Short Story Runner Up - February 2013

Deirdre H. Gage - The Runaway

The girl looked up from the hot, filthy cement. Her eyes darted around, trying to figure out where she was and who could help her. The room was nothing more than a windowless rectangular box, the walls empty and corrugated at one end. It was hot, but from somewhere outside the room she could hear the electrical hum of an air conditioner. She tried to move, but her arms and legs were bound with thick, itchy rope and she could feel the skin underneath had already rubbed raw. The only light came from a small plastic lantern on the floor nearby, the kind her mother used to buy for storms. The kind that always ran through batteries within hours.

The girl had a sudden horrible fear that the light might go out at any moment and leave her alone in the dark. Panicking, she tried to remember how she’d gotten to this place. The last thing she could remember was getting off a DART bus downtown, and walking without knowing where to go. She’d passed an alley and after that, her memory was dark. She began to suck in quick, shaky gasps of air, because wherever this was, it wasn’t good.

Suddenly a clanking noise came from the other side of the corrugated wall and the girl began to scream for help. But as the gate slid upward, light revealed a pair of mens’ shoes. Brown loafers, worn without socks, and long legs clad in jeans. Behind the jeans she could only see more walls and identically corrugated doors. Finally, a preppy pink and white striped oxford-cloth shirt and a handsome, smirking face. Blue eyes, longish black hair and the cheekbones of someone who belonged in a Ralph Lauren ad with a sailboat. The man smiled, showing sharp white teeth, and he entered the room, quickly slamming the door shut behind him.

“Wake up.” He walked toward her, kicking the lantern out of his way. “It’s dinner time.”

She scooted back against the wall, as much as she could.

“Oh, I wouldn’t bother,” he said. “You’re not going anywhere. Just wanted to make sure you were still breathing.” He bent down, his face inches away from her hair as he took a long, deep breath and shuddered. The scent of expensive cologne and something rotten wafted from his shirt as he grinned at her. “Yep. Still breathing.” 

He winked as he stood up, and brushed off his jeans. “But not for long.”

He leaned down and jerked on the door handle and lifted it again, quickly sliding underneath as the door snapped back down. Moments later, he returned, shoving a large wooden crate in front of him, a thick length of silver chain on top. There were noises coming from the box. Snarling, panting noises. The man kicked the crate into a corner and closed the door once more. 

“Where am I?” The girl whimpered. “Who are you?”

 “You’re in a climate-controlled storage unit.” The man answered, rolling his shirt cuff back over his elbow. “And I’m Rho. What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Mercy.” The girl managed to blurt.

Rho looked pleased. “How ironic.” He shoved the end of the chain into his jeans pocket, removed the crate lid, and peered inside. Satisfied at the contents, he grabbed the chain and reached into the crate, muttering indistinct, guttural sounds as he snapped the chain to something Mercy couldn’t see.

The snarling grew louder and Mercy stammered, “What’s in there?”

“Patience, sweetheart.” Rho kicked the front of the crate with enough force to splinter the wood and stood back, letting whatever was inside finish the job while he kept loose hold of the chain. Within seconds, the crate walls had collapsed beneath the furious frenzy of one very anxious coyote.

Mercy stared. The animal was brown and not very large, and she remembered her mother warning her of the coyote sightings at the creek. Tim had scoffed, saying, “Coyotes ain’t hungry for little girls.” Then he’d let his eyes travel up and down Mercy’s body, making it clear he didn’t share the coyote’s disdain. Now, in this room, Mercy had an awful feeling Tim might have been the lesser of evils. This coyote had angry red eyes and pointed teeth glistening with drool that it quickly flicked away with a long, pink tongue. This coyote looked as though it might gobble up Mercy and ask for seconds. 

Rho smiled with obvious delight at Mercy’s fear, and he gave a slight tug to the chain fastened to a collar around the coyote’s neck. “He likes you, don’t you think?”

Without letting her eyes leave the coyote, Mercy replied, “I think he wants to eat me.”

“I do, too.” Rho licked his lips and then continued, “Think he wants to eat you, that is. Though I wouldn’t mind having you for myself.”

Mercy’s chest tightened and once again, she tried to back away, but there was no place to go.

“So,” Rho said as he flicked a lock of glossy black hair from his forehead, “we’re going to have a little contest.”

“I don’t think I want to,” Mercy whispered.

“I think you do. See, this coyote here is a friend of mine, and he’s hungry. I could just leave you tied up and let him kill you right away, but I like a good fight as much as the next guy. So I’m going to untie you. Winner lives, loser’s dinner.”

