At six o’clock, her usual time, Laurie locked the house and began running. The evening was warm, though the sun had sunk and darkness was quickly diffusing around. It was November and nights began slightly earlier than usual.
She was going to run four kilometres around the estate, starting left on Elgeyo Road for about five hundred metres, a kilometre on Kilimani Road, two more on Kirichwa and Muringa Roads respectively before returning to Elgeyo for the last half kilometre. It was Sunday, the best day to run on Nairobi’s narrow roads; traffic was thin and there were few pedestrians to be bumped and dodged. She maintained a moderate speed, though she could run faster. Twice she had done it in less than thirty minutes, and Jowe had asked her if she was planning to compete in the Olympics, else she didn’t have to try to kill herself if she was running for leisure. She needed only to keep a steady pace, build stamina, he’d said. But steady pace meant that she would finish in about forty minutes. Not that it was too bad. She would have plenty of time to freshen up before he even showed up from Karen.
She ran. A small svelte girl, twenty-eight, five-four, brown hair, grey eyes, shapely, firm, fit as a fiddle. And she had great legs, her virtues, trimmed by dedicated exercise. Jowe had told her she had the best legs he’d ever seen, the finest in the world. “The best thing is that you know how to take care of yourself, and that in taking care of yourself, you take care of me. I do not know what’s better than that,” he’d said, enthusiastic, his voice booming.
She ran. She liked to think that she ran for him, that in running for him, she ran for herself. It was a good thought, lovely. It invigorated her.
Shadows pooled around her. Darkness gathered like a fabric. Vehicles now turned on their headlights. Pedestrians vanished one by one. Over her headphones, an overplayed collection of Mazzy Star played to the beat of her feet.
She was almost done with Kilimani Road, its intersection with Kirichwa Road coming up about ten or so metres ahead, when she ran into somebody. She bumped him hard and was thrown back in surprise and shock, her arms thrashing about uselessly, legs wobbling, body tilting. She was certainly going to hit the ground. But the man grabbed her arm, steadied her.
“Thanks,” she said, flushed, taking off the headphones, catching her breath, trying to smile at him. “And sorry I knocked you,” she added light-heartedly, although she felt that he should have been the one to apologize, and that she was really the one who had been knocked. He had been standing on her path. He must have seen her coming. She hadn’t seen him. It was as if he hadn’t been there at all. But he was too big to miss and it wasn’t yet too dark. Perhaps she had been too preoccupied.
His face was dispassionate, untouched by her smile and apology. He was still holding her arm and she gave it a small jerk to give him the signal that it was time to release it. She did not want to appear rude. However, he did not release it. She tried again. No.
She looked up at his impersonal face and tried to smile instead of screaming. She said, “You are gripping my arm, sir,” and chuckled uneasily. When he seemed not to have heard her, she said, “Is there a problem, sir?” Her words came out with a slight tremor, betraying the turmoil building inside her. She was beginning to feel that the situation was wrong. Perhaps she hadn’t bumped him by accident. Perhaps he had been waiting for her. The way he had just materialized out of nowhere like a spook. Where had he come from, anyway? Certainly he had not been there seconds before she collided with him.
“There is no problem, Laurie,” he said in a voice so deep it startled her.
He knows my name! she thought wildly. Terror flared up in her like a matchstick.
“How do you know my name?” she cried and twisted her arm.
“Is it a secret?” mocked he. “We all know your name, Lauren Sanders.”
And now Laurie fought to free herself. She yanked, twisted, and kicked with all her might, screaming “Let go! Let go of me! Let go of me! What do you want?”
But the man was gigantic. He was like the trolls from The Lord of the Rings: towering height and massive limbs, muscles jutting out like rocks, solid as a column. Laurie’s struggles did not even shake him; she was weightless in his grip; she was like an insect buzzing its wings to be freed from the hand of a human.
The section of the road was flanked by tall buildings on either side. Usually there were guards at the gates. But not today—not today of all days when Laurie needed them to be there the most! How wicked! She was suddenly struck by a chilling revelation that you were always alone; no matter how many people were on earth, you were always alone; when tragedy visited, when your death came, it always found you alone and unguarded. It wanted you, only you, and alone you’d go, as alone you had come.
The pedestrians had vanished as if swept onto another road; the vehicles had stopped passing, as if consciously avoiding Laurie’s trouble.
“Get in the car, Laurie,” the man directed.
