Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 4

  “I’m not going to kill you, idiot. You’re worth too much alive. The knife’s for your hair,” she says.

  I grab my hair and wind it around my hand. It hangs down to my hips—longer than I remember it ever being in my life. And thicker.

  Arrin rolls her eyes. “Yeah. So it’s glossy and smooth and the color of wheat. You’d be in a shampoo commercial if we still had television. Thing is, no one but the lice can appreciate it down here. Just hold still. ” She holds the knife toward me, and I flinch. “Look, Fo. You’ll be thanking me for getting rid of it. Trust me. ”

  I hug my knees to my chest. The knife saws against my hair, tearing it from my scalp more than cutting it. But then I feel a release, and my sheared hair falls around my shoes in a shiny, honey-gold pile. Arrin takes a chunk of the hair still attached to my scalp and hacks it even shorter, until she’s moved around the entire back of my head. Until I imagine I look just like her—short, uneven hair on the back and sides of my head, chin-length hair in front that covers most of my face. Totally ugly. My mother would be mortified. The thought makes my heart ache. Where is my mother?

  Arrin grins, a flash of teeth as dingy as her skin. “Perfect,” she says, eyeing my hair. Her breath smells like the tunnels. “Are you rested? Because the sun is going to set in a couple of hours. And that’s when you are going to pay me back. Double. ”

  “Right. ” My stomach growls, and I remember the half-eaten pack of crackers from Jacqui. I take them from my pocket and slide one into my hand. It is a peanut-butter-filled sandwich cracker dusted with little grains of salt. My mouth waters.

  A black weight hits my chest, and I fly backward. The candle wavers and goes out just as my head crunches against cement. Heavy darkness sits atop me, pinning my arms to the ground, clawing the crackers from my hand.

  “Air did oo get dese?” Arrin asks, mouth full. She swallows noisily. “I haven’t tasted peanut butter in two years. ” She climbs off me. I hear the crackers crunching in her teeth. “These crackers, they can help pay off your debt to me. ”

  Hunger stabs my hollow stomach. “Not if I die of starvation first. I need food,” I retort, climbing to my knees and rubbing the goose egg on the back of my head.

  She laughs, and I can smell peanut butter on her rancid breath. A match scrapes and a flame flickers. She relights the candle, and shadows dance against her greedy, chewing face.

  “Here. Gnaw on this. ” She tosses something at me. Relieved at the thought of eating, I snatch it out of the air and frown. A leather belt, half eaten and covered with teeth marks, dangles from my hand. I toss it back and stare at her like she’s crazy. Arrin lets the belt fall to the ground and shrugs. “Suit yourself. But there ain’t nothing else to eat down here. ” She looks at the last cracker, golden and clean in her discolored hand, then breaks off a tiny piece, barely a morsel. She holds it out to me. “Here. ” She says it like she’s just sacrificed something priceless. I guess a crumb is priceless to someone who is starving—someone like me. I take it and swallow without chewing. My stomach growls for more.

  Arrin holds the last cracker with the tips of her fingers and nibbles toward its center, like a mouse, beady eyes focused on me as if she’s afraid I might fight her for it. I stare and she glares, but I don’t take my eyes from her. It isn’t the cracker that holds my attention. Something darkens the back of her right hand. An oval with three lines drawn through it like insect legs—two on the left, one on the right. I glance at my own hand. The edge of my mark is showing through the makeup and dirt. My palms turn icy-damp, and I wipe them on my shirt.

  “I need some privacy,” I blurt, touching the tube of makeup in my pocket.

  “Pee over there. ” She nods toward the darkness, and I wander out of the ring of candlelight. “But, Fo. The others. Don’t go far. ”

  I stumble through the darkness and come to the end of the cement. My feet sink into goo and squelch with each step. When I am sure Arrin cannot see me, I slip the makeup from my pocket and dab it on the back of my hand, smoothing it over the tattoo. Over the ten-legged spider. When I’m done I squat and relieve myself, and as I am retying the drawstring waist on my knee-length shorts, a squelch echoes behind me, followed by a gasped curse.

  I flip around and face the black tunnel. Someone could be standing six inches from me, engulfed in darkness, and I wouldn’t be able to see him.

  I turn to the flickering candle and hurry toward it, easing my feet onto the slick floor with each step, trying not to squelch. And then I am on cement, inside the glow of candlelight. Arrin lounges on her nest of nasty blankets, hands behind her head, staring at the pipes on the ceiling.

  “Arrin,” I whisper.

  She looks at me with heavy eyes. “Those crackers,” she says with a sigh. She grins and licks her teeth.

  “I think someone is in the tunnel,” I whisper, glancing over my shoulder.

