16: Power Struggle

on June 20, 2007 in 01: Welcome Weekend

In Which Is Discussed The Price Of A Pillow

After a while, I was emotionally drained enough to sort of drift off, only to wake up when I became aware of the unpleasant smell of burnt cotton in my nostrils. It was a scent I’d once been used to waking up to, but it carried with it some pretty unpleasant memories and a pretty strong sense of shame. It had been a long time since I’d had such an “accident”, though, and since I didn’t think I’d even fallen properly asleep, it took me a while to realize why I was smelling it.

When Puddy had given me the burnt pillow, I’d left it damaged-side down on my bed, without ever really looking at it… now I flipped it over to see if it was just the outer covering, or if the pillow itself was damaged… yep, it was. There were holes burned clear through the fabric, and the pillow inside was visibly scorched.

I looked over at Puddy’s bed. There were no less than four empty Chardonnay bottles lying around it. How had she gone through that much wine in twenty-four hours? I didn’t drink, but it seemed like a lot to me.

The pillow that had been mine had been flung into the corner of the bed, back where the walls met. Puddy wasn’t around. If I switched them back now, what would she do? If she tried to make me take the burned one back again, I’d… well, I’d tell her no. Maybe. There was always the chance that she’d realize I wasn’t going to take the burned pillow and never say another word about it.

Yeah, right. That sounded exactly like what Puddy would do.

I took the burnt pillow–Puddy’s pillow, I told myself–over to the other bed. Setting it down, I started to reach for the other pillow… my pillow, I reminded myself. Mine.

“Just what exactly do you think you’re doing?” Puddy asked sharply, from the still-open door. I started, and looked up to see her standing there with her arms crossed, a very stern and un-Puddy-like expression her face. She had another bottle, mostly empty, in her hand.

Alcohol aside, she looked and sounded exactly like somebody’s mother… hers, I would guess, though I’ve never met her mother, so I couldn’t say for certain. The impression of motherliness was so strong, it wasn’t even funny.

It should have been, of course. It should have been hilarious. If life made any kind of sense, then somebody who owned a minifridge full of pudding pops would not be able to imitate their own mother for anything other than comedic effect. It just wouldn’t work.

It did work, though.

“I…” stammered a few times, but of course, I was frozen under her glare.

This was stupid. She’d took my pillow. It was her own fault I’d singed hers. If she carried gold around with her, then it wasn’t as though she couldn’t afford to buy another one.

“That’s your pillow now,” she said, pointing at the one I’d set down. “You burn it, you buy it, okay? If you’re going to be sharing my room, then that’s the rule.”

“You mean… if we’re going to be sharing a room,” I managed to say, picking the pillow up anyway.

“That’s what I said,” Puddy said, with an air of exasperation. She gestured at the pillow in my hands. “Now, go put that back on your bed.”

“Are you even going to use this bed?” I asked her. It seemed like a fair question in my head, but it sounded rather impertinent outside of it.

“It’s the principle!” she said. “I only have three of them: never eat anything you don’t want to… never let ’em see you bleed.. and never, ever let anybody take what’s yours. So, you can just step the fuck away from my bed, and put that thing back where you got it.”

When I stood there doing nothing, she jabbed her finger at my bed. I slunk back towards it, putting the pillow back where it had been. She watched me, draining the rest of her wine in one long pull.

“Okay, so, I thought you might like to get a replacement pillow, so when I was at the union earlier I went to the commissary and looked it up in the catalogue,” Puddy said, with a “now that we’re all behaving reasonably” tone. She walked over to her bed as she spoke, setting the empty bottle down between the bed and her fridge. “Apparently, it’s three hundred and twenty copper for a new one. Can you believe that?”

She laughed. I didn’t.

“Two and a half silver for a stupid flat pillow?” I asked. “That’s fucking ridiculous… are they hand-woven by elves, or something? I’ll just get used to the burnt smell until I can get a cheapy replacement from the Walled Market in town.”

“Yeah, well, they’ll charge you for anything out of the room that has to be replaced when you clear out at the end of the year, so be ready for it,” Puddy said.

“You could help,” I said.

“Yeah, right,” Puddy said. “You already owe me fifty silver. Let’s not add any more to the tally until we figure out what you’re going to do about that.”

“I didn’t mean a loan,” I said. I sucked in my breath. “I meant… well, don’t… don’t you think maybe it’s at least halfway your fault?”

“How do you figure?”

“Well,” I said. “You kind of… um, in a way, you were the one who made me…”

“Didn’t we agree that I couldn’t make you do anything that you didn’t want to do?” Puddy erupted, stomping forward and striding up until she was inches away from me, yelling up into my face. “Didn’t you agree with me when I said that this morning?”

