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"Frell me, God that hurts," Mom groans.

I turn around in shock. "Mom? Mom!"

"Vest," Mom coughs. "Hurts…"

I fall on my knees next to her, but she manages to shake her head, her face contorted. "Secure… first."

She's right and I'm stupid. Where there's one there can be more. I climb the stairs, weapon ready, then check the body. This one's well and properly dead. The revolver next to him is big and cumbersome.

The scene is a bit messy. Red trails on the floor tell me the man was already wounded. He might have been crawling towards the top of the stairs, simply to get his revenge.

I check out the four doors that lead to four rooms. The first room is a narrow storage closet with empty shelves. The second is a bedroom, with two twin bunk beds, sleeping four in total. There are no mattresses or anything else to make it comfortable. The room opposite is similar, but someone added a field bed. Its blankets are neatly folded.

The front room is last. It's larger and set up to host eight people. The bunk beds have been shoved aside and used as shelves to store bags and a few bits of other gear. Four field beds stand in between, evenly spaced. The trail of blood ends, or starts, at a window overlooking the gravel pad in front. I peek outside, at our Blue Ford standing guard over three dead bodies and a mourning old man. Then I check the rooms one more time, and spy through all the curtains in all directions, but spot no movement.

Downstairs again I find Mom sitting with her back against the wall. She's examining the right sight of her chest and doesn't look too pleased with the results.

"You okay?" I ask.

"Not really. Can you please get the first aid kit for me? And the chalk." She grimaces. "There's a marker in the glove compartment, bring that too. Oh, and the map."

"We should get you checked out in a hospital."

Mom shakes her head. "Some other time. It's not that serious, it just hurts. We need to get back so you won't miss your first day at school, that's more important. And" - Mom looks at her watch and winces from the pain that causes her - "that's in six and a half hours. We'd better hurry, or you'll be late."

I stare at her in disbelief. My mother has her priorities all screwed up. Still, I do what she asks.

Outside the old man has stopped crying. He looks at me with another pair of those strange, red eyes, watching but not seeing. I first check our surroundings for obvious threats before grabbing the medkit and hurrying back in. The insides of Mom's vest are marked with those familiar chicken scratches, but whatever they were supposed to do didn't seem to help much. Or perhaps they did, and the damage would have been much worse without.

I ignore her swear words when she at first fails to unclasp her bra, admiring the pinkish-red mark the bullet left on the right side of her ribcage. It sits a little below the armpit and is surrounded by the early discoloration that promises an impressive collection of bruises tomorrow. "Fashion over sense, huh? A vest only works if you wear it properly, and bras are only so-much bulletproof. Are you sure you haven't broken anything?"

She gives me a noncommittal grunt whilst rummaging through our medical supplies, then pops a few painkillers. "Get me some clothes," she wheezes, "I'd rather not look like this when we return. We should have brought extras."

"I did, and they're not your size. There are a few bags upstairs. Those might contain clothes, you want me to check?"

She grimaces. "Just find me something without holes, and with as little blood as possible."

I grab a pair of gloves from the first aid box and trudge back up to search the rooms. I empty one bag and use it to collect anything that might be of use, including any clothing that would fit Mom. There isn't much, except for a couple of mobile phones and wallets matching the number of dead men, and a small plastic bag with a familiar kind of red powder. I recheck the room with the made-up bed. There's no bag or any other trace of the inhabitant. I wonder if the woman with the mask used this room.

When I return downstairs I find Mom busy. She moved into the room and drew a circle around her with that faithful blue chalk, and now uses the marker to draw her usual chicken scratches on the back of her taped-together map.

She looks up at me when I cough politely.

"I need you to do something else as well. I need you to draw these on my side and my back, as accurate as you can," Mom says, pointing at the symbols.

"Isn't that a little kinky, your own daughter bodypainting her mom?"

"Eleanore..." She looks at me, disapproving.

"It's Ellen, Mom. And you're no fun. Will it even work if I do it?"

"On my skin, it will. If you do it right."

I stick out my tongue but do as she says, careful not to make any mistakes. It's not that easy to make corrections when using a permanent ink marker on bare skin, where scratching out the offending symbols would require strong chemicals, a knife, followed by a skin implant or two. Mom looks a little better once I'm done, even if I don't have a clue what I'm doing. Chicken scratches and me… we're just not friends.

When Mom complains about the smell of the clothes I handed her, I walk up to the nearest corpse and start tugging at its shirt.

"Ah, forget it," Mom grumbles. "Help me get dressed, and then we'll check out this place before we go. I want to leave as soon as we can. I don't want to overstay our welcome."

"Shouldn't we check on the old man first?"

Mom shakes her head. "Nah. His mind is broken."

I'm not even going to ask how she knows. Instead, I help her into her new clothes, and then up the stairs.

"It appears they were leaving," she comments when she regains her breath and looks at me for confirmation.

I eye the mess I made and consider. She might be right. Most of the stuff was haphazardly thrown into the bags, a mess even before I went looking for clothes. I confirm and Mom nods thoughtfully. We continue our search downstairs, checking the main room and finally the kitchen.

