This chapter contains:
Verbally abusive language; brief descriptions of anti-gay attitudes, sexual harassment, and abusive relationships.
If you see other material that should be marked (such as common triggers or phobias), e-mail me. I am serious about web accessibility, and I will respond to your concerns as soon as I can manage.(hide content warnings)
Chapter 3: The Ordeal
I rolled over and tried to flop out of bed. I had dreamed of a world of steel and stone, where a glaring sun pulsed like a heart. Now I was stuck back here in the real world, with... ugh. My bedsheets tasted bad.
I hauled myself up and stumbled down the stairs. Rubbing my eyes, I almost walked straight into my dad.
Dad sighed. “Good morning, Rinn.”
We had a lot of rules that we didn't keep, but there was one that Dad always stuck to: No arguing before breakfast. From the look on his face, he was having a hard time keeping that rule today. But he managed it, and we passed by each other.
That was a relief. I went in the bathroom and washed up. It gave me enough time to think about –
There were gods and Ravellers and I had to protect Yali if it's the last thing I do, and stuff. I wandered back out and sat down at breakfast without looking at anybody. With all the thoughts spinning through my head, I wasn't that interested in eating either. I swallowed my food slowly, one bite at a time. I had this itching feeling that Dad was going to say something when I was finished eating. But maybe if I dragged it out…
In the end, he finished before I did.
“Rinn,” he said pointedly.
I still didn't feel totally awake.
Guess I had to say something. “I was hanging out with Yali yesterday.”
“We called you three times.”
“I didn't notice.” It was half true. Thinking back, I had heard my phone buzz a few times, but I'd been too busy with Yali to pay attention.
“Rinn, tell us the truth.”
The mention of telling the truth made my mind snap into a frenzy. Parents… tell nothing, she'd said. Well what if – maybe it was better if they didn't even think it was the truth!
“Fine, I wasn't at Yali's! I was –” Stern take it, I was no good at making up stories – “You know what, never mind! It's not important!”
Dad looked like he was gearing up to say something else, but Mom touched his hand, meaning, Let me handle this. Then she said, “Rinn, we can tell it was something serious.”
“Oh yeah? How do you know that?!”
Mom sighed. “You slept through your alarm, and you've barely touched your food…”
I had... slept through my alarm? Never mind, I didn't have time to think about it. “I've eaten more than half of this!” I snapped back.
“Not if you count the snack you always have directly afterwards.” I grimaced. Sometimes I hated being so easy to read. “Rinn… you never sleep through your alarm, and you never leave your breakfast half-eaten. So please… just tell us what happened. Are you in trouble?”
It would be one thing if Mom was angry at me. She'd lecture me for a bit, but then it would be over. But if she was concerned… she'd never give it up. She'd follow me around and pester me about it and look over my shoulder when I was texting and then I'd say something careless and she'd find out and then there would be… there would be bad futures and I'd never see Yali again –
Mom must have seen that I was panicking. “Rinn, it's okay. We're not going to punish you. We just want to make sure you're safe.”
A flash of rage swept over me. She could say that, but the Waiting God knew – literally, Yali had seen with its eyes – that I wouldn't be safe at all. And even if I didn't know that, Mom was always like this. Dad was simpler. He'd tell me the rules and get mad if I broke them. But Mom would do the whole “wink wink, nudge nudge” thing. Sometimes she'd even take me aside and say, like, “This is what the rules are, but just between us, this is how we really do things.” But as soon as I relied on her for anything, she'd go straight back to law-and-order.
I clamped down on the rage and tried not to let it show. I didn't have time for that. If I didn't come up with something to say soon, she'd know I had taken the extra time to come up with a lie. And then it would be just as bad as if I hadn't said anything. But what could I say that would make her stop worrying when I was worrying?
Finally an idea scraped out. It was rough, but I didn't have anything else, so it'd have to do.
“I'm not in trouble, it's not me, I'm just worried about –” no backing out now “– Yali. She's having a, uh, a personal thing. A crisis. But, see, I promised her that I wouldn't tell anyone, so –” I did my best to sound like I was uncomfortable about breaking the promise. It wasn't hard, because I was uncomfortable, just not that way. “– so please, just, don't mention it to anybody, okay?”
“Don't worry, sweetie, of course we won't. But is it –”
“I thought you weren't with Yali,” Dad interrupted.
“We've moved past that,” said Mom.
“It was a lie,” I said. Mom had figured that out, but she had an annoying habit of not explaining things to Dad when he hadn't caught up. “I panicked and thought I was about to break my promise, so I just… you know what, never mind.”
“That was… misguided, –”
“I just got out of bed! You can't expect me to be, uh, right-guided about everything!” It was a relief to just be able to be annoyed about something I was actually annoyed about.
“Misguided, but also honorable. You thought you were protecting your friend's secret.” I winced internally at “friend” – we were dating, for gods' sakes – but I had bigger things to worry about right now.
