Fiends ssc, p.20
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       Fiends SSC, p.20

           Richard Laymon
 
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  I’m pretty high, she thought.

  Damn high. Jesus.

  Her throat tightened. Her stomach fluttered. Her legs began to tremble. She turned suddenly and hugged the tree. I’m safe up here, she told herself. I’m not going to fall. She reminded herself of her days on the high school gymnastics team. That wasn’t so long ago, she thought. This is no tougher than the uneven parallels. I’ve stayed in pretty good shape.

  She still had to cling to the tree for a while before she found the nerve to relax her hold.

  Just a little bit higher. Don’t look down, and you’ll be okay.

  She got her knee onto the next branch, crawled up, stood on it, swung her foot around the trunk to another, pushed herself higher, and soon the process of climbing occupied all her thoughts, leaving no room for fears of falling.

  When her movements began to sway the upper reaches of the tree, Kim knew she was high enough. She straddled a branch, scooted forward until she was tight against the trunk, and wrapped her legs around it.

  For a long time, she stayed that way. Then, the rocks began to bother her. The sleeve of the T-shirt felt like a hand on her shoulder, trying to drag her backward. Rough edges of rock pushed against her skin through the fabric.

  Easing away from the trunk but still keeping it scissored between her legs, she swung the bag onto her lap. She draped it like saddlebags over a branch just overhead and to the right.

  Relieved of the burden, she inched forward again and embraced the tree.

  Kim dreamed that she was falling, flinched awake, found herself slumping sideways, and clutched the trunk. Cheek pressed to the bark, she saw that morning had come. Dust motes floated in golden rays slanting down through the foliage. Out beyond the branches, she saw the bright green of nearby trees. Tilting her head back, she saw patches of blue, cloudless sky. She heard birds singing, a soft breeze whispering through the pine needles.

  My Christ, she thought, I made it through the night.

  She’d even, somehow, drifted off to sleep some time before dawn.

  She felt numb from the waist down. Hanging onto an upper branch, she stood and held herself steady. Sensation returned to her legs and groin and rump, making them prickle with pins and needles. When they felt normal again, she removed her shorts, climbed to a lower branch and urinated. Returning to her perch, she put her shorts back on. She sat down, one arm around the trunk, and let her legs dangle.

  Now what? she wondered.

  Obviously, she had eluded the Butcher. She wondered if he’d passed this way in the night and kept on going. Maybe he’d never even come close.

  Maybe he’d given up, finally, and gone away.

  That’s wishful thinking, Kim warned herself. He won’t give up. Not this easily. A, he wants me. B, I can identify him. He isn’t going to let me waltz out of here.

  On the other hand, he would’ve found me by now if he’d actually been able to follow my signs.

  Maybe he did, she thought. Maybe right now he’s taking a snooze under the tree.

  No. If he knew I was up here, he would’ve tried to take me.

  I lost the bastard.

  The trick, now, is to find my way back to civilization without running into him.

  Trying it in daylight seemed foolhardy.

  Waiting for nightfall was torture. There was no comfortable way to sit. Kim changed positions frequently, mostly sitting, sometimes standing, occasionally hanging by her hands from higher branches to stretch and take the weight off her legs.

  Hunger gnawed at her, but thirst was far worse. She ached for a drink of water.

  In spite of the shade provided by the upper areas of the tree, the heat of the day was brutal. Sweat dribbled down her face, stinging her eyes. It streamed down her body, tickling and making her squirm. Her skin felt slick and greasy. Her shorts felt as if they were pasted on.

  For all the wetness on her skin, her mouth had none. As the day dragged on, her lips became rough and cracked. Her teeth felt like blocks of gritty stone. Her tongue seemed to be swelling, her throat closing so she had difficulty when she tried to swallow.

  At times, she wondered if she could risk waiting for dark. Her strength seemed to be seeping away with the sweat pouring out of her skin. Spells of dizziness came and went. If I don’t climb down pretty soon, she thought, I’m going to fall. But she held on.

  Just a while longer, she told herself. Again and again.

  Finally, dusk came. A refreshing breeze blew through the tree, swaying it gently, drying her sweat.

  Then, darkness closed over the forest.

