The journey home has a minor detour as Stephanie experiences some slight side effects from her run in with the beast. Secrets are kept and strange, urgent needs arise as she tries to understand what’s happening to her.
Stephanie rolled over on the bed and groaned. She felt a headache coming on from all this thinking and that scare. She flinched and frowned when her arm brushed against the covers.
Stephanie sat up and glanced down at her arm. Her heart stopped and her eyes opened wide when she glimpsed two shallow scratches. Her hand was shaking when she reached up and touched the marks. They were real enough.
Suddenly Stephanie’s head swiveled toward the door. She heard someone fumble at the entrance and the portal swung wildly open. Chuck stood there with wide, frightened eyes and disheveled clothes. Mud stains and tears revealed his pale skin beneath the dirty fabric. His hair was tossed this way and that, and his face was smeared with mud. In fact, he looked worse than she did.
“There you are!” Chuck yelled. He slammed the door behind him and rushed to her. “I’ve been looking all over for you! Where the hell have you been?!”
“Here for a while,”
she managed to explain. She was taken aback when he grabbed her shoulders and frantically looked her over. “I got as much fresh air as I wanted.” Probably for a lifetime. She looked him up and down. “Where have you been?”
“Looking for you!” he exclaimed. It looked like he didn’t want to glance down at himself. “I went out there looking for you and when I couldn’t find you I, um, I kinda panicked.”
“And fell into the nearest puddle?” Stephanie asked as she pointed at his ruined pants.
“Oh, um, I kinda got roughed up out there,” he sheepishly admitted. He looked her up and down, and noticed her bare feet. He nodded at her dirty toes. “Lose something?”
“Y-yeah, yeah I did,” she stuttered out.
Stephanie tried to hide the marks on her arm, but he noticed her clumsy attempts. She yelped when his arm suddenly shot out and he roughly grabbed her by the elbow. He pulled her arm out straight and examined the small scratches.
“They’re just some scratches I got from…from an animal,” she tried to reassure him. She tried to pull her arm away from his grip, but he held her firm. His eyes were sweeping over the wounds like he was looking for something specific. “Chuck, you’re starting to hurt me.”
“What? Oh, sorry,” he apologized. He quickly released her and straightened himself. “I just wanted to make sure the wound was clean.”
“And?” she wondered.
“And I think you should go to a hospital and get that thing looked at,” he encouraged. “It could get infected, or the animal could’ve had rabis.”
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” Stephanie brushed aside. She glanced down at those small scuffs like they were rug burns. “I’m sure I just need to give them a good cleaning and they’ll disappear in a few days.”
“I’m not so sure,” Chuck persisted. His face showed her how serious he was being, but she still didn’t think it was that serious. He could see she wasn’t listening. “Come on, Boss, this could get bad.”
“Well, however bad it gets, it’s my arm so I’ll do what I want with it,” she stubbornly countered. She stood up from the bed and brushed down her wrinkled dress. The mud and water made it a little comical to be trying to straighten all the creases. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to change into something more comfortable.”
Chuck didn’t say anything for the longest moment. He just stared at her with an expression of worry mixed with something she couldn’t quite read. Was it fear in those depths?
“All right, Boss, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he added.
“I won’t,” Stephanie promised as she folded her arms across her chest. “Now are you going to go or do I have to start undressing with you standing there?”
“Weellll…” he intimated with a hint of his playfulness returning to his eyes. She liked that look better than the other one, but this wasn’t going to work.
Stephanie rolled her eyes and turned him around to face the door. Then she placed her palms on his back and bluntly shoved him toward the exit. He didn’t struggle, and he had a large, innocent grin on his face when they reached the door.
“Now out,” she ordered as she stepped up in front of him and opened the portal.
“All right, all right, I can take a hint,” he joked with a false air of hurt. He paused for a moment in the doorway and turned to her by his side. His voice was low and full of warning. “You just keep out of alleys from now on, okay?” he pleaded. His eyes shifted down to her arm, and she unconsciously grabbed it. “And watch that thing. I don’t like the way it looks.”
“All right, mom,” Stephanie lightly teased, but there was an air of true promise in her tone.
With their farewells given Chuck departed and Stephanie watched the door latch behind him with some trepidation. His warning echoed in her head and she raised her arm to look at the small, insignificant scratches. Surely that wild animal didn’t have anything infectious and the wounds would just heal themselves over.
“Why the hell didn’t I tell him what happened out there?” Stephanie wondered aloud to herself.
