HEARTBLOOD, CHAPTER 4: RESCUE

CHAPTER 4: RESCUE

His clean shaven, youthful face and nut brown hair, not yet showing grey, said he couldn’t be older than his early twenties. He was dressed in slate blue cargo pants held at the waist with a nylon belt, and a black t-shirt with a white fire department logo over the breast. The shirt had been slashed open, his breast opened, and his heart removed. He’d been laid at the entrance of the chamber on his back in an unnatural position, eyes staring out at an angle towards the limestone ceiling.

At some point in the night, Maddie had fallen asleep despite her fear. When she woke, the sunlight had returned, giving her full view of her chamber, and the corpse that had been left with her in the night. Starting her morning by looking into his dead eyes was like overloading a circuit in her brain. She didn’t freak out, or cry, or sit there in silent terror. Instead, Maddie seemed to feel very little, like all the sensory information she was receiving was being processed by a half-interested machine. It seemed she had run dry of feeling, and was left with only a blank emotional numbness.

The presence of the firefighter’s body answered two of Maddie’s questions. First, who had brought her to the cave. Second, whether the antlered creature had a taste for human. It seemed she was, after all, sitting in the larder of a man-eating monster from straight out of the pages of a mythology guide.

Immobilized in the cavern’s chamber, Maddie had little to do but get to know her new guest. Although the chest was torn open, and the heart and several other internal organs messily removed, otherwise the body was in pretty much good shape. Neither arms nor legs had been eaten, and the head was still intact. It seemed as though the body had been thrown in here to keep, presumably as a snack for later. That fact seemed to clarify Maddie’s circumstance: She was, like the corpse, some sort of meal for the monster, one that it had kept alive and extra fresh. In the back chamber of the cave located who knows where on the island, rescue would never come – at least, not in time. The dread felt more like an ache than the terror she had felt before, a deep anxiousness about what was to come.

She sat with the corpse for some time, occasionally taking a drink from the pool next to her, and pondering her circumstance and a new feeling: Hunger. It occurred to her that she hadn’t eaten since the lunch of the previous day, and even then she had eaten little. Exhaustion, thirst, and fear had monopolized her mind’s attention, and so hunger had been forgotten until now, when it had grown into a large, hollow pit in her stomach. Food was now her number one priority, but even it would have to wait until she could move.

Her leg had not improved since the previous night. It was still swollen and painful, immobilizing her. As Maddie looked at the body in front of her, an unwelcome thought began to gain ground in her mind. Maybe… Maybe rescue had come, after all. She shifted herself closer to the dead man, until his cold body was well within reach. Maddie steeled herself, pushing back revulsion against the taboo and trying to think of the corpse in the abstract. It’s just an inanimate object. It’s just meat, it’s not a person.

She reached out her hand slowly towards the torso of the corpse, swallowed hard, and dug her fingers into his right pocket. Her fingers felt into the fabric, their proximity to the corpse’s cold, dead skin threatening to unnerve her entirely. Soon, however, it was over; she had removed everything from the pocket. As she moved towards the next, she focused, steeling herself again, and this time found it easier. Maddie set to work at the task with forced diligence, as if she were working through a science lab at school, or sorting laundry. As she worked, the rising nausea she had felt receded, and the cold numbness from before returned to take her.

Once she was finished searching the body, she sat back and took inventory of her winnings. In his left waist pocket, she had found a wallet and a license marked with a little heart, which identified him as “Kevin Edward McNaughton” from Petersburg. His left cargo pocket had held a small medical kit, filled mostly with small bandaids, a worthless snakebite kit, and some wraps. From his right waist pocket, she had produced an orange-handled folding knife with a butterfly logo and a secondary hook-shaped blade. It had seemed almost miraculous when she hit pay dirt in his right cargo pocket: a folded orange object labeled “PADDED ALUMINUM SPLINT, 24-INCH” with directions for setting various limbs.

Forgetting the corpse in front of her for the first time that day, Maddie now had a real shot at getting out of the cave. First, she’d need to cut her jeans off of her legs. Surprised at how trivial that seemed now that she was the company of a corpse, and waiting to be monster food, she paused for just a second, and then got to work. She began by poking a hole in her jeans, near the top of her thigh with the emergency knife, taking care not to accidentally cut her leg through the tight fabric. Then, she folded the knife back up, and opened the cutting hook, using that to cut her jeans open down the length of her leg. When the hook passed over her lower leg, opening the denim, the pressure that the tight jeans had been applying released, and the pain renewed its assault on her, forcing her to stop. She managed to stay upright by hunching over to her left and covering her mouth with her arm, breathing into the limb and biting it until she regained her composure. The pain began to subside, and Maddie got her first look at the leg as she opened the pant leg the rest of the way. The leg was swollen, the skin mottled with purple and red, an intricate bruise pattern that ran around her calf and ankle. The leg hurt to the touch, but no bones protruded from the side, and she didn’t seem to have a new joint. “That’s good, I guess,” Maddie said out loud, the sound of her voice feeling strange after so much silence.

