’t they?”
“Well… I guess in a place where the chemicals are weaker. Yeah, that’s what it is.”
“Hmm… seems like a weak cover for a plot hole. Maybe the Governance should hire new writers.” He gave a little wink, then urged, “Go on. Tell me more about myself.”
“Well, the chemicals make them go crazy. They became cannibals and–”
“Must… eat… your… brains….” Satchel mimicked in a low, guttural voice, holding his arms out and tilting his head stupidly to the side. “Are we talking Twickens or Night of the Living Dead?”
“Night of the–”
“Wouldn’t expect you to get the reference.” Satchel waved the thought away. “Go on, go on. You’ve got my interest.”
“Well, they break into houses, and they eat people, and… that’s it.”
“Fascinating.” Satchel leaned back, stroking his chin in a would-be-debonair way. “Do you think I fit those criteria?”
“Yes. I found you outside, and the chemicals didn’t hurt you.”
“Fair point. But have I eaten any flesh? Have I acted as though the chemicals have addled my mind?”
“And yet I can assure you, I am, in fact, a Twicken.” Satchel rose, walking to the hallway. Armin, curious, followed.
“You’re not making sense.”
“Oh, sure I am. I promise you I am one-hundred percent Twicken.”
Armin snorted. “What are you, some sort of vegetarian Twicken?”
“Towards cannibalism, but I like a cheeseburger as much as the next guy. Like I said, it’s all about definition.” He groaned, clutching his stomach and leaning against the door that led outside. He was quiet for a moment, but when he continued, he was smiling, considering Armin carefully. “My definition is simply someone who doesn’t live in a compound.”
“That’s impossible,” Armin argued. “The compounds are the only safe places.”
“Not for Twickens.”
“I think your brains are addled.”
Satchel shrugged. “Maybe this is something only another Twicken would understand.”
“Probably,” Armin muttered, beginning to back away.
Satchel’s grin turned wicked as he said, “I’m glad you agree.” Then, with a strength that he had been hiding, he reached for Armin with one hand, hit the button that opened the door with the other, and, with a hysterical laugh, tossed Armin outside.
To be continued.
Copyright Sarah Davidson 2021