  Kim began to climb down. She was ten or twelve feet below her perch when she remembered her T-shirt. She’d left it resting on a branch up there.

  It seemed like miles away.

  But she couldn’t return to civilization wearing nothing but her shorts.

  She began to cry. She wanted to get down. She wanted to find water. It just wasn’t fair, having to climb back up there again.

  Weeping, she struggled upward. Finally, she tugged the loaded shirt off the branch. Hadn’t needed the damn rocks anyway. She plucked open the knot and shook the shirt. The rocks fell, thumping against branches, swishing through pine needles. She stuffed the empty rag into the front of her shorts so she wouldn’t lose it, then started her long climb down to the forest floor.

  When Kim dropped from the final limb, she had no clear memory of the descent.

  She found herself walking through the woods. Her hands felt heavy. She looked at them, and saw that each held a rock. She didn’t remember picking them up. But she kept them.

  Until she heard the soft, windy sound of rushing water. Then she tossed them down and ran.

  Soon she was kneeling in a stream, cupping cold water to her mouth, splashing her face with it, sprawling out so she was submerged, the icy current sliding over her body. She came up for air. She cupped more water to her mouth, swallowed, sighed.

  Kim didn’t think she had ever felt so wonderful in her life.

  Until she was suddenly grabbed by her hair and jerked to her knees.

  No! Not after all this!

  His hands clutched her breasts, tugging her up and backward against him. She squirmed and kicked as he hauled her to the bank. There, he threw himself down, slamming her against the ground.

  He writhed on top of her. His hands squeezed and twisted her breasts. He grunted as he sucked the side of her neck.

  Reaching up behind herself, she caught hold of his ear. She yanked it. Heard tearing cartilage, felt a blast of breath against her neck as he cried out. His hands flew out from under her. He pounded the sides of her head.

  Stunned by the blows, Kim was only vaguely aware of his weight leaving her body. She thought she should try to scurry up and run, but couldn’t move. As if the punches had knocked the power out of her.

  She felt her shorts being tugged down. She wanted to stop that, but still couldn’t make her arms work. The shorts pulled at her ankles, lifted her feet and released them. Her feet dropped and struck the ground.

  Rough hands rubbed the backs of her legs, her rump. She felt the press of a whiskered face. Lips. A tongue. The man grunted like a beast.

  Then he grabbed her ankles, pulled and crossed her legs, flipping her over.

  Kim stared up at the man.

  He pulled a knife from his belt. Its blade gleamed in the moonlight. He clamped the knife between his teeth and started to unbutton his shirt.

  She stared at him.

  She tried to comprehend.

  He was skinny, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. His hair was a wild bush.

  He’s not the Butcher!

  He pulled his shirt open.

  A roar pounded Kim’s ears. The man’s head jerked as if he’d been kicked in the temple. A dark spray erupted from the other side. He stood above her for a second, still holding his shirt open, the knife still gripped in his teeth. Then he fell straight backward.

  Kim’s ears rang from the sound of the shot. She di
dn’t hear anyone approach.

  But then a man in baggy pants and black T-shirt was standing near her feet. He pointed a rifle down at the other man, and put three more rounds into him.

  He slung the rifle onto his back. He crouched, picked up the body, and draped it over his shoulder. Turning to Kim, he said, ‘Get dressed. I’ll give you a lift back to town.’

  ‘No way,’ she muttered.

  ‘It’s up to you.’

  He strode into the trees, carrying the body.

  ‘Wait,’ Kim called, struggling to sit up.

  He halted. He turned around.

  ‘He’s the Butcher?’ she asked.

  ‘That’s right.’

  ‘Who are you?’

  ‘A hired hand.’

  ‘Why did you do this to me?’ she blurted.

  ‘Needed bait,’ he said. ‘You were it, bitch. I figured he’d sniff you out, sooner or later. He did, and I took him down. Simple as that.’

  ‘How did you find me?’ Kim asked.

  ‘Find you? I never lost you. Climbing the tree was a pretty good gimmick, I’ll give you credit for that. Glad you dumped the rocks, though. Great timing. That’s what brought him out of cover.’

  ‘Why didn’t you shoot him right then?’

