21.2 Stick Figures

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Billy and Nip returned wearing the sweet dark smell of gasoline. The milk jugs, no longer full of milk, added up to several dozen gallons total. They set the shopping cart aside and grabbed a second cart, which they loaded with canned and packaged foods, bottled water, hydrogen peroxide, and every size of battery the store had to offer. Then we went out into the fog, Nip behind my wheelchair and Billy pushing both carts with one hand on each handle.

The night had cooled, and the moon cast a frayed spotlight over the parking lot. We set off crunching across the broken glass.

"What's that?" said Billy.

We stopped. In the sudden quiet, the sound of moaning carried across the asphalt. Black forms took shape in the fog. They were as skinny as Ash's stick figures, and they were moving toward us."Help . . . please . . . help . . ."

The children.

"This way. Quick." Billy steered toward the strip of grass and sidewalk that lined the northern side of the parking lot. Once there he ran around the shopping carts and pulled them carefully down onto the street. Nip's breath came fast and hot in my ear. He told me to hold on. I didn't hold on. My body jerked as Bitchmaster dropped from the curb.

Fifty cracked yards of asphalt stood between us and the Road, where we'd left our van. The children moving across the parking were just a splinter of the main pack trudging north through Honaw, and if we didn't reach the intersection fast enough, we would be cut off. Then they would fall upon us, as one of them must have fallen upon Ash down at the school. As Aunt Sandy had fallen upon me. Not out of rage, or hunger, but desperation. Their shattered bones. Their twisted limbs. Their hopelessly beating hearts. They would come to us for relief, and they would dig and dig at our bodies until their anguish became ours, until the life inside us was blown down to its last tortured spark, and then we too would go wandering through the night, animated by our suffering, puppets of our own undying pain.

I knew this.

I expected this.

I didn't care.

At the intersection, the anti-theft locks clamped down on the tires of the shopping carts and made Billy crash over the handles.

"Mommmmmy . . . Mommmmmmmy."

Behind us the Road was crowded with stick figures, red crawling with black. The fog gave birth to more every second.

"It hurts . . . oh, it huuuuurts . . ."

Billy waved at Nip. "Take a cart. I can't shove both. Not like this."

"But—"

The 'but' was me, and Billy wasn't about to debate the issue. He grabbed Nip by the shirt and tore him away from Bitchmaster. Positioning himself between the two of us, he leaned over my wheelchair. "Listen, Joel, if you're in there. I drove back to your aunt's house for your aunt, not for you, and you're not getting another ride if you don't earn it. You're not making me give up my drinking water, my food. I'll stand right here if I have to. I'll stand here until they're here, and then I'll bail. I'll run and leave you three to scrap for yourselves against the whole goddamn horde of them. That's it. That's the choice. You push, or we all stay."

I looked down at my bloodied hands. I left them in my lap.

"Fine, you fuck. Fine."

A voice spoke behind me.

"Get your cart, Billy. I'll worry about Joel."

He raised his eyes to Ash, who had taken hold of Bitchmaster. "All right, Ghost Girl. That works for me."

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