This is part of a series. There are two other stories before this one:
I recommend starting with Glass Dolls, but you do you.
They slid something hard into my mouth. Locked eyes with me.
"Are you sure?"
I gave one brief nod.
My jogging bottoms discarded, and the skin on my legs pimpling in the chill, I'd never felt more vulnerable.
More afraid, yes. Trying to do this myself was scarier. I'd never done it before. I could barely see what I was doing. What if I messed up? How much blood will there be? But now, I surrendered myself to (probably) capable hands. It was easier. But the vulnerability... was that worse?
Tess paused, blade hovering, and asked me one more time.
I nodded, jaw clenched, almost furious. Desperate for her to do it before my courage failed.
I gasped when she cut me. Strong fingers bit hard into my arms and my left leg.
Tess paused for a tiny moment. "Stay very still."
I did not need the warning.
I bit down hard, screaming around the hard pad between my teeth. If not for that, I might have begged her to stop, the words bubbling out of me before I could keep them back. My vision blurred and went red, then black. I think my eyes must have rolled in their sockets. I could feel the splash of my own blood.
This is it. I'm going, I can feel it.
From very far away, I could hear a voice saying, "Pressure, put pressure on it-"
I didn't die, of course.
They'd found me sitting in that old barn, watching the rain, the juice of an apple trickling down my chin. It was Caro's beefy frame that blocked the sunlight, and Nadine's knife I felt against my throat. A machete, more than a knife - a generous slab of metal with a mean edge. I don't know how long they'd been following me, or how long Nadine had been hidden in the gloom behind me, watching me.
I did what anyone would do. I couldn't fight and I couldn't flee, so I froze. I swear, my only movement was the skin of my throat trying to recoil away from the sharp edge.
They'd demanded to know who I was and what I was doing. I told them, "I think I am looking for you," Nadine only pressed harder and hissed in my ear.
"Where? Where it is? You cut it out? Show!"
I didn't trust my voice, but I couldn't shake my head. I managed a squeak.
"What was that?" Caro advanced towards me, seeming to grow even larger. I tried again.
"Not yet," I said, a little more clearly. "I tried, but I couldn't do it." I met her gaze, as hostile as it was, and found she didn't frighten me. "I hoped you might help me." I wasn't afraid, but I could feel myself shrinking. I wanted her approval, and I wasn't getting it.
Caro pulled out a device and spoke into it. "Tess? Tess, we've got a live one."
"A live one" was an interesting phrase, because a "live one" I nearly was not.
Caro was referring to the fact I still carried my implant. Apparently, I wasn't the first to go looking for them without first freeing myself of it, and there was a protocol to follow.
The pair "kept" me in the barn until Tess and the others arrived. Nadine stayed on high alert, prowling up and down with her naked weapon, her large, black eyes alert to everything and flicking back to me often. She needn't have worried. I had no intention of going anywhere. Why would I? These were exactly the people I'd been looking for. The Jackals are real!
Caro sat beside me, elbows on her knees and her arms careless and muscled. She swiped my dropped apple and bit into it. I said nothing. Just like back h- back there, I needed the nutrients less than they did. Back of the line.
When Tess arrived with the others, there was a brief argument, first about whether or not to help me. Tess offered to examine me - to try to get an idea of where the implant had moved, and how deep it might be. I accepted. Her fingers were cool, dry and strong. Once Tess was done, Caro threw my joggers at my head and moved with the others to the far end of the barn. I fumbled back into my clothes, feeling small.
I couldn't hear all of their conversation, but I got the gist of it. They can't let me near the compound until it's out. We must be trimmed to fit, like Peter Pan's Lost boys.
They can't have all the implants going dark in the same location, either. Should they take me somewhere else with more resources, or get the thing done now?
"We are willing to help you," Tess said, striding back to me with her lips pressed together. "But it has to here. Now. We can't let you get any closer to the compound otherwise. We can't take the risk."
"Okay," my mouth was dry, and I was aware of my own cowardice. "Will there be any pain relief?"
Tess shook her head.
"Some of us did it ourselves," Caro bristled, shooting a look at me. Her pride had been like a physical force, a challenging shove to my chest. In my mind's eye I could see the mangled mess she had surely made of her own leg. Like a jackal. Her face had lit up when I'd mentioned that. "Really? Jackals? That's what they're calling us now?" She turned her grin on Nadine and punched her arm happily.
"Some of us," I said, trying to maintain a cool demeanor. I didn't want her to see how pathetically happy I was that I'd pleased her.
I couldn't shake it, the image of her splattered across my mind-canvas. Her leg sheeted with blood, like a slinky red boot. Her face pale and beading sweat. Eyes glazed. So much blood.
Tess was firm. "There's a thin line between brave and stupid," she said. "Trying to cut it out herself when it had moved so deep... she could've bled out."
That's still on the cards.
Of course, if I were back.... there... anaesthetic would be administered by a proper doctor, in a real clinic. My promised and I joining hands, and smiling into each others eyes, vowing each other our old age and death. Oh, love.
