ALGOR MORTIS

Dead Meat PT. 2: Inside

An illustration of stretched out intestines. To the left, 'Inside' is written in cursive.
CONTENT WARNINGS: gore & body horror, parasites, animal death, fungi, medical procedures, fire, vomiting, disordered eating (implied), self-starvation (mentioned), body control, blood consumption


Norman Nguyen cracked an eye open. It took a few moments of swimming back to consciousness to realize his pager was beeping, vibrating hard in the bedside drawer. The other occupant of the bed shifted, turning onto his stomach and shoving his face into his pillow. Hieu Phan lifted his head.

"Is she serious right now? It's the middle of the night," he mumbled sleepily.

"Unfortunately," Norman replied.

Norman propped himself up and turned on the lamp. Hieu dropped his head onto his pillow, squinting as his husband pulled the buzzing pest into the light to read his messages.

STORMS PASSED
HELI TO CATCH

Norman gave Hieu an apologetic smile and was up in a flash.

"You don't get paid EMT money to work EMT hours," Hieu said, pouting his lower lip out at him.

"I know," Norman said, pouting back at him.

"What does she have you doing now?" Hieu asked.

Norman looked over his shoulder at Hieu while he got dressed.

"Catching a helicopter," he said.

"Whoa. Why?"

“Going on a rescue mission, of sorts."

"An action hero! So glamorous," Hieu said, and yawned.

Norman kissed an already dozing Hieu goodbye. As Norman stepped out of their apartment, he took a deep breath of chilled air- and abruptly choked on it as his pager went off again. He read the new message with disdain as an itch began in his ears.

STOP YOUR YAWNING
GET MOVING


The Ruby Tears National Forest lay beyond the west gate of camp and opened like a maw to greet them. Ankhanum tightrope walked down the length of a fallen log and gracefully dropped into the snow at the bottom. He looked up to where Clive and Betsy stood.

"Where to from here?" Ankhanum asked.

"We're gonna follow this road," Betsy said. "It'll take us to a town called High Bridge."

Betsy lowered herself from the ledge, Clive jumping down after. She shined her light around. There was a large rock split cleanly down the center here. Betsy nodded, comparing it to her personal map she'd marked up. She'd spent many a day in these woods over the years; she was well acquainted with this trail and its landmarks, even in this snow.

"Okay. We're going the right way. Let's set up some kind of shelter and wait out the night," Betsy said. "What's the plan once you guys reach 'civilization', anyway?"

"We believed you had one," Clive said, a smile evident in his voice.

Betsy halted in her tracks. Where WOULD they go? Bears were not well known for signing leases, and up until a few days ago, that's what they'd been. Hell, she didn't even know until tonight they could talk.

"Hadn't thought that far ahead," Betsy admitted.

"We are people again and we will need assistance in integrating ourselves into society," Clive said.

Betsy feigned a gasp while Ankhanum smelled the air eagerly.

"To think you said I'd hold you back! And now you're askin' for my help!" Betsy said.

"Joining us was your insane idea, as was trying to talk your way out of an execution by firing squad," Clive said. "I want to see how else you create problems for yourself!"

Betsy's cheeks flushed in visible anger.

Ankhanum clapped a hand on Clive's shoulder.

"Do not speak to our escort that way," Ankhanum said jovially enough, though his grip sank deep into the fabric of Clive's coat. "No need to make shelter, Betsy. I can smell our den from here! Come. We wait the night out there."

He didn't wait for her response. He took off.

"Wh- Hey, no! Don't wander!" Betsy yelled. "I need to know EXACTLY where I'm going-"

"Easier to discern that in daylight, is it not?!" Ankhanum yelled over his shoulder.

In a panic, Betsy ran after him. Clive watched the bobbing of her light nearly fade into the distance before he followed.


Betsy shined the light at the base of a massive tree. The namesake of these woods, its bark was marred by gashes filled with a hardened red sap. A hole had been dug here, curving deep under the roots. There was bear scat nearby; the smell Ankhanum indicated he'd picked up on.

He kneeled by the hole, gesturing pridefully.

"Perfect to wait a cold night out in!" he said.

"Love your enthusiasm, buddy, but there's no way we're all gonna fit in there," Betsy said.

"I will make it so there is a way."

Ankhanum removed his gloves. His hands thickened, hair growing upon them. Snow and dirt flew as he dug the entrance out with powerful, padded claws. His torso disappeared into the tunnel. Betsy looked to Clive, hoping for an objection, but he only examined Ankhanum's progress with interest. Ankhanum's legs vanished next. A moment later, his head emerged.

"Come, come!" he insisted.

He ducked back into the hole.

Clive wasted no time; down he went. Though they were bigger than her, they'd managed it.

Then again...

She thought of the ease with which their mass shifted. Going headfirst into the den of an accomplished predator was a lousy idea, whether she fit or not.

Betsy kneeled and listened. She could hear them talking faintly. How long was this thing? She set her bag aside, tucking it in the roots. She rolled her flashlight down first. Into the bear's den she went, sliding down with an ease that took that breath away.

She emerged into an open space. Betsy started to sweat as she squeezed the rest of her body through. It was unusually humid in here. She grabbed the flashlight and took note of her surroundings.

Brush made for bedding in the center. This was where Ankhanum and Clive now sat, hunched. The walls were carpeted in red moss. Above them, veiny roots curled into the dirt walls around the den. The smell of damp vegetation wafted on the air.

"What is that stuff?" she asked.

"Part of these ones, once. It lives in the tree," Ankhanum said. "Holds the den together and digests intruders."

"Great, that's a fun way to die," Betsy said, feeling nauseated.

"Oh, yes, but Betsy can't die yet," he said. "We need you."

Clive stifled a snort. Feeling charitable, he put a hand on Ankhanum's shoulder.

"Anni, Betsy was being sarcastic," Clive said. "Let us rest now."

Ankhanum's eye twitched at the pet name, though he held his tongue. They removed their jackets and laid on top of them, huddling together. Betsy stretched out carefully as she took her own off. She did NOT want to come into contact with the walls.

Unusual circumstances aside, waiting out the night in warmth was far safer than wandering in freezing dark. She'd find out where they ended up in the morning, provided she wasn't devoured in her sleep.

Betsy turned out her light.

She was out soon after.


Betsy dreamed.

Colorful, vague recollections of the last few days. The night of the infamous bear meat chili dinner. Only this time, Sanderson entered the kitchen for his bedtime cup of tea. He was the same tidy, fat little man she'd known for years with the well kept mustache. He pulled a stool up to the kitchen island, raving on and on about how wonderful dinner was. Betsy listened to his glowing review while she put away the leftover meat in the freezer.

Only she'd been alone when she'd done this. She was positive of that.

There was a chopping sound.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

Betsy peered into the kitchen. Sanderson continued singing his praises of her cooking as he rhythmically cut into the meat of his arm with the very same knife she'd stabbed that horrid fleshy tail he'd sprouted.

The chopping got louder.

Thunk. THUNK.

Sanderson soundlessly said something about having another taste and he popped a dripping slice into a mouth ringed with sharp teeth.


Betsy jolted awake, the image disappearing into the soft light flowing into the space around her. The chopping, however, hadn't faded. It took a few moments of groggy listening to realize she was hearing a helicopter.

Betsy shifted. There was something warm on her cheek. Wet. She sat up, slapping at her face. She held her hand to the light. That red moss. It began to tremble in her palm.

With a yelp, Betsy slapped it to the ground, grinding it into the dust. She flailed once she realized it was all over her, and she kicked Ankhanum in the head. He grunted, sitting up. Her boot struck his nose with a dull thud. Blood spilled down his chin, adding to the red already in excess. He pinched his nose closed. Clive stirred at the commotion and narrowly avoided being struck himself. Realizing what was happening, he began to laugh.

"Get this shit off me!" Betsy shrieked.

Betsy tore the last of it away and she sat there looking wildly at them, trying to catch her breath. Ankhanum held his head forward.

"Good morning, Betsy," he said, voice muffled.


It took some effort, but Betsy climbed out of the den. The creeping feeling of moss on her cheek was still there. She made a face and wiped at it.

The helicopters sounded close- no doubt nearing the camp.

Her stomach churned at the thought of the department in spitting distance, but she had to keep moving forward. Wherever forward even was, now that she wasn't on the trail anymore. Nothing around was familiar. No parting of trees to accommodate the road. Until she found something of note, the map wouldn't help.

Nearby, Ankhanum basked in the sunlight. It was almost directly overhead. She'd guess it was noon.

"Mmm! Warmer today. Good to feel the sun again," he said with a grin.

He took the hat off and ruffled his hair. In broad daylight, Betsy saw how matted it was. A slimy pink film coated his face. Clive wasn't in much better shape; as he approached, Betsy observed the same of him. He was watching the sky.

"That'll be your department, then?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said.

"You could have been taken home, had you stayed."

"Could’ve."

"What could have possibly motivated you to follow two strange men into the woods, then?" he asked, smiling at her curiously.

"I'll get home without them," Betsy cut in. "We need to get back on the trail."

She fixed Ankhanum with a pointed stare.

"You could smell frozen bear shit a mile off. Got any leads on gettin' back to where we were?" she asked.

"We were by a big rock!" Ankhanum said.

"Yeah, good job, buddy! Can you, I dunno, smell the big rock?"

"Betsy, it's a rock. It smells like dirt. Everything smells of dirt in the woods."

Clive snorted. Betsy's cheeks flushed.

"I MEANT, did it smell like an animal or anything? Anything that would get us back to it," she asked.

Ankhanum grew quiet, sniffing the air. He took off once again, weaving through the trees. Clive and Betsy followed.

Eventually, mercifully, she saw a flowing stream, the Ankhanum following it. It flowed over a ledge. Even from afar, Betsy could hear the waterfall. They got close to the ground, tucking themselves behind snowy brush. Ankhanum waved her over and she peered around their cover.

