He paused for a moment as her detachment perturbed him, but the thin fabric of her t-shirt ripped easily and he continued his assault.
Suddenly, his breath choked in his throat as her fingers became talons and the flesh dropped away from her face like icing from dry cake. Razor fingernails dug deep into his chest, slicing his flesh. She enjoyed the brilliant red welling that surged slowly over his skin.
Afterwards, sucking his blood from her fleshless fingernails, she discarded the now tepid thigh, and stretched out her fibrous wings. Satan was right. Manflesh is easy to procure.
He was bored and looking for new highs, new excitements. This was one way.
She followed him up the back stairs to his apartment. They smelled of dust and pee. Slept in worse, she thought.
My flat, come in, he said, locking the door behind him.
His flat was untidy. His hand slapped her hard across the face and he caught her hair before she hit the floor, pulling her back upright. He hit her twice in quick succession, stomach then face, then threw her backwards onto an unmade bed.
This is something different, he thought, forgetting his previous boredom.
I've been homeless, lived out of a rucksack since I ran away from care, she told him. I used to be afraid. At first. But after you've survived everything that's happened, you stop fighting it. You don't like it, but at least you don't feel afraid.
She had no idea why she was telling him this.
I don't feel fear anymore, she affirmed to him, just a kind of numbness. The cold dark numbness at night, the cloying warm numbness by day.
He smiled as if he understood.
Come with me, he said, I'll find you somewhere warm to sleep.
The cheetah walked on through the blazing heat with no clear idea of where he was going.
Ahead, the road burned hot and bright beneath skies afire in memories of savannah and plain. Hunger became more than a distant sensation. When, eventually, the cheetah turned to look behind him, the boy was nothing more than a shimmering, amorphous shape that disappeared into a formless expanse.
He stopped eyeing the distance when thirst provoked him, and he turned and went on his way, aware only of the blazing heat and his aching legs, his tired, smarting eyes and his dry mouth.
The cheetah flicked its head to one side and took two slow steps forward, closer to the boy, then stopped once more. The boy did not immediately move.
Finally, the boy tentatively took a few uncertain paces on his way until he had passed the cheetah. Then he stopped and looked back.
The cheetah's eyes were fixed on him, its head slowly turning as the boy moved away.
The cheetah considered him for a while, observing that he was being watched closely; then he turned his attention back to the road and, carrying his tail long behind him, began walking.
A torpid silence oppressed them both, though occasionally a faint sound struggled through the porridge of hot air from somewhere far below. The cheetah’s tail twitched again. It was the only discernible movement.
Three crows alighted on the hedge nearby. The faint sound of a horse’s neigh came from below.
The boy didn't know how much time had passed, nor did he care. It wasn’t important. All he knew was that the sun was dropping and his and the cheetah’s shadows, which had now merged into one sprawling blackened shape on the road, as if fused, was beginning to lengthen.
Its stomach pulsed quicker with each breath until one memory became separated from the herd and the cheetah closed in on it.
Smell of dust and stretch of stride, reaching claws and slash at hide, leap and scratch, lunge and leap and tear, sweet tang of blood, pounding of heart... and tissue rips and memory falls.
The flesh is hot and wet and red. The cheetah's breathing slows as it waits for liquid life to turn white dust a blackened red.
The herd, calming, looks on from far away.
Through all this, and blind to it, the boy stood, alone.
With all his heart the boy wanted to reach out to touch the cheetah's head: he stopped himself because he thought that it may frighten the animal and he knew that fear bled anger.
The cheetah watched the boy's pupils dilate.
Its claws scraped as they scored marks on the ground. Its pulse quickened as it remembered blood spurting and oozing. A memory of a previous, more recent kill herded memories of other kills within the cheetah's mind. Those memories ran and fled in tumult behind the cheetah's narrowed eyes, causing its whiskers to twitch and its nostrils to flare.
By now the boy was in touching distance of the big cat and its hazel eyes stared at him without blinking. A small insect crawled on its face, along the black line that ran along the side of its nose to its chin. The cheetah sat back on its haunches and its tail swayed. A muscle in the cheetah's neck twitched.
The boy stopped.
Silently, they surveyed each other.
He looked into the cheetah’s eyes and imagined a measureless expanse of plain, huge white boulders and a clean and clear spring, the world as it was when it was fresher.
As the boy approached the animal at the brow of the hill, a distant horizon conjured itself out of nothing, displaying its hazey greys, blues and greens. A world opened into his eyes, revealed itself to him from below, like a flower blossoming or a dream rising silently out of the unseen future: fields, tiny hamlets, a river strangely dark it appeared like a pencil line on a painting. The hedges on each side sentried the road as it plunged into this panorama, revealing two fields, one full of sheep, a further distant one home to a pair of donkeys.
To study the cheetah better the boy slowed his pace but did not stop walking. The cheetah waited, tensed and unmoving in the centre of the road, barely two feet of dusty rock between each taut flank and the brambled hedges on either side. The boy was not afraid: there was no reason for fear because there was no possibility of escape should the cheetah attack. The boy's pace, though slower, continued.
The cheetah's long tail twitched erratically then stopped moving. Its lip sneered on one side in a silent snarl, revealing incisors and one long, white and glistening canine.
The boy continued walking. In contrast to the limpid and revealing light immediately surrounding him, the scorched air ahead shimmered and made everything a hazy blur. He rubbed hot eyes with dirty fingers, but try as he might, he could not focus; the distance remained stubbornly unclear.
So much so that when the shifting outline of an animal emerged out of the haze its form appeared imprecise, insubstantial and illusory. The boy continued walking.
It took another minute or so before the distant shape took on the definite form of a cheetah. It stood, tensed and motionless, watching the boy.
To left and right high hedges barred any view to the side, so he concentrated on walking forward, seeing every minute detail in the road, every small rock in the sun-whitened dust sharp, singular and unique, as he passed. The road rose slightly, up to a brow of a hill, then dipped away as if it disappeared. The incline was gentle but the road straight, so that all the boy could see was the heat-paled blue of the sky before him; and above the high hedging on either side nothing but relentless blue, cloudless and hot and glaring.
The young boy had been walking for some time through the blazing heat with no clear idea of where he was going. His shoes were grimed with dust and his eyes were dry and smarting from the brightness. Hunger began to be more than a distant sensation. His mouth felt as arid as the hot stony road which burned through his soles, and the sweat stayed only momentarily on his forehead.
He felt little pain when he moved, despite having walked far enough to create blisters on his feet, but his legs ached and he began to feel light-headed.