18. Dread

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The first half of our journey through Honaw was long. The second half was separate from time entirely.

Now and then the fog offered a glimpse of town. Torn power lines flicked blue sparks. Concrete slabs jutted from the sidewalk. Buildings leaned on tilted foundations, like ships in a frozen and storming sea. We passed the gas station. The pumps were still burning. At one of them sat a car, its tires melted into dark puddles, its windows blackened by soot.

"No," Ash said as a pair of empty, smoking boots came into view beside the vehicle. "No, I am not seeing that. No."

I did not respond. There was a cold knot in my stomach, in the very core of me. Every second fed it. Every breath and throb in my legs, and God did my legs throb. I sat with my hands clenching my thighs, fingernails in my skin. Don't think, don't think, don't think. Sweat popped on my forehead. DON'T THINK, DON'T THINK, DON'T THINK. But I kept seeing the deer. The first deer. The deer my dad left dying on the highway, its head rising and falling as its guts steamed the air. He should have run it over. He should have put it out of its misery, but he didn't, and don't think about what came next, don't think about the bear, DON'T THINK DON'T THINK DON'T THINK.

The shadows alongside us became trees instead of buildings.

The road began to wind.

Ash turned onto a dirt lane leading into the woods.

DON'T THINK, DON'T THINK, DON'T

A wide rut split the lane, forcing Ash to drive with two tires off the road. When we finally reached Aunt Sandy's driveway, she braked. "That's no good. Nope. No sir. No good, no good, no good."

An enormous fallen tree blocked the way. The headlights burned red against its bark.

"Get my chair."

"Way ahead of you," she said. But she wasn't. She was still sitting in her seat like Nip and Billy, not doing a damn thing.

"Ash."

"What?"

"My chair."

"Yeah. Right. Okay."

Ash stepped out onto the road, her mouth rolled up into itself. She shut the door behind her, cutting off a few wisps off fog that had wandered inside the van. I waited. I don't know how I did, but I waited. When she came around with Bitchmaster, I let myself carefully down into its seat.

Ash turned her head to the back. "You two. Dingleberries. This is our stop."

"Where are we?" Nip said.

"You don't know?"

A pause. "Aunt Sandy's?"

Hearing her name out loud brought a wash of bile up my throat. I crossed the space between the van and the tipped juniper in three slow pushes. Bitchmaster's wheels bumped to a stop against the trunk. I leaned forward and gripped the bark. It was damp, slippery. Bit by bit, inch by worming inch, I pulled myself up onto the tree until I was staring into the pink nothing that surrounded my aunt's house.

A door slammed. Billy had gotten out of the van and was moving after Nip and Ash, his head raised for the first time since leaving his house. Hurry, I wanted to shout at them all. Use your goddamn legs, and hurry! Instead I nodded down at Bitchmaster and spoke in the most even voice I could manage. "Pass that up to me. Someone."

Billy surprised me by hoisting the chair and placing it on the trunk. Something inside of me came loose then, unraveled like a fragile knot. I let Bitchmaster roll forward off the tree and heard it clatter, heard Ash shout my name as I shoved myself off after it. The hard-packed dirt hammered nails into my palms. I groped for the chair, yanked it upright, and dragged my body into the seat. The throbbing in my legs traveled up through my hips and mated with the knot inside my belly.

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