The young woman put her back against the door and cradled her head in one hand. She just couldn’t understand what had happened in that alley. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t wanted to tell him. The whole thing was just so outrageous even she doubted her own memories. All she could guess was that she’d been more tired and irritated than she figured and had hallucinated the entire episode, but even she couldn’t swallow that lie.
There was just something about the whole thing that screamed psycho ward, and that was the last place to where Stephanie wanted to go. She sighed and raised her head. All this thinking and running in circles was just giving her a bigger headache. The soreness in her arm wasn’t helping, either.
“All right, Steph, you just sleep on things and decide tomorrow,” she decided.
She knew she was putting things off, but it was late already, and Chuck had probably gone to his room for some sleep himself. There’d be time enough to tell him on the car ride back home.
With her decision made, Stephanie herself got ready for bed and slipped beneath the woolen covers of her hotel bed. She closed her eyes, and dreamed of long shadows and eerie howling.
Then the pounding woke her up the next morning. She groggily rolled over and glanced at the clock. Nine o’clock in the morning. They were supposed to leave at nine-thirty to pick up their rental car. She jerked her head up toward the door when there was more banging.
“Boss, you alive in there?” Chuck worriedly called from the other side. “Boss, answer me!”
“I’m here!” she yelled back in an exhausted voice. She practically slid out of the bed and onto the floor.
“You okay?” her partner asked.
“Yeah, just need to wake up,” she called back. She used the bed and managed to pull herself to a shaky standing position. “Guess I didn’t sleep well,” she added. She really wished she could believe what she was saying herself.
“You sure you’re okay?” he persisted. He sounded like he wasn’t convinced she didn’t need to be rushed to a hospital. Maybe it was the fact she was such a superior morning person, and here she was struggling to get on a pair of pants. “You need any help packing or anything?”
“Shit…” Stephanie muttered. In the excitement last night, she’d completely forgotten about doing that chore.
“What was that?” Chuck asked.
“Nothing, I’ll be out in a few minutes,” she informed him.
“All right…” her partner hesitantly agreed.
Stephanie ran frantically between the bathroom and her luggage bag she tossed onto the bed. In twenty minutes she’d managed to wash her hair, pack the small trunk and make herself look presentable to the world. She stepped out of her hotel room to find Chuck impatiently waiting for her in the hall. He looked her up and down, and she wondered if he’d suddenly grown the ability to have x-ray vision. His eyes poured over her with as close attention as he could politely manage.
“What?” she wondered. She looked down at herself to see if she’d forgotten to zip up her blue jeans, but they were okay. They had a long car ride back home, so she was going to be comfortable on the trip.
“I don’t know, just something different,” he vaguely explained. Maybe even he didn’t know what he was seeing in her now that he hadn’t before noticed. He shook himself from his gazing. “But we’d better get checked out and see if our cab is here.”
The two partners stepped over to the elevators with bags in hand, and pressed the button for a lift down. They didn’t have a long wait as a few moments later the doors opened. Mr. Gregory stood inside. Stephanie noticed the tips of Chuck’s lips turn down in a grimace, but he covered the expression with an indifferent face.
“Good morning,” Gregory politely greeted. He graciously stepped to the side to allow them plenty of room for their bags. He glanced at the luggage in their hands. “Leaving so soon after the conference?”
“It’s a pretty long trip back home,” Stephanie explained. They also didn’t want to pay for another night at the pricey hotel. She noticed he was dressed for business as usual. “Off to see some clients?” she asked. She hoped not, because that meant they’d lost out on some business to their competitors.
“No, just to breakfast with Miss Seville,” he explained. He had a humored grin on his face. “She’s pretty insistent on men wearing suits everywhere they go in public.” His eyes looked over to the simple jeans and buttoned shirt Chuck wore. “And especially in front of prospective business partners.” Both Chuck and Stephanie caught his meaning.
“I’m sure our clients would understand if we didn’t wear Armani constantly,” Chuck pointed out.
“I suppose not,” Gregory mused with a slick grin on his face.
Stephanie nervously smiled as she felt the tension in the small space increase. Her eyes glanced at the numbers on the pad. Almost at the lobby. She breathed a sigh of relief when the elevator stopped and the doors opened.
“Well, it was nice talking with you again,” Stephanie gave her farewell to their brief acquaintance. Chuck ignored the man completely as he stepped out and made his way directly to the desk.
“I hope to see more of you,” Gregory countered as he got off with them. He gallantly took her hand in his own and gently kissed her skin. His eyes darted up to her blushing face. “Until then, my dear Stephanie.”
“Um, yeah, until then,” she stuttered out.