Everyone’s staring at me.
This is not something I enjoy at the best of times, but it’s that much worse when everyone’s staring at you because you did something terrible. An unspecified number of grubby children are ogling me. More keep appearing from somewhere, children of all sorts of species I’ve never seen before; hairy, scaley, slimy, there’s even a slightly gaseous one. They regard me in an unfriendly, accusing fashion, which is fair. Their Pappi is still sitting on the floor in pain.
“I’m not a bad person,” I tell them defensively. Someone makes a scoffing sound. “Hey! I’m not. I’m sorry, I was just scared, and he took me by surprise.”
One of the taller children steps forward. She’s about my height and wearing a dress, so I’m guessing it’s a girl. She has a furry face like a tepcat but she doesn’t look feline and her ears are round. She looks vaguely bear-like, but not in a cute way. That furry face of hers has a very sneery and superior look on it. I kind of want to slap it off there but I don’t think that’ll help my case.
“You kicked Pappi in the… in the…” she falters. Perhaps she can’t maintain her sense of superiority if she’s forced to say ‘nuts.’ She lifts her chin. “In the unmentionables.”
“Balls, Jeki,” a little girl with a worm-like face and big eyes says, trying to be helpful. “She kicked Pappi in the balls.”
Jeki turns and glowers at the smaller girl. “Nom!”
“Ooo!” the smaller girl quails as Jeki’s shadow falls on her. “What?”
“Nom! Shame on you! We don’t say that.”
“Sorry,” says Nom.
“So you should be,” Jeki says, a little ruthlessly and turns back to me.
“Can we say blobs?” Nom asks. “She kicked Pappi in the blobs? Is that alright?”
“What? No!” Jeki snaps and Nom shrinks away. “That just draws attention to their… their…” She makes vague, cupping motions with her hands. “Just call them… the… The Trouser Area.”
“Okay. Sorry,” Nom says, fearfully. “I won’t say it again.”
“You’d better not,” Jeki huffs and turns back to me.
“Can I not say legs any more then?” Nom asks from behind her.
Jeki grinds her teeth together.
“What?” she demands.
“Well, legs are in the trouser area, aren’t they?” Nom says, innocently.
“Nom, if you don’t stop talking, I’m going to box your ears,” Jeki says. “Or I would if you had any.” One of the other kids does a cruel kid-laugh. The tiny, worm-headed Nom covers the sides of her head in shame and her lower lip trembles. Jeki turns to me.
“We have one rule here,” she says. “What is it?”
“I just got here. How the bloody hell would I know?” I ask her.
“We don’t hurt our own!” All the children say together.
“We don’t hurt our own,” Jeki says to me like she’s a lawyer closing a case. “And that, girlie, means you can’t stay.”
I look at the man on the floor. “It is the rule, I’m afraid,” he says. “We need something to maintain order down here.”
Fair enough. I don’t even want to stay. I just want to get out of here as soon as possible. If I don’t get out of these caves and tunnels soon, I’m going to develop claustrophobia and lose it.
Well, there’s just something about Jeki that really gets my goat. It makes me argumentative, “I didn’t know, did I?” I say, defiantly. “Where does it say that, eh?”
They all point up.
Carved into the wall above the rockface they were working are the words: ‘we don’t hurt our own.’ Clear as day. Massive writing too.
“I like to think that a decent person shouldn’t have to be told that,” Pappi adds.
Nah. They’ve got me. I’m out of here.
“I’m obviously not decent then, I guess,” I sigh and lean the shovel against the wall.
“Obviously you are not,” Jeki sneers. “Now leave.”
“Fine by me. Which way is out?”
They all point up the slope. I start to trudge up it, but Jeki’s not done.
“You’ll die up there, you know,” she says, quite unnecessarily. I was going anyway, she just wants to twist the knife. “And you’ve done it to yourself.”
“Why? What’s up there?” I look fearfully up the slope.
“The City,” she says, ominously.
“Which City?” I ask. “Mimmereremere? Footfall?”
Oh, please be Footfall. Please please please.
“Ash End,” she says, dramatically.
Never heard of it.
“Never heard of it,” I tell her.
“You be careful up there,” the man says. “It eats children like you. Why do you think we live down here and work the mine?”
Okay, that is a little worrying, but I won’t let them see it.
“Pah! I lived on the streets of Footfall for years,” I tell them. “I’ll be fine.”
“You did?” little Nom says. “Can I come with you?”
“Sweetheart, I think it’s safer for you down here,” I say.
At the same time as I’m saying it, Jeki snaps, “Nom! Don’t be so stupid! Get back with the others! You’re such a little pest!”
Nom’s worm face has a big mouth and huge eyes and no other features that I can see, and the whole things scrunches up in unhappiness. The tiny girl covers her face with her hands and scurries off.
Jeki looks to me. She actually has satisfaction on her face. And they think I’m the monster. I mean, they’re right. I kicked Pappi in the blobs and killed some furry bloke in the tunnels, but at least I’m not a complete bitch.
“I don’t like you,” I tell her.
“Why do I care? You’ll be dead in a day,” she sneers at me. “Off you go.”
I might hit her.
“Why are you just staring at me?” she demands, confident now that she’s got a few dozen kids behind her. They may be little but there’s a lot of them. “Leave, monster!”
I’m angry. Really angry. A lot of bad things have happened to me and to the people I love. I can feel the weight of it behind me constantly, like a mountain of crap. Something’s different now though. I don’t know when the switch got flipped, but that mountain is suddenly the fault of whatever’s making me scared. Fear immediately becomes anger and that mountain trembles, waiting to collapse on someone. Eager to, even.
So, I don’t want to hit Jeki. That decision has already been made. In my head, I’m doing it over and over. Now I’m stopping myself. I won’t hit her, no matter how satisfying it would be. I don’t want to go down that road. Look where it’s got me already. I killed a man. That’s more guilt for the mountain and I’m ostracised from a group that might otherwise have helped me. No, I’ve got to fight this new side of me.
Violence never solves-
Suddenly there’s a shovel where Jeki’s face was.
Jeki reels from the blow, her nose squished and her eyes looking in two different directions (I’m no brain scientist, but that’s probably not good.) She staggers in a circle and drops. She hits the muddy floor, face first.
All the kids gasp. One or two cheer.
I look down.
Holding the shovel, which is twice the size of her, is little Nom.
“There,” she says, grinning. “I’ve hurt one of our own. Now I have to come with you!”