By Elaine Webster

River chewed her tongue—a childhood habit that comforted her in some basic way. Ari would be unlocking the door to their apartment just about now. It would take him awhile to unearth the note she left on the bar next to the scotch bottle.  She could hear the click of the ice as it dropped into the whiskey glass, then the pour and first sip. He would notice it where the bottle was, plain, simple and strong like the drink.

River’s attraction to older men had led her to the college professor’s bed. She liked them strong, smart and handsome; each one meaner than the last. This time she would break the cycle for good—get away from the smog and settle in the high desert of New Mexico. The lab tech job didn’t pay well, but Summerford Genetic Testing Laboratory had extensive government contracts and promise of a financially secure future. The remote location, hidden away in plain view, in a mundane gated and security patrolled Business Park, offered River solace.  She rolled down the window and waited for the guard to speak.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m here for a job interview,” River said as she dug through her purse and unfolded a scrap of paper.  “I have an appointment with . . . uh . . . Manuel Chavez.”

“Oh, yeah, Manny said he was expecting you. I’ll give him a buzz. Hold on a second.”

River dabbed at her forehead—she’d get used to the heat—after all it’s a dry heat—which she’s been told is better. The lab would be air-conditioned and the desert cooled in the evenings. She’d be all right—she had to be.

“Okay, Manny’s in his office. Drive straight until you hit the dead end. His office is on the right. You’ll see his name on the door. Good Luck.”

River pulled her Ford Focus next to a Jeep Wrangler with dealer plates and the word “Rubicon” initialed on the side. The office door opened as she turned off the engine and a weathered man, well over sixty emerged. He wiped his palm on denim jeans and held his hand out to River.

“Welcome. Sorry I didn’t dress for the occasion, but I forgot to do laundry this week. Gotta hire a housekeeper one of these days. I’m going to be your boss,” he said.

“I’m River  . . . River Agosto,” she answered as they shook hands. “Am I hired? You haven’t even interviewed me.”

“Well I read your résumé and if you want the job, it’s yours . . . doesn’t pay much and I’m lucky to have you. This place makes tons of money off the government, but is chintzy with the paychecks. C’mon in and I’ll show you the place . . . again nothin’ fancy, but it does the trick.”

River glanced around at the computers and lab equipment—all typical.  A subtle putrid odor permeated the air. “What’s that smell?” she asked.

“Oh, I clean the specimen cages daily, but they still stink . . . can’t get all the smell out of the air. We’re doing some research for the military—trying to genetically cross amphibians with rodents. You know how they say that after a nuclear war all that will be left are the rats and cockroaches? Well in reality it would be rats and lizards. Anyway we’ve made some progress crossing the DNA. Washington wants to save some money and stop sending people to war. They think they can do more damage with animal combinations, specifically designed to survive chemical weapons. I guess in some weird way it makes sense—to stop killing people and fight our wars with genetic mutations.”

River took a step back. “Is that what I’ll be doing here, mutating animals? I don’t think I can do that. I don’t eat animals . . . I certainly won’t torture them.”

“No worries, sweet pea. We’re wrapping up the live specimen research. You’ll be mainly analyzing data—all on the computer modules. You won’t have a reason to get your hands dirty. You did come here for a job, didn’t you?”

“Yes, yes, of course. I’m sorry; I just haven’t been in an animal research lab for a while, it’s part of the reason I became a vegetarian . . . can’t stand the sight of blood.”

“Well if it’s animals you like, I’ve got plenty of them on my ranch. Do you have a place to live yet?”

“I haven’t gotten that far. First I wanted to see if you’d hire me, and then check into a motel for a week or two to see if it works out. I work hard and long hours don’t bother me, but I can be sorta sensitive.”

“Sensitivity makes for a good scientist. We don’t need to talk much, anyway. We get our daily tasks through the network and as long as our list is up-to-date we can come and go as we please.”

Multiple work stations lined the walls. “Who else will I be working with? It seems like you’re set up for about ten people.”