Car? He wanted her in a car! He was kidnapping her! He was abducting her right here on open road between residential buildings! She screamed for help. She screamed with desperation and madness.
Needless to say, no help came. But even worse was that her kidnapper did not flinch at her screams. He let her scream all she wanted.
Then it occurred to her. There was no car. There were no cars anywhere on the road. What car had he mentioned, then? Maybe he didn’t mean to abduct her. Maybe he just wanted to see what she would do. Or maybe he had parked at a different place and was planning to drag her there. She would not let him. She would continue to fight all the way, and if she got the slightest chance, she would outrun him. She could run like the wind if situation called for it. He was too enormous to catch up with her even if she did not put in full speed. Besides, if he dragged her along and she kept fighting, somebody would happen by and see them. Surely the whole world couldn’t just disap . . .
And then there was a car. Right beside them was a car. A Mercedes Benz W222 S600, brand new, immaculately white and sleek, with tinted windows and . . .
And it wasn’t supposed to be there. It hadn’t been there. There was no way it could be real.
What was going on? While Laurie’s mind reeled from too many strange inputs and too many questions, while terror bored at her bones like a ravenous worm and her heart squeezed erratically like a broken pump, she was carried up like a child and tossed into the waiting car.
She was instantly assailed by the stink of rotting meat. She gasped it in—gulped it down, actually—and was unable to breathe again. It drew tears from her eyes and she yelped, shrieked, gagging, choking, feeling as if her throat had been cut, her lungs afire, her mind foggy, swirling; in her disorientation she did not see the three men inside the vehicle. She fought to get back out, kicking and wriggling her small body in the crack between the troll and the door. She almost made it; she was agile and crazed. The troll was either two slow or he had determined that she could not escape and thus relaxed. When he saw her scrambling out, he rushed to shut the door, but her legs were pressed against it and she pushed hard. It banged on his knees and he moved off a little. And—bless heaven!—her legs were out. On the ground! Now all she had left to do was pull her torso out of the car and take off like the wind. Run as if there was a nuclear shockwave after her.
But bad things happen to good people. And no objectives are ideally fulfilled. In the decisive split second when Laurie’s right hand was holding the door back from closing on her while the left pressed against the back of the driver’s seat for support, propelling her forwards, something bit her. Teeth!—she felt teeth!—a row of warm, sharp, hideous canines digging ferociously into her left arm. It stung like nothing else she had ever experienced, and she retracted her arm without really thinking about it. But the teeth held on, as tenacious as death. She turned around jerking her arm as if she intended for it to break off at the elbow, but, to her horror, it was the driver gripping her arm. He was gripping her arm with his hand.
Even as her mind battled to make sense of this craziness, the troll shoved her into the car. This time he followed immediately after her and shut the door. She became trapped between two men, one white-skinned, the other black. The troll was black and probably Kenyan. The driver was white as well, his passenger black. The car was all fine leather inside, and could have been opulent and luxurious at a different time, but it was ghastly now, charnel, reeking of the breath of death, a tomb. The stink was asphyxiating Laurie and she began to heave frantically with anti-peristaltic spasms. There wasn’t much to be disgorged from her stomach, though, being a “scant eater”—as Jowe liked to put it—and, instead, bile and acidic stuff washed up into her mouth and she spat it all down on the Mercedes floor without a tittle of care, thinking that there was no escape now no matter what she did, thinking “Screw your car and screw you all deranged depraved kidnappers!”—not that her captors would have cared if she had shouted her thoughts; they didn’t seem the kind to do that, else they would have cleared the stink from the car. They were strange creatures to inhabit such an atmosphere and force people into it; they were ghouls.
The driver, without looking at her, turned on the air conditioner. Fresh air rushed in, a welcome relief to her respiration, though in no way relieving her from her prison and imminent doom. The rest of the windows remained shut.
Quiet lingered for some minutes. It was tense. It was intense. Laurie felt what animals must feel when they are about to be slaughtered—absolute fear and helplessness. Those few minutes might as well have been years on end to her, whose mind now raced faster than the clock. Gradually, she became aware of the pain in her arm where she had been bitten. It was searing, itching. There were several tooth-prints on it. The regions around the depressions were darkening and the hue was spreading outwards. Like venom. She rubbed at them in vain. She was beginning to rot. She knew it. The stench in the car was as a result of victims who had decomposed like garbage while seated exactly where she was. These people fed on decomposed bodies. But how could anyone decompose when they weren’t dead, explode spontaneously with maggots, bloated and putrid, their flesh falling off their bones as they watched in flabbergasted horror? It was going to happen to her.
