How you make people feel about themselves says a lot about you.
Bullshit. It says you are an insecure kiss-ass who has no life. I hate quotes. It was a stupid quote that landed me here in the first place. I should have never told that Troll to “slake off,” but I was still pissed at Thrall and his kiss-asses for shoving Teddy’s face into that pile of dog shit that I lost it. Too late to do anything about it now; I’m here, again. Aunt Grais is going to be so mad.
“Thanks,” I grunt. The cloth isn’t large enough to sop up the blood. I half-way consider blowing my nose on one of the slakin’ clichés that preach from the mold-streaked walls. I’ve been waiting for hours, it seems. I gotta piss. “Can I use the toilet?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s the second door down the hall, right side.” My body screams as I push up from the chair. Nothing like a good pummeling to remind me of my anatomy. It isn’t that bad except it’s only been a week since my last one, and those bruises are still a sick shade of dried-piss purple. I’m big and strong for a Human girl, but that idiot Thrall, like all Trolls, towers over me by at least a hand’s width. Give him a few more years and he’ll be able to really clobber me no matter how much better at fighting I am.
I hear Aunt Grais before I see her. She sounds like a loud, mean clock ticking down the hall on her stilettos. If I’m lucky she’ll take out her anger on the floor before she sees me. I duck into the lavatory as she ticks by, but I can’t stay here forever.
“Please, Linden, have a seat,” says the new counselor when I finally come back from the toilet. “Your Aunt Grais and I were just talking about what happened today. It seems it’s not the first time you’ve had trouble with the other kids in the Hive.”
I grunt and stare at my hands. So far this asswipe is a master of understatement.
“Can you tell us what happened?” she asks.
“Sounds like you already know.” I huff. I don’t think my attitude is winning points with her, but I know it’s a waste of time to tell my side of the story. No one ever believes me, no one except Teddy. Besides, she’ll be gone in a few weeks. They all leave before too long. Can’t say I blame them. I would leave too, if I could.
“Linden!” growls Aunt Grais. “If you don’t cooperate, we . . .” She shakes her head. Spring-like curls hop around her face.
Aunt Grais always growls and starts sentences she never finishes. It seems to be the story of her life: angry and incomplete. But aren’t I drafting the same story? The thought scares me. Sitting here in this slakin’ office feels too familiar and it’s not over too soon.
“You’re lucky you didn’t get something worse.” Aunt Grais barks the words like one of Hattie Finsdotter’s yappy dogs. She always plays the guilt card on the long walk from the Commune Center to our chamber. Leniency for the big, ugly freak-girl must make them feel good about themselves because it sure doesn’t do a thing for me.
It’s rainy and cold, like usual. Broken streetlamps leave dark gaps on our path. The night smells of wet asphalt and grease. Fading neon lights buzz. Aunt Grais’ face turns green . . . red . . . orange. A noise makes her jump. She squeaks and lands crookedly on her stilettos and has to limp through flashing, colored puddles the rest of the way home.
We live on the 6th floor of a badly-aging housing complex in an area known as Hive #37 in Helssund City. It’s a drug-infested rat hole. I hold my breath as we climb the stairs; they smell of stale piss. Our hall is partially lit by a flickering bulb behind a dusty cover. It makes the peeling wallpaper look diseased—the kind of disease you don’t want to touch for fear of catching it yourself. Somewhere our commune intersects an ocean. If the wind blows just right, you can smell the sea, but unless you are a Troll, those areas are off limits. Stay within your section and don’t ask questions—that’s the way in Valhalla.
Valhalla. Just the thought makes me laugh. Dad used to tell me the old legends—the ones about angels, called Valkyries, delivering dead heroes to Valhalla. These Valkyries would snatch warriors right off the battlefield and bring them to a magical place. Sunny, green fields that bore endless bounty, according to Dad. Rivers flowed with mead—whatever that is—and heroes spent the rest of eternity drinking and sharing stories. There was lots of fighting too. I loved those parts until my mom, Astrid, would shush Dad. He’d just wink and kiss me on the forehead and tuck me in.
Valhalla—the real Valhalla—is nothing like the stories. There are no Valkyries or rivers of mead, just bad, cheap drugs, oppressive poverty, and Trolls. Fields of bounty? Sure, we have bounty if you count the endless mountains of factory waste. Battle stories? We have lots of those too: gang wars, murder, rape. Nothing glorious about those.
