20.1 Splintered

993 157 126

Only when Billy steered us west onto the highway did I realize we were actually going somewhere, and not moving in place.

"Keep slow," Nip said.

"I am."

"Slower."

"Do you want to get out of here or not?"

"I want—I think we should be quiet."

"Quiet? Why?"

"I don't know. Just do it."

Billy eased off the gas until the engine relaxed. We whispered through the curves, the beams throwing smoky pink light off the damp road. Above us the moon said a long hello. Handfuls of stars glimmered red through the fog. On our left, the mountain's slope became rocky. On our right, a slick guardrail stood between us and a sheer cliff that reached down into haze. Ash sat with her elbows tucked between her thighs. Every now and then her body shuddered and tensed before slowly loosening again.

Around one bend, a boulder blocked an entire lane.

Around another, mud flowed over the highway in rivers of maroon.

A third bend led us past a bicycle lying abandoned by the guardrail.

We came to a long straightaway, completely dark but for a distant glow at the end. The light grew brighter, saturating the mountainside and asphalt. I heard the wheel flex in Billy's grip. Nip leaned across the seat divider and shut off the low beams.

"What was that for?" Billy said.

"Because."

We coasted around the bend, and the full brilliance of two high spotlights washed over the van. Ahead of us stood a fifty yard stretch crowded with vehicles, doors hanging open, rooftops and hoods collecting the fog like rust.

"Stop," Nip said.

Billy needed no telling. He nudged the van in behind a pickup truck, pulled the emergency brake, and let the engine idle.

"What does that look like to you?" he said.

"What does it look like to you?" said Nip.

"A carnival tent."

"Why'd you say that? Don't say that."

Behind the spotlights towered a pale billowy structure, its walls raised up like mainsails and streaked in red. The men standing in front of the tent were hard to make out in their white Hazmat suits. They would have blended in entirely, if it weren't for the black straps across their shoulders.

"Do they see us?" said Billy.

"They aren't acting like they do."

"How would they act if they did?"

"Depends."

"On what?"

"What they're here for."

I felt a tickle in the soles of my feet. A sound was bleeding into the van, through the floor. It faded and fell out, then returned and from that point on grew louder. Rumbling. Growling. On the road behind us.

The Prius veered around the corner so fast it nearly clipped our bender. Its brakes squealed and its back end fished, stopping a few feet shy of the guardrail. The driver was a balding man in his forties. He was with a woman. The back windows of the car were tinted. Down the way one of the Hazmat suits lifted an arm and waved. The driver's hands shifted tightly on the steering wheel, rubbing it, massaging it.

He made a decision.

The Prius rolled past our darkened van. It squeezed between the pickup truck and a Honda, then it found a gap and worked in close to the mountainside, where it crept along, avoiding the maze of cars.

Ten yards from the spotlights, the Prius stopped.

The balding man got out. He shielded his eyes and walked toward the suits, who broke their line and walked toward him. A few feet apart, the two parties stopped. The suits gestured at the tent. The man gestured at the car.

"I don't like this," said Nip.

Neither did the man. He shook his head and stepped back. The tallest suit stepped forward and put a hand on him. Nothing moved for a few seconds, except perhaps for the man's mouth, which I couldn't see. The other suits inched closer. The man spun and made a wild gesture at the Prius, which peeled into reverse. As the leading suit threw him to the ground, the others reached behind their backs. Rifles appeared in their hands. The night crackled and popped like soft wood in a campfire.

The Prius slammed back into a car, and stopped.

Nip covered his mouth. Billy opened his. Beside me Ash made no sound or motion. Either her brain had taken a timeout, or her body had. As for me, I can't truly say. I was there. I saw. I watched. Nothing more.

The woman got out of the Prius, her hands raised. She looked unharmed. The guns stayed trained on her until she was within grabbing distance, and then one of the suits tugged her around and put her face down beside the man.

"That's enough," said Nip. "That's enough for me."

"Me too." Billy reached for the emergency brake. As he eased it down, the back door of the Prius opened. A girl in pajamas fell out and crawled down the road toward us. She was tiny. Maybe she was a boy. And maybe it was a twitchy finger that caused what happened next. Or maybe I'd just like to think so.

The bullet slammed her flat to the asphalt.

Her mother sobbed. I heard that sob like I heard the gunshot. That's how loud it was.

The girl got up, and it was really a girl, unless she was a boy with long blond hair. Hair was about all she had now. A large red mouth gaped where her eyes and nose had been. Her real mouth was open, and it was moving. She turned to the suits. She held out her hands. She took a step.

Blood exploded from her body in a fog.

She fell to the ground in pieces.

The pieces began to twitch.

As the suits lowered their guns, Billy gave the gas pedal a shivering touch and backed the van quietly around the bend.

"We'll stay at my house," Billy said as we sped down the highway. Fog stuck to the windshield. The wipers wiped madly.

"Ash's house is closer."

"Fine. We'll go there."

"What about my house?" Nip was on the verge of doing his laughing thing again, his breaths coming out in big huh-huh-huhhhhhhs.

"What about your house?"

"I have a house, too."

"Do you want to go there?"

"No."

"Then what the shit did you bring it up for?"

"I don't know."

"Are you stupid?"

"I don't know."

"What do you know?"

"I don't know!"

The van swooped onto the Road, almost coming up on two wheels. The lot of us rocked in our seats. Ash and I knocked heads.

Then an unfortunate thing happened.

We ran out of gas.


____ ____

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 Tuesday, the kids are forced into hiding at the supermarket, where they may or may not be entirely alone . . .

Poor Things (Wattys2018 Winner)Read this story for FREE!