When the unlucky girl opened her eyes next, she found Brown staring at her. When her loyal hound saw that she was awake, its tail puttered away in excitement, it reached out and gave her a sloppy lick kiss. The unlucky girl cried foul, ringing her hands in disgust, but she was laughing. She couldn't remember when she'd been happier.
They were lying on the dirty matted floor of the Filth Room, metal groans of cylinders and turbines and propellers wailing away above and below and all around them. Jennifer tried to remember what had happened but stopped when the image of a screeching rat pressed to her face appeared so freshly that she could still feel its desperate little pulse pounding away on her cheek. She leaned against the cold metal pillar, unsure again of how to proceed in this strange world...
And then, the Bucket Knight spoke: "... If memory serves me correctly, when you awoke, the fun had ended and the day was done. However, you're still just a beggar. The letter you received... That's your only clue."
The unlucky girl checked her pockets but found no such item. But she didn't think the Bucket Knight had been wrong. Yes, a letter. That's what had happened next...
It was lying on the floor of the Filth Room, near the door. Scrawled in terribly messy handwriting on a floral print paper, it read: "I'm so sorry, Jennifer. Meet me where you can see the sky. Your friend, Amanda."
Amanda my friend.
Amanda the considerate.
Amanda the sycophant.
Jennifer blinked. Now where had that thought come from? The small-hearted Princess didn't seem like a truly bad person. Sure, she always seemed tense and uneasy and maybe a little too eager to gain the approval of others, but the unlucky girl didn't think she was a bad person at her core. There was a difference between a bad act and a bad person. No one was perfect always, sometimes a person acted against their better nature because of small pettiness or grievances, but that didn't signify that they were totally rotten and ugly inside. To err was to be human... Didn't Amanda's letter say that they were friends?
But she was laughing away when she pressed that rat to my face. She wanted to do it. She wanted to be loved more than she cared about me. How much farther would she have gone, if Diana had embraced her and chanted her name and given her a knife and told her that the Rule of the Rose demanded it?
Jennifer remembered the bloody instruments from the mansion attic and shivered.
Outside of the Filth Room, Jennifer realized that she wasn't exactly sure "where you can see the sky" from the letter even was. Maybe one of the airship's windowed areas that looked out into the swirling sky? Like the First Class Guest Sector, or maybe the Cafeteria...
As the unlucky girl walked along the Sector 8 passage, unsure, Brown trailed behind, digging his wet nose into the floral letter in her hand. When it caught the scent, it barked to gather the girl's attention before heading off, into the darkness ahead, with Jennifer following upon its heels.
In the Sector 8 Cargo Bay, amid the stacked crates and boxes, Xavier the gluttonous Prince, and Nicholas the sloppy Prince were playing—attacking each other with brooms, mimicking a sword duel. They ignored the unlucky girl when she walked past, refusing to look in her direction. Secretly, Jennifer was relived. The brooms in their hands brought terribly fresh memories to bear; it was impossible not to think about the nasty imps swarming around her, swinging their brooms at her viciously, clubbing at her while she tried desperately to escape.
Brown walked to a door and began pawing at it frantically. The unlucky girl was surprised; this door led to an area of the airship that they had yet to explore. She pulled open the sliding door and walked into Sector 3 Maintenance, a small little passage that connected the Sector 8 and 7 cargo bays. It also had a rising metal stairway that cut off into a ladder that descended into a quaking and sputtering engine room below that powered a throttling propeller. Jennifer didn't bother exploring more of this area, instead opting to follow Brown's lead, into the Sector 7 Cargo Bay.
Inside was an area much larger than the Sector 8 Cargo Bay. Boxes and crates were stacked and stored away, a large section in the center cleared away. A corner of the room was penned away behind fencing. Behind this fence, Thomas, the mischievous Prince, rocked back and forth in a jittery manner, taunting the unlucky girl, threatening to tell Mr. Hoffman on her. Olivia, the tearful Princess was standing near the center of the room, gazing at a chalkboard. It seemed to be an arithmetic lesson on addition and subtraction. There were a series of example problems scrawled out, all of them solved correctly, except for one. Had someone been giving a lecture?
When Jennifer turned to Olivia, to ask her, the tearful Princess ducked into her usual crouched position and said: "Mr. Hoffman is really scary when he's mad..." Then she started to weep hysterically. The unlucky girl listened to the pathetic sound for a while. She thought that, in that watery, baleful sound, she could hear Olivia crying out for her "daddy."
No one talked about their family at the orphanage. Most everyone lied and said they couldn't remember. That's what the unlucky girl had done. But sometimes she could see it in the hurt of their eyes. Olivia, Thomas, Eleanor especially. And maybe everyone else. They remembered what they had lost. They always would.
Brown barked. The unlucky girl turned away from the sobbing Princess and saw that Brown was directing her away, toward another door. But she felt bad about leaving Olivia crying alone. But it couldn't be helped—Olivia wouldn't stop her bawling until she had the attention she desperately wanted. And no one could give her that. Not anymore.
Sector 6 Maintenance was enormous; a huge expanse of space, larger than anything Jennifer had seen yet on the airship. But all of it constituted narrow passageways, leading off into unexplored darkness. Metal scaffolding support structures loomed out, supporting the passageways, the frame of the airship, and an elevator—
There was someone in the elevator. It was Amanda, the small-hearted Princess. She turned away and before Jennifer had time to call out to her, the metal elevator box was rising, pulling away from the unlucky girl.