Dad said the early Chieftains probably meant well putting the Trolls in charge of keeping the peace. Before they hired the Trolls, Valhalla was in chaos. Dad told me people would hide away for weeks at a time and scavenge for food, any kind of food, to survive. The Trolls brought law and order. They established the Commune Councils under the leadership of the Chieftains to oversee day-to-day matters while the Community Security Patrols—the Trolls—kept the peace. The Trolls protected and managed the Hives. They even took over management of the factories, including all imports and exports. Some thought they went too far, but Dad explained that the people were so beaten down that they were willing to hand over control to anyone, even the Trolls, so long as it meant getting their lives back in order.
And that is exactly what the Trolls did. Their heavy-handed tactics quickly re-established law and order, but it eventually led to what most would agree is too much control over the people. One type of evil was replaced with another. Problem was that people became afraid, and they lacked the courage to do anything about it. Strange how easily a bad situation can become tolerable given time, fear, and complacency. Huh, I wonder what Dad would think of it now?
“OK, tell me about it,” insists Aunt Grais. Her small feet barely hit the floor from her perch on an uneven wooden chair. She always lets me calm down before she asks. I appreciate that.
“Thrall, again.,” I groan and throw myself back, making Aunt Grais grimace at the zipping sound of the lengthening tear. I really shouldn’t flop on the furniture; I’m just too big. “This time he was teasing Teddy,” I explain, picking at the dirty-white filling sticking out of the cushion.
“Yeah, Teddy.” Teddy was born at the wrong time, and for some reason, the Gods didn’t like that. They gave him a kind heart, but a slow mind. Why Thrall uses Teddy for his sick entertainment is beyond me. “I had to help,” I argue, “Teddy’s my best friend.”
“I understand. I really do, Linden, it’s just that . . .”
“Knull won’t help! He’s worse than his kid,” I shout. “And the Commune Security Patrols do anything Knull says. We can’t count on the Trolls to protect us anymore.”
“Knull has helped us, Linden. He convinced the Commune Council to give us this chamber after your parents died. He even helped me get a job,” she says.
“Yeah, and all it costs is being his slakin’ whore!”
The room blurs. Throbbing pain in the shape of my aunt’s hand warms my cheek. There’s something about an unexpected blow that really hurts, but it hurts even worse when it comes from someone you love.
“You have no idea what I’ve been through. I could barely take care of myself and then you . . . Knull helped me. When Braydn and Astrid died and I got you, I needed . . .” She sobs.
The room and everything in it flares red. Anger always does that to me. It’s like a sheer red curtain hanging over my eyes, tainting my vision. Even Aunt Grais’ tears look red--they streak her face like warrior’s paint. I want her to fight. I want her to see that she doesn’t have to submit to Knull. I want her to be so much more than she is. My aunt’s weakness sickens me. I hate myself for thinking that. I love my aunt, but every time Knull touches her, I want to snatch her away and shake her, show her she can do better.
“Linden, I’m sorry! I . . .” she cries. It feels good when she wraps her arms around me. My father used to fold me in his arms when I was hurt. His embrace made my cuts heal faster, or so I thought. I squeeze back to see if she can help heal my wounds, but there are too many and they run too deep.
* * *
I’m nervous standing outside Teddy’s door. No reason, really, other than I know Teddy will cry. It’s like the Gods gave him a second helping of compassion when the rest of us barely got a taste. I know how it will go: he will cry and apologize for my bruises, then I will apologize for making him cry, and we won’t say much about what Thrall and his kiss-asses did. Instead, Thrall will get away sitting pretty, again. Well, sitting may be optimistic. I did give the jerk a rather big kick in the arse. Gods, that felt good!
“Linden!” says Teddy through a teary sob. “I’m so glad you’re all right. I was worried when that Troll officer took you away.” Tears fill his sometimes-blue-sometimes-green, always scared eyes. His full bottom lip quivers and a small flap of dried skin dances about; his lips are chapped, like usual. It makes me feel better. Teddy always makes me feel better. I would be lost without him, and despite all the trouble it gets me, I’d do it all again if it meant protecting my best friend.
“No worries, Tedo. Not much they can do to this.” I smile and wave my arms across my body like it’s on display.
From there it goes pretty much as expected: he cries some more and tries to take the blame for what happened. He’s wrong to do that, and I tell him so. I’m not sure if it helps because he keeps on crying. When it seems as though his stick-thin body couldn’t possibly hold any more tears, he starts again. I know it will end soon enough, so I stick it out, waiting to get on with our lives. That’s what best friends do—Human best friends anyway.
