ALGOR MORTIS

Dead Meat PT. 3: Deeper

An illustration the inside an ear canal. To the left, 'Deeper' is written in cursive.
CONTENT WARNINGS: gore & body horror, bugs, parasites, manipulation, gunshot wounds, kidnapping, vomiting, comparisons of human beings to animals, car accident, spiders, torture, blood consumption, implied cannibalism, description of injuries due to compression & passing through solid matter


Between the soothing vibration and comforting warmth of the bus, Betsy fell into her first sound sleep in days, complete with gusty snores. Clive carefully tipped her head forward, propping it with her hood. Ankhanum watched on with wide eyes, sure she would wake. She grunted and swatted at Clive’s hand, but remained asleep. Soon, her snoring quieted.

"Deeper asleep than I thought," Clive said. "Do we have a moment alone to discuss our next moves?”

Ankhanum tugged at the zipper of Betsy's bag. Sanderson, in fine feline form, was curled up inside with the recorder, also asleep.

"Seems so," Ankhanum replied. "Though what is there to discuss? We are doing things Betsy's way, so we are going ‘home’. Wherever that may be."

"We don't need to do that. She’s said as much herself," Clive whispered. "We still know nothing about the origin of that sound out in the woods. I’d argue that’s more important right now.”

“But this has been fun!” Ankhanum said. Then, teasingly, “This one knows you've also enjoyed our game."

Clive could feel his pulse in his temple now.

"Yes, yes. We’ve had our fun, haven't we,” he said flatly. “Whatever. The game ends now.”

Ankhanum’s face darkened. He waved his hand dismissively, turning away from the other.

"You do not tell me what to do,” he said. “Discussion is over unless you stop pretending you control me.”

Clive heaved a sigh.

“Fine,” he groaned. “What are you thinking?”

"I am thinking Betsy's department is looking for her," Ankhanum said.

"What of it? She can handle herself.”

"As can we. She knows this. Even so, Betsy goes out of her way for us, at great risk to herself, no less. Once we escort her home, the game is over. Then we can discuss what comes next."

Clive smirked bitterly.

“So you say. But this is no longer a game to you, is it?” he asked.

Betsy snorted in her sleep. The sappy grin on Ankhanum's face as he turned to her answered for him. Clive shook his head, casting a troubled glance out the window; the world beyond passed them by at high speed, forest and farmland blending into one another.

After awhile, Betsy shifted and began to stretch, fists narrowly avoiding both their heads as she let out a yawn. Clive sneered as she rubbed the grit from her eyes.

"Sweet dreams?" he asked.

"First time in days I didn't dream," she mumbled. “How long was I out?”

“A few hours," Ankhanum replied. “Where are we headed?”

Her eyes slid closed again and she got comfortable in her seat.

"Gonna get off the bus in a big city- s’called Iron Falls,” she said.

Ankhanum let out an excited gasp.

"It’s been some time since these ones have been to Iron Falls! Is Prohibition still in effect?"

Her eyes fluttered open, brows furrowing. She waited for either to smile, laugh, anything that’d indicate they were pulling her leg. It didn’t come.

"Prohibition ended some sixty years ago, bud,” she said.

Clive’s eyes immediately darted to Ankhanum, who grimaced under the scrutinizing gaze.

Before either could say anything more, she said, “Anyway. When we get there, we catch another bus to Greensea, where my mom lives, though I dunno how she’s gonna receive our entourage here-”

“No need to shelter us,” Clive cut in. “Once we escort you home, we will be going our separate ways.”

Ankhanum snapped his teeth in irritation, prompting Betsy to raise a brow. There was a tension between the two she wanted no part of.

“Fine by me. What are you two gonna do after that?” she asked. Half-seriously, she added, “Take over the world?”

They shrugged and mumbled in response.

“Troublesome. Rarely fun,” Ankhanum said with a mystifying air of familiarity.

“We have no need of the world, but we do have something we need to look into,” Clive said.

Betsy’s stomach growled. Her face flushed, and as if on cue, the cat poked his nose out of the bag expectantly shortly after.

“Hold that thought. Let’s break out the grub,” she said.

She dug into the bags of goods they’d gotten from Cuddy’s. The sight of chips, junk food and sandwiches filled with sad-looking lunch meat she couldn’t even eat was a disappointment. Her early morning meal was reduced to a snack.

Once they hit consistent traffic, Betsy knew they’d reached Iron Falls.

It was a sprawling metropolis in the Northeast that never seemed to sleep. Buses and trains to various cities ran around and through Iron Falls, making it an ideal place to set up shop; with countless people coming, going, waiting for a lift to their next destination, there’d always be potential customers to reel in.

It didn’t hurt, either, that it was a popular tourist destination. A shuttle away from any given transit hub were the Iron Falls themselves, an awe-inspiring waterfall originating from the mountain range the city was founded around, the water of which was tinged red due to a high concentration of iron. The source of the excess iron was unknown, adding to the natural phenomenon’s mysterious air.

Only a few days a year did the red water clear up.

It was early morning when they arrived, the top floors of buildings tinted pink by sunrise. Snow frosted all in its reach picturesquely. Lovingly decorated storefronts lined the streets.

“Ah, shit! That’s right,” Betsy said.

Ankhanum finished the last sip of his iced coffee and cocked his head at her at her wistful gaze out the window at the inviting displays before they’d pass through an ornate stone archway leading into the bus station.

“What is it, Betsy?” he asked.

“Holiday’s almost here,” she mumbled, mostly to herself while she packed up their things. “Didn’t think about a present with all this goin’ on. Maybe I’ll get her that BB gun finally.”

Clive and Ankhanum exchanged a curious glance as they got to their feet.

Matching the energy of the city, the bus station was chaotic. Voices, horns and intercom announcements drifted above and around them. Overhead were streaming banners depicting the Falls in stunning detail. Here, the Ankhanum were even more overwhelmed, eyes darting, nostrils flaring. Their past experience dictated Iron Falls would be hustling and bustling; it’d only become more so in the years since they’d been here last.

"Let’s go hunt down a bus schedule!” Betsy yelled over the noise.

"And then?" Clive asked.

"Your favorite!" she said with a flourish. “More waiting!”

Ahead was a wall lined with pamphlets, brochures and schedules of every imaginable shuttle that made its way through Iron Falls. Not having a personal vehicle of her own, Betsy was well acquainted with the route that’d get her to and from home. She tugged the schedule free of its plastic sleeve and looked it over. A little after 2pm, a bus heading down the east coast would show up.

Though that was still some hours from now, home felt closer than-

Ankhanum eagerly thrust a brochure into her face, making her jump. On the front was an artistic rendering of the Iron Falls themselves in all their pink, foamy glory.

“Would we have time before the bus arrives to go see the Iron Falls?” he asked.

Betsy gave him a tired look. They did, but she couldn’t say she was in the mood for anything but a hot shower, pain relievers and a place to lay her head.

“I’ll pass on the sightseein’,” she said. “I’d be able to get home on my own from here if you guys wanna go.”

“No, no, Betsy must come with!” he insisted. “We could book a hotel room and stay overnight! This one knows a great bar! If it’s still around, that is.”

“Eh? This close to the holidays I doubt there’ll be vacancies anywhere. What’s with you all of a sudden?”

His disappointment was visible in the droop of his shoulders. He scuffed his boots along the floor.

“This one is not ready for our time together to end,” he said, sulking.

She stared at him before a small smile crossed her face.

“Aww,” she cooed sarcastically, but her face was too warm for comfort. “How about this? If we get around to comin’ back up here down the road, we’ll make plans to go see the Falls. And go to that bar, or wherever.”

He looked up with a grin- one that was unnaturally wide, ruining his carefully curated human visage. Hesitantly, she reached out and pinched his cheeks, pushing them back into place.

“That shounds ekshellent!” he said through puckered lips.

Betsy snorted and released his face. He pursed his lips together and moved his jaw around. The skin of his chin stretched oddly as the bone underneath came apart briefly. She wrinkled her nose at the sight. Every time he seemed normal enough, he found ways to surprise her.

Wondrously, her stomach growled. She groaned, covering her rapidly flushing face.

“Hungry again already?” Clive asked, looking up from the pamphlet he’d been reading.

“Knew she had a big appetite!” Ankhanum said.