“Rinn,” said Mom tiredly. She had put her hand to her forehead with an expression that said, I can't believe you two. “What's the circumstance with Yali? Does she need help?”
“I wish I could tell you, but I can't break my promise any further.”
“That doesn't mean you can't tell us. We're your parents.”
“I told her I wouldn't tell anyone! I can't go back on that! Dad, back me up here!”
Dad clearly didn't want to back me up, but he said, reluctantly, “Every promise is law before the Stern.”
“I really, really can't tell you,” I continued.
“Of all the days to get serious about the Stern…” muttered Mom. “Well. You can tell Yali, from us, that if she needs any help, –”
I gave an internal sigh of relief. Mom wasn't trying to press the issue. I could just say I'd give her message to Yali, and – Wait. I had to stick to my story. “But then I'd have to tell her that I told you, even though I said I –”
“Stern give me strength… Well. Just tell her, there are people who would help her, if she would just tell them what the problem is.”
“Fine, I can find some way to – Wait. Are you talking about her, or me?”
“Don't ask questions you don't want the answers to.”
I met Layo at lunch that day. I gave our usual greeting, running up and giving him a big hug. He hugged me back and grinned at me.
“Hey hey, what's up?”
So much was up. I opened my mouth to start telling him all about – well, to tell him that I would have something big to tell him when we could talk in private. He was right there. All I'd have to do was open my mouth and say “Layo, I've got some big news, when can we talk?”
But... something stopped me. It was just too much to explain. It would take forever, and…
Anyway, I had something else on my mind. “Layo, what makes me mad?”
“No, what makes me really mad?”
“Really big assholes?”
Layo paused. “I was joking, but that's honestly the first thing I think of. Why do you ask?”
“Never mind that, just – come on, you've gotta be able to come up with something better than that. You know I just don't put –”
“– just don't put up with people's you-know-what, I know. If that doesn't count, hmm...”
“Hasn't there been anything where I've come to you afterwards just stewing about something?”
“If you have, I'm not sure I can tell the difference? There's been a few times when I thought you were upset for real, but when we –”
“You mean like when I get kicked out of the tennis club? You were acting all empathetic and shit –”
“Yeah, I remember you laughed it off like you didn't care. Not that I'm saying you didn't! I mean –”
I smirked. “Yeah, I pretty much didn't care about that.”
“That's okay! I mean...” Layo put a hand over his chest. “If I think of what makes me the most upset, it's not that kind of thing either. It's more about, uh, my own flaws. I, uh, I get really jealous of people sometimes, and I know it's wrong for me to be jealous, and it just eats me up. So, if you… I mean, it might not work the same way for you! I'm not saying there's something wrong with you if you get –”
I internally kicked myself. I guess I'd asked for it, but I wasn't really ready to get into Layo-level introspectiveness. “Eh, never mind being serious,” I said. “How about, like, pretend like we're in a movie. Like you're a supervillain and you have an evil plan to make me lose control, what is it?”
Layo swallowed whatever he was going to say next. I wasn't sure how he was feeling, but then he relaxed. “We-ell...” he said, like he was mulling over my question. “Obviously, I'd murder your parents right in front of you. Obviously.”
“Wait, I take that back. I forgot you're not on the best terms with your parents. Well, then there's no helping it, I'll have to murder your girlfriend instead.” Layo was on a roll with this. “And, and, I wouldn't do it in front of you, because you'd kill me first, obviously. So, I'd do it somewhere else and then send you a video of it. And then I'd send you a heart emoji.”
“You monster.” I dove at Layo and started tickling the shit out of him. He squirmed out of the way and tickled me back, and before long we had both stumbled and smashed into one of the lunch tables.
“Rinn Akatura! No roughhousing in the lunchroom!”
“It was my fault,” said Layo immediately. A lot of heads were turning our way, not to mention the poor sods at the table we'd hit. I'd heard a glass of juice spill somewhere.
“I know perfectly well it wasn't. Rinn –”
“Leave her alone, lunch fascist!” said another voice. Some of my other friends were showing up. Dehel, the one who'd yelled, always made a splash – he towered over everyone and wore asymmetric makeup on purpose, you couldn't miss him. After him, Pèi was hurrying to keep up, with her spiky collar and duct-taped jeans, looking like she was gearing up to say something sarcastic. And behind her…
“Everyone calm down,” I said, laughing. I wasn't against yelling at a few authority figures, but I had better things to do right now. “I promise I'll clean it up, okay?”
“Just don't do it again.” Heh. If they actually made me clean it up, I'd just end up making a bigger mess, and they knew it.