Manny glanced at the clock. “Listen why don’t you let me take you to lunch, then I can explain more. I also have a proposition for you.”

The word proposition sent chills up River’s spine. No more men— that was the pact she had made with herself. Plus Manny was too old—even for her.

*   *   *

Four-wheel-drive seemed to be the common bond between the vehicles parked in front of the local diner. The smell of broiled burgers and deep fried potatoes welcomed River as she emerged from Manny’s jeep. “Will I be able to eat anything here?” she asked.

“Oh damn, I forgot. Say, listen, I’m a harmless old guy. Why don’t you come back to the ranch with me and I’ll cook you up some fresh vegies and rice?”

Raven flinched again and silently screamed, no . . . no . . . no!

Manny sensed her dilemma. “Look, I lost my wife a few years ago. I have a big ranch with two houses. I keep up the outside okay and tend the livestock, but my housekeeping sucks. I haven’t done laundry in weeks and I was going to ask you . . . since you need to rent a place and all . . . if you’d consider living in the cottage out back in exchange for some cleanin’ and cookin’. If you want we can go out there now and you can see the place.”

Everything was happening a little too fast—but what the hell—it can’t hurt to look. But he better not try anything.  She dug her nails into the passenger-side arm rest, while Manny chatted on about the job and how hard it was to find good lab help out here in the land of no opportunity. It took thirty minutes for the Jeep to maneuver the two-lane paved, then one-lane gravel road, to the ranch. The jeep handled the potholes with ease, but River held on tight until they pulled up to the front of a stucco ranch house with solar paneled roofing. Several steel windmills mounted on the nearby hills turned in the moderate breezes while cattle and sheep grazed the dry grasses.

“Oh I see you’re into green technology,” River said.

“Yeah, I’m completely off-the-grid, so to speak.  Haven’t paid utility bills in years,” Manny replied as he put his shoulder to the car door. “Wait and I’ll get your door for you.”

“No, no . . . I can do it,” River quipped as she slid out the passenger side. She didn’t want this old man helping her—or touching her for that matter—she didn’t know why.

Manny shrugged and started off towards the backyard. River jogged to catch up with him and moments later they stood facing the small cottage behind the main house.

“This was my wife’s art studio. I keep it the same as when she left it, but I think it’s time someone else lives here. If you want I’ll let you have it in exchange for some housework. What do you think?”

River turned the door knob and stepped into a room of safety. Sketches and paintings covered the cream-colored walls. Most were figure drawings of people—young and old, clothed and nude—each had an expression of pure unadulterated love.  The children’s eyes sparkled, the old men winked, the women were beautifully draped with satin fabrics.

“Oh no, this is your wife’s studio? I can’t live here.” River whispered.

“Well it’s time for me to move on. We can pack this stuff up and you can re-decorate.”

“Can I ask what happened to her? I’d need to know before I think about this.”

Manny slid into the over-stuffed chair by the window. A splash of sunlight through a crystal prism bounced a rainbow off his cheek. Manny slumped and stared as if in a trance. “I killed her.”

River took a step back and looked towards the door. What was she thinking coming here? Nausea hit, her pulse raced and panic sent her running. She got halfway to the front yard, when she realized she had no car—she was stuck. She froze. Manny came up behind her, touched her left shoulder and she let out the breath she held.

“I’m sorry, Manny said. “I didn’t actually kill her—she committed suicide. Please come inside the house. I’ll make some coffee and I’ll tell you more.”

*    *    *

River did move into the studio. Manny over time revealed the pain he had caused the one closest to him. He had adored his wife, but his words didn’t match his feelings. He described the anger as a reflex, something contained in his brain cells. He didn’t know why he said the things he did—he didn’t mean them—they flew on their own.