When the elevator returned Amanda was no longer inside. Jennifer pushed the sliding door and stepped inside. The controls were simple, three buttons indicating a level: upper, middle, and lower. With more than a few misgivings, Jennifer pressed the button for the upper level. The elevator bucked, shaking harshly and alarming her wildly before taking off, rising quickly, toward the unknown. Darkness surrounded everything. Every once in a while, a metal support pillar loomed out, a hanging rope swayed, Brown whimpered, terribly afraid of heights—and the floor of the lift a frightening grating that was all too easy to look through. She reached out a shaking hand and scratched the poor dog under his chin, again thankful for his loyalty.
The ascent stuttered to a crawl before eventually coming to rest outside of a supported passage. A hanging ladder led upward, to a slit in the ceiling, beyond the airship structure. A red fire extinguisher was stocked here, just in case...
The unlucky girl stroked the dog's ears and told him to stay. Brown licked her hand reciprocally—he wouldn't be able to follow her up the ladder regardless, but she knew the pain of being forgotten and ignored. It was the third fear behind being alone and being ensnared. But Amanda had come this way and so she was sure that this was the place to which she had been called.
She climbed slowly, carefully, each rung step measured with care for what felt like an eternity. By the end, her fingers and elbows and knees burned with the effort of pulling herself upward, and the balls of her feet throbbed. But eventually the unlucky girl reached the ladder's end and found the slit in the ceiling—an awkward rectangle in the leather fabric tarp of the airship's balloon exterior.
Jennifer crawled out into frigid winds whipping around her, threatening to send her reeling if she wasn't careful. All it would take was one misstep and she would trip and if she didn't catch herself, she would roll. And then it would be too late, and she would fly. But not for long and it wouldn't be a very comfortable landing.
It was a dark, starless night. Jennifer turned away from the wind, to the far end of the airship's tail, and looking closely saw that someone was moving against a faint light. A lantern was placed here, drawing her attention. As she approached, carefully shifting her weight on aching, sore feet and legs, she heard the unmistakable sound of sobbing, muffled by the howling wind, but becoming clearer the closer she got.
Soon, the unlucky girl could make out words amidst the trailing sounds of wailing and gale: "I'm sorry, Jennifer. I'm sorry... I didn't want to do that. I was just so scared."
It was Amanda, the small-hearted Princess. She finally turned around from her sitting position next to the lantern, next to the airship's tattered tail end rudder. She kept her head bowed as she moved toward the unlucky girl and she actually tripped wildly, sending her sprawling on all fours. But this did not deter Amanda's efforts. Squealing and in tears, she crawled to Jennifer, moaning out her name wretchedly: "Jenniferrrrr! Jenniferrrrr!"
The small-hearted Princess latched onto the unlucky girl's leg, pleading: "I did what I had to, didn't I?" She rose, grasping Jennifer's shins, her bare legs, the back of her knees, plump fingers trailing upwards... "I had no choice. They would have hurt us both, wouldn't they?" Hands pressed to the back of Jennifer's thighs, her back, all the while looking down into Amanda's fat bawling face, cheeks smeared red with tears, puckered nostrils flaring—
Jennifer fell backwards, against the slope of the airship, but she didn't roll away in the dangerous gusts because Amanda crawled on top of her, heavy weight holding her down, one hand on her knee, one on her belly. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..." The small-hearted Princess took hold of the unlucky girl's hand, lifting it toward her face. "When it's my turn, don't think you have to hold back! Do it like this!" Amanda pressed Jennifer's hand into her cheek, spreading the fat, smearing her skin with tears and mucus. "And this! Oh! And this! And like this!" Swinging her head back, clutching the unlucky girl's wrist in her unyielding grip—Jennifer wanted to cry out her own terror and pain, but Amanda's sobs kept her quiet. All the while Amanda's breath became ragged and hitched, a sputtered, burning pitch at her feinted penance—her bizarre need to be punished.
To be hurt.
Finally the small-hearted Princess let go, letting the unlucky girl's numb hand fall away. Amanda clasped her hands together and smiled at Jennifer: "We're still friends, aren't we?"
All the unlucky girl could see then was the booger running down from her left nostril. The streaked tears from her red smeared eyes.
"I know we're still friends, Jennifer! I trust you!" Amanda said and then crawled up, climbing over Jennifer—her leg caught Jennifer's skirt, hitching it up. The unlucky girl closed her eyes, unsure and frightened of what might follow. Amanda pinned her arms down, her weight pressed over Jennifer's chest, their faces aligned against each other; Amanda's huffed breath buffeting Jennifer's lips, Jennifer's nose, and the taste and the smell were disgusting. So the unlucky girl turned her face away from Amanda, face contorted in a grimace of distaste. And then—
And then nothing.
Jennifer waited a moment, confused. But when she couldn't feel Amanda's body on top of her, the unlucky girl opened her eyes and realized that the small-hearted Princess had departed from her and was standing further off behind her now, higher of the slope.
The unlucky girl turned to look at her. The small-hearted Princess glared down at her, huffing each breath. There were new tears in those eyes. Then she turned away, body hunched in her usual manner, and stuttered off, toward the flap in the airship.
And all around, the chilling wind screeched by.
Jennifer didn't see it but from the ladder's end someone had been watching the meeting that had occurred here. Observing the exchange between the unlucky girl and the small-hearted Princess under the starless sky—a certain strong-willed Princess with narrowed eyes full of malice and hate and plans. When Amanda waddled her way, she snuck away back into the darkness of the airship, smiling.
Back inside of the airship, Jennifer and Brown entered the lift and pressed the switch that denoted the lower deck. The ride back down was unremarkable if not a bit uneasy. Jennifer's mind was racing from her meeting with the small-hearted Princess while Brown whimpered and refused to look down into the deep darkness.
The unlucky girl and her loyal hound traversed through the Sector 6 Maintenance Passage, through the large Sector 7 Cargo Bay (notably, crying Olivia and taunting Thomas were now gone), through Sector 3 Maintenance, into the Sector 8 Cargo Bay area.