With her leg free, she turned to the orange splint, picking it up and reading the instructions printed on it. The directions listed a procedure for setting a broken leg or ankle – convenient, Maddie thought – which involved just folding the splint below her heel, like a stirrup, and then forming the sides into a curved shape, and then wrapping it with a cohesive wrap. “Simple enough,” she said in the strange voice. She folded the splint into shape, the result reminding her of a set of stylish single-piece tongs from their kitchen back in Ohio, but bright orange. Slipping it over her heel without moving her leg too much was a minor chore, but before long it was in place. She took the wraps, and bound her leg with them, hoping it was tight enough.

Her right pants leg was in tatters now, so Maddie thought about what to do with it. She could, she supposed, just leave them that way and head out of the cave to try to find the shore, or a rescue worker. She tried to imagine that for a second, running through the Alaskan woods with a flapping pant leg, on a splint. “Ugh, honestly, fuck these jeans anyway,” she said, rejecting the idea. She unbuttoned and unzipped her fly, cut the right pant the rest of the way open through the waistband, pulled off her left sneaker, and shimmied the jeans off her left leg without a problem.

Maddie found her eyes drifting to the corpse, again, regarding it with that same cold numbness from before. There is something else it has to offer you, the cold numbness said with a new voice in her mind. The monster had ripped open the firefighter’s chest, destroying his shirt in the process, but the body’s lower half was still intact. You need a pair of pants, the cold voice said, and his are perfectly good. It was as if some new Maddie, made of ice and silicon circuits, had taken shape in her brain and begun a dialogue with the old her inside her mind. I can’t take the pants off a dead man… It feels… Wrong. Any more wrong than stripping him of his possessions? You need them, and he doesn’t. It’s as simple as that. Maddie recoiled in discomfort, but then sucked air into her lungs and steeled herself. The cold voice had won. …That’s right. I need them, he doesn’t.

She found that moving was much easier and more pain-free with the splint on as she scooted over towards the corpse again, looking it over. Her hands went to his belt, a nylon, infinitely adjustable, clip-together affair, and removed it. At the fly of the dead man’s pants, she hesitated, suddenly realizing what she might see underneath. Maddie had never gotten far with boys, and the extent of her adult experiences had been a couple of comparatively innocent kisses. She took another deep breath, and hoped she wasn’t about to get her first glimpse of the other side with a corpse in a cave somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness.

Blessedly, Kevin had the previous morning chosen to wear a pair of tightly fitting spandex boxer briefs, and so Maddie was spared an impromptu bit of growing up. She once again tried to think of the corpse as just an object, not as something that had once been a human being, and as quickly as she could removed the slate colored cargo pants and set them aside.

For the first time that day, she allowed herself to relax a little. Having set her leg and doing the rest felt like making real progress towards escape, and Maddie found herself feeling a little self-satisfied, disgust over searching the corpse having fled from her. As she sat there, she let her mind wander a little. While handling the body, she had noticed two things that struck her as strange. The first was that the body’s head flopped around as if it had no support or connection with the body, the neck apparently snapped clean. Was that how Kevin had died? It would explain the second thing: The corpse was surprisingly free of blood. Something more like a coagulated ooze seeped from the chest cavity, but the sort of blood spray one might expect was absent from everywhere but the immediate area of the cavity. It seemed as though Kevin had perished bloodlessly, and his chest plundered only after death.

Maddie went back to the body to look for anything else she had missed, finding herself suddenly possessed by a morbid curiosity. Having stripped him of almost everything he had left, maybe she could return the favor and find out how exactly he had died. She reached out for the head, hoping to learn something about the man’s evidently snapped neck, and immediately noticed that the scalp under his hair was wet. When she pulled back her hand, and saw that it had returned with a patch of half-dried, half-congealing blood. The blood’s source became evident on closer inspection: Four deep punctures in the scalp, superimposed over the curved surface of the head in a rectangular pattern. Fang marks, from something with a very big jaw.

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