25. The Milky Way

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Night walled the Road into a long dark hallway. We traveled in single file, starting with Moth and ending with Wasp. Their breaths were heavy, their footsteps heavier. They kept their flashlights pointed straight ahead, the first beam showing the way, the second shining directly on Ash. She talked as she pushed me, in a voice that was a few notes higher than her real voice.

"Where are we going?"

"To one of our medical centers," said Wasp. "We've got two set up east and west of town. You'll be well taken care of there."

"Taken care of?" Ash stopped in her tracks. "You mean like by doctors? Are we sick? Is there something wrong with us?"

"Nothing life-threatening. Nothing for you to worry about." The space around us dimmed as Wasp's flashlight prodded Ash's back. "Now, let's continue." And quit talking, said the ragged in-and-out of his breath.

Ash got moving again. "Is it far, this place?"

"Two miles."

"That's pretty far to walk. Especially in one of those suits."

"Yes. It is."

"How heavy is it?"


"Is it hot in there?"

"Incredibly." He called out for Moth to watch his pace and the taller man shortened his long strides. I wondered if he was eager to get back, if they were operating in shifts, these men, these watchmen, whatever they were.

"Are there other people like us there?" said Ash.

"There are more survivors out west on the Rocky Way, but we've got a few living out east too. Found an old guy picking around the supermarket two weeks back, and a couple who had managed to dig themselves out of their ruined home the week before that. It's been a while since new company has turned up. They'll all be happy to meet you."

"Good. I'm glad." Ash tightened her grip on Bitchmaster's handles. Her bones creaked. "It's been so lonely, just me and my brother."

"Brother?" he asked with obvious disbelief.

"Step-brother." Ash didn't miss a beat. "We had all this stuff in the basement, food and water and things. My dad—he was always preparing for the worst, you know. Dad. Dad. Can we call him? When we get there? Can we call him?"

"Of course."

"Do you hear that, Jake? Can you believe it?" Ash hugged me from behind, one arm tight around my neck, and whispered, "Be ready."

My skin tingled. Up ahead, Moth swung his flashlight left and exposed a branch in our dark corridor. Down the branch, a ways down, the beam winked off something massive and pink. My mind turned it into an elephant, which turned my mind to the tent we had seen on the highway, which was exactly where we were. The highway. We were on the highway, headed east this time instead of west, and somewhere along the twists and curves there was a carnival waiting for us, a funhouse where there were no laughs, only screams.

The elephant became the fuel truck. As we neared it, Moth's boots began to turn up crusty white flakes from the blood on the road. I smelled something beneath the salt in the air, something sour, curdled.

This was where Nip and Billy had filled up all those jugs with gasoline.

But first, they had emptied them.

The Milky Way.

Our friends had made the Milky Way. Now, underneath the starless night sky, we were taking it.

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