Authors: Stant Litore
Tags: #Supernatural Thriller, #Fiction
Crucifix Girl sat with her legs drawn up before her on the bench, her arms hugging her knees. She seemed suddenly vulnerable. Maybe she felt some of that unease, too. Or maybe it was only that he hadn’t dropped the oars and attacked her, and she was feeling a bit absurd for her fears.
“Thanks,” she said.
“For helping me. I was looking for a boat, too. So I wouldn’t have to walk. And the dock, it just…” She shivered.
“It’s all right.”
“I would have died.”
He rowed for a moment in silence.
“I’m sorry I cut you.” Her voice was small.
Matt rested the left oar across his knee. Lifted his fingers to his throat. He’d forgotten that. The sting returned when he touched the skin. Brought his hand before his eyes, and in the reflected starlight he could see a little blood on his fingers.
“You should bandage that.”
Matt shook his head and picked up the oar. It wasn’t much blood; the cut must be very shallow. A shaving nick. “Happens all the time. Carry an ax, people mistake you for the killer.”
She smiled. A real smile.
Cold around his boot warned him. He glanced down and, with a shock, found that the bottom of the boat had filled with icy water.
She followed his gaze down, and her eyes widened with alarm. “Oh God.”
“I don’t believe this,” Matt muttered.
There was a half foot of water already in the boat. A leak in the bottom.
Matt heaved at the oars. He was more than halfway across the lake. He tried to pick up speed, shoot the boat toward their destination shore. “Bail,” he said.
“With what?” she shouted. “My hands?”
“Use my hat!” He took it off, flung it to her.
She caught it and snapped, “It’s porous!” She hissed through her teeth. “God. Don’t look.” Quickly she turned to the side so that she mostly had her back to him. Pulled her shirt off over her head. And—to Matt’s astonishment—her small hands reached around behind her and deftly unhooked her bra. A moment later her shirt was back over her head and she had turned toward him again, tugging the fabric down toward her waist, her bra, green, clasped in one hand. In the cold, he could see her nipples and the curve of her breasts against the shirt.
A distracting stir in his loins. It had been too long.
She saw him looking.
“Shut up.” Her face flushed.
It was an underwire bra, the cups firm, and she began bailing furiously with them. Matt drove the oars hard, a burn in his arms that he would pay for later. The rate at which the water in the boat was rising alarmed him. Bra cups and a hat: not enough.
“Damn it,” he growled. “We don’t have time for this.” Dropping the oars, he scrambled to Crucifix Girl’s bench at the stern and grabbed the cord on the motor. Yanked it, hard. Again. Gas probably had frozen. Hopefully not, or not much of it. Again. A splutter. Again. The motor growled, spat, then roared to life—yes!—and the boat bucked beneath him.
“Hold on!” he shouted over the roar, and cranked up the speed.
They shot out over the water like an elephant’s charge, like a crowd’s cheer at the stadium, like a scream. No mistaking their arrival. The trees on the shore came to meet them,
but they were sinking faster now. He saw lights flick on in some of the windows among the cedars, and he knew the killer could see him, too. He clenched his teeth. He’d died of the cold and airlessness once before; he didn’t plan on it a second time. He leaned over the tiller hard, as if by sheer will he might drive the boat quicker to shore.
The water nearest the shore was sheeted with ice. He’d planned to slow the boat and chop at it with the oar until the ice was too thick to break, then walk the last few yards in. Now there wasn’t time. Quickly, he ran over his options, then gripped the side of the boat. The water sloshing about his knees.
“Hold on,” he said. “Now.”
Crucifix Girl glanced at him, then at the shore. Her eyes widened. She sat back on her bench, the water flowing up about her thighs. Gripped the gunwale with both hands, her bra forgotten in the water.
“You’re crazy,” she cried. “You’re fucking crazy.”
His heart racing, he plunged his hand into the water in the boat, feeling it like needles of ice piercing his skin. Breathing in little gasps, he groped about by his feet until his fingers brushed the haft of his ax. Gripped it, brought it up out of the water. He did not want to lose that ax.
