A cool breeze whispered through the trees, promising the rain on its heels. Sarah closed her eyes and let it blow through her. Sometimes at night, the nights Big Buddy used to come for her, she would tell herself to breathe, only breathe, and soon it would be over. Now she wanted to breathe again, only to breathe, this time because it was right and it was good and there was nothing happening at that moment. She was waiting for nothing, expecting nothing, just letting the wind breathe to her as she breathed back.
It was the most peaceful moment in her life.
Until the twig snapped.
Sarah’s eyes fluttered open, and he was there, about twenty yards down the stream, looking at her. He still wore his long-sleeve flannel unbuttoned over the untucked gray t-shirt. He had the same drunken leer that he had offered her in the C-store mere hours ago. Once he was certain she was looking, he held the hem of his t-shirt with the thumb and forefinger of each hand, just as he had in the store, and flapped it in front of the fly of his jeans like a matador.
“Hey there!” Rhino shouted, shaking his head wildly like a bull. “Where’d you run off to, girlie-girl?”
He was not wearing his glasses now, and he had ditched the Seattle Seahawks cap. His massive splash of hair hung in his eyes and about his face and neck, but she could still three of the awful letters (LAY) tattooed across his Adam’s apple as he thrust out his chin and bared his teeth in an ugly grin.
“Shouldn’t run off like that,” he said. He stepped into the stream, his gray sneakers splashing in water about two inches deep. “We never got a chance to play.”
Rhino tucked his thumbs in his belt loops and affected an exaggerated saunter like an old farmer surveying crops. His legs swung forward in sluggish arcs, splashing on the wet rocks. He was in no hurry to get to her. His eyes, which Sarah saw were as gray as his sneakers as he advanced, bore an ignoble arrogance, the eyes of a predator that had trapped its prey and was savoring the final moments.
Sarah tucked her clothes under her arm. “You better not come any closer.”
“Whatcha going to do, girlie-girl? Call the cops?” He leaned his head back and cackled. “Fifteen’ll getcha twenty. That’s what you said. Well, they gotta catch me first.”
Sarah spun on the rocks and leapt up the embankment, springing into the woods. Somewhere behind her, Rhino’s laugh ripped through the woods, a dark spirit in its own right, swirling and pinballing off the trees as it tracked her. She could hear the splashes of his sneakers pick up rhythm as he charged across the river after her.
“Tom!” she screamed. “Toooommmm!”
The slap of Rhino’s sneakers on the cold earth could be heard right behind her, drawing closer with every stride. He was fast, much faster than Sarah would have thought, and that laugh, that awful laugh like the soul of a madman, chuttered and chirped behind him!
“Tooommmm!” she screamed.
“Tom!” cried Rhino behind her, sounding not the least bit winded. “Where are you, Tom! Let’s play, Tom! Let’s plaaayyy!”
Sarah felt the smack of a truck hitting her in the back. She fell forward, thudding hard on her elbows as Rhino followed through the tackle and drove her to the ground. His weight was on top of her, pressing her chest into the earth, and then a thick-fingered hand was in her hair, pushing her face against a bed of pine needles.
“There you go, girlie-girl?” Rhino said. “How you like that?”
Sarah tried to scream, just as Tom had told her to do, but Rhino had pressed her face into the ground, stuffing her mouth with dirt and needles.
“We’re gonna play now, girlie-girl,” Rhino said. “And you’re going to like it, aren’t you?”
Sarah thrashed against the forest bed, trying to throw him off. A second fat hand grabbed her left arm and twisted it back. Something screamed inside her shoulder joint, threatening to break her, and she screamed even harder into the ground.
“You keep fighting,” said Rhino, “and I’ll pull this arm right out, yes, right out of the socket. You want that girl? You want that?”
Sarah bent her legs and arced her hips, bucking like a wild horse trying to throw off the rider. She could hear Rhino’s laugh, right behind her ear. The hand that held her arm tugged ever so slight, and the pain in her shoulder burned harder.
“Listen here,” Rhino growled. “You got fight, and I like that, but this has gotta stop now. I hate to do this, girlie-girl. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He pulled back even further on her arm. The pain was like someone injected fire into the joint. Sarah could feel the tendons, the muscles, the ball of the joint crying out in protest. She bit the earth and waited for it to happen, but damned if he wasn’t doing it slow, taking his time with it, dragging her into hell an inch at a time.
“Here it comes, girlie-girl,” he whispered, his voice right in her ear. “Here it is. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Don’t say I didn’t. Here it is, baby, don’t say I did—”
A familiar shriek shredded its way out of the sky, a tuning note for a choir of screams. Rhino’s own scream joined the chorus, and Sarah felt his fingers loosen their grip on her arm. The second hand in her hair disappeared completely. The beefy weight that had pinned her to the earth now lifted itself from her back, and she had the leverage to push now, to pivot him off of her. She thrashed her hips and flipped, and Rhino bounced backward, and she rolled over to her back and stood up in time to see the carnage.