Here, Jennifer was sidetracked. She had intended to head directly upstairs, but a chugging sound she hadn't heard for a while pulled on her curiosity. She had heard it before as well, the very first time she had walked through here after waking up in the Filth Room, but had disregarded it in favor of following the guideposts to the Aristocrat Club. But not now. Now, the unlucky girl pulled open the sliding fence gate and entered the Working Class Luggage area. And it was here, in this little secluded area, that the unlucky girl found Amanda working desperately, seated in a chair facing a chugging sewing machine.
When she saw that the unlucky girl had entered, the small-hearted Princess turned in her seat and spoke: "Jennifer, I have a wonderful gift just for you!" The unlucky girl noticed that when Amanda spoke she made strange jerking motions with her hands. Waving and thrusting and pointing, always accompanied with a giggle. "It's almost ready, so please wait a little longer." Then she turned back to her machine, working carefully to sew the fabric she currently had on the needle plate.
There was something concealed under a cloth behind the sewing machine, on an elevated area. It was about knee high and if Jennifer had to guess, it was probably the gift that Amanda had mentioned. Probably still incomplete. Secretly, the sight of it sort of bothered the unlucky girl. It was too easy to imagine another imp under that cloth. Maybe one of those nasty and quick ones with the rat head. Maybe it was just waiting for her to turn around before it would jump out and—
Brown whined at the unlucky girl's side and yanked on her skirt, trying to usher her away. Jennifer patted his head, letting the dog lead, out of the parted-off area. But not before she saw that there was something else in the elevated area of the room: a cabinet with a glass case, and inside, a single book...
Outside, in the Sector 8 Cargo Bay, a small, balled piece of paper flew out from the left and hit Jennifer on the shoulder. The unlucky girl looked around but she didn't see anyone. It was almost as if a ghost had thrown it.
Yes, I was treated like a ghost at first. Back then, at the base of the hierarchy and ignored by everybody, this was the only way anyone dared to deliver messages to me...
Jennifer scooped up and unraveled the paper ball. The message was short and simple: 'Amanda and Jennifer, report to the gift box at once.'
Behind the unlucky girl, the small-hearted Princess emerged from her sewing room. Nervously, the fat girl rolled her shoulders and said, "Too bad, but the gift will have to wait. For now, let's wish ourselves luck, Jennifer!" And then she ran off, giggling her little uneasy titter of a laugh.
Jennifer and Brown followed, into the Sector 8 Stairway. Here, standing in a corner, Susan the impetuous Princess bustled about, complaining, "Peter smells like poo! He's so stinky, I don't want to touch him!" She was biting her nails, but she dropped her hand to deliver this last insult. "Stinky, stinky, go away!"
The unlucky girl didn't want to argue with her. She went away, up the stairs, and into the lavish First Class Guest Sector.
EMERGENCY!, the gift box poster taped to the door proclaimed. ONE-HORNED PETER RAN AWAY! CATCH HIM! CATCH HIM! Strangely, the gift box was crushed, barely hanging to the door in broken planks, as if it had been smashed in a rage.
Unsure of what exactly is was she was supposed to do, Jennifer ventured from room to room in the First Class Guest Sector, asking the various occupants for direction.
In the Salon, Eleanor the cold Princess spoke to the girl in an even, emotionless tone. "... Peter should not be out of his cage..." The girl stood next to a grandfather clock, and above her head, a small red bird fluttered around, stopping momentarily to perch for a few seconds before moving on.
To say that the Salon was luxurious was an understatement. A vase of blood red roses sat atop a wooden table, between two comfortable looking couches. A record player sat, silent, before a large map that almost dominated an entire wall. The floor's carpeting was even more lush and luxuriant than other first class rooms, containing dark patterns and symbols in its design. A cabinet with various drinks stood, undisturbed.
In the Library, Meg the wise-looking Princess clued Jennifer in. With an icy stare, the girl spoke, "Sir Peter has run away. Jennifer and Amanda, you are to find him immediately."
The Library was a mess—books were littered all over the long room, spread open carelessly and in some places actually forming piles. And it was in one such pile that Amanda worked, bent over on all fours, digging in search through the tomes. "Peter must be around here somewhere," she explained in gasping wheezes. "I'm sure of it!"
There was another portrait map hung on the wall. It depicted the continent of Europe, with various lines crisscrossing, and a few notably trailing southeast, toward greater Asia. For some reason, the unlucky girl got a pang in her chest whenever she examined this map. There was also other portraits in the room—one of the airship and one of Mr. Hoffman.
In the VIP Room, Diana the strong-willed Princess snorted and commanded, "Now, hurry up and go find him! It's time for you peons to work!" Then she stopped, as if considering something, before laughing abruptly in the quiet of the room at a joke no one made. "Dawdle too long and Amanda will beat you to him!"
In a corner of the bedroom was an aquarium tank, next to a line of windows. It was empty of any obvious fish life, but there was a strange piece of decoration inside, amid a concealing line of green water plants. It looked like an upside down building. No, on closer inspection, Jennifer thought that it sort of looked like the old mansion—the orphanage. But it was a strange thing to find here, on the other side of the looking glass, suspended underwater.
(not so strange i always felt so lost like my world had turned upside down)
In the Sickroom, Jennifer found Wendy, the lonely Princess, tucked into the bed. She looked somewhat feverish, her breathing shallow and her brow was puckered with sweat. When she noticed that the unlucky girl was present, she turned over and pleaded: "Mr. Bunny was taken by the Aristocrats... Please save him." Then, haggardly, she turned away, returning to her troubled rest.
