24. The Search

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I dropped my feet through the trapdoor. My hands were jittery. My teeth went click-click-click. I clamped them together, rolled onto my stomach, and took one last look at the room where I had lived without break for close to a month. The crusted drum set. The flaking radio. Alice Cooper in his scab of a top hat. Slowly, carefully, I pushed myself backwards into the hole. I felt my legs hanging down like an anchor tied to my hips. Their weight began to drag at me. My fingers dug grooves in the red carpet. At the last second, I let go and gave a mad grab for the ladder . . .

. . . and landed on the soft heap of cushions and pillows stacked in the hallway.

Ash and Nip stared down at me.

"Told you he wasn't ready yet," he said.

"Pussy."

Above the patchwork fog, the sky was bruised with clouds. No stars flickered. No moon glowed. The low beams of the van were the only light in the world. As we turned from the driveway, they swept through the woods and cut a slice of red from the darkness. Nature had changed since I last laid eyes on it. Pine trees held out bare, withered branches. Oaks stood disrobed, the bark melted off their bodies in puddles of scarlet. Underbrush matted the earth like a soggy pelt.

Ash pulled over to the shoulder at the main road. Nip and Billy climbed out of the back. Both were equipped with flashlights and backpacks.

Ash rolled down her window. "You've got everything?"

Nip counted off on three fingers. "Water, food, batteries."

"Condoms," Billy added.

"I'm serious," she said.

"I am too."

"If something happens," said Ash, "if anything doesn't feel right up there—"

"We turn around. Yeah, we know."

"Here. Take this." Ash held out a key. "In case you make it home before we get back with Bitchmaster."

Billy pocketed it. "What about you?"

"You think I'd give you my only key?" Ash pressed the gas and after a brief struggle, the van pulled itself out of the mud onto the road. As we rounded the bend, two small lights flicked on in the rearview mirror and revealed a pair of walking shadows headed the other way, toward the mine. I wondered if they would find the trail. I wondered if the trail was all they would find.

A small noise, snip-snip, made me turn my head.

Ash waved the tiny pair of scissors she had used to open my undershirt during my fever. "It's not too late," she said. "I can still pull over."

"No thanks."

She was smiling. There was an undertone of strain to the smile that said, Keep talking, keep talking, keep talking. I could sympathize. I had spent almost a month not feeling anything, or feeling my own pain too much to feel anything else, but I could still recognize worry when I saw it. And yes, I was worried myself. About Bitchmaster and what had become of it out in the fog. About what would become of us in the world beyond Honaw, if we managed to make it down the mountain at all. That old saying 'blood is thicker than water' was snaking around inside my head. We had taken in the blood of the Beast, and with it we had formed a bond deeper than family, deeper than the laws of life and death. Could a bond like that ever be broken? Could we ever escape the watching eye of Widow's Peak?

"Are you sure?" she said, still wagging the scissors.

"Sure enough."

"Your hair sure doesn't look sure. Especially those bangs. Those bangs look like they'd love to bang my friend here."

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