It turned out that Belle did have something in her stomach after all, and she emptied it promptly into the street as the man named Jefferson nudged the decaying body of Dr. Whale off the curb. She was left dry heaving with hot tears stinging her eyes, wiping her mouth on the sleeve of her gown forlornly that was already filthy to begin with.
“Oh, pretty duck, I’m sorry,” the man crooned, stepping over the dead man to kneel at her side. Belle shoved herself away from him, flinching violently, and the man startled at her response, blue eyes widening.“Hey- it’s okay-”
“You killed him!” Belle cried, her voice more shrill than she’d ever heard it. Her shoulder hit the front bumper of a yellow bug parked on the curb, trapping her between the man with the axe and the dead body. Pointing a finger to the twisted body crumbled only feet away, she began to shake uncontrollably. “You k-killed-”
“No, duck, no,” Jefferson shook his head, leaning on his brush axe’s handle. He crouched more comfortably, elbows on his thighs and inclining his head toward her morosely. “He was already gone.”
Looking up into his face, Jefferson didn’t seem like he was dangerous. In fact, he looked the opposite; he looked incredibly sad, as if he hadn’t just shattered someone’s skull and dashed them across the sidewalk. His blue eyes had red rings about the edges, and she could make out lines around his mouth. She did not think them the product of laughter. With a deep breath, his shoulders drooping under the weight of some unspoken burden, he tapped long, slender fingers on his knee, asking as if an afterthought, “You’re not bitten are you?”
Belle blinked dumbly, trying to steady her voice and her breathing. “Bit-? No. No, I’m... not.”
“No bites? Scrapes? Scratches?” Jefferson frowned, lifting some of her hair to peer around at her neck. The gesture, so very person and close, upset her, making her jump, and it brought a wan smile to his face. “Alright. We’ll get to that later, then.”
Ruffling her nose in distaste, Belle opened her mouth to inform him that no they would not, but a gurgling groan coming from around the corner of the hospital jolted them both into action. Glancing up and over his shoulder to check the street both ways, he held out his hand to her, standing up and whispering, “We need to get out of sight. Come on.”
Belle stared up at his hand blankly, her brow furrowed hard before looking into his face. She had lost the ability to tell a falsehood from a truth, but she could still read sincerity, at least. Even so, he’d just killed someone, right in front of her, though the man had attacked her. A confusing tumult of distressing things to consider, and it made her stomach heave all over again. Choking on the foul taste in her mouth, Belle blurted the only fact she had at her disposal.
“I don’t know you.”
With an impatient sigh, Jefferson dropped his hand, frowning. “You want to take your chance on your own? Because I’m sure they’d love to have you,” he said, gesturing with his axe down the street. Belle looked over her shoulder, squinting around the yellow volkswagen’s tire against the glare of the sunlight to see stumbling, shuffling people, a dozen or so, making their way slowly towards them.
They were like Dr. Whale, she could see. Something was wrong with them, some sort of sickness or accident, but she wasn’t so keen to stay and find out their side of the story, either. Looking back up, Belle took Jefferson’s awaiting, outstretched hand and let him pull her to her feet, stumbling a step and landing into his chest. It was a shock to her senses, touching another person after so long of no physical contact with another person, and Belle gasped at being so close, even for a just a moment. Hands on both her arms, he steadied her with a slight smile, “Easy now, duck.”
Belle let him pull her along like a child, her crowbar brushing the ground as she followed him across the street and into an alleyway between two buildings. She tightened her hand around it, swallowing hard and trying to keep up with him. “Whe-Where are you taking me?”
Past the sound of her own huffing, Belle thought she heard him mutter something, but she couldn’t be sure, her mind trying to keep up with the pace with which they weaved between the alleys of buildings before they came to a short, stout little structure a few streets beyond the hospital. Jefferson stopped, glancing up and down the sides of the one story building before he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a key, unlocking the door and ushering Belle quickly inside. The bright light of the day had blinded her to the darkness within, and she stood, for a moment, seeing red rings and shapes before her.