“Ugh. The stuff at Cuddy’s was fine, but, man, I’d kill for a real meal,” she said with longing. “Get me some corn on the cob and a cheese pizza, and I’d be in heaven!”

On the far side of the building, Betsy spotted a row of payphones. Her face lit up.

“Oh, hey- before we do anything else,” she said. “I need to make a phone call!”

She wasted no more time, parting the crowd excitedly, nearly knocking over other comers and goers along the way.

Clive shook his head, glancing to Ankhanum.

“For being hungry again already, she’s-” he started.

But the space Ankhanum once occupied was empty. He looked around; Ankhanum charged ahead; in the opposite direction of Betsy. Clive glanced between them. After a moment, he would opt to follow his other half.

Oblivious to their departure, coiling the rings of phone wire around her fingers, Betsy’s heart melted once a small voice answered on the other end.

"Winters household, Annie speaking!"


Fran Winters’ hand dropped mid-air. Annie had beaten her to the phone and was looking quite proud of that fact. Only Annie’s face quickly morphed into shock, before bursting into tears. Fran immediately flew into a panic.

"Baby, what's wrong?!"

"It's mom!" Annie cried.

Fran’s heart sank. She swept the phone from Annie's hand.

"Hello?! This is Francine Winters-"

"Hey, mom," Betsy said.

She sounded exhausted, but it was undeniably her. Fran leaned against the wall. She pinched her earlobe and Annie continued to wail. Her skin smarted. This was no dream.

"Betsy," Fran choked out. "We- that camp, you were on the news and- oh, that fire-"

"I'll explain when I get home," Betsy said firmly.

Fran felt tugging at her skirt. Annie was rubbing her face into her sleeve, but she was calmer now. She looked at Fran expectantly.

"I wanna talk to mom!" she said.

"In a moment, baby," Fran said. "Beth, where are you?"

"Iron Falls."

"Iron Falls?! What on Earth are you doing there? I thought you were out west!"

Another tug, more impatient this time.

“I- Annie wants the phone,” Fran said with a sigh of defeat.

Annie eagerly mashed her face against the receiver.

"Hi, mom!"

"Hey, kid!”

"Are you okay? Gramma said you were in a fire."

"I'm okay. I'll tell you all about it when I get home tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?! You said you weren't gonna be back ‘til my spring break!"

"Change of plans; I'll be home in time for the holidays!”

On Betsy's end, she grinned widely at the crackling of the phone, as Annie yelled in excitement.

"Hey, kid- can you give the phone back to Gramma? I need to talk to her about something important."

"Okay!"

Annie's voice faded into the background. Fran laughed softly.

"She sounds thrilled to bits! When are you due back, Beth?" Fran asked.

"Hopefully tomorrow,” Betsy said. “But, uh- I need to warn you in advance-”

"About?"

Betsy winced with a grin. Her mother’s voice had frozen over in an instant.

"I'm bringing friends along,” Betsy finished. "Couple guys from camp. And a cat."

"You're bringing strangers into my home.”

"They’re not strangers, exactly, they helped me out! They won't stay long. After the fire, they just need some time to get back on their feet-"

"Beth, I'm not running a shelter.”

"Just for a bit, mom."

Silence, though Annie's voice was audible elsewhere in the background.

"We'll talk about it tomorrow," Fran said, her voice softening. "Get home safe, okay?"

"I will, don’t you worry!"

Betsy hung up joyfully. So close. Hot shower. Clean clothes. Good food. Even the pullout couch-

Someone cleared their throat behind her.

"All right, all right, I’m done!" Betsy said. "Thanks for wait-"

Betsy turned. Instead of Clive, impatient as ever, a remarkably tall (and handsome, she thought) older man she didn’t recognize stood there. His hair was neatly groomed, his clean cut look complete with a tailored suit and silk tie. He smiled pleasantly at her while stuffing a pen and notepad into his jacket. She peered around him. Glanced to the multitude of unoccupied payphones on either side of her. Immediately uncomfortable, she gestured awkwardly to the one she'd been using.

“Uh. Here. Sorry?” she mumbled.

She bolted. Concern bubbled up low and slow as Betsy looked all around the station. Clive and Ankhanum were no where to be found. She jumped when something brushed the back of her neck. The cat, its head poking out of her bag, pat her with its massive paws.

"What, you want pet or someth-" she started to say, and stopped.

Behind her, she saw the man from the payphones again. This time, however, he seemed surprised he’d been noticed. Then he was gone, lost in the crowd.

"Good eye," she muttered.

Betsy gave the cat an acknowledging pat. Sanderson shook his head in disbelief. He’d been pet. This journey kept getting stranger.

Betsy bobbed and weaved around the ocean of people. Sanderson were the eyes in the back of her head, and that man was indeed hot on her heels, close enough they could hear him mumbling "excuse me"s to those he was skirting around.

Betsy was sweating profusely.

Why was this guy following her?

Where the FUCK were Ankhanum and Clive?!

The cat hissed and a firm hand squeezed her shoulder. Betsy whirled around, striking out- for her fists to be stilled in his palms.

"Betsy!" her stalker said with a wide grin. "I thought that was you!"

Another man who knew her name before she knew his. This was becoming a trend. She wrenched her arms back to herself.

"Lawyer," she managed to get out. "I won't speak to you without a-"

"I'm not a cop," he said, and looked around warily. "Are you with anyone?"

Betsy said nothing.

He turned out his pockets. Flashed the inside of his suit jacket. All he had on him was a pager, clipped to his belt and a thinly packed luxury wallet. Out of that, he withdrew his driver's license, showing her. Betsy skimmed it.

Nguyen Nam Minh. Born 1950. Registered in Colorado.

"Only fair you also know my name. Call me Norman," he said. "Do you have time to join me for breakfast?"

His hand was on her shoulder again. Even through her coat and bag strap, she could feel the strength of his grip. Her eyes darted around. Too busy here to cause a ruckus. Still no sign of Ankhanum or Clive.

"There's a great deli a stone's throw from here. My treat!" Norman continued, almost giddily.

Reluctantly, Betsy went along with him.


"Mina...Wake up, dear..."

Mina shifted in the hospital bed she’d had to call her own the last few days, mumbling. Her head was already pounding, the whisper of Eleanor’s voice against her ear sending a chill up her spine.

"MINA."

“Ughhh, I’m up, I’m up,” Mina whined into her pillow.

"Excellent! Come to my office, as soon as you can!"

Quiet as a mouse, Mina shuffled out of bed.

The expanse of this cold and sterile hall of hospital beds was only offset by the accumulated personal effects of her sleeping colleagues, tossing and turning through their restless dreams, scratching at punctures in their skin.

Despite the carnage left in her wake, Mina coexisted with her fellow survivors now (an arrangement nobody was thrilled about); the more ‘economical’ option, Eleanor had said, instead of having a room all to herself.

Mina found the longer she lived here, in the belly of the department, the more she longed to return to the life she’d lived before. These subterranean floors that housed the Research Department vibrated strangely, leaving her with a constant, unsettled stomach. There were countless rooms she’d been unable to access, solitary barred windows offering the only glimpses of their contents.

Glimpses she’d regret immediately.

Receiving Eleanor’s blessing to see the light of day was a relief, yet the radio tower looming outside the windows in Eleanor’s office was anything but a beacon of hope in the darkness of the very early morning.

“I’m here,” Mina croaked, still rubbing the grit from her eyes.

“You’re a great listener, Mina,” Eleanor said slyly. “Would you like to eavesdrop with me?”

Mina blinked wearily at her. Despite the hour, Eleanor seemed chipper as ever. The older woman gestured for her to come closer. Mina leaned over the desk cautiously and Eleanor tapped the side of Mina’s head, making her wince as the implant shifted.

"With these," Eleanor said. "You’ll hear all I hear!”

And Mina did hear it, the noise of a city waking up: multitudes of footsteps, voices chattering, cars barreling down streets, yet the sparsely decorated office remained unchanged.

"Whoa," Mina said with quiet awe.

"Yeah. Whoa," Eleanor said, grinning.

"What are we listening to?" Mina asked.

"Not what. Who," Eleanor said. "Betsy!" Norman’s voice suddenly said. "I thought that was you!"

