Geoffrey’s fist slammed into the younger boy’s stomach, doubling him over. The argument had started over the boy’s reluctance to leave the cave for his turn at water collection.
They had found a stream approximately a quarter-mile away, and Geoffrey had set up a lottery system to decide who would be the unlucky person to venture out each time their thirst grew too severe.
The nine-year-old girl who had gone the day before last said that she had seen another one of the slinking dragon lizards scurrying through the ferns. When she had returned with only half the bags, Geoffrey had personally beaten her, and When Iris had protested, the crazed, wild look in his eyes backed her down immediately. Something was happening that she didn’t understand, but that scared her.
Life in the cave had taken on a dark and depressing caste that wasn’t entirely due to the lack of food and water. Geoffrey and his goons had gotten worse, becoming more and more totalitarian in their rule. Some of the younger teen boys, and even a few girls had recognized Geoffrey’s undisputed power over the rest and attempted to insert themselves into his group. Better to be a court jester to a hated king than one of the peasants, was the rational.
The only good thing about the situation was that Peter was getting better each day. It was remarkable to Iris that she had done this. She had saved her brother’s life, and yet the sight of him sitting against the cave wall tore at her heart.
Peter had pretended that his stump didn’t upset him. He smiled and reassured her that he was just happy to be alive, but there were times, when he didn’t know that she was watching, that he would look at his stump with such longing that she couldn’t keep the tears from rolling down her cheeks.
Iris’ stomach rumbled, reminding her that what little food she had had each day had been reduced even further by her own decision to give Peter a larger portion of her allotment. Geoffrey had ruled that all of the food should be confiscated and divvied out equally. It was a decision that was difficult to argue against since many of the children had been eating as if there were no tomorrow, and if someone hadn’t done something to slow their consumption, there wouldn’t have been for them. Still, something more needed to be done.
Their almighty king had done nothing to acquire a new source of food, and Iris could only imagine how low their communal stores were getting. It would only be a matter of time before Geoffrey cut all of the ‘peasants’ off and let them starve. The boy had no heart that she could identify.
He laughed at the boy he’d punched as he cried on the dusty ground.
“Cry baby.” He yelled. His stupid goons echoed his laughter, but Iris noticed a few in his growing retinue were forcing the emotion. They looked uncomfortable and perhaps a little ashamed beneath the surface. At least she hoped that’s what she saw there. Iris had a hard time believing that people would devolve so quickly, but then her stomach rumbled again and her anger kindled. She could feel herself reverting to a primal version of herself as Geoffrey kicked dust at the boy.
“I’ll go,” she yelled.
Geoffrey’s patience had begun to fade and she could see his frustration edging out his merriment at the boy’s weakness. His deranged eyes glared an accusation at her. How dare she interrupt him during his…whatever this was.
“I’ll go,” she repeated. “If you let me take Peter.”
Geoffrey was confused now. At least that was a better emotion than crazy.
“I need to wash his leg, and I could do a better job in a stream,” She reasoned. She hoped that her excuse was a good enough one.
“You expect me to believe that you could carry him and water?” Geoffrey said, but his voice wasn’t as harsh as she had grown accustomed to hearing from him. “I’ll come with you,” he said.
Now it was her turn to be confused. She wasn’t the only one. Most of those in his group had quickly schooled expressions of shock on their faces, but Tyrone was the only one that said anything.
“Hey, man. I don’t think…” Geoffrey cut him off. “You’re not supposed to think, Tyrone,” he snapped. Tyrone wilted. Geoffrey turned back to Iris and winked. She almost shuddered at how gross it made her feel, but she couldn’t reject his help.
“Alright,” she said, after a hesitation. Did he know that she had no intention of getting water? Was he planning on dumping them in the forest like he had done to Osiris and Cato? She knew that he resented her for her relationship with those that were left outside his court of fools, but would that translate to violence? She didn’t doubt that it could. With him, anything was possible.
She nodded and went back to Peter, but as she bent to try to maneuver him up, Geoffrey came over and simply picked up her brother in both arms. Peter’s leg bumped, and jostled as he was lifted, but Geoffrey didn’t seem to notice or care about the sudden cries of pain he elicited.
“Careful,” she said, anger edging her voice. But Geoffrey shrugged off the scolding tone and smiled at her instead. She groaned inwardly and shouldered her pack and the other filled with empty water bags. “Let’s go,” she said. She hoped that her anger at him concealed the fear that threatened to bubble out of her.
They walked from the cave, Iris in the lead. She didn’t want to have her back to the big boy, but when she’d stopped at the mouth and motioned Geoffrey to precede her, he pointed with his chin for her to go ahead. She walked nervously now, head down, listening to her brother’s low whimpers.
“I don’t really need it washed, do I?” Peter half-sobbed. Her heart went out to him, but she had more imminent concerns than his feelings.
“Peter, you know we need to wash it. Do you want it to go bad again?” His crying intensified at the thought of it ‘going bad’.