River knew Manny well. He was her father and her lovers. He was Ari, who she had abandoned for the desert, freedom, and healing.   She hadn’t changed anything in the studio—instead she settled into the peace that lived there. There was one photo of Manny’s wife—a framed clipping from an art magazine. She had blue eyes and shoulder-length white hair—carefully styled. The magazine said she was an up-coming local artist, specializing in the human form. River liked that line, “Specializing in the human form.”  In some way she felt if she could merge with the woman in the picture, she could heal them all, even the one who took her own life.

A barn and animal enclosures filled the property behind the cottage. River got to know the Nubian goats and Rhode Island Red Hens by name. She bonded with a young doe, Gretel, and they took daily hikes together. Sure-footed Gretel mastered the steep hillsides with ease and often ran ahead as River brought up the rear.

“Gretel, wait up,” River gasped—breathless from an especially strenuous climb.  She pulled herself over a rocky ledge and stared into a pair of steely-grey eyes. The four foot tall creature, stood erect and stunk like rotten meat—blood dripped from its month.  The pair stared at each other for a few seconds until the shaggy, brown-haired creature squealed and ran off into the nearby ravine.  A soft bleating sounded from behind a nearby boulder.  River sprinted towards the cries.

“Oh my God, Gretel! What happened to you?” River gathered the goat into her arms. There were two puncture holes in Gretel’s neck and River pulled a towel from her daypack. She wrapped her companion’s neck, and hoisted the limp body over her shoulders.  Luckily they hadn’t climbed more than a quarter mile and River descended the trail with the unconscious goat in less than an hour—slipping and often sliding short distances.  When they reached the house, Manny, belted back his second morning Bloody Mary and stumbled towards the pair. River dropped to her knees and allowed her burden to roll into her boss’s arms.

“Be careful with her—she’s hurt pretty bad,” River instructed and unable to ignore Manny’s breath asked, “Have you been drinking, already?”

“No more than usual,” he said, shrugging off the comment. “C’mon let’s get her to the barn. I have something to stop the bleeding.”

Manny, used to tending livestock injuries, stopped the bleeding, cleaned and wrapped the wound and re-hydrated Gretel with an IV-drip. The effort had physically and mentally sobered him. Exhausted he lowered himself next to a shaken River seated on a bale of hay. He took her hand as she pulled away.

“Wait, sit down . . . I won’t hurt you,” he said to the trembling woman.

“How do I know that? How do I know who will and will not hurt me? You’re like every man I’ve known, sweetly cruel, stupidly drunk and unreliable.”

“I haven’t always been this way,” Manny mumbled. “It’s this place and this job. I spend my days designing beings and systems meant to destroy. From Gretel’s wounds, it appears she ran into one of my experiments.”

“You mean that you created that thing I saw, in the lab?”

“We call them Chupacabras— goat-suckers—Gretel’s lucky she’s alive.  They adapt well to both desert and jungle environments; are merciless killers, and as you know, it’s been our military project for the last year to come up with a new weapon. Several escaped from the lab awhile back and the government put a hold on the project until we do damage control—I laid off the lab technicians working on the project. You’re the first new hire since last year. I thought I had trapped them all—but obviously not.”

River backed to the far wall and slid to the floor. Through the open barn door she gazed at the flocks and herds of animals that wandered Manny’s property. “So the livestock are lab animals?”

“Well they started out that way, but my wife, Tara, adopted them as pets,” Manny started then stopped. He resumed as if he had a list memorized. “A vegan, like you, she fought for their lives and with me. The work hardened me—I built up a defensive wall—no one got in—not even Tara. I drank more. We drifted apart. I had my work and she had hers. I grew hard, angry and cruel. She grew distant, afraid and anxious. I finally had the cottage built, so she could be alone. It worked for a while until I grabbed her prize rooster for lab animal feed. When I came home for lunch that day, she was dead—took an overdose of valium—the pain was too much.”

River stared at the man. Once again she wanted to run as far away from him and this place as she could. All she could think about was that no matter what she did, or went, she ended up with her back against the wall. What was the attraction? How do these people find her?—or does she find them?

