23. Death's Door

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Dark. Thumping.

The intruders had found the trapdoor and were pounding on it, stomping on it upside down in their astronaut boots.

"Open up! Let us in! Joel! Let us in!"

How did they know my name?

The moon tugged on my leg.

"Stopthat," I said.

It kept on tugging, the big red bully, and right when I was about ready to climb out the window and teach it a lesson, Nip's face appeared in front of it. He fell into the loft and landed on top of my contorted legs. "Joel! Did I hurt you? I didn't hurt you, did I?" He crawled over to my head, the carpet squelching beneath his hands. His face was masked in blood, and his hair hung in gummy strings. "You didn't answer us. We thought you were—"


"I'm coming!" Nip ran to the trapdoor and shoved the panel down, letting in Colossus's sharp light. "He's all right. Joel's all right."

"I'll kill him," came Ash's voice, half a second before her head. It turned to me as she climbed into the loft. "You sonofabitch, Joel, you have no idea, no idea what it was like waiting out there all day long, knowing those guys were inside and you, you fucker, you, you." She grabbed my throat like that day at the bleachers, but instead of squeezing she ran her fingers around to the back of my neck, lifted my head up, and set it gently in her lap. Her blue eyes stood out from the red of her face. "You, look at you, you're disgusting."

Nip reeled in the blankets and let them fall into a soggy heap on the floor. He closed the window. The inside of it, and the wall it had been resting against, were the only dry parts left in the loft. "We were coming back from my house, if you can call it a house—"

"You can't," said Ash.

"We spent all night digging—"

"We didn't think we were ever going to get through it all—"

"But we did—"

"We got to the bathroom, and the medicine cabinet was still there—"

"Sort of—"

"Yeah, sort of, and inside it—"

"Inside it—"

"We found these." Ash turned over a plastic shopping bag and out spilled half a dozen tiny orange bottles. They rattled as they hit the carpet. "There's like four different kinds and only a few pills of each—"

"And you're not supposed to mix and match, my mom says—"

"And some of it's pretty old—"

"And technically you're supposed to keep them somewhere cool—"

"Which it totally isn't out there—"

"But if you take them all—"

"It's got to help—"

"It just has to."

"Has to."

Nip waved his hand. "And anyway, like I was saying, we were hauling our butts off and almost back when Ash saw—"

"You saw."

"—I saw someone running down the road toward us, all covered in red." Nip swung his arms in demonstration.

"I thought it was a crazy person—"

"It kind of was—"

"And I wasn't going to stop at first—"

"But then she recognized the sweatshirt he was wearing."

I became aware of someone else breathing nearby. I turned my head. Billy sat on the other side of the ladder, in the furthest corner of the loft. His legs were drawn to his chest, and his arms were wrapped around them. Beneath his hood was a shadow.

"He came to warn us," said Ash. "If he hadn't, we'd never have known those Hazmat fucks were here, and we'd . . ."

No one finished the sentence.

Ash started me off on penicillin. She told me how important it was that I keep it down and to help with that she spooned me black beans straight from the can, juice and everything. Downstairs was off limits until we could be sure we wouldn't receive any more surprise visits, and since downstairs was where we kept our food and water (except for a tiny stash in the loft) it wouldn't do to waste any fluid or calories.

"Even if it makes you fart," Nip added.

The three of them had taken off their shoes before coming inside, to avoid tracking any blood in the carpet. With the van parked way off by Billy's driveway and the condition of the house preserved exactly as our intruders had left it, in case they returned, we pulled the ladder up and sealed ourselves in the loft for the night. No one bothered to change their clothes. There was no point. There were no dry blankets left either. As the blood on and around or bodies cooled, it became chilly. Nip and Ash squeezed in close to me. I had heat to spare.

In the corner, Billy shivered alone.

Self punishment, maybe. Or maybe he simply couldn't stand us.

The others may have thought he'd been running to them, but I knew the truth. He'd just been running.

Our visitors came back twice the next day.

The first time was in the morning while Ash and the others were still asleep. The front door opened, those big boots tromped through the house, then the front door closed. The Humvee must have been parked down on the road to avoid alerting us, because I never heard the engine.

The second time was at dusk, just as the fog began to thin.

That time, they almost got us.

____ ____

Author's Note:

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Coming up, Joel's fever puts the whole group in danger . . .

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