The coyote cocked its head and growled. Rho glanced at the animal as he said, “Relax, she’s not going anywhere. You’ll have her dead in seconds, trust me. It’s just more fun this way.”

Mercy’s knees began shaking and she clawed at the ropes binding her. “Why are you talking to it? It’s a coyote, it can’t understand you!”

Rho shook his head. “Please don’t refer to him as “it” sweetheart. He doesn’t like that.”

“He?” Mercy demanded, her voice cracking. “What are you?”

“We’re scavengers,” Rho said with a shrug.

“What’s a scavenger?”

“Don’t they teach biology anymore in school? Scavengers are creatures who feed on death.”

“But…  but I’m not dead.”

Rho winked. “Not yet.” He jiggled the chain as he explained. “Technically, you’re right. Used to be, we’d only eat the dead. But funny thing about dead people, they run out after a while. And turns out, we also like to kill. So now we’re equal opportunity scavengers – we eat whatever we want, including the living. Including you.”

“But why eat me?” Mercy pleaded. “That looks like a coyote who needs a real meal. Look at me, I’m not gonna satisfy it. I mean, him.”

Rho raised an eyebrow as he looked over Mercy’s slight frame. “Oh, I bet you’d satisfy. But whether or not my friend here fills up on you is not the point.”

“Then what is?”

“Scavengers feed their way up the food chain. We start out small – snakes and lizards and the like. When we find a dead predator, we eat from its body – and then we turn into the animal from which we have fed. We gain strength and size this way, stealing the shape of each larger creature we eat. Once we’re strong enough, we can kill. Our goal is to turn human, so we can hunt anything we like and not hide in the shadows from those who would destroy us. So my friend here is a coyote now, but if he kills you and eats from your flesh, he’ll take on your body.” Rho chuckled. “Just imagine what and who I can get with an innocent-looking teenage girl by my side.” 

Mercy could only gaze at Rho in horror. His words were insane, he was insane – there was no other explanation for it. Yet when she turned her glance back to the coyote, the intensity of its red stare almost made her believe the unbelievable.

“So,” Rho snapped the chain, “back to business.” He looped one end of the chain through his belt loop to free his hands, then knelt next to Mercy and unfastened the ropes. “You’re free to defend yourself. I’ll take off the chain in a moment and the coyote will be free to kill you.” He patted her pale cheek. “Now, don’t look so grim. It could be worse – from the looks of him, your mother’s boyfriend had some nasty plans for you, too. At least this death will be quick.”

“How do you know about Tim?” Mercy demanded.

“Oh, I know.” Rho waved a hand as he approached the coyote. “I’ve been following you. I’d have caught you in the woods already, but you kept going out with that boy. I’ve found that two teenagers tend to make so much more noise when you kill them than just one, so I was waiting for a chance alone with you. Today was my lucky day.”

“Yeah. Lucky you.” Mercy muttered as she watched Rho’s hands feel around the coyote’s collar. She stood up, her limbs shaking so fiercely from fear that she almost fell back to the ground. But even as she shook, her sweaty fingers closed around something in her jeans pocket. Tim’s knife. Mercy knew she didn’t stand a chance against this angry, possibly rabid animal – but she wasn’t going down without a fight. As Rho unfastened the collar with a loud click, she flicked open the blade.

The coyote lunged, landing on Mercy and knocking her to the ground within seconds. She screamed. The coyote’s teeth snapped and she felt its hot fetid breath on her face as the jaws loomed overhead. Her hand slashed up from her pocket and into the coyote’s neck. The coyote howled in pain and its teeth crunched inches away from her skin, while its paws flailed out, flattening her chest until she could scarcely breathe. But her arm was still free. In and out, she thrust the knife again and again, the noise of the coyote’s whimpers muffled in her ears because nothing existed for her but the movement of her hand and the knife. Fur and something sticky splattered her face, but her eyes had already closed as she jerked the knife back and forth in a blind, manic rhythm.

Finally, Rho pulled the coyote’s limp body from Mercy, throwing it aside like an abandoned toy.

Mercy lay breathless and bloody, too shocked to move.

Rho cocked an eyebrow and rubbed his chin. “Well. Didn’t see that one coming.” He watched her for a moment, thoughtful. Mercy wondered if maybe he might set her free, maybe he was crazy enough to possess an ounce of compassion.