Then the ice was hurtling toward them. He leaned back, tipping the boat upward, water beginning to slosh in over the stern. Crucifix Girl let out a long, wailing scream. Then the boat hit the ice and the thin edge of it shattered, and as the ice thickened, the boat slid up onto it. The motor tore loose, sputtering out, the ice cracked and shivered under them, and then the boat stopped, stopped hard like a car, tipping a little, a screech of wood as the hull tore open.
Crucifix Girl was hurled from the boat, landing on her back on the ice. It held, but spider cracks spread out around her like one of those haloes in old cathedral frescoes.
His teeth jarred, Matt stepped carefully from the boat. The groaning of wood and the growl of ice all around him. He could feel it giving beneath his feet. Breathing, one gasp after the other. The ax clutched in one hand. He reached his other down to the girl. “Take it,” he whispered, his eyes wide. “Take my hand. Come on.”
Her eyes round with terror. She reached up, and the ice beneath her cracked sharply. Water welled up around her body and then she fell back into the darkness of it, her mouth opening to scream as the water rushed over her face.
With a cry, Matt dove, grabbed her wrist before it went beneath, gripped, pulled her up. He was on his knees, the ice cracking under him. His mind one scream of terror:
Oh God, oh God, oh God. This is it. The cold. The cold again. Oh God.
But he did not let go. He pulled, and her face came up out of the water, her eyes shut, her lips blue. Coughing the lake out of her mouth. Matt got his arm under hers and around her, pulling her to him, the strain in his arms, then the ice under him gave way and he felt the water like a great cold mouth closing on him, the pressure and the savage bite of it around his legs and waist. He swung the ax, extending his arm as far as he could, slamming the blade of it into the thicker ice nearer the shore. The water flooded around his chest. He held fiercely to that ax, though the cold was so keen he could not breathe. It took away his vision, the whole world white and sharp with pain. The girl coughing beside him, her teeth clacking together, only her head above the lake. Everywhere the groan of resisting ice. Holding that ax, holding that ax.
An hour before midnight
“Hold on to me,” Matt gasped. “Damn you, arms around my neck, and hold on. Don’t let go.”
He felt her arm around his neck. A tiny sound in her throat, part whimper and part rasp. Only seconds, maybe, before she blacked out. He had to trust her grip, had to hope. The freezing water cut through wool and skin and bone. Yet he could feel warmth—his body going warm—and that was bad. Very bad. Two or three yards of thicker ice, then the shore. He could see it: frozen grasses and the cedars tall and dark, and something darker behind them—a structure, probably. A house or a shed or a barn. Safety. Warmth.
With a roar raw in his throat, Matt let go of the girl and climbed up the haft of his ax, one hand, then the next, pulling himself up out of the water, until his belly was on trembling, shivering ice, and she, clinging to him, both of them with their legs in the lake. Even as the ice gave way beneath his chest, Matt wrenched the head of the ax free, swung it up, slammed its blade down against the heavier ice an arm’s length ahead. Praying under his breath in case God was awake and listening. The ax blade sank into the ice and cracks ran outward from the shock of it, but the cracks were thin, spidery, and few. Fighting against the warmth gathering in his chest, bringing sleep and death, Matt heaved the girl out of the water, threw her up onto the ice. She lay there, her eyes closed, her lips blue. Small shivers taking her. Matt clung to the ax a
moment, panting, then hauled himself up, hand over hand. He would not die in the cold. Not again. Whatever second death might await him, he wanted it to be a warm one.
He had his chest out of the water. Wheezing, his vision tunneled. He bit his lip, hard. Didn’t feel it. Bit the inside of his cheek. Felt that. Used it to keep himself awake. Hauled his hips out, then his legs. His teeth chattering and the crack of ice under him. He scurried over it, grabbing the girl’s collar quick and sliding her along with him, as the ice creaked and groaned under them. But then they were in the weeds, frozen weeds that snapped like twigs under his weight and the girl’s.