Mina nearly jumped out of her skin. As close as he sounded, she may as well have jumped into his. A sourness filled her stomach.

"Oh, that is so weird," she whispered. "Can he hear us?"

"Only if I want him to," Eleanor said. “You'll get used to it. Let's have a listen, shall we?"


Betsy and Norman sat down for breakfast.

He ordered several breakfast sandwiches; Betsy’s stomach ultimately betrayed her, growling loudly, hunger pangs becoming agonizing. Scant food beyond borderline frozen canned goods and the occasional sandwich was catching up to her. Though she craved a meal with more substance, spite was still stronger; she resigned herself to a salad and a stack of ham. She set her bag on the floor and dangled a slice of ham above it. The cat stuck its face through the gap in the zipper. The ham was gone in seconds.

"So I wasn't imagining the cat," he said.

“Nope,” she said. “What do you want from me?”

"I'm sure you’ve guessed that I’m from the Hassen Research Department. I'd like to ask you a few questions.”

When she didn’t reply, he made short work of one of his sandwiches, gone in three bites.

"Mm. Excellent food here," he said. "So what happened at the camp you were stationed at?"

"Wasn't there. I got lost-”

"Yes, I’m familiar with the yarn you spun about hunters and 'hunting cats'," Norman interrupted. "We've already collected testimonies from the survivors of Camp 12. Not only were you present, you were a major catalyst in what transpired.”

Betsy tossed another slice of ham to the cat.

Fuckin’ Marty, God damn snitch, she thought.

"So what do you need from me, specifically?" she asked.

"There are gaps in our understanding of events. The current whereabouts of your 'hunters' being one of them," he said.

He sucked a stray glob of grease off his thumb.

"A real canyon of a gap, that,” he finished.

Betsy shrugged.

"Once we got off the bus, they up and vanished on me,” she said.

He glanced away, brows knitting in concentration, gently scratching at his ear all the while. He looked back to her.

"Any idea where they'd be headed?" he asked.

"Nope.”

"That's no good.”

Norman polished off another sandwich. Betsy struggled to get through her own meal, trying not to let it show on her face that she was fuming. Camp 12. A simple designation with overwhelming implications.

The last of the ham was tugged into the bag by an eager paw.

"Here's another one for you," Norman said. "We’re now aware that you were privately employed by Dr. Herbert Sanderson. Do you know his current whereabouts?”

"Nope.”

"That's no good, either.”

Norman started on the next sandwich, devouring his order with extreme indulgence, oblivious to the mess he was making. She no longer had an appetite, only picking at her salad. The cat nudged its head out of the bag, gazing up at her silently. Noticing her queasy stare, Norman chuckled self-consciously and wiped at his mouth.

"Do excuse me,” he said. “I haven’t eaten much the last few days.”

“Me neither,” she said.

“Yet you’ve hardly eaten.”

"Don't have much of an appetite while I'm being interrogated.”

"We're just having a conversation.”

Betsy jammed a fork into a cherry tomato hard enough that the table shook. The cat slowly sank back into the confines of the bag. Norman kept on smiling as pleasantly as ever.

"Cut the bullshit!" she spat. "You wanna know where they are and I don't know. I have to go."

"No rush! I'm here to question you and take you home. Ms. Hassen’s orders. Consider me your personal chauffeur,” he said.

"I am not going anywhere with you," she said in a hushed tone.

Norman nonchalantly polished off the last bites of his breakfast. He licked the bacon grease off his fingers and propped his chin on his knuckles.

"You will," he said.

"Too busy here. People will see. I'll scream.”

"I don't need to make it a spectacle.”

Norman took out his wallet and slid a photo across the table.

It was of Norman and a heavyset man she didn't recognize dressed in long tunics, sharing a loving look. At Betsy's puzzled expression, he glanced down, chuckled with embarrassment and took it back.

Another was sent across; this one familiar, yet forgotten all the same, of Betsy and her family on the porch of her mother’s home. Scrawled on the back were her mother’s well wishes for this season’s trip to camp. Also written, in tight, stately handwriting, was the address:

618 East Wood Street, Greensea, VA

He had been right.

She would.


"Betsy won’t be thrilled that you wandered off," Clive said.

"Betsy said she would kill for a corn on the cob and a cheese pizza," Ankhanum said. "I'll kill for her while we wait!”

Clive rolled his eyes. Far from ideal, but he had to admit he was curious about where his other half was going with this.

At the station, enticing scents had fought for their attention from all directions: people, with their perfumes and colognes and sweat as they brushed by the two, fumes from vehicles, animals in the alleys.

But most exciting of all, the smell of food.

Ankhanum stood before a restaurant, not unlike the one Betsy promised she'd take him to in High Bridge. It smelled hot, fresh and excellent but it was so very busy at this hour; they’d be waiting forever if entering as intended.

They trekked into the alley instead, where a young woman was tossing trash into the dumpster at the restaurant’s side entrance, her vocabulary as colorful as the bags under her eyes. Ankhanum came up on her suddenly, scaring the color from her entirely.

"Do you have cheese pizzas or corn on the cob here?" he asked.

"If you’ll just go around the corner here, you can go inside-" she started, backing away.

"Too busy. Do you have these items, yes or no?" he asked, stepping closer. "If no, where can I get them?"

“Uh- um- a store?”

“Which is where?!”

She paled further at his anger.

“Anni, you’re scaring her,” Clive said, an amused sneer evident in his voice.

Ankhanum stepped back, cleared his throat and said in the voice of someone trying hard to sound very normal: "Apologies! I am not from around here. I'd kill for a cheese pizza!”

She now looked more baffled than before.

"There's a pizza place on every corner here in Iron Falls," she said, backing away to the door. "Can't miss 'em!”

She disappeared inside in a hurry.

Clive clapped, cackling.

"That was fantastic. You're awful at this," he said.

Ankhanum glared.

"Not at my best. Tired. Hungry,” he groused. “Let us look elsewhere.”

They passed by the front of the restaurant again.

Inside, Betsy and Norman were sitting down for breakfast.


An hour of fruitless questioning later, Betsy left with the man from the department.

Sanderson never saw the photo; the floor hadn’t been an ideal viewpoint, after all. Whatever she’d been shown, he knew she wouldn’t have given in without good reason.

He turned the situation over in his mind. He could flee. Wash his hands of this. Pretend it never happened. Change his name! Start a new life-!

"Almost there now," the agent said, voice echoing. “I’m grateful to Ms. Hassen for arranging transportation for us. I hate trying to find parking in a big city like this, know what I mean?”

Sanderson shoved his head out of the bag to get his bearings. Cars, dim lights and concrete pillars. A parking garage. They were approaching a sleek black car with tinted windows.

Sanderson thumped the back of Betsy’s head with his, making her draw in a sharp breath. Though the sound was barely audible, the agent turned, a questioning smile on his face.

"Sorry," Betsy said. "Hunting cats get antsy, I guess."

"Hopefully he’s not antsy about car rides," Norman said with a chuckle.

But, oh, Betsy was antsy herself about the car ride. On one hand, assaulting this guy would put her in deeper shit, and he’d already demonstrated they knew where to go to hit her hardest. On the other hand, even if he really was going to take her home, chances were slim it was out of good will.

Betsy sprang, grabbing his arms and flattening him onto the hood. She planted a knee into the small of his back. Her revolver glinted in the dim lighting as she jammed the gun to the base of his skull. Wondrously, Norman giggled, but the sound had an anxious edge.

"Wanna say I expected this, but I didn’t," he mumbled through mushed lips. "Not fair to- gh! Pull a gun on an unarmed man!”

Norman laboriously turned his head to better see her. His nose was bleeding, thick red streams trickling onto the bonnet.

Sanderson's nose wrinkled, fur standing on end.

That smell.

He rammed the back of Betsy's head with his, yowling.

"Would you stop that?!" she hollered. “I’m a little busy-”

The back of Norman's head split open. Teeth took hold of the revolver, jagged bone creeping over her hand. Betsy released the gun and stumbled back. The gun was sucked into Norman’s skull.

Betsy and Sanderson were silent as Norman straightened out and turned to face them. A massive lump maneuvered its way through his head until his mouth fell open. He spat the revolver into his hand, a few teeth coming with it. Poking the gaps in his smile with his tongue, he placed the teeth back into their sockets, the roots reattaching with a soft sucking sound.

