18.2 Dread - Continued

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I sat there for I don't know how long, my clothes growing damper and heavier. The fog moved around me, inside me. My ears picked up on a sound in the woods, low and coarse, like the world's largest pencil sharpener whittling the bark off a tree.

That got me rolling.

Ash was waiting outside the house.

"My aunt won't let you," I told her.

"Your aunt," she said, "is not my mother."

I tried.

"Absolutely not," said Sandy. She had taken off her sweater to change her bandages, and now she was sitting in a dirtied tank top, the soaked gauze clenched in one fist, the hole in her arm oozing. "You will absolutely not leave this house. No, just no."

Ash opened her mouth. "But—"

My aunt talked over her. "I don't care what for. You're crazy to even think it. God. What would your parents say if I let you leave?"

"Not much, likely."

"What's that supposed to mean? Not much? Not much? You have no idea what they're going through right now. Them down the mountain and you up here and no way to get to you, no way to know if you're even"—My aunt sucked in a sharp breath that got pinched inside her throat. She let it out slowly."You're my responsibility, mine. And it's going to stay that way until all of this is over, same for all of you." She looked at each one of us in turn. "Understand?"

There were no arguments from Nip.

"Whatever," said Billy, reflexing to his too-cool-for-school self.

Sandy's head swiveled back to Ash. "Give me your keys. Your car keys. Don't say, 'But.' Don't say anything. Throw them over."

Ash held still for one of the longest seconds of my life. Then she reached into her jeans, pulled out her keys, and tossed them. Aunt Sandy stuffed the keys in her front pocket. She tore fresh gauze off the roll and wrapped it around her wound in grim silence. When she finished, she got up and walked down the hall. A door shut quietly.

Ash sat down on the carpet. She gave me a look. I saw no anger in it, and that scared me.

My aunt returned carrying a tall brown bottle and a dusty tumbler. "Let's be calm, okay? Let's just relax. We've got enough ugly. We don't need any more."

The bottle was Eagle Rare, 10 Year, and first it put an easy smile on Sandy's face. Then it loosened the smile at the corners and pulled her lips down. She began to drink faster. I asked for a shot, and she gave me one. I asked for a second shot, and she told me there was a case of bottled water in the hall closet if I was thirsty. I wasn't thirsty. I was terrified.

Ash sat on the floor, asleep or putting on a good show of it.

Somewhere above Honaw the sun slanted down, darkness on its heels.

"What are you doing?" Nip whispered.

Ash dug into Aunt Sandy's front pocket. She didn't bother being delicate. She had already rolled Sandy off her stomach onto her back. "What does it look like I'm doing?"

"She said—"

"I heard her. I was here. But she didn't hear me." Ash pulled out her keys, twirled them around her knuckle, and caught them in a tight fist. "If she'd listened, she'd have seen I was right."

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