Abyss

November 5, 2014 § 4 Comments

The morning air was almost bitingly cold, Andrew thought as he stepped out of the door of the farmhouse with his three dogs in tow. Out here, veritably in the middle of nowhere, he felt comfortable enough to have them run free instead of keeping them close and controlled by collars and leashes. They were real farm dogs, rough and wiry and strong and totally unlike the pampered city pooches that he had known for most of his life, and he couldn’t even begin to imagine how they’d respond to being leashed or harnessed. Luckily the main road was far off, and his land was criss-crossed only by snaking dirt roads that were hell on cars but good for foot traffic. He knew the dogs enjoyed their morning walks almost more than he did – coming up to winter, the wind was bracing, and physical exertion felt good. He set off at a brisk pace, the dogs lolling and loping around him chaotically, sniffing and marking as they went. He thought of nothing in particular – he had always loved the way that walking cleared his head – and was filled with a vague sense of thankfulness and well-being, glad that in his retirement years he still had the energy and stamina to move like this, with only a few aches and pains to remind him of years passed. He almost walked right past the disturbed ground next to the boundary fence, but the dogs swarmed to it like it was magnetic, and he followed their searching noses right to the single visible print of what looked like a work boot, standing in stark relief in the powdery red earth. His realization of what the curves and lines stamped into the dust in front of him meant came slowly; as they resolved into a solid shape before his eyes, he felt a prickle of discomfort slide down his spine, and he stepped closer and leaned down to examine the print, shouldering the dogs out of his way. That was the only clear mark in the ground; around it, everything was scuffed and indistinct. He wished that he knew more about tracking. Taking a few steps closer to the dirt road, he saw tyre tracks that looked fresher than the others, but he couldn’t be sure. The dogs milled around him, wondering at his strange behaviour, eager to continue their walk.
“Okay guys, come on,” he said, rumpled the ear or two that were in easy reach of his hand, and set off down the road again. It was probably nothing. The tyre tracks didn’t really look all that fresh after all. Probably just his imagination.

***

Walking back into the yard proper, he was convinced that he could smell the coffee his wife usually brewed while he was away on his morning walk. Back in the city, tea had been their drink of choice, but out here they had developed a taste for coffee – strong coffee, sweetened sinfully with condensed milk instead of sugar and topped up with creamy milk that the neighbours always seemed to be dropping off, insisting that they had too much of. It put a spring in his step and a renewed positivity filled him; he paused to fill the huge water bowl they kept outside for the dogs with a tumble of sparkling water from the outside tap, then he opened the kitchen door and wiped his shoes on the doormat, taking in the familiar sight of Jenny reading her newspaper at the kitchen table.
“How old is that one?” he asked her jokingly as he set about pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“A few days. Lienkie dropped it off when she was here earlier in the week. I miss reading the newspaper in the mornings, you know. It’s a comforting little ritual.” She responded in a dreamy voice without looking up from the paper, and lifted her coffee cup for an absent-minded half a sip.
“Yes, I get it. You can feel a little isolated out here. Any news from the kids?” One of the dogs flopped down under the table as Andrew spoke, and he stretched out a leg to rub its obliging belly.
“Nothing much. Kelly’s busy with the baby, John’s working himself to death at that new firm, the usual. They’re so busy I don’t expect them to chat too often. I’m just glad to know they’re well.” Jenny’s eyes remained on her newspaper.
Andrew spoke cautiously, still busy with the dog. “On our walk this morning I think I might have seen some tracks, perhaps. Close to the boundary fence, by the road that runs past the pond.” He watched as Jenny carefully put down her newspaper and turned to face him across the table.
“What kind of tracks?” Her voice was determinedly casual.
“A shoe print, and maybe tyre tracks. The earth was pretty scuffed, it was hard to tell. The dogs were interested but didn’t seem too concerned.”
They gazed at each other. Jenny lifted up her newspaper again. “Probably nothing. Maybe one of the neighbours, since it was so close to the boundary fence. You should ask over the radio when you have a chance.”
Andrew nodded and sipped at his coffee, the dog motionless against his feet.

***

“What was that?” Jenny was sitting up next to him in bed, and he could feel the tension in her muscles where her body touched his. Andrew rubbed his eyes blearily, propped himself up on an elbow, and strained his ears as he stared into the darkness of their bedroom. The dogs were silent but awake and he met their watchful eyes when he sat up properly.
“What’d you hear?” he whispered to her, trying to calm his breathing – it sounded so loud in his ears in the absolute stillness of the farm.
“I’m not sure. Just something strange,” she replied. “But the dogs don’t seem concerned.”
Andrew slid out of bed, careful to avoid the old mattress creaking or groaning, and tried to ignore the icy floor on his bare feet as he padded over to the window and peeked through the crack between the curtain and the wall. The yard was dark – the dim outside lights and the moon combined still couldn’t do much to penetrate the deep wild blackness outside. He didn’t see anything or anyone moving, but he wished for a brief moment that he actually owned a gun, despite his lifelong dislike of the things. It might be a nice feeling to have something so violent and dangerous at one’s fingertips and in one’s control.
Jenny’s voice broke his train of thought as she whispered emphatically, “well?” and he turned around with a shrug of his shoulders.
“I don’t see anything,” he apologised.
Then an otherworldly scream seemed to fill the room, and the dogs went ballistic as they leapt up and raced to the door, barking madly. Jenny jumped out of bed faster than Andrew had ever seen her move before, and they both flung the bedroom door open and ran for the kitchen, Jenny snatching up the farm radio on the way though they both knew what had to have made that sound: one of their chickens. They picked their way through the frosted grass on tentative feet, surrounded by an honour guard of yapping dogs that sniffed busily and investigated every inch of the garden around them, and when they came to the chicken coop the scene that greeted them was positively nightmarish. Blood and feathers and bits of flesh were smeared across the outside walls of the structure, and the wire that covered the door was mangled and forced inwards as if by something particularly powerful. Andrew and Jenny looked at each other in horror, and he carefully opened the door, watching the dogs as they moved. They were alert, but not afraid. Tails held high and wagging, ears perked up. He stepped up into the little building and felt himself gag at the decimated, disembowelled feathery bodies spread out over the floor. Retreating hastily, he bumped into Jenny who was standing almost right up against him, and they both stumbled backwards.
“Don’t go in there,” he told her, trying to steady his voice.
“Are they…?” She didn’t finish her question.
“They’re all dead. Some kind of animal must’ve gotten in there. Look, we can deal with it tomorrow. It’s freezing out here and I can’t do this right now.” Andrew took her hand and turned towards the house.
“But…all of them? What animal would kill all of them?” Jenny whispered as they walked.
“We can figure it out tomorrow. What else could it be?” Andrew glanced back at the chicken coop, implacable in the sparse moonlight, and quickened his pace.

