The word came out as a thin hiss of steam, pale and nearly invisible in the night air. Anara pressed the heel of her hand against her jaw until the latter gave an audible -crack- that made her wince, then kept walking. Through the trees she could just make out the slanted outline of her destination - a darker blot against the night-time backdrop of spindly pine trees and bare-limbed oaks.
It was raining, water plinking down through the gaps in the rusted tin roof of what used to be a smokehouse. The packed earth in the yard surrounding it had turned to sopping mud that squelched beneath Anara’s hiking boots.
This is the place, Anara thought. She stood just inside the gate, one hand against the wooden post for balance while the other stayed pressed tight against her jaw. She could feel the bone shifting beneath her palm, the mandible sliding forward, trying to stretch and fan out.
No. No, no no. Not this time. This time we do it clean.
There was nothing to mark the time while Anara stood there, breathing slow and steady while the rain soaked through her sweatshirt and into her jeans. By the time she felt the movement underneath her hand slow down and then calm entirely, her braids were sopping wet.
The only thing that was spared the indignity of the rainstorm was the knapsack at her back. Oiled canvas made the water slip away harmlessly while protecting the precious contents inside: a plastic thermos filled half-way with gasoline, her cell phone, a small laptop, a solar charger and cables, a handmade first-aid kit and roughly seventy-five dollars and change.
Earlier in the day, it had also held a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Anara’s fingers twitched as she recalled throwing both of those in the back seat of the ‘87 Dodge Charger parked some miles away by the side of the road. Wouldn’t do her any good now, anyway — it was raining too hard to light up, and she had a job to finish.
Clean, she reminded herself. Steady.
Anara unslung the knapsack from her shoulder and braced it against the fencepost, then leaned forward to blot out the rain while she rummaged through the topmost section and fished out the gasoline. It wasn’t a large container, at least not compared to a typical gas can. No more than 20 ounces and that was when it was completely full. With any luck, she wouldn’t need more than a swallow.
Inside the smokehouse, leaves rustled. Decrepit chains with hooks stained dull red clanked faintly. Anara held still and listened, but there was nothing else she could make out over the sound of fat raindrops hitting the tin roof. She found herself wishing that it was a proper storm, if only for an occasional flash of lightning to see by. Never mind that the proper storms often brought out much worse, especially after dark.
Ah well, won’t be a problem much longer, Anara thought as she closed the knapsack in a hurry and made her way to the gaping door frame. She waited until she was out of the rain to open the container, her fingers numb from the cold to the point that the cap slipped on the first few tries.
Success brought a slow wave of nausea as the volatile scent of gasoline wafted into her nose and down her throat. Anara swallowed and was careful not to clench her jaw despite the roiling queasiness. Holding her breath wasn’t going to help. She knew that. So instead, with grim determination, she tipped the container up to her lips and gulped down a single swallow.
Immediately, she retched. The burning sensation clawed its way down her throat and to the pit of her stomach which heaved in revolt. Anara shuddered and crouched down, breathing through her mouth as she waited for the nausea to pass. Vivid colors swam across her field of vision — glowing reds and golds across the muddied yard. She could see the outline of her footsteps — violet — the outline of her knapsack — red — and when she turned her head to look through the doorway, Anara could make out the golds and oranges and reds in the pile of oak leaves in the far corner of the smokehouse.
The leaves rustled again. This time, there was no wind.
“Shit,” Anara said for the second time, and recapped the container as fast as her trembling hands would allow. Something under the leaves shifted, and a rivulet of bile-colored ichor drooled out into the puddles of rainwater accumulating on the earthen floor. Her vision came into crisp focus; Anara could make out every line and vein in the tumble of dried leaves, the eddy and swirl of the mud-grey water as it coalesced into puddles, and every individual drop of rain falling from the ruined ceiling.
She was also hungry. The nausea had peeled back into a gnawing emptiness that made her stomach growl and the tension in her jaw returned. Anara massaged away the familiar ache as she strode for the leaf litter, the gas container left on its own by the door.
Coils of black and yellow fibers wide as a child’s arm glistened like tar as they spread out from underneath the leaf pile. They made a satisfying squelch underneath Anara’s boot as she stomped down on the writhing mass of them stretching out from underneath the leaves.