But the vehicle did not move. They did not speed off. Which disturbed Laurie greatly, because if she had been abducted, they would have been driving away like hell right now, not parked at the same spot where she had been found. Who were these people? What were they? Where had they come from? Why weren’t they frightened? She recalled how she had yelled her guts out yet the troll had done nothing about it at all, not even so much as “Shut up!” They didn’t seem to consider that anybody could have heard her screaming and might be coming to investigate. It was weird. And it chilled her further.
“Take time to get used to your situation, Laurie,” the driver told her casually, still not looking at her. He spoke as if he knew her quite well. What’s more, or worse, his voice was familiar. Another weird thing. She did not know any of these men. It was familiar in a rather distant way, though, stored somewhere unreachable but present; at the very sound of it, her memory conjured up images of TV, computers, DVDs, magazines, pictures hung on walls, and Nicole Kidman. Nicole Kidman? Laurie did not understand this association. It was absurd.
“Your tradition dictates that we introduce ourselves,” he went on calmly. “I am Than. And this is Thun.” He pointed at the man next to him. “Behind me is Thicke, like the singer,” he said of the troll. “And on your left is Thicko. We are brothers, all the four of us.”
Than, Thun, Thicke, and Thicko! Oh, yeah, I’ll be damned, Laurie mulled. I am damned, she amended. This couldn’t be happening.
“This is not happening!” she ejaculated. Her voice shook.
“It is, and it is happening to you,” replied the one called Thicko, but it might as well have been Than speaking. Their voices were exactly alike. It startled Laurie and she recoiled from him. Since entering the vehicle, she had not looked at their faces, scared as she was. She did now.
To her consternation, the man sitting to her left was Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise? Yes, it was him, the Hollywood actor, the way he had looked in that Kubric movie Eyes Wide Shut when the camera focused on his face at the point where Nicole Kidman was telling him how she had almost slept with the Navy man. Laurie had pinned the face on her bedroom wall. She had been thirteen. She was still a fan of Tom Cruise and she had watched him enough to recognize his voice. That was it, then; that was the association between these . . . but who were these kidnappers? Even more confounding was that the driver, Than, was a thorough lookalike of the Tom Cruise man. And Thun, the one on the front passenger seat, was a duplicate of Thicke, the troll. Doppelgangers.
It was like two men each split into two! And they all wore executive suits.
This is not real! Laurie cried, punching her knee with a fist and pinching her thigh. They are screwing with my mind! I am not here. I am dreaming. Wake up! Wake up, Laurie! Wake the fuck up, you dumb sleepyhead!
But no. It was real. As real as it gets.
“You are not real,” she moaned. “None of you is real!”
“And are you?” the driver derided, smiling. He seemed to be the spokesperson of the group. “As far as I am concerned, Laurie, you exist only in my mind. That makes you only as real as my mind is.”
“You are not Tom Cruise!” she moaned.
“I didn’t say I am,” he replied and shrieked a mocking laughter.
The car began to move. The feeling was that of floating.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Where everybody goes.”
It meant they were going to kill her. “You are going to kill me,” she voiced.
“Do people get killed or they kill themselves?” he jeered, and then met her eyes. She saw how his eyes travelled from her face down to her breasts and crotch. They tarried on her crotch and thighs, a hard, piercing gaze, before shifting to her legs. She had on tight shorts of light material and she imagined he could make out the protrusion of her vulva. She clamped her legs together.
“Nice shorts,” he said, and turned to steer the car. “Better legs, even,” added he with an aura of mystery.
“You are you going to rape me,” she concluded.
“Rape?” he wondered. “You can’t stand being raped by us, Laurie. You need your ass more than your legs, you know. Besides, we could rape hippopotamuses, if we wanted something to rape. If we raped you, Jowe would weep like a little girl and kill himself like the coward of the universe.”
“You do not know Jowe!” she defended spontaneously.
“If you love him that much, you should tell him to take his balls to the doctor. He may still have a chance.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He shrugged. “It smells all over him like a perfume.” He paused, looked at her again, went on: “But that’s not why you are here. You are here because of your legs.”
“Your legs, Laurie,” he said meaningfully. “We want them. They are ours . . .”
“Laurie. Laurie. Laurie!”