There was a new picture hanging on the wall, next to the flying fish and rabbit she had seen earlier. A drawing of a gingerbread house. It was a cheerful drawing with many wonderful colored sweets. But, something that looked like a pistol was in the middle of the house...
Jennifer actually made an effort to avoid the Sick Bay (she still recalled the terrible atmosphere she had experienced there on her first visit and she wasn't in a terrible hurry to relive it again so soon) but a strange noise coming from the other side of the door when she walked down the hallway piqued her curiosity and drew her to drop to a knee before the door, peering into the keyhole. And the sight she viewed on the other side of the door caused her to tip backwards, falling hard on her bottom.
Mr. Hoffman was seated at his desk, but he was surrounded on all sides by the creepy little imp creatures. They worked on him, binding him with ropes, tying and contorting his body in strange ways—around the belly, over the shoulder and under the arm, side legged and back arched, to the chair and walls. While the creatures toiled and whispered their strange, nonsensical chants, Mr. Hoffman grunted and cursed and, occasionally, laughed. Clara, the frightened Princess, was nowhere in sight—
Suddenly, Jennifer's view of the terrible scene was blocked when a small, pale head blocked the keyhole, dark hole of an eye staring back through the hole, at the unlucky girl behind the door.
Jennifer did not wait around, she fled from the First Class Guest Sector as fast as she could.
The unlucky girl found Sir Peter in the Sector 8 Cargo Bay hallway.
When Jennifer approached, the bunny hopped away, scurrying down the passage and around the corner, toward the Filth Room. The unlucky girl rounded the corner, hoping to catch the rabbit in the dead end and put an end to the entire ordeal, but was surprised to find that Mr. Bunny was gone. Slowly, Jennifer walked down the passage, eventually reaching the end of the railed path that looked out into a dark drop and darkness.
Had the rabbit jumped off?
Again unsure, the unlucky girl opened the Filth Room's sliding door, intending to speak to the Bucket Knight and ask for its sage advice, but she was surprised to find a large man standing behind the door. The same large man who had handed her the "Clover Field" storybook earlier. The same large man who's very sight made her her legs and arms break out in waves of goosebumps—who made her want to curl up into ball and cry and scream. Frightened by the suddenness of his appearance, Jennifer stepped back as the large man stepped forward, realizing too late that she had stepped into the same dead-end she had intended to capture the rabbit in. Now out of the room, the unlucky girl was dreadfully aware of the fact that the large man had her trapped.
"Joshua... I've written a new story for you," the large man with the stony-set face said, not seeming to recognize Jennifer's presence. Having said this, he turned and walked away easily enough, disappearing around a corner and out of sight.
And just like that, the encounter was over. The unlucky stood there for a minute, relearning to inhale and exhale, regaining her composure.
There was a terrible smell coming out of the Filth Room. That is to say, it always smelled terrible (terribly foul of chlorine and detergents and other cleaning agents) but now there was a new aroma in the air. Sweet and sour, but not as sharp as usual. The taste of dung.
Jennifer coughed, covering her nose with her palm. Inside of the Filth Room, scattered around the metal pillar which she had originally been bound to, were piles of little black pellets. Peter's droppings.
Disgusted by the rancid aroma, the unlucky girl wandered into the room, making sure to leave the door open in a futile attempt to air out the room. She gave the prominent new piles of rabbit waste a wide berth, only to be surprised by another new addition to the room's decorations: drawings. They were done on the walls, red figures of people and a fish and squares and lines that dropped away from the ceiling. Also, the wooden coffin into which she had been thrown and carried here was tightly tied with ropes for some reason.
And just as the large man with the blank face has said, there was a handmade storybook sitting in the back of the room, near the Bucket Knight. The unlucky girl picked it up and began to read:
" 'Sir Peter.'
"Sir Peter, Sir Peter, went out for a stroll.
"Sir Peter, Sir Peter, put in a cage, had to hold it in.
"Sir Peter, Sir Peter, needs to go right now, doesn't want to sin.
"Sir Peter, Sir Peter, bagged and whisked away, before he found a toilet. Good-bye, Peter, Good-bye."
Jennifer looked down at her feet, attention drawn by sudden movement. Peter the rabbit looked up at her, from between her legs, little noses sniffing excitedly, before bounding off, behind her and through the door she had left open. Face now red with embarrassment—how had she possibly missed him?—the unlucky girl chided herself, but stopped herself short of actually chasing after Mr. Bunny. She knew from experience that it would be a fruitless attempt. Once that rabbit started going, there was just no catching it. The only she was going to catch him was if he wanted to be caught and... And...
As if trying to remember a bad dream, Jennifer's thoughts, which an instant ago had been so clear and lucid, became tangled and unruly. Experience? What experience? Why had she hesitated in chasing wildly after the rabbit? She needed to catch him for the gift, she needed to catch him because Wendy wanted and missed him, she needed to catch him before... Before...
The unlucky girl was again stymied, but as so often was when she was in this state of mind, the Bucket Knight spoke: "... If memory serves me correctly, between you and the small-hearted Princess, the time has come to decide who shall be at the bottom of the ranks. Find and catch Sir Peter the rabbit... That's your only clue."
Yes... Yes, that was right. It was no use worrying herself with unnecessary thoughts now. She had to find the rabbit. Chasing after him randomly work wouldn't work—he was much too fast. But she couldn't just let him wander off and get lost. She needed a way to track him.
She needed Brown.
She thanked the Bucket Knight (who's bucket head shook in acknowledgment) before turning to her dog, and she was about to give it the command to track Sir Peter before she realized her next major failing: she had nothing to track the rabbit with. She stared at Brown, racking her head for idea, considering going to Wendy and asking her for something which might have Mr. Bunny's scent, before the dog barked to grab her attention. Motioning with its snout, it directed the unlucky girl to the mound of black pellets in the center of the room. Again, Jennifer felt embarrassed. Now had she forgotten that? She retrieved a bag from the shelves of laundry baskets and detergent bottles in the back of the room and (with closed eyes) scooped the bag full with the dried droppings.
