It started off quietly.
Bored, Dance had lain back there resenting the heat. They’d parked on the last one of three concrete house pads at the end of a rough-graded gravel street. The developer abandoned the project some time ago, judging by the fourteen-foot volunteer trees shading half of this pad. A forlorn plumbing stack juts up near what would have been the kitchen.
The pads had the advantage of being open spaces in the midst of drought-stricken silk trees and mulberry and Japanese privet and scraggly yellow pine in the areas that were disturbed by the dozers. It did not soothe the gardener’s soul in Dance to recognize what he was looking at. He gave it all a jaundiced glare, and stayed in the jeep.
The rocky slopes rising beyond the disturbed areas were mixed pine and hardwoods, both too thick for fire safety and too thinned by dry weather to look nice. They weren’t the kind of lush Sherwood green that induce visions of Bambi and Thumper, or at least of spoiled squirrels who aren’t paying attention in time. He didn’t much like the idea of poking around in there to look at the tracks on the deer and pig trails through there, going down to the water. Dance could see the spider webs that built up over the summer. They like dry heat. They’re usually a warning sign for other pests, too. He grew certain the woods were full of deer ticks, and possibly dog fleas, depending on how many coyotes and feral dogs are out there.
“Well, guys,” Emma said quietly, before it got weird, “this is the end of the directions. The last email in Barret’s stack says, ‘wait for nightfall.'”
Drin had looked over again at Dance, for the umpteenth time. That look: “Can you smell anything you don’t like?”
Dance had already reported that he didn’t smell anything but dry woods, with some bayou maybe a quarter mile away. That’s close. He could hike down there, if needs be, to look for crawdads and frogs and fish. That’d give Barret something to think about. He talked about visting Pen’s place before, on some trip recording rural blues artists.
“Hate it when they do that,” Barret had commented about the directions, when he was still awake, just starting to slouch in the front passenger seat. He didn’t sound worried, though. “Makes you wonder what they don’t want you to see, but it’d be impolite to ask about it.”
Dance remembered his tail tip flicking in annoyance, and how he’d tried to stop it before it hits something noticeably. He’d been trying to stick with the ordinary appearance, and he knew he was failing sometimes. He knew Barret has been politely glancing aside from the subtleties, just as he can politely ignore Barret’s eager references to playing recent computer game alpha versions that only a few investor-geeks might have access to test out. Somebody like Bud Innes, or Auren Han, if he bothered with games.
It didn’t make Dance any more patient with things, either, knowing from Barret’s critiques that he should skip paying for one much-ballyhooed attempt and wait for the next thing by a competing game company instead. It was surprising to find how much he really, really wanted to sit down and zone out and just blow things up and make that next level that’s been driving him crazy, dammit.
Barret even told him where the cheat keys were hidden, although Dance would rather not use them. He remembered thinking crossly that he will be weak, some night, and he will yield to the damnable temptation, and then he’ll be cross with himself. He was cross with himself knowing that he’s going to do it, when he hasn’t even had a chance to resist.
Or possibly he was just cranky.
He’s feeling hungry again too. He’s been eating everything in sight, including a surprising number of bags of jerked beef, and that wasn’t even counting two big incautious Norway rats he caught outside the dumpster behind the gas station while the rest of his party was all busy in the restrooms. The rats tasted heavily of the garlicky pizza crusts they’d been living on.
That beat the muddy, sulferous smell of the crawdads and the frogs in the roadside ditches, but not by much.
He hasn’t told anybdy how much wild food he’s been snaring. Drin saw him fishing around in the ditches a couple of times at the rest stops, and Drin clearly had some idea of his needs anyway. Drin knew he’s been eating weird stuff. Drin was still kissing him anyway, right on the mouth, and sometimes he did it where other folks can see it. Drin knew exactly what sort of germy risks he’s been taking, touching Dance.
Emma, not so much. Dance knew he wasn’t being entirely honest with her. He was sure, at the time, that she didn’t want him to. Emma might comment on his chowing down on expensive, salt-laden jerky, saying things like, “The crawdads in the ditch would be better for you, and better exercise,” but she didn’t really mean it.
She sure as hell wouldn’t appreciate seeing him pith frogs, as a mercy, before he ripped them apart, cleaned them, fried them, and ate them. Fried them on his tail, just like frying nice clean bluegills or crappie or gar from Lacey’s pond.
He’d rather cook them anyway as a sop to his own creeped-out fears about wacko germs and parasites from the local water. Back in the early days at the horse farm, having his muscles seriously overheating inside that tail, with some of the accidental damage he did to the interior of the Jeep, forced him to learn some interesting expedients to get some relief.
Emma had been refilling the ice chest at every stop. Dance had been emptying the water from it at every stop, because he melted it all down, every time. He’s been spreading out with his arm, or his knee, or his shin, on top of the ice in open chest, halfway laying in it, in full view of all of them, making no excuse for the way he was still sweating buckets. He had to vent the heat, wetting down the bandanna around his neck and soaking the gimme cap that Drin lent him. He tried hard not to make a lot of noise with the tail soaking down there in the ice as well, he tried to turn his body to make it less obvious that something as thick as his thigh was displacing all those ice chips, but he knew he probably wasn’t fooling Barret.
