19. The Burning House

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Blood and something else—thicker, richer—welled around her fingertips.

The bear tore free with one final convulsive shake of its head. It stumbled back across the living room, tripping and falling, rising and falling and rising again, until at last it barreled out through the flaps of the screen door and into the fog from which it had come, drawn by the sound of music.

The candles flickered.

I slid down from Bitchmaster, my legs folding beneath me, and crawled to Sandy on my stomach. Blood leaked from her ears and nose and mouth, but her eyes were clear. They went right to me. "Joel," she gurgled. "I thought you—I thought—"

"I'm here," I said, "I'm here."

It seemed important to tell her that, more important than anything else.

She clenched my arm, and the strength in her grip caught me off guard. I glanced at her body. An anchor dropped down my windpipe. I looked back to her face, blinking.

"Joel."

"Be quiet, be quiet now."

"Joel."

Her nails dragged down my leather sleeve. She reached up again. I caught her hand and squeezed it, rocking on the prop of my elbow. Beneath her the carpet was becoming wet. In the hollow of her throat a shallow red pool trembled with her heartbeat. I said, "Shhhhhh." Thinking, this is what I do now, I say, shhhhhhhh. I say shhhhhhhh and shhhhhhhh and shhhhhhhh until I'm saying it to myself, until she's quiet, please be quiet, please Santy, please, "Shhhhhhhhh."

"Joooooel."

Blood on her gums. Blood on her teeth. Blood coming up the back of her throat and bubbling over her tongue, and her eyes getting wider, wider, wider. I kissed her knuckles. I told her it was okay. I told her to be quiet.

"Jooooo—"

She choked up a splash of darker red.

"—ooooooel."

"Be quiet, Santy. Be quiet." I was talking over her. Her fingers struggled in my grip. In the black of her pupils I saw nothing, and in that nothing I saw myself, my despair. "Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet."

"Jooooooooel."

Her free hand walked across the carpet and climbed to my shoulder. To my neck. My face. "Joooooooooel."

I felt a sting and wobbled backward. Something slipped from the pocket of my leather coat and caught between my arm and side. As I picked up Billy's switchblade, warmth ran down my cheek where my aunt's nails had cut into me.

"Joooooooooel."

That wet, tortured voice.

"Joooooooooel."

Those red, searching fingers.

"Jooooooooooel."

I pushed up onto my elbow. My breath was coming in chops. I covered her mouth with my hand. Her lips moved against my palm, and I heard my name muffled inside her throat.

"Jooooooooooel."

I pressed down harder, all of my weight on her jaws, driving her skull down into the carpet.

"Joooooooooooel."

Blood ran hot between my fingers. I shook my head. I shook it side to side to side, faster and faster, and I begged her to be quiet, shut up, be quiet, and with one hand over her mouth, I lifted the switchblade into the air and released the blade and buried it to the handle in her neck. Her voice came in damp, gusty stutters. "Jo-o-oo-oooo-o-o-el." I dragged the knife sideways, sawing through meat. The blade caught. I forced it back the other way, back through the gasping cartilage of her windpipe, back, back, until my knuckles touched carpet. Her mouth squirmed moistly against my palm. Blood spattered my face. I worked the knife like a lever, pulling it back and forth, back and forth, and all the while her eyes held onto me and her hands crawled up my leather jacket, clutching, groping. The blade locked against bone and twisted from my grip. Her throat was spread out across the floor, cords sliced, muscle hanging in tatters. A present, a Merry Christmas present wrapped in red paper and torn open by an eager child. Silence inside it. Sweet, voiceless silence.

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