The sound was coming from too far away. Like a dying echo. The owner was invisible. She was being shaken. When she came to, she saw that she was shorter than usual. The ground was very, very close. Her legs . . .
She shot up like a missile . . . and bumped into someone. A man.
Again! Him! Them!
She pounced on him and pounded his face. Punching. Pinching. Slapping. Pushing. Clawing. She wanted to bite, thrash, crash.
“Hey!” he kept saying. “Hey! It’s me! Hey, stop that! Stop! What’s wrong with you?”
She did not stop. She was hysterical.
He finally managed to grab her hands and hold them behind her.
“Laurie, what is this? It’s me! Hey!”
She struggled for a few more seconds before she could see things as they were.
“Jowe?” said she, bewildered.
“Yes. It’s me, baby, and you’ve whacked my face like I am a devil. What’s wrong?”
She flung her arms around his neck and began to sob. “They cut off my legs. They cut off my legs, Jowe.”
“Who cut off your legs?”
“Four men in a Mercedes. I was kidnapped on the road. I went to run.”
He clasped her in a protective embrace, sighed. “Laurie, your legs are intact.”
It was then that she saw them, felt them. Her legs, strong legs. She must have wrapped them around him while pounding his face because that was where they were.
“But they cut them off!” she said and cried harder.
“They didn’t . . . whoever they were.”
“They wanted my legs.”
He took her into the house and sat her down. He then brought her water and sat with her as she drank. Afterwards, she laid her head on his lap and he dried her tears with his handkerchief.
“I was abducted,” she said when she’d calmed down considerably. He did not prompt her, so she went on narrating.
“Tom Cruise?” he interrupted her when she reached that part.
“Yes. And the other men were also like identical twins. But something was wrong with them. I think they didn’t actually look like that; they were faking those looks.”
“You think they had masks?”
“I don’t know. But they had Tom Cruise’s voice. They couldn’t fake that, could they? It was perfectly his voice. I know. And the other men did not have hair. They were neat to the scalp. I don’t know if there are such masks.”
Now Jowe knew all about Laurie’s teenage obsession with Tom Cruise. She was also a budding writer of weird fiction, constantly honing her skills. She was currently working on a book she intended to self-publish. A book about a man whose sexual orientation made him cut down trees. He cut them at every chance, felling them, or just hacking off their branches. The trees feared him but could not escape his insanity. In the end, they called on their tree-god to save them. The tree-god imprecated a malevolent curse upon him, and one day, when he went to the forest with his sparkling razor-sharp axe, he became a tree. Roots emerged from his toes and heels; shoots sprouted from his ears, eyes, nose, tongue, fingers; his arms became branches, even as more branches sprang from his ribs and spine. His legs fused into a trunk and his hair became several buds. Five years later, when he had grown and was enjoying being a tree, loving the sound of birds, the weight of their nests on his branches, the dewy scent of the morning, the song of the wind, the beauty and wealth of the sun, and the soothing light of the moon—just when these things delighted his senses the most and he bemoaned destroying so many trees in his previous life—he saw his son coming towards him with the same gleaming razor-sharp axe that had belonged to him.
Jowe, who read Laurie’s stories, called them mad and unworldly. He believed she had two personalities: Laurie, his girlfriend, and Laurie, the writer. The writer was wild and always out of her mind. When Laurie was writing, he left her alone, because it was a different Laurie. When he left today to inspect the construction of their new home in Karen, she had declined to go with him because she had wanted to finish a chapter of the book. He thought now that he might be dealing with the writer stuck in her quixotic world of people turning into trees and Tom Cruise materializing in Nairobi to kidnap young girls with the purpose of dismembering them. He was scared for her.
“Laurie, were you dreaming about Tom Cruise, or have you just been carried away by one of your stories? Did you even leave the house today?” he asked.
“You don’t believe me?” she shot and pulled from him, got up. “You don’t believe me! I was kidnapped, Jowe, and you don’t believe me? What if they had hurt me? What if they had cut off my legs and made me decompose spontaneously? Would you believe me, then? Is that what you want? You want evidence, huh? Well, then, in this case it’ll be me without legs, dead maybe, rotting! And you won’t know because they will have taken me too far away.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Jowe said in a peaceable tone. “I found you squatting at the door, abstracted almost to unconsciousness. You couldn’t hear me until I shook you, as if you were dreaming. How did you escape your kidnappers, if they indeed were there? How did you get back?”