“C’mon out, pretty. Let’s have a good look at ya,” Anara drawled as she ground her heel into the mud, smearing black, viscous fluid in a small arc as the coils tore open from the tension and bled.
The response started as a low, thin groan almost outside the range of Anara’s hearing, but she could feel it, right against her diaphragm and lower. That groan twisted at the hunger gnawing at her from the inside, made the bright lights of her unnaturally sharp vision waver just long enough that when the first strike came, Anara didn’t dodge in time.
There was a scent like hot pennies when the first of those coils wrapped around Anara’s wrist and pulled, dragging her closer to the pile of leaf litter as she tried to brace up. Her free hand flailed, palm outstretched and found one of the rusted hooks hanging down from the ceiling. One breath, two… and Anara pulled back, struggling against the overlapping coils that spread up her arm and across her shoulder, heading for her throat.
The groans grew louder, morphing into a roar of outrage that echoed all around her. Anara yelled back, a string of obscenities as she twisted her body and dragged the hook against those constricting coils, tearing them apart like wet taffy full of syrup. A few drops fell across her face and Anara licked her lips before she thought about it. The spitting came right after. Spitting, to stop that delightful taste of hot cinnamon and brandy from rolling down her throat.
Clean, Anara reminded herself. Clean. She repeated it in her mind, over and and over as the man-sized creature rose out of the leaves, a dark horror of tar and bile. It screamed from open mouths like angry red welts perched where its eyes should be, and nothing where the rest of a face would be. Instead of arms, it just had coils and coils of prehensile ichor, viscous rope in sickly yellow and black.
Clean, she repeated, as the roar went dim and faint - she could feel blood dripping from her right ear and the sound of the rain vanished along with the clang of the chains as she grappled another hook and swung it for the creature’s not-face. Clean. Clean. Clean, clean clean — fuck it.
Anara snapped awake and struggled to get upright at the thud-thud-thud of a flashlight against the back window of her car. Sometime in the night she’d managed to make it back, crawl into the back seat on the passenger’s side, and toss most of her clothes up front along with the knapsack. Now it was early morning, sunlight streaming in through the barely tinted windows, with a large male shadow blotting out half of that.
“Ah, fuck. Jiri?” Anara squinted and could just make out the fuck-boi hazel eyes and shit-eating grin on the other side of the window.
“Well, you’re dressed for it, babydoll. You gonna unlock the door or what?”
Anara made a noise of disgust and rolled her eyes as she leaned across the passenger seat to pull up the lock. “Jiri, why are you here?”
“To check on you,” came the smooth reply as Jiri climbed in on the passenger’s side and then crawled over to the driver’s seat before leaning out yet again to grab his own bag and then shut the passenger door behind himself. “You look like shit. How many did you take down this time? Three? Four?”
“Just one,” Anara said. She paused at the incredulous look in the rear-view mirror. Jiri’s eyebrows were about as high as she’d ever seen them. “And it was clean,” she asserted.
“Bull. Shit. You’ve still got that crap all over your face, ‘Nara. There is blood on your ears and you’re wearing half a sports bra and butt-floss underwear. Nice look, by the way.”
“I took the clothes off because I didn’t want to… to…”
“Well, shit. Good job. Eban will be pr—”
“I didn’t do it for Eban. I didn’t do it for you either, so don’t start.” Anara glowered at Jiri, even when he turned to face her properly and his hand found her cheek. Warm. Gentle.
“Well, whoever you did it for, it’s damned good,” Jiri said with a wicked little smirk. “Now put some clothes on, woman — you’re giving me a hard-on.”
Anara pushed his face out of her immediate vicinity. “You’ll have to wait. I didn’t pack the strap-on.”
“Lucky for both of us, I did.” Jiri smirked and passed Anara her knapsack without glancing back. “C’mon, get cleaned up. I’m getting us a hotel.”
“Where’s your car?” Anara watched Jiri get the spare keys out of the glove box then started rummaging for clean clothes. Her head ached, a soft, dull pain that was gradually waking up to the beat of her pulse. Soon enough, it would be a full-fledged hangover.
“About five miles up at a rest stop. Are you going to be good to follow me for about ten miles after that?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just need some aspirin and about a gallon of coffee.”
“Ask and ye shall receive,” Jiri said with a laugh as he started up the car. “Thermos is in my bag, right on top.”
“…I love you.”