14.1 Into the Dark - Continued

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The porch creaked as Billy walked across it. Underneath, the shadows whispered with the echoes of his footsteps. I imagined hearing my own father's voice down there. I imagined hearing my whole family down there, calling to me.

"Joel." Ash shook Bitchmaster. "Are you going to hop off, or what?"

"Yeah. Yeah. Sorry." I got down onto the ground, then climbed up the steps in three quick shoves. Ash hoisted my chair onto the porch, and I crawled back onto the seat, trying not to look through the cracks between the tongue and groove panels, trying not to think of what lay beneath—or ahead of—me.

Nip was still standing in the yard, staring up at the house. "This is deep. This is really deep."

I knew what he meant by that. Somewhere not too far away an unlit shaft reached down and down into the mountain, so yes, I knew exactly what he meant by that.

"Stay out here if you want," said Ash. Her voice wasn't so excited anymore, but it was still plenty quivery.

Nip walked up the steps. He shook his head slowly at Ash, very slowly. We should call the police, he mouthed.

"Not yet," she said.

Billy's hand paused for a heartbeat as he unlocked the front door. He opened it, felt in along the wall, and a light came on inside the house. Brown carpet. A brown sofa chair. Brown on brown inside brown.

Ash stopped at the threshold. "Is he?"

Meaning, Is your batty father going to fly down at me from the rafters?

"He's in his room. He never leaves his room."

Ash went inside followed by Nip. When I tried to roll through, my front wheels got stuck on the ledge at the base of the door. I backed up an inch, readying myself to pop a wheelie, then Billy took Bitchmaster's handgrips and pushed me over the ledge.

I coughed. "Thanks."

Furniture huddled around a black television in the living room. Thick curtains hung down over the windows. The corners of the curtains, I noticed, had been taped in place. Further inside was the kitchen, liquor bottles crowding a tiny table, sink overflowing plates onto the Formica countertop. An open can of meat or beans sat upright on the linoleum floor. Past the kitchen waited a hallway. Cobwebby shadows clung to its walls.

And that smell. That undersmell was everywhere. It sweated from the pores of the house.

The deadbolt clicked.

We turned.

Billy stood between us and the locked door. In his hand was the switchblade. I felt a surge of hope at the sight of it. This had all been a ploy. His father wasn't here after all. Just Billy. Insane, murderous Billy. "I can't let you turn him in."

My hope crumbled.

"We weren't going to," Ash said.

"Shut up, shut up. I know what you're thinking. Because I'd be thinking it too, if I was where you're standing."

Sitting, I thought. Nip's body was a stiff rail next to mine.

"You're thinking he got people killed and here I am hiding him, and you're right on all that. You're right. But he's my dad. Yeah, he drank sometimes, yeah, but he wasn't mean about it mostly. And he wasn't loose up in the head like everybody's saying now. Not before he went down there. So, think about it a minute. Think." Billy tapped his temple. "Something made him the way he is. Something broke him in the mine. Right? See? There's always-crazy, and there's after-crazy, and after-crazy means there's a reason. After-crazy is the sane response to something even crazier." The finger Billy used on his temple shot toward the curtained window. "The tree. You saw the tree in the yard. It's soft. It's falling apart in globs. Trees don't do that. Trees don't die like that."

"What do you want from us, Billy?" I said.

"I want you to listen to him."

Nip shifted on his feet. "That's what we came here for."

"Yeah, you say that, but I have to make sure you mean it." Billy waved the knife. His knuckles were cut up, raw, like he'd been chewing on them. "Give me your phones, all of you."

"Up your ass," Ash said reflexively.

Flick-flick went his blade, scratching an X in the air. "Now."

"Do it," I said.

Nip's head twisted. "But—"

"If he wanted to gut us, we'd be gutted already." I lobbed my phone at Billy. As he stuffed it in his sweatshirt, I nodded at Nip and Ash. They tossed theirs over one at a time, reluctantly.

"You'll get them back after, and you can use them then." Billy added, "If you still want to."

"If?" said Nip.

"No more questions. There's not much time left."

"Not much time left for what?" I said, but Billy ignored me and walked into the kitchen. If it had just been Ash and Nip, I suppose they could have unlocked the door and made a break for it. But it wasn't just the two of them. So, we followed.

The hallway was longer than it looked from the front. No. Deeper. The correct word was deeper. "My dad doesn't like light much anymore. It hurts his eye."

"Eye?" said Nip. "He only has one eye?"

Again there was no answer. We moved down the corridor in a single file, the walls dimming around us. When we reached the door at the end, I heard Nip swallow.

A steel loop had been bolted into the wood.

From the loop dangled a padlock.

Billy leaned over to pick up something. "They use LED lights underground now, but those are too bright. This is from the old days, from my father's father's days. He kept it in the shed." There was a click, a hiss. A wavering flame popped into the air and multiplied on the small curved mirror behind it.

"A carbide lamp," said Ash.

"That's right." Billy adjusted a knob on the bronze canister. "Gas powered."

"And prone to explosions," she mumbled.

I saw my face staring back at me from the mirror, behind the flames, my eyes red hot and glowing, my cheeks fire, my mouth smoke.

With a tiny key, Billy unlocked the padlock.

He pushed open the door.

On the other side was darkness, like the mouth of a cave.

____ ____

Author's Note:

You've reached the end of Act One! If you're enjoying Poor Things, please consider hitting the vote button—it will help other readers find the story. Comments are always appreciated, too. Seriously, I love them.

Coming up, Billy's dad has a story to tell . . .

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