“Linden, I have something to tell you,” Teddy says with a wet sniff. He tries to flatten his sandy-blond hair, but it always sticks up somewhere as if he just woke up. I look at his feet so he doesn’t see my smile, but I blurt out a short laugh when I see that his pants no longer cover his bony ankles. At this rate, he will be taller than me before the end of the year.
I take a guess at what he will say: “I heard. Loki canceled his show. Said Hive #37 was too dangerous. I was really looking forward to it too. I really love his music. Skat!”
I can hear Teddy’s mom around the corner. She doesn’t like me much. Thinks I’m a bad influence. If only she knew the number of times I kept Teddy from being minced by Thrall and his gang. I think it’s easier for her to dislike my swearing. Some people need their hate to be close and obvious.
“No, I mean yes, you’re right about Loki, but that’s not what I wanted to say,” he stammers. He gets confused easily, and, I admit, I lead him to it on purpose sometimes, just for a laugh.
“Well, out with it then, Tedo,” I urge. I never leave my friend hanging for too long. That would be cruel. But Teddy is acting more than his usual upset and confused—he’s scared. Long fingers play with the untucked edge of his baggy shirt, and the hair on the back of my neck starts to tingle. It does that when something bad is about to happen.
“My dad, he got a job in Idavoll Commune. We leave tomorrow,” whispers Teddy as he stares at a stain on the floor through a new flood of tears.
Idavoll is a shit-hole farming commune on the edge of nowhere. And it’s a long way from Hive #37. No one leaves Helssund and its Hives without permission from the Trolls, but everyone wants to. Who wouldn’t want to leave these filth-ridden slums? It seems like Tedo and his family are the lucky ones, but I can’t bring myself to say it.
“Skat!” The fight with Thrall, Aunt Grais’ slap—this hurts worse. It feels like Thor himself bashed his slakin’ hammer into my gut. A million things race through my head but mostly: I’m alone, again. Who will want me, deformed body and all? I sit heavily on the couch next to Tedo. My elbows rest on my knees while my fingers lace through my short, dark hair. The floor between my feet blurs as tears fill my chocolate-brown eyes. The hump on my back sticks up like a second head, and Tedo pats it tenderly. My eyes are glued to a snag in the worn carpet. I can’t help it. I cry right there in front of Teddy, for what I know is the first time and the last.
After Tedo and I fumble through an awkward and painful goodbye, I decide to take the long way home. I’m in no mood to explain my red-rimmed eyes to Aunt Grais. I just want to be alone and think, or best, not think. So far this day, this week, sucks and I fear it isn’t going to get any better.
Amstel street takes me close to the Community Center, but I decide to risk it. Dull, blocky buildings line the trash-littered street. Most of the buildings in Hive #37 house dozens of Human families and a few less-fortunate Trolls. Sad, meager shops with mostly-empty shelves inhabit the lower floors. I imagine the Hives were nice, once, but rust and peeling paint mar large areas of their surfaces, and gang graffiti blemishes what’s left. There were once trees along the sides of Amstel street. I can almost imagine fluttering, green leaves whispering in the breeze. Now, I walk through their dead trunks like walking down the spine of a skeleton, dry ribs curling up on either side. It’s sort of gruesome, but oddly comforting, like being caged off from the rest of the world.
“You’re a long way from home, Pukkel!”
Skat, it’s Thrall. The Troll always calls me Pukkel. Aunt Grais says it is an old word for hump, like the one on my back, like I need reminding. I keep walking.
“Heard your boyfriend dumped ya, and he’s leavin’ the commune, Pukkel. You were such a great couple too—the Dumb and the Puk.”
“Slake off, asshole,” I say with a growl. But I know he won’t. Thrall sticks his slimy, porcine nose into everyone’s business. If trouble is to be had, his stupid-looking, spiky, orange hair isn’t far away. He’s just like his slakin’ Troll father Knull. I’ve had a really bad week thanks to him, and I’d love to bash him right here and now, but he isn’t alone. Thrall is never alone. He doesn’t have the guts to confront me without his gang. I also know that one more fight and Aunt Grais and I will be booted from the Hive, at least that’s what the counselor said. That may not sound so bad, but there are worse places than Hive #37, believe it or not. I walk on.
“You may not want to go home just yet, Puk. My daddy’s gone by to . . . collect the rent, if ya catch my meaning.” He sneers. His kiss-asses laugh like it’s the best joke ever, each one a mirror-image of their pathetic excuse for a leader with blotchy pink skin, upturned snout-like noses, and more bulging muscles than they’ve rightfully earned. And they’re big. Thrall is my age so he’s not finished growing, but, one day, he’ll tower over me by at least two or three hand-widths and I’m tall for a Human.
