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The end of the forest brought a strange mix of emotions; relief, confusion – it couldn’t possibly be over with, could it? – and a little fear.
She found this strange with her experiences in the woods – ominous creatures especially – but found it was unmistakably the case.
The way the world was now, you went through some shit, sorted it out, then landed yourself in deeper shit.
Like the situation with Cross for example.
She’d killed him, only to find out he had a twin brother who was even more psychotic.
Just my fucking luck.
So it was safe to say that she faced whatever lay outside the woods with extreme trepidation.
It seemed innocuous enough; a log cabin with vast piles of wood piled up against a dry stone perimeter wall.
She expected the rifle that waved from the window, so it wasn’t a shock to her.
No one in the after would greet a stranger walking out of a blazing forest with anything other than suspicion or even outright hostility.
‘You locked and loaded?’ a rough voice came.
She raised her hands.
Shook her head.
‘You better not be lying. I’d put you down. No fucking about.’
‘You sure know how to make an entrance, missy,’ the man said, then he laughed hard enough to make himself cough.
She looked him up and down. He was lanky, grey-haired, mean-faced. The everyday struggles of after were carved into his stubbled face, making him look much older than he was.
‘Can I come closer?’ Deborah said, the vast clouds of smoke making her cough too.
The man shook his head.
‘No. Wait right there.’
The man came out, aimed the gun right in her face, and patted her down.
She grimaced at the roughness of their touch, especially with the beating and the bites she’d sustained recently.
‘Say, you look like you’ve stepped right outta hell, lady.’
She said nothing, just slumped against him and began sobbing.
It was lucky her new friend – Gus he introduced himself as – had no bad intentions towards her because she was so weak she could hardly speak, never mind defend herself.
‘Here, drink this,’ his rough voice said, shoving something hot and smooth into her hand.
She took a sip, grimaced slightly and put the cup down.
‘Urrgh! What is that?’
‘Broth,’ Gus said.
‘What type of broth?’
The words took a while to sink in – after all, her brain felt like a pin cushion with no room for new pins – but when they did she winced.
‘Hey, ain’t much in the way of food around these parts,’ Gus said. ‘You gotta take what you can get.’
‘Ain’t that the truth.’
‘Here,’ Gus said, roughly twisting a homemade pepper grinder above her cup for a minute or so. ‘This should help a bit.’
She tried it again. It wasn’t bad. ‘Thank you.’
Her host smiled. ‘So what’s your name, traveller? And what’s your story?’
Gus looked taken aback by all her stories.
‘I mean, there were rumours going round, course I heard about him, but a twin? Fuck. I never saw that coming.’
‘Tell me about it.’
Deborah finished the last of her wood kid stew, now cold. It was actually better cold.
‘Where you headed?’ Gus said.
‘As far away from Serenity as possible.’
‘Well you’re welcome to stay here with Gus as long as you like. There’s plenty of food to go around and I’d be glad of the company.’
‘Thank you for that. But I don’t feel like this is far enough away from where I was. I want to keep pressing on.’
Gus nodded. ‘I getcha. But remember sometimes where you’re going is worse than where you’ve been. You just keep that in mind.’
‘I know that. And it’s a risk I’m willing to take.’
‘Well, you’re welcome to stay here in the meantime. I ain’t got much, but you can take some food with you if you want.’
‘Why don’t you come with me?’
A look of fear descended upon his face.
‘I’m happy here,’ he said. ‘Don’t know what else is out there. Don’t care to know, either.’
She thanked him for his generosity and went back to sleep.
The next morning she woke up with an urgent pang of alarm.
She felt groggy, still half asleep, but her mind was startled into wakefulness.
She felt it again and glanced down to see Gus, moaning with pleasure, running his hand up her inner thigh.
Drool dripped from his bottom lip.
‘Ew, gross! What the fuck are you doing?’ she said, kicking his hand off her.
‘Maybe you’ve been living on your own too long, Gus, but you don’t feel people up in your sleep. That’s just fucking creepy.’
He bowed his head a little. He seemed embarrassed.
‘I was just checking your wounds,’ he said, pulling a bandage and some antiseptic cream from under the covers.
She felt a pang of alarm, but he seemed to be ok.
‘Looked like that bite up past your knee was infected,’ he said. ‘I was just checking it for you.’
But she was sure she heard him muttering under his breath.
‘Not strong enough,’ it sounded like.
He continued checking her wounds, seeming to take a little too much pleasure in the job for her liking.
‘How are you feeling?’ he asked.
‘I’m ok,’ she lied. ‘Apart from waking up to you feeling me up.’
‘I’m sorry. I don’t make a habit of touching ladies while they’re a-snoozing. You just looked like you were burning up. Do you want something to eat or drink?’
She thought about it.
Shook her head.
‘Oh, go on, it’ll make you feel better.’
His insistence was what unnerved her.
She thought, tried to focus.
Alarm flooded through her again.
‘I need to use the toilet,’ she said, almost grinning at her own ingenuity.
‘Oh sure, of course,’ he said. ‘There’s a bedpan.’
‘No, thank you. I want to stretch my legs.’
He seemed alarmed at this and again this set her on edge.
What did he have to hide?
‘You seem weak. You should rest. Let me get the bedpan.’
‘No, I’m fine, thank you.’ She went to pull herself to her feet.
He watched her, concern seemingly drawn tight across his face like cellophane.
She stood on legs that struggled to support her weight.
Her head was reeling and her body felt weak.
She knew she’d taken a beating in the last few days and the many bites from the creatures in the woods would have taken their toll too, but there was something else.
Her time in the cage with Cross had taught her to recognise when she had been drugged and this felt very similar.
Where you’ve been can help you to get to where you need to be, she thought.
And just like that she had a feeling she knew what was going on.
‘Really, you need to rest, Deborah, you don’t look well,’ he said.
‘I’m fine, thank you,’ she said.
His eyes seemed to linger over her, as welcome as cancer.
She felt them on her as she staggered towards the door.
He seemed to realise something urgent as she left the room and darted past her.
‘The place is a tip, not in a fit state for a lady to see,’ he hastily explained, shoving things into a cupboard and thrusting his knee against it to close the door.
Again alarm raced through her nervous system.
Her life had changed irreversibly the day the Cross twins had appeared at her parent’s house. And since then she’d developed a strong sense of intuition.
This guy was suspicious as fuck, no doubt about it.
To ignore that inner voice was to invite trouble.
She took a quick glance around, pretending to be looking for the toilet.
She saw a blood-covered chopping board surrounded by carrot tops and potato peels.
A couple of small bones.
A gleaming, blood-stained cleaver.
A few cloves of garlic. Dry herbs.
Until she saw the rolling pin and the light dusting of white powder on the counter beside the chopping board.
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