“You are a strong woman.” Iris stopped in her tracks. Taken aback by Geoffrey’s non sequitur. She turned and glanced at him over her shoulder. His eyes were on her, but they didn’t rise to her eyes. She felt violated by his stare.
“Uh. Thanks,” she turned away again and started off, suddenly wanting to run, but unwilling to leave her brother.
“I mean it. You and I…We could…uh, you know, be something special.”
Geoffrey had truly lost any grasp he’d had on reality if he thought that she’d be interested in him. A scoff escaped her lips before she could stop it.
“I’m serious, Iris,” Geoffrey’s voice rose. It started to have that tale tale manic quality that he had lost when he’d offered to help her. “Don’t you want to be…be, you know…special?” he asked.
“I am special,” she countered.
“Well, yeah. I mean, that’s why I want you. I mean, you know. That’s why we’d be a good fit.” if his words weren’t so narcissistic, maybe his attempt to win her over would have been sweet, but as it was, it felt disgusting. She cringed as she continued to walk, but was too afraid to even attempt a lie. “Iris,” He yelled. She continued to walk, unsure what else to do.
She heard Peter cry out as his body fell to the ground. Geoffrey’s hand was around her bicep in an instant.
“I will not be ignored!” he yelled into her face, spittle flecked out with each word. “You think you’re better than me?” He shook her to emphasize his crazy. Geoffrey suddenlylet go of her arm and spun, letting out a scream of pain of his own.
Peter, brave little Peter, had crawled over and sunk his teeth into the big boy’s calf muscle. Geoffrey’s anger was intense and he backhanded Peter across the face. Peter’s head jerked with the blow, pulling a piece of Geoffrey’s flesh with him. The noises coming from Geoffrey were primal and terrifying in their simpleness.
Iris had not stood still, however. As soon as Geoffrey had let her arm free she had reached over her left shoulder with her right hand to the folded metal handle jutting from the top of her pack. She pulled the long shard of metal that she had used to sever Peter’s leg and ran the two steps to Geoffrey. She was now more glad than ever that the boy she’d borrowed it from didn’t want it back after learning what it had been used for.
When Geoffrey hunched over her brother’s stunned body, ready to rain deadly blows down on the six-year-old, Iris reached around his neck and pressed the sharp blade against his throat. He stiffened at the feel of the cold metal, though his body still trembled with rage and little grunts and moans escaped his closed mouth.
“Leave him alone, or I’ll open you up. Gut you like a fish,” the words were phrases that her subconscious selected from an array of her favorite movies, but they didn’t seem cliche, or forced. Geoffrey seemed to believe them at least, even though she doubted that she could have done the act. Heaven knew that life for the rest of the kids would be better without the giant boy imposing his deranged sense of leadership on them, but she couldn’t bring herself to be the one to remove him.
Geoffrey, however, must have believed that everyone was as crazy as he was since he didn’t question her resolve. He slowly pulled away from Peter.
She shifted the point of the blade to the tender spot in his lower back and pricked him with it. He let out a startled breath and cursed.
“Okay, okay. Geesh,” he said.
“Go over to that tree.” She said, and prodded him forward. He walked over and she rustled in her bag for something to tie him up with. She found the tourniquet that she’d used on Peter. She told him to hug the tree, and keeping the blade against the exposed skin of his arm fastened the band around his wrists. It was designed to be able to tighten it one-handed and he let out a groan of pain as she cinched it tight.
She wasn’t ready to slice his throat, but leaving him tied to a tree in this forest was just within her accepted morality tolerance.
“Here,” she said. Tossing the pack filled with empty water bags at his feet. “I don’t want the others to suffer because of your stupidity. When they find you, they’ll find the water bags.” She turned to leave, but then remembered something else. She turned back and placed the blade against his stomach, making him flinch. “Oh, I almost forgot. I’ll be checking in from time to time. If you don’t take better care of everyone, I’ll be back, and you won’t be given a second chance.”
Geoffrey scoffed at her bravado, and Iris smacked him hard in the face with the flat of her sword. She smiled at the way it vibrated in her hand, how he cursed, and how a line of blood ran from a cut above his eye.
“Are you crazy? Okay, okay. Geesh,” he whined. Her crazy? Maybe.
She went to Peter and helped him sit up. He was dazed, but she offered him some of her precious water and his eyes seemed to clear.
“You’re alright little man.” She smiled and kissed his bruised face tenderly.
She wished she could have carried him like Geoffrey had, but the best she could manage was what she’d seen on vids that they called a ‘fireman carry’. At the time she’d just watched the vids because firemen were…worth watching, but she was glad she’d gone through that phase now.
They set off at her best pace, Peter gripping the shoulder straps of her pack with all his strength to help as much as he could. They hadn’t gone far when Geoffrey’s mewlings reached them. He was calling for his cronies, but she suspected that something else would hear him far sooner, and she quickened her pace to be clear of the area.