  ‘Didn’t feel like it. Coming?’

  ‘Fuck you.’

  He left.

  ***

  Kim followed the stream. Early the next morning, she came upon a two-lane road. She walked alongside it. Finally, she heard the approach of a car. Just before it came into view around a bend, she lifted the torn front of her T-shirt to cover herself.

  The car, a green Jeep, stopped beside her. A park ranger leaped out and hurried over to her. ‘My God, what happened to you?’

  She shook her head. ‘Can you take me to the police?’

  ‘Certainly.’ His eyes traveled down Kim in a way that reminded her of Bradley in the laundromat. She wondered how Bradley was doing. She wondered if she wanted to see him again. ‘You look like you’ve had a rough time of it,’ the ranger said.

  ‘Yeah.’ Swaying forward, she took a quick lurching step to keep herself from falling. The ranger gripped her arm and held her steady.

  ‘Are you all right?’ he asked.

  ‘I’ll live,’ Kim said. Her lips twitched into something that felt almost like a smile. She said it again. ‘I’ll live.’ It sounded very good.

  SLIT

  The library would be closing in five minutes. Charles knew that the last of the students had already left. He was alone with Lynn.

  He saw no point in heading off into the stacks to shelve books, so he lingered beside the circulation desk, arranging volumes in the cart and sneaking glances at her.

  She sat on a high stool behind the desk. Her empty loafers were on the floor. Her feet, in white socks, curled over a wooden rung of the stool. Charles could see one smooth calf, the crease behind her knee, and a few inches of bare thigh. Her legs were parted as far as the straight, denim skirt would allow. The skirt’s hem looked so tight against the side of her thigh that Charles wondered if it might leave a red mark on her skin.

  She was leaning forward, elbows resting on the desktop, hands on cheeks, head down as she looked through Kirkus. Her white blouse, tucked into the skirt, was taut against her back. Charles could see the bumps of her spine, the soft curves of her ribs, the pink hue of her skin through the fabric, the slim bands of her bra.

  He squatted down and placed some books on the lower shelf of the cart. This angle allowed him to see Lynn’s right breast. It was there beyond the underside of her arm, a sweet mound cupped by the tight blouse, its front hovering just above the edge of the desk.

  It would look so much better without the bra. The seams, the pattern, the stiffness. All in the way.

  Charles pictured himself slicing through its straps.

  Lynn reached out, turned a page, flinched and blurted, ‘Ow! Damn!’ She jerked her hand up. She held it rigid in front of her face, fingers spread and hooked. A gleaming dot of blood bloomed on the pad of her index finger.

  Charles felt his mouth go dry. His heart thudded. Heat rushed through his groin. He moaned.

  She glanced over at him. Her face was red, her teeth bared. Her eyes returned to her hand. She looked as if she didn’t know what to do with it. She shook it a couple of times like a cat with a wet paw, then pressed the bleeding fingertip between her lips.

  ‘A paper cut?’ he asked.

  She nodded.

  ‘I hate those things,’ he said.

  A cut. A slit.

  He stayed crouched, hard and aching.

  Lynn took the finger away from her mouth. It left some blood on her lips. She scowled at the wound, then gave Charles a tight, twisted smile. ‘It’s not that they hurt so much, you know? They’re just so…’ She shuddered. ‘They’re like fingernails skreeking on a blackboard.’ She licked the blood from her lips, then returned the finger to her mouth.

  ‘Would you like a bandage?’ Charles asked.

  ‘Do you have one?’

  ‘Oh, sure. I’m always prepared.’

  ‘Like a Boy Scout, huh?’

  ‘Yeah.’ Rising from his crouch, he hoped that the books on the cart’s top shelf were high enough. They were. Their tops reached up past his stomach.

  He turned away from Lynn and hurried into the office behind the circulation desk. There, he took a bandage from the tin inside his briefcase. He adjusted the front of his pants to make the bulge less apparent. But it still showed. He took his corduroy jacket off the back of a nearby chair, put it on, and fastened the middle button. He looked down. The front of the jacket nicely concealed his secret.

  When he came out, he found that Lynn had turned around on her stool to face him. ‘It’s stopped bleeding,’ she said.

