18.1 Dread - Continued

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An hour passed, maybe two. The clock on my phone had gone wonky and was keeping time at a crawling rate. That was odd, but considering the circumstances hardly worth dwelling over too much. A few conversations started and faded off, touching upon little things mostly. Peripheral details. The strength of the earthquake, the death of utilities, how we should go about our number ones and twos without a bathroom (the verdict remained out on that). We talked about things the way Billy looked at my aunt, which is to say we talked around them. We didn't discuss the color of the fog and we definitely didn't discuss what we had felt or seen taking in our first breath of it. That went for Aunt Sandy, too, if she had felt or seen anything at all. At one point she raised the question of where the fog was coming from, and us kids sat there silent, careful not to look at one another in case she picked up on a glance. She had no clue about the crater standing less than a mile from her house, and how could she, so close?

A mite living in the mouth of a crocodile does not see teeth.

It sees mountains.

Nip must have stuffed a book in the couch for safekeeping, because one appeared in his hands and for the better part of fifteen minutes he didn't look up from it. Billy lay stretched out near the Niles Goddess, as far away as possible from my aunt, who had made a throne of her pillow and bed sheet and was sitting like a grave queen, her eyes closed and her mouth tight. Myself, I was by the door in Bitchmaster, a blanket unfolded across my lap. It was too hot for the blanket by far, but it felt good to have something covering me, protecting me, even if that something was only cloth.

Only Ash hadn't settled down. She moved from here to there, restless, on her butt one second and on her feet the next. A deep leg stretch, a sitting twist to crack her spine, and without warning she moved my way.

"Come outside with me. I need to pee."

"Huh?"

If she needed company, I understood that, but why not take my aunt? Girls went to the bathroom with girls all the time. It was like bonding to them, or something. Unless . . .

Oh.

Slow Joel.

"Okay." I glanced at Sandy and found her looking right back at me, the faintest smile on her face.

"You two stay close. And don't take too long."

"We will. And we won't." Ash opened the screen door, shedding red droplets onto the carpet, and ushered me outside.

The fog was warmer, thicker, than I remembered. Breathing it was almost the same as drinking. My lungs had to fight to pull it in, and on the edges of each inhale my body gave off warning flutters of panic, like I might drown.

Ash took special care to close the door gently behind us. She walked off the patio and into the dirt separating the back of the house from the woods. Reluctantly, I followed her. "Where are we going?"

"There's a path somewhere. I took it with your aunt back after you hit your—here." She pivoted on the balls of her feet and started toward the trees, tall black outlines clothed in pink. Between two broad trunks was a gap just wide enough for my wheelchair. The root-twisted soil made pushing Bitchmaster an effort.

I repeated the question. "Where are we going?"

"Not far."

I looked back toward the house and saw only the fog, shades brighter in the sky where it held onto the glow of the sun. We seemed plenty far to me already, but that would have been a real girly thing to say, so I kept my mouth shut. Ash stopped a dozen paces after the trailhead and sat down on an old log, only to stand back up again and wipe her butt.

"Wet."

"Everything is."

"It's like—"

She wanted to say blood. Her mouth wouldn't let her.

"No. Not like. Is."

For a little while we stared at the wildlife around us, evergreens painted over in red, oaks dripping with syrupy laziness. Drops pattered from leaves hiding in the fog above, filling the woods with the whisper of rain.

Ash said, "I'm going to the school."

I forced out, "What?"

"There are more kids at Honaw Elementary and Honaw Junior and Honaw High than there are people who live in Honaw. What if some of those kids survived? What if they're down there, and hurt, and waiting—"

"There's no chance." Even as I spoke I had a flash of bodies lying inside wreckage. I had seen them from the van. As the fog—the breath—entered my lungs for the first time, something had happened. A connection had been forged, an eye had opened inside me. And I had glimpsed the mouth in all its terrible scope. Jaws spanning the horizon, teeth made to chew through worlds . . . nothing the mouth swallowed could have survived. If the same sights had visited Ash, she would have known. And yet those bodies lying down there among the splinters and crushed stone, among the dust of basketball courts and pulp of football fields and twisted wires of chain link fences, those bodies had not been lying still.

They had been squirming.

"It's easier to think that. It's easier to say they're all dead, so sad, boohoo, and let yourself off the hook. But somebody has to go. Somebody has to try to help them."

"Somebody," I said, "will."

"Who? The sheriff is buried in Thunderpaw, and we didn't see a fire truck. We didn't see anyone. This town is as good as empty. Whoever was left after the shaking stopped either made off as fast as they could—sayonara!—or they're holed up and sitting on their thumbs like us."

"The radio . . ."

Ash shrugged. "Nip was wrong. There's no help coming."

"How—how can you know that?"

"How can you not?" She stretched her arms out wide to say, look at what's around you. "An hour after the quake ends, and the military is already rolling up the highway? It took FEMA days to get to New Orleans after Katrina." She shook her head, her neck swinging wild on its hinges. "No. No. It doesn't work like that. They were here after Billy's father, after the explosion in the mine. Which means they knew what was in the air down there on Level F, where Mike and Gabriel were found. They knew. Not the full picture probably, or even a slice of it, but they knew something, they knew something was alive and bleeding under Honaw. And they kept quiet. And they watched. And they waited. And now roll out the red carpet, here they are. Except they aren't!" Ash's arms went up instead of wide. "Where are the choppers? Where's the far off rumble-rumble of the convoy? I don't hear it. Do you?"

I didn't need to answer that.

"Nope." Ash shook her head again, slower. "The military might be coming, but it sure as hell isn't to help."

My hands were clenched beneath the blanket. "You can't go."

She turned to me. "Why?"

On a dark back road inside my brain a deer hobbled on three legs.

"You just can't."

"I'm not asking you to come."

"What do you want? I'll give it to you." I pushed off the blanket and began to twist at my middle finger. My voice was cracking. I didn't care. "You want this? You can have it. It's yours. Just stay. Stay."

Ash looked down at the diamond ring in my palm, and she smiled this soft sad smile that made her look far older than her years. "Joel. I'm not going to take your ring. I'm going to steal it." She leaned over and kissed me. Her lips were salted, sweet. Then the sweetness was gone and she was walking down the path and all I could taste was blood.





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Author's Note:

Thank you for reading! 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 tomorrow, tensions mount after Ash declares her intentions to leave . . .

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