Okay I did something dumb.
And before you get all eye-rolly you gotta admit you saw this coming, right? Like you knew I had to do it.
Yesterday when the boys were getting all prepped to go meet this thing at the restaurant — and it was kind of a process, they had to like put on welders gloves — I put on a cute little outfit and bussed my ass to the Italian restaurant. I left them a note on the outside of the motel door to make sure they would know what I was doing.
Yeah, look I’m a fucking moron okay, no one gets that more than me. For fucks sake, this thing could be killed with the bleach under the sink at the motel room and I didn’t grab it. So, yeah I’m an idiot.
I got to the restaurant a bit early, but he was already there. A shiver ran up my spine.
“Hi there,” he said, smiling when I came to the table. He was wearing the same thing he was wearing the day before. “You’re early, I love that.”
“So are you,” I replied, but I didn’t love it. My skin was crawling. He made no move to touch me, for which I was grateful, despite knowing that it was only because he didn’t want to kill me yet.
“Would you like a glass of wine?” he asked.
“Oh, no, that’s alright,” I said, because I know better than to get drunk with a monster that’s trying to kill me. “I uhhhhhh don’t drink.”
“Oh really? Why not?”
The rudest fucking question. No one wants to say, well, I’m an alcoholic on the first date buddy. Why not just accept no for an answer???
“My dad was an alcoholic,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “I’m glad you’re not going down that same road.” The fuck? Fucking sludge, man. “You look beautiful.”
It was a pretty cute little restaurant. Candle-lit. The waiter came to the table and asked if we’d like anything and then brought bread with oil and vinegar.
Now THAT I thought I would help myself to hahaha.
I started with olive oil and then began to add balsamic vinegar and Branden the Sludge reached out and took the vinegar out of my hands.
“Sorry,” he said. “I hate vinegar.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well here, we can get another plate.” I began to flag down the waiter but Branden the sludge said,
“No, I can’t even stand the smell. Can you just not?”
It was so startling to have orders barked at me that I found myself following them. I stopped looking for the waiter.
“Why don’t you tell me about yourself?” Branden the Sludge said and I realized damn, you know if a liver eating monster had asked me that question yesterday I wouldn’t have known how to answer, but it turns out practice really does make perfect. You don’t have to be nervous about dating friends! All you have to do it set up like 30 Tinder dates in a row, probe them for the information you need and then brutally get rid of them! You’ll never feel tongue tied again.
“I’m an art major at
REDACTED LOCAL SCHOOL,” I told him.
“Art, huh,” he said. “Are you any good?”
What kind of a fucked up question ….
“I’m always learning,” I said. “Right now I’m focusing on developing my eye, you know? It’s hard to know what kind of art you want to make if you don’t know what your taste is.”
Bullshit. I’m a bullshit master. If Branden the Sludge hadn’t wanted to be eating my liver, he would have been eating from the palm of my hand.
The fucked up thing is that the whole meal went… well. It turns out that all the desperate compartmentalization I’ve been doing to try to keep my panic and anxiety under control came in super useful. Like I was never going to forget that Branden the Sludge was trying to drain my body of fluids and devour my liver, but that doesn’t have to stop me from having a nice dinner hahahaha.
The only hitch in the meal was that at one point I brought my phone out of my pocket and left it on the table. Rookie move. I might not have even noticed except that Branden the Sludge reached across the table on the pretense of pulling lint off my sleeve, and I jerked away from him and in the kuffufle he managed to knock my phone on the floor. It split open and the battery went flying out and Branden LURCHED to go grab it for me.
“So sorry!” he said. He put the battery back into my phone and put it together for me and said, “you should put this away, rude,” with like a joke in his voice and I wanted to stab a knife through his eye like damn what a dick. But I DID put it away, without looking at it like an IDIOT. HOW did I fall for that?
By the time we were scraping out our little cups of gelato and he was asking whether I’d like to go somewhere else I was feeling totally confident. “Yeah, that would be nice,” I said. “Where do you want to go?”
He smiled and said, “You’ll see.”
I felt a flash of satisfaction, knowing that he thought he’d be eating my liver in twenty minutes while I knew that in twenty minutes a Hawthorne would be scooping his goopy, sludgie ass him into a bucket.
That’s how naive I was. I genuinely thought for some reason that Branden the Sludge and I were both going to survive this encounter.
I got up and started for the front door to where I assumed the Hawthornes were waiting for us and Branden said, “not that way.”
“Through the kitchen,” he said. “I’m parked in the back.”
My heart stuttered. “I don’t think we’re supposed to —”
“Come on,” he said.