***

It was quiet the next morning. Andrew spent a little while cleaning the chicken coop, wiping down the walls and floor before Jenny was likely to come outside and encounter the gruesome scene in the stark daylight. He examined the hole in the wire of the door, noting the sharp edges that almost sliced into one of his fingers as he picked at them. They were clean and devoid of blood or fur, so whatever had gotten into the coop had been rather lucky. He couldn’t tell how it had slipped out again without being scraped, and the mess of blood on the floor left no tracks that he could see. A quick once-over of the ground surrounding the building revealed even less – between the scuffs of enthusiastic dog paws and his own footprints, the earth was silent on what had attacked his chickens the night before.
Once he had things looking less shocking, he whistled for the hounds and they set off on their morning walk, his senses rather more alert than usual and his steps quick and solid. He couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched – the space between his shoulder blades burned under the wool of his jersey despite the chill in the air, and the back of his neck felt glaring and exposed. Even the dogs were subdued, trotting close on his heels with their tails low and doing little exploring. He lifted his eyes from the vista in front of him and glanced around nervously, catching a flicker of movement off to one side and slightly behind him. One of the dogs bumped against his leg; another whined, ears hanging down uncertainly. He stopped walking and turned his body to face where he had seen the movement, squinting into the distance, watching the long grass sway in the slight breeze and noting how silent it suddenly seemed around him. He felt a pressure on his eardrums. The points of grass in the field in front of him were a uniform sea of spikes that scraped the blue sky, and the clouds drifting slowly over the sun made his vision lighten and darken, changing every aspect of the landscape and throwing shadows at his feet. He blinked, looked away, then turned his head back to the field and settled his vision on a patch that seemed to remain consistently dark despite the varying colours and textures revealed by the transitory light. Something moved independently of the grass; the flick of an ear. The black shape suddenly resolved itself, like an optical illusion – he traced the line of two sharply pointed ears, a large distance apart…a muzzle obscured by golden grass…the long and bony spine that receded into the background. Andrew took an involuntary step backwards and leapt at the dog’s yelp of pain as he trod on its paw. Swearing, he jerked his head back to the field and tried to catch the shape that he had just seen, but there was only the luminous sky and the scratching of grass on grass. When he became aware of the sound of birdsong filling the air again, he didn’t slow his panicked jog back towards the house at all. He was certain that, out of the corner of his eye, he could see a dark streak keeping pace with him as he moved.

***

When he got back home, he found Jenny sitting at the kitchen table with the radio in front of her, a cooling cup of coffee next to it. She glanced up nervously when the door opened, and when she saw that it was him, she turned her eyes back to the radio.
“The people next door were attacked last night. They just announced it.”
Andrew sighed and sank down into a chair. “Really? Are they okay? What happened?”
“The details are sketchy, but the husband’s dead and the rest of the family’s in hospital. They were tortured, I believe. Huge gang of men.” Jenny ran a finger along the radio. “Did you see anything out there today? Anything strange, I mean?”
“I think, maybe, some kind of animal in the field while I was walking. The dogs were nervous. I couldn’t make out what it was, though. The grass is awfully long down there and it made it difficult to see,” Andrew said. He was beginning to question his own reaction already, actually. What he thought he had seen had been far too large for just about any animal he knew of. Perhaps the nerves from the night’s incident had tainted his vision – it might’ve been a little jackal for all that he knew.
“Nothing human?” Jenny prodded at him.
“No, nothing,” he stated honestly. It certainly hadn’t been human.
They spent the rest of the day engaged in solitary pursuits; Jenny curled up on the couch with a new novel, and Andrew gardened, trying to get the flowerbeds sorted out while he had the time and inclination to do so. He liked the neatly-arranged rows of plants; they made him feel like he had constructed a little patch of civilisation in the wilderness of the African bush. The dogs snuffed at the weeds that he pulled, and lazed in the shade – the noon sun still managed a fair level of heat even this close to winter.
As the setting sun began to bathe the yard in soft pink light, Andrew and Jenny called the dogs inside and fixed a simple dinner together. She checked the locked door twice as she moved about the kitchen, an unconscious nervous tick that she had developed when they moved out to the farm, though the dogs were peacefully sprawled out in various parts of the room.
When they got into bed, Jenny called in on the radio that they were safely locked up in their home, and switched her lamp off; Andrew did the same, feeling absolutely exhausted despite the relatively peaceful day, and was soon fast asleep.

***

Andrew jerked awake to the sound of something falling outside the house. He could feel Jenny’s watchful wakefulness next to him, and the dogs all had their heads up and their ears pricked. He slipped silently out of bed and turned just in time to catch the silhouette of a person slide past the bedroom window, backlit by the moon and the outside lights enough to give a solid shape. He froze at the sight; what was the right course of action? His limbs felt light and trembling; there was a fluttering in the pit of his stomach. There was a bang from the direction of the kitchen – loud, unabashed, shattering – and the dogs sprang up, barking madly as he vaguely made out Jenny connecting on the radio and calling for help in a frantic voice. With what seemed like incredible effort, he reached into the corner next to the bed and grabbed his old cricket bat, then raced to the bedroom door and checked that it was locked. Satisfied, he turned to Jenny with the intention of reassuring her that help would soon arrive, but as the dogs quietened, a much louder sound took over. Screams and cries tore through the air outside the bedroom door, and a fleshy wrenching sound punctuated the commotion. Andrew sprang back from the door at the noise, dodging the whining and whimpering dogs that cowered behind him. The door shook with impacts and a metallic smell seeped into Andrew’s nostrils while Jenny flattened herself against the bed’s headboard, clutching the radio with a white-knuckled hand. After what felt like hours, Andrew realised that the sounds had finally ended, and the night was silent again, the bedroom door looming in front of him. Something dark was leaking under its rough surface and into the bedroom. He stepped towards it slowly, numb with terror and uncertainty, turned the key in the lock, and slowly pushed the handle down. He had to know. The door swung open to reveal total carnage running the length of the passageway, and Andrew could just distinguish the occasional human body part amongst the blood and flesh. There was a gun lying almost directly in front of the door, with a hand still attached, and a special kind of glint in the gore gradually resolved into the shapes of other guns. Andrew paused while he took in the scene, then slammed the door shut and locked it again hurriedly.
He turned back to his wife, whose vision was fixed on the window. The dogs followed her stare. Slowly, he moved to the window. Even more slowly, he pulled the curtain aside. In the darkness at the edge of the garden, he could just trace the outline of a huge muzzle, wide-set pointed ears, and a long and bony spine. He gazed at the creature. The creature gazed back at him.

