14. Into the Dark

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Billy told us we had to go on foot because his dad would panic if he heard a car pull up to the house, and we told Billy to wait on the staircase while we made up our minds. And he did. He did. That was almost as incredible as his presence in the first place. Billy Rascoe listening to us, obeying us, when he had never once obeyed a teacher in his entire school career . . . that was more than strange. That was downright terrifying.

Nip said, "We should call the cops."

"If we call the cops," Ash said, "your mom'll find out you're not home." Her voice was all high, quivery notes. She had forgotten about the initial exchange between Nip and Billy, at least for the time being. Her hands were wrapped around the heart of her obsession, and she could feel its pulse, nothing else. The missing miner within her reach? And waiting, as Billy made it sound, for her and her alone? God. A winning lottery ticket wouldn't have given her half the thrill.

"Yeah," said Nip, "and if she finds out I tried to keep this a secret, I'll be worse than dead."

"All right," said Ash. "We walk over and see if his old man is even there, and if he is, then we call the cops."

"I don't know . . ."

Their heads turned to me. The swing vote.

"Somebody get Bitchmaster," I said. "I'm not crawling the whole way."

Gravel isn't made for Bitchmaster-ing either. My front two wheels continued to bury themselves in the rocks, so Ash spun me backwards and pulled me down the driveway behind her the way someone would lead an extra heavy wheelbarrow. When we reached the bottom, Nip prodded Billy, "How'd you know Ash'd be home?"

Billy started down the lane heading away from the Road. An ugly toenail had cut through the canvas of his left sneaker. "Where else would she be?"

"School?"

"There's no school on Saturdays."

"It's Friday."

"Oh." Billy paused, started, paused again. "Then why was she home?"

"She," Ash said, "is suspended. Along with her sidekicks."

I would have kicked her side for that, if I had been able to.

"Suspended? You lot?"

Ash gave a casual sniff. "That's right."

"Huh."

"So." She ran a hand over her buzzed head. The sound was silk and sandpaper. "Your dad. Did he, you know . . . blow it up? Like Leonard Higgins. Did he really?"

Billy didn't answer.

The lane thinned and the trees thickened. Their shadows made dusk of the morning. We moved in almost silence, slow footfalls and soft wheel-clicks and shortened breaths. A twig snapped far off in the woods. A raven haw-haw-hawed on a withered branch. Deep in the green my eyes snagged on a cluster of gray figures, skinny and still. People. Shrouded people. I looked closer, my heart skipping like a rock across a lake, and saw that they were pine trees. Five or six of them, mummified, their needles as dry as matchsticks. It struck me that the sun was thousands and thousands of miles away from Honaw. Black, airless miles.

We hadn't passed a driveway since Ash's house, not a single one.

"You really live out here?" Nip said.

Billy said nothing. Billy was gone. Only his body remained with us, hunched and shuffling. Flies hitchhiked on his hood and shoulders.

"Do you smell him?" Ash whispered to me.

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