“Um, I have to pee,” I said.
“Right now?” he asked. “You can’t wait?”
I insisted. But when I got into the bathroom my phone was still off and wouldn’t turn on. When I opened the phone up the battery was had spilled its guts all over the insides of the phone. The panic started to pitter patter its cold little fingers up my throat.
There was no bathroom cleaner in there, not even air freshener.
Why didn’t I just bail, you ask? The only answer I have is that bathroom window was high and narrow to get out. That and — and I’m not proud of this really, because they would be horrified — but the boys hadn’t comes barging into this restaurant guns blazing. They were letting me give this a shot, and they never trust me to try things on my own, so I didn’t want to fail them.
I’m an idiot.
I locked eyes with myself in the mirror over the sink. I decided I was going to just make a fucking break for the front doors, and he would follow and the Hawthornes would handle it from there.
But when I left the bathroom Branden the Sludge was standing right there between me and the front door. When I started to walk he moved to block me. Not obviously, but affectively. Remember, one touch and he could bust open my arteries and I’d die. I stared at him. He smiled.
“Ready to go?” he said. When I hesitated, trying to see past him out the dark windows, he added, “Trust me, you’ll love this.”
So I took a deep breath, and I let myself be corralled. On my way past a table I grabbed their slender little bottle of balsamic vinegar and slid it into my sleeve.
“Get ready to run,” he said at the kitchen door.
“What?” I said, but he was already pushing it open and we ran through, startling the kitchen staff. I banged past a woman peeling potatoes, and in the chaos of noise I managed to close my hand around a paring knife.
I admit that if I’d been on an actual date, running through the kitchen might have given me the starry eyed feeling of antagonism and adrenaline he was obviously aiming for. As it was, I was just glad we were already running because it gave me the momentum to just keep going. For a minute I thought I was golden, home free, but listen, ya girl has been sitting in the back of a car for many months at this point. I’m not in shape. Branden the Sludge caught me by the collar of my leather jacket. I almost just squirmed out of it and kept going, but my knife and vinegar were in the sleeve.
“You’re going the wrong way,” he said. “Come on, cars this way.”
I was really struggling not to cry at that point. There was nothing I could do. I just followed.
When it came time to get into his car I felt the doom close in around me, but he had opened my door for me and was waiting to close it like a fucking gentleman, so I just got in. His car smelled like air freshener was covering some other, worse smell. The windows were tinted so dark I felt like he was closing me into a cave.
“Where are we going?” I said.
“You’ll see,” he replied.
As subtly as I could I tested the door handle, but it was locked. There was no getting out. I took a deep breath and let the panic settle over me, ice cold.
“Listen, whatever it is,” I said. “Let’s skip it. Let’s just get a motel room.”
“What?” he said.
“Don’t you want to?”
He hesitated, seemed to be thinking it over. “Fuck yeah.”
“Take a left,” I said, and he did it.
I guided him right back to the motel room. If the girl at the desk recognized me, she made no sign. I requested the room right next to ours and when Branden the Sludge made an inquiring face I said, “it’s my lucky number.” Why 18 would be someone’s lucky number I don’t know but he seemed to accept it.
He was so smug strutting up to that motel room. He handed me the key, waited while I unlocked it, loomed behind me so there was nowhere for me to go. I took a deep, deep breath and walked in.
It was so awkward. “Look, I’ve never gotten a motel room with a guy before,” I said and he smiled.
“A good place to start is taking off your coat,” he said and I realized that I’d finally gotten to the point where I couldn’t stall anymore. I was either about to die or I was about to do something.
I wriggled inside my sleeve, trying to get a better grip on the knife and the vinegar. I didn’t even know if the vinegar would do anything, I just hoped it would.
“Nervous?” he said. I didn’t say anything. “That’s okay,” he went on, no response necessary. “I’ll help you.”
And he reached to help me out of my jacket. And listen, my rabbit instincts just fuckin kicked in, I straight up threw the vinegar at him. Like the bottle of it. I didn’t have a good enough grip on it to spray any on him so just the bottle hit him in the face.
“What the fuck,” he said and for a surreal moment I thought maybe I was wrong, maybe this was just a date, maybe I’d just thrown a bottle of balsamic vinegar at a normal guy’s face and I started to laugh.
But then I saw he’d been splashed with just a little bit of darkness on his neck, and under the vinegar his skin was sizzling viciously.
“Did you grab vinegar from the restaurant?” he said. “You minx.” He laughed. “I knew you were on to me! What are you, a hunter?”