At the base of the waterfall, a doe was drinking from the stream. Betsy looked at Ankhanum, her shoulders falling as she sighed through her nose. He grinned excitedly in return. She looked to Clive, only to see he was gone.

A dark shape darted through the trees below. The doe lifted her head, ears twitching at the sound of branches crackling downstream.

Ankhanum was a flash in the corner of Betsy's eye as he leapt from the ledge. He collided with the doe, knocking her to the ground. Both of them tumbled. He sunk his teeth into her neck and moments after, she went limp. Clive emerged from behind a tree further down, sighing in annoyance but clapping.

"Beat me to it," he said.

Ankhanum cackled and waved Betsy down. He dripped with blood, the skin of his face barely containing the skull of a large cat. The bite wound Betsy received from Sanderson suddenly ached.

"Would Betsy like some?!" he called.

"I don't eat meat, but thanks for thinkin' of me!" she said, waving back. "I'll stick to my very cold, unseasoned green beans."

Betsy stayed put on the ledge as she watched them tear meat from bone with little effort. The sight disgusted her, but how they savored it, sucking every last morsel up- she couldn't help but feel envious. The meager food supply she'd brought was unlikely to provide her with the calories she needed for long. Foraging wasn't an appealing option, either. After her encounter with the moss, thoughts of meaty flora ping-ponged erratically around her head. She would have to make what she had stretch.

Betsy climbed down, settled on a sun-warmed stone and watched over the meticulous grooming ritual to follow.

Ankhanum was sat at the edge of the stream, stroking his hands through his hair and brows. Hunks of tangled hair rested in the snow. He fussed at his coat sleeves, scratching, then gnawing with his teeth. He chewed at his hands and dug crusted bloody crescents out from under his nails. Clive was doing the same, before setting aside his gloves and sipping the bitter cold stream water out of cupped hands. Ankhanum shifted onto all fours, drinking deeply from the stream. Reminded of her own thirst, she sipped from her water canteen and eyed the doe’s remains. It was little more than bones now, filling out the two’s bodies in turn. The mass Ankhanum lost after being shot was fully restored, giving him a healthier glow.

"You killed that doe quick," Betsy remarked.

Ankhanum wiped a hand across his mouth and beamed at her. His teeth still hadn't returned to their previous size.

"Betsy sounds impressed with this one!" he said.

She nervously grinned back.

"Yeah, impressed I didn't end up like her," she said, nodding her head at the remains.

"Betsy helped us. Continues to help us," he said. "These ones do not know the trail as intimately. It would do us no favors to eat you.”

Trail. Right. Betsy hurriedly took her map out and scanned the area. There was an astounding number of large trees bleeding that red sap, like the one the den had been dug under. More of that moss pulsated on the rocks lining the stream. Still no landmarks familiar to her, but this stream and its waterfall were recorded a few miles out from the trail. She sighed in relief.

"We can find the way back from here. With those helicopters flying around, maybe it was a good thing we strayed after all," she said. "I hadn't expected them to show up so soon."

"Why do you not wish to be found?" Clive asked.

The bluntness of his question took her off guard.

"...I don't trust them," she said. "I don't like their practices. I don't like the way they handle specimens. I don't want anythin' to do with them."

"Then why work for them?"

"I don't."

An intrigued look spread across Clive's face.

"Then why were you there?" he asked.

"I work for Dr. Sanderson under the table. He's been studying wildlife wherever they'd send him," Betsy said. "I don't know the specifics. I wasn't really involved in all that. Herbert and I have known each other a long time. A few years ago, he said he had a job for me. So I go to these camps with him. I got mouths to feed at home and he pays good."

Betsy picked up one of the red mossy rocks, turning it over with curiosity. The moss trembled and spread into her palm, oozing outward.

"But whatever they're really studying, I think they found it here," she continued. "Ever since we started finding those red plants and notin' how weird the animals have been acting, they've been houndin' Sanderson for updates, when they're usually more hands-off."

Betsy cupped her hand around the moss. It was starting to feel warm, even through the thick material of her glove.

"Sanderson said the department head sounded 'positively elated' when he told her about you. Then the second that storm passes, they're here. She's never sent anyone before over something we've found; we've had to load 'em up and take them to her."

Betsy took a cautious sniff of the moss. It smelled like Ankhanum.

"I don't know what the department's gonna do to the others now with them having eaten that meat," she said. "I never did, but I don't know that they wouldn't make a guinea pig outta me, too."

Clive stroked his chin, leaning forward with interest.

"This department head of yours. Who is she?" he asked.

Betsy absently played with the moss in her hand.

"I know her name, and that she's filthy rich. That's about it," she said. "Sanderson would probably know more. But, get this- the department itself’s a branch of a communications company. Telephones. Radios. Stuff like that. I dunno what any of that has to do with what we do out here, or you, for that matter."

She fell quiet.

"Now that he looks like you, what if they think he is you?" she asked.

"I don't intend to worry you more in saying this, but he is us now," Clive said. "If nothing else, his presence at camp may throw her off our trail for a time."

"Yeah. That occurred to me, too," she said.

"What exactly does this department do to its specimens that has you so riled up?" Clive asked.

"They test on 'em. And- see, I'm not against animal testing," she said. "It has its uses, and there's rules in place to minimize suffering. Problem with the department is, they've been dodging lawsuits and shutdowns for years for their practices. ‘Cause rules don't seem to apply if you got the wealth and influence to shut down your detractors."

Clive scoffed.

"Hardly surprises me that Sanderson continues to work for them considering the way he regarded us," he said.

“Eh. He’s had trouble finding jobs as long as I can remember,” she said. “It’s complicated.”

The moss covered Betsy's thumb now. Ankhanum moved closer.

"It likes you," he said softly.

"This is a part of you too, huh?" Betsy asked.

Ankhanum held his hand out to hers. The moss excitedly slithered into his. It disappeared under his claws, sucked into the nailbeds.

"And it is part of me again," he said.

"Fantastic," she said, nauseated.


Norman stepped out of the helicopter, thudding heavily into the snow.

It was noon. The sun was high and bright, glinting harshly off the brilliant white and red landscape. Norman lowered his sunglasses slightly, eyes adjusting. Red in the snow. Red spilling down the cargo bay ramp. Red fungus curled up the lab, already flowering. In the parking lot, a truck with its door hanging open was almost entirely enveloped. The warmer it was, the wilder it grew.

The pilot fidgeted with his respirator.

"That stuff is everywhere. You gonna need one of these, too, sir?" he asked Norman.

"I'll be fine, but thank you," Norman said.

Norman found the lab to be locked. He withdrew a set of keys and pushed open the door. There was no one in the lab, not anymore, but there was plenty to see.

Stains in the kennel.

Click.

Fungus coating the walls and doorway of the lab.

Click.

Blood on an exam table in the lab.

Click.

The click of the camera shutter was endless. Among the chips of glass and porcelain on the floor, there was something else. Norman picked it up. A pale fragment. Tooth? Bone? It didn’t matter. He wasn’t here to investigate a crime scene. Into a baggie went the piece. In a cooler were vials of blood. Norman grabbed those on his way out.

He handed his findings to the pilot and gestured to the red-carpeted ramp of the cargo bay.

"I'm going to go check that out," Norman said. "Coming with?"

Terror filled the pilot's eyes.

Norman chuckled.

"Only joking," he said with a wry smile.

Norman eyed the damaged generator with interest as he passed by. While it was the least of his concerns at the moment, this camp had quite the story to tell.

Norman lifted the shutter the rest of the way up, flooding the kitchen with daylight. The freezer door hung open. That smell hung in the air, the gore to match streaked along the walls and floor. Norman stepped lightly around this and peered into the freezer. There were bodies teeming with red fungus. Otherwise, it was empty of anything recognizable as food.

The door to the pantry was closed. It opened with no resistance. There was a barely dressed body on the floor among shredded cans and various bags and wrappers. The fungus was present here as well.

"Are you from the department?" came a whisper from the floor.

Freezing, blue-lipped, but very much alive, Mina Barnes stared up at the form in the doorway. Norman pressed a finger into his ear.

"We got a survivor," he said aloud to someone unseen. "...Bring a stretcher. I'm going to need help loading her onto it."

Mina's eyes widened. She tried to move, to sit up, to throw her arms around this stranger. But she couldn't. She was frozen. Norman kneeled.

"Relax," he said. "You're going to be okay."

A single red tear oozed its way down Mina's frigid cheek.

Once he'd shown up with stretcher in tow, the pilot eyed her jagged teeth and soaked surroundings. His hands shook enough that he nearly lost his grip on Mina while helping Norman move her onto the stretcher.

"Come on, pull yourself together," Norman said curtly. "She's no threat to you right now."

"Yes, sir, sorry, sir," the pilot said.

Soon, Mina was laid out in the helicopter, covered with a blanket. She was out cold. Norman's ear twitched; faintly, he could hear the whirring of helicopter blades. He nodded approvingly as a chopper rose above the trees- HRD, for Hassen Research Department, emblazoned on its side.

He'd need all the help he could get.

By 2pm, the department was spread out all over the camp. Bodies and body parts were loaded onto stretchers. The frozen body of a young man, most certainly dead this time, was pulled out from under a bed. The harrowed survivors complained of frostbite and stomach aches and strange cravings. They seated onto the helicopters. More pictures were taken , more evidence gathered. Documentation, samples, anything, everything.

It would be in a very overturned room that Norman found a photo. This place had been rummaged through in a hurry, the mattress askew on its frame. Laying forgotten on the floor next to it was a photo.

A family on the porch of a visibly aged home. The number plate above the door read 618. A grinning, solidly built woman with freckled cheeks and red hair had a child with similar features in her arms. An elderly woman seated in a rocking chair smiled over at them.

On the back was the date it’d been developed, in addition to a handwritten note.

Betsy – missing you already! Get home safe and sound. See you in six months! Love, Mom

There was nothing special about it in and of itself. He pocketed it anyway.