He turned the gun on them then.

"Not very fair at all," Norman growled.


With the assistance of the citizens of Iron Falls, disgruntled and kindly alike, Ankhanum and Clive found a grocery store.

More delightfully still, there was corn to be found, prepped in plastic packages. Next to the display was a selection of handled skewers. Ankhanum picked up a pair.

"Handlebars for your corn. Fun!" he said.

He lifted his shirt; there was a squelch as layers of muscle and fat parted. He stuffed the goods within. A small carton of iced tea joined them.

They’d find their cheese pizza in the frozen aisle. It was at this point Ankhanum's shoulders slumped in defeat.

"This one is beginning to think Betsy intended to have this pizza and corn once she is home," he said.

“What now, then?" Clive asked, snickering.

"We go to a pizza place.”

"Anni, we don’t have any money.”

Ankhanum paused.

"I’ll figure something out," he grumbled.

On their way out, Ankhanum halted in his tracks and placed a hand on his stomach.

"What is it now?" Clive asked.

"Betsy does not eat meat,” Ankhanum whispered. “Are these still meat free?"

Clive pondered the question for awhile before snorting.

"Perhaps don't mention you have them until you get an opinion on that from Betsy herself," he said.


For Norman, it started with a beating, almost thirty years ago. Then one of the boys brought out a knife. The nervous laughter of his accomplices had done nothing to dissuade the murderer-to-be.

Norman hit the ground.

The assailants ran, in greater fear of their parents finding out what they’d done than leaving a classmate for dead under a bridge. And no one but them even knew he was here.

Every shivering breath he took renewed the stickiness at his chest.

What a way to go, he thought.

Stabbed just because he’d studied with the wrong jealous bastard’s girlfriend. He swallowed back a wry laugh, though he didn’t know why he bothered. He was going to bleed out whether he laughed or not.

Something warm touched him.

Red moss curled around his fingers. When they twitched out of reach, it moved closer. His eyes followed it; it started from the weathered wooden boards above him, growing all the way to the ground.

Norman let out a strangled whimper as it began to recede from the underside of the deck, slithering down the pile, unmistakably toward him.

The moss bunched up on itself, rippling restlessly as it loomed over him. A depression yawned open in its mass and warm water dripped onto his cheeks.

On his freezing skin, it was almost comforting.

Fingers of vegetation laced with his.

“If you’re going to take me, then just do it. Get it over with,” Norman whispered.

The moss slid over him like a blanket.

Everything went dark. Hot. Moist.

Norman awoke again.

It was dark, now for a different reason; night had fallen.

He realized as he sat up that he didn’t hurt anymore.

He tugged his shirt open.

Unbroken skin coated in dried blood greeted his curious hands. He pat himself down. As far as he could tell, his body was his own. Though he was far from superstitious, he remained wary; the tales of roaming spirits his parents told him as a child lingered in the back of his mind.

He looked up and around. But the moss was no where to be found.

He crawled out from under the bridge, up the embankment.

The way home was clear as day as the world swirled out of the dark and came into focus.

And Norman got moving.


"We've lived together ever since," Norman concluded. "Quite a long-lived relationship. Hieu would be so jealous."

"Who’s Hieu?" Betsy asked.

"My husband- the other man in the, ah, photo I showed you by mistake,” he said, followed by an awkward chuckle.

Betsy looked out at the sluggish traffic disinterestedly. Her last ditch effort had been for nothing; the only door with a handle on the inside was the driver's, a bio-weapon sitting between her and freedom.

In the backseat, the cat paced restlessly.

"What do you get out of all this, Norman?" Betsy asked.

"I'd be happy to tell you if you'll give me information in return," Norman said.

"I don't even know where to start.”

"Here, I'll help. The survivors said you freed the entities. Why?”

“Dr. Sanderson locked them up in a kennel and wasn't feeding them. I take issue with that."

The cat abruptly ceased its pacing.

"See, that's something," Norman said. "As for me, the department is interested in studying them."

"I know what the department intends to do with them. That’s another reason I freed them," she said. "But I’m not asking about the department. I'm asking you."

Norman’s brows rose in surprise.

"Oh. Well, the job offers travel opportunities. Decent money," he said.

"But you're Ankhanum. Why-"

Both Betsy and the cat jerked forward as the car braked suddenly. Norman gripped the wheel with paling knuckles. He sucked a breath through his teeth and dug his fingers into his ears. The car moved along.

"Travel opportunities, decent money," he repeated.

But his mouth was working, curling into a snarl. Betsy wasn't sure he knew he was doing it. The cat quietly slid into Betsy's bag.

"Yeah, sure. Whatever,” Betsy said. “That husband of yours know you're a lapdog for a shady research lab?"

The car halted again and Norman's eyes were ablaze. Horns blared all around them.

"Don't make this personal. He has nothing to do with this," he spat.

"You made it personal first with that photo of my family!" she shouted.

"Well, I'd have to know where to take you, wouldn't I?!"

"How stupid do you think I am?! I KNOW you didn't mean it like that! What are you gonna do to my family when we get there?!"

Norman winced, scratching at his ear hard enough to draw blood. Betsy squinted at the sight.

“What’s the matter, buddy? Got an earpiece buggin’ you?” she asked.

Norman said-

Only to be cut off by a third voice in the car.

“Recording begins...”

The cat emerged from the bag; in its mouth was Sanderson's recorder, the tape inside rolling.

"...yesterday's entry regarding the bear our cook killed, and, well- certainly, at the time, it was no more than slabs of meat! But around midnight last night-”

Norman snatched at the recorder- and was sent into the windshield by large clawed hands. Smushed awkwardly against the back of Norman’s seat was Dr. Herbert Sanderson.

"Betsy! Get him out of here!" he hissed.

Norman fell back in a daze once Sanderson released him. Betsy threw herself across Norman’s lap, unbuckled him and shoved him from the car. Norman let out a squeak as he rolled out of an oncoming truck’s path.

The car door slammed shut. Norman scrambled to his feet, going for the handle. Betsy hit the gas and Norman fell in the street yet again.

In the rear view, Sanderson stared at her with red-ringed eyes, mouth twisted into a grimace that bared his teeth. Her arm ached all over again.

"The road, Betsy!" he said.

Betsy’s breath hitched. Car- right in front of her!

She swerved.

They bounced over the curb.

CRASH.

The car tore halfway through rickety shutters, windshield blowing out, trunk popping. The same hands that shoved Norman forward now held Betsy still.

Betsy took great, gasping breaths. She wrested out of Sanderson’s grasp and eased herself out from behind the steering column. She knocked out the shards that were left of the windshield with her elbow and slid down the dented hood onto tile, landing squarely on her bottom. She held a hand to her bruising chest while she observed her surroundings.

They were dark and empty, only faint columns of light peeking through the tear they’d left in the shutters. Empty display cases, dusty counters and scattered fliers were everywhere. An abandoned storefront.

Creaking behind her made her whirl around. Sanderson was meekly sliding down the hood as well. Great patches of coarse black fur covered most of his body, offering him some dignity, though the large cat-like ears had stuck, pinned back in discomfort.

"You were-" she panted out.

“I was,” he said. “Oh, Betsy. I wish you hadn't wrecked the car!”

"Wish I hadn't, either," she said glumly.

He slid clumsily onto padded feet and held his arms out to her. Hesitantly, she let him pull her back onto her feet.

"What's with the heroics all of a sudden?" she asked.

"I'm dealing with the scenario," he said curtly.

Krrreeaa- THUD.

They looked to the car.

Norman climbed through the length of the vehicle, the trunk slamming shut behind him. He slid off the hood in short order, ignoring them long enough to survey the damage to the vehicle. Betsy could hear him mumbling, scratching at his ear all the while. She strained to listen but could only pick out “accomplice” and “wrecked”. He faced them.

“Oof, that’ll be coming out of my pay for awhile! Did you really have to go and wreck the car?” he asked.

“That’s what I said!” Sanderson chimed in.

Betsy rolled her eyes.

“Don’t work for shitty people, then,” she said.

Norman’s face twitched. Then he smiled obnoxiously pleasantly and withdrew the revolver from his jacket.

“It’ll be a while before Ms. Hassen can arrange another vehicle for us,” he said. “In the meantime, you two are coming with me to the nearest hotel.”