“No,” I said. “Well, yeah. We just want to help.
He struggled to hide his amusement. “To help?”
“You have to stop hurting people.”
He made an expression that seemed genuinely sympathetic. “Sweetie,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re hoping will happen here, and I really did enjoy your company tonight. But I’m hungry. Have you ever been hungry? Really hungry?” He leaned towards me.
“I brought backup,” I blurted.
He rolled his eyes. “Where are they then?”
I didn’t answer because of course I didn’t know where the Hawthornes were.
He wiped his face. “God this stuff stings,” he said, flicking the vinegar off his fingers. “But I eat nuclear waste, and battery acid, you think vinegar is going to do any serious damage?”
The fear tears were coming on. He liked that, I could tell by his smug expression.
“Come here,” he said. He reached for me and I stumbled away from him, tripped back onto the mattress, and as he came closer I rolled onto the floor. He sighed. “Okay fine, I’ll come to you.”
He knelt and leaned toward me so I kicked him as hard as I could, but he barely seemed to notice. He reached and his hand closed around my ankle and I felt the most horrible, light-headed pulling sensation. I must have screamed — my throat is raw.
“Hurts, doesn’t it,” he said. “It’ll be much worse when I get a real artery. But then it’ll be over.”
I wrenched my leg away from him, bunched up like an upside down frog and donkey kicked him as hard as I could in the face with both my feet, and as he recoiled I got the knife out of my sleeve, and slashed frantically. Dark, gelatinous gunk splattered all over me, and I felt that pulling sensation in different directions. My head spun.
He laughed. “Not in your best interest to splatter my guts all over you,” he said, but the cut in his face was deep, his lip curling in half in the wrong direction, his eyelid split, eye streaming. He wasn’t bleeding exactly, but that dark slime was drooling out of him, beading and falling on the dirty carpet all around us.
I rolled sideways and he scrabbled to pin me but I wriggled and my leather jacket was almost thick enough to keep him from pulling at my blood. Best $800 I ever spent.
I was lurching and desperate and my hand found the little bottle of vinegar just as he managed to get a good grasp on my legs and haul me over. I tugged the pour top off as I twisted and splashed the vinegar towards his face as best I could.
He recoiled, howling, clutching at his ruined face and I ran, legs protesting, to the bathroom, slammed the door shut and locked it.
I didn’t look at myself I was too scared to see what he’d done to me. Instead I went through the cabinets under the sink, and there, to my relief — toilet cleaner.
“Oh Shiloh,” the Sludge called through the door. “You think a locked door is gonna keep me out?”
I didn’t, of course I didn’t, I’d have to face him in a second. The toilet cleaner was only half full. I screwed off the top. My hands were shaking and I had to keep blinking to keep my vision straight. That internal bleeding is a bitch.
I expected him to knock on the door, to kick it down so I sat on the toilet and braced it with my feet.
He didn’t bang on the door. Instead, for a long moment there was quiet, so long I began to think something had gone wrong, that it was somehow over.
But then, to my horror, I saw the darkness beginning to pool under the door. At first I didn’t understand, I just stared at it. But then, as I watched, the darkness began to take shape and in only a moment Branden was standing there in front of me, naked but not quite human, pale and strangely boneless, his skin crawling and rippling as if boiling.
“I do love a good fight,” he said, muffled and phlegmy. “But I’m afraid we’re near the end now.” He reached for me and I splashed the toilet cleaner in his face. It hit right dead on and a horrible howl went up, a scream that came not out of his mouth but from his whole body. He sizzled and smoked and the smell of burning chemicals filled the bathroom. His form released all at once and collapsed onto the bathroom floor, so I lunged for the door, tumbled out into the motel room, dragging the door shut behind me, tugged the blanket off the motel bed and stuffed it under the door jamb.
The whole encounter took maybe 3 minutes. The shrieking fizzled out in the bathroom after maybe twenty seconds more.
I don’t remember how long I sat on the motel floor. Eventually I realized bits of slime were still all around me and I crawled over the bed and sat on the floor against the wall, hugging my knees. At some point in the struggle we’d knocked over the room lamp and it was casting jagged light across the floor.
No one came to check on the commotion. I just sat there on the filthy carpet, shaking. The hotel room had a phone, but I didn’t know any of the Hawthorne’s numbers.
Eventually I realized I was getting really cold, which always happens when I have a really bad burst of adrenaline. I realized I should just go back to our room, it was right next door, but when I tried to stand up I realized how much my legs hurt. When I looked down at my hands they were splattered with bruises and I had to look away.
