Continued from A Tourist Again, Pt. 19...
Elizabeth managed the first few steps, watching in the lamplight as the head of the man she assumed to be the leader was rapidly deconstructed. It was as his blood painted the glass of the lamp and cast the room in an appropriately murderous shade of red that she swiveled, dipping the barrel of the rifle to pepper his sleeping friends with bullets. All of this happened in the space of seconds as the butt of Dad’s rifle shook her shoulder like a jackhammer, quickly halting her forward momentum and nearly knocking her off her feet. She struggled for only a moment, watching as the two men who’d been temporarily spared scrambled into action.
Smoke curled from the muzzle of the rifle as Elizabeth shouldered it once more, drawing it in tighter to her shoulder as adrenaline drove her to finish the job. The other man who’d been talking quickly rolled away and began to paw around in the shadows as his formerly sleeping friend struggled to shake off the fog of sleep. Elizabeth wasn’t going to give them time to counter her. Training the rifle’s iron sights on the one feeling about in the shadows (Kenny? Mike?), she pulled back on the trigger and watched as the fabric of his clothing seemed to shred itself. Soon blooms of dark crimson seeped into the fabric and the man went still.
Lowering the barrel toward the last one, Elizabeth quickly closed the gap between them, traversing the concrete floor as her ears rang from the gunshots. The air was thick with the smell of gunpowder as the blood running off the lamp brightened the room to a rosy pink. She stopped and stood over the man, who sat gazing up at her with wide, incredulous eyes. Though he said nothing, his face spoke for him. Elizabeth found herself forcing back a smile as she drank in the man’s struggle to accept his fate; that he’d been ambushed by and would die at the hands of a teenage girl, one no different from countless others she was certain these men and the others like them had taken.
“Where are they?” she growled, speaking through clenched teeth.
The man said nothing.
Elizabeth lifted the rifle over the man's shoulder and fired a burst with the muzzle just beside his ear. He immediately lurched forward, cupping first one then both hands against the ear. Elizabeth didn’t give him long to wallow before crouching down and lifting the man’s head, leveraging the barrel against his forehead.
“Don’t think you’ll get pity from me because I’m a girl,” she said, immediately feeling foolish but sticking with the persona she’d adopted. In another time they might have called her Badass Beth.
The man didn’t seem to register what she’d said, though his eyes watched her lips. Even if she spared him he’d probably never hear out of that ear again. Not that it mattered, Elizabeth had no intention of leaving this man to search for a surviving ear specialist. “Where. Are. They?” She made sure to over-enunciate each word.
The man’s jaw quivered, lighting a fire in Elizabeth’s gut she’d never felt before. Perhaps it was the adrenaline, perhaps it was just that she was dispensing some overdue frontier justice, she wasn’t certain, but she knew she liked the feeling of power over the man. “Okay,” he said, wincing as if it hurt to speak. “They’re in the meat—”
The double doors thundered open, and Elizabeth swiveled on the balls of her feet to see the guard who’d been sent out moments earlier. With all the adrenaline still coursing through her, she reacted in an instant and pulled the trigger. The idiot in the doorway would have been better off with a stealthy entry, though Elizabeth wasn't complaining as she watched his body jerk against the force of the bullets before he fell back through the doors twitching.
But this was all her previous victim needed to spring into action, and as Elizabeth watched the doors thud against the ankles of the guard, arms locked around her chest and drew her backward into a tight embrace. For a moment it reminded her of when she was little and Dad would sit on the floor with her watching TV with his legs open in a V shape. He’d hold her against him just as this man was now, only the situation was decidedly different.
“Fucking bitch!” the man all but screamed into her ear. “Little fucking cunt! You'll suffer for this!” One of his hands unlocked and began to fumble for the rifle as Elizabeth squirmed and writhed. “Give it to me—let go!”
Panic inked its way through the feelings of empowerment she’d enjoyed moments earlier. Clutching the rifle to her chest, she was able to keep the man from snatching it away and would be able to do so as long as she had use of both hands. He seemed to realize this and returned the hand to his struggle to keep her pinned. With mounting horror, Elizabeth felt his forearms press against her throat and tighten.
“Enjoy your little nap because when you wake up I’m going to have a little party waiting for you,” the man whispered, voice full of the insufferable complacence that comes with a man not subject to the law.
Elizabeth found suddenly that she couldn’t breathe. Worse, her head quickly turned all swimmy as the blood-flow to her brain was cut off. So this would be her fate after all. At least she’d taken five others with her.
No. She couldn’t give up, not now, not ever. And as the image of Ogunquit’s coastline came to dominate her vision, she began to bash her head against the man’s face behind her. It hurt bad, like head-butting stone, but she kept going, encouraged by the pain. Again and again she hit him, feeling something crunch like dry cornflakes and realizing it was the man’s nose. A wet warmth seeped through her hair as the man’s arms first tightened determinedly then quickly relaxed. He began to cough and flinch away as best he could behind her. After trying a couple new angles, she eventually made contact with his face again, and again, and again until all at once the man’s arms slipped over her shoulders and he collapsed behind her.
She spent the first minute or so hunched forward coughing. It wasn’t until the fit subsided and the room seemed to gather more light that she realized her hands were still white-knuckled on the rifle. Turning to peer over her shoulder, she took in the bloodied pulp that was her former captor’s face before scooting away and taking it all in.
Seven bodies, one of them with a chest still rising and falling slowly in the lamplight. She lifted the rifle to her shoulder without a moment’s hesitation and put a single bullet in the still-breathing man’s chest before laying it across her legs and gazing at the justice she’d dispensed. Seven souls sent to whatever Hell awaited them… by a teenage girl.
It was as her adrenaline dissolved that she broke down crying.