Nicole Best

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Wilderness

November 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

The wintry sun sank towards the horizon on my left like an anchor, drifting down behind picturesque huddles of windblown trees and the mountainous rock formations that loomed darkly in the middle distance. Their shadows raced across the dusty road in front of us and flickered over my face; the alternating strips of syrupy golden sunlight and chilled blue shadows reminded me of nothing so much as a cage. Like we were trapped little animals despite our travelling at breakneck speed in the rickety red Citi Golf that Frank had owned for as long as I had known him. I shifted uncomfortably in the back seat and adjusted my seatbelt, then leaned my forehead against the icy glass of the window and gazed at the passing landscape through my eyelashes. The journey was taking much longer than I had anticipated, and the air-conditioned air that flooded the car smelled stale and artificial; I was taken aback by the surge of longing I felt for clean, grasping wind, heavy with the scents and sounds of the world around us. The glass and metal shell of the car felt like a fishbowl, and made the scenes whipping past the windows seem more like paintings than anything else. Everything outside was so still! The flurry of human enterprise that had filled our vision as we had driven out of Johannesburg had been slowly replaced by open fields, farmhouses, and the occasional cow or horse just visible through the whispy grass that obscured the roadside. Later there had been nothing but the soaring saffron mountains standing guard against the faded blue sky, the shadows on their faces sharp and black. And now the world outside blurred with twilight, and I sat up with a jerk of irritable muscles and slipped my earphones down to hang around my neck.
Nicky stretched round in the passenger seat and winked at me. “Sick of sitting yet, Jess?”
“How did you know?” I pulled a sour face. “And now, the question on everyone’s lips…are we there yet?”
I caught Frank’s eye as he glanced in the rear view mirror, and he nodded distractedly. “I think another half an hour or so and we’ll be there. When we see Clarens on the right, we’re supposed to drive on past it for another ten minutes, then the gate to the farm will be on the right. So keep an eye out.”
The half an hour felt awfully long. The light faded as we drove, like falling asleep, slowly at first and then in a great dark rush. I imagined the windows bending in a little as the blackness outside weighed on them. I could almost hear them creak. When we rounded a bend and Clarens came into view it was almost blinding, a town full of glowing lights that curled up in a little valley between the mountains, and the atmosphere in the car lifted perceptibly. The end was near! I shifted to the right side of the car and watched the town drift by, then cupped my hands around my eyes and tried to imagine what the gate would look like, the road dark once more.
The car shuddered, a loud thump reverberating through the silence inside, and I jumped in my seat, dimly registering Nicky’s surprised little cry.
“What was that?” I screamed at Frank, gripping the back of his chair urgently.
“I didn’t see anything…well, maybe a flash of something out of the corner of my eye, but nothing clear,” Frank mumbled, and he tapped the brakes, slowing us down a tad.
“Did we hit something? Is it okay? We have to go back and check!” I demanded, jittery from the adrenaline pumping through my system. It had been very quiet in the car before.
Nicky sounded panicky too. “We can’t just stop here in the middle of nowhere, Jess. This is South Africa. Anything could happen. Check out of the back window.”
I opened my mouth, drew in a breath to retort, then realised Nicky’s logic. “Okay. Slow down some more and I’ll look.” I twisted my body backwards while I slipped the seatbelt off and propped myself up on my knees, leaning towards the back window and squinting at the bit of road that was dimly lit by the car’s lights. The tar looked empty – grey and silent. We kept our places, the car moving slowly but steadily forwards while I stared at nothing out of the back window, until Frank asked, “See anything?” and I shook my head, uncertain of whether it was a good or bad thing. He accelerated with a shuddering change of gears, and as I turned to the front of the car again, I thought I caught the silvery flash of eyes in the grass next to the road.

***

I never could sleep properly when I had been drinking. After arriving at the rented house, perched precariously on the side of a mountain that sloped away into a deep crevice beneath us, we had done the South African thing and braaied and drank the evening away. I grabbed my cellphone from the little bedside table in my room and checked the time with eyes that wouldn’t quite open all the way. 4am – still ridiculously early. I doubted anyone else would be awake. Slowly, I dragged myself out of the cosy bed and into the stark air of the room itself. I stood, trying to think of what I would have for breakfast, and stared absently at the huge window in the back wall. In winter the sun couldn’t be expected ‘til much later, and the window showed only a block of darkness that seemed somehow thicker than the blackness that filled the room. I glanced at my fuzzy reflection on the glass, then leaned closer and pushed my hair back impatiently, trying to make the wild strands that floated around my face lie flat – the others would wake up eventually, and I didn’t want to look too dishevelled. I leaned in further, using the mirror-like glass to run my fingers under my eyes and swipe up the mess of mascara that had gathered there. My mind almost didn’t make sense of the little flicker of motion below eye level, and I stood dumbly for a few seconds before I lowered my gaze to where I thought I had seen the…movement. In the pitch-dark outside the window. I took a hesitant step back, trying to identify what had caused it. Slowly, a tiny figure resolved itself, almost at my feet with just the pane of glass between us – what looked like a mouse. I smiled, mentally chiding myself for my nervousness, and dropped to my haunches rather quicker than I had intended to so that I could have a better look at the little creature. It was still there – standing on adept hind legs, it stretched a questing nose towards me. I tapped on the glass just as the mouse touched it from the other side, and it drew its face away slowly and stared at me. I blinked at it, taken aback by the resentful glint in its eyes, and stood up again. It didn’t move. Suddenly irritated, I lightly kicked the glass with my bare foot. It didn’t respond to the sound of the impact, but when I set my foot down again, it gave me one last lingering look before it turned its body away from the window and made its slow, awkward way into the early morning darkness until it vanished from my view. I shivered and dived back into bed.

