Blood, crimson and fresh, marked Alice’s trail.
The box cutter slipped, the retractable blade touched her palm a bare second–A three-inch long gash shined clean for a long heartbeat. Blood flowed a moment later. She hurried to the restroom, just two aisles away from where she stacked toys.
Alice watched her life rinse away in the pink water circling the drain. Using paper towels, she wrapped the cut. Palm bound tight, the woman continued off in search of a supervisor to take an accident report.
This late at night someone would be in the office so she headed for the back of the store. Not one of the co-workers she passed even looked up, the last two hours of each night were crunch time. Stopping outside the manager’s office, Alice steeled herself for the conversation. Three deep breaths, she echoed with knocks to the door a moment later.
“C’min.” Dale, the assistant manager, called in his clipped accent.
With her good hand Alice pushed the door open. Five minutes, and a lecture on safety later, she headed for the exit. A doctor’s visit would ruin the stores twenty-seven day streak of injury free night-shifts. Thirty days and they got a pizza party.
The cut barely even hurt, she told him she’d just go home. Her weekend would start a few hours early, and the crew would still get their pizza. She could rest at home, and if the cut hurt worse go to the hospital later. Maybe get stitches, but Alice could make do with a band-aid and some Tylenol for now.
Not a great day, but things could always get worse.
Alice bought an energy drink and a frozen pizza on her way out the door, a tiny smile lit her face. Video games were out of the question, but a few hours bingeing TV sounded nice. Her hand barely stung, just the odd twitch of pain as she stepped out of the stores light, and into the cold night air.
Morning, she corrected. It was past four so technically a new day had come to the small hamlet on Oregon’s coast. The woman smiled wider, showing her teeth to the shadows. Normally she got off work at eight, an hour at least after dawn, even on the darkest days. She rented a loft about five blocks from the SuperStore, not even worth driving most days. Tonight was one of the rare times she regretted leaving the car at home.
Few streetlights lit the main road, she’d forgotten the pure dark of cloudy nights in the rural town. Shadows and fog combined in a dark cover, broken only by the few orange triangles of street lamps. Pausing at the main road, she reconsidered just taking a cab.
Alice started on her way, pushing fear down to focus on the short walk home. Ten minutes of the poorly lit road, then she could drive to the hospital for stitches. She rushed along, passing the dirt lot next to her work, and crossing three side streets before she came to the worst of the walk.
An old house with a long yard covered in large plants and ancient trees. During the day the lot stood out as well-tended and happy. The night brought out a different side. Normally safe bushes tingled with movement, dark spaces between branches hid stalking eyes and bladed intent. Alice shivered at the line of shrubs, walking closer to the road.
Slight motion caught her eye and the world froze. One of the bushes shivered back at her. A tiny flap of branches she told herself didn’t happen. Until the plant twitched again, hard enough to shake the thin green leaves.
Transferring the grocery bag to her wounded hand, she reached into the blue and red purse over her shoulder, gripping the bottle of mace kept there.
A car whined in the distance, behind Alice. Lights flashed over the bush as the vehicle passed. A paw larger than her own hand sat on the edge of the sidewalk, the owner laying in silent wait.
Breathing heavy, Alice backed away. Stumbling, the girl almost tripped into the road. She’d never been afraid of dogs, but the giant behind the bushes sliced terror straight to the girl’s heart.
A hand grabbed her shoulder. Alice screamed, spinning around, and drawing her mace.
Dark hair and a grin that would have an orthodontist cringing stared back. She looked young, mid-teens at the oldest. The girl wore all dark brown, a hoodie over a long skirt. A strange feeling washed over Alice, as she glanced at the cloth. Some odd color, or fading pattern to the material she could almost see.
The girl’s shadowed eyes locked onto the canister in Alice’s hand, the dark orbs danced with humor. She raised her own hands in mock surrender. “Easy there, Alice, let’s not get crazy here.”
Alice’s mouth dropped. “How did you know my name?”
“It’s embroidered on your smock,” the other girl replied, rolling her eyes. “You just jumpy naturally?”
“You grabbed me,” Alice tossed back defensively.
“You almost walked into me… Is that your dog?” The dark haired girl’s head tilted to the side. “Black with… With bloody red eyes?”
Alice shook her head, a low growl reaching her ears. Her mind screamed to stare forward, she couldn’t stand to see death’s face. “It was hiding behind some bushes, I think.”
“Oh okay. We should go, slowly, away from him.” She nodded as she spoke. “Don’t run, he might think we’re scared, or some…”
A bark cut the night, the beast followed with a howl.
Both girls sprinted, Alice aimed for her work. But the other girl caught her hand, dragging her down a side street. Paws thumped behind them, nails scraping against sidewalk. They turned into a parking lot, cutting across a strip of lawn and past frost covered cars.
