20. Splintered

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I was shaking.

I was an earthquake, and inside of me a mouth was opening. Bone cracked. Cartilage snapped. My body split from throat to groin, and as rows of teeth bared themselves in my tearing flesh, the juices misted out of me on a howling wind that spoke my name.

"Joel . . . Joel . . ."

". . . Joel."

Billy was kneeling in front of me and tugging on my shoulders. He had turned my chair around, or I had, somehow. Behind him glowed the mountain of embers that had been Sandy's house.

"What happened? Where's your aunt?"

I stared past him into the blinding orange heat.

"Joel, we have to go. We have to get your aunt and go. Tell me where she is."

Billy followed my blank gaze over his shoulder. He swore under his breath and went around me to Bitchmaster's handles. As he pulled me down the driveway, the fire became an anti-shadow, a silhouette of light in the fog.

I closed my eyes. I kept them closed until the wheelchair stopped and Billy started shaking me again.

"Get out, Joel. Climb."

I was parked in front of the fallen tree. The tree was red. A spider crawled across the bark. The spider was red, too.

"Goddamn it."

Billy pulled me out of the chair, my body hanging from my jacket, and draped me over the tree like a throw rug. Headlights shone in my eyes. A small figure darted from the brightness.

"Joel!" Nip skidded to a halt. His black bangs were pasted to his forehead, and not by sweat. "What's going on? Where's—"

"She's gone," came Billy's voice.

I heard an echo: he's gone, he's gone, he's gone.

Nip's body straightened from head to toe. He said nothing as Billy climbed over the juniper with the wheelchair. Back on the ground, Billy turned to me and took my shoulders. "This isn't going to feel good." He dragged me face first off the tree. I got more scratches on my stomach and chest from that, but I wouldn't feel them for a while. Panting, he hauled me onto Bitchmaster. My right foot bounced in the dirt as he pushed me to the van.

He opened the back door.

There was Ash. She leaned against the opposite window with her shoulders slumped. Her arms were bloody. Beneath the blood were gashes, some as long as her arms themselves. She lifted her head and turned it slowly, stiffly to me.

"I couldn't help them. They wanted help, but I couldn't help them."

Up I went into the van. Bang went the door behind me, bang went the trunk, and click went the passenger door as Nip closed it softly behind him. Billy jumped into the driver's seat, and around my bubble of stillness the world slid into motion, tall wet trees rowing through a red sea. Up above, the fog had grown thin, patchy. The moon peeked into and out of sight, like an eye moving from peephole to peephole.

"Watch out!" Nip said.

Billy swung the wheel. The van rocked off the dirt lane and onto asphalt. Then the ride became smoother, slower, silent.

Children moved along the road around us. Children with splinters sticking from their faces, backs, chests. Children missing arms or legs, or both. They walked and they crawled, their bodies twisted and broken, some barbed like porcupine, others stripped of everything but bone, hauling the rags of their clothes and flesh along the ground behind them. A little boy wearing a Transformers backpack dragged himself in the shoulder. A teenager in a shredded P.E. uniform swayed down the double yellow line, his ribcage crushed like an empty soda can. A girl hobbled in a blood-drenched dress, staked through the heart and head.

They reached for the van.

They called out.

They moaned.

In an endless creeping parade, the children of Sawtooth County moved through the night toward a dawn that, for them, would never come.

We passed the gas station. We passed Thunderpaw. We passed the McDonalds and the Taco Bell and all the many ruins we had driven by that morning. We must have. But I did not notice one way or another. I was back in school watching Mr. Bertrand set up a word problem on the chalkboard. Usually these problems involve somebody trying to transport an inordinate amount of fruit or other nonessential item (So-and-So buys eight hundred and eighty watermelons, each watermelon weighs nine pounds, each shopping cart carries up to seventy pounds . . .), but the subject of today's problem was a woman named Aunt Sandy. I didn't know whose aunt this Sandy person was, I was far from sure who I was at the time, but I had to solve the problem before I could go home.

Aunt Sandy is losing blood. The average human can lose 2 liters of blood before death. How many Coca Cola bottles can Aunt Sandy fill with blood before her heart stops beating? At the desk next to mine a kid wearing his guts down around his legs says, 'What about me? I have twenty feet of intestine, and only eight feet left inside my stomach. When do I die? When does it stop hurting? When?' A girl in the front row rolls her head back, and her upside-down lips move with the help of the few cords remaining in her neck, When? she mouths at me. When? They're crying now. The kids in the class are all crying now, and moaning, the torment in their eyes as clear as the writing on the chalkboard, and I tell them they're already dead, even though I know it's not true. I tell them they're dead, Sandy's dead, be quiet, you're dead, but on and on their voices call out to me, until finally I shout, "It doesn't stop! It never stops!" And in the front of the room Mr. Bertrand nods at me with half a skull, his tongue dangling beneath his top teeth. His overflowing throat bubbles on a drowned sob. He erases the problem on the board and writes, Without death, what is left for the dying?

I know the answer to that, too.


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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 on Friday, the kids try to escape town by taking the highway, only to discover they were not the first people to have the same idea . . .

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