***

Our three cars moved quickly on the winding roads of the national park, dipping and diving around the mountains that packed the area and caught the sunlight greedily. The movement was soothing, and I felt far less anxious than I had on the journey to Clarens the day before; surrounded by natural beauty, I could feel my muscles gradually relaxing, my breathing becoming deeper and slower. It was positively meditative. I watched with interest as Frank followed the two cars ahead of us, turning left onto a dry dirt road that lead up the side of something between a hill and a mountain like a line on a page. When we reached the top, Frank brought the car to a rather jerky halt, and I eagerly undid my seatbelt and threw the car door open. Now that was better! The wind buffeted me, even in the shelter of the car. I laughed and scraped my hair back into a hasty ponytail.
“Wind! Real, proper wind, not the hopeless little gusts we get in Pretoria!” I exalted, to their obvious amusement.
“The wind is the least of the attractions here. We’re going to check out the vulture restaurant.” Nicky grinned at me. “You’ll love it. It’s fascinating to watch the birds so up close.”
Outside of the car, the gusts of wind snatched the words from our mouths and made conversation difficult. Frank just set off on the little paved path that ran out of the parking area and into the sweeping landscape, and Nicky and I followed him, heads down and hands in our pockets to save them from the wind-chill. We crested another hill and a squat grey building came into view, built in front of a long flat field that eventually tapered off into a sheer cliff edge. Indistinct black shapes moved in the field, clustered in strange formations, and in the sky above us the quintessential dark swoops of birds – like children’s drawings – wheeled on invisible currents of air. They looked as though they were enjoying the wind as much as I was. We picked our way down the other side of the slope until we reached the building, and stepped into the dim interior; it was almost empty inside except for a line of built-in benches in front of a wall of dark glass, and Frank and Nicky’s friends knelt on these benches already like supplicants in a church, eyes glued to the view on the other side of the window.
Nicky spoke in a lowered voice. “The game rangers bring any carcasses they find here and dump them in that field in front of the glass. Then we get to watch the vultures eat them. It’s really quite fascinating, and this way they don’t know we’re here and behave as they normally would.”
We took our places at the glass and watched the two vultures closest to us tear into a desiccated body, all abstract pink and brown. I wished I could get a closer look at them and see the details of their feathery bodies. After a good amount of time spent watching the vultures go about their morbid business, we decided that a closer investigation of the bodies was in order, and as we walked out of and around the little building the birds took off in noisy clouds. The smell was almost unbearable – the wind was just as likely to blow it straight into my face as it was to whip the stench away from my nostrils, and I skirted the foremost carcasses that captured the attention of everyone else. Stepping carefully with what I told myself was an entirely rational fear of treading on or in something gory, I made my wary way across the field and towards the cliffs, my eyes scanning the yellowing grass for bits of bone. The human voices faded away quickly, the landscape seeming to absorb them until all I could hear was the wind and the sound of the birds in the air above. I stopped and stretched my arms high above my head, gazing up at the vast blue of the sky, and when I dropped my limbs again and my vision adjusted to take in the light in front of me, I met the blatant gaze of a vulture standing a few metres away from me. I froze, uncertain of what to do. Were they dangerous? Weren’t they just birds? Why hadn’t it flown away from me when I had unknowingly approached it? I stood as though pinned to the ground, and the creature tilted its head at me strangely. Its neck had a painful-looking curve to it. It hopped nearer to me, wings out and flapping awkwardly to keep it balanced, and I noticed how it seemed to be shedding an alarming amount of feathers as it moved. Was it ill? The thought of the bird suffering gave me courage, and I took a few steps towards it, moving slowly and carefully so as not to startle it. It waited in a manner that I assumed to be patient, watching my approach with beady bird eyes and turning its head to keep me in sight, and as I stretched my hand out to it, quite unsure of what to do to help it but convinced that something had to be done, the vulture leapt towards me and snapped at my hand. It scored a painful cut in the flesh on the side of my hand and I jumped backwards with a startled cry, but the bird only cocked its head to the other side and watched me.
“Fuck off!” I shouted as I cradled my hand close to my chest. It stayed put. “I said go!” I yelled louder and ran at it, swerving at the last second when it didn’t move an inch. I stopped, panting from a combination of fright and sudden physical exertion. I could hear Frank and Nicky calling me; they’d obviously heard my raised voice. I turned my back on the stubborn creature – let it stay ill and injured on the ground then – and began the trudge back to the rest of the group and the cars. When I reached the little building, Nicky grabbed my hand and began the usual fuss over a wounded companion, but I pulled away and glanced over my shoulder just in time to see the vulture soar from the ground and ascend rapidly into the bright sky with powerful wing strokes.

***

The sound of voices and laughter drifted on the icy mountain air, underscored by a current of popular music that blared from the radio they had set up in the braai area. The walls were set with huge windows that opened up onto a spectacular view, and the glass didn’t dampen sound as efficiently as one would hope it to, so the entire mountain was being treated to the echoing sounds of various trendy songs. I sighed and took a drag of my cigarette, then leaned my elbows on the little wall that separated the courtyard between the rooms and the braai area from the rest of the wilderness. It was all so loud. I had barely heard any natural sounds all weekend…and I didn’t drive all the way out to Clarens so that I could listen to a little bit of the city reflected off of the beautiful sloping land that surrounded us. My hand ached dully, and my head echoed the sentiment. I felt like all I needed was silence and darkness, and the cool air in my lungs. The darkness ahead of me looked almost inviting. Before I could change my mind, I flicked the cigarette down onto the bricks at my feet and ground it into nothing with the ball of my foot, then dashed into my room to grab my torch and my jacket. A little walk in the outdoors never hurt anyone. I’d be back before anyone ever noticed I was gone; they were boozing like there was no tomorrow. I just needed to be completely alone for a while.
I walked quickly, planting my feet solidly on the good hard earth, swinging my torch so the beam of light cut back and forth across the path ahead, just in case there were any obstructions. The sounds of voices and music hadn’t completely faded – it was so silent in these mountains that I imagined they could be heard kilometres away – but they were at more tolerable levels now, and the air rushing past my ears felt good and helped to drown them out. I increased my pace, enjoying the burn in the muscles of my thighs and the droplets of sweat that trickled down my temples. As I glanced at the path that the torchlight brought to life in front of me, I caught a quick glimpse of a neat pair of hooves. I slowed down and then stopped, raising the torch a little to reveal a lone Wildebeest with a scraggly coat and crooked horns. The light reflected in its eyes and they glowed in the darkness. When it cocked its head at me I felt numbness spread through my body, and darkness raced across my vision until those two points of white light were the only things in the universe.