  Her eyes snap wide, and she springs to her feet, dagger in hand.

  “We know you’re there. I’ll kill you if I see you,” Arrin snarls, her words ringing with violent truth. She slices the air for impact, and I take a step away from her. There is no reply. Crouching beside the candle, she blows it out. We plunge into darkness so thick I can hardly breathe it into my lungs.

  “Why did you blow out the candle?” I ask.

  “So they can’t see us. If they can’t see us, it makes it a hell of a lot harder to kill us. ”

  I gasp.

  “Stop breathing so loud,” Arrin whispers. “They won’t need the light to kill you if you keep making noise like that. And I’m not going to save you again. ”

  I open my mouth and take slow, silent breaths, straining to hear the warning sound of approach.

  A long time passes—my legs begin to itch from standing still for so long. I sink down to the ground and sit on the grimy cement. Icy hands are on me, touching my face, wiping my arms. I pull away and whimper, expecting a knife in the back.

  “Hold still, idiot,” Arrin breathes. I force myself to freeze beneath her hands. She keeps touching me, wiping grit onto every inch of my exposed skin. When no skin is left untouched, she whispers, “Take off your clothes. ”

  “What?”

  “Hurry up! Just take them off. We need to trade. ” Fabric rustles. A warm mass is dropped into my lap. Her clothes.

  I pull my shirt over my head, and after taking the concealer out of the pocket, slip off my shorts, holding them in what I assume is her direction. She snatches them away.

  “But first,” she whispers, “you need to wrap this around your … you know whats. ” She drops something else in my lap, a long, thin strap of fabric.

  “Wrap this around my what?” I ask, baffled.

  “How dense are you? Do I seriously have to spell it out?” When I don’t answer, she blurts, “Around your knockers, Fo. No one’s going to believe you’re a boy if they get a look at those. Even if they are small. Sheesh. ” She mutters under her breath as I struggle to bind my breasts, tying the fabric into a knot below my left armpit.

  When I’m done, I fiddle with her clothes until I find the shirt. As I pull the stiff, greasy-feeling fabric over my head, I gag. The stench is unreal—sweat, urine, dirt, sewage. I pull on the pants, barely manage to squeeze them over my hips, and, sucking in my stomach, force them to button.

  “You are so fat,” Arrin whispers, her voice filled with wonder. “It’s a good thing these shorts have a drawstring. ”

  I press on my bony hips. “I’m not fat. ”

  “Don’t you know a compliment when you hear one? You’re lucky. Even with the drawstring, your shorts will barely stay up on my bony butt. ” Arrin inhales deeply. “And you smell like flowers, I think. I can’t quite remember. ”

  Flowers. I remember how they smell. Beds of lavender and forget-me-nots lined my driveway. Lis put lavender in matchless socks and stuck them in her drawers. She always smelled like lavender.

&nb
sp; “It’s almost time to go,” Arrin whispers.

  “Where?”

  “Up. You’re going to pay me back. Double. Tonight. Remember?”

  My heart starts drumming. Something in her voice makes me wonder what I have gotten myself into. “How am I paying you back, Arrin?”

  She chuckles, and goose bumps shiver down my arms. “You’ll see. ” The air shifts, and then she pulls me to my feet. “Now, someone is stalking my tunnel. You’ve got to walk behind me and hold on to my shirt. And don’t let go! Even if we have to run. Especially if we have to run. ”

  I nod and blindly run my hands over her bony body until I find the back of her shirt. And then we start walking through the black tunnels, and all I can think of is the person who was watching us, who might be about to pounce. Her shirt grows damp from my hand, and my feet squelch no matter how I tiptoe.

  Chapter 5

  “Why’s the ground so squishy?” I whisper.

  “You’re walking on dried-up human sewage. Only it’s not completely dry,” she says, her voice barely audible.

  I shudder.

  “Haven’t you ever been down here, Fo?”

  “No,” I say without thinking. And surely I’d remember a place like this. Wouldn’t I?

  “Lucky you. It used to be worse—a canal of slime that reached up to my knees. I had to hide in it once, buried up to my nose. ” She says it like she’s bragging.

  I cringe and wonder if the clothes I’m wearing are the clothes she wore in the sewage.

  “Don’t you wanna know why?” she asks.

  “Why?”

  “The militia was hunting me. Almost caught me, too. One of them waded right past me and didn’t see me because he didn’t look down. ” She laughs under her breath.

  “What happened?” I ask.

  “They all got sick—the militia. They’re a bunch of wimps, can’t stand the smell down here, I guess. They started barfing up perfectly good food. A total waste. And then they left. ”
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