Outside, the team awaited him.

"Mr. Nguyen, sir!" said the pilot. "We've searched the premises top to bottom and checked the perimeter. We're confident we've found every body! Should we begin moving the survivors out of here?"

Norman shook his head.

"Another sweep of the camp, if you please," Norman said. "I don't want to miss a thing before we burn this place down."

Through their respirators, the department agents looked between each other uncertainly.

The sun was starting to set by the time Norman was content. While the world around them darkened, the camp lit up. Smoke rose in an ominous plume. The red fungus helplessly writhed, crisping and turning black. The red white landscape turned black gray. The flames did their dance as they consumed all.

Above, the survivors watched out the helicopter windows as everything they'd worked on burned.

Gradually the fires died down. Norman touched the glowing embers that remained, despite their intense heat. What used to be a clump of those red mushrooms crumbled to dust in his hand.

He sprinkled the ash across the snow.


"I smell smoke," Ankhanum said, looking at the darkening sky, nostrils flaring.

"I smell it, too. I wonder how long your department has been looking into us if they know to burn the area," Clive said.

"Why burn it?" Betsy asked.

Clive pursed his lips.

Betsy glanced between them.

"That your 'stake to the heart', then?" she asked mischievously. "If I took a flamethrower to you two, what would happen?"

Suddenly they were both staring at her, much the same way they had trapped inside the kennel. Wide-eyed, wary.

"Why would you want to do that, Betsy?" Ankhanum asked.

Betsy blinked. The genuine hurt in his voice took her aback. Had she actually managed to hit a nerve? She rubbed the back of her neck.

"Relax. I don't actually want to," she said. "Was only curious."

"I will indulge your question," Clive said, teeth bared slightly. "Setting us on fire would cause us a great deal of pain. Provided we could not escape to a body of water or otherwise put it out, we would die. It would also make us not like you very much."

Ankhanum nodded and half-smiled at Betsy, waving his hand.

"Men are naturally curious about what is unlike them," Ankhanum said. "Though we have that in common. Neither of us would do well if set on fire."

Betsy laughed. Ankhanum cocked his head at her, smiling wider. He laughed also. Clive shook his head at them, but he had a small smile of his own.

"Now I have a question for you, Betsy," Clive said.

"If you're gonna ask what would happen if you disemboweled me with your teeth, I suppose that's fair," she said with a cautious grin.

"I already know that. What I want to know is what this is," Clive said.

He pulled something from his pocket. It was a small plastic box with a cassette tape inside. Punctures lined the casing. Her face grew serious.

"Where'd you get this?" she asked.

"I found it laying next to your bag earlier," Clive said.

"There's no way that's true."

Clive shrugged. Betsy rewound the tape and pressed play.

"Recording begins. Herbert Sanderson. November 16-"

Betsy pressed the ‘STOP’ button.

"That's what I thought," she said. "Though why his recorder's out here in the woods is beyond me."

"It's beyond me as well, since you don't believe me," Clive said.

The tape didn't have to rewind far. Betsy played it as they continued onward. Older entries. One about the initial sighting of the bear, from about month ago. Another about the incident in the freezer. Abruptly came the buckshot betrayal of Mina Barnes. Lamprey eels. Fungal blood. These last entries were from that very day, puzzling her more.

"No, really, where'd you get this?" Betsy asked.

"I told you. It was next to your bag when I emerged from the den," Clive said.

Betsy scanned the area around them with her flashlight. Nothing but trees, snowy dunes and winter-stripped landscape. She sighed. Ankhanum cocked his head at her demeanor. He took a quick sniff of the recorder.

"It smells like Sanderson. It even sounds like Sanderson," Ankhanum said. "An acceptable substitute for the real thing. It'll be as if he's traveling with us!"

Betsy snorted and stuffed the recorder into her bag.

"All right, all right. Come on. It's getting dark. We should take shelter," she said.

In the brush beyond, a lynx dropped to the ground from a tree, watching them intently. It was debatable if his recorder was in safe hands, but it hadn't been lost, at least. He was starting to feel hungry.

Maybe he'd try his paw at hunting during their journey. Then again, Betsy was a better shot than he a hunter and the Ankhanum better hunters than he could ever hope to be. Something to make an entry about one day.

His tail twitched.

Sanderson slinked after them.


Earlier that morning, long before Norman would set foot into the yard, Dr. Sanderson began to stir.

As he lay there, the room came into focus. He was in the lab. Everything hurt. There was a heap of coats draped over him. Sanderson blinked. He didn't recall coming in here, much less doing all this. He pulled them off and was confronted by the absence of half a leg. The stump was wrapped up in another coat. His disembodied leg rested on his lap.

Ah. He'd been shot. Again. That creature, too. Many more times than him. Betsy had been there. Thinking of her, Sanderson noticed the table was parked next to his desk. On it, Milo's key ring, the burner, a canteen of water, tea leaves and his banged up kettle. Next to it, a map with the trail they drove marked in red pen. He tested the burner. A flame. A little warmth, a little comfort.

He was soon sipping at warm tea.

He'd really mucked things up this time with her and she’d still gone out of her way to put this together for him. Why had he even done all that? They'd had worse spats. Nothing to kill each other over. Red tears dribbled down his cheek. He wiped them away. Betsy would've hated if he sat around throwing a pity party.

Sanderson looked down at himself.

The department was bound to be here soon. Should they find him like this, with the real specimens missing- well, the irony was as bitter as this tea without his usual dollop of sugar. It seemed Betsy was like-minded in that regard.

Sanderson looked to the kennel and felt himself overcome by a melancholy almost unfamiliar to him.

What a missed opportunity!

How he had wanted to study them more!

Sanderson curled his lip as he observed his changed form again.

...He could always study himself, in the interim.

Sanderson finished his tea and rolled over his desk to dig through the drawer. His voice recorder, previously for his wildlife studies. The last entry he recalled making was about the observant carrion he'd locked up earlier in the week.

"Recording begins. December 6th. Maybe. To say I am a changed man is a capital-U understatement. Will elaborate later. For now, my colleague, Dr. Mina Barnes, pumped a load of buckshot into my leg and severed it from my body. Considering my options. Recording ends."

Sanderson grabbed his detached leg and looked it over with a nauseated sneer. Could it be reattached? Did it work like that? Sanderson thought of the way the creature's body had shifted and closed its wounds effortlessly.

No, no.

Not creature.

Ankhanum.

Sanderson's body sang. That was his name. Their name. ...No, not quite. He was still Herbert Sanderson. But he was Ankhanum, too, the man he was before resting in their ribcage.

Sanderson removed the coat from his leg. Betsy had tied his thigh with a sleeve. He positioned the lost limb where it belonged. Maybe it was as simple as willing the tissue to reconnect...? But nothing happened. He undid the knot on the sleeve. Blood oozed.

The remains of his leg shuddered.

Sanderson breathed in sharply.

"Recording begins. December 6th. The remains of my leg react to flowing blood! I-"

The torn edge of his detached knee closed, sucking into itself. Sanderson held his breath. It opened, revealing multiple circular rows of teeth surrounding the bone.

"-my leg, is really evoking lamprey eel right now and- AH, mother-
-FUCKER!"

Those teeth sunk into him. Sanderson yelped. He ripped his biting knee away and whipped it. It hit the back of the empty kennel with a thud and skittered around. Sanderson's palm flew to his face, rubbing at his mouth as he groaned. He brought the recorder to his lips.

"My severed leg made an effort, albeit violent, to reattach itself to me and I, an absolute GENIUS, threw it across the room like a football! Recording ends!"

Whining, Sanderson dug at his leg with a claw, renewing the blood flow. The smell made his head spin. It leapt at him. Sanderson stuffed a coat into his mouth and bit down, muffling his screaming as his leg chewed its way back onto his body.


Sanderson stepped onto the icy cold floor and shivered. What was left of his clothes would keep him warm enough but he wouldn't be able to wear boots with his changed feet.

Another opportunity!

"Recording begins. Still December 6th. My body changes on a whim! When I could not grab Betsy with my arms, I grew a tail capable of reaching her. My mouth wasn't big enough to- er, n-nevermind that. I did not want to be moved- my feet mutated to keep me anchored. I am going to change them back! Hopefully. Recording ends."

Sanderson leaned against the wall and focused. Warm. He needed to stay warm. He couldn't trek through snow without something to protect his skin. A warm feeling spread across his legs, beneath his slacks. He looked down. A thick coating of fur covered his legs and feet now. In fact, he was really evoking lynx. Sanderson spread his toes, looking at his paws with a queasy smile. It wasn't what he had in mind, but they'd get the job done.

On shaky feet, Sanderson opened the lab door. Light flowed in, making him squint.

Sunrise. His blood and around a dozen firearms in the snow greeted him. That cloying scent was all over. He stepped out cautiously, turning to the blood soaked lab. It dried overnight, but remained a brilliant red. Curious, he touched it. Fuzzy. Sniffed it. That smell, but barely there.

He brought the recorder to his lips.

"Recording begins. It appears our blood takes on different properties once it leaves the body. Although dry, it has yet to change color and appears to have become a mold. The smell of it when fresh drives me crazy- but in this form, it is less enticing. Odd. Will update with further findings. Recording ends."

Sanderson pulled the door to the lab closed behind him with his tail. At some point, it had become furred as well. Sanderson sighed. He HAD wanted warm.

He breathed in deeply.

That smell. Fresh. Unyielding. Elsewhere. His stomach groaned and he followed the scent. The kitchen's cargo bay was still open. It was coming from in there. In spite of himself, he salivated.

A shivering figure slid out from under the shutter. Long dark hair framed their face.

A coat and nightgown, smeared with blood and mold.

Mina.

Sanderson retreated behind the rec center, praying she hadn't seen him. Something heavy landed on the roof above him. She dropped ahead of him, nails screeching down the building’s metal siding.

"There you are," she rasped. "Betsy locked us out of the lab."