Betsy said nothing, standing her ground with straightened shoulders. Norman blinked in renewed confusion. She was remarkably unintimidated, not being invulnerable to bullets and all. Out of curiosity, he opened the chamber on the revolver.

Empty.

He tossed it aside, cheeks warming with embarrassment.

“Change of plans, then,” he said, rolling up his sleeve.

His arm split, jutting bone hardening into an ossified blade. Blood dripped onto the ground. Sanderson hurriedly covered his nose.

“I really was going to take you home, you know,” Norman said.


"I’d kill for an extra large cheese pizza," Ankhanum said.

"That’ll be $12.50," the cashier said.

Ankhanum searched his pockets with his tongue stuck out.

THUMP.

Something hitting the floor drew the cashier’s attention. He started to lean over the counter. Ankhanum kneeled, blocking his view.

"Ah, shit!" Ankhanum said loudly. "Dropped my wallet!"

The cashier leaned back as Ankhanum stood and shrugged.

"Whoops. Don't have any money!" Ankhanum said.

"Guess you're not getting that extra large then," the cashier said.

"Can we barter for a medium? How much pizza for a pound of flesh?”

"Sir-"

Diners lifted their heads quizzically as screams rang out from the kitchen.

"What the fuck is THAT?!"

"GET IT, KILL IT!"


In the kitchen, massive spiders skittered around on five legs, throwing the staff into an uproar. Broom bristles struck tile. A knife block hit the floor, blades scattering all over.

One crawled onto a counter, eyes sprouting along its length. There was a tower of boxed up pizzas before it; it pulled the lids up, checking the contents.

First was pepperoni.

It flung that box off the counter.

Next was anchovies.

The pie splattered on the floor.

Next was cheese only. Target acquired.

A large domed container came down over the spider.

"Got it!" cried one of the cooks triumphantly.

The second spider stood at attention. It crawled up the man’s leg, eliciting a shriek. The man slammed his back repeatedly against the wall. In his panic, he’d released the container; it was thrown aside and the coveted pizza was seized.

Spiders and pizza hit the floor. The cashier nearly climbed the register as they brushed past, box and all.

"Now that's what I call service!" Ankhanum said, making for the exit.

"H-hey! You have to pay for that!?" the cashier cried in a thoroughly confused tone.

The door banged shut before he even finished.


Outside, Clive lay in wait, squat next to a dumpster, sleeves rolled past the stumps that were his elbows. Ankhanum appeared at the mouth of the alley with a smug grin on his face, pizza and Clive's disembodied hands in tow, which found their way back onto their proper body in no time at all.

“And here I was, just thinking that pizza stealing ‘spiders’ were easily the dumbest idea you’ve ever had,” Clive said dryly.

Horns blared from the street, getting their attention.

They watched a man be shoved from a vehicle, catching a glimpse of the passenger as she scooted into the now empty driver’s seat; a large woman with freckles and a blaze of red hair. The car sped off, the man frantically giving chase.

“Was that-?” Ankhanum started.

“Betsy,” Clive finished.

A steely screech rang out when the car smashed through a shuttered storefront.

Ankhanum shoved the pizza into Clive’s arms and bolted across the road. A hefty thud heralded Ankhanum’s tumble down the street. Hollers and horns filled the air as bystanders flocked the scene, halting traffic.

“Another one?!”

“Hey, are you okay?!”

“I’ll call an ambulance-”

Ankhanum propped himself on his elbows, face scraped and beginning to swell and bruise, ears ringing, leg dangling crookedly from his knee-

A vice grip hauled him onto his feet.

Reckless one,” Clive hissed into his ear.

Clive threw the other’s arm around his shoulder and together, they pushed through the mass of people and moved across the lanes. A car jerked to a halt at their sides. Clive fumbled the pizza box, barely catching it between the tips of his fingers, Ankhanum nearly slipping out of his grasp in the process.

The driver laid on the horn.

“Get out of the ROAD, moron!”

Fury filled Clive. All this running around for a stupid pizza and he’d nearly lost it. He lifted a leg and struck the hood with all the weight he could put behind it. The grill crumpled like a tin can and he took off, weaving awkwardly between waves of vehicles and people. Buildings flew by while shaking hands groped at his jawline.

“Let me go,” Ankhanum wheezed.

“I’m helping you,” Clive snapped back.

Ankhanum shoved him off. Clive fell against the window of a coffee shop hard enough it shook. Patrons inside threw but a momentary glance at the scene before returning to their business.

“I don’t need your help,” Ankhanum growled.

“You sure seemed to need my help to ‘non-violently’ steal that pizza for Betsy,” Clive said.

Ankhanum limped away.

Clive clenched his fists, glaring down the street at the other.

“If you’re more concerned about Betsy’s well being than your own, then at least pull yourself back together!” Clive shouted after him.

Wordlessly, Ankhanum’s leg twisted back into place. He wobbled for a moment, before picking up the pace. He would nearly vanish into the crowd before Clive would follow.


"Norman, was it?" Sanderson asked in a nasally tone. "We can talk this out, can't we? N-no need to resort to violence! Perhaps my testimony could be of use to you, as well?”

"I liked you better when you were a cat," Betsy grumbled.

Sanderson glared sidelong at her.

"And you would be?" Norman asked.

"I would be Dr. Herbert Sanderson!”

"Excellent,” Norman said. “Two birds, and all that."

He made his move then. With a swiftness he didn’t anticipate, Betsy moved aside; he sliced into Sanderson, splitting his lips. Sanderson staggered backwards, jaw hanging loosely around his neck, nostrils flaring.

That smell.

Jaws wider than ever before sank into the soft tissue of Norman’s upper arm, making him cry out. Sanderson’s eyes rolled up in deranged bliss (better than Betsy EVEN BETTER THAN REEVES) as blood filled his mouth. He growled and rolled his head.

Norman’s arm was torn off.

Betsy’s own arm throbbed as Norman shrieked.

Sanderson reluctantly released his lunch when Betsy dragged him by the tail to the back of the building. The further they went, the darker it got, and she reached for her flashlight-

Only to realize she’d left her bag in the car.

She slowed, hand running along the wall. Sanderson pulled free, lumbering steps becoming light and quick. The yowling of a cat continued ahead. She chased the sound-

At least, until she struck a hard surface.

Her nose crunched. Warmth and pain gushed down her lips and chin. A sliver of daylight filtered into the hallway. A back door. She shoved it. Through the gap, she could see the iron loops of chains holding the door closed from the outside.

“Oh, motherfucker,” she groaned.

Sanderson paced restlessly in front of the door, sniffing the air. His tail stood straight up. He put his face to the gap in the door and slid out. Betsy gawked as he ran out of sight, to freedom.

"Herbert!? Herbert!" she screamed.

She tried again to get the door open, just enough to squeeze through. But she’d have no such luck; though the chain rattled, it would not yield.


The booming voice of Eleanor Hassen rang out inside Norman’s head, chewing at his inner ear.

NORMAN, WHAT HAPPENED?!

Norman clutched his head.

"Stop,” he hissed. “It hurts…”

WOULD YOU STOP YOUR WHIN-

"Would you shut it, you bitch?!"

Blessed silence. Then, louder, tinged with offense:

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?! THIS ISN'T LIKE YOU. TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED.

Norman shook his head. It did nothing to dislodge the sensation. Red streaked down his cheeks.

"Fuck you," he grunted.

A great burst of pain in his left ear sent him to his knees. His breath shook. He no longer heard it on that side.

TELL. ME. WHAT. HAPPENED.

"Ugh- D-Dr. Sanderson- he ripped my arm off. They ran away," he mustered. "Ma’am. I need backup.”

YOU CAN HANDLE ONE WOMAN AND HER PET.

His eye twitched.

"He ripped my arm off," he growled.

WHAT OF IT? COLLECT IT, OR GROW ANOTHER. YOU HAVE OPTIONS.

"Fine," he said.

NORMAN.

“Yes?” he said through grit teeth.

DEFY ME AGAIN AND I EAT THE OTHER ONE.

Eleanor went radio silent then, leaving his ear ringing. He collapsed against the car, holding his head for a long time. Gradually, calm settled in.

