The pain crept through her like necrosis through frostbite, grew out from her spine like tumours or dandelions. It seeped through her skin until it dyed her back in crosshatched scar tissue, burning as hot as the day the Kiddie Catcher first branded it into her. It was a slow pain. The kind of pain you don’t even notice until it has chewed right through your ribcage and sunk its teeth into your heart.
Bonnie was reading by candlelight when the pain set in. Though she had experienced many exotic pains over her tragically long life, Bonnie Blue hated the slow pain the worst. It wasn’t a long pain, nor was it even particularly painful, relatively, at least. What truly hurt was the anticipation. Because the real pain always came after. Although Bonnie hadn’t felt the pain in well over five years, on feeling the first tingles ripple through her body, she soon found herself transported back to the Canary Farm. The classroom she wished she could forget, the Reading Chair in the atrium.
As soon as Bonnie could move again, as soon as she was finished wiping off her mascara, as soon as she confirmed what she had always feared by the light of the girl’s small handheld mirror, Bonnie dug the stained penknife out of its hidden compartment in her luggage and took off down the dark, winding corridors.
What Bonnie found within the dance hall was a scene that felt more like dream than reality. Snow slowly fell from the ceiling, the flakes disappearing as soon as they touched the floor. All around the room were dancers who no longer danced, held in suspension, looks of fear and wonder frozen on their faces. An old lady in a pink dress knelt on the floor, tongue stuck out like a gargoyle. It was as if time itself had stopped for the crowd. Nobody moved, not even to breathe.
Nobody except the two in the corner. A large man had another pinned against a wall, hands wrapped around their neck. The victim kicked, but it did no good. The man only squeezed harder and lifted his prey off the ground.
“Hey! Dingus!”, shouted Bonnie, “Leave him alone!”
The larger man looked back in surprise and Bonnie was shocked to see the face of Darren Cur staring back at her. “Bonnie?” he began to say, but was interrupted by a beam of light that tore cleanly through his chest cavity. There was a moment of shocked stillness before Darren collapsed backward, open-eyed and lifeless.
“No!” Bonnie surprised herself with the shrillness of her own voice. “Darren!”
The Attendant stood over the body, massaging his neck, stunned expression on his face. For a moment, he looked about to say something, but instead turned tail and fled into the passenger quarters.
Bonnie rushed to Darren’s corpse. Without a trace of hesitation, she drew the penknife and plunged it deep into her own heart. The numbness set in immediately. The cold came soon after. It spread through her body like weeds in a garden, kudzu climbing through her veins. Freezing her blood, turning her flesh, bone, and sinew into granite. She watched the snowflakes slow in their fall, eventually stopping altogether, suspended in mid-air. For the moment, at least, time itself had stopped.
She smelled rust, tasted it on her tongue.
“I’ve bled, I bleed, I’ll bleed for you.” Bonnie scratched the phrase in flaming letters on the inside of her mind, as was required. “I gave, I give, I’ll give myself to you. I cage my soul to make you free. Bill Whistle, Man of Rust, King of None, Rat in The Cage. Grant me audience, I want to give.”
A silent minute passed. Bonnie felt the anxiety begin to bloom. It had been so long. Would Bill still speak with her? Before she could finish the thought, a lock clicked deep inside her mind. The door that we all hold within our souls did something that it so seldom did for people like us – it opened. And from it came a voice that grated at the mind like time to the body.
“Well, if it isn’t Bonnie Blue. How you doing, babe? And here I’d thought you’d forgotten all about me.”
“Shut it. I need you to fix him.” She focused her mind on Darren, smoke leaking from the hole in his chest. “I’ll pay. Any price.”
“What’s the rush? No time to chat with an old friend? Sure, I can bring him back. Anything for you, love.” There was a pause, and Bonnie felt Bill smile inside her, a horrible, crippling smile. “But see, this operation’s tricky. And it won’t come cheap. We’re dealing in life now; only proper we deal in its currency. You know how many years your boy had left in him before he bit the bullet? How much would you pay for one more year?”
“I said any price. Name it.”
Mm. For anyone else, I’d say fifteen years. That’s fifteen of your years for every one that Darren lives from here on.”
“What! That’s absolute beans! What sort of equivalent exchange is that?”
“See, I’m not sure you’re in any position to make demands. Fortunately for you, I’m feeling generous. To celebrate the return of our prodigal daughter, I’ll do the operation for a measly sixty years up front. No strings attached.”
Bonnie might have reeled at the price were she able to move in the time-locked room. Sixty years in life is already a long time, but in the House of Whistle, it might as well be an eternity. By the time she finished, there wouldn’t be much of her left worth finishing for. But the alternative? “Okay. Sixty years up front. Do it, Rat.”
She watched as the flaps of Darren’s burnt flesh twitched and quivered, before stretching and stitching themselves back together. Pieces of his meat rotted and withered away, revealing new, shiny nuggets wriggling like maggots, knitting themselves into place. Entropy reversed. In seconds, the hole in Darren’s chest was filled by a mass of scar tissue. Patchwork skin, patchwork organs.
“Be seeing you, Bonnie Blue.”
The penknife clanged to the floor, and as it did, Bonnie felt the warmth return to her core. Time began ticking again. The wound in her chest remained as a receipt, but her bleeding had stopped. Curiously, it wasn’t blood that leaked from the cut, but a black oil that stank like rust.
A loud cough and a convulsion. Another twitch, another cough; Bonnie watched the briefly deceased Darren Cur gasp and stumble back into the living world. She embraced him. What else could she do?
“What,” croaked the man, “what did you do?” Leaning to the side, he hacked up a glob of foul-smelling black oil, thick as tar.
“Shh, it’s okay. Just some minor repairs. You got shot in the chest, but he missed anything important.”
“That’s beans, Bonnie.”
“Hey, lie down. You’re still weak.”
Groaning, Darren conceded and slouched into a half-sitting, half-lying position. “Stars, Bonnie. She’s here. On the ship. The Wet Nurse.” He coughed up more black phlegm. “She took the girl. I’m so sorry.”
Bonnie’s face tightened. “I knew it. I knew this would happen. Where is she?”
“I… was a bit preoccupied. Didn’t get to interview her. I think she went to the deck?”
Rising to her feet, the pink-haired magician grabbed her penknife and headed for the door. “You wait here. I don’t know what magic is locking these people in place, but I’ll need you to watch over them. I’m going to finish this.”
Darren held her gaze. “Bonnie. Be careful. I can’t bring you back to life.”
“Worry about yourself, dummy. I’m always careful.”
Darren watched Bonnie slip out the door. When he was sure she’d gone, he ran his hand over the mess of scars on his chest. A near perfect circle of rough meat and knotted skin. Slowly, methodically, he loaded six ashwood bullets into his revolver. With the same deliberation, he struggled to his feet. One final look at the frozen room and Darren was gone, limping past the door to the passenger quarters. He had three rings for each fist. Rings of amber, ashwood, and gallows rope. He intended to use them. A lapse in focus let the Attendant get the better of him earlier. This time, he will afford no such opportunity.