THERON II

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FIVE.

THERON

We walk for miles down the inhospitable highway. Snow clouds are slowly replacing the dying light and Bug is starting to shiver.

She whines that she's tired and her feet hurt. She cries that she is cold and she's hungry and her head aches and her eyes burn and her life sucks and I wince every time her high pitched childish voice pierces my sensitive fucking ears and I can't help but wonder why people take a liking to kids.

Aggravating little boogers.

So when this shitty road finally splits into an overpass, I can't wait to exit this hellish ride. My sights immediately land on a truck stop and I thank my lucky stars that Destiny has finally cut me a break.

The building glows like a mirage, the lights permeating through the fog that has rolled in with the setting sun. Theres a hole in the wall restaurant on one side, it smells of grease and dirty toilets while the other side hosts a strip club for the lonely and those needing a stiff drink (pun abso-fucking-lutely intended).

And while the possibility of a congregation of testosterone filled good ole boys should concern me traveling with a young girl, I am not the least bit scared.

I have to piss.

We are hit with a blast of warm air and the pungent smell of savory food as we cross the threshold. My stomach reacts accordingly with a loud rumble and I am now wishing I had caught a second rabbit. Bug must feel the same as she shoots me a look of sad desperation and my heart aches for the little brat.

"I'll handle it," I cryptically promised her with a low murmur. Our scraggly, stinky looks will have already alerted the staff to watch us closely so I dare not draw more attention by loudly swearing to steal her food and necessities... a coat is going to be complicated enough to jack. My only saving grace might be the time of day as the gas station is bustling to the brim with rush hour customers.

Before we split off to our appropriate destinations, I snatch two bags of chips from the aisle display, tossing her one without missing a step or slowing my pace. It's definitely not the healthiest of options but it will have to do for now.

***

"I can't believe ya fuckin' did that!" Bug waves her hands around animatedly, shoving a piece of beef jerky into her tiny mouth.

Her excitement is tangible.

Her language is just as foul but I'm too busy peeking around the corner to scold her.

"That guy was like, 'Sir, you gotta pay for that,'" she deepens her voice, replaying what I already know happened.

I was there, obviously.

"And you were like, 'not today asshole,' and POW!" She punches the air as if she's playing the part of me in this little scenario, "Fist straight to the pucker!"

I actually did not say what she is claiming I did, but I let it slide. If she wants to over exaggerate the story then so be it. I, myself, do not encourage stealing, better yet violence, but in that very second knocking the attendant out cold was the only thing I could think of to give us enough time to escape with a new coat. While jail would provide warmth and full bellies, it would also be a huge deterrent in my quest to find Lina.

That isn't something I am willing to risk.

The rear of the restaurant and the cover of darkness gives us the best hiding spot and we wait patiently for the trash to be taken out.

"Ya know how badass ya are, right?" She eyes me while sliding her arms through her new jacket.

I snicker, "Barbarity doesn't make you a badass, Arabella."

"Your opinion," she shrugs before slipping her pack back on and sliding down the brick wall she currently rests upon. She sighs heavily, "What are you going to do about a jacket?"

"I don't get cold."

"Everybody gets cold."

"Not me." Honestly, the cold doesn't seem to affect me one bit. I've not worn a coat once since I first woke up and while I thought it was strange then, saying it aloud makes it just down right fucking spooky now, all things considered.

"So, are ya like..." her eyes turn upwards, contemplating, "I don't know. A superhero or something?"

Or something.

I snort.

"If I was, would I be hanging around dumpsters hoping for a half eaten cheeseburger?"

"Hell no," she chortles. "You'd be hangin' 'round dumpsters hopin' for a half eaten steak."

My laugh brings about a mile wide grin from her dirty face and I remember exactly why I like this fucking kid. Regardless of the headache she causes me and the hassle she brings me, she is the only person in my life who resembles anything remotely close to family and I'm beyond thankful to have her by my side. And while I have no idea what the future may bring, I hope and pray that she is always there.

I can't imagine a world without this tiny, annoying, infuriating little flea.

Unfocused once more and unaware, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up too late.

One would think that damn bear trap would have taught me.

"Well, well, well," a deep voice calls from behind me, "What do we have here, boys?"

Like a magnet, the voice pulls my sights over my shoulder as men surround us, blocking off the only side of this building not fenced in...