His hand locked numb around his ax, Matt peered through the frozen spaces between the trees. Thought he saw that structure again, barn or house. He stumbled up onto his feet. Half carried, half dragged the girl up the bank. His own body shaking. Snow started to fall, flakes heavy and thick, touching his face and his hands like kisses almost too soft to feel. His chest seemed too tight, his movements too sluggish. Hypothermia. He had to get them both indoors, out of their wet clothes—clothes already freezing and coating with ice, cracking slightly each time he moved. With a shout—in defiance of cold and snow and serial killers and Mr. Dark—a shout as though his voice might warm his insides in the absence of anything else, he charged up through the trees like a weather-maddened bull. Found that structure looming before him, a heavy door of wood so old it had no color other than age. He tried to stop, slid and slammed into the door. The girl silent in his arms. He lowered her clumsily until she was sitting propped up against the wall beside that door, snowflakes on her hair and caught on her lashes.
It took him two tries to slide it open. His hands and his whole body shaking.
Then he gazed into the musty dark. The dim silhouettes of stalls and the stink of old straw and the smell of horses told him where they were.
Old and unoccupied, yet clean. No holes in the roof; the place had been kept in good repair. Perhaps for nostalgia. Or perhaps a horse was housed here during the summer months. Matt bent and lifted the girl into his arms and carried her in. She was shaking against him as though her body were trying to shatter apart. He lay her quickly in a mound of old straw—perhaps a season old, as yet unrotten. Then rushed to the door, slid it shut, closing them within the dark. Not as cold in here. A high-pitched squeak and a flapping from the rafters—probably a bat waking. He ignored it, moved quickly along the walls, searching with his hands since his eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dark interior. His hands found hay, old bridles and hooks, a saddle hanging to the left of the door. Then a coat, a heavy winter coat with wool fleece inside. His breath came out in a rush of relief. He plucked it from its peg. It was heavy. Good.
He stripped the girl from her clothes, fumbling against the numbness of his hands. Then his own clothes. He lay beside her on the dry scratch of the straw and took her firmly in his arms, pressing himself to her back, naked. His teeth still clacking, his fingers numb, dangerously numb. He didn’t try to warm her hands and her feet—warming extremities first could cause shock. He’d known a few hard winters as a child, and he knew that. He drew the wool coat quickly over them both, then lay as still as he could, shaking with her, waiting for the air trapped with them under the coat to warm, waiting for their bodies to warm each other. The coat smelled of horse and tobacco. Though he didn’t smoke, the scent made him think of a pipe, the glow of fire from its bowl. It was a warm thought, and comforting. He began chafing
her sides, then her upper arms, with his hands, trying to warm her with friction. Said in her ear, “Wake up. Don’t sleep, don’t sleep.”
If only he had something warm for her to drink, but he doubted the owner of the stable had left a flask of whiskey hanging on the wall, and he didn’t dare throw off the coat to go look.
After a while, he felt warmer, felt her warmer against him, the coat heavy, holding them down, inviting them to be drowsy. He fought to stay awake. Felt for her pulse with his fingers. It was normal. Her heart was beating, pumping hot blood throughout her body. She still slept, but her breathing was even. He took one of her hands, ran his fingers over hers. They felt chilled, but not frozen. Another minute in the water might have killed them both. Or if there had been no coat. But they were alive. Both alive.
Her body was warm against his, and though he was drowsy, she felt good against him. Soft. Like being in that moment between sleep and waking, half in a good dream of a good woman and half out of it. He tried to think of how long it had been since he’d rested with a woman in his arms, or been so near another human being. However warm his heart beat, he was alone like any ghost: divided from other men by the evil he could see and they couldn’t, and by the hard blade of his ax, the things he had to do to save lives.
He held her very close. Her hair had a scent he couldn’t identify. But his mind was waking, too. Who was she? And what was her connection to Richard Oslo? And could he trust her?
Dark. Her words came back to him.
They all have a secret. Something dark inside them.
But then, everyone had secrets. He certainly did.
She stirred against him, and Matt was suddenly acutely aware of the softness of her body, no longer cold but warm, though she still shivered a little. And soft. So soft. Her breathing changed, and he knew she was awake. He just held her beneath the old coat, smelling horse and straw and her. For a while she was silent, her body just breathing, with his. Then she turned slightly in his arms, her lips soft on his throat.
Matt drew in a breath. It felt… good. She felt good. Smelled good.
she tried to cut my throat.
Her tongue was small and moist against his skin.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Matt murmured.
“Shut up, Samaritan,” she whispered. “Make us warm.” Her hips moved gently against his.