*    *    *

Gretel recovered—the old man and young woman didn’t. River had walked away that day determined to break free from everybody—at least until she knew how to mend. She and Manny worked in the lab, but talked very little. On the ranch they avoided each other—never saying more than, “good morning,” or “nice day.” River analyzed data which lived on spreadsheets. She didn’t care what the numbers felt—just that they added up—made sense—didn’t fall out of place. All was good, until one afternoon she glanced up from her computer screen and Ari towered over her.

River gasped, “What are YOU doing here?”

“Sweetheart, I’m here to take you home—with me—now c’mon,” he said as he pulled the rolling desk chair around.

“I meant what I said in that note I left,” she hissed. “How did you find me, anyway?”

Before Ari could reply, Manny came in from the back room. “What’s going on here?”

“Who the hell are you?” Ari grumbled.

“I’m her boss. How did you get past security?”

Manny hit a red button and an alarm sounded. Ari started for the door just as the patrol car pulled up and an armed guard emerged with his weapon drawn. River panicked, put herself between the two and addressed the guard by name. “Carl, it’s okay, I know this man.”

“Well he hopped the fence on my shift and I’m not getting in trouble for it,” Carl said as he grabbed Ari’s arm, pushed him over the car hood and rummaged through his pockets. “This is government property . . . you’re going to jail.”

Manny came up behind River, “Who is that guy?” he asked.

“Ari, who I thought I’d never see again. I give-up—what’s wrong with me? I’m not that special—why won’t they leave me alone? Am I some sort of bully magnet?”

Manny touched River’s shoulder, but she pulled away. “Don’t you touch me . . . I don’t want anybody touching me!” River threw open the office door, grabbed her purse, stomped past Manny, lowered herself into her car and sped away. Within minutes she was inches from the rear bumper of the security guard’s car and she leaned heavy on the horn.

“Pull over . . . goddamn it . . . I want to talk to you!” she yelled into the dashboard, until the car in front pulled over.

Ari got out of the car. The guard came next. River ran straight towards them, “You son-of-a-bitch! How dare you show up here?”

River picked up a fistful of gravel and flung it at Ari, who ducked it. “Hold on sweetheart, you’re upset . . . slow down.”

River reached down for another handful of gravel, and the security guard grabbed her arm.

“Okay, just hold on, now. This obviously isn’t any of my business, but you’re gonna hurt someone and I can’t have this sort of thing happen on my shift. Look, buddy, get back in the car and I’ll drop you off at the gate. And missy, I’d suggest you go back to work, unless you want me to call the sheriff.

River dropped the gravel—stared for a second as the two men drove off—she couldn’t breathe. She squatted for a second and forced air into her lungs, then blew it out.  She repeated the exercise until the anxiety subsided and slid back into her car.

When she re-emerged at the cottage, she locked the door behind her, slumped to the floor and sobbed huge air-gasping cries, unaware of the Chupacabra that stared from across the room—that is until the odor reached her nose. River froze—the thing approached and sniffed at her toes. Dried blood covered its chin and chest and River spied a rabbit carcass by the kitchen door. The lizard-rat crouched. River squirmed along the floor towards the door. It pounced forward and leapt, both feet airborne, then crashed on top of her. Blood spurted from the gunshot wound that had blown most of the skull away. Manny shimmied through the broken window.

“River!” he screamed.

River pushed at the dead animal and rolled it away. Blood spattered the walls and ceiling, yet she felt safe—the fear gone—the panic ended.

Manny knelt and gently took her hand in his. “Are you okay? I’ve been tracking that beast since the attack on Gretel. I never thought it would end up here.”

“Something is done—finished. Can you feel it?” she asked.

Manny shuttered. He grabbed for the bookcase as leverage. Tara’s photo tipped off the top shelf and fell in his lap.  Her twinkling blue eyes looked up at him—deep as a mountain glacier—her smile—how he had loved that smile.

“Yes, I feel it. I’ve been forgiven.”