World of Radiation

Pack Mentality

Continued from ‘Trauma

I’m not sure whether it’s the command she holds over the other girls or the sincerity in her voice that calms me, but I manage a nod. I agree to get some air with her.

The girl with the amber eyes moves towards me. Her hands stretch towards me. She moves to grab me, to help me, but I recoil.

I jerk back, slamming my injured spine into the wall.

“Don’t touch her,” the girl in charge commands.

Hurt flashes over the amber-eyed girl’s face, but she nods, recalling her hands to her sides. She steps back, giving me space.

With the wall at my back, bracing my weight, I hoist myself to my feet. Yet, my legs shake not from mere exhaustion. Rather, from the weight of the eyes watching me, judging me.

The girl rises with me, keeping her eyes on me all the while, like I might fall, like I might collapse.

I duck my head. If only me not seeing them kept them from seeing me, but it doesn’t. I still feel their gazes on me.

“The exit is this way,” the girl offers, motioning across the room, through the watching crowd.

I glance towards the door, but find nothing. Nothing can be seen with the mass of bodies blocking the way and it’s in that moment that I catch their eyes. I meet their gazes. Once more, I duck my head, anxiety building in me. It wrings my hands together.

“Disperse!” The girl’s voice rings out, echoing off the walls, and is followed by the shuffling of feet. “Alright. You’re safe now. Let’s get you some air,” she offers again.

Another look around shows a full room, but with no one looking at me. The other girls have wandered away. They huddle in groups or move to go back to sleep, but none of them watch me. None except for the amber-eyed girl. She wears concern in those light eyes of hers, like she’s afraid to let me out of her sight.

I shake off her gaze and hasten my step for the door. I focus on nothing but that escape, nothing but the freedom to leave these girls behind and never see them again, never face their judgement.

Footsteps ring out behind me, strong and steady, and certain. They mask all the whispers. They offer the security that someone is watching my back and with that I bust through the door out into the early morning light of dawn.

Yet, the doorway doesn’t offer freedom. Rather, just another form of prison.

The door closes behind me with a clang.

I swing around.

The girl with the commanding voice stands before me, her brown waves pulled back in a pony tail. The morning sun highlights her narrow face and glints off her blue eyes. “I’m Mal,” she offers without extending a hand or stepping towards me. She doesn’t even crack a smile, like this is business.

“I thought you said I could get some air,” I counter, nervous anxiety building once more at the feeling of being trapped.

“This is air.” She waves her hand in the space beside her. “It’s a little higher off the ground, yes, but it’s still air.”

I take a step back.

“Oh.” She blinks at me a moment. “You thought I meant ‘freedom’.”

The tiniest of nods is my response.

“Well, you can have that, too, if you like.” She advances towards me.

I jolt sideways, but she doesn’t change her course. Instead, she moves to the edge of the roof, looking down on the still dark streets below.

“The city is a dangerous place now,” she comments, more to herself than to me it would seem. “Many of the girls you saw inside have been preyed upon or almost preyed upon, like they were meat to be used as people see fit.” Her chin dips to her chest. “And I don’t mean just by men. All humans, any gender, any race, any religion, are animals.”

Mal faces me, her blue eyes piercing into me. “We’re all animals.”

“Not all of us,” I counter, insulted by her insinuation.

Her eyes close a moment and when they open again, they focus on the ground. “Not yet.” She sighs and returns her attention to the vacant, quiet city. “Look.” Her tone becomes serious. “We won’t keep you here. We won’t force you to stay, but I can guarantee you’ll be safe if you stay.”

“How can you guarantee that?”

Mal pulls her shoulders back and lifts her head. “Because we watch out for each other. We have to. If we don’t, no one else will and this isn’t the world that people can live alone in. Girl, boy, man, woman. No one. There’s security in a pack and a big pack is stronger than a small pack.”

“You’re offering me a spot in your… pack?” The word sounds stupid. We may be in the middle of an apocalypse or something, but we’re not animals. We’re not wolves.

Once more she faces me and nods. “I am.”

My eyes narrow on her, still unable to read her. She guards her expression better than anyone I know. “But you don’t even know me. What if I’m one of those animals you speak of?”

An amused smile cracks her stoic demeanor, like I’m a child who’s said something funny. “You’re not an animal, hun. That is plain enough.” Her eyes travel down my body.

Feeling invaded, I cross my arms over my torso. “I could be,” I grumble.

She cocks a dark eyebrow at me. “You want to be an animal? A savage? A creature who preys on the weak, uses them, and leaves them for dead when you’ve had your fill?”

My stomach churns at the image. My throat constricts at the memory of how that was almost me and my head drops.

“I didn’t think so.” Mal decreases the space between us, but still leaving a gap. “You don’t have to decide now, hun. At the very least, you need time to recover from your…” Her eyes glance over my face. “Ordeal.” Her lips pull into a tight line, but her eyes soften. “Stay a couple days, just until you’re stronger and then decide if you want to stay or go.”

Next Installment: Warring Packs

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