Dehel tried to keep yelling in my defense, so I covered his mouth and dragged him off towards the lunch lines. We all got our lunches and found an empty table to sit at. As I sat down, I was still grinning and catching my breath from the tickle fight. By the time I dug into my food, Pèi had launched into some of her hilarious impressions of the teachers' voices. Then Dehel cracked a cringey joke, then Pèi started an argument about it, and tried to drag me and Layo into it, all just for fun. My friends were the best, seriously. They always found a way to take my mind off things. And the food – well, the food wasn't great, but I was famished from skimping on breakfast, so I ate it up like nobody's business. Between wolfing down my food and trying to follow along with everyone's weird sense of humor, I almost forgot about, you know, the fact that the literal gods were trying to screw me over.
But somewhere in the back of my mind, the idea of murdering your girlfriend had stirred a memory.
As soon as I had a moment alone in the halls, I pulled out my phone and started texting Yali.
omg i love you so much can't want to see u <3
u ok? from the you-know-what last night
anyway I thought of something that actually made me angry
tell me after school
meet you out front?
sure thing <3 <3 <3
When I caught up to Yali after school, she didn't see me at first. She had her bags next to her on the bench, and she was sitting with her elbows resting on her knees, looking totally exhausted.
When she saw me, she stood up right away. I ran to her and hugged her fiercely. Then I pulled back and took another look at her. She was slightly smiling, looking like her regular self now, but… “No seriously, are you okay?” I said. “You looked like you were totally –”
Yali rubbed my shoulders. “Don't worry about me. We have things to do.”
“Wait, which things?”
“You said you thought of a, a –” Yali fumbled for her phone.
“Oh yeah, the thing that made me angry? That was…” I glanced around, thinking about how to start explaining it. It was a kind of touchy subject.
“Not here,” Yali interrupted my thoughts. “Let's not get into Serious Business while we're just standing around. How about I take you to Duvidi's? My treat.”
“I told you, I can't –”
“The one near Clover Square.”
“Oh. Yeah. That'd be great!”
I took her hand and we started walking.
“You still haven't told me why you can't go to the one near the school,” Yali said as we walked.
“Ugh, I don't want to tell that story. I was kind of irresponsible.”
“Aww. I love hearing stories about you being irresponsible.”
“You whaaaaaaat?! I only wasn't going to tell you because you're always telling me to be careful and stuff –”
“I don't want you to get hurt now! But if it already happened – By the Stern, if I've missed out on four and a half weeks of fun stories because you thought I wouldn't like them…”
“You totally have! I have so many to tell you. This one, though… eh…”
“You don't have to if you don't want to,” said Yali soothingly.
“Hang on, I just remembered this story also has a point in it where I got really angry. So it's kind of killing two birds with one stone if I tell it. Sure, I'll do it,” I said. I danced a few steps ahead and then looked back, waving my arms like a stage magician. “The Adventures of Rinn Akatura, Chapter 752: The Fast Food Place,” I began. “So, there was this girl –”
“Hey! I haven't told you the best part yet! I haven't told you any of the parts!”
Yali doubled over, laughing silently. I couldn't help laughing along a little bit. Then she straightened up. “Sorry. You can keep going now.”
I let Yali catch up with me and held her hand again. “So, there was this girl I liked. I'm not going to say who it was, because I think she wants to forget about all this now, but anyway. I asked her out, and we had a good time, so we went on another date after that, and so on. Although they were less 'dates' and more 'me taking her to the movies or whatever so that we could make out for the whole time'. It wasn't a real relationship, we were just horny teenagers.” That felt a little weird to say. “Ha ha, Waiting God knows I'm still a horny teenager. Buuu-uuut I'm in a real relationship now –” I squeezed Yali's hand “– and I'm fine if you want to take it slow.”
“Uh... right,” said Yali. “Go on with the story!”
“Alright! So I kept taking her places, but I'd never had much spending money, so I ran out pretty fast. So I got myself an under-the-table job working in the kitchen at Duvidi's. The one year the school.”
“Wow. How old were you?”
“This was like three years ago. I was like 13. Sure it was illegal and stuff, but whatever. That got me enough money to keep paying for 'dates'. Until… ugh, I feel really stupid about this next part.”
“It's okay. I won't judge you.”
I glanced around to make sure no one else on the street was listening. “Yeeeeaaaah… we got caught at the movies with our hands down each other's pants.”
“And then like… word got around. And like, I can laugh off that kind of thing, but I guess it hurt a lot more for her. She's basically been avoiding me ever since then, and I don't even blame her, I feel like total shit for putting her in that situation. And then I lost a bunch of friends over that too.”
“Did they drop you because of the rumors?”
“No, that's the worst part. None of my friends would have a problem with some wild stuff –”
“Right, silly me –”
“– but I had people trying to, like, high-five me for 'getting some action'. But that's not what happened! It wasn't cool, it was a mistake, I hurt someone! Someone I liked! So if anyone thinks they can congratulate me for that, like if they think that's what I wanted – just, argh!”
“It makes you really angry.”
“Yeah! If somebody just says 'fuck you, Rinn' or whatever, I know where I stand with them, you know? But when people act like they're on my side when they're not... I basically just told them to fuck off. I wish I had come up with something smarter to say.”