With this in hand, Jennifer and her loyal hound left the Filth Room, hot on the heels of Sir Peter's trail, out into the Sector 8 Cargo Bay—
Something had changed. The unlucky girl looked around the corridor, noting that strange ropes had suddenly appeared, bound to all the walls, strung vertically, as if in attempt to hold everything together. These ropes has not been present when she had first entered the Filth Room; a new addition to the décor of the dirigible. And something else: hushed whispering. Those strange and hushed voices she couldn't understand—the language of the imps. Deftly, the unlucky girl retrieved the paring knife from her pocket, readying herself for the worst case scenario: another nightmarish dash through marauding mobs of the horrible little creatures.
And then she saw Sir Peter. He was waiting at the end of the passage, little beady eyes shining in the dark, but quickly hopped away, out of sight to the right. And of course Jennifer followed, the proximity of the rabbit temporarily causing her to neglect the sounds she heard all around her. The hushed chanting—
An imp jumped on the unlucky girl when she hurriedly turned the corner, latching on her front and clawing away at her, surprising her into dropping the paring knife. But there was something new: a new pain, a ragged agony on her side where the creature's white, furry head dug into her body—
White, furry head?
Jennifer could see more imps, a multitude of the little creatures swarming in on her, from down the hall, from the wider cargo storage area. These were your normal, run of the mill nightmarish apparitions. But the one struggling against her body, this one was different. Having lost her knife, the unlucky girl slammed herself against the barred siding, the hand rails that served as a wall against the dark drop next to the corridor, weakening the creature's grip before managing shoving it off.
Once it was writhing on the floor, she finally got a good look at the imp. Yes, it was no normal imp, like the ones slowly approaching down the hall. This one was special, like the rat imp from earlier. This one sported a large rabbit head on top of its shoulders, long white ears standing rigid, jagged buck teeth looking like they were made to deliver nastily deep bites. And if it had managed to reach her so quickly, far ahead of the other imps' slow gait, it was undoubtedly much quicker than the normal breed as well. But Jennifer didn't stick around to confirm her suspicions, she fled away through the nearest door, into the noisy Sector 9 Turbine Area.
Here, the incessant chanting of the imps was missing, so the unlucky girl assumed relative safety. Still, she didn't let down her guard (the operative word being relative). She walked forward cautiously, inspecting the room for imps, but did not see any. What she did see were more of the strange ropes she had seen in the other room, only these were tied around the turbine engine era around the center of the room instead of the walls.
Sir Peter, Sir Peter, went out for a stroll.
Brown led Jennifer down the way, and the duo found Peter the rabbit sitting placidly in one of the four corners. Naturally, when they approached, he fled. But the unlucky girl and her friend followed the hopping rabbit around the room, almost in a full circle before he fled into the Sector 10 Crew Cabin.
Here Jennifer followed Brown's lead, into the center area of the room, with the single table surrounded by hanging bunk beds. The dog stuck its head under the table and began to bark wildly. The unlucky girl followed the dog's example and dropped to all fours, peering into the darkness below the table—
Mr. Bunny leapt out, over Jennifer's back, and away, toward the 3rd Passenger Corridor.
The unlucky girl rose, intending to follow, but was surprised when a horde of imps suddenly dropped around her from somewhere above, completely trapping her in place.
Sir Peter, Sir Peter, put in a cage, had to hold it in.
While Brown barked and weaved around the creatures, trying to defend the girl from their assault, Jennifer climbed atop the table (her only possible refuge), kicking at the occasional imp that fared too closely. She needed a weapon, but she had dropped the paring knife earlier when the rabbit imp had surprised her. She rummaged her hands across the table's face, intending to use a wine bottle as a blunt weapon, but was surprised to find another blade instead: a kitchen knife.
With the new weapon in hand, Jennifer swiped at the nearest imps, forcing them back under threat of her deadly slash, finally stabbing the closest imp with the knife and managing to create an opening, Brown and the unlucky girl fled from their siege. But the encounter cost the girl her new knife and once again left her weaponless, relegated to avoiding instead of fighting. Something which left Jennifer feeling incredibly vulnerable now that imps were appearing en masse.
The unlucky girl and her hound retreated, Brown once again leading the way along Mr. Bunny's scent trail, down a hallway and into the Sector 11 Maintenance passage. Here, she entered and rested briefly in the noisy (but imp free) Generator Room before moving on, back out to the maintenance passage and into the Smoking Room. Here they were ambushed by three imps (a quick rabbit imp and two normal imps with brooms) that they sidestepped easily enough before escaping out, into the 3rd Passenger Corridor—the ultimate goal of their detour. Here a single imp tried to impede their progress but they avoided it without any problems (Jennifer was getting better at dodging the broom swings and evading the pawing hands, she noticed to her satisfaction).
(no not learning—remembering)
And maybe that was the problem. The root of all of the unlucky girl's problems. Always avoiding trouble instead of tacking the issue straight on. Always running away from the problem, always sidestepping the issue, just because she didn't think she had the power to face those who bullied her eye to eye—
Brown led his master to the door of the Men's Lavatory, front paws raising to dig at the door's base. The same lavatory where she had once spoken to Xavier before a terrible thing had happened to Martha. The unlucky girl opened the sliding door and in the two went.
Sir Peter, Sir Peter, needs to go right now, doesn't want to sin.
