23.2 Death's Door

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That night the others came up to the loft for a meager dinner.

Nip picked sardines from a can, sucking on his fingers deeply between each bite. The skin of his face had pulled itself tight to the bone. He had a cough. Billy, his usual quiet self of late, sat behind the trapdoor in what had become his corner. His hoodie was loose on him. He too ate slowly. Only Ash did not pay attention to her food. She leaned against the radio, her fine blond hair a delicate shade of pink.

"After."

She spoke the word the way someone lifts a one hundred pound bag. The others paused to look at her.

"If this trail is real and it leads down the mountain, and if we don't get all the way down only to find men with guns posted at the end, we need to be prepared for what comes next. For after." Ash turned her head from Billy to Nip. "The fog only moves during the day, and it's heavy, it settles on everything it touches. I don't think it'll have travelled far. Let's say we make it clear. We find fresh air and fresh water and we wash ourselves so we don't look like we just escaped a slaughterhouse. We're kids. Hitching a ride shouldn't be all that difficult. Assuming we come to a road that's unguarded. What do you imagine happens then? Billy?"

"I keep hitching, and I don't stop until I forget where I came from."

Ash nodded. "And you, Nip?"

The longing in Nip's voice was so profound it bordered on despair. "I call my mom. I call her and I tell her I'm okay, and I go to the hospital where she works and—"

The sentence collapsed.

"That," Ash said, "you can forget."

Nip flinched. His mouth opened but nothing came out.

Ash took her first reluctant bite of fish. "It's time we take a real hard look at our situation. I'm not talking just about here in this house, or even in this town. I'm talking from the perspective of the county, the state, the world. This is not a quarantine we're in. People don't get shot in a quarantine unless they're trying to escape, and they definitely don't get shot when they're running toward the infected zone. Whatever's in that tent on the highway, it's not doctors. At least, not the kind anyone ever wants to meet."

"Subjects," Billy said in a low, scratchy voice. "One of the men who came into the house, he called us 'subjects.'"

Ash breathed on her cross, gave it a wipe, let it drop. "They want us alive, for study, but they'll settle for us dead—or as close as we can get to it. That's because we're dead, all of us, already. On the news, in the papers, we're dead. Honaw and everyone in it."

Nip choked on something, and not his food. "How can you—"

"Because you don't gun down a little girl in front of her parents if you plan on letting her parents live. Look at the picture, the full picture." Ash tried to swallow a lump, and the lump fought back. "People in Sawtooth County will have been evacuated. They will have been told the fog was made in a lab or caused by a chemical spill, and that it's poisonous, deadly. People are waking up every morning, looking at the big red blot on the horizon, and praying the winds don't carry it their way. Don't you get it? Don't you see? If you go to your mom now, if you make yourself alive again in the real world and threaten to tear down all the lies they've built, what do you think they'll do, huh? What do you think they'll do to you? To her?"

A tremor started in Nip's hand.

The can fell.

Ash went to him. She picked the sardines off the floor and put them back in the can quietly. "Maybe a year from now, two years, you send her a postcard. Maybe you knock on her door wherever it is she's living. Maybe I do the same, with my parents. But for now, Billy is right. We get far away from here. We become whoever we have to be. We live."

"So much," Nip said, with a shaky breath, "for college."

Ash wrapped her arms around him and whispered something in his ear. Three words. I couldn't make them out, but I knew well enough what they were.

Above my head, the window was dark. Fog dissolved into the starry black sky.

I pushed myself up from the carpet, my whole body trembling and weak, until I sat with my back to the wall. Ash and Nip separated. Billy stared at me from across the room. When I spoke, it felt like my voice was digging itself from deep, dry soil.

"If we're hiking down the mountain, I'm going to need Bitchmaster."


____ ____

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, Ash and Joel head into town to look for Bitchmaster, and discover a very different Honaw than the one they'd known . . .

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