“Maybe we can use this. I can see you getting angry right now, more than we managed the other day.”
“You're totally right.” I hadn't even noticed, but my whole body felt charged up.
“You're hurting my fingers, by the way.”
“Shit, sorry.” I let go of Yali's hand. She shook it out.
“It's fine,” she said. She looked at me curiously. “Before we get to the serious stuff, why don't you finish the story? You got caught in the movies, but what happened to Duvidi's?”
“Oh, right. Well, I was kind of upset for the next few days, so I wasn't really paying attention, and I let a cop see me going in and out of the kitchen. He started to make a fuss about 'child labor' and shit, so we all pretended I was just there to visit a cousin who worked there. But they basically told me not to come back after that, to make sure they wouldn't get in trouble. Kind of anticlimactic, I know.”
We were almost at Clover Square now. We crossed the street and went up to the door of the other Duvidi's. I yanked it open and held it for Yali. My chest was tight while we waited in line to make our orders. Yali knew something bad about me now. I wished I could make up for it somehow, but what could I even do?
They finally took our orders and we went to find a table. As we sat down, I noticed that Yali was still smiling at me.
“I can't believe you actually liked listening to that story,” I said.
“You have no idea how adorable you are.”
“Okay but seriously that story? That story sucked.”
Yali tried to make a more serious face. “I know it's bad, what happened. But there's just something about, about, about you being so… free to feel things. It makes me want to go with you on all your adventures. Even though when I actually think about it, I might be better off watching your adventures from a safe distance.”
I smirked. “You know, if you ever want to go on an adventure –”
“No, I'm good, I'm good. I can't wait to hear some more of your stories, though.”
“Awesome! Let me tell you one of actually good ones. Like about the tree at the –”
“Just a minute. I really want to hear your stories. But the problem is, I'd love to spend all afternoon hearing them. And then we won't get to the thing we were going to do first.”
“Which thing – oh yeah, the thing that got me angry. Way to pick out another downer,” I said.
“Is it that bad?”
“Do you know Tierze and Breck?” I said quietly.
“I hope she dumps him already,” Yali muttered.
“I know, right? He treats her like shit! And I like her. Not in a romantic way, just in an I-really-don't-want-anything-bad-to-happen-to-her way. So I can't stand it when I see him talking down to her. But that's not the real problem. Not the real problem for me, I mean. Or it wasn't at first. It was just, you know…” I paused, fishing for words.
“Just your normal. Your 'mad, but not really mad'.”
“Yeah, that's it. But then…” I grimaced. “There was this one time when Breck was, like, pushing her around, putting her down in front of everybody, and I told him to stop it. But he just kept at it, like he was daring me to do something about it. So I kind of punched him a little bit.”
“A little bit.”
“Okay, fine, more than a little bit. But it's not like I put him in the hospital or anything. He was fine. But a couple days later, Tierze came up to me in private and told me that he was acting really bitter about it, and he was dumping all the blame on her.”
“Yeah. She basically begged me to leave him alone, to make sure that wouldn't happen again. And I obviously couldn't say no to that, you know? She's the victim here. But now whenever I see them talking together, it's like… I'm so mad, but I can't do anything about it. I just stew about it, for, like, an hour.”
“Only an hour? Not longer?”
“Hey! An hour is a long time! For me, anyway.”
“I'm not judging. You can keep going.”
“That's the whole story though. It just sucks.” I idly kicked the leg of the table. “So… what do you think? Do you see any way we can use this? Seems hard.”
“True. We probably shouldn't get me an abusive boyfriend in order to make you mad.”
“Oh my gods, I can't believe you even thought of that.”
Yali chuckled. Then she focused again. “These two stories have a lot in common,” she said.
“Think about it. In both of them, you accidentally – Well, I was going to say 'accidentally hurt', but it wasn't you who hurt – actually, it was other people who did the actual hurting, both times. But you felt responsible. And both times, the person who got hurt was a girl you like.”
“That… I guess they are really similar.”
“And both of them… don't have any closure, and they end with you feeling like you don't know what you can do about it.” Yali looked at me. “Would you say you felt… helpless?”
“Ugh, I don't want to say I felt like that, but I don't know… maybe? Why do you ask?”
“'Anger turns helplessness into strength,'” Yali intoned.
“Hey, is that a quote from somewhere?”
“We had a book full of sayings in the, the, when I was growing up. It was a really old book, so it still had some of the Blood God's sayings, from back when the Blood God was worshipped. That's one of them.”
“'Anger turns helplessness into strength,'” I repeated, trying it out. “I can see that. I'm not sure it's always true, though.”
There was a pause. We ate a few more bites in silence.
“So,” I began, “Where are you going with all this?”
Yali hesitated. “My idea is to, to, to explore your ways of feeling anger. So that we know what we have to work with.” She looked at me squarely. “I want you to try to put yourself back in that situation. Feel all the pain and anger – or, no, feel all the pain and helplessness, and let it lead you to anger.”
