Just as a little heads up, I’ll be working on releasing the next (regular) episode of 108.3 next week, so keep an eye out for that.
Gerome washed the blood off of his hands, both literally and figuratively. He remembered something from a book – one that apparently had used to hold a lot of importance to some people – his grandfather had told him about a long time back. Something about a ruler washing his hands of an innocent man’s blood.
It was completely different, though, Gerome’s situation and the situation explained in that book. He ruler was supposed to be an example of corruption and complacency, but Gerome wasn’t that.
He had never felt a bit of guilt about this all before. Now that Caroline was there, though… He felt an irrational – was it irrational? – fear of her finding him with blood on his hands. She would understand, he was sure she would, but he couldn’t let it happen anyway.
It was a strange feeling, one that he couldn’t name. But he was sure he had felt it before a long time ago. But then it was just an example of an unknowing youth meddling in things that it couldn’t begin to understand, no matter how much it thought it could. He had a strong feeling about it, but he still couldn’t put a name to it.
He heard a bell ring and shook water off his hands, then grabbed a towel and dried them. He walked out the door without looking behind him to see what he left behind. He noticed a splatter of blood on the frosted glass of the door while he was partway through and wiped it off with the towel, then tossed the towel back in the direction of the bucket of water.
He made his way to where people were already eating, looked around for Caroline, found her, and sat down across from her. She looked preoccupied with thought, as she often had since he met her, so he didn’t say anything yet. A quiet voice in his head complained that she often seemed distracted by thought.
What’s that? Another character? Yes, readers, that’s true, despite it being a bit late in this story to start giving another viewpoint. In all likelihood I will not spend too much time with him, but giving his perspective is necessary to impart a full view of what’s going on to you the readers.
Caroline might not know it at this point, but Gerome is easily one of the more brutally violent and vengeful of the members of the Anti-Introspect group. It’s surprising, isn’t it? He being as kind and empathetic person as he is. I suppose that could be considered one of the overarching “themes” of this tale.
Anyway, I think I’ll return to Caroline’s story now. By this time, she’s finished her first meal with the group. She’s full, but still feels empty inside.
After the tables had been cleared and set away and people had returned to talking amongst themselves in their little groups, Caroline was again left alone. She looked around somewhat desperately, searching for one of the three people she had met so far, but couldn’t find any of them.
She made her way to a wall and sat down against it again. A bit later about half of the people had left the room, and the rest were sitting relaxed in little circles and playing games or chatting. Caroline watched them from afar and thought distantly that she wished she was back with the women from her boarding house doing similar things. They all had grown a pretty good camaraderie over the years. She guessed it was probably just borne of having no one else to associate with, and giving each other the small amount of happiness they could.
She was contented to sit against the wall and watch, though. Despite feeling a deeper sense of loneliness that she had in a long time, she didn’t feel drawn to join them. She didn’t want to impose herself, someone who hadn’t even yet officially joined the society.
People gradually dispersed out of the room, until it was just occupied by Caroline and a few dozen others. A feeling like she had when she first entered the building dawned on her again, just seeing how vast the area was. How long had this group existed that they had created such as massive complex, she wondered.
The remaining people eventually made their way out of the room and she was left alone. A little later the main lights were turned off, only leaving a small distant light to faintly illuminate the area. She was suddenly wishing she had joined the people, if only to have a good chance to ask where she could sleep.
Despite her nap earlier, though, she was still beat, and the warm food still in her stomach aided in making her eyelids heavy and fuzzing her thoughts. Her head slumped over to rest over her chest, and she fell asleep.
Some time later, she couldn’t say how long, someone tapped on her shoulder and she jolted awake. It was Elaine. Her hair was tousled and her eyelids were droopy.
“I’m so sorry, Caroline,” she said. “I shouldn’t have left you earlier. Here, I’ll find a place for you to sleep.”
She took Caroline’s arm and pulled her up and walked through the hallway and down the path she had pointed out earlier as where Caroline would be living. She looked around through several rooms, each of which was filled with sleeping people, but couldn’t find any available room.
“Sorry again,” she said. “Here, I’ll bring you to my room. There isn’t much space, but we can share a bunk.”
