She awoke in the woods, sprawled across a carpet of dead leaves. She had no memory of how she came to be there. It was night, and she knew from the emptying trees and the spray of frost that it was late in the year, but she wasn’t cold, and the wind raised no gooseflesh on her bare arms.
There was movement around her. Her first thought was of animals, and she was afraid—hadn’t coyotes finally made their way to East Tennessee? Then she thought of things worse than animals, and her fear stretched and contorted until it became something approaching hysteria. She lay very still, willing herself to be calm. When the cold, hard thing in her belly shrank back into something manageable, she turned her head to look around.
She was not alone; others had been abandoned to this place, too. Some were nearby, close enough that she could have called out to them, had she not been afraid to attract their attention. They didn’t seem concerned with her, though; most of them appeared just as disoriented and confused as she was. A couple were even lying in claustrophobic chicken wire enclosures, the flimsy metal hugging their forms as they struggled to sit up.
Some had already gained their feet. A man steadied himself against a tree a few yards away, but clouds had drawn close to the moon and she could make out little but his form in the shadow of the old oak. She heard movement very close by and realized that the sound had been there all along, skirting the edges of her awareness. She lay very still and tried to place it—a wet, rustling sound that dodged her attempts to pin it down. There was a car nearby that looked as if it hadn’t been moved in a very long time. She had a terrible idea that the movement was coming from within its trunk.
She sat up slowly, waiting for pain that never came. Her body didn’t feel like her own; there was a lightness about it, a strange emptiness that she couldn’t explain. There was also something very important missing, but she couldn’t put a name to it, so she turned her thoughts elsewhere.
She finally stood, deciding that, though she didn’t know where to go, she didn’t want to be here anymore. All of her ambulatory companions were moving in the same direction, so she followed, unsteady on her feet at first but moving more surely as her legs warmed to the task. She passed a man who crouched in a small gully, clutching something gray and fur-covered to his mouth. He looked up at her as she passed; half of his face was smeared with wet, glistening gore. The other half simply wasn’t there.
A commotion off to her left drew her attention. She turned to see a pair of deer watching her from just a few yards away, immobile but for the curling white wisps of their breath in the night air. She watched them until a realization struck and she raised a hand to her mouth, understanding what vital thing was missing: no pale mist clouded the air in front of her mouth, and her chest was still. She tugged at the front of the unfamiliar cotton shirt she wore, and saw that her torso was divided by a long, Y-shaped line that started just under her breasts and stretched beneath the waistband of the pants she wore.
A memory came to her then, of lying on a metal table in a brightly lit room while indifferent hands moved gently but surely inside her. The memory brought with it the unwelcome realization that the wet, wriggling sound that had followed her was not a sound at all, but a far more visceral sensation, as if hundreds of tiny, unclean things were writhing and tumbling over themselves inside her.
The first casualty of the realization was her sanity, so there was little left of her when she finally came to the tall, razor wire-topped wooden fence. It should have seemed strange to her that the gate had been left open, since this was obviously a place that was designed to protect whatever lay within it from casual disturbances. A few days ago she would have taken note of the sign that read “Anthropology Research Facility,” or the young man that stood in the shadows with an ornate, blood-stained knife in his hand and a smile on his face, watching the exodus from the Body Farm. Even if she had noticed these things, she had gone to a place where none of them mattered. Nothing mattered but to leave these woods.
She hadn’t been walking long when she came to a two-lane road. Though it was wooded and curved, it had the look of one that saw frequent traffic. She didn’t know which way to go—only that she wanted to be very far away from this place—so she turned left and kept walking. She tried to think about anything but the fact that her feet seemed to slide a little in their skin with each step, or that the rough pavement caused no pain when it gnawed at the soles of her feet.
Headlights hugged the curve ahead of her and a white SUV sped toward her, slowing as it approached. She stopped walking as the vehicle drew to a halt a few feet past her and the driver got out, taking a few hesitant steps in her direction. When he was close enough to see that she was not well, he spoke.
“Oh, my god. Are you okay? What happened?” He started toward her with an arm outstretched, and she shrank back. He stopped, and she realized she had no reason to fear him.
“Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” he asked, concern plain on his face. “It’s close. Let me help you, okay? Just get in.”
She hesitated a moment longer before climbing into the passenger seat of his vehicle. He got in beside her and put a hand between them to clutch the gear shift. It was only when she smelled the salty-sweet tang of the young man’s skin that she realized how very hungry she was.