"You sound like you've been waiting for me," Sanderson said, rubbing his hands together.

Her eyes flashed. Mina struck the wall of the rec center with her fist, denting it.

"While you were holed up all nice and safe in the lab, I've been fighting over food with broken wrists!" she said.

"And I can see your wrists have recovered well! Eating your veggies, are you?" Sanderson asked, sweating bullets.

"Last night was AWFUL. These last few days have been AWFUL!" Mina said.

She punctuated each sentence with a fist to the wall, creating dents the same size as what was left of his skull.

"This is all your fault. You and Betsy, that cannibal bitch. I heard what she was whispering to you last night- you’re one too, aren’t you?!"

Sanderson could feel the blood draining from his face. There was no good answer to that question.

"I'll kill you. Both of you! But you- YOU first," she growled.

She ran at him. Sanderson held his arms up over his head and wailed. Mina's advance ceased as her arms froze mid-swing, a flash of pained terror on her face. Then she wrenched her arms back to herself. She clenched and unclenched her fists with a furrowed brow, before she flashed him a sharp-toothed grin.

"Doesn't look like that's going to work on me anymore!" she spat.

Sanderson squeaked. She swung at him again. He nearly lost his balance as he ducked. His tail lashed out behind him, coiling around her ankle. She fell headfirst onto the ground. Sanderson sprinted to the west gate. It was open; likely hand-cranked during Betsy's own escape. Brilliant, brilliant woman!

Ahead the parking lot came into view. Bodies hung out of vehicles. Sanderson couldn't see into one of the trucks at all. The windows were coated in red from inside. Mina howled behind him and he quickened his pace. He had no time to gawk.

He'd fancied himself a hunter at the height of his egotism but in the end he was a housecat among lionesses!

An idea came to him, then.

Why, he was nearly halfway there!

He stumbled through the gate and raced to the treeline, Mina hot on his heels. She swiped at him. He zigged. Her claws raked the bark of a tree. Close. He zagged. A branch was ripped to splinters behind him. He jumped over a fallen tree, only to feel his heart shoot into his throat- there was a drop.

He landed hard on his bottom and tried to catch his breath. The cold air was harsh in his throat. He grabbed his recorder and placed it between his teeth.

Mina leapt over the drop, pouncing on him. She tore into him.

Only it wasn't him, not anymore.

She stared at the bloody clothing in her arms. With an aggravated shriek, she threw the tatters into the snow, shuddering from the encroaching cold.


Dr. Mina Barnes was a natural wallflower.

For years, her shy demeanor and sweet face belied a venomous heart. She disliked other people, broadly speaking. They were always a disappointment. But the worst type of person to her was one who dragged their feet. Procrastinators and the chronically late fit that category nicely. Right now, so did the department. Frozen meat transforming into a man was a little more fucking important than a few inches of snow in Mina’s eyes.

That very same night the meat became a man, she’d overheard a short-lived but heated argument in the kitchen between Betsy and Dr. Sanderson. Listening in on the odd couple had almost become a hobby of hers. Betsy was the most reserved of anyone at camp. Over time, Mina discovered Betsy discussed personal matters with Dr. Sanderson.

Mina hugged the wall outside the kitchen and listened in.

"What choice do you think we have?" Sanderson asked.

"If you're actually asking. We cart that kennel outta the lab and turn him loose in the woods he came from. Then we shrug and say, 'Uh-oh! Whoops!' to the moron that shows up,” Betsy said.

Idiot, Mina thought.

"And if he returns and attacks us again? We're still out here until March. I don't agree with his captivity, either, Betsy, but we don't know what he's capable of. For God's sake, he was meat in our bowls a day ago!" Sanderson said.

As much as she couldn't stand Sanderson (the little creep), Mina found herself nodding in agreement.

"Yeah. I guess. What'd the department head have to say about our oh-so-wonderful bear meat chili dinner, anyway?" Betsy asked.

"I only said we killed a bear. Nothing about the chili," Sanderson said.

Mina restrained a gasp.

There was a beat of silence.

"Christ, Herbert. That people ate that meat is a pretty fuckin' important detail!" Betsy said.

"I didn't want any responsibility for this coming down on you!” Sanderson said.

Mina’s heart clenched and the seed of conspiracy sprouted in her mind.

This had been no accident.

She hurried off to her quarters.


The next day, the man split into two. Mina wished for nothing more than to leave this awful place, job be damned. But the only road she knew was buried in snow. Unless she wanted to wander in the woods until she succumbed to the elements, she would have to wait.

Mina wasn’t a big eater. She never had been. But now, the smell of food, the smacking of lips in the cafeteria...knowing that cannibal bitch Betsy was preparing her food- it made her ill. Increasingly Mina threw up after eating. Days of ejecting her already thin meals were taking their toll.

Mina rummaged in the pantry. Anything packaged, untouched by human hands would do. She tore into a sleeve of saltines. She popped a cracker between her lips, savoring the salt as she headed back to her quarters. She was passing through the cafeteria when the mudroom door slammed.

She froze as a figure lumbered in. The shredded remains of a blue checked sweater vest clung to their wide frame. Long, knotted strands of dark hair hung around their face. They were dragging something. With the dining tables in the way, she couldn't see what it was.

Do something! Mina yelled at herself. Run. Pull the fire alarm. Don't wait. Do SOMETHING!

But she couldn't do anything.

She had frozen.

The corner of the cracker in her mouth had grown soggy. It fell to the floor with a dull click. Halfway across the cafeteria, the figure turned their head. Burning red eyes stared at her.

"Mina?"

That high voice and neatly trimmed mustache adorning his upper lip was unmistakable.

"Dr. Sanderson...?"

"What are you doing up at this hour, Mina?”

"I was hungry.”

"Me, too.”

Mina was sweating now. She leaned. He moved to block her from seeing what he had. She backed up. The fire alarm was right behind her.

"Don't," he said.

She froze.

"Y-you look unwell, Dr. Sanderson," she said. "I think you need help."

"Do I? I feel better than ever.”

"What are you dragging?"

He didn't answer. Only looked to the floor. Mina thawed long enough to make a break for the fire alarm.

"STOP!” he hissed.

She did. Her hand hovered above the lever, clenching and unclenching. She gasped. Burning. Her hand was burning. Tears sprang forth in her eyes. He shuffled toward her. Mina shook as he got close enough to feel his breath on her skin. He finally entered her field of view, long brows knit in confusion.

"Mina? What's wrong?"

"I- I don't know!"

Her throat was being squeezed from the inside. The tears were falling now.

"Lower your arm," he said.

She did, slowly, agonizingly. Blood filled her eyes and dripped down her face.

"Oh, God," he breathed.

He backed away.

"Don't pull the fire alarm," he said, his voice full of terror. "And don't tell anyone you saw me. Don't scream! Please."

Mina felt her body walk, stiffly. She finally saw what he was dragging. Milo hung from a tight, clawed fist. He was limp, eyes milky. Mina whimpered. Her throat closed up.

"I said don't scream!" he snapped.

"Won't. Please," she gasped. "Can't breathe!"

Sanderson panicked as her face began to redden.

"Ah- no! Breathe, breathe! Just- don't scream! Ah, wait, wait," he stammered.

Mina was taking on a blue hue by the time her throat opened again. She inhaled sharply, coughing mightily and doubling over. She turned a ferocious glare onto him.

"Monster," she hissed.

"I know. I'm sorry," he said.

He kept repeating it. Thick red tears rolled down his cheeks. It only made her angrier.

"Freak!" she said.

Her throat closed up again. Sanderson leaned into her face, baring distressingly sharp teeth.

"Don't tell anyone about this. Don't you dare," he said. "I-I'm not a freak. I didn't mean for any of this to happen. I'm so sorry."

Sanderson staggered down the hall to his quarters, dragging Milo all the way.

Once he was out of sight, the painful grip on her body loosened. Mina slumped to the floor and sobbed over her saltines.


Sanderson ran- he ran for as long as he had to to lose Mina, oblivious to the fact she'd never followed. He dug his claws into a tree coated in hardened red sap and climbed it with an ease that surprised him. On a high branch, he panted, nearly dropping the recorder. Not that he'd have much use for it now without thumbs or a voice. If he only evoked lynx before, he manifested it now.

The lynx looked out over the woods with changed eyes- two of them no less. He had the high ground and a natural fur coat for a winter trek. That he could climb a tree like he was a kid again certainly didn't hurt, either.

He smelled the air.

A giddy excitement filled him.

He could smell them.

The Ankhanum.

Nearby!

Excitement became exhilaration.

Sanderson looked down the tree, tail twitching. There was a hole under the roots. He backed down the tree and smelled around. He could smell Betsy, too. Snuffling around revealed her bag, tucked neatly into a curved root. Why, this must have been the bear's den! The thought of them all squeezed in there together was baffling to him, but if they were here, it made Sanderson's life easier.

After all, who needed hands to hold a map with if he could tail Betsy?

Sanderson climbed the tree again and curled up to rest.

Some time later, his ears perked; he could hear the chopping of a helicopter. He nearly jumped out of his fur when Betsy began to scream below. In his panic, the recorder fell from his jaws.

It landed neatly in the snow next to Betsy's bag. Horrified, Sanderson moved to climb down, freezing when one of the Ankhanum emerged from the den. He scanned the area and eventually took notice of the recorder. He looked up, right at Sanderson. Sanderson's claws dug into the bark.

The Ankhanum smiled strangely and pocketed the recorder.

Soon the other Ankhanum climbed out, and Betsy after, disgusted but unscathed, wiping herself off vigorously while she grabbed her bag. The three of them walked off together.

Sanderson followed.


Eleanor Hassen waited with bated breath. She shuffled through the photos on her desk- Sanderson's quarters, blood all over the wall. The lab, tendrils of red mold curling around it. The empty kennel, a splat on its back wall.

The secretary poked her head into the room, a middle-aged man in a neat suit looming behind her.