After yanking down the blinds, Jefferson moved from behind her, and while Belle willed away her disorientation, she heard him rummage in the dark. As her vision adjusted, she saw they were in a very cluttered, heavily crowded work room with a makeshift desk in the corner. Shelves lined the walls full of trinkets, valuables, and collectibles. There was no rhyme or reason for the things within the room, and Belle felt as though she’d stumbled into an indoor junkyard.
“Prop the chair under the doorknob,” he said quickly, walking past her.
Kneeling in front of a large chest, Jefferson had thrown the top off and began to rummage quick through the contents before he produced several small white boxes, stacking them beside his knee. After doing as he told her, Belle peered at them quizzically, but didn’t ask any questions when he pulled a duffel bag stuffed on the bottom of one of the shelves and began to fill it with the boxes.
“Where are we?”
“This place belongs to an...acquaintance,” Jefferson muttered, his thoughts trained on his task. “It’s safe for now, but we can’t stay.” He moved with nervous energy and tension, pacing around the small, cramped room. Belle thought he was making an awfully lot of noise, rummaging through drawers and knocking over stacks of books. He grabbed a small white plastic box from underneath the desk, stuffing it into the bag that was already nearing full, but even in the dimness, Belle glimpsed the red cross on the lid. He glanced sideways at her, loosening the scarf tied about his neck with two fingers.
“So!” Jefferson huffed briskly, heaving the bag up over his shoulder. “Been in the hospital long?”
Belle frowned, her face pinching in confusion. “Y-Yes...long.”
“Um-” She squeezed her eyes shut, imagining the groupings of scratches in the corner of her tiny cell. Ten, twenty, thirty...they began to blur once she was in the hundreds, so she shook her head and said, “About two years.”
Jefferson paused, mid-step, staring at her for a moment. He tried blinking away his surprise before it could show, but Belle knew sincerity in a gesture when she saw it. “Oh.”
“What happened?” Belle asked, rubbing the back of her head and gesturing with her other hand to the window, to the desolated world beyond. A dull sting tingled on her hands, and she glanced down to see the skin on the heels of her palms rubbed raw from trying to get away from the doctor, red from the sweltering pavement. “Everything is... gone.”
“Yeah,” Jefferson drew the word out, working his jaw in thought. He shrugged with one shoulder. “That tends to happen when the world falls apart.”
Belle was on the very breath of asking another question before a gentle crash came from behind the store, just on the outside of the nearest wall, startling both of them. He took her hand and whispered, “Come on, we need to move.”
Jefferson led her through the front of the shop that was just as cluttered as the back. She could see there were windows boarded up at the front, as well as a door that was secured with a giant bookshelf and a heavy chest. They’d permitted no light to enter the little shop, whoever had been here. Jefferson moved aside a second, slimmer shelf from a third door just enough to wedge the door open about a foot. He helped Belle step through, following before he pulled it shut behind them.
The noises from around the other side of the building were growing closer and louder. Jefferson put a finger to his lips to signal for quiet before he took her hand again and bolted. They ran along the length of the shop and down a secluded sidewalk littered with trash and debris, keeping as low as possible.
Stumbling like a fawn still finding the use of its legs, Belle could tell she was slowing him down to the point of frustration, but he kept a tight grip on her hand and tugged her every time she stumbled. Behind her, Belle thought she could hear some kind of noise, but it was far away, like the distant roar of thunder yet teeming with movement. It distracted her so much that she didn’t notice Jefferson had gone off the path of the sidewalk when he came to the edge of the street that hugged the forest. Belle followed obediently, sparing one final glance behind her at the destroyed streets, the fallen phone lines and crumbling buildings, crashed cars, and littered belongings of hundreds of people who had simply seemed to vanish.
Remembering how she’d wished for more than such a little town’s provincial life, Belle felt her heart squeeze painfully at the realization that she had gotten exactly what she’d wished for.