22.2 Fever

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Billy dropped flat to his stomach, dragged the ladder up into the loft, and slammed the trapdoor behind him. "They didn't see me. They didn't see me." He shot up and moved over to Colossus, tramping across the blankets Ash and Nip had brought up for me before my insides reached their boiling point. As he switched off the light, hinges creaked downstairs.

Big, clomping footsteps entered the house.

And stopped.

Billy's head turned back to the raised ladder. A realization was dawning on him, and not a pleasant one. He got down to his knees in the tinted red shade and crawled across the carpet, his body so stiff that it quivered. A muscle twitched in his right cheek. The trapdoor creaked as he let it down. One inch. Two. Holding it in place with one hand, he poked a finger through the crack and hooked the string dangling down into the hallway. Then he began to reel the string in, inch by slow inch.

The footsteps moved—clomp, clomp, clomp. There were two sets of them. One set paused in the living room and the other branched off into the kitchen.

With the string out of sight, Billy eased the trapdoor back into its frame. Not a moment too soon, either. The intruders rejoined and started down the hall. It sounded like they were wearing astronaut boots. Like they were on an expedition to a hostile planet. As they passed under us, a spasm clenched my stomach tight and a tiny sound escaped my mouth. Billy looked at me.

His eyes said that, if forced, he would hold a pillow over my face.

I believed them.

The bathroom door groaned. There was a pause, followed by a clink of plastic rings on metal as the shower curtain was swept aside. Something about that seemed wrong. The math didn't quite add up. I think if my brain had been the same temperature as Billy's, I wouldn't have noticed it, wouldn't have been able to, but there's an icy sort of calm that comes when your consciousness is on the verge of meltdown. In my head I studied the distance between the bathroom door and shower curtain. They were too far apart for you to reach from one to the other, unless you were holding something that lengthened your reach.

Say, a rifle.

The footsteps moved through the remaining rooms one by one. They returned to the hall, then stopped directly beneath the trapdoor. Two voices began to speak, low and fuzzy, like they were coming from a radio with poor reception.

"What you thinking?"

"Tire tracks on the driveway, front door unlocked, empty cans and water bottles in the kitchen . . . you know what I'm thinking."

"Someone's been here."

"And they left recently."

"Not too recently. We'd have passed them on the main road."

"Unless they went the other direction."

"There's nothing the other direction but the mine. And nobody's been up there since the incident."

"So then."

"Park the HV up around the next bend. Foot it back. We wait for the subjects to come to us."

The first thing that came to my mind at the word 'subjects' was school, and that made me picture Mr. Bertrand and Mr. Brickley standing in the hall beneath us. Which was so ridiculous a little bouncy ball of a laugh started banging around inside my chest. Billy saw me shuddering and first his eyes went wide, like he thought I was having a seizure or something, then they narrowed and he shook his head stiffly: no. But I couldn't stop it. The laugh, now the size of a tennis ball, wanted out of me and was going to get out. One hole or another. I grinned, teeth grinding, tears in my eyes, as it slammed against my ribs.

Clomp, clomp, clomp.

Billy crawled to me, hiding the sound of his movements underneath the intruder's footsteps. He put his hand over my lips. Don't, he mouthed. There was a piece of black bean skin folded against his gums. His breath smelled like tuna. He had been eating fish and beans and that was hilarious. My breath huffed against his palm. My nose gave a snort. He plugged it. The laugh caught in my throat, nowhere to go. I choked. The shade grew shadier. Billy's face sank into the dark like a coin tossed into a murky pool. It didn't seem too funny anymore, whatever it had been. I tried to reach up, to push him away, but my arm was weighed down to the carpet.

Billy let go.

I gasped.

Light breathed back into the loft.

"One of them's in the living room," Billy whispered. "I think he's sitting on the couch."

The Humvee started on the driveway. As its rumble faded, our situation settled into me at last. We were trapped.

So were Nip and Ash.

They just didn't know it yet.

I surfaced from sleep or something like it to find Billy tying my blankets together with big clumsy knots. Downstairs the intruders were talking football dynasties. Tom Brady and The New England Patriots vs. Joe Montana and The San Francisco 49ers. I decided I was dreaming. This was far too strange to be real.

I closed my eyes.

The next time I surfaced, it was with a sharp tug.

My feet pointed at the window. It was open. Fog curled in around Billy, who was sitting on the sill. He yanked on the knot tied to my left ankle. The knot was connected to a twisted blanket, which ran up between his legs and out of the loft.

I realized what he meant to do.

"Bastard."

Billy looked back at me, his hands tight around the rope he had made. "I'm sorry, Joel," he said. "But I didn't sign up for this."

He swung himself out into the fog.

I slid on my back, dragged by the ankle. My left leg went out the window. My right folded against the wall. My body stopped. I gritted my teeth as Billy's weight pulled and pulled and pulled at me.

Downstairs the voices argued.

"That catch was a miracle, a gift from God, and they threw it away."

"My ass they threw it away. It was stolen."

The blanket went slack.

In came the fog.

It spread along the ceiling and collected on the carpet in moist, shining beads. It clogged the pores of the mic and wet the Gibson's strings and coated the drum set, pooling on the toms and sliding off the cymbals. To the posters on the walls it gave fresh color. Alice Cooper's face bled underneath his black top hat. The swollen title Sabbath Bloody Sabbath dripped over Ozzy and his cross-wearing band members. The speakers perspired with it, and the radio bathed in it.

So did I.

As I lay there beneath the open window, the fog settled over me. It soaked into my pants. It dampened my open leather jacket. It filled in the gashes on my chest and stomach and the cracks in my dry, split lips. I tasted it on every breath. I felt it on my eyelids when my eyes were shut, on my eyeballs when my eyes were open.

The fog.

It turned the loft into a wound.

And it made me a part of that wound, the way it made itself a part of me.


____ ____

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 next week . . . why don't you tell me? What do you think is going to happen with Billy gone, Ash and Nip unaccounted for, and Joel all alone in the bleeding loft?

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