25.1 The Milky Way

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Remember the night I spent at the hospital, after the bleachers? Remember how the doctor said my brain was okay?

Well, he said something after that.

He said I had to be careful because fractures could take up to six months to heal completely, and that was if I didn't knock my head around more.

To which my loopy self responded, "And if I knock my head around more?"

"Then," he said, "all bets are off."

In the dark I heard gunshots.

Three of them, rap-rap-rap, like someone knocking on a door.

The door opened, I opened it . On the other side stood Moth, hazy, one hundred stories tall. Blood spilled from the throat of his rain-washed suit.

Down he fell.

Down the skyscraper fell.

Up it rose, moaning.

The skyscraper rebuilt itself against the rain. Above it the sky short-circuited, bright, dark, bright, dark. Thunder pulsed.

A hole burst open on the skyscraper. Red splashed the ground as it swayed toward me. I could hear a voice trapped in its top floor, behind the high cloudy window. The voice was gurgling, "Omma ommmma omma."

There was a firecracker pop.

The skyscraper buckled.

I reached up to catch it as it tipped, only to have my hand and arm smashed down into my ribs, and my ribs smashed down into my lungs, forcing the air out of them and leaving me nothing to scream with as fingers—long, rubbery fingers—groped at my face. They reached into my mouth. They pressed against my eyeballs.

"Mommma. Momma. Mommmmmma."

The weight was gone.

I was the weight.

Hands dragged me by the armpits, the road rough against my back. I heard panting. Mine or someone else's, I didn't know. There was blood in my eyes, and that I knew was my own. My forehead felt heavy one second and light the next. I lifted it when I could, while it let me, and past my feet I saw the fallen skyscraper pulling itself after me across the asphalt.

"Too thlow," I said. "Too thlow."

Then I wondered when I'd become Leonard Higgins.

Then I wondered if I'd spoken at all.

I was sitting in Bitchmaster. The drumbeater rested across my thighs. It looked like a wand, sort of. That made sense, considering magic had gotten it there. I held it up and pointed it at the skyscraper, still crawling after me, but from far away.

"Kadabra," I said. "Dakabra."

The drumbeater fell into my lap. Then my head went the same direction, lolling forward on my neck. It didn't lift again until I heard Ash's voice.

She was kneeling over the other one, the not-skyscraper one. He lay on his back, his body curved up at the middle like a fairy-tale bridge. That was funny, because he was a bridge now. He was a bridge, like the rest of us were bridges, like Honaw was a great big bridge, on one side life and on the other death and beneath it the troll who wouldn't let anybody pass.

Ash took a set of keys from the man's pocket, put them in her own pocket, and rose over him. The gun hung loosely from her shoulder. Rain beat down on her. The woods were a misty red shadow underneath the flashing sky.

"You're going to come out of it soon, mister. When you do, will you go back to your 'medical center' and tell them about us? I don't think so. I think you'll be scared to go back, knowing what you've got inside you. What they'll do to you. I think you'll run. You'll run, and you won't bother any of us again. That's what I think." Ash lifted the gun. "But I know who my friends are, and I won't take that chance with them."

The first bullet shattered his visor.

The second and third punched holes in his chest.

The rest tore at his body, hungry fingers at a chunk of meat. When the clip was empty, Ash dropped the gun onto what was left of him. She walked toward me, a sway in her step, and took hold of Bitchmaster.

"I'm not sorry." Her voice was flat. "I'm smart."

Behind us, the skyscraper and the thing that had been his partner wriggled like earthworms in the storm.

Fragments are all that remain of our journey back along the rain-punished Milky Way.

I remember Ash running.

I remember Ash screaming.

I remember my wheels bouncing on the asphalt and red earth gushing down the mountainside and lightning setting off thunderworks in the sky, everything loud, everything bright, Fourth of July in a bottomless Fall.

____ ____

Author's Note:

Omma. Ommmma.

Coming up on Friday, Ash and Joel take shelter from the storm . . .

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