“Okay…” I thought back to sometime when Breck was harassing Tierze. He was such a fucking asshole. I wished I could just smash his stupid face in. Was I supposed to still be mad about it, though?
“Eh...” I said.
“I saw you grimace for a moment there.”
“Yeah, it sort of worked, just like those other times. But, like, it's in the past, right? I can't just get mad about it again just because I want to. Like, I'm here with you now, it's different.”
“That's the problem… a…”
Yali didn't answer. She was deep in thought. I wanted to know what she was thinking, but I knew how she got when she was like this – if I tried to interrupt her, she'd just mumble something incomprehensible and then take even longer.
I finished my food. Yali finished hers and pushed her plate aside. She was still looking down in silence.
“So, are you going to –” I began.
“I've had an idea.” Then she was quiet again.
“…okay, spit it out.”
“It's, it's, I don't know if it's okay.”
“Just tell me.”
Yali fidgeted with her plate. “You are too comfortable. I've never seen you stay uncomfortable for very long. I don't mean physically, I mean, you always, whenever something hurts you, you always find a way to say, 'well that's no big deal'.” Yali swallowed. “I wonder what would happen if you couldn't do that. What if I – we – put you through a, an ordeal, where you couldn't make yourself comfortable…”
“You can do that?”
“Maybe I can,” she said gravely.
“Well now I'm curious.”
“I can tell you what I'm thinking of –”
“No, don't tell me, I bet it'll work better if I don't know what's coming.”
“You – you're acting like you're actually excited about it…?”
“Come on, ever since you told me yesterday, I've been wondering, what the hell is it going to feel like to have the fucking –” I glanced around to see make sure no one was listening “– you-know-what in my head making me angry all over the place? How would I handle that? So, this 'ordeal' you've got, I know it won't be the same, but if it's going to be something like it, I want to see what it's like, sign me up, when do we start –”
Yali took my hand. Her voice was soft and serious. “Before we make plans, I want to make sure you've thought through whether you really want to do this. It's okay if you say no, or that I'm dragging you into things too fast.”
“I'm fine with it. I literally just said –”
“Stop. Just this once, can I ask you to take some time and think it through? If this works, it'll be a really unpleasant experience for you. So I don't want to jump into it unless you're sure about it.”
“How bad can it be?” I said. Yali stared back at me. “Fuck, I bet that's exactly what you didn't want me to say. Okay, give me a minute.” I said. I looked down at the table. What was I supposed to do, though – think like a careful person? What would a careful person do in this situation? “Okay, so I want to challenge myself, but I guess I need to be worried about, uh... like if it could cause lasting damage to my psyche? That's just, like, no way – I'm not a 'lasting damage to my psyche' sort of person. Or if it… messes up our relationship? But I'll know you're just doing it because, you know –”
Yali was looking at me.
“Oh my gods, you're giving me that look, I bet I'm totally putting my foot in it, aren't I.”
“No! You, you…” she shifted uneasily, “you're thinking exactly how you should be.”
I leaned in towards her. “You're just that worried about hurting me, huh?”
Yali flushed. I didn't understand how she was acting. Had I said something wrong? “Er,” I began, “I didn't mean to, uh –”
“You're fine.” Yali hesitated, then squeezed my hand. “We can do this.” And just like that, it was decided. And also just like that, Yali was back to being calm and collected, like always. She did insist on going over what things I'd be okay with, even going into detail about the the stuff we'd already talked about the other day. Things like “But if I hit you, what if it leaves a mark?” And of course, I was like “Haha, no one will think twice if they see I got slapped by somebody.” But that was her way of doing things, so I didn't argue with it. Finally, she ran out of things to ask about, and said, “If I think of anything else, I'll text you. Like, I'll think of things to do during the ordeal, and you can tell me if you're okay with them, and you can also tell me if you think they'd make you angry.”
“Got it. So when will we –”
“I'll need at least a few days to plan. And then… we'll have to find a day when were both free for a long time.”
“Will your parents let you stay out late on a Friday night?”
I laughed. “Sorry, but you just sounded like my sister.”
“I didn't know you had a sister.”
“Yeah, she's like six years older than me though, so I don't see her much. She's, like, a photographer on the second layer now or something. Anyway, whenever she visits my parents, she's like, 'Wow, you let Rinn go out on the weekends?' And my parents are like, 'No, we don't let Rinn go out on the weekends, –'”
Yali finished my sentence along with me. “' – she just does go out on the weekends.'” Yali suppressed a smile. “I love you, but be careful. I don't want to see you taking any risks with your parents on my account.”
“Oh, don't be such a – wait, shit, you mean because of the – what you Saw.”
“Just be careful.”
“Fine, I'll be careful. But this isn't really a risk, I do it all the time. They'd more suspicious if I started acting all obedient.”