"Ma'am, Norman Nguyen is here to see you, as you requested," she said.

"Ah! Let him in!" Eleanor exclaimed.

Norman squinted as he entered.

The building Hassen Research Department took up residence in the basement of was also home to Hassen Communications' headquarters. Not far away, a fenced in area boasted a staggering radio tower adorned with the company logo. Visible from Eleanor Hassen's office, it was her pride and joy, and currently shining obnoxiously in Norman's eyes. He slipped his sunglasses back on.

"A thorough summary of your findings, if you please. Tell me everything!" Eleanor said with a gleeful smile. "I didn't even eavesdrop this time! Well- maybe a little. The suspense has been killing me!"

Norman nodded, and began:

"Of the subjects stationed at Camp 12, ten are confirmed to be dead. Five bodies discovered in the parking lot. Four more discovered in the kitchen. A final body discovered in Dr. Herbert Sanderson's personal quarters. There may have been an eleventh casualty- I found what may have been a bone fragment in the lab. We will have it tested to find out if it is human or animal in origin. We're working on identifying the deceased in the meantime. The majority of the bodies did not have recognizable faces. So far, only one has been identified by the living subjects, of which there are seven."

Eleanor smiled brightly, twirling strands of her platinum blonde hair in her fingers.

"Oh, really? Excellent," she said. "Tell me more about these living subjects, then!"

"All seven are carrying the Rot and have been transported to the intensive care unit for medical evaluation and treatment. A Dr. Mina Barnes is further along than the others.”

Eleanor nodded and gestured for him to go on.

"We found no specimens matching Dr. Sanderson's report," he said. "However, evidence of their presence remained. Dried Rot infested the lab and kitchen. Our team burned all structures to the ground as a safety precaution."

"Very good, then. I'd better not keep my subjects waiting!" Eleanor said.

She shoved a pen and pad into his hands as she passed by him. He rose a brow.

“What’s this for?” he asked.

"You’re coming along,” she said. “Take notes, would you? I don't want to miss a thing!"

Reluctantly, he accompanied her.


The ICU was little more than rudimentary hospital beds with curtains that barely offered any privacy. There was only one proper room with a door at the very end of the hall; this was where Mina Barnes was being held.

Eleanor and Norman briefly visited each subject beforehand.

"After the power went out, it was a massacre!" Eugene Williams said.

"Dr. Sanderson turned into one of them," Steena Ripley said.

"I believe he killed Dr. Reeves. He just...vanished," Vera Connor said.

"I don't know why I chased Betsy. I wanted to get her so bad," Enrico Valentine said.

"It was that fuckin' Betsy. She let them out! They broke our wrists and they ran into the woods, the three of them," Lucas Cane said.

"Mina started acting weird. I don't know what happened after that. I locked myself in my room before the fight broke out," Toby Torrance said.

Eleanor nodded along to their tales and pulled Norman aside once they'd reached the end. For the first time in the few years he'd known her, she looked puzzled.

“Betsy. Who is this Betsy?” she asked. “It’s not like me to not know who is in my employ.”

Norman only chuckled hesitantly.

Mina stood at the door to her room, clawed hands on the glass as she watched them approach intently. She backed away when they entered the room.

"Hello, Mina. I'm-" Eleanor started.

"I know who you are," Mina cut in.

Eleanor paused. She then chuckled pleasantly.

"Do you now?" she asked. "No need for formalities, then."

Mina's firm gaze turned to Norman next. A small smile tried to form on her lips.

"It's you," she said. "Thanks for- for helping me at the camp, Mr.-”

"Norman. Norman Nguyen," he said with a nod.

"Care to tell us what's happened to you, dear?" Eleanor asked.

Mina curled up on her bed, trying not to look at her feet. Once blackened from frostbite, they were healing, almost miraculously. It took time, but eventually, she talked. She recounted the bear, the meat, the man, the monsters Betsy freed and what came after:

"...We gathered in the kitchen. The others were trying to get warm. I went into the pantry. I was so hungry, but eating was hard with broken wrists. That red stuff was everywhere- it got all over me after I shot Sanderson. Started spreading onto the food. I didn't even care. I just wanted to eat! I haven't eaten hardly anything in days, I didn't fucking know what was safe! I got so desperate that I stopped caring. I ate through plastic. Cans. My wrists started to feel better...then the others came after me.”

Norman looked up from his notes.

"Is Dr. Sanderson among the dead, then?" he asked.

Mina's hands balled into fists.

"I wish. I shot his leg off. But the next morning, he came out of the lab and he- he was fine! Cracking jokes, even! I chased him into the woods, and I- I lost him.”

Eleanor looked excitedly to Norman. TWO missing people! she mouthed.

Norman put a hand to his chin in thought. From his pocket he took the photo he'd found and showed Mina. Eleanor looked on curiously.

“I found this photo on the floor in one of the living quarters during our investigation. Do you happen to recognize anyone in this photo, Dr. Barnes?” he asked.

Mina glared.

"The woman holding the kid is Betsy," she said.

Pleased, he tucked the photo back in his pocket.

Eleanor tutted.

“A family photo...? Why was I not made aware of this? Holding back on me isn’t like you, Norman,” she said.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time, ma’am,” he said. “There’s a note on the back addressed to a ‘Betsy’- I happened to recall I even had it when we were interviewing the others.”

Mina clenched her fists.

“That bitch. This is all her fault,” she growled. “She killed that bear. She cooked it. Fed it to us. Everyone has that- that parasite, except her!”

"That 'parasite' is called the Red Rot," Eleanor corrected.

Mina’s stomach turned.

"Red Rot?" Mina echoed.

"'Parasite' isn't an inaccurate descriptor," Eleanor said. "But it's far more than that. You saw the tainted flora and fauna in those woods, no?”

Mina said nothing.

"The Red Rot and I, we go way back. Way, way back," Eleanor continued, chuckling. "I've been studying it for decades!"

"To treat people who have it?" Mina asked hopefully.

Eleanor laughed to the point of snorting, Mina growing more befuddled and angry by the second.

"Why is this funny to you?!” Mina yelled.

She looked to Norman desperately, searching for anything that wasn't more of the department head's callous glee. He only looked away.

"You're not sick, dear. Only changed!" Eleanor said.

The skin of her face sagged, eyes sinking in as if behind a mask.

"YOU SAID YOU KNEW WHO I WAS, RED ONE. YOU DO NOT," came a voice.

It boomed from all directions. Mina's blood ran cold at the sound, covering her ears. It did nothing. She withdrew into herself as tightly as she could. Norman only regarded Eleanor calmly.

"DO NOT BE AFRAID! I HAVE SOMETHING SPECIAL PLANNED FOR YOU AND YOUR COLLEAGUES!" Eleanor said, sunken eyes glinting.


Betsy gazed down the iron sight. Birds lifted in a cloud from the trees when she fired. The buck fell, adding to the ambient noise of the wood. Ankhanum vaulted over the snowbank they'd been crouched behind, mouth agape.

"Remarkably accurate!" he said.

Betsy slid the revolver back into her inner breast pocket. That’d been her last bullet, but she wasn’t about to tell either of them that.

"You'd be a hundred bucks poorer right now if you actually had any money, buddy," she said. "You don't make 'Bets' on my aim!”

"Is that why you're called Betsy?"

"Uh. No. I'm only joking."

It had been two full days since they'd started down the trail.

It had been two full days since they'd started down the trail. The sun was high, the snow gradually receding. The smell of smoke and the sound of helicopters were far behind- now, wildlife chirped and chattered all around them.

Betsy had been worried they'd be pursued by the department. But if Eleanor's goons had made an attempt to search the woods, they hadn't gone far. Betsy hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them. No rumble of trucks on the road in the distance, either. The lack of a search party, even a hostile one, was almost eerie. For now, Betsy chose to take it for what it was. An opportunity to not have to see or be seen by the department.

As they approached the fallen buck, out of the brush jumped a lynx, sinking its teeth into the deer’s neck.

"Wh- hey!" Betsy exclaimed, though she started to laugh, taking a few steps back. "Get a load of that guy! Opportunistic, much. Guess you’ll have to share."

It shrieked, pulling desperately on the buck. A chunk of meat was ripped off after some struggling.

"Betsy could shoot that, too!" Ankhanum said.

The cat's ears perked fearfully.

"Ha, no way. That's a Canadian lynx," Betsy said. "I'll kill deer, they're everywhere. But predators have their place, too. It's too big for him to eat it all, anyway."

The lynx settled down to continue its meal. Ankhanum watched the animal, his nostrils flaring.

"That is not a Canadian lynx," he said with a sly smile.

"What? I know my animals. That's definitely a Canadian lynx," she said. "These have longer legs than bobcats, for deep snow."

"Ah, yes, my mistake, then," Ankhanum said, chuckling.

The lynx ate its fill and took off. Ankhanum dug his claws into the carcass, dragging it with.


They'd come by a shallow cave empty of sheltering critters, though when Betsy noticed the red moss on the walls, she figured it wasn't likely to be a coincidence. Clive sat at the entrance, warming his hands by the fire they’d gotten going some hours ago. Their last change of clothes hung from a makeshift clothesline of twine between trees, drying in the afternoon sun.

"You've returned. I was beginning to think that one had finally killed and eaten you out of desperation," he said.

"Not funny," Betsy said tiredly.

Betsy hastily shuffled into a dry change of long-johns and redressed her wounds in fresh bandages. Fortunately for her, Clive and Ankhanum were preoccupied, pulling the buck apart outside. Envy bubbled up again at the indulgent noises of their feast while she briefly looked over her map.

"Y'know, I'm making do with my canned goods, but I AM going to go hog wild on the next pizza I see," she said.

Ankhanum looked over his shoulder at her- and promptly glanced away at the sight of her bare shoulders.

"Betsy is a big, healthy woman! You must have an appetite to rival ours," he said.

"I can't eat a whole deer like you guys can but I can put away an extra large pizza by myself, yeah."