  ‘Yeah, but paper cuts. You rub them the wrong way and flip back the skin and…’

  ‘Yuck. I guess I will take a bandage. Would you like to do the honors?’ She held her hand toward Charles.

  ‘Sure,’ he said. Trembling, he stripped the wrapper off the adhesive strip. He moved closer to Lynn, halting when the wet end of her finger was inches from his chest. He stared down at the slit -a crescent across the finger’s pad, rather like the gills of a tiny fish, pink under a thin white flap. The edge of the flap was away from him.

  ‘Do you think I’ll live?’

  ‘Sure.’ His voice came out husky. He felt terribly tight and hard.

  ‘Are you okay?’ she asked.

  ‘Yeah. Cuts make me nervous.’

  ‘You aren’t gonna faint or anything, are you?’

  ‘Hope not.’ He fumbled with the bandage, peeling the shiny papers away from its sides. He let them fall. They drifted down like petals plucked from a flower, and settled on her shirt.

  Pinching the sticky ends of the bandage, he lowered the gauze center toward Lynn’s cut.

  He wanted to hurt her.

  No! Don’t!

  He wanted to grab her finger and rub his thumb back, flipping up the little edge of skin, making her jerk and cry out.

  Not Lynn! Don’t!

  As fast as he could, he pressed the bandage to her cut and flipped the adhesive ends around her finger. He whirled away and rushed for the office.

  ‘Charles?’ she called. ‘Charles, are you all right?’

  He didn’t answer. He dropped onto his swivel chair, hunched over and grabbed his knees.

  It’s over, he told himself. You didn’t do it. Lynn can’t even suspect…

  He heard her quiet footsteps behind him. She put a hand on his shoulder. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

  ‘Just… cuts. They upset me.’

  Her hand squeezed him through the corduroy. ‘If I’d known… What is it, a phobia or something?’

  ‘I guess so. Maybe.’

  In a lighter tone, she said, ‘That probably explains why you carry bandages around, huh?’

  ‘Yeah.’

  She patted his shoulder. ‘M
aybe you’ll feel better if you get some fresh air,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you go ahead and take off? I’ll close up the library.’

  ‘Okay. Thanks.’

  He waited until she was gone, then carried his briefcase outside. The night was dank and misty.

  Feverish with memories of Lynn’s cut, he lingered near the library entrance. Soon, the upper windows went dark. He pictured her up there, alone in the stacks, lowering her bandaged finger from the switch panel, starting down the stairwell.

  His Swiss Army knife was a heavy lump against his thigh. He slipped his hand down into his pants pocket. He caressed the smooth plastic handle.

  And savored thoughts of slitting her.

  Just wait for her to come out…

  No!

  He turned from the library and walked quickly away.

  In his apartment three blocks from campus, Charles went to bed. But he didn’t sleep. His mind swirled with images of Lynn.

  Don’t think about her, he told himself.

  You can’t do her.

  But it would be so nice.

  But you can’t.

  Lynn was a graduate student. Like Charles, she earned a small stipend by working part-time at the Whitmore Library. Everyone knew they worked the same hours. Too much suspicion would be focused on him.

  Besides, he really liked her.

  But damn it…!

  Forget about her.

  He tried to forget about her. He tried to think only about the others. How they yelped or screamed. How their faces looked. How their skin split apart. How blood spilled out like scarlet creeks overflowing banks of ripped flesh, spreading and running, forming new streams that slid along velvety fields, that setded to create shimmering pools in the hollows of the body, that flowed down slopes.

  So many faces. So many bodies flinching with surprise or thrashing in agony. So many flooding slits.

  All belonged to strangers.

  Except for the face and body and cut of his mother. Struggling to stop the confusing flood of images, fighting to keep his mind off Lynn, he concentrated on his mother. Her voice through the door. Honey, would you be a dear and get me a Bandaid? He saw himself enter the steamy bathroom, reach high into the medicine cabinet for the tin of bandages, take out one and step to the tub where she reclined. The water was murky. Patches of white suds floated on its surface. From her chest rose shiny wet islands, wonderfully round and smooth, each topped by a ruddier kind of skin that jutted up in the center. Looking at the islands made Charles feel strange and squirmy.

 
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