The van's gear stick required a firm and persistent hand. Grinding it home caused the clutch to respond with a gnashing of metal teeth followed by the release of a gritty, acrid scent, not dissimilar from an electrical fire. The gears would soon quiet but the smell would hang around, seeping up and back from the engine as the van lurched on. This did not worry Nat. There was always a sharp chemical miasma filling the van, so much so, she could imagine petrol-slick rainbows floating, faint and spectral in the air around her. The petrochemical haze was reinforced regularly from her battles with the gear-box or from the slow, rough coughs that accompanied the engine's clawing, desperate attempts to drag itself uphill.
With the effort of shifting gear, Nat's grip on the steering wheel tightened, her right hand clamping down so that the plump pads of skin sitting below her finger's joints were mashed between squeaking faux-leather and the tarnished rings that wrapped themselves about her knuckles. The pressure and friction resulted in a warm, dull ache that worked itself into her fingers and through the flesh of her palm. She released her grip, unfurled her fingers and forced the heel of her hand against the imitation leather, stretching and working the joints to coerce the blood through and out. Her knuckles undulated in repeating waves as the pain and stiffness began to recede, allowing her attention to snap back to the passing features of the roadside while her hand settled gently on the wheel.
Nat's eyes ticked back and forth rhythmically, snapping forward to each street sign and then drifting across the windscreen, following their names as they arced past and then fell back to join the many others in the van's wake. The repetition of signs bearing names other than the one sought-for, caused Nat's agitation to build once more. Her hands again gripped the clammy steering wheel tighter and tighter causing a thick, hot ache to surface and coalesce into clusters of fiery needles, breaking through from mild discomfort into a gnawing that dragged her attention back to her hand. Nat realised that she was no longer reading the street signs.
Nat pulled up at the side of the empty road and her good hand reached over to the plastic file on the passenger seat. She flicked it open and leafed through the papers inside, eventually finding the one containing the additional directions. These often useless instructions were given by vacant-minded arseholes and copied down by dispatchers with, by the look of this one, gnarled claws in place of hands. The claw-writing was the low uneven sprawl of a loose but twisted hedgerow, squat and sparse, sitting on an uneven landscape, punctuated with deep, irregular fissures.
"Jesus" she though, "I might have to actually call them."
Nat hated calling. Trying to get clear instructions over the phone was like pulling teeth, or changing gear come to think of it. And having to be grateful for their help. Bloody hell. Thanks so much. See you soon and sorry to bother you. No way. Not today. Not on her first drop.
"Fuuuuuck" she muttered, drawing the word out into a long, low growl.
Nat decided to brave the tangled bramble of instructions one last time. Closer inspection revealed the words post and office sitting together, just this side of legible, towards the end of the twisted claw's scrawl. There had been a post-office at the foot of the hill.
Tossing the papers in the general direction of the file and then gripping the gearstick firmly once more, Nat swung the van around and demanded the full attention of her faculties. Muttering the names of the streets and cul-de-sacs out loud, she forced her discomfort and irritation into the back and managed to eventually spot a possible suspect, just before she reached the post office. The sign hung, half-collapsed, filthy and splattered with both mud and drippy graffiti so that, at first glance, it read "Shitous Drive" rather than its given name.
Nat pulled down on the wheel and apllied the brakes, the van wheezing with relief as it turned and rattled to a standstill. She noted the drop's reference number, grabbed its paper work and swung the door open. She gripped the wheel with her left hand and, swinging her legs out to the side, slid off the seat and onto the pavement, then bounced into a quick turn and kicked the door shut behind her. She resisted the reflex to turn and look, a dull crunch satisfying her that the door had hit home. After trudging around the van, she wrenched opened the back doors, wincing at the screech of straining metal as they swung out. A tumble-down, scattered pile of parcels greeted her inside, reminding her of the hasty u-turn moments ago. Her hand clamped the edge of the door in frustration and that hot ache again pulsed in her palm.
Nat began to methodically work through the jagged landscape of dull edges and right-angles, gradually imposing order on them while hunting for the appropriate package. When she eventually came across it, a cube about a foot on each side, she noticed one edge had taken a hit and buckled. Part of the cardboard had torn, the frayed but regular corrugated furrows laying exposed, and toward the corner it had begun to come away, threatening to reveal the package's contents. Nat lifted the box and gently bounced it in her hands while turning it to check for any further damage. Then, satisfied with its structural integrity, she gripped the box under one arm, keeping the troubled corner upright, grabbed the paperwork and slammed the back doors closed. With the paperwork pocketed and the box held firmly in two hands, she headed towards the house.