He glanced back again at the sound of a zipper going up. She was back in her jacket and dusting it off. Clive and Ankhanum settled down on either side of Betsy now, sharpened branches skewering the chewed down pieces of deer meat as they turned them over the fire.

"And is Betsy eating enough?” Ankhanum asked. “This has been taxing on all of us, yet you want no part of the kills you earn, not eating meat and all. Why is that?"

"...Personal preference," she replied, somewhat defensively. "Don't you worry about me. I'll live.”

Betsy wiped at her neck, at the sensation of something warm there. That red moss again. It turned to goo in her hand.

"No bombastic reaction this time?" Clive asked, already nibbling at the still cooking meat.

"I think I'm getting used to it," she said.

Betsy held it out to Ankhanum. He ate it right out of her hand, eliciting a gasp and confused laughter from her.

"Gotta keep Betsy on her toes," Ankhanum said, playfully wiggling his fingers at her. "Saw you looking at your map. How close are we to people?"

She raised a brow.

"...Still a day or so out at our current pace," she said. “Were you peeking on me while I was gettin’ changed?”

Ankhanum shifted to sit across from her, beginning to observe her with intensity, up and down, all over. Her cheeks started to feel warm. She rubbed them. No moss this time, it was only her.

"What's with that look? You checking me out there, buddy?" she asked.

"I am!" he said. "I have been studying you, for a change. After all, when we reach people, we must be people."

"You guys sure are eager to get to people," she said warily.

"These ones will find what we are seeking among people. It does not hurt that these ones like people," he said.

"I don't," Clive retorted.

"What?! You cannot lie to this one," Ankhanum said. "I was you!"

As they bickered good-naturedly, Betsy's mind drifted back to their words the night the three of them loomed over Sanderson in the lab.

"Same thing you were seeking at camp?" she asked.

"Perhaps," Ankhanum said. "These ones heard something strange out that way and became curious. We were surprised to find so many people at the source."

"But we never did find out what was causing it. It stopped once the power went out the night we left," Clive said.

Betsy rose a brow questioningly.

"What'd you hear?" she asked.

"A 'buzzing', of sorts. It was, ah, familiar to us," Clive said.

How carefully he chose his words did not go unnoticed by her. Betsy crossed her arms and leaned against the cave wall while they dined. A buzzing...? The phone lines at camp made a weird noise when in use, but that was the only time she'd heard anything like it.

In the distance, a lynx was climbing down from a tree. It moved past the remains of the buck, getting near to the cave. It sat down in the snow, ears swiveling as if listening in on their conversation intently.

Again, night fell.

Betsy rested uneasily, distorted images of the last few days fluttering across the underside of her eyelids as she tried to doze. She dreamt of being chased, but not by the Ankhanum; the department. No matter how she ducked and wound around the obstacles in her path, they were closing in. Icy hands grabbed at the back of her neck.

Betsy jolted upright.

Nothing but the dark woods outside the cave greeted her, illuminated by gentle moonlight. Betsy shivered despite the fire still going nearby. She slapped a hand to the back of her neck. At some point in her sleep, her hat and scarf had shimmied apart, leaving enough of a gap for cold air to reach. She groaned. If this kept up, exhaustion would get her before anything else could.

An elbow nudged her side. Ankhanum was staring up at her now.

"Is Betsy all right?" he asked quietly.

"Just f-freezin' my buns off," she said, adjusting her gear.

"Really? Betsy runs like a heater."

"Sure don't feel like it."

"Could always huddle closer for warmth. These ones are cold, too."

Betsy pursed her lips as she realized Clive was also looking at her now. Even geared for the elements, the Ankhanum were lethargic in the chill. It was only when the sun shined high and bright that they would perk up.

Another thing in common, Betsy thought to herself.

"Smartest thing to do," she said, tossing more kindling into their fire.

And they huddled tightly together. Clive rested with his back to hers, Ankhanum at her front. This was for survival, she told herself. Still, she was distracted by that odor, a description for which she'd found as she'd grown accustomed to it; sweet smelling carcass and insect innards. Odeur de Ankhanum.

"Betsy is staring at this one," Ankhanum said. "Checking me out?"

There was a smile in his voice. Betsy grunted and huddled even closer to him, hiding her face in the space between his shoulder and neck.

"Not fair to point out when you can see in the dark," she said.

"We still have some light by the fire," he said teasingly. "I can see just fine."

"God. Would you shut up."

The lynx still lay at the cave entrance, restless. Betsy cautiously gestured for it to come closer. Cautiously, the lynx moved around the fire and curled up at their feet. Betsy now understood what Ankhanum had meant when he'd said this was no Canadian lynx.

And both Betsy and Sanderson tried again to sleep.


"It hurts," Mina said.

Tears welled in her eyes as she held her hands to her ears.

"I know, dear. But they’ll help with those awful impulses you get from the Rot," Eleanor said. "You'll feel better."

The ICU was packed with the other survivors of Camp 12, scratching and slapping at their heads. Norman approached Eleanor, notepad still in hand.

"All seven have been implanted, ma'am," he said. "No rejections."

"Excellent!" Eleanor said. "That's the best thing about the Red Ones. Their bodies are so receptive!"

Norman grimaced once Eleanor's back was to him. His face softened when he looked to Mina. She went to speak. Norman held a finger to his mouth. He wrote something down, ripped it from the pad and pressed it into her hand. And he was gone, following after Eleanor like a shadow.

Mina read the note.

I HAVE THEM TOO. WATCH WHAT YOU SAY. SHE CAN HEAR EVERYTHING NOW. IF YOU NEED SOMEONE TO WRITE TO, GIVE ME A BUZZ.

At the bottom was the number to Norman's pager.

Mina teared up. She snorted in through a clogged nose, her ears popping, that new fullness in them stirring, her head hurting worse. Despite herself, she began to cry.

She crumpled the note up.


Eleanor didn’t drag her feet when it came to making good on her word. Despite the scare the older woman had given her, Mina felt special. It happened fast and all at once; an avalanche of pet names, closeness, long hours becoming privy to Eleanor’s plans and ideals. They gossiped idly and laughed about it together.

It was nice.

But it would be the concern Norman showed when he was around, coincidentally when she was with Eleanor, that dug up Mina's buried disquiet. He was always around, lingering awkwardly, but he was always kind. Mina couldn't help but sort of grow to like him, too.

Just before Betsy and her party touched down in High Bridge, Norman managed to get Mina alone while Eleanor was busy managing the press regarding Camp 12.

"Good afternoon, Mina," he said. "How are you adjusting?"

The sensation of something opening in her ear made her pulse quicken. She’d never felt it before now.

"Adjusting fine!" she said quickly.

"Feeling okay?"

"I feel fine. I went for a walk today. It's really nice out!"

"It is a lovely day. One could almost forget it's December."

"Oh, yeah, it is, isn't it?"

The implants closed up again, apparently uninterested in their small talk. Mina wondered if his had done the same. They must have-

"When I first started here, Ms. Hassen was like this with me too," he said. "Take care now!”

He turned the corner, and he was gone.

Mina clenched her fists.

How dare he pity her.

Even so, that special feeling wavered like candlelight in the breeze.

It would only continue to do so.


"I can smell them, Betsy! We're close!" Ankhanum called, running as fast as he could through the snow.

Clive shook his head. He leisurely kept pace with Betsy.

"That one is going to tire himself out before we even get there," he said, almost amused.

“Agreed,” she said.

Not far behind, the lynx followed.

It hadn't left them alone since it turned up at the cave. Betsy eventually accepted it was coming along. Between the bear and the lynx, there was no end to the strange wildlife here. If only Milo were still around to appreciate how on the nose his goofy ass tabloids had been about were-this and were-that.

Betsy started to see speckles of lights.

Civilization, at last.

They'd reached High Bridge. The sun set only an hour ago; still early enough to get a bite to eat and board a bus. Betsy thanked herself for exclusively carrying cash. Ankhanum gasped for air up ahead. Down the hillside, a quaint little town was settling down for the evening. He pointed excitedly, breathless.

"Yeah, buddy, I see it," she said.

Clive hauled Ankhanum to his feet by the arm.

"You're going to fall asleep in the snow if you keep sitting there," he said.

Ankhanum grabbed onto Clive's arm and started to tip. Clive tried to pull himself back.

"Idiot! You're going to-"

They tumbled down the hill together. Betsy watched them roll until they landed on solid ground. Clive laid there, a deep frown on his face. Ankhanum cackled. Clive grabbed a handful of snow and struck him in the face. Ankhanum scooped up an armful, plopping icy revenge upon him.

Betsy slid down. The descent was smooth at first, but it wasn't long before she careened out of control and collided with them, firmly squashing Clive between her and Ankhanum. She started laughing as he wriggled, trying to get free. Betsy let him up and he brushed his coat free of snow, muttering under his breath. She shook the snow off herself and helped Ankhanum up, still laughing.

The lynx pawed uncertainly at the drop. It bounded through the snow, all the way down, taking its place next to the trio.

All was quiet around them now.

The houses by the road were lit warmly. Inside, shadows moved across walls and TVs flickered. The welcome presence of other people. In the distance, across water and titular bridge, the lights of High Bridge's business district glimmered.

Relief overwhelmed Betsy. And grief. And hunger. She sniffed hard. Too cold to start crying. Ankhanum walked alongside the road, taking in the view.

"It's lovely," he said to Betsy.

"Yeah, High Bridge is a nice town," Betsy said. "Which, I've been thinking about what you said; about needing to 'be people'. 'Cause it's gonna be hard to fit in with that elastic wrap you call skin.”

Ankhanum clapped his gloved hands together- a dull, underwhelming sound, yet his face was aglow in the streetlights as he grinned excitedly.

"Yes! This one has been waiting to show you!" he said.

