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Brian awoke the next morning, feeling better than he had in weeks. The bed Rhonda had offered him in the guest room had been fluffy and soft. It had utterly outdone the various places of respite he had been using. To his joy, he noticed that the raw abrasions on his knee had healed completely over night. He ran his fingers over the new fresh flesh with a feeling of astonishment. He saw that someone had done him the courtesy of taking the dufflebag, containing his clothes and toiletries from the back of his motorcycle and left it just inside the closed door. He grabbed a shirt with an image of Optimus Prime on it, as well as some fresh jeans and underwear and sneaked into the bathroom to take a long very hot shower. He emerged from the bathroom twenty minutes later cloaked in a cloud of steam, feeling cleaner than he had in a week. Sharice leaned against the railing that ran the length of the hallway, overlooking the dining room. He jumped slightly at the sight of her, not expecting anyone to be up this early.
She was clad in a green army jacket, worn threadbare through the years. Another pair of tight jeans encased her lower half as well as a thick black leather belt to replace the ornamental gold one. Her hair was the same as was her head band. But her shirt was a brown t-shirt emblazoned with the image of a desert landscape with a lone cactus. Underneath this white bubble lettering read “Lou's Barbeque”. She laughed when he started.
“Took you long enough.” She said when he had recovered.
“I didn't know anyone was waiting for me.” He gazed down at the watch on his wrist. “It's only seven in the morning. I thought you'd still be asleep.”
“Nope, I rise with the sun.” Sharice stated cockily getting off the railing and smiling at him. “I've been up since five thirty getting everything ready. Once you're done getting dressed grab some breakfast and meet me outside.”
“We've got a job already?” Brian croaked, rather taken aback.
“Of course!” Sharice trilled excitedly. “Been staking out this job for a week now, I can't wait to start.”
Brian felt himself wither under her excited stare. He didn't understand how anyone, much less a teenage girl, could get excited about going off and hunting monsters. But Sharice was definitely a different kind of girl than the one's he'd known in his teenage years. All confidence and cockiness bordering on arrogance, with none of the crippling self-doubt girls her age had in television and movies. He had a feeling that he would have to be the cautious one in the days to come, and the knowledge only increased his sense of foreboding dread.
He finished getting dressed as quickly as he could and descended the stairs. He could smell something glorious coming from the kitchen and let his nose carry him into the room. Rhonda was working diligently at the stove, making batch after batch of large perfectly fluffy chocolate chip pancakes. His mouth watered at the sight of them and he felt himself creep furtively to the ever-growing stack, making sure Rhonda's back was turned. He reached for the top most one, his hand trembling with anticipation. Quick as a flash, a hand shot out and smacked his hand with a sharp slap. He withdrew his hand and met the steely, amused gaze Rhonda was giving him.
“Get yourself a plate!” She chastised going back to her work. “I know you know better than that.”
He followed Rhonda's pointed guidance and grabbed a plate from the corner cabinet. In moment's his plate was loaded with a huge stack of perfect pancakes. A quick slathering of syrup and butter later and Brian was in heaven. The fresh mouthfuls of pancake making him groan and sigh with pleasure.
“Lord, Boy!” Rhonda cried, sounding amused, placing the last pancakes on the stack. “You'd think you hadn't seen food before.”
“Sorry,” He apologized after swallowing a particularly large mouthful. “I don't usually get to eat like this. Normally I have to pinch a wallet for a few McDonald’s meals before they cancel the credit cards.”
“Now, none of that while you're with Sharice. That girl don't need anymore bad influences.” Rhonda remonstrated gently, sitting down next to him at the large wooden table. “Lord knows her father was bad enough.”
“Where is her father?” Brian asked. “Divorce?”
“I wish,” Rhonda sighed. A pronounced sadness crept into her words but her eyes stayed quite dry. “No, my David died last year. He had a bad heart attack and died before I could get to him. They said he didn't even make it to the hospital.”
“I'm so sorry.” Brian whispered. He felt profoundly awkward.
“It's alright, Cherie.” Rhonda said with a small sad smile. “'C'est la vie' as they say down here. But Sharice took it very hard. The testing time's been one of the few things I've seen make her happy in a long while.”
They ate in silence for a while, Brian not really knowing what to say and Rhonda lost in her own thoughts. They only really came to their sensed when the front door slammed shut and the sound of boots and claws on wood announced Bentley’s and Sharice's arrival. Sharice threw herself into a chair and smiled at the stack of pancakes now in the center of the table, while the big dog curled up on a dog bed in the corner of the kitchen. She began to eat with almost as much gusto as Brian had, shoveling forkfuls into her mouth with occasional “mmmmmmm”'s and “mmmmmhmmm”'s. Rhonda smiled shaking her head indulgently at her daughter.
“Is the car ready?” She asked Sharice.
“Ready, willing, and able.” The girl managed through a large mouthful. “I just ran over all the systems with a fine tooth comb, we ain't breaking down anytime soon.”
“You know cars?” Brian asked, impressed.
“Better than I know my own face.” She explained excitedly, waving her fork around to point at him dramatically. “I could build one myself if you give me the parts.”
“What about supplies?” Rhonda cut in.
“We're good. Clothes are packed, we've got enough money for food for the next few weeks and some spare just in case we run into trouble. And the items of more...sensitive nature are in their hiding spot.”
“Good. You know where you're going?”
“Yes, Mama” Sharice said somewhat exasperated. “I've checked the directions like a million times.”
