Silence compressed a million racing thoughts into each moment, until the shack’s limited air space became too dense to breathe.
“So…”Rayanna shifted in her chair. She pointed at a stack of newspapers next to Reeve’s feet. “Do you get that delivered from the local press?”
“This henhouse liner, here?” He snatched the top sheet and crumpled it. “Wouldn’t pay a spit fingernail for ’em to deliver this. Nobody’d cart it all this way if I did.”
“Not a fan of the editor, I guess.” She forced a weak smile, but her lips wilted mid-attempt.
“I never said any such thing.” He crammed the wads into the fireplace. “Stu’s decent folk. Just can’t print a useful word to save his life or anybody else’s.”
As he toggled a lever inside the flue, a draft breathed chills through the room and swept them across Rayanna’s raw arms. She shivered, but could not hug herself without intensifying the pain of her burns. On the front wall, dried herbs hung above shelves cluttered with dusty mason jars and corked bottles. One of the amber or green suspensions might hold some kind of burn ointment, but she didn’t request his help.
She wiped her dewy palms onto the tops of her thighs. “If I can’t make it to town tonight, then what … happens now?”
“Said you don’t want to impose, didn’tcha?” He struck a long match against the hearth stones. Pointing the flame at her, he said, “Reckon we ought to see if you can make yourself useful.”
She stood. “Meaning what?”
Cackling, he set the kindling ablaze. Reeve layered branches onto the furious spray of embers. “Depends on what you’re up for.”
“You hungry, Anna?” He stabbed the firewood into place.
As if on cue, her gut volleyed several growls through her core. “I could eat.”
“You one of them vegan-types?” He stood clenching a glowing poker. “Or are you more of a carnivore?”
“I’m not a vegetarian.”
“Hmm. A meat-hungry creature.” As he took a step toward her, a glint flashed over his irises.
Rayanna recoiled, but the shine vanished as if it had never been there. Just a reflection of firelight.
He aimed the firebrand at a lidded iron cauldron. “Then you can fetch me that stew pot.”
She shuffled to the corner and heaved the crock by its bail handle. The skin stretched painfully tight on her arms. Must weigh fifty pounds. She stifled the groans under her breath. Gritting her teeth, she toted the minerally-smelling meal to the hearth. An ochre, briny fluid sloshed out from beneath the lid onto her leg.
Reeve took the cauldron from her without the slightest hint of labored breath. As if it were aluminum, rather than iron. He fixed it in place over the fire, then gestured to her pant leg. “You’ll want to clean that off before leavin out of here.”
She stepped back from the increasing heat of the flames. “Oh?”
“With the raw meat in it, ‘n all.”
Despite attempts to steady her voice, she stammered. “W-what kind of meat is it?”
He dusted his hands and walked past her. “That’s a question best left unasked.”
*** TO BE CONTINUED ***