Yali relaxed a little. “So, next Friday it is then?”
Having to do pointless tasks?
For the ordeal. Is it okay to do, and would it make you angry?
Yeah that really pisses me off, go for it
Having to sit still for a long time?
You really need to ask about that?
Even if it's obvious to you, just think of it as a way to make ME more comfortable with it. Just say ok if it's ok, ok?
and also it's ok
and also yeah I can't stand it
Something was off about Yali the next time we spoke. She was just as affectionate as usual, but even while she was clasping my hands in hers, she wasn't quite there. I talked, but she wasn't really paying attention.
“What's up?” I said finally. She didn't seem to notice, so I repeated it. “What's up? You seem totally out-of-it.”
She focused a little. “It's true. I'm not feeling well.”
“Oh no! Is there any way I can help? I'll totally pamper you, I'll bring you breakfast in bed…”
“You, you don't need to do anything.”
“You gonna be okay?”
“…should be… after Friday. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to space out on you like –”
“Wait, is this about the ordeal?! You've gotta take care of yourself! First you burnt yourself out looking in the future, and now you're already working hard on –”
“Shh. It's, it's easier this way.”
“You're doing all this stuff for me, at least you've gotta let me help you back somehow! Come on!”
Yali looked away and didn't answer. Ugh, when we'd said we'd do the thing next Friday, I didn't think we wouldn't get to spend time together normally before that! At least if I could help her out, I'd get to be with her.
“There's gotta be something!” I went on.
Yali kept staring past me. “I'll, I'll tell you if I need anything.”
Stern take it, that was not the answer I was looking for. But it wasn't like I could complain about it. It was Yali. I'd just have to put up with waiting until she was back to her regular self again.
But as that Friday got closer, I didn't feel so frustrated. Instead, I was excited. What did Yali have in store for me? Sitting in class on Friday morning, I couldn't think of anything else. The things she was texting me were just tiny glimpses into it.
Just then, another one came in.
Being denied food?
It was during class, but I held my phone under the table to text her back.
and I guess itd be annoying but
It doesn't need to anger you directly. Hunger will make you emotionally weaker.
Skip lunch today.
you coulda told me earlier >_<
I could have. But then you'd have been more prepared for it.
screwwww you lol
And she'd texted it to me, too, even though she was probably just a few classrooms away and could totally have told me in person. And it was during class, so I couldn't even show my reaction on my face! So evil. I grinned inwardly. She'd really gotten me good.
At lunch, I played it off as if I was just skipping on impulse, like it was one of those weird desires they say the Seeking God puts in people. But by the end of the day, I was starving. I mean, it wasn't anything I couldn't handle, but I don't think I could've concentrated on my classes even if I'd wanted to. As soon as the final bell rang, I grabbed my things and ran out of the school as fast as I could, then started heading to Yali's place. Yali probably hadn't left so fast, but she'd get ahead of me anyway when she took the bus.
As I ran, I got another text from her.
One last thing. I plan to make you feel like you have no way out. But the truth is, you always have the right to back out of this. No matter what I say, if you say you don't want to do this anymore, I'll respect that.
As I got close to Yali's house, I all but forgot my hunger. I felt myself tensing up. I had no idea what was coming. I mean, we'd discussed all those things, but I didn't know what it was really going to be like.
I rang the doorbell.
The door cracked open. Yali's voice, tired and tense, came through the crack. “Come in. Don't touch me. Don't look directly at me.”
I let myself in. I wanted to run straight to her and hug her, like I always did, but she'd said not to… “So, are you –”
She said it so dismissively, like she didn't even care. She paced a few steps away from me. “I will keep you here,” she said, “until you're so angry that you are willing to punch me. That is your only way out of this ordeal. Now,” she faced me again and pointed to her stomach, “punch me once for practice. Right here. So you'll know what to do when the time comes.”
I made a fist, then hesitated. “Are you sure this is okay?”
“Just do it.”
She was asking me to… But I couldn't punch Yali! I loved her! It was just wrong!
“Stop wasting my time.”
I was frozen. I had to do it. But I couldn't. “I –”
Yali grabbed my arm and slammed it into her stomach so hard that it hurt my wrist a little. “There. Like that. Now you do it.”
“Woah! You're gonna hurt yourself!”
“I'll do it again if you don't.”
I – I couldn't let her get hurt. I swung my fist like she told me to, just not very hard. It bounced off her body weakly.
“Fine,” she said. “But that was pathetic. Now sit in the chair.”
I stepped back and laughed nervously. “Ha ha, I know you're only saying this to make me angry.”
I knew she was only doing it to make me angry. But I couldn't stop a sickening doubt from creeping in. Yali wouldn't say that stuff to me, but… she wasn't acting like Yali at all. Her arms were slack, and all her movements were deadened. She wasn't reacting normally when I moved or said anything. And her voice was cold and flat, like when she had tried to make me mad on the first day.