Inside the bathroom, the hound led Jennifer to the second stall from the right. First, the unlucky girl tried knocking on the closed stall, but her only response was quiet and the occasional drip of water. The unlucky girl opened the stall door, knife clutched, ready for the unexpected. But there was no danger. Sir Peter sat next to a toilet, and when the unlucky girl sighed her relief, the rabbit leapt out between her legs and sped out of the room. (The unlucky girl thought she heard Brown yelp the most exasperated doggy bark she had ever heard. But when she looked at her dog he just panted happily.) While she was in the lavatory, Jennifer caught sight of the mirror again. The mirror that, for the most fleeting moment in her peripheral vision, reflected what had looked like an old orphanage. Yes, again she was struck by that feeling. Alice on the other side of the looking glass. Alice chasing the white rabbit into Wonderland.
But things were out of place. No one was supposed to call for her head until later.
The unlucky girl and her dog followed the white rabbit.
Back into the Sector 10 Crew Cabin (Mr. Bunny actually tried to hide underneath a bunked bed in one of the room's alcoves), through the Sector 9 Turbine Area (where two more imps dropped down from above but were easily avoided since Jennifer's paranoid eyes urged her to vigilantly watch the ceiling in case more imps tried this), into the Sector 8 Cargo Bay (avoiding the first rabbit imp she encountered). Brown eventually led her to a door she had yet to explore: Middle Class Luggage. Inside was a room filled with shelves crammed with boxes, divided into three smaller areas by the lines of shelves. The loyal dog led Jennifer to the right of the room, into one such area, to a certain shelf that had a strange box that moved: jumping up and down. When she tried to grab the box, Mr. Bunny burst from the inside, hopping on the unlucky girl's shoulder and escaping away, out of the room.
This was all too familiar and Jennifer didn't like where this was all inevitably going. Seeing a rusted steel pipe laying in one corner of the room's floor, the unlucky girl picked it up, taking a few practice swings. Maybe it was a little too long and maybe it was a little too heavy, but Jennifer liked holding it in her hands all the same. It was something to defend herself with, something with the reach necessary to hold a distance between herself and any attacker. And it wasn't something with a sharp and pointy edge which only served her to maim and kill.
She still felt uncomfortable about that. Even if they were devils.
Again offering Brown the bag of dry rabbit pellets to sniff for the trail, Jennifer followed her loyal friend back out, into the Sector 8 Cargo Bay, through Engine 3 Maintenance, and into the Sector 7 Cargo Bay.
And here it was that the real nightmare began.
Blood. That's what the unlucky girl saw first, blood smeared on the floor of the Sector 7 Cargo Bay. Smeared in long, filthy streaks that sent cold shivers down her spine. She knew this—had seen it one too many times. And she was afraid of the mess—she was afraid of what the mess would lead to. Her wide unblinking eyes followed it like a macabre trail, behind a stack of boxes and crates in the center of the room.
There was a strange sound in the room. Thud thud thud. A quiet sort of thumping. A sound that should have been innocuous but instead caused the unlucky girl to break into a cold sweat, forcing her to raise her tightly gripped new weapon, the steel pipe, with shaking but thankful hands. She had heard this noise before—thud thud—when she had been searching for a butterfly and Martha had been dragged off. And now here it was again. Coming now from behind the stack of boxes in the center of the room.
The unlucky girl stepped around the crates, edging slowly around the corner, searching for the source of the thumping. But a moment later, she would have given almost anything to forget what she saw. To have turned right around before she had slid open the door and walked inside. To have gone back to the Filth Room and laid down in a corner with her head buried in Brown's fur and just closed her eyes—and thought only about the rancid smell of the droppings and nothing else.
Sir Peter, Sir Peter, bagged and whisked away, before he found a toilet. Good-bye, Peter, Good-bye.
At the end of the bloody trail, in front of the fenced gate through which Thomas had mocked her not so long ago, two imps beat on a brown sack mercilessly while a third used its broom to sweep the bloody floor. The devils spoke in their incomprehensible tongue, smashing the bag that only gave a wet sort of smacking sound as a response. Eventually, they seemed to notice Jennifer because they turned in her direction and retreated from sight, behind the boxes, dragging their bloodied brooms after them. With the creatures gone, the unlucky girl finally moved from her position, toward the abandoned brown sack. Slowly, she approached the bloody bag, Brown behind her oddly subdued. She placed her hands on the sack and had a moment to consider its terrifying, horrifying warmth before she heard the approaching footsteps.
Jennifer heard it—the imps were whispering in their strange unknowable language and someone was responding in affirmative grunts and humming tones. "Oh! Oh...Yes... " And it was then that the unlucky girl recognized the stern voice: Mr. Hoffman.
Looking around the corner, Jennifer saw that the imps surrounded Hoffman, who was looking around at them, bowing his head and listening. Listening and comprehending.
(diana eleanor and meg had tattled on me blamed it all on me me me)
Hoffman turned in the unlucky girl's direction, and now Jennifer could see that his form was terribly bound with ropes. His legs were held rigid, one arm tied to his mouth, and his whole body seemed painfully tense and contorted, tied with rope around his belly, his head. Still he swung his rigid pointer around angrily, swishing it through the air. "Why you... little rat... Jenni-fer! Did you make a mess again? This is unforgivable... You dirty, dirty girl..."
And all that Jennifer could do was mouth in horror as the bound Hoffman struggled in her direction, swinging his weapon angrily, hearing it whistle as it streaked in his furious grasp.
