(25) Higher Ground

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When I look out the front window of the car, the first thing I see is ordinary road. The second is what looks like the world's longest earthworm extending sluggishly along the pavement. Only it isn't an earthworm. It runs for as far as I can see, meandering aimlessly; it's as thick as my wrist in the fatter portions, and every bit of it is red. Redding-red.

When my blurry eyes clear, I realize there is not, in fact, just a single cord of Redding snaking up the road. That cord is the main one, but smaller tendrils branch off it in some monstrous pantomime of a fungal network or ground-nesting spider's web, connecting and diverging and eventually finding their ends in the sodden soil on either side of the road. I've seen the Redding do this before, but not in broad daylight, actively moving, or in the absence of any living creature connected to its web. I think it might be hunting for one.

The tip of it bulges, then surges forward. In a dozen more pulses, it will reach the car.

"Back," I say automatically.

Ditzy doesn't need to be told twice. Another g-force turn later, we're headed back up the road we came in along. "Where to?" says Ditzy. Her hands grip the steering wheel, knuckles bone-white even against her pale skin.

"Northwest," I say, remembering Ember's map. "And keep away from the river."

"There are two rivers. They fork northwest here. We'll have to cross one."

I don't normally swear, but sometimes there are no other words to express a sentiment. "Try and find a way across it that doesn't look like that, then. Or we head east and take our chances on the Cape."

Even saying it makes my skin crawl with inexplicable dread.

"Can't it corner us better on the Cape?" says Ditzy, saying it before I have to second-guess myself.

"Yes." I grit my teeth and cling to my seat as she swerves around another, smaller Redding-worm probing its way onto the road. "I also really don't trust the ocean right now, and given that I could sense Redding coming up through that murder house's basement, I'm going to take that as a bad sign."

We swing onto a long, empty stretch of road, and Ditzy hits the gas. I'm flung back in my seat. The impact makes the patch at the base of my neck ache dully, and my hand touches it of its own accord. I'm self-monitoring for symptoms almost constantly now. Every skip and blur at the edge of my vision sets my heart pounding, even though I've had some four hours of sleep in the last forty-three, and seen two bodies within that timespan. My brain feels simultaneously electrified and stuffed with wool. I touch the patch again. Ditzy shoots me a worried glance.

"Still good, I think," I say. My voice comes out hoarse. Is that a symptom?

Her eyes dart downward, then sharply away. I look down, too. Aside from not wearing a shirt, I still look healthy. No additional red patches. Not that I've done a proper full-body check since before we left Chesnet.

"The river's ahead," says Ditzy.

The road is still clear. In the distance is a bridge, thus far free of barricades. Something about that makes my skin crawl, too, but Ditzy hasn't slowed. She grips the wheel tighter and applies more pressure to the gas pedal as the speedometer creeps up past 120 km/h, then 130, then 140. The bridge hurtles towards us. We can't do this. Something in me cries out to slow, to stop, to turn around. But Ditzy's been possessed by our escape, and she knows this area better than I do.

The bridge is still clear.

"Stop!" screams Patrick from the back seat. "Stop!"

It's too late. We hit the bride's upswing and crest it so fast, my stomach goes airborne. There at the top, frozen like a freeze-frame, I see the river.

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