Reluctantly, I sat in the chair.
“Sit up straight. Don't look back at me. Only look at the table in front of you.”
I immediately wanted to look back at her. Why did looking at the table suddenly make me feel trapped? I was sure I'd stared at tables plenty of times without thinking about it. Okay, I said to myself. It's just a stupid wooden table. Just look at the wood grain. You've done this before. Look at the little patterns… Look at the… what's that?
“What are those for?” I asked, pointing at a collection of little wooden blocks.
“Stop talking. I'll explain when you need to know.”
I waited. Moments passed in silence, with Yali just standing there behind me while I was stuck staring at the table. My hunger started bothering me again. Ugh, she was making me wait on purpose. Come on, Yali, just get on with it. I get the point, you're trying to piss me off, but… That was just it, wasn't it? The waiting was part of the ordeal. Well, I could handle a bit of waiting. I sighed and settled in for the long-haul –
“Those blocks are your job for today. Stack them end-to-end until they're eight blocks tall.”
Well, that was “having to do pointless tasks” all right. “Fine,” I said, and reached for the blocks.
“I told you to stop talking. Don't make a sound unless I give you permission.”
“Fin– Oh. Right,” I said. Yali snorted. I grinned internally. That was the Yali I knew, that affectionate laughter when I jumped into saying the wrong thing.
“Get going,” she said, quickly acting all cold again. But maybe her cold mask wasn't that tough after all.
I took the blocks and started stacking them. Of course, they fell over after I'd only stacked up about three or four of them.
“Pathetic. Do it again.”
I started again, carefully balancing each block on top of the previous one. When I balanced the fourth one on top of the stack, it started to wobble. Getting to eight would be just impossible. I wasn't going to give up so easily, though. I delicately lowered the fifth block into place, and took my hand away…
The whole thing tumbled into a pile.
I did it again. And again, and again. I could definitely see how this was supposed to piss me off. I'd barely started, and I already couldn't wait for it to be over. But there was no way I'd be beaten so easily. I just focused on what was in front of me. It became a little ritual. Two blocks on... three blocks on... four... and it all comes down. And start again... two blocks on... three...
Hunger ground away at me. I resolutely ignored it. It didn't matter if I was used to eating three meals a day plus three or four snacks, I was not going to let this hunger get the better of me. I just had to focus on what I was doing. Two blocks on... three...
...and it all comes down.
What the fuck, was I getting worse at balancing the blocks? I gathered them up impatiently to start again. Wait a minute, what was even the point of being impatient? I was never going to finish.
I sighed and grabbed another black to start again. Something slapped me on the cheek.
“Ow! What the –”
“No talking. Keep looking at what you're doing.”
Yali had slapped me with a meterstick. When I looked back at the blocks, she slapped me again, but I just gritted my teeth and kept working. I stared at the blocks dully. My hands kept going through the motions. My stomach growled. Every so often, the meterstick slapped me again.
“You know, you're not hitting me very hard. You could –”
I kept working. Yali kept hitting me, but not any harder. Fuck, she was doing it on purpose! If she hit me harder, at least I'd have the pain to focus on. But this just left me unfulfilled, it was just distracting and fucking annoying! Well fuck you, too! I clenched my hand around a block and –
Wait a minute. I couldn't think like that. I wasn't supposed to get pissed off so easily. This is just a challenge, I started repeating to myself. I can beat this. I am in control. Every time the meterstick slapped me again, I repeated it again: This is just a challenge. Every time the hunger invaded my mind again, I repeated it: This is just a challenge. I am in control.
Time dragged on. I was locked in the routine. Trapped in the chair, getting stiffer and more restless by the minute. Yali wouldn't even let me look up from the table. I noticed that the shadows were at a different angle than they used to be. How long had it been?
Behind me, I heard Yali put down the meterstick and stand up. I paused, wondering what she was going to do next.
“Keep going,” she said coldly.
I gritted my teeth and kept stacking the blocks, even though it was hopeless. I was tempted to look at that what she was doing, but some stubborn streak in me kept me looking at the table. Fuck you, I don't need a break anyway. Plus, pretty soon it was obvious.
Yali was microwaving herself some food. The smell drove me crazy. When I got out of there, I was going to make myself a fucking feast. I was going to pile on everything I loved into one giant super-meal, and anyone who didn't like it could go Seek their way into a hole in the ground. I was going to – No. No. I was going to, I told myself very firmly, keep putting one block on top of the other. And another. I was in control.
Yali sat down behind me again and started fucking chewing her food right there behind me.
Fuck you. Fuck you! I wanted to spin around and grab the plate right away from her. What a twisted thing she was doing. I wanted to punch her in the face and gobble it all down right in front of her and then –
No, I couldn't think like that! I couldn't! By all the five gods, I would never hurt Yali, NEVER!
I slammed the next block down in front of me.
I'd never hurt her in a million years!
I slammed the next block on top of it.