(because i wet the bed again because the others blamed peter's disappearance on me)
She didn't even try to avoid Hoffman's attack. The monster smacked her with his rod and toppled on top of her, sending both of them reeling to the floor. Above her, Hoffman leered grotesquely, laughing manically. He shifted his hips and pounded down with a knee, and the feeling was horrifying. Jennifer's body went cold, and suddenly she couldn't feel anything. This sensation, so familiar, so terrible, this weight above her, so frightening. The unlucky girl couldn't even cry out. Suddenly numbed, she could only exist as Hoffman shifted his hips a second time and humped down again—
Brown jumped forward, biting down on Hoffman's face. The teacher roared, arching backwards, and Jennifer, suddenly freed from her numbing paralysis, kicked outward, catching Hoffman right in the crotch.
Freed from the teacher's twisted embrace, Jennifer grabbed her steel pipe and crawled away, while Brown fought at Hoffman's heels, attacking the headmaster.
But unfortunately the hound's efforts were cut short. Hoffman struggled to his feet, and when it saw Brown holding it back by clutching his leg in its maw, he raised a single foot and stomped down angrily—then there was agonized yelping and Brown collapsed to the floor.
And then, seeing her loyal friend hurt, Jennifer snapped. Color drained away from the world, darkness replaced by a pounding red. Terror and pain and despair all fell away, until there was nothing left but the need to hurt the devil the devil in the shape of a man standing before her. Gripping her steel pipe with renewed strength, she lurched to her feet and lunged, swinging her weapon wildly. Hoffman was caught in a sudden onslaught—a barrage of whacks and bashes that left the monster without a chance to counterattack. Or so it seemed at first, until he swung wildly and managed to knock the unlucky girl back and to the floor. And yet even this would not deter the girl's sudden wrath. She sprung back to her feet and continued her brutal (albeit un refined) assault, each swing of the pipe coming faster and harder. She didn't know she was crying. She didn't know she was screaming at Hoffman. As she could see was Brown laying on the floor, motionless.
(remember this fury remember smacking her)
The unlucky girl brought the pipe down one last time, smashing it into the teacher's forehead. And then his entire body became rigid. His head sprung skyward, snapping against the bindings, and he screamed, while his legs snapped, crunching beneath him. He fell backward like that, screaming into his hand, eyes bulging in terror—like he had seen a demon. And just like that he fell, bloodied and bruised beyond recognition. It was over.
And then the imps were back, sweeping away, grabbing on to the fallen teacher's hands, cleaning up after the blood. They dragged Hoffman away, over the grating and out the door. The creatures were quick about their business, and soon, Jennifer couldn't even hear them as they retreated to the shadows they called home, taking their filth with them.
Jennifer let them go. She was too busy with Brown. The poor dog lay unconscious on the floor, panting noisily. The unlucky girl waited patiently, never fidgeting, until Brown finally rustled, several minutes later. When the hound awoke, he found his master crying above him. Confused, he licked away her tears and she laughed. He never wanted to see her cry. She felt the same way about him.
There was a brown gunny bag laying on the floor of the cargo bay. Jennifer picked it up and found it to be warm and terribly bloody and alive. Something was wriggling around weakly within... But she didn't peek inside. She was sure it was Peter. The unlucky girl didn't need to see what he looked like after the torture that the imps had inflicted upon the poor thing. Worse yet, it was alive and probably in horrible agony, its last moments anguish as it struggled to breath. But she didn't want to think about that for too long—she would just do as she had been ordered, and return to the First Class Guest Sector—to the Aristocrat Club.
Back through Engine 3 Maintenance, through the Sector 8 Cargo Bay, into the Sector 8 Stairway, up the metal stairs, and into the First Class Guest Sector.
Amanda, the small-hearted Princess, was kneeling on the floor, in the hallway in front of the gift box door. When Jennifer approached with the bloody gunny bag, he eyes widened, her body racked in excitement. The small-hearted Princess spoke with her eyes on the bag in the girl's hands. "We did it! We make a great team!" Amanda giggled while holding out her hands, her fingers shaking with trepidation. "Hand me Peter! I'll give him to them for us."
The unlucky girl held the wriggling bag in her hands, uncertainty worming its way into the front of her mind. For the first time, she realized that she simply did not trust the small-hearted Princess. Of course she had known this in her heart of hearts, in the back of her mind, but now in this moment it was finally a front and center conception. What right did Amanda have to take Peter? After all, Jennifer had done all the work...
But before the unlucky girl had time to make up her mind one way or the other, the gunny bag shuffled and fell out of Jennifer's hands, Peter the rabbit jumped out. His white fur untainted with blood or injury or suffering—he looked absolutely fine. He hopped around Amanda and proceeded down the hall, toward the now open gift box door.
Amanda hobbled after him, hurriedly. A girl chasing after the white rabbit in Wonderland.
When Jennifer approached the door, it swung open slowly. The unlucky girl went about opening this door slowly, carefully peering into the darkness, cautiously stopping to look behind, so that she wouldn't be kicked inside again. Finally, she stepped into the darkness of the room.
Brown did not follow.
The next thing Jennifer knew, she was walking through forest underbrush. Lush green fronds and leaves pulled at her sides, clinging to her rustling form. Crickets sung loudly all around and far ahead the unlucky girl could see a point of light, bright against the darkness of the woods.
~The forest seemed strangely familiar. In the dense woods, under the stars, a sacrificial ceremony was under way... Desperately fighting fear, the girl slowly approached the strange sight.~
Chanting, like the blood curdling language of the imps, but not quite. As Jennifer neared the light, the ritualistic chanting became discernible and understandable. A rhyme.
"Monday's pea was a sight to see."
Closer now, she could make out figures standing in a clearing. Girls standing before a set of chairs.
"Tuesday's pea almost made it free."
She could recognize them now; the upper class aristocracy: Diana with her rat stick, Meg with her rule book, Eleanor with her bird cage.
"Wednesday's pea didn't think to flee."