Blocking our exit.

"Looks like we got here right in the nick of time, eh Joey?" A second man asks and I am now counting four.

Four against one.

Bad odds.

Worse luck.

Fate, you fucking cunt...

"You perving on this girl," the one they call Joey is closing in on me.

He peers around me, "You okay, little girl?" Joey smells of alcohol and buffalo chicken wings and my stomach growls, not the least bit as concerned with this situation as the rest of my body.

So much for "gut instinct."

Bug, ever so casual and oblivious of the shit pool we are now in, glares, "Fuck off."

I will not correct her this time.

They chuckle. "The pervert must like the feisty ones," a third male sneers, disgusted. There are specks of glitter covering his face and now I know exactly which establishment they ventured out of.

I am also disgusted at their implication.

I know this is what people think when they see us and I also knew it would only be a matter of time before it caught up with me. When I glance at Bug, I see the realization come about full force. Her eyes bulge and her mouth gapes and now she finally gets it. Now, she finally understands what she has never noticed before. Her little fists ball at her sides and even with her dark complexion, I can see the red hue that bursts through her cheeks.

She is mad.

"Ya best take that back right fuckin' now! That's my friend you're talking 'bout!"

"Shit, Joey, he got her all brainwashed!" The second male gawks. I'll refer to him as Number Two. He sways and staggers, trying hard to ignore the effects alcohol is clearly having on his body. His baseball cap hangs crooked on his head like the poser thugs in New York.

Joey, obviously the leader of the rag tag band of drunkards, juts his chin at me, "He touch you, girl? Make you touch him?"

"Fuck. Off.," Bug growls, her tiny body shaking with an overflow of adrenaline it cannot currently nor correctly process.

The scent of danger lingers in the air and my muscles tighten in response. My body is very much aware to be ready for what it recognizes is about to happen. The tension ebbs and flows between us, like the ocean to the shore...

Like waves against the rocky outcrops.

They are the waves.

I am the rock.

And they are about to pummel me.

"Get the girl," Joey instructs Number Three.

Three on one is better odds, but not by much and as they close in on me a frightened Bug stands frozen in terror, not sure what to do. "Run," I say to my much too innocent friend. I don't expect they'll hurt her per se, I just don't want her to witness what they're about to do to me.

The first punch hits my stomach as the second one impacts my face and suddenly I cannot count how many fists are flying at me. As one blow retreats, another instantly takes its place. My nerves fire sporadically. Similar to chickens with their heads cut off, they are confused on which way to go... Which spot to alert my brain that I should feel pain.

I catch Bug out of the corner of my eye. She is being hauled away on the shoulders of Three.

Her legs are flailing.

Her tiny fists are pounding his back.

She is screaming.

And I am falling.

The ground hits me with just as much force as the hands that are beating me. It's cold and somewhat soothing and I wonder exactly how long I can stay here.

How long before they beat me to death?

But this is not a place I want to be in this situation and I brace myself for the kicks that are sure to come.

I want to protect my core.

I want to protect my face.

I want to keep an eye on Bug, who is crying for me--pleading for me to be okay... Begging them to stop.

Searing pain shoots through my jaw first and I instantly know it's broken.

Sharp, stabbing aches come next from my ribs. They are shattered, the splinters poking my organs in the most discomforting of ways.

A foot to my back cracks my spine, my body jerking backwards on impact.

I am going to die.

Time seems to slow and everything moves in just such a motion. My focus goes in and out, legs and feet shadowing the bright lights from the station beside this restaurant, reminding me of the sun that streamed through the tree branches in the forest hours ago.

My body becomes numb, my nerves finally giving up trying to determine a direction.

But I still see Bug... Her face in pure, raw, unrestrained agony.

Her voice seems farther away now, if only because she looks as if she has resigned to the reality of my death.

She is defeated.

Exhausted.

And heartbroken.

It is that heartbreak that snaps something inside of me.

It's that face of anguish and grief that awakens a demonic, animalistic instinct that lay dormant before now. Self preservation kicks in and I allow it to consume me.

I snatch an ankle, snapping it instantly. Which numbered man that was, I don’t know.

I do not care.

The scream of pain releases a surge of epinephrine and pleasure within me and suddenly I very much desire to hear those sounds again.