He blinked hard. When he opened his eyes, Betsy was no longer staring into the red rings familiar to her, but dark brown eyes. The skin of his face rippled. His cheeks filled out. His lips parted; behind them, slightly crooked, blunt teeth. Ankhanum breathed in, body compacting, losing several inches as his body expanded outward, softening around the edges. His mass moved like liquid. Stubble sprouted above his lip and on his chin. Wrinkles creased his face, his skin getting pinker, more opaque.

"Ta-da!" he said, striking a pose.

Betsy was speechless. He looked like a guy she'd see cashiering a gas station. Drinking beer at 9am and saying it's noon somewhere type of man. Somebody's off-kilter uncle at the cookout. Aside from an artful prominence of the eyebrows he couldn't seem to give up, Ankhanum had become utterly unremarkable. He waited for her reaction. None came.

"Betsy isn't impressed?" he said, grin turning to a frown. "Prefer a more feminine figure? This one can go either way."

"Eh? Oh, uh, no, I'm super impressed! I’m so impressed, that it's going to take some time to, uh. Adjust," she said.

'Adjust' was the best word she had for it. He looked like anybody else now. Their odor, their looks, odd as they were- she’d become accustomed to it. His disguise was so impressive that it was disappointing. Betsy turned to Clive. A similar process occurred to much less fanfare. A middle-aged librarian sort with a long feminine face peered back at her.

"Okay. Great," she said. "Now I can't take a lynx onto a bus, so-"

Betsy turned. In the snow sat the largest Maine Coon she'd seen in her life. Ankhanum gasped in delight, holding his arms out. The cat seemed confused, but perched on his shoulders like a captain’s parrot. Betsy squinted, and shrugged.

"Solves that problem," she said.


"...Unfortunately, she has me stuck here until we make headway on this case," Norman said.

Hieu sighed on the other end of the line.

"Sure, Norm," he said.

Norman winced at the audible hurt in his husband's voice. It'd been years of this now- irregular hours, suddenly leaving in the night. Norman had been gone for days this time.

"I'm sorry, Hieu," he said.

"It's fine," he said. "I know you're busy with work."

"Yeah. I love you," Norman said.

"Love you, too," Hieu said, distantly.

Norman thumped his head against the wall as he hung up, filled with frustration. He wandered back into the waiting room and eyed the clock. If he couldn't go home, then he at least wanted to get back to his hotel room and sleep. He'd been restless ever since Eleanor initially contacted him about Camp 12. When he wasn't plagued by unsettling dreams of swirling fires, he was equally as plagued by a dull, throbbing headache and ears that felt too full; sensations that weren’t unfamiliar, but did nothing to help his nerves.

He dropped into a chair and rubbed at his temples. He closed his eyes. He'd only rest them. Just for a few minutes. Or so he told himself. At her desk, the secretary tapped away at her keyboard. Overhead, the TV relayed the news.

"...north of High Bridge...casualties...the CEO of Hassen Communications...welcoming any and all information...if you have seen...whereabouts..."

Norman dozed, fading in and out on the story; he didn't catch much more of the broadcast before he was out.


"I tire of walking," Clive groaned.

"So do I," Betsy said. "If you're gonna complain about it, you're free to go. We did it. We reached people."

"Ah! Does Betsy live here then?" Ankhanum asked, almost hesitantly.

"Nah. I still got buses to catch.”

"You still have a ways to go to get home?!”

Clive rolled his eyes. His other half sounded more excited about that than he should.

Betsy nodded.

"Then we will return the favor and see you the rest of the way, whatever it takes!” Ankhanum said.

Betsy stopped and rubbed the back of her neck almost shyly. She wasn't exactly keen on the idea of bringing them home, knowing full well what they were capable of.

And yet...

They hadn't harmed so much as a hair on her head, despite numerous opportunities to do so. A morbid sense of humor to match her own aside, this time she had gone into the woods and felt almost protected. Her cheeks warmed at the thought, from simultaneous embarrassment and something akin to tenderness.

"You'd really do that?" she asked.

Clive opened his mouth to protest. Ankhanum laid a not-so subtle vice grip on Clive’s shoulder.

"Yes!" Ankhanum exclaimed.

"...Yes," Clive grumbled.

High Bridge consisted of two districts, separated by a bridge and a lake large enough to qualify as its own body of water. It was High Bridge the team passed through to reach the camp in the heart of the Ruby Tears National Forest. The camp’s patronage of local businesses during their stay the last few seasons was appreciated.

Betsy herself was a common sight there, particularly the combination gas station & convenience store the bus stop was outside of. She had no need to own a personal vehicle; she was well acquainted with the bus route here. It ran between High Bridge and Iron Falls. From there, she’d take another bus down to Greensea.

Home.

Home, where she could regroup and decide what to do next about the Ankhanum- without having to be concerned about moss creeping into her mouth, about helicopters carrying shady agents, about bears turning into men, about the cold taking her in the night. Betsy couldn't help mulling over how, growing up, she'd spent summers and winter breaks learning to survive the wilds staying at her dad's. This was on a whole other level of weird, but she really could survive anything.

God, though. It was exhausting.

Betsy shushed Ankhanum on their trek through the quiet neighborhood; he could hardly contain his excitement. Curious faces peered out of windows at them. Seeing normal nosey people behavior was so refreshing to her.

There was more activity on the bridge, with cars and pedestrians alike coming in from the business district. A few people stared and giggled and gasped in amazement at the size of the cat on Ankhanum's shoulders as they walked by. Ankhanum eagerly engaged with nearly everyone that came near, to the point his friendliness was making some passersby keep a wide berth and their heads down. He got a lot of surprised ‘hellos’, a handful of ‘how are you's’, even a conversation or two that had Clive tapping his foot audibly in impatience.

What an ensemble we must be, Betsy thought.

"Oh, my. Your cat is gorgeous!" an elderly woman said.

"And you are, as well!" Ankhanum said.

The old woman laughed almost girlishly. Betsy snorted and managed to drag him away.

"All right, you flirt, relax," she said. "Save your enthusiasm for Cuddy's."

"What is a Cuddy's?" Ankhanum asked.

"Only the most incredible gas-station-slash-convenience-store you'll ever see in your LIFE!" Betsy said, grabbing his shoulders and gesturing broadly.

"Wow! That's a long time!" he said.

The more life and light they saw, the jollier his and Betsy's moods. She pointed out a clothing store, a motel, a restaurant. Ankhanum lingered for a long time in front of the latter, taking in the smells of cooking food. The cat eagerly sniffed as well.

"If you wanna come home with me, we gotta keep moving, buddy," Betsy said, taking Ankhanum's hand and pulling him along.

The Holy Grail awaited; Cuddy's, with its lines of gas pumps and bus stop. A stout, gruff-looking man was there already, waiting on the bench.

"'Scuse me," Betsy said. "Can you tell me what time it is and when the next bus is due? Misplaced my watch."

The man's nose wrinkled at the sight of them.

"It's 6:15. Next one comes at 7:30," he said.

"Oh, FUCK yes!" Betsy said, pumping her fist enthusiastically.

Without another word, Betsy urged Ankhanum and Clive into the store. Immediately, the two were overwhelmed by light and colors and smells and warmth. Rainbows of snacks, drinks and other products lined the shelves and walls. Tantalizing smells were everywhere. Betsy beamed with delight at the shock on their faces. Clive and Ankhanum didn't seem to know where to look first. The cat was thoroughly unimpressed. After all, Sanderson had been to other convenience stores just like this before.

"THIS is Cuddy's. We have an hour and some odd minutes to fuel up," Betsy said. "With foodstuffs, anyway. We're gonna be on the bus for a long ass time, so stock up."

The customers already in here regarded the group with a similar range of emotions as the pedestrians on the bridge. The clerk and simultaneous owner, Martin Cuddy, had a look of bemusement. Betsy looked down at herself for the first time in awhile. She knew she was bound to be unkempt, what with traveling in the woods. Mud, brambles, tears and branches stuck in her coat, dried speckles of blood.

Eh. Could be worse, she thought.

The twins were in a similar state when she looked them over, only now she could see their new faces better. Betsy could no longer see through their skin; rather than pallid translucency, Ankhanum had taken on a healthier tone. Clive was still as miserably white as a ghost. A testament to his lack of effort. It took Betsy a moment to realize the two were staring back at her. Ankhanum had a dopey smile, his cheeks reddening.

"Don't mind me. Just checking out the new and improved looks, now that I can see you better," Betsy said, hurriedly.

Clive snickered.

"What's funny?" she asked.

"Look at you two lovebirds," he crooned.

Betsy's cheeks flushed as she realized the weight and warmth of Ankhanum's hand still present in hers. She scoffed.

"Be serious. I didn't want him wandering off," she said, taking her hand back to herself. "Anyway, let's get something to eat. I'm starvin'."

Ankhanum elbowed Clive, who only snickered again.

Betsy slid her hat off as she approached the clerk.

"Evening, Marty. Can I get three bus tickets and six egg sandwiches? Four with bacon and sausage, just two egg and cheese for me," she said.

Martin was starting to look extraordinarily pale, as if he were looking at a ghost. Betsy rubbed the back of her neck, glancing over her shoulder at the twins and their clinging companion. Clive was trying on reading glasses. Ankhanum sniffed giant bags of chips.

"Sorry about the cat," she said. "My, uh- friends say he doesn't like harnesses. I promise he'll behave."

"I'm not worried about the cat," Martin said. "Is that really you, Betsy?!"

"Huh? Yeah, it's me. Why?"

"They said on the news you were missing!"

There was almost total silence between them, were it not for the droning of the TV overhead of Martin.

"Who said I was missing?" she asked.

"On the news, there was a lady talking about that camp you work at. A generator blew up and started a fire! They found so many bodies-!"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Betsy said. “Start over."

Clive and Ankhanum looked up from what they were doing. Even the cat perked its ears attentively.

Martin breathed in and out, slowly.

“Helicopters flew out that way because there were these huge, apocalyptic plumes of smoke!" he said. "It was nuts! The place was already in smolders by the time they got there. One of the guys there musta lost his mind- he hit the shit outta the generator ‘til it blew up!”