“I don’t know,” she said, her tone lowered, wondering. She had completely no idea of how she had ended up squatting at her door. What had they done to her? She could not have been dreaming. She had gone running and she had been abducted.
She examined her shoes. They were coated with fresh dust.
“Look,” she said, pointing. “I went running.”
Jowe studied the shoes in silence. They were usually spic-and-span and he’d taunted her once that she kept the cleanest running shoes in the world. “What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Take me to a doctor. I want to be examined. I don’t know what else those men did to me. They may have injected me with drugs or poison to mess up my mind.”
“Okay,” he said. “To the hospital we go, baby.”
As they were leaving, she remembered part of the ordeal she hadn’t yet told. “They bit me,” she reported and hastened to show him her arm. The tooth-prints were visible. But the dark matter which had been emanating from them had vanished, diffused all over her body by now, maybe.
“Grown men just bit you?” Jowe puzzled. He looked lost and Laurie became distressed more for him than for herself.
“It was the driver. He bit me with his hand,” she explained.
“With his hand? How?”
“I think he had teeth in his hands, Jowe. He had a lot of teeth in his hands.”
At The Nairobi Hospital, it took a while to explain to the physician the events that had taken place. The Tom Cruise part was the worst. It rendered everything doubtful. But Laurie maintained the truth. She had a physical and a blood test; she was healthy, nevertheless.
“I was scared,” she told Jowe as they exited the building. “I was so scared.”
“You are fine, sweetie. You are fit.”
“How is your face?”
“No damages. None that can be felt, though I swear I didn’t know you could fight so mean,” he said facetiously and she chuckled.
“I’m sorry I punched you, and for shouting at you,” she said. “I wanted you to believe me. I couldn’t believe myself.”
“It’s okay. You had me worried out of my skull.”
They got into the car.
“I’ve been thinking,” Jowe continued. “Why don’t we buy you a treadmill so that you don’t have to run around the estate and get nightmares?”
“I like to run,” she said. “I like the flow of wind against my face and in my hair. I like to see buildings and people moving past me. I like the blacktop. I like to see distance. It is not the same on a treadmill.”
“You still need it,” insisted Jowe. “Just so that you have an option and in case someday you don’t feel wholly happy about taking on the blacktop.”
“Fine.” She buckled up. “And, Jowe, thank you for understanding.”
“If I fail to understand your needs, then of what good am I?” he said and she laughed delightedly.
“I love you, Jowe,” she said. “I think you are the best man in the world.”
“You think so?”
“I know . . . And, oh, they . . . Jowe, they said that if I love you that much, then I should tell you to take your testicles to the doctor—that you may still have a chance.”
Jowe, who had been about to start the car, froze. Laurie saw how his hand retracted from the ignition. “What?” asked he, his face distorted, shocked.
“They said I should . . .” Laurie began.
“No. How did they know?”
“Know what?” asked she, now agitated. “Know what, Jowe?”
“I’ve been feeling strange around my penis.”
“Strange how? Pain?”
“Maybe a little. Mostly that something isn’t right down there.”
“Cancer?” asked Laurie. She felt the jitters.
“I don’t know. But if it were in my testicles I’d know. There’d be lumps, some pain, an extra load, suchlike. I’d know by myself.”
“Well, we’re still at the hospital,” Laurie said, unbuckling. “We just go back and find out. Then we go to the cops. Those people know us. They have marked us, Jowe. They said it smells all over you like a perfume, that disease, whatever it is.”
“They smelled it on me?” Jowe wondered. He was lost again and Laurie felt a pang.
“Yes. It means that they have been close enough with you to smell it. Or have you told anybody about it?”
“If I was going to tell anybody, I’d tell you first,” he assured her. “But, Laurie, if they can smell it on me, how can they be human beings?”
Something crept up her spine at this discovery. The kidnappers were not humans. No wonder they had materialized out of nowhere. And they could rape hippopotamuses. What in this world can rape a hippopotamus?
The oncologist ruled out testicular cancer after examining Jowe. He advised them to return the following day for advanced tests. He said he was considering the possibility of prostate cancer, but they shouldn’t worry about it; it was “something for old people.” Jowe was thirty-three.
Four days thence, he was found with prostate cancer.
Those creatures are real and they know us more than we know ourselves, mused Laurie upon hearing this news. They are stalking us. They have us marked. They will come back.
They came back.
