Doc was in one of the empty boxcars that filled hold number five, threading the wrist-thick chains through some tie-downs in the interior of the container. ‘You get anything else out of her?’
‘No.’ He shoved a hand through his hair. It was as overgrown as his beard. ‘Hurry up.’
‘Sun’s not down for another thirty.’ Doc adjusted something for a second time. ‘You sure you’re cool with this? I mean, considering your history and all—’
‘Now.’ The idea of voluntarily putting himself in shackles seemed like madness until he considered the alternative. He would not have her death on his hands.
‘Cripes, she’s made a mess of you.’ Doc looked up. ‘Well, a bigger mess.’ Chains rattled and clanked with what sounded like safety. ‘All right, let’s go.’
Mal walked to the center of the hardware and lay down while Doc secured his ankles. The floor of the storage container reeked of chemicals and rust. Good. Maybe that would block out the perfume he was desperate to ignore.
‘You gave Fi my instructions?’ he asked.
The first shackle clunked into place. Darkness swirled through his brain, snapping at his sanity like a pack of wild dogs. He stared into the light beyond the container’s open door. Doc added the chain and padlock before answering.
‘Yeah, about that … ’
‘What?’ The air-temperature metal cooled against his skin. Always cold.
‘She said she’d get to it at her earliest convenience.’ Doc fastened the other shackle into place quicker than the first.
‘She said she had something to do and I should leave her alone.’ He shrugged. ‘Not like I can keep up with her when she’s slipping through walls anyway.’
Mal placed his wrist onto the next steel band. ‘Why couldn’t the soul destined to plague me for the rest of eternity have belonged to a little old man who just wanted to sit in an easy chair and nap?’
Doc shook his head as he clicked the padlock shut. ‘Women. They’re man’s downfall, that’s for sure. All those curves and attitude. No good can come of that.’
Images of Anna filled Mal’s head. Her scent swirled around him anew. A low growl vibrated out of his throat. Always hungry. He jerked against the shackles. Doc jumped away.
‘Seriously, bro, you give me the freakin’ creeps when you’re like this.’
‘Finish.’ A feral edge serrated the voice rumbling out of him. ‘Now.’
Doc closed the last shackle around Mal’s wrist and locked it. ‘I’m outta here. See you in the a.m.’ He backed out of the storage container and slammed the door. Always dark.
Mal listened as Doc ran a length of chain through the handle and secured it. His footsteps faded. He would lock the hold doors as well. Possibly sit guard outside.
Darkness cocooned him in isolation. He lay there trying to imagine a sky of stars above, trying to hold on to his sanity, but his mind’s eye twisted the blackness into difficult memories. As the beast inside roared with hunger, the walls around him became a stone pit slick with scum. The shackles bit into his skin, echoing the pain he’d endured all those years in that ruined dungeon. The boxcar disappeared, transformed into the place he’d been cursed. The hellhole that still tormented him in nightmares.
Foul air filled his mouth, coating his tongue like spoiled milk. Rats scuttled along the walls. Stay still. Let them come to you. Their bones crunched beneath his teeth, their gamey blood spilling down his throat, keeping him on the razor’s edge of existence.
He pulled against the shackles until they bit through flesh. Until they scraped bone. Until the bone cracked.
His bed of straw deteriorated into dust. His clothes to rags, then threads, then nothing. Day or night, May or December, one year or five, five years or fifteen, he couldn’t tell. Always hungry. Always cold. Always dark.
At first, he refused to call out for help. Then he tested the walls with a bellow that had the power to shatter glass. No one came. In the end, his voice left him, his tongue little more than leather, his throat a useless passage. The rats were gone, long consumed. His muscle thinned to strips of sinew barely holding his brittle bones together under withered skin.
Hallucinations plagued his atrophied brain. Memories of his human life flitted in and out like tortured butterflies. The moan of pleasure from his wife’s lips. His daughter’s laugh. The wild-flower scent of their chestnut curls. Their dying pleas. Their torn throats. Their blood. His past became a torturous mix of dreams and delusions. Had he done those things? He couldn’t remember. Couldn’t tell truth from lie. He wept dry tears over the chaos in his head.
It wasn’t until he heard her voice that he realized his sight was gone. So sweet, that voice. Sweeter still, the siren call of her beating heart. Blood. Hope stirred inside. He’d learned his lesson with the rats. Didn’t move until she was upon him, nudging his remains with her foot, no doubt thinking him the dungeon’s last victim.
How wrong she was.
He lunged with power borrowed against the promise of blood. She beat her small fists against him, breaking bones, tearing skin, shrieking, crying. He held fast. Sank his gumless fangs into her soft, pliant neck. Her backpack slipped from her shoulders. He drank deep her throbbing, pulsing life. Drank until he almost swallowed her death.
Her dead body fell limp and warm across his rejuvenating form. Pain flashed over his body but he ignored it. After so much hurt, what was a little more? He shoved her aside and pulled his scrawny wrists through the shackles before the flesh filled out. A pool of light spilled from somewhere, hurting his eyes. He felt for it. No fire greeted him. Not sun. A flashlight. Hers.