Rolling on my back, I kick a foot up and connect with a slightly astonished face of Joey. He stumbles backwards and now his cronies have moved away as well.

Intuition tells them something bad is about to happen.

And that something is me.

The accelerated healing I experienced today does not fail me. I no longer feel the pain of my jaw or my splintered ribs or the discs that ruptured in my back.

Jumping to my feet, I give no mercy.

I grab Four first. He is still processing the implications of his extremely dire future. Whirling him around, I bend him backwards, his spine breaking under the pressure of my brute strength.

My nails extend.

Elongated, grotesque and sharp, they grow and lengthen into deadly weapons much to the dismay of Two-fer, who is on the ground, clutching his ankle.

I watch as his eyes dilate in surprise. His hands fly to his slashed throat and he gurgles and gulps feebly before falling on his side, dead. Blood seeps from his esophagus, the red liquid pooling around his head and slowly creeping outwards like lava down a mountainside.

Spinning to my left, only Joey remains and now he knows he fucked with the wrong person...

If a person is even what I could be referred to as at this point.

I pounce on him, ignoring his pathetic shrieks for help as I tear into his throat...

With my teeth.

Violently, my head shakes, my canines working their way through muscle and arteries impatiently. The blood flows, warm and thick, gushing out the sides of my mouth and down my chin. The smell of rust assaults my nose, iron splashes against my taste buds and I...

I like it.

But I will not dwell on that.

Number Three, still holding Bug, is running for his life as Joey falls eerily silent. Desperation causes Third Place to scream for help like a little girl.

Pussy.

Unfortunately for him, help will not get to him in time.

Because I am fast.

And abnormally so.

With a speed that's not even close to human, I reached him within milliseconds. I punch my fist through the left side of his back. Skin, muscle and blood engulf my hand. Without thinking, without pondering or exploring, it grasps the beating organ inside and rips it from his body. The suction of pulling myself free making a sickening squelching sound that brings about an disturbingly immense amount of glee.

I toss the wretched thing away from me wanting nothing more than to pretend I didn't just enjoy the gore as much as I did.

With bloody hands I catch Bug who is flung from the dead man's shoulder right before he falls face first to the ground.

Regretfully, I do not have time to access her emotional state as shouts from the distance warn me that a witch hunt is about to begin. Men from parked trucks and stationed pumps are running towards us and I have no choice but to go the opposite direction.

Multiple semis are stopped along the exit, their brake lights indicating they are waiting to pull onto the highway and while I really want to run to them, I know that I cannot avoid being seen and captured in that direction. Instead, I weave in and out of the lot, playing through an unintentional labyrinth of hell from which I may not return.

But Fate, ah Fate, the ever finicky bitch she is, graces me with some luck as a livestock trailer comes into view.

Throwing open the escape hatch, I toss Bug in before hopping inside myself and shutting the door. Unfortunately, the latch closes from the outside so I will have to hold the door to prevent it from flying open mid drive.

Bug scurries backwards to lean against the metal wall, her new jacket coated in damp scarlet smears.

Horses whinny and neigh, knowing damn full and well that a fox has entered their hen house. The trailer reeks of hay and manure and terrified animals but I pay it no mind.

When I am certain no one has seen or followed us, I turn to Bug. She has pulled her knees up to her chin and stares at the floor of the trailer.

Ripping my shirt off, I clean the blood from my face, "Are you okay?"

She doesn't acknowledge me--refuses to even glance in my direction and even though that stings a bit, I can't blame her.

Rummaging through my pack for the trendy, less bloody look, I am uncertain of how I would feel if I were her. I don't know how I would process seeing someone beast out in front of my eyes, better yet, someone I had known for some time.

Someone I thought I knew well.

I try again anyway, "Arabella?"

This time she maneuvers herself away from my badgering and my heart falls.

It doesn't matter that I saved us.

It doesn't matter that we escaped.

It doesn't matter that we lucked out with this hiding spot.

It just... doesn't matter.

And as the trailer begins to move, slowly tugging and sputtering forward to leave this truck stop far behind us, I can't help but wonder if I had indeed lost my only friend.

My single indiscretion is that I do not know who I am.

I do not know what I am.

And for that, maybe I do deserve punishment.

So much for the superhero theory.
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