We tracked it to Marketgate, in the end. I say tracked, like we did anything impressive. Mostly we just followed the bloodstains. They blended in a little, dull brown against the town’s dull grey, but we picked them out easily enough; viscera trickling between the cobbles of side streets, bits of teeth spread along the tarmac like grit salt. At one point Moll stumbled over something pink and fibrous – a bundle of ligaments, strewn out across the road. Around the corner from the shopping centre we found the smudge of a handprint on a lamp-post, like it had stopped there to rest, leaned its weight against the metal. We figured it must have been getting tired. The hand print was big, thick fingers splayed improbably around a wide palm. It had been a man, then.
“He’s not going any further. We should block off the exits,” Moll said. We stood side by side, shoulders uncomfortably close, peering down a narrow alley. I shook my head.
“No need. Like you said – it’s not going anywhere.”
She shrugged. There should have been more than two of us, really, but the rest of the office was tied up with the mass sheddings in Preston. We moved in down the passageway, and into the complex, together. The night air was icy; I could feel my skin prickling in the cold.
We didn’t have far to go. It was waiting in the open square beyond the alley, lurched over behind one of those kiosks that street vendors work from. We could see it from quite a way off, like a stain left behind by spilled food gone rotten. The bloody footprints devolved into a snail-trail of meat and gore as we got closer. It was an ugly thing, red and welting and skinless. It looked, more than anything, like what it was – like a man’s insides had torn themselves out of him, and gone walkabout.
My collar felt too tight around my neck. I was sweating, even as I watched my breath fog the chilly air. Moll slung her rucksack off her shoulder.
“You hang back. I’ll bag him,” she said.
“It’s an it, Moll.”
She rolled her eyes. “Gotcha.”
Out of her rucksack unspooled a billowing sheet of fabric, like a parachute. Moll gripped the edges and stretched her arms out as far as she could, holding the sheet up in front of her. I stood a little way off to the side, uneasy. She began to walk towards the thing on the floor, alert for any sudden movement.
It didn’t react to her approach. The eyes drooped loose in their sockets, lazy and dead; bones rustled as the exposed flesh that caged them started to slough away. It had even less fight left in it than we’d expected. Slumped against the kiosk, it was barely even moving by the time Moll slipped the sack over it. There was a brief, scrabbling struggle, like the frenzy of a spider when it realises it’s been trapped under a glass, but Moll held the edges of the sheet tight. After a couple of seconds the writhing was over, and it lay still.
“Well,” she muttered, “that was anti-climactic. Help me clean up?”
While she took the thing’s weight, I maneuvered the corners of the sheet together, and tied them in an ungainly knot. The fabric was black, but I could still see the murky red patches starting to soak through. Limp limbs jutted at unnatural angles under the pall.
“I’ll carry – it – to the car,” Moll said, wrestling the body upright. She waved her arm around, vaguely, at the bloodstains across the floor and the walls. “You deal with all this.”
Without waiting for a reply she straightened up and walked off in odd shuffling steps, struggling with the weight across her shoulders. The corpse sagged beneath the sheet.
I turned away, staring at the kiosk. The space where it had been felt empty now, as if carrying the thing away had ripped a scab off the skin of the world. I started to unpack my rucksack with clumsy, shivering fingers, and wondered how it would feel to slip out of my hands like they were gloves.
Alex Smith lives and studies in Lancaster, England. His work has previously been published by Daily Science Fiction, Hello Horror, and The Molotov Cocktail. At night, his stories climb out of his laptop and play tricks on him.