Walking up the cracked flagstones, she noticed the odd shifts of weight within the package. It was as if there was some fluid inside, flowing left and right, almost in pace with her steps, but the redistribution of mass occurred with a slight delay, as if the innards were incredibly thick and retained an unusual amount of momentum. Nat's imagination conjured up the unwelcome image of a writhing albino octopus struggling against the confines of its prison, contorting itself and its appendages, wildly seeking a way out. Her thoughts lingered on those undulating tentacles, puckered cables twisting against the tangled mass of themselves, running, turning, looping and constantly insinuating themselves around and through one another. A living knot of muscle and motion; a multitude of organised discrete intelligences thrashing and plotting in the dark. Her eyes wandered to the curl of cardboard at the corner of the box, beneath her chin. She could probably see a little of the something that moved about inside. If she held it close enough. Tilted it just right.
"No" she thought, and with a jerk of determined professionalism, she jutted her chin out and up, defiant against her own curiosity.
"As if I care what's in some box."
The delivery must have gone smoothly, as Nat was sitting in the van and slipping the key into the neck of the steering column before she knew it. That was how it went with the simple drops. Autopilot. She didn't really remember any of the mundane personal interactions with which her job afflicted her. Nat's apathy resisted the mind's attempts to store and replay those tedious exchanges. So long as a drop went smoothly, she couldn't tell you much about the person other than their name and address. It was an automated process, its details unworthy of recollection.
The van started and pulled away easily but it was another battle to work up into third gear. Again, pain ignited in her palm. Nat held her hand up and flexed the fingers to pump the stiff ache away. Then she noticed something sitting on the back of her hand. A small black cube that was the dull, matt texture of worn rubber, about the size of a pea, embedded in her skin just behind her first and second knuckle. The skin curled up slightly as it met the black cube's edges, as if her hand had opened itself to this thing planted into her. She though that she must have knocked the hand, and the black cube had been pressed into into the flesh and stuck. Looking closely, Nat thought she could almost see faint, grey tracks at the corners, as if dark veins were spreading out from the points of the black cube that lay under her skin's surface. She turned the hand, tilting it this way and that, to reassure herself that these were merely shadows playing around the cube's edges. After pressing at the puckered skin and finding that there was no soreness there, she began to pick at the black cube wallowing in her skin. With her finger-nail scratching over it, she could feel it rubbing against her forefinger's tendon, inside the hand and, as she worked at the black cube, that taught cable slipped under and around it, with almost audible gristly clicks.
Suddenly the space between her ears was twisted and yanked down by the blare of a screaming horn. She tasted metallic sparks of adrenaline in the back of her suddenly dry mouth as her eyes flicked up, fixing on the impossibly close truck pressing towards her. Her hands instinctively shot down and pulled hard on the side of the wheel. The van swerving and threatening to tip as it arced across the road, narrowly avoiding the truck and riding wide, the front wheel striking the curb. The horn wailed past while Nat was thrown forward and then forced back, her seatbelt jerking her down into the seat as the van mounted the curb and slumped to a standstill.
The van had settled at a slight angle to the pavement but, surprisingly, it was more or less parked. Nat's hands were still clamped around the wheel, her knuckles white and her eyes wide, jaws clenching tightly behind thin, pale lips. Her head shook slightly as she stared ahead, vacant, her gaze fixed on nothing. Nat returned to herself, forced her head to turn and examine each mirror, as well as the road ahead. She found it to be deserted apart from the truck shrinking slowly behind her. She watched it disappear. There was now time and space for her to breathe.
Nat forced her grip to relax and her jaws to part, then took two deep, deliberate breaths. She nodded slowly and squeezed her eyes shut as she filled her lungs one more time. Her eyelids snapped apart and she reached down to open the van's door and tumbled out to inspect the damage. The tyre had blown and the curb had gouged a deep fissure into the wheel's rim.
"Call the office" she said to herself. "Get it done. Get it over with. Just get home"
A few questions later and the call was done. Help was on the way. One hour, maybe two. Nat got back into the van and played the incident over in her mind. That thing in her hand! She pressed the palm against the window and leaned in to examine the small black cube but it was no longer there. An indented square sat where it had been, a small white recess with raised skin around it. The cube must have fallen off during that almost-crash moments ago. It knocked itself loose when she had careered into the curb and was thrown about in her seat. She had a flash then, in her mind, of the black cube sinking into her hand, the skin accepting it into her body and closing up around it. This foreign geometry, dense with malevolent potential, planted within her right now, sitting with a determined patience and filled with some dreadful purpose, slowly insinuating itself through her body toward some terrible end. She shook the thought from her mind. It had fallen. It had worked it's way loose and fallen off. Whatever it was, it was gone. No use being curious about a little thing like that. She'd always been told it was silly to entertain such dark fantasies. She focused instead on deep breaths.
By rhythmically filling and emptying her lungs, Nat soon forced some imitation of calm and, settling back in her seat, she began to absently stroke the back of that hand. While she waited for her deliverance, the black cube slowly worked its way up her arm, its undulating, elongate corners trailing a smoky wake. It had settled itself on her spine when the rescue van pulled up and, as she was driven home, the tendrils began to stretch and seek, wisps of inquisitive determination, spreading throughout their new home.