***

The morning sun felt good at Frank’s back, though it seemed glaring to his tired and sensitive eyes. He rested his coffee on the little wall of the courtyard and stretched upwards, pulling his muscles tight. What a hangover. He heard Nicky open the door of their room. “Any sign of Jess?”
“Nope,” Nicky answered him as she placed her cup next to his, and mirrored his stretch. “I’m guessing she was just in a solitary mood and went to bed early. It’s not like her to sleep this late, though…should we knock on her door or something?”
She glanced at him. “Frank?”
He was transfixed by something ahead of him. She followed his gaze and gasped. Jess! It was unmistakeably her, her long hair hanging ragged over her face. She lay in the dry grass at the edge of the dirt parking area, and as Nicky watched in horror, the girl reached out a filthy hand and dragged herself forwards, the rest of her body trailing, limp and unresponsive. A strange metallic smell drifted towards them. Nicky grabbed Frank’s arm and they rushed down the steps towards Jess, flinging frantic questions at her before they reached her. “Where have you been? What happened? Are you okay? Can you speak?”
Between the two of them, Frank and Nicky hoisted Jess up from the ground by her upper arms, almost choking on the stench. It reminded Nicky of blood; it filled up her nose and mouth until she could almost taste it. She scraped the hair out of Jess’s face and flinched at the blood that plastered her eye shut – noticing the wound on her scalp, she felt a little better. It would be alright. Head wounds always bled more than usual. That was probably the source of the smell, too. “Jess, can you talk? Can you tell me what happened to you?” Jess hung heavily between them, her feet bent awkwardly against the ground. Her bottom jaw flopped open and an awful groaning, growling noise emerged from her mouth, then she snapped it shut again with an audible clack of teeth.
Frank jerked his head in the direction of the house. “She’s clearly traumatised, Nicky. Let’s get her cleaned up – she smells awful! And then we can try get her to talk. I have no clue where the nearest hospital is, so it’s probably worth treating it ourselves if we can.” They carried Jess between them as she stared around wildly, her limbs unused, and they entered the courtyard.

***

After Nicky had bathed Jess and treated her wounds – superficial but numerous – they had put her to bed. She had spoken not a word, instead emitting weird animalistic noises in response to any questions they had asked her and flapping her lips in a strange imitation of speech. Nicky and Frank hoped fervently that a good sleep would solve the issue; her behaviour bordered on the truly bizarre and made them both uneasy. They slept lightly that evening, hyper-aware of any sounds that might emanate from her room, though it seemed that she passed an unusually silent night. In the morning, Nicky tapped on the door and let herself in. “Jess? Are you up yet? How are you feeling today?” She watched the mounds of blankets on the bed slide away like stage curtains as Jess sat up slowly.
“Yes, I am up. I feel much better today, thank you.” Jess stated carefully. The metallic scent tickled Nicky’s nose again.
“That’s great, Jess! I’m glad to hear it!” she said brightly. “I’ll just leave you to get dressed, and then you can come and have some breakfast and chat to me about what happened last night, yeah?” She nodded encouragingly at Jess and waited for her response.
Jess cocked her head to one side and surveyed Nicky with one blank eye, her neck crackling audibly. “Yes.”

Nicole Best

What Rough Beast Slouches

November 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

“Nothing good ever happens in Hatfield after 2am!” Daniel threw the tired little trope over his shoulder as he ambled away from our group towards the street parking and the bouncer of Aandklas slammed the doors of the club shut behind us. Poor man – what a job, dealing with drunk and disorderly students every night of the week! I waved at Daniel’s receding back, shouted what I thought was a totally-not-too-slurred “cheers!” in his general direction, and turned back to the rest of the gang.
“Well…Dropzone?” Alexa enunciated clearly, though it sounded less like a question and more like a statement of fact. Where else would a group of drunken goth students go to in Hatfield square after the only alternative club closed at 2am, anyway? We always had to be more than a little inebriated to even consider going to the club. Usually filled with beefy jocks and leathery blondes, playing music that always seemed sure to make your ears bleed, and with an entrance guarded by an intimidating trio of particularly muscular bouncers that patted patrons down for weapons, the place was about as far out of our comfort zones as possible. So of course the general consensus at this point in the rather lengthy and alcohol-soaked evening was yes, and we all set off through the square proper in the direction of Dropzone. I barely noticed the strange looks that the group of ordinary-looking students standing around outside the public bathrooms gave me, guessing that they were commenting to each other on my piercings or my all-black outfit like the ignorant sheeple that they so clearly were.
The arduous climb up the stairs leading to the club’s entrance was made worse by having to dodge the stumbling partiers making their way down at the same time as we were going up, and I kept my eyes lowered, focusing on placing one foot firmly in front of the other. It wouldn’t do to fall here – these people would be more likely to laugh at me than help me. I tried to tune out the crowd as I hauled myself higher, wondering exactly how I managed to get myself into these situations. The ones that I regretted almost as soon as I was properly in them. Feeling level ground under my feet again jolted me from my reverie, and I glanced up at a muscular man in a tight black t-shirt; I could just make out the stark lines of a tribal tattoo on his bicep. He gave me a quick glance and bobbed his head – I was being granted entry without the seemingly-mandatory weapons check. My sense of relief quickly gave way to a rising irritation…so I didn’t look threatening enough to carry a weapon? Seriously? As the rest of the group caught up with me on the platform behind the bouncers, I grabbed Tinika and hooked my arm through hers.
“Did they search you?” I asked, already rolling my eyes a little.
“Um, a little, kind of like half-heartedly I guess,” she murmured as she craned her neck backwards to check where the boys were, and I followed suit until Alexa caught up with us and tapped my shoulder, tilting her head in the direction of the smoking area, and the three of us marched off together, boys bringing up the rear.