Veins emerged from the tear on his arm, seeking the lost limb, arm sewing itself back into place. He flexed. It felt good. Felt better than ever, even. He stretched over the hood of the car, pulling Sanderson’s recorder and Betsy’s bag from the backseat. There was a faint tinkling; one of the side pocket flaps scraping the opposing snap. He looked it over. It was the only pocket undone.

Norman got moving.


"DEFY ME AGAIN AND I EAT THE OTHER ONE!" Eleanor screamed with such force the windows shook.

Mina lowered her hands from her ears, speechless. The ear Norman still heard with rang distantly in her own.

“What did you do that for?” Mina asked.

Eleanor shot her an icy glare. Anything else Mina could think to say became trapped in her throat.

"You heard him! Talking to me like that," Eleanor said, throwing her hands up in exasperation. “The nerve of him!”

Mina smiled tightly.

"Rendering him half deaf just because he called you a bitch is-" Mina started.

Pain began between her own ears. Mina bit her lip.

“P-pretty harsh, don't you think?" she dared to finish. “Not being able to hear on all sides could put him at a disadvantage.”

Eleanor laced her fingers together and sighed in irritation. Mina, however, sighed in relief as the pain ebbed away.

"I can’t stand that you have a point," Eleanor said. “Oh, well. If he can’t even do this right, I have a back-up plan.”


"How she managed to wedge a vehicle in there is beyond me,” Clive said with genuine awe. "It’d be a miracle if she isn't paste on the windshield.”

Ankhanum shook the trunk of the car frantically. It refused to budge. Veins stood out on his throat as he put his back into it. It slid no more than a few inches. He slumped against the trunk.

“She’s alive, she has to be!” Ankhanum said, panting. “You can assist at any time!”

“Oh, now you want my help?” Clive asked. “Neither of us has it in us to move this right now, anyway!

They eyed the pizza with growling stomachs. It wouldn’t be nearly enough. Their eyes drifted to each other, to the exposed flesh of their faces. Teeth gnashed-

A yowl caught their attention.

A great, fluffy cat climbed Clive, burying sharp claws into his skin. After a moment, he realized it was Sanderson.

"You were with Betsy! Where is she?" Clive asked.

Sanderson wriggled out of his grasp, running behind the building. The two followed.

Around back, a chained door, left slightly ajar. Sanderson slipped in. Ankhanum gripped Clive’s arm and they struck the gap in the door. There was splintering as their mass flattened, pulverized flesh filling their clothes as they forced their way through.

Clive exhaled, body readjusting to three dimensional space. The readers he’d bought disintegrated, plastic sprinkling the floor. The pizza box was in tact underneath his arm, miraculously just slim enough to have made it through. He kicked off his boots and shook his pants out. Chunks fell to the ground.

“You moron-” he gasped.

Ankhanum paid him no mind, staring down at himself; his jacket was splayed open, as were the torn muscles of his stomach and back. He was drenched in blood and warm tea. Passing through the chain jettisoned everything: kernels, shredded cobs and intestines littered the floor.

"Shit," he said.

Ankhanum rolled his stomach. A sharp poke made him inhale. Clearly, not everything had been lost. The corn skewers, at least, survived the trip. He rolled his eyes. Some good they’d be without corn.

Sanderson stared at the enticing tidal wave of gore on the floor-

He shook his head.

Get it together, Herbert! he thought. Where’s Betsy?!

Sanderson sniffed the air and raced off into the dark, the thud of boots following soon after.


Betsy felt her way through the dark, one hand on the wall, the other clasped on her nose. If Norman was anything like other Ankhanum, he’d see and smell his way to her sooner rather than later.

Betsy fumbled in her pockets, fingertips stroking the heads of matches. She struck one.

A little warmth, a little light; revealing she’d hit another dead end, the only way to go now one last room next to her. She pursed her lips, tasting the blood on them.

Alone again. She'd managed it before. But then, she had the advantage of Sanderson's 'newness' and her own neurotic preparation for their encounter to go wrong. What did she have now?!

Distantly, she heard footsteps.

Betsy entered the room and took a mental inventory of her surroundings. A tower of stacked wooden pallets. Cardboard boxes. Papers. Rusted folding chair. The remains of storage for a business long since closed. She felt at her remaining matches.

She had more than she’d thought.

She squat in a corner, eyes darting around the room.

Pallets. Boxes. Papers. Chair.

Before the match burned down to her fingertips, she blew it out.


Norman smelled the faintest trace of smoke and- he couldn't help it. He laughed. Nervous habit. He followed the scent into a nearly empty room.

Cornered in the back was Betsy Winters. She struck a match, illuminating her features and the dried blood caking her chin.

He dropped her bag. It hit the floor with a weighty thud. Her eyes followed it, traced the doorway behind him and darted elsewhere.

"Where’s Dr. Sanderson?" Norman asked.

Her eyes continue to shift all around the room.

"He left," she said. "Hunting cats like to squeeze through little gaps in doors.”

Her eyes landed on his.

“You come near me, and this room goes up in flames. I only want to go home. Alone,” she said.

Norman swallowed the lump in his throat. His own eyes darted about. Stacks of wooden pallets. Cardboard. Papers. Images of fungus writhing in the fire flickered across his mind.

"Look, I don’t want to hurt you," he said. “Come along quietly.”

“No,” she said.

She got to her feet and waved the match out, leaving her in nearly complete darkness. Norman charged her.

She leapt for the folding chair. It scraped across the floor shrilly. His bladed arm clanged against it, hard enough their bodies vibrated. She whipped it into his side. He grunted. She elbowed his stomach, putting all of her weight into it. He bent in half with a wheeze.

She brought the chair over her head. It came down on his upper back. Pain shot down his spine.

His bladed arm lashed.

Betsy screamed as her thigh was sliced. She stumbled back, flipped the chair around and slammed the steel legs into his shoulders. He staggered backwards. She struck him with her shoulder as her leg swept under his.

Before he knew it, Norman was on the floor, the chair legs pinning his arm down.

“Believe it or not, I don’t wanna hurt you, either,” she said. “Just let me go, Norman.”

He panted heavily, neither answering nor yielding. The implants wriggled. He grabbed at his head with a gasp, tears stinging the corner of his eyes. His other arm split. Betsy turned her head toward the sound. The blade clanged on the chair as she twisted it into its path. She stepped back on shaking legs, desperately trying to hold the chair in place.

“Just let me leave, dammit!” she spat.

A crackling noise below was the only warning she got before a sharp protrusion jutted from his knee, tearing through the skin just shy of her own. She cried out, falling to her other knee. His body twisted, limbs reversing, crackling as he rearranged himself back onto his feet.

At the click of his dress shoes, Betsy shifted aside, every movement agonizing, holding the chair in front of her like a shield. He stared down at her trembling form, a miserable wave of guilt flooding him.

“You’re a very hardy woman,” he said.

“Thanks,” she ground out. “But I really would’ve rather avoided this!”

“Me, too,” he said.

He brought his arm down on her- another resounding CLANG echoed through the room as she shielded herself with the chair.

This isn’t going to work forever! she thought in a panic.

His other arm reared back, ready to strike-

“What happens if you just let me leave, Norman?! Lose a holiday bonus?!” she cried.

Norman laughed humorlessly.

“I wish this was that simple,” he said.

He lashed.

This time, the blade punched through a weak spot in the seat. Betsy gasped as her jacket was punctured. That sharpened edge pressed into the skin of her collarbone. He tugged the chair. She held on fast.

The blade didn’t slide out.

He tugged again.

With a pained roar, Betsy shoved herself and the chair forward. The blade grazed her cheek as it passed by. Norman yelped as his head struck the stack of pallets. Her hands groped around him, searching, grabbing. A hard jerk of her arm toppled the tower and Norman with it.

Betsy staggered backward, fumbling for the matchbook. She struck one.

Norman glared out from underneath the pallets. The sight of the flame turned his rage to fear. Betsy’s grim expression was lit warmly.

“Sorry about this,” she said. “Can’t have you followin’ me.”

She kneeled, match in hand.

Something flew by, the match snuffed out from the force of its passing. Norman and Betsy both gasped as the room fell into darkness.

She lit another in a panic.