In the end, ten died. Seven survived. Three unaccounted for. Betsy nodded along, but she was furious. That wasn’t what happened. It couldn’t have been. Ankhanum smelled that smoke hours after they’d heard the helicopters. Milo (and Reeves, if Sanderson’s story was to be believed) were among the dead – but why so many others?!

"But obviously you're not missin' anymore," Martin said, seeming almost disappointed by that fact. "Your boss lady's been askin' people to call in tips. Even promising rewards!"

Betsy wanted to thump her head on the counter. God. He was so loud. The customers already in here pretended to mind their own business, but she could tell they were listening in.

"Wow. That's all so, so crazy, Marty. Didn't even know that all happened," Betsy said.

"Eh? How's that possible!? You worked up there, I know you did!"

"Went out to hunt off the trail and got lost. I met these guys and they helped me get back here to High Bridge," Betsy lied, gesturing over her shoulder at Clive and Ankhanum. "Couple of hunters-"

"And our hunting cat!" Ankhanum chimed in.

"Y-yeah. Their hunting cat," she said through grit teeth. "Can we get them tickets and sandwiches now? We got a bus to catch."

"Where to?" he asked, readying his hand at the kiosk.

"Iron Falls," she said, flatly.

"You got it! Right, then, look at me, flappin' my jaw. It'll just be a minute on those sandwiches!" he said.

Martin got started. The other customers returned to milling around.

Ankhanum was at a loss at the drink coolers. The cat was a living scarf, falling asleep on his shoulders.

"See anything you want, buddy?" Betsy asked.

"There's so much," he said. "What is good in here?"

"I like iced tea."

Betsy grabbed a couple squat cartons from the cooler and presented them. Ankhanum went to grab and she pulled them back.

"Gotta pay for it first, bud," she said. "Go pick out some snacks and meals for the trip. We still have a ways to go until we get home."

Ankhanum sighed in exasperation.

"There is so much, and all of it looks and smells good. Can't I open them and taste?" he asked.

"Sorry, buddy, no free samples," she said. “But I can offer some suggestions?”

Ankhanum settled on Betsy's suggestions: sandwiches, bags of chips, a can of coffee and a few candy bars made their way into the basket.

"What about you?" she asked Clive.

Clive was still preoccupied with the glasses.

"I'm not picky," he said. "You may also choose for me."

"What do you need readers for?" she asked.

"I don't. But I find their aesthetic pleasing," Clive said, and held up a pair of large, round-rimmed frames. "May we purchase them?"

The glasses, more of Betsy's suggestions, bags of Betsy's own favorites, a few bottles of water and a big pack of beef jerky joined the pile.

"I'm gonna ask a stupid question," she said. “Ready?”

"Ready. But if it's not equally as stupid as your flamethrower question, you will disappoint me," Clive said.

Betsy elbowed him and pointed to the cat.

"That's one of you guys, right?" she asked.

The cat's ears perked. Clive snorted.

"Be serious. How many species of lynx can become a domestic cat in the blink of an eye?" he asked.

"I'm gonna smack you," she said. Then, in a hushed tone, "I don't want to feed a man cat food. So if he wants to have a say in his diet over the next few days..."

The cat lifted its head, ears and tail alert. Clive let out a shockingly deep belly laugh at that.

"Oh, that would be wonderful, please make him eat cat food," he said.

Ankhanum cackled and waved a hand, his shoulders quaking enough to make the cat jump. It looked with alarm to Betsy.

"No need. We can share the jerky,” Ankhanum said.

The cat settled again in apparent relief.

"Betsy! Your order's ready!" came Marty's voice from the front.

She exchanged cash, rolled up neatly in a tin tucked in a sewn compartment, for tickets, sandwiches and goods. Try as they might, Clive and Ankhanum couldn't contain their enthusiasm for a hot meal; their sandwiches were gone by the time Martin counted change out.

"You all take care now!" he said.

Martin leaned over the counter and spoke quietly to Betsy.

"Might wanna check in with your boss lady or you're gonna stay a missing person," he said. "Ya need to make any phone calls before you head out to the big city? I could always use a couple more quarters!"

"Nah. But thanks, Marty," she said.

He rose a brow.

“If you’re sure,” he said.


The gruff man at the bus stop wrinkled his nose again at the sight of them. Ankhanum grunted and sat heavily on the bench, splaying out and nearly pushing the man off of it. With a groan of disgust, the man gave up and stood as far away as he could manage. Betsy sat and Clive slid on next to her, sifting through their bagged goods.

It was starting to snow again.

Betsy did not welcome the chill in the air, but at least she had a hot meal this time. Betsy ate her own sandwiches slowly, trying to savor them while she shifted the contents of her bag around. She pat the interior of the bag, looking to the cat. It's tail quirked.

"Stay in here when we're on the bus. Don't cause a fuss and don't you DARE poop in there," she warned.

The cat hopped into the bag. Betsy drew the zipper up enough to secure him, setting the bag on her lap. Clive promptly popped the lenses out of the readers and put them on.

"Those look good on you," Betsy said.

"Thank you. I spent quite a while trying to find a flattering shape for this face," he said. He glanced sidelong at her. "That clerk is absolutely going to rat on you, you know. If he wasn’t at all suspicious of you before, he certainly is now.”

"Yeah, I know,” she said. “The info’s gonna be used to close in on us whether I call the ‘boss lady’ or he does. I’m just hopin’ we can get ahead of that phone call.”

Sanderson curled up in the bag beneath them. He may as well rest. For now, he could feel warmth all around him. What a strange journey this was. He contemplated the shop owner's retelling. The only live colleague he'd seen before fleeing was Mina. Sanderson recalled the bodies he had seen. Imagined the bodies he hadn't. Ten dead.

Eleven, really.

Sanderson startled as the bag was lifted. He heard squeak and a hiss outside.

The bus had arrived.


Inside Cuddy's, Martin kept a wary eye on them, writing hastily on a scrap of paper: the time they boarded, the appearances of the men she was with and their intended destination.

The reward wasn’t generous, but it was generous enough for him to ignore a pang of guilt as he dialed the tip line’s number.


"...Mm-hm. High Bridge. On a bus. To Iron Falls..." Norman said, fervently taking notes.

Eleanor's secretary was watching him with annoyance; he'd practically leapt over the desk and scooped the phone out of her hand the second she'd said 'Betsy Winters'. If looks could kill. Norman cleared his throat.

"Very good. Thank you. Th- yes, fine, send the man his check. Th-okay, I have to go now, thank you," he said, and hung up the phone.

Mercifully, there’d been no itching in his ear for hours; but this meant he’d have to relay the news manually. To the secretary's continued anguish, Norman barged into Eleanor's office.

Continuing the trend of women irritated with him, Eleanor and Mina were visibly less than pleased when they looked up at him. Splayed out on the desk in front of them were the photos and other items gathered from Camp 12. Mina, tellingly dressed to impress by Eleanor herself, was sat on the edge of the desk.

Mina's hard stare softened and she gave him an awkward little wave.

"Good evening, Mr. Nguyen," she said

"Yes, hello, Norman. Since you've invited yourself in," Eleanor said. "What can I help you with?"

Norman nodded apologetically.

"Ma'am, Betsy Winters and the entities have been sighted," he said.

Eleanor's face rose in delight as Mina's fell into a grimace of anger.

"Where?!" Eleanor asked.

"High Bridge. Camp 12 was situated near there. They’ve taken a bus out of town connecting to Iron Falls. Our tipster indicated he saw her board just moments ago,” he said.

"HA!" Eleanor barked. "Didn't even give her a head start!"

"Iron Falls...?" Mina echoed.

She looked thoughtful for awhile. Then she smiled, almost mischievously.

“I think I know where she’s going...” she said.

“Oh? Care to share?” Eleanor asked.

Eleanor laced her fingers together and smiled at her almost sweetly. Her eyes were bright and cold like chips of ice. Mina faltered under that intense gaze. She forced what felt like a more confident grin.

“Th-that photo Mr. Nguyen found reminded me- Betsy has family in a town called Greensea. It’s along the east coast- she said- well, I overheard her talk to Dr. Sanderson about it before,” Mina said.

"An eavesdropper! Truly a lady after my own heart," Eleanor said. "Thank you for the lead, my dear!”

Eleanor pat Mina on the head. Mina smiled widely, a twinkle visible in her otherwise dreary eyes.

Norman glanced away. He hoped to find absolutely anything else to look at. The clock on the wall was good enough. Mina didn't realize it, but she was Eleanor’s pet. A glorified purse dog. He cleared his throat quietly.

"If you'll excuse me, ma'am, it's getting late-"

Eleanor looked to him sharply.

"You're not done here, Norman," Eleanor said. "Once I find out where they’ll be dropped off in Iron Falls, you’ll be escorting Betsy Winters home."

Despite her playful tone, there was a threatening edge to her words.

Norman politely smiled back at her.

"In that case, won’t I need backup? She is being accompanied by the entities, after all," he said.

"With as prone to missing them as you are, there's no need! Besides, I know what you're capable of," she said with a wink. "You'll do just fine! In the meantime, hand over that photo. We need to do a little research. Get some coffee and have a seat. You look tired, dear!"

The photo suddenly felt like it weighed a ton in Norman’s pocket. He barely maintained that smile as he passed it across her desk.

"Yes, ma'am," Norman said.

Mina waved at him awkwardly as he left.

Just as awkwardly, Norman waved back.

Norman minded his mood as he passed by the secretary. All he'd wanted to do was be done with all this. All he'd wanted to do was go home. If his blood boiled any hotter, he'd spring a leak, or worse, vent his frustrations aloud. Norman's teeth ground together. He felt something wet on his face and immediately detoured for the men's room before anyone else crossed his path.

The sickly fluorescent lights made his reflection look even sicker.

Sprung a leak, anyway.

Norman wiped a thick, red tear from his cheek.


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