Laurie did not go out by herself for a long time. She waited for Jowe and they drove or walked. It was safe that way. The ghouls did not come when she was with him. At first she feared they would not care, that they might harm him as well, but after four weeks she established that for some reason his presence hindered their course. She, however, constantly caught herself searching her surrounding for them, she was especially alert and anxious when a white Mercedes drove by, and was excessively frightened if Jowe left her alone in public for longer than a few seconds. They were hand in hand majority of the time.
Life indoors was not regrettable, though; she was a writer, and writers know the value of silence in a locked room. She finished her book, The Curse of the Tree-God, rewrote it five more times and had it proofread, edited and reedited online. She was designing the cover.
In December, there was a story on TV about a man’s arm that had been found at a dumpsite. Just an arm, the owner unknown, unfound, most likely dead. It terrified Laurie because she knew the culprits were her abductors. Because she had successfully evaded them so far, they had vented their ire on a different person. Was that what they had wanted to do with her legs? Discard them at a dumpsite? So cruel! So unfeeling! How could you live knowing that your legs would one day be disposed of at dumpsite to be discovered by stray animals? And how would she run without her legs? It was an appalling prospect. The police were clueless. But around here they were almost always clueless, unless they had some poor thief to shoot in the back, then they became exceedingly excited and fierce. When Laurie and Jowe went to report her case, the cop in charge had laughed at them. “Tom Cruise? Alikuja hapa akakuteka nyara? Sasa hii ni uwazimu ama ujinga tu?” he’d scoffed in Kiswahili. (Tom Cruise? He came here and kidnapped you? Now is this madness or just stupidity?) He’d then burst out with gales of side-splitting laughter, doubling over, choking, teetering about like a sot. He had let them record a statement but no investigations were yet going on. Of course.
Nine weeks after Laurie had been kidnapped, in late January, a national event to raise money to save heart patients was organized by The Nairobi Hospital. It was called The Kenya Heart Run: Run for a Heart. Jowe registered Laurie and himself. Multitudes joined the race and, for once, Laurie was not afraid to run freely. She had missed that feeling of being on the road, of the tapping of her heels on the blacktop, of being caressed by the wind, of seeing distance. She didn’t care about the awards but she was certainly going to give the winners a run for their cash.
The race started well at eight o’clock. Laurie stayed within the crowd, Jowe beside her, cleverly gauging the runners for the one to take on. But they had scarcely covered two kilometres on Mombasa Road when everything went to hell. Traffic had been diverted for the purpose of the race. But there was this one car. One daring, presumptuous car. A white Mercedes Benz S600, brand new, spic-and-span. Nobody knew where it came from. The police officers spread along the road to provide security did not see it either. Suddenly, the runners at the front were dispersing and shouting and cursing. Some people were ululating. Laurie was at first blocked from seeing what was happening, being not so tall and jogging deep within the crowd. When she did see what they were cursing and giving way, it was too late. Too late.
Only one thought flared in her mind: Run!
She turned back and fled. She had a powerful, insane, furious conviction that the troll had got out and was on foot with her, making enormous strides, reaching for her, while the rest crept up behind her like a crocodile in their incongruous stinking Mercedes. She was tempted to glance back, yell, yell for help, but no! There was no time. It would slow her down. After all, she was being seen by the public. She sped, accelerating like a supernatural force, flying, leaping, her hair scattered in the wind, trailing.
But they had a car and no matter how fast she ran, they were always near, one or two feet behind, her heels almost knocking the bumper. She could feel the ground vibrating from the weight of the car. They were enjoying the chase, comfortable in the knowledge that she would soon be tired and they would just grab her and go with her. And cut off her legs.
At last, they did just that; the car swung to her right, closed in, and the troll extended one of his gigantic arms and grabbed her by the waist. He did this even as the Mercedes rolled on, his abnormally long fingers curling around her small middle as though she were a doll. He put her between him and Thicko as before, precluding escape.
She was breathless. She was maniacal.
To the observers, that car just vanished off the earth after taking Laurie. It vanished as unexpectedly as it had appeared. It simply sublimed. As though it had never been.
Jowe chased it in vain while shouting his girlfriend’s name like a madman. When the Mercedes disappeared, he felt something that could not be specifically described. It was a mixture of many unpleasant emotions, the foremost of which was despair. It was worse than death. He plunked down on the tarmac and could not speak or move by himself for more than an hour. Such was his loss.
Laurie looked back and saw Jowe running after them. Inspired, she started kicking and twisting, waving her arms and calling him, though her voice was weak. The ghouls did not attempt to stop her. In fact, the driver stopped the car, and she twirled around, wondering at this. She caught him smiling at her his sardonic smile.