On the floor lay a slightly open white box, the top of which depicted a cartoon caricature of an Italian chef. Inside was a mostly in tact cheese pizza. Betsy and Norman shared a confused look at the absurdity of the situation. The stench hit them next, making both of their noses wrinkle as they looked to the doorway.

From the hall, the cat emerged; and with it, two disheveled men with unsettling smiles and pupils that glimmered a sickly green, one ghostly pale and spindly, the other heavier set with crooked teeth and a hint of stubble. They reeked of blood, their clothes seeming darker and larger on their forms than ever.

Silence hung over the room as Betsy processed their presence.

“Where'd you guys get the pizza from?" was all she managed to ask, in a quiet voice.

"From a pizza shop!" Ankhanum said excitedly.

"We stole it," Clive elaborated.

"Y-you what?!” she asked, followed by a bewildered laugh.

Ankhanum reached into his shirt and pulled out something covered in a slimy pink film.

"These are for you, too," he said.

Betsy grimaced but held out a hand for them. She inspected the objects in her palm with a mixture of disgust and curiosity.

"Are these corn holders?" she asked.

"You said you wanted corn on the cob," he said, and added, with great sadness, "The corn and iced tea didn't make it."

She stared at him, puzzled. Then, despite the pain she was in, she began to laugh until she was snorting. Her glee ended at the renewed aches across her body. The cat slid up against her, sniffing at her wounds. She shifted her weight onto her other leg and shooed him aside.

"Thanks, buddy. I'll, uh, save them for later," she said. Then, sheepishly, "I kinda thought you guys left me behind."

Norman, nearly forgotten beneath his funeral pyre to-be, stiffened. Alarms rang out in his mind (the entities, THEY’RE THE ENTITIES-).

“Apologies,” Ankhanum said. “These ones will stay from now on! We do intend to get you home, after all.”

Clive nodded along with him, half-heartedly.

“Aw, you guys,” she said. “If you didn’t smell so goddamn bad right now, I’d-”

She grunted as the room fell into darkness.

“Ah, fuck,” she said.

“What is it, Betsy?” Ankhanum asked.

“Burned my fingers,” she groused.

In the darkness, the Ankhanum finally turned their gaze onto Norman. They floated close, nostrils flaring. Norman squirmed out from under the pallets, pedaling himself across the floor. The harsh buzzing in his ears was almost forgotten in his rising terror.

Betsy lit another match. Her breath hitched at the sight that greeted her.

Norman cowered in the same corner he’d found her in, the Ankhanum looming inches from him, their teeth visible through their cheeks, mandibles hugging their facial muscles.

Betsy limped forward.

“Stop,” she said.

All eyes were on her. Wide. Wary.

“Don’t,” she said.

“Much concern for a man who’s attacked you,” Ankhanum said.

“Feeling responsible for this one, too?” Clive asked.

She squared her shoulders. They watched her carefully. Their eyes seemed deeper set than she recalled them looking last. Ankhanum smiled strangely and cocked his head.

“We will leave him be, if you wish,” he said.

Betsy pursed her lips. Norman panted, staring out at her from between the two with the look of a man on death’s door.

Finally, she nodded.

"Yeah," she said. "He's gotta get home, too."

The Ankhanum fell away from Norman. He drew in a shaking breath and let it out slow, rubbing at his temples with a low groan. He trembled, with fear (and anticipation). Less so him. More, the Ankhanum that entangled itself with him all those years ago.

Betsy handed what remained of the match to Ankhanum.

"Hold this," she said.

Ankhanum smiled uncertainly and took it. Betsy reached her arms out to Norman as if she was going to hug him.

Instead there was a squelch.

Norman blinked and gurgled strangely, instinctively trying to pull his head back. Betsy grunted, turning the skewers she’d stuck precisely into his ears. Shock dawned on the faces of the Ankhanum.

As she pulled on the skewers, a high pitched squeal began, louder and louder. Betsy groaned, head beginning to hurt from the sound. Behind her, Clive and Ankhanum backed away, faces scrunched, ears ringing. Sanderson pawed desperately at his ears.

There was a wet POP as two large writhing insects were freed from Norman’s head, blood gushing freely from his ears now. It was them emitting that terrible noise, with their metallic, rainbow-hued bodies and tiny needle legs that scratched at the air. Betsy threw them to the ground and stomped viciously.

Silence fell over the room.

Norman would have collapsed had Betsy not grabbed hold of him, steadying him. He put a hand to his head and gaped at her.

"I knew you were bugged," she said breathlessly. "But I didn't think it was literal. The fuck are those things?!"

"The department's implants," Norman said weakly.

“Those bugs,” Clive said quietly. “I know them.”

Betsy looked to him with wide eyes.

“Know them?! What the hell does that mean?!” she asked.

Ankhanum shuffled past them. He kneeled and plucked a piece of metallic exoskeleton out from the smashed remains. He rolled it between his fingers.

“These burrowing insects are part of Her,” Ankhanum said. “Evidently augmented to survive contact with our blood and tissue.”

“’Her’ who?!” Betsy asked.

Carelessly, Ankhanum tossed the piece aside. It clinked on the tiles.

“If she is who I believe, then your department head has as good a reason to be afraid of these ones as she is fascinated,” Ankhanum said.

Betsy let go of a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.

“O-oh, yeah?” Betsy asked.

He looked to her then, eyes boring into hers as they had at camp.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “We are God eaters.”

He waved the match out.


A horrific squeal sent Mina to her knees. She buried her head in her arms, but the sound was impossible to blot out.

There was a loud, wet POP and a thud. Then nothing at all.

"What was that!?" Mina asked.

She could barely hear the sound of her own voice over the ringing in her ears. Eleanor was still, clutching her head. She dragged her nails across her sagging face and she yelled out agonizingly. The windows trembled, as did Mina.

“She removed his implants!” Eleanor said breathlessly. “What a fascinating woman, that Betsy is!”

Mina’s heart began to pound.

“W-we should do something about her,” she said. “We know where she’s going, who she’s staying with; it’d be easy-”

“It can wait,” Eleanor cut in. “She’ll stay put as long as she believes she’s safe.”

Mina grit her teeth.

“You don’t know that for certain. What’s the point in waiting?! Why risk her making a move?” she snapped, voice rising.

Eleanor said nothing, only adding to Mina’s frustration.

“Hell, let me go! I’ll take care of her myself!” Mina cried.

She cupped a hand to her mouth, awaiting pain. None came.

“As I said earlier, I have a contingency plan,” Eleanor said. “You’ll get your turn with her, dear. Be patient.”

Mina crossed her arms indignantly, staring out the window. The sun was rising, a red crescent peering over the horizon, turning the deep blue of night into the lavender of dawn.

“What about Mr. Nguyen?” she asked.

“Unless the entities ate him anyway, he’ll live, and ideally, wise up and return to me,” Eleanor said.

“Why would he?”

“Exactly. He won’t. Which is why, with you so eager to sharpen those claws of yours, you can retrieve our rogue Red once he returns home!” Eleanor said. “Just when I was looking to fill a position for a new assistant. How serendipitous.”

Mina frowned, her ears already beginning to itch.

“What if he resists?” she asked.

"Do whatever you must to convince him,” Eleanor said. “If that means he returns in pieces, so be it.”

Mina inhaled softly. She stared anxiously at the growing shadow of the radio tower.

BAM.

Mina jolted, turning on her heel. Eleanor’s palm was planted on the desk, fingers jutting out at odd angles. Her smiling lips drooped on her face.

"Well? What are you waiting for?" Eleanor asked. "Get to it, then!”

Mina's jaw clenched at the mocking wink in the other woman’s voice.


Ankhanum didn’t get the chance to elaborate on his ominous statement- sirens too close for comfort had gotten everyone moving. Betsy’s boots skidded through the leftover viscera by the chained exit- led through the dark, she was none the wiser to its existence. The rusted fire escape on the building’s second floor was an accident waiting to happen, but today, it was their stairway to freedom. Norman, the tallest of them, hailed a cab with ease once they were back on the street; he was hard to miss.

The cab driver threw a curious glance at the rear view mirror at the four people who’d managed to squeeze themselves and a massive cat into his vehicle. Every last one of them stank, their clothes covered in browning stains.

“You folks have been in a bad way, huh?” the driver asked, stating the obvious.

“Alleyway brawl,” Betsy said.

The men with her murmured in agreement.

