Chapter 26 – Bedding Down
Note: This is a long chapter. I remember wanting to split it up into two (or even three) parts, but I can’t (and couldn’t) define a smooth dividing point(s). Suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Atop the stairs, the hallway branched in two directions. Elizabeth and Rick turned left and disappeared through a nearby door. As the door closed, I saw Elizabeth standing very close to Rick and whispering something in his ear. From what I could see of the back of his head, Rick didn’t seem to be reacting but I couldn’t be sure. The rest of us headed further down the hallway towards even more closed doors.
The first door we reached was closed firmly, but the second hung open. It was into this room my diminutive guide led me. She entered first, turning to look at me when I did not immediately follow. I glanced up and down that small hallway, briefly uncertain. Rick was already out of sight. Bobbi and her guide were slightly further down the hallpausing before another room at the end of the hall. I nodded solemnly and entered my room, pulling the door shut behind me as I did so. I hoped to seem unflappable, but knew that only one as young as my escort might be fooled.
The young girl looked up at me, smiling in a way which didn’t quite reach her eyes. She passively showed me around the room, mechanically and unemotionallly performing her duties as host. She pointed out the finely crafted vanity, which I noticed was hand-carved in the same style as much of the furniture downstairs. She showed me the full-sized bed, with untouched sheets which appeared to be fresh from the package and unused. She pointed out the lamps in the room, though even she seemed skeptical to their use in a room with a broad window and an unsetting sun.
The window itself looked out upon the backyard of the large house. Through a small break in the trees which lined the property, I could make out the broad stretch of land between the town and the fence. This land did not resemble a field of grass. Instead it more closely resembled a sprawling garden with tilled earth and vegetables of surprising size. I was able to make a good guess where much of the food at market and on the table had been grown.
With a start, I noticed my host had fallen abruptly silent. I turned quickly, feeling somewhat guilty for becoming distracted. For brief moment we made eye contact before she quickly looked down at the floor. I heard her murmur something, but I was unable to make sense of it. I asked her to repeat herself. After a moment, I heard her mousey voice repeated and louder this time. “I am sorry, mistress. I did not mean to interrupt your window-gazing.”
I smiled reassuringly and walked over to the young woman. I was suddenly reminded of the girl’s likely young age. “Don’t worry, Anne. You didn’t do anything wrong.” I put a hand on her shoulder. “If anything, I was the rude one. I let my attention wander off while you were talking.”
She glanced up at me, meeting my gaze for a fraction of a second before they dropped back down to the floor. “I am sorry. I did not mean to be so boring. I will try harder to be more interesting in the future.” Her voice was so deadpan, so lifeless, that my heart couldn’t help but reach out to her.
I nudged her slightly towards a nearby chair, but I tried not to seem too forceful. “You weren’t boring. My mind’s just really busy right now. Why don’t you sit down for a minute, try to relax and stop being so hard on yourself.” I smiled broadly to let her know it was a joke, and gestured to the chair. Her refusal to look up at me gave me doubt that she had noticed my tone or my intent.
“I really should not, ma’am. We were told to prepare a room for our guest. We were told not to let a single thread be out of place. If I were to sit I would disturb that perfection. I would get in trouble.” Her speech, I noticed as she went on longer and longer, was stilted and awkward. It was as if she had learned English second hand, as if it were a second language or a language that she had only learned through study of some primary school textbook. She still refused to look me in the eye and she shifted nervously from foot to foot.
“Please, Anne. I insist.” I leaned down a bit, so I was closer to her eye level. I put a hand under her chin and lifted it so she could not help but look me directly in the eye. “You prepared the room. It was prepared before I got here.” I smiled. “But now I’m here, and I want you to sit down. You’re making me nervous standing there. Wouldn’t it be rude, more rude than messing anything up, to make me all nervous?”
“I suppose…” She paused for a moment, thinking very hard about what she should do. “I have a lot of work to do, though…” She seemed to be deeply bothered about staying too long, as if she wanted to get away. I could only assume she feared punishment for not tending to all her duties by staying and talking with me.
“But weren’t you also told to treat me like a guest, right? It wouldn’t be right to leave a guest to be all lonely and sad in her room, would it?”
“I guess not.” She shifted uncomfortably. I was pushing her, harder than she had ever been pushed, but that was on purpose. If I didn’t push, she would take off and leave. I couldn’t let a golden opportunity pass through my fingers like this, I may not get such a good chance to ask questions again. After all, if she was too young to question commands, she likely didn’t know what she should and should not say around ‘guests.’