The cat—that crazy, wonderful, ginger cat—had attached itself to the back of Rhino’s head, digging itself in like a big red tick. Its forelegs and haunches were buried deep in Rhino’s mane of hair, and she saw its head come up and down, jaws wide open, fangs borne and wild, gnashing at the top of Rhino’s skull.
Rhino was on his knees now, flapping his hands at his head trying to ward off the attack. His screams were crazed and guttural like a wild bird.
The cat kept clawing deeper, burying its face in Rhino’s hair, shaking its head side to side as it worked teeth into Rhino’s skullcap. Rhino howled, too blinded by pain to process, and he thrashed his torso up and down, back and forth snapping about at the waist in an effort to whiplash the cat off of his head.
The cat only howled and growled as it tore into the thin connective tissue of Rhino’s scalp. Rivulets of blood could be seen flowing from out of Rhino’s hairline, pasting his disheveled bangs to his forehead. Rhino hopped about on his knees, waving his arms madly. Sarah watched, sickened with herself for feeling such fascination, and she pushed herself to her feet, standing over him. Rhino flopped over on his backside, and he twisted his head and turned it up to her, his eyes now wide and pleading. If Sarah had felt an ounce of mercy, the cat did not give her the chance to act on it.
A final screech issued from the cat’s throat, shredding its way from some black place of torture in its chest. It snapped its head back, a bloody chuck of hair and flesh dangling from its jowls. With a shake of its head, it flipped the gruesome treat from its mouth and began to howl again, its forelegs stretching deeper into Rhino’s hair, its neck muscles tensing and popping as it strained to extend its body.
Rhino arched his head back and cried, his voice pitiful and small, and Sarah saw something that made her stomach crawl. On either side of Rhino’s face at the level of the temples, two orange cat paws jutted out from his ample mane. It was impossible, Sarah thought. There was no way the cat’s forelegs were long enough to wrap around the skull of a man, least of all a fat skull like Rhino’s. And yet, there it was, the cat’s twin paws, digging their way out Rhino’s hair, the pad’s widening and claws extending. Like a pair of twin mousetraps, the paws clapped down over Rhino’s eyes.
Whatever last bit of will Rhino had, it escaped like steam from a broken valve. His scream reached a whole new level of inhuman, long and squealing, gurgling in the throat, sounding strangely to Sarah like the fingernail of God dragging across a chalkboard the size of a continent. The cat’s claws flashed and curled into Rhino’s eyelids, and with bullet quickness snapped outward. For a single snapshot in time, Sarah saw one of the claws hook the outer corner of Rhino’s right eye, curling all the way through and ripping, widening the socket just a centimeter or so before the cat pushed off with its back paws, made a high back flip in the air, and landed on all fours no more than a yard behind its wounded prey.
Rhino flopped on his back now, his palms pressed into his eyes. Fresh blood was oozing from all sides, down his cheeks, around his temples. Sarah stood over him, staring down in the shattered face, and for a moment she felt something like pity.
She glanced up to the direction of the voice, the direction where the cat had landed. The cat was gone, but in its place, crouched on the forest floor, was her new friend Tom. He was completely naked, bent on his knees, pale buttocks jutted in the air, arms stretched and extended into the pine needles in front of him like the yoga stretch the ginger cat had done earlier. Tom’s exposed back was drenched with a splash of gleaming orange hair that extended from the top of his spine down to the anal cleft. His eyes were wide, shimmering, the color of onyx. Breath hissed between his clenched teeth, spraying drops of blood and bits of skin and hair on the ground before him.
“Move,” he whispered. Sarah stumbled backward, back away from Rhino, and Tom leapt, his sweating body springing into the air. His right arm came up and back behind his head, fist clenching, a large biceps muscle twitching. As Tom came down, the pointed right elbow snapped forward, leading the way on the drop. It landed hard on the bridge of Rhino’s nose. There was a crunch like a cockroach under a boot, and more blood flowed, but in the end, Rhino lay still.
Tom sucked in huge slugs of air. He jerked away from the unconscious Rhino, planting his elbows on the earth, arching his back high, the muscles continuing to twitch and tremble. Sarah watched as the back buckled, the vertebrae of the spine seeming to flow like a bony bullwhip, popping and rippling. The rash of copper fur that had graced his back only a moment before was now twitching too, thin fronds that slithered and sucked back into the flesh, revealing a back now hairless and pale with splatters of freckles across it that matched Tom’s tender face.
After a moment, Tom shook his head. He groaned and arched his back concave, lifting his head into the air. His face was soft again, sweet and boyish, and his eyes were closed. He took in deep breaths through his nose. The corners of his mouth quivered on the edge of a smile, and he twisted his face to keep them in place, as if ashamed to show Sarah how much he had enjoyed the previous carnage.
After a moment, he opened his eyes, and the onyx mist was gone, replaced by a soft hazel-green that went well with his ginger hair.
“Now,” he said, allowing a small grin. “Now we have to get out of here.”
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