I stop. My feet are glued to the path. A tipped trash can rocks in the breeze. Its rim grinds rhythmically against the gritty asphalt. A buzzing fly hovers near its rusted handle, adding melody to its dismal song. Time slows, details erupt, and the world turns red. I try to stop myself, I really do, but when things turn red, I have no choice. I see every detail. Thrall and his gang are armed: shovel, hammer, pipe wrench. They are ready to do damage.
All I have is me.
It’s funny how the world slows down when it turns red. Instinct kicks in. Thrall shakes his hammer. He wants me to run. I don’t. He steps closer and takes a long swing. The hammer drags through the air and I easily move away. I bark a short laugh because it looks so absurd. Thrall doesn’t like that much, so he orders his kiss-asses to attack. Again, I laugh. It’s like he thinks he’s Thor the slakin’ God of Thunder. This goes on for a while. They swing, I duck and laugh, so they swing again. Sure, they land a few good hits to add to my bruise collection, but I mostly want it to end so I can go home. I don’t dare fight back. My mom—I always called her Astrid for some long-forgotten reason--warned me against that. That’s when Thrall pulls a crowd stick from his pants.
I once saw a crowd stick paralyze a man with its touch. It was years ago, back when people still believed they had some say against the Trolls. I was with Astrid, feeling safe in her warm, strong grip. A man bigger than Dad burst from the crowd and grabbed the nearest Troll. The Troll turned on him, grazing the man’s leg with his crowd stick. I was shocked when the big man fell to the ground, unmoving. I thought he was dead, but Astrid told me he was only paralyzed. He was lucky; he would recover.
Later, I learned that crowd sticks can be deadly when they are held against you for any length of time. Only the Commune Security Patrols—the Trolls—are allowed to have them. It’s part of their deal with the Chieftains to keep the peace. What a joke that’s been, or is the joke on me? The stakes are suddenly very high.
Thrall trembles with hate. He orders his kiss-asses to stand down. Angry, red blotches cover his pink neck and face. Rancor radiates from him like heat from a furnace, all the way to the tips of his spiky, orange hair. He looks on fire; I wish.
Each time Thrall lunges, I dodge, but he is bound to land a hit soon. Nothing is funny about this no matter how ridiculous it looks. This is life or death. Thrall will never stop with simply paralyzing me. He can’t risk letting anyone know he has a crowd stick, for one, but he’s also a slakin’ coward, and he knows that one day I’ll demolish him if he lets me live. I’ll have to make my move, soon.
Time slows Thrall’s moves, but mine are a blur—seeing red does that too. It’s like I can be in more than one place at a time, or at least that’s how Teddy describes it.
It’s just me and Thrall. His kiss-asses line the edge of a lop-sided circle. Running is out of the question. The second I try, they’ll grab me, making quick work for Thrall and his crowd stick. The idiot continues to lunge. He doesn’t know anything about real fighting, but, with a crowd stick, I imagine you don’t need to. Thrall is tiring, but he has the advantage. He lunges again. This time instead of dodging, as I have been, I grab his arm. He’s taken by surprise. He’s not used to me fighting back, but I underestimate him. At the last second, when I’m about to knock the weapon from his sweaty palm, he flicks his wrist. The crowd stick grazes me. White-hot pain sears my arm, and it falls numb and lifeless to my side. Skat!
“Too fast, ain’t I!” Thrall boasts as his foamy spittle lands on my torn tunic.
His overconfidence is all I need. I kick his slakin’ legs out from under him. The asshole hits the ground hard. Before his kiss-asses can help, I grab the hand that holds the crowd stick and turn it on him. Fear fills his eyes. His well-planned victory crumbles. And, I have a decision to make. A decision that I know will change my life forever.
* * *
When I get home, Aunt Grais is waiting. She’s already heard. News travels fast in Hive #37. Her tear-streaked cheeks glisten in the low light, and she holds me tight as if she never intends to let go. Luckily, she’s alone. The Trolls must figure I wouldn’t dare come here after what I did to Thrall, but I had to come. She’s the only family I have, and I can’t leave without saying goodbye.
I hope you enjoyed this little excerpt from Wings of Affliction. You can read how Linden gets out of this bind and others as she battles corruption and oppression and meets a host of unusual friends in her Norse Mythology-based world. Thanks for reading, Lori