Did I ever want that? Really?
Tess was efficient, with an aura of capability. Decision to incision was very little time at all. Was she a nurse, then? Before?
Two of the other women were posted as lookouts.
"Your job is to be still," Tess said, opening her kit. "Mine is to be quick."
She didn't waste words warning me that it would hurt. She didn't lie and say it wouldn't. I admired her for that.
To distract myself from what was about to happen, I watched her. Not what she was doing - that would have been no distraction at all - but her. The deft way her weathered hands moved gave me confidence. Her eyes looked sharp. I appreciated that. She was shorter than the others, but seemed to command more authority. A unique status. Softer around the edges, but hard underneath. I was spellbound by her greying frizz, gently bouncing. No one back there would have let their hair get like that. Except Mother. I thought of the last time I'd seen her in her kitchen.
Tess brought me back to the present with a brisk reminder she couldn't do this if I kept my bottoms on. I peeled them off - again - with some difficulty, keeping Danny's trainers on. In case we need to run. I tried not to imagine what that might be like with a deep wound in my leg.
Caro helped hold me down. "Nothing to it, kid," she said, and spat over her shoulder. Tess frowned at the gesture, and, bizarrely, I wondered which of us was older in years.
Kid? I could have lived twice as long as you, I thought,
"Are you sure?" Tess said.
+++++ +++++ +++++
I woke in a considerable amount of pain, lying on a pallet in the dust. I was fully dressed, I was alone and I was hungry. I couldn't remember being this hungry in my life. I must have, as a child, but that was so, so long ago.
They'd left me some tablets (painkillers, I think), a clean dressing and (my heart smiled for a beat) two fresh apples.
But more importantly, they'd left me.
I got to my feet, testing my weight on my right leg. Ow.
The rain had stopped. I wanted to sit out in the late Autumn sunshine, but I needed to stay hidden. I munched on an apple while I considered my options.
Just as the sun tickled the horizon, threatening to sink out of sight, Nadine appeared. Once again she materialised out of nowhere behind me on cat-like feet with her knife in her hand. At least this time she didn't press it to my throat. I couldn't miss the shift of her grip on the handle, though, and the way the fading sunlight flashed off the metal. Her eyes bit into me as keenly and meanly as the knife ever could. There was something about her, something I couldn't put my finger on.
Nadine held out a covered syringe. Where did she get that from?
"For pain." She poked me meaningfully in my upper arm. "You can do? Or I?"
Once again, that urge to impress surged in me. I'd never once injected anything into anything in my life. But I wanted to looked competent. I wanted to be competent. I knew they saw me as barely more than a child with my smooth features. I had already failed to cut out the implant myself. My failure had put a burden on them. It galled me to think of submitting myself to another's care for something so simple. I took it from her, and tried to look as if I did this sort of thing all the time. My brain raced, riffling through memories - every TV show set in a hospital I'd ever seen, every vaccine I'd ever had.
At h0- back there - I'd felt old and hollow. Under their eyes, I felt stumbling and immature. Thin, like rationed butter on cheap bread. Insubstantial.
Do they pinch the skin or what?
Nadine, seeing me falter, took the needle with her caramel-soft fingers and administered the painkiller. My face burned. I can't keep failing in front of these women.
Her voice was almost imperceptibly softer.
"Is no shame."
There was a weighty pause, the word shame clanging in it, and giving me nowhere to hide.
"Perfection is for city dolls. You," she tapped my thigh gently, "You Jackal now." She smiled - the first time I had seen her do that - and I realised what was different about her. Her lips were a shiny, luxurious red. Her eyelashes too long and thick, her eyes skillfully powdered. I hadn't seen it, because make-up was the paint on the background canvas of my life... But none of the others wore it. I wasn't wearing it.
She miracled two protein bars out of one of her many pockets, and my shame and gratitude were swallowed by my all-encompassing hunger.
"Eat. Quick. We go."
I did not need telling twice. I crammed the first bar in, barely making two bites of it, and washing it down with gulps of water. I could have been disappointed that this was fare I'd eaten back in the city. I could have resented the reminder of that grey place where nothing and nobody grew. But all I felt was that I could have eaten twenty of them and they'd have barely touched the sides. I forced myself to eat the second one a bit more slowly, hoping I'd feel more satisfied from it. My stomach still yawned.
I tested my weight on my leg, surprised that already the pain had reduced to a dull ache. That medicine must have been a valuable resource, and they wasted it on me.
"Yes," I answered. "I can walk."
Nadine raised her eyebrows at me. "Can run?"
I swallowed, considering that for a moment. Whether I really could, and - if I had to - what that would mean.
"Y-yes. Yes I can run."
"Good. If we run, we run. I not wait. Leave you."
Fear trembled her wings in my belly. I steeled myself and said again, "I can run."
We made an unlikely pair in the deepening twilight; a glossy, muscled panther babysitting a squishy pink prawn - one who has been freshly shelled and is sporting a game leg. I did my best to keep up.
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