It was horribly, endlessly quiet. The hotel room was an ocean of quiet and I was the deepest point.
Who knows how much longer it was before I heard footsteps outside the motel room door.
“— doors still locked, did she have her own key? Goddamn it —” the next door opened, and Neal’s voice got quieter.
“Neal!” I croaked. I sounded truly pathetic, like I was dying in the desert or something. “Neal!” I reached up blindly into the bedside table, found a gideons bible in the drawer. I threw it as hard as I could against the wall. For a moment I thought he hadn’t heard, or hadn’t understood, but then someone knocked on the door.
“Hey is someone in there?”
I don’t remember exactly what I said, probably something shitty ha. But a moment later he was rattling the door knob and a moment after that he was clumsily kicking in the door.
He took in the scene in one suspended moment. I pointed at the bathroom door.
“I have her,” he said into the phone. “Get here, hurry.”
He hung up, went to the bathroom door, kicked aside the blanket and cracked it open. I turned my back, so I don’t know what he saw in there, but it must have looked satisfactorily dead because he came back and knelt down.
“Shiloh?” he said, like he was talking to a feral thing. “Did he touch you?”
“I need to see,” he said, but I was so bruised, I shrank at the very thought. When he reached for me I recoiled. “Okay,” he said. “Okay that’s fine, I won’t touch.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have — I thought it was gonna be —”
“All that matters,” Neal said, “is that you’re okay. We need to get you cleaned up and to the hospital, okay? Can you stand?”
I couldn’t stand, he had to carry me. It was agony. Everywhere the Sludge had touched me was throbbing and swollen.
I couldn’t stand in the shower, so Neal carried the desk chair into the bathtub. He helped me get out of my jacket and then, to my utter humiliation, helped cut me out of my jeans. I couldn’t get them off over the swelling.
I had enormous, swollen, deep black hand and finger print bruises everywhere the Sludge had touched me. I got into the shower in my underwear and t-shirt.
“Are you okay in here alone?” he asked. “I need to get the cleanup started.”
I don’t think I said anything, but my expression must have been enough, because he said, “Okay, let me just tell Julian what’s going on, alright?”
He was gone maybe five minutes. I just sat there watching the water pool down my legs and spill over my socks.
Neal brought me a pair of his sweatpants because all I have are leggings. He carried me to the car and we went to the hospital. He told me the story of what happened to me on the way and made me repeat it back to him, then he carried me into the emergency room.
Scans, prodding, poking. A nurse, a woman with the kindest face I’ve ever seen, said, “honey what happened to you?” and all I could manage was, “bad tinder date.”
“The guy who brought you in is he —”
“No, he’s good,” I promised. Neal was in the hallway talking to the police, explaining. “The other guy is um he ran off.”
They asked me in the gentlest way possible if they needed to do a rape kit. They worried about more serious internal bleeding but ultimately decided not to do any surgery. The police came and took a statement, and I lied through my teeth. They kept me overnight for observation. I fell asleep at some point and when I woke up it was dark and Neal was sitting with his feet up on my mattress, his face illuminated by his phone.
“Hi,” he said when he saw I was awake. “You scared the shit out of us.”
“I know,” I said. “I can tell because you’re not shouting at me.”
“Not yet,” he said but he was smiling.
I felt my chin begin to shudder and I had to look at the ceiling. Neal took his feet down heavily and leaned forward to see me in the dark.
“Julian pieced together what happened when he was cleaning up,” he said. “You did good.”
“I didn’t know it would be so…” I tried to swallow around my tight throat. “I thought we were gonna imprison him or something. I thought we’d talk.”
Neal took a deep breath. “We talk when we can,” he said. “Sometimes we can’t.”
We were quiet for a long time. And then, “look, I should have known what you’d do. It’s what I’d have done.” He smiled weakly. “I’ve never been on the receiving end of one of these madcap, going-rogue plans. It feels fucking bad. I don’t know how Nolan —” he stopped. “You need to know how to do this for real. How to run a case, how to know what you’re up against, how to defend yourself.”
I turned to look at him. I turned just my head to look at him, the rest of my body hurt too fucking much.
“Most importantly, you need to learn to work with the team, because this,” he gestured at my hospital bed, IV set up. “It’s not ideal. Are you good with that?”
“And you won’t do something like this ever again?”
I nodded again.
“Mk. Go to sleep. We’re getting out of here early tomorrow.”
We slipped out as the nurses switched shifts. Julian had the car idling on the curb. I walked out of the hospital tho. Well, okay, I limped, I was sore as shit and covered in bruises, but I did it on my own feet.