Barret hadn’t asked. Didn’t even ask if he’s sick. His mild dark eyes hadn’t even speculated about it. Well, when he’s awake, that is. He went back to sleep while they’d been parked, with his head against the door again.
But during their time at the horse farm, Dance had learned that he can cook his prey to a precise degree. If he really felt hungry enough, and he really wanted his meat cooked, he coiled the tail around his prey at the hot moment of capture, and flash-fried it. The glassy coating on his tail did this trick without even affecting the human muscle meat inside his tail, which was nice. He remembered wishing the flash heat drained some of the heat load from the inside, but no. It didn’t relieve anything. It just left his tail-skin itchy and hot enough to leave melt-prints in the jeep’s plastic fittings. He was not certain why he should still be able to feel things at the outside of the coating. It still feels the same as his ordinary human skin, even when he just used it to fry a feral goldfish into a stiff little piece of char. It doesn’t hurt at all. It’s cleaning the seared bits off his tail, and feeling how the burnt bits stick to him, that’s so damn depressing.
He remembered thinking that Emma really wouldn’t appreciate knowing how much the taste of garlicky trash rats made him want to kiss her instead.
He remembered looking up into the rear view mirror, gazing at Emma with the fierce desire to pull her pants down and take her right there in the driver’s seat. She just smiled back at him.
Things started to get odd when Drin pulled out his heavy old cell phone, frowned at some text message that was in some kind of Cyrillic alphabet. Drin grunted, frowned, and replied by texting something that was too terse to be read as English words by anybody else. He wasn’t bothering to hide it from Dance’s interested stare, and he certainly knew Dance would remember the keytones. He knew Dance remembered stuff like that. Then Drin had looked at Dance, he leaned over, and he kissed Dance on the cheek, smiling a little.
“We’re in range,” he said. Then he stuck his head out the side window, craning his neck. “You see a trail running downhill anywhere over there off that second pad, Emma?”
She’d turned on the engine again, pivoted the Jeep slightly, and pointed.
“You think we can get the bus through there?”
“I’s a four-wheel job, and if we’ve got fallen logs we’ll have to back up or chop our way through. You guys check the luggage is tied down.”
Emma was good at it. Barret didn’t even wake up as the springs started rocking.
“Where’d you learn to drive rough country?” Dance had asked her.
Emma had smiled. “Doing volunteer archaeological digs when I was a college student. This is nothing. We may get a few mud problems, but hey, we don’t have to winch ourselves up rotten sandstone. Drin, you got any idea why somebody wants us to go native here?”
“It’s a shortcut,” Drin replied. “I guess there’s strangers in the area, which doesn’t get that many visitors. The locals think these aren’t the kind of buddies we ought to meet anywhere on the main drag where other folks might get involved.”
Emma had said, alarmed, “But we don’t have any weapons–”
Drin had just looked at Dance, and smiled quite an odd smile.
Dance had looked back at him, seething with resentment, frustration, and a sudden thick rage against his own ignorance. But he spoke quietly. “I think I can be of some assistance. I just don’t have a very good idea of what we’d be up against.”
“Nor does anybody else,” Drin had told him grimly, “if the things we’re up against keep changing.”
Dance hadn’t been surprised to hear Barret muttering in his sleep, twisting around. He’d seemed confused when Drin woke him up, just before they got back onto a paved road.
The reek is sudden, choking, and beyond any mistaking. He doesn’t even have to say it.
“What the hell is that?” Emma says, gripping the wheel tight as she jerks them to a final stop. She looks like she wants to vomit right where she sits.
“That’s the stink I’ve been checking for when we visit rest stops,” Dance says. His voice sounds odd to him, heavy, low in his belly. He’s shifted his voice somewhere low into his diaphragm, like an opera singer about to project some pretty big sound into a big empty space. Then he feels his lips curl up off his front teeth, and his mouth come open slightly, so he’s panting slightly.
“Looks like they could use help,” Drin says quietly. “Yell if you see any movement in the woods, Emma.”
“Yeah,” she says, her eyes darting around the mirrors.
Dance steps out of the Jeep at the same moment as Drin on the opposite side, and they both walk slowly about fifty yards closer.
Drin says quietly, “Nice job,” to the two men holding the weapons, who are standing in the middle of a reeking mess.
Dance finds his eyes skipping away from the people with the weapons, which isn’t like him. They’ve killed something grotesque that stinks, and all his instincts assume they’ll shoot more things that stink if they show up, and he’s good with that. His instincts assume they’ll know how to use the weapons to avoid shooting civilians, or them, if more bugs show up.
That may be a big, foolish assumption to make. But he’s busy watching the woods, just as Emma is doing. He’s not just using his eyes. It’s going to take concentration to catch a tickle of a warning change in the background odors when the foreground noise is so incredibly nasty.
Challenge: mixed up up, but the latest from bjd_30minfic, prompt 6, lazy or tired