She brought Caroline to the room she had been sleeping in. The cot-sized bunk she had been using was disordered, no doubt from springing up when she remembered Caroline. She let Caroline get into the far side, then took the side closest to the outer edge.
“I’ll have to get up earlier,” she said, “so you can sleep there so I don’t disturb you. I feel guilty for making you sleep out in that area.”
“It’s no problem, really,” Caroline responded. She laid down and rested her head on the flattened pillow, as did Elaine next to her. They pulled the blanket over themselves, and Caroline fell into a deep, dreamless sleep immediately.
Gerome tossed and turned in his bed. He was drifting somewhere between sleep and consciousness, an uncomfortable mix of the two that mixed in muddied memories. Blood on his hands, and he looked up, and Caroline was there, looking at the blood.
He turned over again and forced himself to wake up. He just needed to get out of that state for a little bit, try to fall asleep again in a little bit. But he was feeling something more than just that, he felt guilt. It wasn’t something he had felt ever since his family was attacked and he joined the Anti-Introspect group, but he recognized it. His killing and interrogating of Introspect workers had always seemed perfectly justified to him, but now he was coming to grips with the fact that they might be something more than that.
He tried to push the feelings away, certainly, but they just came back stronger than ever when he eventually couldn’t push back any longer. For the first time in his life that he could definitely remember, he was experiencing a flood of conflicting feelings. Not just about his work with the group, but also about Caroline. He denied the thought that put a name to that feeling, he wouldn’t allow it. It wasn’t for him, after all. He had chosen this life, that was his path, and he wouldn’t derivate from it.
The next morning when Caroline awoke, the spot beside her where Elaine had slept was empty, as was most of the rest of the bunks in the room. She got up and stretched, then found her way into the main room. People were lined up and exercising, with someone leading them by counting out the rhythm. She stood near the wall beside the doorway she had come through, watching, unsure of what exactly to do.
They finished their exercises and most sat down for a moment to recover, then some of the people set up tables and others brought in food and plates and silverware. Caroline felt like she should help somehow, but didn’t know how. Once they were set up, people took seats in front of the tables and began serving themselves. Once most of them had settled, Caroline found an open spot and sat down and began to eat quietly.
After the meal had been finished, she helped put away the tables, then stood around hoping to see someone she recognized. A while later she saw Tanayoki crossing the room and she rushed up to him.
“Hi, sir, uh, what should I do?” she asked.
He continued walking, but gestured for her to walk with him. “That’s up for you to decide, really. I’d personally advise that you spend a little more time watching and living with us to understand us better, but you can enlist now if you want.”
“But even more than that, sir,” she responded hesitantly, “What should I… do? I feel like I should be helping set things up and clean and all since I’m eating your food and living here, but I don’t really want to impose myself on anyone.”
“No worries about that. People understand. A lot of them have been in very similar situations before themselves. You can help or not, whatever you’re more comfortable with. When and if you want to join us officially, you can talk to…”
He stopped walking and looked across the room, then found who he was looking for.
“That red-haired woman there in the uniform. You see her?”
“Talk with her, and she can walk you through the steps. Sorry for my rush, but I have to attend a meeting to talk about our next information farm raid.”
She nodded and he walked away.
“I guess I’ll just watch,” she said to herself.
And she did. For the rest of the day, she observed the people go about their business, training, learning, talking, exercising, and so forth. They had a tightly regimented schedule, enough that it reminded Caroline of her life at the farm.
She shared meals with them, and helped clear things up. Later in the night, there was a short meeting about the following day, when apparently another raiding group would be arriving back at the base, then most people dispersed. Some of the remainder began cleaning the floor, and Caroline, hesitantly, asked them if she could help.
“Sure thing,” the man said, and handed her a broom and dustpan. She began cleaning around the edges of the room, and some of the tension that she hadn’t fully realized she was holding relaxed. She felt like she could fit into this society. Maybe it was just culture shock, she thought.
Along one wall there was what looked like a scrap of deep red paper on the floor. It didn’t sweep into her dustpan, though, so she bent down to look at it. It was a dried patch of blood. The tension leapt back into her shoulders with a vengeance.