“I just want to make sure. Michigan ain't no Sunday drive.”
“We're going all the way to Michigan?!” Brian coughed, having breathed in a piece of pancake in shock.
“One of my older friends owns a casino up there that needs looking into.” Rhonda said casually. “It's not too bad a trip, only about fourteen hours or so.”
Brian supposed she had a point, he had made worse road trips in his life time. Hell, half of those had been conducted while flat broke and starving. He could stand a lazy drive with food, supplies, and the prospect of not having to sleep in a thorn bush. The issue was not really the drive itself but what came after it.
“So when we get to this casino, what are we going to be doing?” He said. Then, seemingly unable to contain his sarcasm, he added: “Are we exorcising the spirits of dead gamblers desperate for one more crack at the black jack table?”
Rhonda and Sharice shot him identical looks of disdain, before going back to their food.
“Truth be told, I'm not sure what you'll find.” Rhonda said, a vindictive glint in her eyes. “They've just been finding rooms full of blood and bits.”
Brian felt his fork fall from his hand to clatter against the nearly empty plate. He didn’t really remember dropping it, but that wasn’t the paramount problem in his mind. Sharice had gone back to her breakfast, no fear or horror in her face. Rhonda however was giving him a satisfied smile. He could feel the blood drain away from his face.
“Wait!” Brian cried, desperate to bring the situation back onto a logical plane. “This thing has been leaving behind nothing but bits of people, and we’re somehow supposed to take care of this.”
“I think the two of you will be more than enough.” She said with a nod, getting up and taking her empty plate to the sink. The mood of the room was oddly mismatched to Brian’s feelings. The two women were sedately eating and cleaning as if they were embarking on nothing more difficult than a long road trip. Brian sunk back in his chair pushing his plate away. He had lost his appetite in one brutal reality check.
He and Rhonda ended up doing the dishes while Sharice packed his duffle bag. Finally with nothing left to keep them, Brian, Sharice, and Bentley left the comfortable confines of the house for the muggy morning outside. A bulky tan Honda CR-V sat in the driveway, trunk popped open and gear visible. The gear had been stacked in a little square around a large dog bed.
“Bentley’s coming with us?” Brian asked, not willing to admit it but a little relieved all the same.
“Oh yeah, I’d never think of leaving him behind!” Sharice cried, squatting down and scratching behind the dogs ears.
“I this okay though?” Brian asked.
“Very,” Rhonda answered, walking out the front door and walking down the steps to meet them. “Animals are a huge asset on testing times. They usually can feel things humans have forgotten how to feel.”
She was carrying a black case which she handed to Brian with a smile before turning to hug and kiss Sharice. Confused, Brian opened the case. It contained a thick black leather wallet, a Louisiana state I.D. made out to him, a credit card in his name, and a new cell phone.
“Woah” Brian gasped as he opened the wallet to see two hundred dollars in cash. “This is…”
“Expensive, But it’s worth it.” Rhonda said. “I need to have you look legitimate at least. If I had you wandering off with no license no cash and no phone, well you’d be conspicuous.”
“How’d you get a legit state I.D. with my picture?”
“I know someone at the DMV and I found your mug shot easy enough on the web.” She said watching him tuck all the money and essentials away in his pockets. “Now that’s all for essentials. Paying for gas and food and anything else you might need in your travels. The phone is to keep you in touch with me and Sharice. Don’t go calling Tanzania or somewhere similar.”
Not having anyone in Tanzania, or indeed anyone anywhere else in the world to contact Brian simply nodded and tucked a phone away in his jeans pocket. He could barely stutter out his thanks but he think Rhonda understood. Her look was less severe anyway. He went to the passenger seat and threw his motorcycle jacket over it. Turning he saw Rhonda squeezing Sharice to her once more, tears were spilling from her eyes onto her daughters shoulder. Sharice wasn’t crying but her eyes did look overly bright. Brian felt ashamed of his trepidation in that moment. The hesitancy he’d faced this whole situation with now suddenly seemed like base cowardice and selfishness. He wasn’t the only one with their life on the line here. He suddenly wished desperately that he had not left things on such a hostile note with his mother. He almost wished she could be here to give him and equally tearful goodbye.
He felt a cold wet nose brush his hand, and he smiled as he looked down into Bentley’s gentle soulful eyes. Brian squatted down to pet him and the wolf hound licked his face with his big tongue. After fending off the beasts wet and amorous affections, Brian had to admit, he felt a lot better. The fear was something that would return in time. But at the moment he was ready to do this, not only for himself. He would do this for his family, for any children he might someday have. He would do it because Sharice needed someone to watch her back, and being a thief, no one could spot trouble quite like he could.
Sharice finally broke away from her mother, who followed her over to the car dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. Sharice jumped into the driver’s seat and Brian took that as his cue to hop aboard.
“Now!” Sharice said Speaking through the open passenger window. “Y’all keep yourselves safe, watch each other’s backs, and above all don’t go taking no risks you don’t have to.”
“I promise, Mama” Sharice assured her.
“Just get back in one piece.”
“I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too, darling.”
And with that, Sharice revved the car into life and began to back out of the drive way. Rhonda climbed the steps and waved at them as they drove away. They rounded a corner and left the cul de sac behind. Brian made himself relax into the seat. They had a long drive ahead of them, and at the end of it something dangerous, spooky, and possibly lethal waited for them. Still, he thought as he took out his new phone and gleefully began to check the internet, he’d had much worse road trips before.