Her pupils recoiled. Overhead banks of buzzing fluorescent tubes bathed the room with a confrontational brilliance. Slowly, her eyes adjusted. She noted that the room was oddly shaped, maybe ten feet wide by thirty feet deep. Three silver industrial work tables, one after the other, divided the lean space. The first two shimmered, spotlessly clean. Some twenty feet from the door, the third was a mess. The air was freezing.
She worked the cart around the first two tables, an unsettling thump-thump escalating in her chest. Determined to tamp down her body’s flight response, she took deliberate, yogic breaths. Her protective suit’s face window continued fogging with each long exhalation. She stood over the third table, surveying the disarray, and shook her hooded head. At the center lay an aluminum alloy hard case opened on its hinge. Thick black foam lined the interior. One side was divided into nine uniform pockets, eight of which held one glass vial each, snugly. The ninth had shattered on the reflective tabletop. Someone had already doused whatever spilled from the vial with a compound that looked like oatmeal and cat litter.
She glanced back at the doorway. He still hadn’t followed her.
On the room’s back wall hung a massive topographical map that carried no title or date. Hand-drawn data were scrawled all over it. She considered the features and determined that it depicted a sizable chunk of southeastern Tooele County. The town of Dugway was labeled in the upper right corner. Her eyes traced a blue line drawn for Stark Road until she located the second checkpoint where she’d turned off into the desert. From there, they must have taken her off-road to the west. But even in a humvee, she guessed, they couldn’t have covered a large distance. Just six miles west on the map was a spot marked temp. offc. The jobsite trailer. A faint line jutted due south for a few miles then terminated at a red dot labeled /exch\. She stepped back and studied tentacles of barely visible pencil lines branching out from the red dot. They formed a network across the framed territory. She was standing inside of some sort of materials exchange post.
Everything alright? he bellowed from down the hall, his voice pitched low and drenched in reverb.
All good, she shouted in response, pivoting back to the third table.
Awkwardly, she pulled the beefy, arm-length rubber gloves over the hazmat suit’s built-in gloves and pillowy sleeves. When she wiggled her fingers, the various layers encasing them crinkled and squeaked. She examined the metallic spray bottles, settling on the one with a green band which she assumed was environmentally friendly. She misted it over the textured mess. Wherever it landed there were hisses and then foaming like hydrogen peroxide on a skinned knee. The pile of oats, silica dust, and sodium bentonite broke down into a vomitous paste. She unbundled the microfiber towels and covered the hideous pulp.
After figuring out the airtight lid on one of the carbon canisters, she lined its interior with a large and ill-fitting contractor bag. It looked ridiculous. She used the bench scrapers to scoop the mess into the bag. It reminded her of portioning dough while baking bread, something she hadn’t done since relocating to Wendover from Reno.
Ten minutes later the table was cleared of debris, but a volatile, milky residue remained. She consulted the spray bottles again and settled on the one with a blue band. As soon as the droplets landed, the table sizzled, releasing small plumes of smoke. She attacked the tabletop with a microfiber towel which promptly began disintegrating. Everywhere she’d sprayed appeared oxidized and brittle. The red spray bottle proved less corrosive and broke up the white residue without destroying the table. She buffed what she could of the surface back to its original sheen. The damaged portion, she reasoned, was not her fault; none of these supplies were labeled. With the soiled towels stuffed into the contractor bag, she folded it over on itself several times and pressed out the air to fit it neatly into the metallic canister. She closed the lid and reset the elaborate latch system. A whooshing thud ricocheted off the walls as the canister sealed. Startled, she dropped it to the floor, where it made a terrific racket before rolling to a stop at the foot of the second table.
Footsteps came bounding down the hallway. She rushed automatically to the door, fearful of reprimand. He was halfway to room 19 when she poked her head out. They made eye contact and he skidded to a clumsy stop.
What the hell is going on in there? he roared, panting.
I’m sorry, she called from the doorway. I dropped a canister, but I’m done now.
It’s all cleaned up?
Yes. But listen, she continued, stepping into the hall, I don’t know what's in those spray bottles exactly but—
She dove backwards instinctively as he raised his weapon and fired. A thunderous crack exploded in the concrete hallway, its deafening report echoing off the polished floor and unadorned block walls. Without thinking, she rolled into room 19 and kicked the door shut then clambered to her knees to lock it. Eyes agog, she scoured the room for a weapon. The vials. Whatever is in those, she decided, is very, very bad for you. She scrambled to the third table and plucked one glass tube from the aluminum case’s foam pockets. Then she examined the case, latching it shut and weighing it by the handle with one arm. Heavy and solid.
Out in the hallway, he was screaming now, smashing the heel of his boot against the door with frightening muscle. She ran to the hinge-side of the door and pressed her back against the block wall. Clutching the metal case in one hand and the vial in the other, she gulped air and planted her feet wide.