“But… that’s not what we were talking about,” I said, taking a step backwards.

“So, don’t try to push off responsibility for your actions onto me,” Puddy continued, jabbing a finger at me and completely ignoring my protest. Her breath positively dripped with wine. It smelled like she’d bathed in it.

“But, I just… I don’t really have that much money,” I reminded her.

“Oh, fine!” she said, turning away and throwing up her arms. “We can take it off of what you owe… but only one silver, because it was mostly your fault. Anyway, it’s almost time for dinner. You should do something about your eyes before we go over to the hall. They’re all puffy.”

“Yeah… I don’t think I’m going,” I said.

Puddy’s mouth dropped. She looked as though I’d just slapped her.

“I just… I don’t really feel like it,” I said.

“Oh, you’re going,” Puddy said. “There are people who will be waiting for you.”

“Let them wait!” I said. “Just leave me alone… I’ve had a shitty day.”

I sat down on my bed, hugging the scorched pillow to my chest. I didn’t need this. How was I supposed to care about a stupid student election and a trumped-up equality issue, after what I’d seen in the hall?

“We don’t have time for shitty days… the election is in two weeks!” Puddy said, aghast.

‘I don’t care,” I said. “I’m going to tell Kiersta to take my name out.”

Or, more likely, I’d just ignore the whole thing and let somebody else win. That would probably be easier.

“But people are counting on you to change things around here!” Puddy said.

‘You run,” I said. “You’re good at making people do what you want. I’d just crumble the first time somebody looked at me.”

“Oh, you would not!” Puddy said, so forcefully I was tempted to agree with her… as clear an indication of the problem as any, right?

“Yes, I would,” I said. “I try being brave… I try standing up…” I choked on a sob. I was picturing the poor cat girl curled up on the floor again… hearing the brutal sounds from behind the door again…

Puddy drew closer. I was actually afraid she was going to hit me, until I looked up and saw the tender expression on her face.

“But don’t you see, Mack?” she said, more gently. “You are brave.”

“I’m not!” I said… no, actually I wailed. I was losing control, breaking down. Maybe that sounds lame. If you didn’t see how hurt and scared Kai looked, if you didn’t hear the awful sounds…

I’d seen… I’d heard… but I hadn’t helped her. I didn’t stop it. I could have helped Kai, and I didn’t. I was selfish. I was bad. I wasn’t brave. How could Puddy stand there and tell me I was? Didn’t she know how bad I was?

“Oh, don’t cry,” she said. “Look, see? You tried standing up to me. You wouldn’t have before. You can’t expect to change all at once, but it’s only been a day, and you’re already changing for the better.”

“I didn’t… it’s not… you don’t…” I stammered, but I couldn’t seem to get a sentence out. I was still sobbing.

“No, listen,” Puddy said gently. She climbed up on the bed beside me, folding her legs beneath her. “I was the first friend you made here, and I know I can get a little… pushy,” she said, holding up her hand and shaking it a little as she said the last word, “and that makes it really brave.”

She reached out to touch the hair at the side of my face. I tensed up, but didn’t stop her. I felt that it was another one of those moments like with Amaranth. I could be a better friend by living with a little discomfort, so I raised up my face and just let her touch me.

Only, she didn’t touch my hair.

She smacked me on the side of my face with the back of her hand.

I gasped, in surprise as much as in pain. No, actually… it was mostly pain. This girl was strong. One sixty-fourth dwarf blood did that?

“It also makes it pretty fucking stupid,” she said sharply. She was close enough that I could smell the wine again. Her eyes were somehow distant and very, very intense. “You stand up to other people… but not me, or I will give you something to fucking cry about. You got that?”

I stared at her. You know how when you first meet somebody who’s like all zany, and you think, “Oh, wow, she’s, like, so fucking crazy!” and you just know you’re going to like them? Imagine that you have to live with that person for the length of a school year, and you find yourself starting to wonder if she isn’t actually fucking crazy?

Puddy had gone back into full-on Angry Mom Mode, but there was more to it than that. It was like I was looking at her and seeing somebody else looking back at me, somebody strange and alarming who had crawled beneath her skin from the outside… or else up from somewhere deep inside her. I don’t mean like she was possessed or something… I’ve seen that shit, and it’s different, trust me.

Strangely, I found myself wondering what Puddy’s mom was like… how much of what I was seeing came from her.

“You got that?” she repeated angrily. When I didn’t immediately answer, she slapped me again, reminding me that it wasn’t Puddy’s mom that I had to deal with.

“Why do you have to do things like that?” I asked her, wincing.

“Because in this life, if you’re not on the top then you’re on the bottom,” Puddy said. She stood up. “I like you, Mack… I really do… but when I came here I made up my mind that I’m not going to be on the bottom for anybody.” She crossed her arms. “I’d die first.”