Though the cabbie lifted a brow, he was content to leave it at that.

Relief flooded Betsy as she stepped into the bus station for the second time that day. She eased herself onto a bench, Sanderson curling up beside her. Ankhanum rummaged through her bag, pulling out their first aid supplies. While she busied herself tending to the dried blood under her nose and the broken skin on her neck (only grazed me, she thought), Ankhanum inspected the bruising at her chest and the wounds on her leg closely.

“Can this one help in any way?” he asked.

“...Sure,” she said. “Can you-”

Before she could finish that thought, he lifted her leg carefully, propping it on his thigh. She gave him a bewildered look as he tore at her pant leg, popped the lid off one of their water bottles in an attempt to wash out the wounds. She hissed in a breath, pain blooming anew as her muscles tensed. He reached for the bandages-

CLAP.

A hand impacted his. Ankhanum waved his smarting hand with a hiss. Clive loomed over them with exhausted, smoldering eyes.

“You’re rushing, and your hands are not clean, besides,” he said to Ankhanum.

Ankhanum’s lip curled defiantly but said nothing. He couldn’t argue with that, as much as he’d like to. Clive kneeled, a dollop of foamy purple soap and paper towel in damp hands that smelled of wildflowers; evidently, he’d visited the station’s restroom. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Betsy allowed him to carry on with his administrations. His efforts were more gentle and coordinated than she anticipated. Soon enough, her wounds were cleaned, dressed and packed as appropriate. He looked her leg over with satisfaction.

“This will do for now,” he said.

“Not bad,” she said, and smirked. “Feelin’ a little responsible, are we?”

Clive averted his eyes; they settled directly on Ankhanum.

“Had we not gone on a wild goose chase for corn and pizza, this could have been avoided,” he said.

Ankhanum threw his arms up into the air in exasperation.

“And who went along with this one?!” he asked.

The clearing of a throat got their attention. Norman approached, bloodied and disheveled, bus schedule in hand.

“Am I interrupting something?” he asked.

Betsy glanced between Clive and Ankhanum; her leg still on Ankhanum’s lap, ankle gripped by Clive. Her cheeks flushing, she pulled her leg to herself with some effort and shuffled aside to make room for Norman. He eyed the empty space uncertainly, before collapsing into it.

An angry buzz made all of five of them stiffen.

Norman pulled his wildly vibrating pager from his belt. He dropped it into the trash can next to them and stared at Betsy with bloodshot eyes.

“Where were you?” Betsy asked.

“Making a phone call of my own,” he said. “Told Hieu to go to his parents’ place and stay put until I get back to Tenor Valley.”

“That’s way out Midwest, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “If I go back the way I came, I'll be taken right to her. So I'll have to take a page out of your book and grab a bus home. Which means I got time to kill, since mine isn’t coming for a few hours.”

She nodded.

Her stomach growled. Her cheeks flushed. Her only meal today being a salad she’d barely picked at wasn’t doing her any favors now that the adrenaline had run its course.

“Mine, too,” she said. “Let’s chat over lunch?”

Though it was cold by now, she devoured the pizza with such fervor that Clive and Ankhanum only managed to get a slice each for themselves. Betsy offered the last piece to Norman. He held a hand up, swallowing back a surge of vomit.

"Thank you, but I don't have much of an appetite after all that,” he said. “I’ll be fine. Ate a big breakfast.”

She shrugged, tossing it aside for Sanderson to eat. She eyed the blood still oozing from Norman’s ears and leaned closer. A bubble formed deep inside his ear canal and burst, speckling her cheeks with red. She sat back with a grimace, wiping her face on her sleeve.

Clive chuckled.

"It will get messy while he’s healing. I’d stay out of the splash zone, if I were you,” he said with a morbid grin.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, and turned her attention back to Norman. “I got some questions for you this time. Provided I’m off the record, I’ll answer some of yours, too.”

"Fine," Norman said. "But your testimony’s of no use to me now. I've decided I quit my job.

“Oh, that’s fuckin’ fantastic news. I, uh, really didn't wanna have to set you on fire.”

“And I really didn’t want to be set on fire. In fact; here. For your peace of mind.”

Norman dug through his pockets and pressed Sanderson’s recorder into her hands. She stuffed it into her bag with an approving nod.

“So,” she said. “What’s your history with the department?”

“Well, I was a high school English teacher before Eleanor Hassen ran into me,” he said. “She’s as scared shitless of the Rot as she is fascinated. Once she found out I had it, she had me implanted.”

"And what’s this ‘Rot’?"

"The ’Red Rot.’ It’s what’s in me, what’s in Dr. Sanderson,” he said. He glanced sidelong at the Ankhanum. “What they’re made of.”

Ankhanum nodded.

"'Red Rot' isn't an inaccurate translation," he said. "An, for red. Kha, for body. Num, for decay. The literal meaning can be contracted as such. Which tells me a few things: that your department knows what we are, knows how to exterminate us and has even devised a method of controlling us.”

“We’re familiar with those bugs, as well as that buzzing that drew us to Betsy’s camp in the first place,” Clive said. “Can you tell us anything more about that department head of yours?”

Norman shook his head.

“I don’t know a lot about her myself,” he admitted. “She’s been studying the Rot for decades, but she’s never told me why. I was just a grunt. I’d scout out the Research Department’s facilities once shit hit the fan. Camp 12, for instance.”

“And what do you intend to do from here?” Ankhanum asked. “She will not like that you’ve slipped her leash.”

“Good question. Right now, I just want to get back to Hieu,” Norman replied.

He stared at the ground and heaved a sigh.

“I’ve had the Rot more of my life than not at this point, but, even I don't really know what it is, or why Eleanor’s so invested in it. But I do know Rêu saved my life. For that, I can't see the Rot as wholly sinister."

"Rêu?" Betsy asked.

“It-” Norman started, and let out an embarrassed laugh. He briefly pursed his lips against a smile before continuing, “It means ‘moss’. I was so young at the time, I just called it what it was. Now it’s my oldest friend. I even met my husband because of it.”

She grinned.

“Yeah? What’s the story there?” she asked.

Norman returned her grin, revealing a handsomely sincere smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes.

“I used to do contortion for free beers, right? Well, Hieu was a regular at one of the bars I’d hit,” he replied, propping his chin on his knuckles. Then, dreamily, he added, “I loved the way he’d get all flustered when I’d catch him looking at me.”

“Ha! Didn’t take you for the bar hopping type!”

“Oh, you have no idea. This one time…”

Betsy and Norman would converse for hours to come like old friends, all the while listened in on curiously by both Sanderson and the Ankhanum, the morning’s events apparently now water under the bridge.

It was both a surprise and a disappointment when the bus to Tenor Valley rolled into the station, signaling its arrival. Betsy’s clapped a reassuring hand on Norman’s shoulder.

“Guess that’s your cue,” she said. "I wish you luck, Norman. Still a lot I wanted to ask you, but we both got places to be.”

Norman nodded. He looked sidelong at Betsy's band of merry men for awhile, giving Betsy the impression he had plenty of questions of his own. He looked back to her.

"You’re a crazy woman, but I respect you greatly," he said.

Norman didn't wait for her to reply. He was up in a flash, melting into the crowd as seamlessly as he had that morning, Betsy losing sight of him almost immediately.

She glanced at a clock on the far wall of the station. They’d be on their own way shortly.

Next to her, Ankhanum was deep in thought, brows knit tightly together. She tossed her bag into his lap. He let out a soft grunt in response, startled out of whatever brooding he’d been doing, looking to her questioningly.

“You asked if you could do anything to help,” she said flatly. “I’m not gonna be able to carry our supplies and a big ass cat right now, with my leg like this.”

She expected derision; instead, his face brightened and he nodded.

“Yes, this one can help with that!” he said.

With a huff, Betsy wobbled to her feet.

“Our bus’ll be here soon, too,” she said. “Let’s get movin’, guys!”

The Ankhanum stood with her, ready to follow, dutifully this time. Ankhanum unzipped the bag and slung it onto his shoulders, patting it enthusiastically. Sanderson stretched along the bench, letting out a wide, jaw-popping yawn before jumping into it, landing inside heavily.

Deep inside the undone pocket, inaudible over the ambient noise of the bus station, there was a buzz.


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