A gunshot rang out and the door’s handle exploded into the room. He booted the door open violently. As he stepped squinting over the threshold, she kicked the door back with animal force. It smashed into the back of his skull, spinning him off balance and stunning him. She lunged, swinging the case in a haymaker into the left side of his Tyvek hood. His cheekbone shattered upon impact. Blackish blood exploded from his nose, splattering the interior of the suit’s protective face shield. He collapsed to the floor and she was atop him instantaneously. She stomped, piston-like, on the bloodied window. His teeth splintered beneath her heel. She felt his eye sockets dissolve into puddles.
He was inert now. Hovering over him, she became aware once more of the room’s frigid temperature and shivered. She knelt mindlessly beside him and yanked at the T-bar zipper of his hazmat gear. It caught on his tactical belt. She removed the belt, tossed it aside, then coaxed his torso free from the suit. It was messy work and his blood was slick on her black rubber gloves and streaked onto her baggy yellow sleeves. She ripped at the collar of his camouflage shirt, busting off the buttons and exposing his chest. The gloves made intricate motor tasks cumbrous and she fumbled several times trying to unscrew the cap from the vial. She poured the entirety of its clear, gel-like contents onto his throat and clavicles. Suddenly, his pummeled corpse, protective suit and all, appeared to warp like elastic, as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. He glitched rapidly in and out, then vanished.
Fucking no! she screamed, recoiling, stumbling astern onto her heels.
Her flight response returned. She managed to curb it long enough to unholster the handgun and radio from the loose tactical belt, on which she discovered he’d also clipped his keys. She gathered these at her chest with one arm and grabbed the aluminum case with her free hand. She sprinted out of the building into the unsympathetic desert night.
At the back of the van, she tore off her protective suit, hurled it into the cargo area, and slammed shut the barn doors. She climbed into the command, stowing the radio and gun on the passenger seat she’d occupied a half hour before. She cradled the aluminum case as she cranked the engine to life. Headlights off, she spun the van around, spraying gravel all over the side of the concrete building, then floored it, barreling blindly down the indistinct washboard road away from the facility. A few minutes later the road ended at the jobsite trailer and she skidded to a stop.
Pelican Four, this is Pelican Three. What is your status? Over.
Her stomach plummeted. She stared at the radio on the passenger seat and trembled. Thirty seconds passed and it hissed to life again.
Pelican Four, I say again, this is Pelican Three. What is your status? Over.
She had to keep moving; they wouldn’t accept dead air again. But if she continued driving, even with the lights off, she’d blast red signal flares each time she braked. And they probably had GPS on the van. The radio probably had GPS. Cursing, she removed the walkie’s batteries and smashed it against the dashboard. She took desperate breaths of air and glared out the window at the vacant prefab trailer.
Then she remembered the map and her breathing decelerated. They’d brought her from the east. If she could approximate the humvee’s route, she could get back to her car. They’d taken her ID, phone, and keys—but not the magnetic hide-a-key. She permitted herself a hurried moment for this victory and thanked Saint Zita.
Hard case in hand, she snatched the pistol and bolted eastbound on foot. She ran for miles in the deep blackness across cold, dry contours. Crunchy shocks of sagebrush tripped her again and again. An hour later, brokenhearted and delirious, she was doubled over. She did not know constellations or how the moon moved. She had no idea if she’d kept true east. Shooting pains cleaved through her ribcage. She stared horrified into the negative beyond and knew that she was lost. Her lungs shrieked but she forced herself to run again.
The subtle blue-white glow made her drop to her stomach. For several minutes, she remained rigid, cheek pressed to the bitter terrain. Critically, severely, she listened. The only sounds were sand particles loosened and scurrying in the sharp wind. Eventually, she was confident that the illumination was not that of a vehicle and she lifted her head. She blinked at the fuzzy radiance and in time understood that it was a security checkpoint. Which meant that there must be a road.
Bent at the waist, she crept swiftly now through the darkness, making a wide arc around the checkpoint, careful not to let the hard case scrape the earth and betray her position. She trotted parallel to but some thirty yards from the road for half an hour until the diffused light of another checkpoint appeared. This checkpoint pattern guided her roundabout for an hour northeast then another southeast. It was nearly 3 a.m. when she spotted the quiet, warm dome of light pollution cowling the town of Dugway.
She maintained an increased distance from the road and worked her way east until she identified the perimeter checkpoint where earlier she’d turned off Stark Road onto the two-track. She cut diagonally, running southeast across the desert, aiming to intersect with the two-track at the pullout a mile south where she’d left her car.
Her blood pumped effortlessly now. Her legs were mechanical and untired and she broke into a buoyant gallop, her arms swinging the case and gun with the rhythm of Newton’s cradle. Her heels pounded upon the earth and each time they did the smoldering corporeal fear that had for hours gripped her was dispelled a little more.
When at last she located the pullout, the Camry was not there.
This is an excerpt from BACK\SLASHER, out in print May 2022 from Humor and the Abject.