- - -
They’re in the meat had been all the man could tell her before his buddy burst through the doors. Fortunately it was enough for Elizabeth to glean her friend’s location in the butcher section’s meat cooler. Emerging from the warehouse with the burning lamp in-hand, she wiped the last of her tears from her eyes and promised herself it would all be worth it when she got Andersen back. The various phases of trauma they’d encountered both alone and together weren’t exactly conducive to the fragile and often drastically changing teenage mood. This wasn’t lost on Elizabeth as a quiet voice chided her for being so fickle.
With no need to keep things quiet any longer, she walked down the back corridor of the store, passing the emptied meat cases until she reached the curved glass of the butcher window. Passing behind the emptied display case, she walked through the utilitarian prep area where the floors and stainless steel metal tables complete with troughs and drains for collecting blood remained in a pre-Christmas state of immaculate cleanliness. That is with the exception of one table still littered with the gory leavings of what she told herself was an animal from the woods.
Her gaze fell upon the dented, reflective steel door of a walk-in cooler, latched and locked with a pin on a chain. Rushing forward, she stripped the pin from its housing and hauled the door open, immediately retching against the funk of old decay spiced with that onion reek of the water. Stepping into the doorway with her lantern held out, four sets of eyes peered up at her. The prisoners were all men and all were bound at the wrists with their hands behind their backs. Each had a rusted bucket beside him filled with what Elizabeth quickly realized was the water. Were these cruel fucks forcing their prisoners to kill themselves by… drinking the water? At least they’d been decent enough to clear out whatever carcasses had left the stench. She could only imagine what the smell had been like before.
She lowered the lantern to the floor as her gaze sharpened upon Andersen, his face swollen and purple in various places. He sat in a small pool of tacky blood that she hoped wasn’t his. Elizabeth didn’t so much as rush over to him, as even in this moment she couldn’t help her mind warding her against sappy reunions, but she certainly moved with a purpose. As soon as her silhouette cleared the glare from the lamp Andersen’s face lit up with understanding. He made it to his feet just as Elizabeth took him in her arms.
“My god, I’m so sorry,” Andersen sobbed, nuzzling into her shoulders. She could feel every bone in his emaciated body shift as he shuddered in her arms and gripped her tighter. “I didn’t think you’d try to come for me. I thought for sure you’d move on to—”
“Can we maybe get some help over here?” A voice asked.
Her typical agitation returning all at once, Elizabeth angled her head toward the three boys who sat at the opposite end of the meat cooler gazing up at her with equally bruised and bloodied faces. One of them had his nose broken so seriously that it looked like a mesa flattop perched above a split lip. Another sat staring off at nothing, trembling as he rocked back and forth clutching a foot that looked to have been snapped clean at the ankle and left to dangle on loose flesh. The last of them, clearly the one who had spoken, gazed up at her through untamed locks of chin-length hair. He looked like one of the stoner kids from school. Same age, same look. She had no doubt this was the one who’d been driving the muscle car.
“Same team, right?” the boy asked, offering a smile that made her flesh crawl.
“Don’t help them,” Andersen whispered meekly. “They’re cannibals.”
It felt as though a shadow was cast over her soul as she processed Andersen’s words. She wasn’t about to ask how he knew, there would be time for that on the road, but she absolutely believed him. The pothead leader of the three continued to smile up at her deceptively, though now she could see the hunger behind his eyes, and it wasn’t just for the scant meat on her bones.
“Let’s get out of here,” she whispered. She started Andersen toward the door and felt her stomach sink as he came along with a hard limp. Like the kind of limp you see in someone just before crutches are needed. Or worse, a cast. “What did those men do to you?” she asked.
“Not them,” Andersen whispered, sounding entirely defeated. He angled his head back toward the three kids, the leader of which was now scooting frantically after them, dragging his ass through the filth that coated the floor. “Not the ones who took me at the circle.” They paused just outside the door, turning around together as Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed hatefully upon the approaching kid. She eased Andersen to the floor and hastily leveled the rifle at their pursuer, who halted just at the lip of the doorway.
“What did you do to him?” she asked, peering over his shoulder at the others. They remained where they were, gazing into some unseen void, unable to move.
That smile crept back across the kid’s face for a moment before he seemed to banish it away with great effort. Her first thought was sadist.
“We’re trying to survive just like everyone else out there.” The kid’s face was expressionless as he succeeded in forcing the smile away. Upon this blank canvass Elizabeth read certain remorse but also the will to repeat his offenses and injustices. It was all she could do to keep herself from stomping in place in fury. Instead she took a few heavy steps toward him with the muzzle of the rifle held out like a microphone for this idiot to continue speaking into. She was surprised when he didn’t flinch away.
“My friend says you’re a cannibal.” She chanced a quick glance to Andersen who seemed to have recovered enough nerve to at least stare the pothead type down.
The corners of the boy’s lips lifted just enough to show a sliver of that terrible smile, and that was enough for Elizabeth. Taking the walk-in door with her free hand, she heaved it closed only to see it stick just shy of clicking shut. Suddenly Andersen’s booted heel was kicking the dented metal of the door. His effort was at first a weak one, but it grew in intensity as a scream built itself in him and escaped into the small space. He didn't seem capable of stopping or slowing as the fire in his eyes advertised some trauma she wasn't yet privy to but knew was bad. Really bad. Behind the door, the leader of the cannibals could be heard shrieking until at last the door clicked shut.
In this moment Elizabeth’s gaze was snagged by four cylindrical objects that had apparently dislodged from the door and fallen to the floor. As she moved in for a better look, she wasn't surprised to see that they were fingers caked in grime. Behind the door the howling of the cannibal leader fell on unsympathetic ears.
Rotating back to Andersen, she found him keeled over and sobbing, back to her.