That's where she hesitates."There's too much food. Too much food, too many plates," she says.

"Perhaps they had friends over. Must be lonely out here."

"Perhaps." She doesn't sound convinced.

There's a desperate scream outside that slowly dies off. I rush to the front door, just in time to see the old man taking a knife from one of the dead jailors, then cutting his own throat. He falls forward, on top of the man he took the knife from. My head feels light, my vision starts to swim.

Mom comes over slowly. She leans against the doorpost, wincing and struggling for breath. "Told you he was broken," she says.

I want to sit down, but Mom's not done yet.

"You can be sick later. Now come on, I'm not sure how much time we have, and we're missing something."

I look at her, watch the wheels behind her eyes turning faster and faster. Mom walks back into the big room, eyes half-closed, then she suddenly stops. "I smell death," she says.

I think it's better not to mention the corpse bleeding out on the rug, the dead man in the kitchen, nor the leftovers at the top of the stairs.

She walks over to the man she shot and kneels down. "Help me roll him aside." When she reaches out she grimaces. "Well, perhaps you do it."

I drag the body out of the way, then lift the carpet. There's a trapdoor below. It's a simple square of wood, a dark metal ring in the middle. The hinges are half gone but still working.

"Could be boobytrapped," I mutter.

Mom takes her chalk and scribbles symbols in a circle around the trapdoor. "No, it's worse," she says. "Lift it."

"You sure?"

She only nods, a somber expression on her face. I lift the trapdoor and know she's right. The smell of death is overwhelming. I take the little penlight I always carry with me, and slowly let the light travel the scene. "Shit."

That's what it smells like. Death and blood and shit and piss and blood and shit and more death.

 

There's a cellar below the cabin. It's roughly square, the walls are made of stacked flint and broken rocks, the gaps in between filled up with clay. There's no stockpile of food, there are no shelves, no bottles of beer, there's no copper till ready to produce moonlight. But there are countless flies, eight sleeping mats, five bodies,. And one massive pool of blood.

"Talk to me," Mom says.

I swallow before I climb down the stairs. They all wear the same, nondescript orange coveralls, and five are dead. The cause is abundantly clear: each throat has been cut. Two of the bodies are still holding on to the knives they used… I step over one dead person to check on the next. Five people. Five knives. Five suicides.

I'm not touching any of the bodies, but I take several pictures and give Mom all the gruesome details. Three men in their twenties, and two older women. All five sport those eerie red eyes.

Five people. It's hard to avoid the blood that spilled everywhere.

"One's missing," Mom says.

Five down here, and the old man and the young woman outside, that makes seven. I agree. One got away, was killed off and disposed of elsewhere, or never made it here. There's no telling.

The blood hasn't dried up despite the warm night and hot day. I'm not a forensic expert, but whatever happened did so last night - this night. My internal clock has gone haywire.

I find nothing else of interest. When Mom tells me to climb up again I'm more than happy to leave the cellar and the dead behind. In my haste to get away, I almost forget to recover my rifle and empty clips. Mom makes me collect anything else that might point to us, leading me unerringly to every spent case and object I've touched, until she's completely spent and lets me put her into the passenger seat of our Ford.

I drive the first part. It's going to be a long, long way back to Hellhole.

 

When we reach the highway Mom tells me to drive in the wrong direction, away from Hellhole. She examines each of the phones we took with us and manages to unlock two. We take the next exit and halt at the foot of a large billboard advertising 'Good times and great company at Jayne's Pinecone Resort, just five minutes more'. On the billboard, a smiling cowboy holds out a pair of dice. Someone used paint or a marker to black out one of his front teeth. I want to smash out the other one. The image shows the outline of a medieval castle behind the cowboy. Well, there must have been cows in Europe during the dark ages, and someone must have taken care of those cows, so there you go. I doubt those cowboys 'n' cowgirls would have carried six-shooters though, but let's put that down to artistic freedom.

Mom makes a short call using one of the recovered phones. She keeps two of the other phones and most of the wallets, then throws the rest out the window. I take the underpass, make a half-turn and point the noise of our Ford towards Hellhole before I step on the gas, leaving the gap-toothed cowboy behind. We talk little on the way back and I'm happy to drive as it keeps my mind away from thinking about those red-eyed, orange-clad, dead people.

We exit the highway when she tells me, taking a local road where we make one more stop at a familiar gas station where I clean myself up using a bottle of water and a piece of old cloth. The Ford Mustang, and the girl, are long gone. Mom takes over the wheel despite my protest.

 

She grunts in pain at every turn and pothole the rest of the way.

 

***

 

Author's note:

Dear reader, you've just finished the first arc of Kind's Kiss. If you liked it, spread the word. If you feel up to it drop me a line. If you *really* feel up to it give it a (fair) review.

Feedback is important because it helps me improve! Or so I've been told :-)

The story is complete, so I'll continue posting the remaining chapters.

 

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About the author

The Real Angel Jay

Bio: I write bad fiction. In poor English. In all other aspects I'm just like a normal person. Please note that I'm a not a native English speaker (so any help is welcome).

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