15. The Miner's Tale

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I was gripping Bitchmaster's armrests. I was not the only one.

Ash had hold of the right, and Nip clenched the left so tight his knuckles creaked. Even Billy had drawn back from the doorway, toward us.

Fear is magnetic.

Perhaps that explains why we went inside. Surely it wasn't curiosity, and surely it wasn't the switchblade either, if that had ever been a genuine threat at all. No. We went into the dark, our little light flickering between us, because we were pulled. Because the fear in us felt the fear inside that room and went to it, like a child to its mother.

There was no lip at the doorway, only a smooth gap between floorboards and carpet. But I felt the threshold all the same. I felt it in the tiny hairs on my arms and in the toes of my unfeeling feet. An electrical chill. A shiver in the dead air. My mind flashed back once more to the old football field. I saw the sun gauzed in smoke. I saw the grass moving around me, quivering in a breeze that was not there, did not exist. Ash's nails dug deeper into my armrest and Nip made a low, sick sound in his throat. The smell clinging to Billy, the smell sweating from the house . . .

. . . it was not an undersmell anymore.

It had graduated.

This is what dying smells like, I thought. This is the smell a body makes when it's rotting on the inside, and it can no longer shit . . . only leak.

Billy closed the door. He moved toward us, and the carbide lamp threw long dancing shadows off our bodies. Where the shadows stopped sat a raised bed, its covers thrown onto the floor, its mattress bare except for oily stains. I had an idea what those stains were. Some of them still looked damp.

Light caressed something hunched behind the bed.

A chair.

It was empty.

"Dad?" Billy stopped and swung the lamp. The dark flushed from one corner of the room and filled in the other. "Dad?" He turned back to us slowly. His arm was shaking. "He was here when I—"

From underneath the bed reached a huge red hand, its fingers melted together.

"What?" Billy said, seeing the expression on our faces.

Nip lifted a stiff arm. Pointed.

Billy twisted, and the hand pulled back into the dark. He looked questioningly at us. Nip continued to point. Ash and I continued to stare. Billy got down on his knees, lowering the lamp.

A baby-smooth face appeared beneath the bed. It shrieked as the light touched it and hid itself behind swollen red hands. Finally, I recognized those hands for what they were. Oven mitts.

Billy pulled the lamp away. "Sorry, sorry."

There was a whisper. "It hurtsssssss."

We shared a glance at that, Ash and Nip and I. You'd better believe we did. Leonard Higgins, the dead man on the radio, the miner long-ago buried inside Widow's Peak, moaned in the recesses of my mind . . . it hurthhhh, it hurthhhhhh.

"Dad. We have company. Do you know company? Dad?" Billy reached under the bed. He cried out and snatched his hand back, waving it in the air. Blood sprinkled the carpet. "Shit, fuck. What did I tell you about biting? What did I say?" His bleeding hand closed into a fist. He slammed it into the mattress, shaking the entire frame. I heard a whimper. Billy leaned over. "I'm sorry, Dad. I didn't mean it, I didn't. Dad?"

Mumbling. "Soon, soon, soon, opening soon, opening, soon, soon—"

"Dad."

"—soon, scream, scream, it will scream, soon, soon, soon—"

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