In the haze of the smoking section I spotted a huddle of open couches, apparently ignored by the groups of people scattered around them. I made a beeline for them, thinking that it would be good to establish a home base in the crowded club – and a home base with somewhere comfortable to sit was pretty much the holy grail. Figuring that the blasting music would be too loud to tell the others of my discovery, I kept my grip on Tinika’s arm with one hand while using the other to elbow my way through the milling people, and hoped that everyone would have enough mental acuity left to follow me as I flopped down on the first of the seats.
Tinika leaned down and shouted, “I need to pee! Stay here, I’ll be back soon,” and I nodded, then looked around for everyone else. By the time I realised I had been left alone on the couches by the rest of our group, Tinika and Alexa had vanished into the mass of bodies around us, and I resolved to stay where I was. Surely they’d discover me at some point – the club was hardly that big. And the couch was very comfortable. I dumped my handbag onto my lap and began the search for my box of cigarettes and their accompanying lighter, though I knew that finding both together was unlikely. Funny how the world worked like that. Lifting my head, the cigarette between my lips, I came face to face with a man sitting next to me – the flame already dancing on the lighter he proffered.
“Oh, uh, thanks,” I mumbled, a little taken aback by his sudden appearance. I hadn’t felt the couch dip at all. I touched my cigarette to the flame and inhaled, giving him a quick once-over from beneath my lowered eyelids. Blue jeans, sneakers, the hem of a red t-shirt – I lifted my eyes a little to take in the “Tapout” emblazoned across his chest. Oh. I lifted them higher still, meeting his bemused blue gaze. “Thanks again,” I said, trying to quell the sudden self-consciousness that had leapt to the forefront of my mind. What did this unabashedly ordinary man want with me? I was sure my piercings were reflecting in the light something fierce, and the dim smoky haze that surrounded us probably made me look even paler than I had when I left the house earlier in the evening.
“I’m Gerry.” His handshake was stereotypically firm. “I noticed you were sitting alone and thought you could use some company – it’s not good to sit all alone on such a wonderful night. Look how much fun everyone’s having!” He gestured widely to the people around us, and they did seem to be having an inordinate amount of fun; their chatter loud and animated, their dancing wild, their smiles and laughs baring teeth and necks.
“Yeah, you know, I think I lost my group of friends when I tried to find us somewhere to sit. You know what it’s like. I’m sure they’ll come and look for me as soon as they realise I’m not with them.” I took a drag of my cigarette and he smiled wider.
“Yep, I know that feeling. Things can get a little crazy on nights out. Well, at least you have some company now! Though I notice you don’t seem to have anything to drink?” He looked at me expectantly.
“I’m good, I think. It might be time for me to slow down on the booze anyway, hey,” I joked, attempting a wry smile to go along with it.
“Nonsense! Come on, I’ll get you something – what’s your poison? See there by the bar – that’s the group of people I’m here with. One of the girls can get you a drink quickly, I’m sure. What’ll it be?”
“Smirnoff Spin?” I hadn’t meant it to come out sounding like a question, but there it was. I hated how nervous and awkward I seemed.
“Sure thing.” He leapt up from the couch and almost magically appeared at the bar, then a few unreal minutes later he descended upon me with the entire group of people he had gestured to earlier, drinks in hand.

***

“Still no sign of them?” Gerry asked me in a break in the conversation around the low table between the couches. The drinks had been flowing and we were all getting rather jovial; I was past worrying about what the various people thought of me, the odd one out.
“Nope, still nothing. They probably don’t even know I’m gone – nobody’s tried to get hold of me,” I said, waggling my phone at him. At this point, I didn’t really mind – while the topics that we had switched through were all rather surface level, they suited my dull drunken brain just fine and I had caused uproarious laughter with my snide comments a few times.
He glanced at the people around us, then turned to me again, raising his voice so that I could hear it clearly above the grinding beat of the music. “Well, we were thinking of going down to the square itself. See what’s happening at the other bars, draw some money, and maybe get something to eat somewhere. It’s getting to be that time of the night. What do you think? Wanna come along? I’m sure your buddies will give you a call when they realise where you are, but why ruin a fun night right now?”
I caught myself nodding inanely, laughed a little, and shouted, “Sure!”

***

Traipsing down the stairs in a long line of laughing people, the girls stepping with exaggerated caution in their heels, I shot a glance at the club behind me just in case I’d see one of my friends on the way out. When had the club gotten so empty? The lone bouncer gave me a discouraging look, and I quickly turned back to the square itself, noticing that it seemed almost quieter than the club. The walk to the ATMs went quickly in the damp night air, and we all stood around while Gerry carefully punched in numbers with fingers that seemed uncooperative and clumsy. The debris of countless partiers blew around our feet, and one of the other girls squealed. Then Gerry turned back to us and shrugged his shoulders cheerfully. “No cash. Let’s car bar!” he said while threading his arm through mine.
A little voice poked in the back of my mind. “Um, guys, maybe I should meet up with my friends, you know. They probably won’t think to look for me in the parking area, and I don’t want to worry them.”
“Ag no, come on! We won’t be that long. Won’t they phone you if they want to go home? We’re enjoying your company so much!” The brunette with beautiful curls piped up from behind me, and everyone soon chorused a similar sentiment, so I raised my hands in a gesture of acquiescence and announced, “Onwards and upwards!” to their great delight.
At the entrance of the stairs to the underground parking, at which I pulled a face of clear disgust, Gerry bowed to me and ushered me forwards like a princess. I thrilled a little at the special treatment and stepped forward and down the first step with exaggerated grace. My forward motion was probably only aided by the sneaker blow to the small of my back that punched the air out of my lungs as I tumbled and heard my scream of pain as if it came from someone else’s body.

***

“Prop her up, for fuck sake. It won’t do to have her suffocate on her own blood and puke.”
I slowly became aware that my eyes were shut. My head hurt. Actually, my everything hurt. Someone grabbed me by the shoulders and lifted me to jolt painfully against the rough surface at my back, and when I tried to claw out in front of me, the only response my strained muscles could elicit was a wrenching of my shoulder sockets and my elbows. Opening my eyes was a struggle; my eyelids felt glued shut. When I finally managed to pry them open, I felt flakes of something fall from them onto my cheeks, and looked around wildly, taking in what was clearly an underground parking space – but not one that I had ever seen before. It was empty of cars, and shadows shrouded the corners despite the fluorescent lights in the ceiling. I struggled to make sense of where I might be until a vicious slap across my cheek broke my train of thought.
“What are you looking for, hey? An escape route? You’re not going anywhere. There is no out.” Gerry’s face swam into my field of vision, made watery by involuntary tears from the slap. It really had been hard. I realised that I was whimpering about the same time that he did, and that bright smile of his spread across his handsome face at the sound.
“Keep going. You should be afraid.” The tears began spilling down my cheeks again, and I felt them soaking into the corners of the scrap of material gagging me. I should’ve just gone home. I should’ve just found Tinika and Alexa and the rest of them. I should’ve never been so fucking stupid and trusting and, dare I say it, flattered by Gerry’s attentions. Stupid, stupid, stupid! My aching shoulders were shaking now, and Gerry reached out a testing hand, swiping a tear onto his thumb and studying it carefully. He didn’t look drunk anymore. He knelt down between my splayed legs, glanced at my torn and ragged skirt, and I heard the clink of his belt buckle as he loosened it.
“Gerry!” The female voice that rang through the still space was heavy with authority, and Gerry stood up and stepped away from me immediately. Behind him, arranged in a loose semi-circle, stood the group from Dropzone – Gerry’s group – and at their head, a strikingly tall and dark black woman in a snowy white business suit. She took a few careful steps closer, her stiletto heels punctuating them, and waved Gerry away disdainfully. I watched her look me up and down, feeling blank and miserable, feeling the snot run down my face along with the tears. When she nodded and turned away from me again, the group sprang into action, unpacking bags, sketching something huge on the ground a slight distance away from me, and donning white robes that reminded me of nothing so much as the church groups we sometimes drove past on Sundays. I leaned my head back against the wall, feeling detached from the surreal situation in front of me, and closed my eyes again.