“Good. Now come on. Sit down.” I sat down on the bed, casually patting the spot next to me on the bed. She hesitated, staring at that spot like it were on fire for a brief moment, before I saw her expression harden and she sat down with a stubborn flourish. In the same instant that such a strong emotion appeared, it was gone. I made a mental note to remember this for later; there may be more to this little girl than I had originally expected. “Now, isn’t that more comfortable than standing? I know I’m feeling more relaxed, less nervous.” I shot her a reassuring grin, which elicited a very awkward smile in response.
“I. I guess so.” Her voice quavered ever so slightly, still awkward and stilted but far less inhuman than it had been moments ago.
“Good.” I paused for a brief moment, trying to think very hard about what else I could do to calm her down. I was afraid she would clam up and refuse to answer my questions if I pushed too fast. If I didn’t find another way to relax her, it was unlikely that she would mellow enough so I could risk asking her anything. In the meantime, she simply stared forward, watching her reflection in the mirror and glancing at the large hairbrush that sat on the vanity. I raised an eyebrow in curiosity and glanced down at Anne. “Do you want me to brush your hair? You’re still really nervous looking and I don’t like others to seem so uncomfortable…”
I trailed off, hoping she caught the gist of what I was saying. She did, but not in quite the way I had expected. “No.” I blinked a few times, swiftly trying to figure out what to say in response to such a brash brush off. I was already forming an apology when she spoke up again, a strange tone in her voice. “I want to brush yours.”
I blinked a few more times, surprised at her request. I looked over at the vanity’s mirror and I realized a likely reason. My hair was a rat’s nest, a tangled mess of hair and even a few leaves and bits of grass that I had picked up along the way. It was then I realized how long it had been since I had last bothered much with hygiene. It just hadn’t been something worth worrying about unless it impeded travel or survival. The last time I had even washed my hair had been shortly before we had left the hospital, nearly a month before now.
I made a lightheartedly disgusted face at the bedraggled woman on the other side of the mirror. Glancing down, I at least /thanked whatever god which still listened that the few sets of scrubs we had stolen were still relatively clean. Even if they proved chilly in a strong wind, they at least preserved modesty. My image still reminded ed more of a hobo than the doctor which had boarded that plane so long ago. It set me wondering if I was even the same person from back then. I let out a deep sigh and realized that Anne was still watching me patiently and expectantly. “If you want, I guess you can.”
Anne smiled faintly. It made me wonder just how long she had been in this situation and exactly what had led to her current state. That didn’t matter now though, as she leapt off of the bed and across the room to grab the brush. “Now. Sit on the floor, so I can reach your head.” She smiled demurely, suddenly remembering her role as my host. “Please.”
I grinned at her and sat down on the floor, next to the bed. I left a bit of room for her to climb on to the bed, no matter how hesitantly, and then leaned back once she was positioned. She started to slowly and gingerly run her fingers through my hair, attempting to get the worst of the tangles out before hitting them with a brush. I sat there in silence, just trying to relax into her ministrations for a time. I figured there would be enough time for questions in a bit. Instead, I thought about how long my hair had grown since I sat on that plane a lifetime ago.
As she ran the brush through my hair, I found myself drifting off as weeks of tension began to finally release. It took every fiber of my being to stay awake. After a blissful eternity, I finally drug my head above the waters of distraction. I had bigger concerns. It was unlikely that I would get another chance to ask any questions soon, and if it took too long things could turn dire before I could react to them. “Anne?”
“Mmhmm…” She was focused as she attempted to style my hair with a small braid.
“Can I ask you a few questions?”
I felt her stop suddenly, frozen in mid motion. I could feel myself tensing, hoping that I had not pushed too hard or too fast. I didn’t move. I didn’t dare. Instead, I waited as her mind clicked and whirred, mulling over the benefits of talking to me. She was probably worried that I would ask her about things she shouldn’t discuss and rightly so. She wasn’t sure how to respond. Finally, she started braiding again. “I… I suppose. But I’m not supposed to…”
“I understand, Anne. I won’t tell. It’ll just be between us.” I could feel her relax behind me. “I just want to know more about some things.”
“How long have you been here, Anne?”
“I don’t know. Not for sure. Alexander tells me I have been here my whole life, but I know that isn’t true.” Her hands seemed unsteady, but she gave no other sign of her nervousness.