Alice’s breath started to give, a burning chest slowed her steps. The dark-haired girl steered her into an apartment complex and toward a rectangle of light. A door in the corner stood open, as if waiting to save them from the beast.
Salvation an arm’s breadth away Alice stumbled, screaming as her knees hit the hard stone. The dog seized her foot in massive wet jaws. Teeth ripped through her boot, all the way to the flesh. The beast shook her leg, dragging Alice backward into the night.
The dark-haired girl kept a hold of her hand, pulling and turning to scream curses at the shadowy monster. Pain rattled through Alice, the girl’s nails digging in deeper than the dog’s teeth. Alice kicked the best she could, tossing the grocery bag behind her.
Something connected, and with a thud both girls tumbled into the house. The door slammed shut behind them, bucking against the dog’s weight a second after.
Eyes closed tight against the pain, Alice panted into something soft. When she opened them, all was red, sweat and a deeper stink clouded her nose. The dark-haired girls sweatshirt pressed into her face.
Rolling off of her, Alice collapsed on her side. Breathing heavy and happy to be alive. She sighed, grateful to the agony singing through her. Even happy for the metallic smell that filled the small apartment. When her breath returned, she muttered, “We should call the cops. I think I need a doctor.”
“Alice, I can look at the wounds.” The other girl stood up, walking stiffly toward the kitchen.
A thump rang out, the dog hitting the door again. “I’m calling the cops. That thing has to be rabid or something. I need rabies shots.”
“I think you’ll do fine, Alice. He’s just doing his job, the beast isn’t sick.”
Alice sat up, shifting to her knees. In the dim light of the apartment, she could see the girl’s hair wasn’t just dark, but the rust red of dried blood. Like the clothes she wore, and the stained cutting board on the wooden table.
The apartment had white walls, and not a stick of furniture in the living room. A single table hunched in the kitchen, low and wicker. Opposite the odd table sat the fridge and stove. Two white counters stood next to the sink. Back to Alice, the dried blood girl set a large pot on the stove, cranking the heat to high.
“Is this your place?”
Humming quietly, the girl grabbed a bottle of green flakes, tipping the container into the pot. The scent of thyme combined with musty iron. “Of course, Alice. I’m Red Annis, by the way. Our names sounds nice together don’t they? More’s the pity.” She reached into a drawer, metal clanked as she rummaged around. Finally Annis drew a long knife with a dirty thin blade she cleaned on her jeans, flecks of dried blood stuck to the pants.
Another thump came from the door, followed by a long howl. Alice gulped, fumbling again for her mace.
“I wouldn’t do that, Alice. It’ll be better, faster, if I’m not mad at you. Easier, my dear girl, much easier.” Annis nodded with the words, a dead smile riding her smudged face.
Alice drew the canister and Annis recoiled. She slammed the red button down, nothing happened. For a moment she stared at the mace, before dropping the canister and turning. Screaming the blood stained girl rushed toward her. Alice fumbled for the door.
Annis slammed into her back. Lights flashed as her head connected with the wood. Pain consumed everything for a brief second, clearing when a punch connected with her back, sending a cold shock through her whole body.
Alice looked down, the tip of the blade poked through just below her ribs. The knife drew back, stinging as it disappeared. Another lower hit and more of the steel shined up at her.
She fell, grip still tight on the door handle. A turn and a thin crack of night appeared.
The dog hit the door before Annis could close it again. Fur brushed against Alice, paws trampling her legs. Annis screamed until something muffled her voice. A wet crack split the air and silence fell.
Alice inched forward, collapsing onto the icy cement, and curling against the wall. “Help!” she called, before simple darkness.
Todd got the call just before shift change. A single cry for help in the Stone Fowl apartment complex. He pulled his cruiser into the lot three minutes later, he’d been parked in the lot of the SuperStore down the road. Not much to do on a small town night shift.
Cold wind blew down the alley between two buildings, as he headed into the courtyard. A tremor shook his body, fear’s caress danced over him. Todd flicked on his flashlight, shining the yellow beam at each of the doors. Not single light shined from any of the dozen apartments.
A woman lay with her back to the wall at the corner apartment. Blood covered her side, forming a dark shine on the pale concrete.
The officer inched forward, instinct losing to duty. He shined the light on every shadow, keeping his pistol half-drawn. Crouching next to her, Todd touched her neck and found a light pulse. “Hang in there, kid.” He tapped his radio. “Hey, Sal, this is Todd. We need an ambulance to Stone Fowl pronto. There’ a girl bleeding here something terrible, might be a goner but she’s got a pulse.”
“Copy, requesting backup as well.”
The officer stood, pushing open the unlatched door next to the bleeding girl. Drawing his weapon he glanced inside. The dark front room was empty and the small kitchenette clear of even counters. Nothing but a few drops of blood on the carpet, and the aroma of thyme in the air.