He said, “Laurie, you just go on calling Jowe like that, but if he sees us, we will surely cut off his arms. We’ve spared him for too long for no great reason. If anybody sees us, we cut off something from them. We cut hard.”
Laurie stopped, collapsed, despair conquered her heart.
Things got dark thereafter, the road, everybody. Not a sound could be heard but the humdrum humming of the Mercedes’ interior. She had a feeling the car was floating through a vast expanse of bleakness.
“Where are you taking me?” she demanded.
“Where everybody goes,” she was told.
“And where is that?”
She considered this answer and decided to let it go.
“You killed that man?” she accused.
“The one whose arm was found at the dumpsite! You cut off his arm.”
“Oh, that one,” the driver said. “He saw us.”
“Do you just go around cutting off people’s limbs?”
“We have targets. Then there are the unlucky ones. Collateral damage, you might say.”
“What do you do with the limbs? What do you want with my legs?” she asked and was chilled by the prospect of the answer.
“We don’t know yet,” he said. “We might just dump them in a garbage pit somewhere. We’ll determine once we have them.”
“How can you dismember a person just to throw their legs away in a garbage pit?” she accused, her tone hysterical.
“It is a big deal to you, isn’t it?” jeered he. “To us, it is like a kid pulling off an insect’s legs or wings. The kid just throws them away. Have you ever wondered what an insect thinks of such an act? I’m sure you do now. But we have good news for you: we will eat yours.”
Good news! How callous!
“Don’t worry about how to get back to your house. We’ll take you there and you won’t know when or how. Just like last time. We let you go because we like our targets to get used to the idea of the inevitability that awaits them; none of them ever does, though.”
“You are nothing but a bunch of pathetic cannibals, then?” accused she.
“I don’t know if we are cannibals, Laurie. I don’t know what we are. We don’t know. We just are. Forever and ever, we are. At first there wasn’t; then there was. It is like an age-old rock abruptly becoming aware of itself, its existence, its environment; moving, breathing, feeding. What would it know about its life, itself, but those functions that it performs from connate impulses whose origins it cannot discover?
“But yes, we eat humans,” he continued after a pause. “We just look for the tastiest one and cut off their legs or arms. Animals sense us from afar and take off. Humans do not, and cannot, even when we are face to face with them and sniffing their cancer. Until we reveal our presence to them, by which time all escape is ruled out, they do not sense us. So much for your acclaimed intelligence. But the cancer is the worst. It smells repulsive. And most of you are sick with it or some other malignancy. It’s why we prefer your legs and arms. They do not carry diseases. Sometimes, however, the limbs are outwardly appealing but the flesh is too salty, tasteless, watery, fat, or too smooth and foamy in the mouth; we discard those. Not all humans are edible.”
He paused again, faced her, said, “And now . . .”
At this time, they gave up their disguises and became their true selves. They were old things, ancient things, with crinkled cracked faces and runnels of rotting leathery skins draped over their gaunt bodies; discoloured bloodless eyes, scanty, withering hair, and sparsely planted spearheads of grotesque teeth. They were neither black nor white; they all looked alike, suppurating, malformed, gruesome things. They were the cause of the stink in the car.
And they had teeth in the back of their arms.
Laurie . . . she died.
“I read that book, you know,” the driver was saying, his voice a low bubble as though it was full of oil, an awful sound. “The one you are writing: The Curse of the Tree-God,” he went on. “I like the axe in it. How it glints eerily in the moonlight, keen as a witch’s razor. Ah! I like that one. I brought one just like it. Look!”
And he produced an axe, a crazy-looking, hair-raising thing that belonged in Hell.
“Do writers need legs?” he asked cheerfully, thrilled. “I thought no. They need only their fingers, their heads, and their buttocks to put on the chair . . . maybe their thighs too to balance the laptop. We won’t touch those. But we need your legs, especially those calves, an athlete’s calves. Elegant. Ripe. Toothsome. They are ours.” He broke briefly, as if for effect, and then shouted, “Hold her!”
The two creatures on her sides grasped her slender arms and the one on the passenger seat stretched her legs in the space between the back and the front seats. The driver leaned forward, swung the axe, he swung hard, with fury and craze, brought it down. She heard it whistling against the air, slicing it, as it arced towards her, its unforgiving tongue thirsty for her bones . . .