Candles were lit around the chairs. A gunny sack was on the floor before them and there was a strange machination attached to the trees around them. It looked like some kind of lift operated by pulley and rope. The girls chanted on, and the atmosphere was strangely subdued.
"Stray dog will have his peas..."
Someone grabbed Jennifer from behind and she almost shrieked. But it was only Amanda, the small-hearted Princess. She giggled as she grabbed the unlucky girl and pressed their faces together, cheek to cheek, to look at the ceremony from the shadows.
"Lower classes like you and me can't go up really close." Her hands slide under Jennifer's chin, stroking her mouth, and all the while she kept their faces pressed together—smile to frown. "We have to pray from a distance!"
The girls were working the lifts, Diana yanked on the rope, lifting the gunny sack up high, into the air. Jennifer had the sudden impression of seeing a hanging; an execution.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Aristocrat Club." Meg suddenly called out loudly, fulfilling again her duty as speaker. "I wish to thank you for gathering here today."
The three upper class Princesses—the Countess, the Duchess, and the Baroness—turned around to the woods where the unlucky girl and small-hearted Princess crouched, among the shrubbery.
"Jen-ni-ferrrr..." Diana called out, teasingly.
The unlucky girl shrugged Amanda off, summoned forward by the strong-willed Princess, she approached the clearing, hesitatingly stepping into the light, while the small-hearted Princess stayed behind, crouched and shivering and afraid.
And so, so jealous.
Jennifer tripped, falling to her knees before the aristocracy. It was unintentional, but nonetheless done to good effect in the moment.
"May I have your attention..." Meg called, from the center of the three. "This is a message from the Princess of the Rose." The unlucky girl's eyes flashed to the chairs set up behind the three Princesses. The doll in the flowing red dress, the proxy for the head Princess, was seated there as usual. "The message reads: Jennifer, your efforts this month deserve special recognition. You managed to find Peter and will be amply rewarded."
Behind, in the forest, Amanda gasped at the absence of her name.
"Thus concludes the message from the Princess," called Meg, finishing her duty.
Diana strutted forward, head bowed, smirking. "Splendid work, Jennifer. You are no longer a wretched peon. Amanda, on the other hand, has been de-mot-ed." She let this hang in the air for a while, letting the two girls take it in, before she raised her head, calling out: "Aman-da!"
The strong-willed Princess offered the unlucky girl the rat stick, but Jennifer only shielded her face with her hands, as if she were instead being offered fire. Undeterred, Diana forced the stick in her empty hands and urged her forward, to the forest: "It's time, Jennifer!"
Patiently, she waited as the unlucky girl turned around, toward Amanda, and then she began to clap. "Jen-ni-ferrr! Jen-ni-ferrr! Jen-ni-ferrr!" And the chanting picked up, first only her, and then the others were also clapping, also chanting. Also cheering her forward.
Recognizing her. Caring about her. Wanting her.
Jennifer could see how someone could get drunk from this. It wouldn't be hard. It would be easy. No one wants to be alone, Wendy had said. And she was right. She just had to stop thinking and let the chanting carry her away.
Amanda cried out her fear, stumbling backwards, shaking her head. Despite what she had claimed earlier in their meeting, her glassy eyes pleaded for mercy, for reprieve. Anything but the rat. She tripped on a root, falling backwards, and still she crawled away, terrified. Jennifer approached, rat stick readied, she motioned to push it out, into Amanda's face, as the small-hearted Princess had done to her, but... But...
She remembered how it had felt, the shame and embarrassment and disgust.
She remembered when she had been the one with the horrified expression on the other end of the stick.
The unlucky girl stepped back, moving the rat away. She couldn't do it. She couldn't do it, even if Amanda had done it to her. Even if Diana or the whole world chanted, she just couldn't—
The strong-willed Princess walked up behind her and kicked angrily, sending Jennifer falling, instinctively sending the rat stick forward, into the small-hearted Princess's face.
The gunny, burlap sack rocked to and fro in the air. The aristocrat girls continued their chant. Amanda squealed out pathetically. And then the chanting was over and Amanda fell backwards, into a dead faint.
Horrified by what she had done, the unlucky girl stepped away, looking at the rat tied to the tip of the stick for the first time. But it wasn't wriggling. It wasn't squeaking. It was dead. Little pale maggots squirmed against its rotting body.
She had pressed this into Amanda's face.
And then Jennifer collapsed, sweet unconsciousness wiping away the horrors of her sins, the deathly silence of the forest, the staring eyes of the aristocracy, the swaying of the gunny bag in the wind.
The metallic groaning awoke the unlucky girl. Again, she found herself in the darkened airship's throne room, beyond the First Class Guest Sector's gift box door. The cruel boy from the bus was sitting high above, on the Prince's throne chair atop the clothed structure, reading a storybook. "Are you awake?" He called out, when the girl began to stir. "So, Jennifer, now do you know what a bad girl you were?" And then a moment passed, with Jennifer simply staring up at him, nonplussed. He seemed disappointed. "... Hmm, is that so? You still don't understand."
The boy motioned down. Around the throne structure, on the tables closest to waist level, there were three new handmade storybooks.
"Well then, I'll have you read these books... Hurry, hurry! Read another story Jennifer!" And then the cruel boy laughed his sickly, titter of a laugh.
The unlucky girl rose and moved forward, and found as she considered each of the three books (left, right, and center) that she was exceedingly tired. Her legs felt like dead weight and her mind begged to return to sleep, beyond the curtain of waking agony. The usual anger and scorn she felt for the haughty boy above her was tempered by her vertigo. And so meekly she obeyed his request. She moved to the left and picked up the storybook she found there, intending to read them from left to right, one at a time. This story was titled, "The Bird of Happiness."
Jennifer closed her eyes and began to read.