“Where were you before?”
“I don’t know. I only kinda remember it. It was bigger than Paradise, though.”
“Okay. How did you get here? Where are your parents?”
“I don’t have parents.” Her voice was blunt and rehearsed as she said that, but as she continued her voice revealed a faint quivering. “They were impure. Alexander took them away when I came here, so they couldn’t ruin me.”
“Took them away?”
“He made them disappear, so they could not destroy Paradise.”
I knew that Anne wouldn’t tell me more about that. I could tell in her voice. I reminded myself to find out more about that later. “And what is Paradise?”
Her voice became soft and dreamy. “It is the only perfect place left in the entire world. It is like heaven restored to a dark and dirty planet. We are all happy to be here.” The line was rehearsed, but believed whole heartedly. It seemed almost cultish, and I had suspicions that it likely was just that.
“Why are there so few people in Paradise? Are we the first guests here?”
“Oh, no. You are not the first. There have been many others, but most were found to be impure before they were allowed to join us and corrupt us. They have been removed. Those who Alexander deemed worthy were given homes and are now no different from any of the others.”
I gulped involuntarily, but Anne made no sign that she had noticed. Apparently I was right about the Stepford nature of this terrible place. “Is anyone ever allowed to leave Paradise?”
“Yep. But only Alexander and his council. They go out hunting sometimes.” A glance at the mirror revealed a small, but proud, smile on the girl’s face.
“Monsters.” Her voice came as a scandalized gasp at the word.
“Monsters? What kind of monsters…?” “The Impure.” Again, that same horrified and scandalized tone.
It was finally starting to click. I had a terrible suspicion, something I almost didn’t want to talk about, something terrible. “Anne? Why does Alexander hunt?”
“We don’t have enough cattle and pigs to butcher.” She said calmly, as if the matter was as common and simple as the color of the sky or whether a dropped item would fall.
I shivered slightly, horrified at this implication. Anne stopped and looked at me curiously, but I barely noticed. I was thinking about what all this meant. I tried to push the thought from my mind, so as to not upset Anne as she looked down at me with worry. “I’m sorry; I guess I’m feeling a tad chilly all of a sudden. Kind of sleepy too.”
“That’s okay. Hold on one second.” She jumped down from the bed again and dashed across the room, grabbed a bright red ribbon from one of the drawers. “Let me tie off your hair.” She came over and slowly, carefully, tied the bottom of the braid she had meticulously prepared. Then, she stood back and admired her handy work with a smile. “Now, go to bed. I will tell the others that you’re sleeping.”
I did not move immediately. I hoped to stay right where I was, but Anne was watching and waiting for me. I quickly realized that she would not leave before she saw me lay down. Slowly, with a groan of exertion only half faked, I stood and meandered over to the bed. Pulling back the sheet, I glanced at Anne again, who stood there beaming happily at me. I had made a friend, even if she was brainwashed. I smiled back and lowered myself into the bed and pulled the covers over me with a slight flourish. As I laid my head down, I saw her smile one more time and slowly back away towards the door.
As soon as I heard the door click behind her, I sat up quickly. I had thought the threat of cannibalism had been left behind in Colorado. If I could call it that. After all, Tom and that creature… neither of them were truly human by the time they started to consume human flesh. Either way, I was worried. The trend was following us. Haunting us. It made me wonder what about these people had driven them to consume the flesh of others.
I supposed, based on what I had heard thus far, they had found some sort of justification for such horrors based on a warped view of “purity.” What I wasn’t sure, was how exactly determined purity and disposed of the impure. The latter, I suspected was related to their “hunting,” though I lacked proof. Purity was a greater mystery, especially how it was defined.
Neither really mattered right now. My friends and I were in very real danger. We were trapped in the house of the leader of some strange cannibal cult and tended by his brainwashed wives. At any time we could be declared impure. We may find ourselves hunted for sport and served on a silver tray.
The longer I thought about this, the more my stomach roiled. A worry greater than I had words crept into my mind. If they were cannibals and most of their meat did not come from their dwindling supply of livestock… We had eaten sliced ham for dinner… My stomach roiled again as realization began to dawn.
Moments later, I dashed down the hallway with a hand desperately holding back the rising bile in my mouth. I barely made it to the bathroom before I lost control. I sat there, kneeling on the floor with horror painting every inch of my face. I was panting, disgusted and determined to escape. We needed to leave this place, before things grew worse and we became the main course or worse.