***

When I slowly came to again, I felt the cold concrete floor against every inch of my naked back. My hands lay at my sides and tingled painfully as the blood rushed through my unbound limbs, and my body seemed entirely resistant to any movement – I could barely wiggle a toe, let alone drag myself up off of the ground and run for my life. I felt strangely drowsy, and had to wrench my eyes away from their soft focus on the ceiling to take in the circle of white-robed people around me. Their chanting reverberated in the still space and slid through my ears like liquid, buoying me up. I felt weightless. Gerry stepped up to me, his face much closer to mine than seemed possible from the floor that I…couldn’t feel at my back anymore. He smiled lovingly at me, then raised his arms high above his head and plunged a glimmering blade down into my stomach while the chanting grew louder and more intense.
I screamed.
Convulsing in mid-air, my voice barely sounded human.
“He is come!” Gerry shrieked into my ear as he twisted the knife.
There was only blackness.

Nicole Best

The Words

July 14, 2014 § 2 Comments

Some days she can feel the words fluttering in the dimness of her belly, and squeezing through her limbs like tiny snakes – they are hot and anxious, confused by their entrapment. They whisper to her in the darkness, begging to be released, and she begins to sleep with earphones in and the music turned up. Loud. The resulting din resembles the white noise of between-ness, neither one thing nor another, and she can tune it out if she tries hard enough. Their hazy twists and turns in the small hours might almost be considered comforting, she thinks. She wraps her arms around herself – around them – and dozes.

One day, later, she discovers that writing implements soothe them for a time, when she cannot stand the loud music for another second. She begins to carry a pen around with her, and it works for a little while – they still themselves, they align, and she feels a sort of elation at the result. They are ordered and ready and the silence and stillness are luxurious. She feels a glow of potential and looks at herself in the mirror, stares at herself, loses track of time, fancies that she can see the words in their neat lines burning through her skin.

It doesn’t last. They soon slip out of their sentences and paragraphs and begin their twisting frenzy again – rapid and desperate and bruising her in their panic. The cage of her bones becomes chipped; her organs swell like overripe fruit; her skin bleeds from the inside. She feels like a woman giving birth in slow motion. The life that she carries inside of her is so achingly ready, and the inexorable march towards fruition has been set in motion. She is pulling the moon from the sky to stop the tides; she is aligning the earth’s plates and hoping that they never shift again. She feels helpless and out of control as she covers her bruises with bandages, buys clothing to hide her flesh, and fights the urge to double over and sob from the pain of it all. She doesn’t sleep much – the music cannot go loud enough to drown out their urgent pleas.

In a desperate attempt to recreate the fleeting effect of the pen, she buys writing implements by the dozen – pens, pencils, anything that could be used to make a mark on a page. She wears them in her pockets, behind her ears, twined through her hair like wild decorations. She hooks them into her cuffs and the waistband of her skirts. She is covered in ink spots and pencil scratches – everywhere but the pristine skin of her hands. The words are confused; some slow and gather, others ricochet in terror. They clot inside of her, creating a new sort of topography that she cannot comprehend. It is enough, she thinks, that some of them are calmer. She can sleep a little again; the pain is not as bad all the time. A half life is probably better than no life at all, she muses, weighing her options.

It goes on like this for a time – her mad collection of pens and pencils worn like armour, while the words pause and flow and beat their confusion against her. The bleeding under her skin does not stop, but it does become a little less. She manages an hour or two of sleep at night, enough to get by with, and life drags on.

On a particularly bad day, one on which the words are stubborn and violent and she feels she might faint from the endless motion and the ragged pain, she boards a bus. She hopes that the scenery will calm them; that the movement of the wheels will lull them. She wants to be out in the world and feel the soft rain and smell the rich, damp air. She is as desperate as they are; she has begun to think of an end.

She does not remember how long she has been on the bus before he steps on. She can only acknowledge the sudden, rapid, longing rushes of the words as she sees him for the first time – the boy that wears paintbrushes like armour. The flash of recognition in his green eyes mirrors the one in hers, she is certain. He stumbles to the open seat next to her, his jaw set grimly against the pain. The bruises she can see are the deepest purple-black she could ever imagine, and they swirl and spread like nebulas. They are beautiful on him – she is transfixed. He stares at her through unkempt curls, and the words quieten gloriously. She takes the first deep breath she has managed in longer than she can remember, and when he pulls out the sketchpad, white like a second chance, she reaches out to help cradle it across their laps.

The bus may as well be empty. The rainwater in his hair baptises her hands as he leans towards her and slides the pen out from behind her ear, offering it to her like a jewel.

She feels the delicious vibration of the words, hot and infinitely ready.

“Write,” he says.

She does.

100 Word Story

January 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

He did not see the animal. It moved stealthily, sinuously picking its way through the rubble in the street and winding through the shells of abandoned cars. It was silent, and he was weeping, and he heard nothing above his tortured sounds and he saw nothing through his streaming tears. He stumbled forwards and the animal surged after him. She did not love him anymore and nothing mattered. The buildings loomed against the angry sky. When the phone rang, the animal seized its chance, and his answer became a gurgle. Silence. Her questions rang out in the hot night air.

Nicole Best

Original Writing – Short Story

October 18, 2012 § 5 Comments

The sudden barrage of sound from the direction of the door of my apartment snapped me from my lazy position on the couch, and I felt an immediate pang of irritation. Standing quickly, I marched over to the door, unlocked it, and flung it open with a heavy frown on my face – whoever this was had better make it quick, I thought.

However, when I finally recognised the person standing in my doorway, the wind vanished from my sails and I suddenly had no idea what to say next. I gaped at my old friend Jake’s clean, neatly-cut hair and his stylish clothes – this was a new look!

“Hey, Kelz!” he grinned, shouldering past me into the apartment, “Long time, huh? How’ve you been?”

I couldn’t stop the stupid smile from spreading across my face as I locked the door and joined him in the cramped living room.
“I’ve been great, Jake, just great. I’m studying again, and working part-time, and I’m…well, I’m clean. And I’m happy. How are you? Um…where have you been?”

“I’m good!” he said as he gestured broadly at his new appearance, “Turned over a new leaf, and all that. I’ve got a great new job, and they pay me well enough.”

