23.1 Death's Door

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What happened in the dream, I don't remember, but I woke from it clawing and biting. Ash and Nip held me down, only they were not Ash and Nip to me. They were flesh, and they were in the way.

"Keep him still!"

"I'm trying!"

A hand strayed too close to my face and I snapped at it. The impact of my teeth coming together rang through my jaws. I yelled for them to get off, let me go, but all that came from my mouth was growls.

"He's—God, he's burning."

"Billy! Help!"

Whoever this Billy was, he did not help. I freed an arm and raked into a soft face. The face pulled back with a cry. I rolled over onto my stomach and dug my nails into the damp carpet, just like the infection had dug its nails into me, and I dragged myself toward the window. Out. I needed out. When I was within a foot of the swirling red beyond the glass, a sound came from downstairs. I heard it. I let it go. It meant nothing to me.

A second later both my arms were wrenched behind my back. As I howled in rage, a soggy piece of cloth was shoved into my mouth. I went on roaring, muffled. I beat my head against the baseboard. Someone forced my cheek down to the carpet and held it there. The space around me had gone quiet.

"What was that?" said a fuzzy voice below.

"What was what?"

"Sounded like an animal."

"Then it sounds like you answered your own question."


"You're probably right. I just could've sworn . . ."


"Never mind." There was a rustling noise that might have been a sigh. "Let's call it."


"Yeah. Whoever was staying here is long gone. Ain't no one coming back." He paused before giving an explosive grunt that resembled a muzzled dog's bark. "Damn this quota. Roundup ten and go home, they say. But they're ain't goddamn anybody left to round up in this goddamn hell hole."

"Nobody in one piece, anyway."

"At least we've got it easier than those poor pricks out east. They don't even have wheels to get around in—they've got to creep about town with nothing but flashlights, like kids in a haunted fucking house."

"Somebody tried to make me walk around in all this, I'd walk right the fuck away and never look back."

"And then they'd run you down, give you a nice little hospital bed, a nice little breath of this fresh mountain air, and a nice little man in a nice little lab coat with all sorts of nice little instruments. Just like they did Gabe when he tried to sneak that old couple out in the supply truck. Bet he feels real good about his compassion now that he's sobbing and screaming in that tent alongside them. Fucking idiot. Never liked him."

"You don't like anybody."

"You're right. Asshole."

A series of heavy thumps ended in the slam of the front door. After that, nothing. Well, nothing downstairs. I hadn't stopped struggling, and wouldn't until unconsciousness claimed me.

I said I don't remember what happened in the dream, and that's true, but I do remember what the dream was about.

The bear.

I dreamed the bear was outside the house, in the woods.

For three days, I held down the pills and food Ash fed me and accepted the water she trickled into my mouth, but as my fever fell away, the aches that came along with it were replaced by a different pain, one that went much deeper, one that I could not stomach, let alone face.


I stopped eating.

I stopped drinking.

I just stopped.

The blood had dried in the loft, and the walls were flaking like sunburned skin. Ash closed the trapdoor behind her. Her feet made soft crunching sounds in the carpet as she walked to the window. It was shut. She opened it, wiped off the outside with a dishtowel, and closed it again. Within seconds the fog was kissing the glass with its bright red lipstick. "I don't know why I try," she said. "Maybe because I need something to do."

She sat down by my head, not on the stool but on the floor. She didn't reach for the water bottle or the open can of beans sitting there, which was a first. She didn't move or speak for a long while, and when I say long, consider that time, for me, had become tallies on a wall. There were twenty-one tallies now. Next there would be twenty-two, and after that, twenty-three.

"Look how dirty your ring has gotten." Ash took my hand lightly. "Don't worry. I'm not going to steal it, not today." She lifted the inside of her shirt, gave it a lick, and dabbed the wet cloth against the diamond. When she finished wiping off the crust, she set my hand down and said, "I've been thinking about that man Nip found crushed in the supermarket, under the shelves. He was dead. Actually dead. Why is that? Why is he not moving around, limping or dragging himself, like all those kids from school? Why? You know the answer. Billy knows the answer. Nip knows the answer. Everyone knows the answer, but no one will say it out loud.

"It's the fog. He didn't have a chance to breathe the fog. Take a whiff and you freak out for a bit, but then you're fine. The funk wears off, and you're fine. Unless a building falls on your head, whoops, or a pencil goes through your neck, double whoops, or maybe you get the flu, no big deal, right? Everybody gets the flu. But then maybe you get wet and cold and your flu turns into pneumonia, and maybe the pneumonia settles into your lungs until you're drowning, until the panic sets in and you're clawing at your throat to make air, trying to scream, to call for help, and then . . . there is no 'and then.' That's it. That's who you are. Forever." She gave a dry laugh. "It's funny. I've been right about a lot, but I was wrong about the first thing. Leonard Higgins. My ghost. He didn't die down there in the mine. He's dying down there in the mine. Right now. Still. After all these years. He tapped into what Billy's dad tapped into—maybe he found that thing's other eye, maybe he only nicked one of its veins—and it won't let him go. It won't let anybody go. Donehagawa." She put on the same mystical air that she had the first day I met her. "He who guards the gates of sunset."

Ash pulled at her cross. Like my ring, it had been recently polished.

"We're running out of water. We've got maybe a week's worth left if we each cut back to one bottle a day. That's twelve ounces. You can live on that much, for a while at least. I guess." She picked at the scabbed carpet. "We've been talking. About what we're going to do next. Billy says there's a maintenance road, so old it's just a trail now, up behind the mine. His dad told him about it. Some of the guys used to sneak off that way for a smoke break when what they wanted was a joint, not a cigarette. He doesn't know where the road goes, if it goes anywhere at all. But it goes somewhere."

Her voice quieted.

"You don't have to come with us. You can stay right here, if you want. I'd get it. I would. But I want you to think about something while you make up your mind. I want you to think of Leonard Higgins down there in the dark, in all his pain, alone."

Ash got to her feet. She looked back at me from the trapdoor.

"You moan in your sleep, you know."

____ ____

Author's Note:

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Coming up, Ash gets real with the group and Joel must make a decision . . .

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