Mercy let her eyes close briefly, with a wild hope that this was all a terrible nightmare. But then she opened her eyes again and spied the coyote in the corner. She peered up at Rho, still not able to budge from her frozen position on the floor until finally he spoke. “I have to hand it to you, Mercy – you’re a tougher girl than I gave you credit for. But,” he stopped talking long enough to drag her over to the dead animal, “I still need a hunting companion. So if a scavenger couldn’t eat you… let’s see what happens when you eat a scavenger.”

Mercy stared at him without understanding. She felt weak and nauseated. “What do you mean?”

Rho pointed to the deep gash in the coyote’s neck. “Drink it. Drink the blood. I don’t know if it will work or not, but it’s worth a shot.”

“If what will work?” Mercy struggled not to vomit at the coyote’s scent.

“If eating from a scavenger that you just killed will turn you into one. Never tried it before, but some half-ass curse works on Declan every time he gets some of our blood.” Rho nodded to himself. “If it works on a stupid Irishman, why not a girl?”

“So you think if I drink this thing’s blood it will turn me into one of you? No way!” Mercy tried to free herself but Rho was too strong and he held her firmly against the blood-stiffened pelt. “You don’t even know if this will work!” She cried.

Rho considered her words – but only for a second. “But that’s the beauty of it. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just find another scavenger to kill you. Either way, I’m going to have a cute little teenager to help me eat my way through Dallas. And nobody will ever suspect someone who looks like you. Win. Win.” He smiled before shoving her face into the blood. “Now Mercy, be a good girl and drink.”

“NO!” Mercy tried to scream, but her mouth was filled with fur and flesh.

Rho pressed harder on the back of her neck. “Drink or die.”

Mercy choked as her lips closed on the wound. She shuddered at the stickiness in her mouth.  But she did as Rho demanded and she drank until she gagged and Rho let go of her. She fell backward onto the floor, covering her mouth.

When she stopped, Rho was studying her with a gleam in his eye that she didn’t like. “Why are you looking at me like that?” She moaned, her throat burning.

Rho eyed her with a curious expression. “I’m just watching.” 

Mercy shook her head. “You’re psycho.” She was achy all over and she felt hot.

Rho bent down to run a long finger down her cheek. “How do you feel, Mercy?”

“I don’t feel good,” Mercy managed to croak before she retched. She leaned over, ready to vomit out the thick ooze that had risen to the top of her throat. It hurt badly, like an acid eating its way through her esophagus. She wanted it out. But when she opened her mouth, nothing came. The dark and nasty stuff that she could feel inside just wouldn’t come out. Not even a gag. She clawed at her throat, shrieking, “Get it out! It’s burning me!” 

Rho held her up, smoothed her now filthy hair from her forehead as she writhed and screamed in pain. She tried to stick a finger down her throat to make herself purge, but Rho snatched away her hand. “No, no, Mercy. Don’t do that now. It will all be over soon.” Despite his words, though, he didn’t really know. He’d never tried to turn someone before, and he wondered briefly if he might have made a mistake, if she might die. 

But really, what did it matter to him?

Mercy continued to rake her stubby nails down her throat, wriggling against Rho’s strong grasp, her voice finally fading from sheer exhaustion until there was silence. She slumped down over Rho’s arms and he looked down at the top of her head, a messy bird’s nest of black strands. He didn’t drop her, instead gently lowering her back to the ground. And he waited.

Finally, Mercy’s eyes opened. Her pupils were dilated, the brown nearly consumed by black, but no different than any girl might have looked after extreme shock. She gazed up at Rho, who crouched beside her.

“Water,” Mercy moaned. “Please, please, I’m so thirsty.”

Rho nodded and passed her an open water bottle. She took long, deep swallows, not even registering what was in the bottle. She finished and dropped it to the ground. “More,” she said and Rho smiled.

“Look at what you just drank,” Rho pointed to the empty bottle, dripping the last dregs of liquid onto the cement. 

Dark red liquid.

Mercy put a shaking finger to the corner of her mouth where she could still feel moisture, and then pulled it away so she could see. Her finger was red as well.

Rho grinned as he snaked his arm under hers, slowly raising her upright. “Come on, sweetheart – let’s get you another drink.”

*****
About The Author

Deirdre H. Gage is a Texas writer who has claimed half a dozen other places as home, including Kentucky and Chicago - but her heart belongs to the Big Easy. She has been published in Cosmopolitan Magazine and Appalachian Heritage literary journal and recently published her first novel, The Getaway Girls: A New Orleans Tale of Monsters, Mayhem and Moms.  For more information, visit her at www.getawaygirlsneworleans.com.