“That’s…that’s great, Jake. So what are you doing in town?”

“I thought we’d catch up and hit the clubs, you know, for old time’s sake. What do you say?” He sounded hopeful.

I glanced at my watch. “Sure, that sounds like fun.”

—-

The club was packed from wall to wall, and I had to shoulder through an almost solid mass of humanity as I returned to our table after my long wait in the bathrooms. Finally, I was near enough to flop down into my seat next to Jake, lifting my sweat-dampened hair out of the nape of my neck with a sigh of relief.

Jake leaned in towards me. “Here, you were gone for so long I had to guess what drink you wanted. Everyone says this is the best on the menu,” he said, speaking loudly and enunciating his words in an exaggerated way so that I’d understand him over the pounding music. I smiled, nodded my thanks, and grabbed the huge blue drink he proffered. It tasted great – I drank it in long sips, feeling it cool me down from the inside.

Then he smiled, grabbed my hand and led me out onto the dance floor, where we fell into the rhythm with an ease born of long practice. It felt good to let loose for a change, I thought.

—-

I remember feeling ill; dizzy, nauseous and lightheaded. I remember thinking vaguely that I hadn’t really had that much to drink, and wondering what the real cause of my sudden illness was.

I remember a hellish journey through the crowd in my quest to reach the door of the club. I was so certain that a little fresh air would make me feel better.

I remember a pair of smart, shiny shoes, just inside my field of vision. I remember kneeling on the pavement and trying desperately to focus on the shoes, thinking that if I could just focus on something static, my vision would settle and the terrible ringing in my ears would finally subside.

And the last thing I remember is the grit of the pavement against my cheek and the smell of concrete in my nostrils.

—-

I was comfortable. I didn’t open my eyes though; I wanted to make sense of the surprising gap in my memory before I dealt with anything external. After a few minutes of serious thought, I decided that I must have had far too much to drink the night before, and opened my eyes to the familiar sight of my plain bedroom, sun streaming in through the wide-open curtains.

Wandering into the living room on my way to the kitchen, my eyes rested on a packet in the corner of the room, colourful with names and logos. Probably Jake’s, I thought, making a mental note to use the new number he’d given me to remind him of his abandoned possession.

Returning from the kitchen with a glass of water, I arranged myself on the couch and idly turned on the TV, looking forward to some relaxation with no demands on my time.

The first thing to blast from the televisions speakers and assail my eyes and ears was an advertisement for some anti-aging cream. I instinctively reached for the remote, and then paused. Why did I suddenly feel…good? There was a pleasant tingling spreading through my body, and as the advertisement carried on in the background I concentrated on the tingling, feeling it turn into a stronger and more pleasurable buzz. The hairs all over my body were standing on end, and my vision suddenly blurred.

After what seemed like forever, the sensation gradually subsided, and I dimly registered the music of the opening sequence of a television show as I took a deep breath and tried to find an explanation for what had just happened to me.

—-

Checking my bank balance and finding it sadly depleted, I decided to spend the larger part of what I had left on groceries. It felt good to be responsible, I thought, as I wandered the aisles, considering what I needed and adding up amounts in my head.

Then the tingling started.

When I came to, I was behind the wheel of my car, driving the familiar road back to my apartment. Something warm trickled down the side of my neck, leaving a cool trail behind it, and the metallic smell of blood filled my senses.

I only managed to register a hint of panic before my vision blanked and I just wasn’t there anymore.

—-

Morning, in my apartment. I sat up in bed, heart pounding as the events of the previous days rushed through my head. I tried to place them in a logical order, and realised how much seemed to be missing.

In the bathroom, I stared at my face in the mirror, wishing the crusted blood (visible in my nostrils and in a long trail from my ears down the sides of my neck) into oblivion. Blood. Layers of it. This couldn’t be okay.

I rushed into the living room, surveyed the masses of bags and packets with a growing horror, and grabbed the phone.

“Jake?” I whispered into the receiver when he picked up.

“Kelly! What can I do for you? Why are you whispering?” He sounded distracted, disinterested.

“Jake, I…do you remember anything strange happening that night we went to the club?” I suddenly realised that I didn’t know when that had been; my perception of time was totally skewed by the missing memories.

“Mm, um, no, Kelz. It was just a normal club night. We drank and danced, and then you went home. Why do you ask?” The sudden interest in his voice sent a wave of reassurance through me. He cared; at least I wasn’t going through this alone.

Emboldened by his question, I poured my story out to him, clutching the phone with both hands and tensing my muscles to control my shaking. I gasped out my concerns about the blood – “That’s not normal, is it, Jake?” and admitted to having lost big chunks of time.

When I was finally done, my heart leapt to hear him say, “Okay, Kelz. Don’t worry about a thing. Hang out in your apartment, sit tight, I’m on my way. We’ll handle this.”

I curled up on the couch, wiping the tears from my cheeks, and then glanced down at the smears of gaudy red on my hands. The sides of my neck were wet again, too. And my mouth was full of the metallic tang.

It’ll be okay, I told myself. Jake will be here soon. Just hold on.

—-

The banging on the door brought me to a state of semi-consciousness, and I opened my eyes as wide as I could manage. I was just in time to watch the locked door of my apartment get kicked in by a group of heavily-armed men dressed entirely in black, who then stepped aside so that Jake and the man he was with could step through the doorway.

The two men, smartly-dressed and well-groomed, hurried towards me, heedless of the packages that they scattered and crushed underfoot.

“Kelly?” Jake said. I was too weak to reply. I couldn’t make my muscles respond.

He turned to the other man. “Is there meant to be this much blood?”

“Not really,” the man said, frowning. “The animal testees didn’t bleed like this. I wonder…no, we’ll have to get her back to the lab and do some tests. Better not to make any assumptions.” He grabbed my wrist, feeling for my pulse, then shook his head. “That’s if she makes it as far as the lab. Come on, guys, we can’t afford to waste any more time.” He gestured to the men in black.

As he and Jake stepped back, I found my focus falling on Jake’s shoes. His shiny, shiny shoes.

I heard Jake say, “This is a disaster! We can’t kill the consumers with the drug – the companies will never agree.”

The man replied in a conciliatory tone of voice, “Don’t worry, Jake. It’s not a total loss. The information we gather from the experiment will be useful during further development; we can’t always get it right the first time. On that note, remember to tell the men to bring along what she bought while affected – that could be very helpful indeed.”

Their voices faded as they walked out of the apartment, and I was lifted and flung roughly over somebody’s shoulder, feeling dried blood flake off of my skin as I slowly closed my eyes.

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