I wouldn't do it even if you –
“Quit being childish,” said Yali. “Stack the blocks nicely.”
I glared at the table, and I was glad that at least she was behind me and couldn't see that. I forced the my hands to go back to stacking the blocks “nicely”. I hated that word.
Time dragged on into the evening. Everything was slowly tearing me apart. Hunger ate away on my insides. My back was sore from sitting in the chair for so long. And at some point, I'd gotten a headache, bashing at my skull with every heartbeat.
I had to go to the toilet a couple of times. Each time, Yali made me wait a while before going. When I went, she made me hurry up and didn't give me time to stretch. The tantalizing relief for my legs and back only made things worse when I sat down again.
And then a miracle happened. I got six blocks standing stably on top of each other. With trembling fingers, I lifted a seventh one to the top of the stack, before it slowly, agonizingly, went to pieces again.
“I almost had it! I got seven!”
“I told you to go to eight,” Yali said dismissively. “Seven isn't – oh, silly me!” she interrupted herself in her normal voice, and I felt a rush of hope in the middle of the awful grind. But then she snapped back. “I see that was too much for you. From now on, you'll be doing stacks of two.”
...too easy. I had a sinking feeling already.
I made a stack of two, and then another stack. It didn't feel like anything. Slowly, helplessly, I could feel my head filling with a rage that I had no way to tune out. With the stack-of-eight thing, at least I'd been able to pretend I was going to get somewhere. But now I had nothing to look forward to. I couldn't even look forward to having them all stacked up in pairs, because Yali just slapped them down with her meterstick as soon as I had more than a few of them.
The pain, the hunger, the anger, it was all too much. Everything was closing in on me. I clenched my fist, and Yali just slapped it and ordered me to relax. How was I supposed to relax? My head was pounding so hard. I mechanically tried to open my hand and keep working, but it was shaking too hard to even grip the blocks. I had to get out of here. I jerked to my feet, shoving the chair out from under me.
My head pounded. Yali's voice echoed into my mind, ordering me to sit back down. But somewhere, dimly, I knew what I had to do. I turned towards Yali, my fists clenched at my sides. Then I froze.
Yali was there facing me. With my eyes, I automatically reached out for her warmth, but there was nothing there. Only the cold, unfeeling Yali stared back at me. Silently judging me, daring me to finish what I'd started. It was like we were facing off in a tunnel. I felt closed in. There was no world around me, only Yali in front of me, my pounding head, and my clenched fists. And I was supposed to – But I couldn't, I couldn't, I couldn't!
“Get on with it,” she said coldly. “Hit me or get back in the chair.”
I stood there frozen.
“Get on with it. Stop wasting my time. You know how much effort I went through to set this up? If you're not going to do as I say, you're wasting it. You're wasting everything I've done for you. Hit me or get back in the chair.”
I had to! But I couldn't! But...
“You're not going to do it? Then sit down, shut up, and get back to work.”
I was being crushed. That should have sent me over the edge. But it didn't. All the energy had gone out of me. I did the only thing I could do. Dully, I stumbled back to the chair.
I sat down.
I took a look at the blocks.
I reached out a shaky hand.
Something snapped inside me. Before I knew what was happening, I had flung myself out of the chair, leapt towards where Yali was standing, and –
“No, no, no, no, NO!” I screamed. I stumbled backwards and grabbed my fist in my other shaking hand, as if I could take back what I'd just done. But there was no taking it back. My arm could still feel the shock from the impact.
“Rinn, it's okay, it's –”
It didn't matter that Yali was talking like her normal self again. Nothing mattered. Terror flooded through me. “I – we – we're gonna die! In the Otherworld, I'm gonna lose it, and I'll – and – and – we're both gonna die!”
“Rinn, that's not –” Yali moved towards me.
I backed away. I just knew I couldn't be near her. “Remember what you said about Aihael! He said it was more anger than he'd ever felt! If that's what's gonna happen, then this was nothing! NOTHING! You're ONE person! A HUMAN! This was ONE day! If this can break me, the Blood God is going to break me into a million pieces and then I – and then you'll be dead and then I'll be dead and it'll be all my fault and – Oof!”
Yali's big arms closed around me. She pulled me into a hug even as I shook and half-struggled to get away. I was so sure that just touching me would hurt her. I was going to ruin everything. Why couldn't she see it?
But deep inside me, another part was desperately craving her touch, grateful that she wouldn't let me go.
“Rinn, Rinn, Rinn...” she whispered, holding me tight. I could only see her face out of the corner of my eye, but was she... actually grinning? What in the Endless Maze was going on here...? “This is exactly what we planned on! I knew something like this would happen, and I know just what to do next. We are going to make it. We are going to make it.”
I willed myself to believe it. But everything was getting too real, too fast. There was nothing for me to think. There was only my pounding headache and my body slumped against hers.
“But first,” said Yali, “let's get some food in you.”