I just stared at her. My own words from earlier came back to me, about pushing or being pushed. Was that what I had sounded like?

“Now, I am not going to go through this with you again at every single meal time,” Puddy continued. “We are going to the dining hall for dinner. Tomorrow morning, we are going there for breakfast, and then back again for lunch, and dinner after that. I could knock you down and fucking drag you over there, but I’m not going to. You either do this for me, or I’ll… I’ll just drop you. One-hundred-percent cold shoulder for the rest of the year. No friendly face waiting when you get back to the room. Nobody to talk to in the lounge. I don’t think you could stand that… could you?”

“I thought you were my friend,” I said.

Okay.

I know, as you read this, you’re probably thinking, “What about Amaranth? She was your friend! You should have told Puddy to take a flying leap. You could have switched rooms and hung out with Amaranth all year!”

Yeah, hindsight’s a ball of laughs, but when then and there was the here and now, Puddy was so in my face that she was the only I could see, and she’d pushed all the right buttons. Besides that, the idea of having another friend who I could count on to stand by me was still almost foreign enough to be incomprehensible to me at that point.

“Oh, I am,” Puddy said, and just like that her face took on a bit of the silly, friendly smirk she wore when goofing off or hollering at girls. Her eyes were the same vacantly angry eyes she’d had since she slapped me, though. It was… disconcerting. “I am your friend, Mack… and we’ll be really good friends, as long you remember that I’m on top, and you’re on bottom… I lead, you follow… I’m the big dog, you’re the little bitch. That’s the only way I work… and if you’re honest with yourself, it’s the only way you will, too.”

In that moment, I was afraid that she was right. I’d had a lot of big plans about changing and sticking up for myself and all that, but they weren’t working out so well, and honestly, it would just be so damned easy to just give in. I could be the same spineless loser I’d been in high school, and have a friend in the bargain. I might have hated her for it, but I couldn’t find it in me to argue with her.

“So, are we friends?” she asked me.

Worse, I think part of me kind of loved her for it.

“Yes,” I said. It was more of an exhalation than a word. It was an admission of surrender.

“Awesome!” Puddy said, and just like that, the scary person she’d become melted away. Puddy seemed perfectly normal… except for a tiny, knowing glint in her eyes when she looked at me. “So, let’s get you ready…”

I think the conscious part of her brain–the part that didn’t care about anything but pudding pops and girls–didn’t know or care enough about other people’s feelings to use them in any way.

On some level, though… some part of her was a master manipulator, with the sort of skill that has to be learned from birth… and that part of her knew that it had my number.


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10 Responses to “16: Power Struggle”

  1. Brenda says:

    Minor typo: “Puddy was so in my face that she was the only I could see”

    The only what?

    Current score: 0
    • Thanks! I’m not jumping on fixing these right away because I’m going to be going through these chapters progressively, but it’s useful to have the notes here.

      Current score: 0
  2. aqua says:

    huh, yeah i can see what someone was talking about beforehand about hating her. not sure what i think anymore

    Current score: 1
  3. Oh my god. She’s good.

    Current score: 0
  4. Curio says:

    Wow yeah if that we’re me putty woulda been barbacue in like seconds after hitting me ill take all the emotional shit hell I’m a pretty big cowerd but damn even I have a breaking point I meen really toast that bitch on an open fire allready

    Current score: 0
  5. Bob says:

    Wow, that’s… so fucking pathetic. Is she this pathetic through the whole story? If so, it’s not really worth reading. Who the hell actually puts up with shit like that from a WEAKER person? I mean, really, when you’re that pathetic it goes beyond being a victim to actually being a BAD person, because you’re the type of idiot who lets people like Puddy exist. Gonna be pretty impossible to have any sympathy at all for Mackenzie if she’s this much of a non-person throughout the whole story.

    Current score: 0
  6. earfluffy says:

    Oh wait, I do.

    Current score: 0
  7. T says:

    Agree with Bob. Can’t read this anymore. The main characters too much of a pussy. Jesus christ I don’t want to read a story about a pushover ever and i definitly don’t want to read a story about someone so pathetic that apparently has a lot of power. Giving it two more chapters, if main character is still a pathetic no-person im done…

    Current score: 0
  8. River says:

    As a counter to all the negative responses here, I’d like to say that I think you’re making a very realistic portrayal of someone having to deal with anxiety issues and low self worth. Almost nobody can change years worth of experiences, habits and personality traits within two days, and Mackenzie’s confidence issues and self undermining cognitive patterns are making it exceptionally difficult for her. These kind of things take a lot of time and effort to overcome, and I have complete confidence that in time she will learn, at her own pace. I find your story easy to relate to, and enjoy reading it.

    Current score: 8