27. The Gathering

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We made our way back, the sky aglow behind us, dark ahead. The town, like Ash and I, had been rinsed clean. Drainpipes gurgled. Puddles shimmered like pink mirrors. Rivers ran down the Road, flowing red through intersections, rushing to meet the fog that would soon rise from the south.

Ash loaded Bitchmaster into the van while I sat in the passenger seat, the drumbeater in my lap. I liked having it there. It had a nice, solid weight. She climbed in behind the wheel. As she turned us up the hill, I looked out through my window. The boy in the gutter had been washed away.

So had the woods.

In their place stood bones, rank after rank of bones, knobby and white.

I watched them pass, thinking of rock formations deep beneath the earth, of things that were never meant to see sunlight.

Above Ash's house the sky was brightening, but over Honaw a bloody dusk rolled in as the Beast let out its enormous breath. It was not a new sight to Ash, who had spent the last month living in this strange and wounded world and not just existing in it, but after all those weeks of fever and despair inside the loft, the arrival of the fog held me spellbound. I watched as it buried the town and blotted the sky, and for the first time I allowed myself to wonder on the being under our feet. Truly wonder on it. Not just the face below Honaw's thin crust of rock and soil (a face so enormous that, if raised from the planet to stand as a mountain stands, would reach as high as Everest), but what lay below the face. Was it made in the image of God, as men were said to be? Or was it something else entirely . . . something as alien to us as we were to the atoms that made up our bodies? Did its astronomical lungs ache against the pressure of the earth? Did the blood staining its breath pump from a beating heart? Was there life within its belly, as there was in ours? And if so, if there was life crawling down there in the unimaginable darkness, was it blind and unfeeling? Or did it know pain? Did it know love?

With every question, I felt myself falling deeper into a rabbit hole. I climbed out before I couldn't and was thankful to find Ash's hand around my own. I needed to hold onto something right then. As she helped me into Bitchmaster, Nip came running down the staircase followed by a half-hurrying Billy. They were both still as red as they had been last night, which could only mean they had made it back before the storm.

"Where were you?" Nip said. "What took you so long?"

I reached back into the van for the drumbeater and then shut the door quietly.

"Well?"

"We got lost in some stars," said Ash.

Billy looked at her, at me, then back at her. One of his eyebrows raised a smidge. Nip barely seemed to hear. He leaned over me. "Your head, Joel. Oh man, your head."

"Don't worry. It's all right." It wasn't all right. It was far from all right. But just how far, I didn't know. "What did you two find? Is there really a trail? Does it go anywhere?"

Nip glanced at Billy, who cleared his throat.

"There is. But . . ."

"What?"

"Maybe you'd better see for yourselves."

The red shadow on the horizon was a reminder that no one would be able to see anything in a few minutes. On top of that, Ash and I were both dead tired. Hungry and thirsty, too. We drank deeply from the salad bowls Nip and Billy had put out to catch the rain, then we went into the house for a breakfast of kidney beans. Midway through the meal, I excused myself to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror. My right brow was swollen and caked in blood. I tried wiping off the blood to get a glimpse of the damage beneath it, but my head responded with such a dizzy throb that I nearly threw up into the sink. I settled on putting a bulky Flintstone Bandaid over the whole thing. Back with the others, I finished the rest of my food. I couldn't face the ladder to the loft, or admit that I couldn't, so I pretended to doze in my chair. When they left the living room to sleep for the day, I crawled onto the couch in my damp clothes. The curtains were up, but it made no difference. The bloodied windows were dark enough on their own. I held the drumbeater in one hand, like an anchor, and rode the waves crashing inside my skull until I felt a weight on the cushions beside me.

"It's time," said Ash.

We went out into the young red night. Everything that the rain had uncovered was clothed once again. The woods reached wet skeleton fingers toward the moon. At the Road, the main road, Ash turned left instead of right.

We didn't go far. There wasn't far to go.

"Better pull over here," Billy said when we came to a sign whose dripping letters read, No Turnoff Past This Point.

"Why?" said Ash.

"Just trust me."

A light, cold breeze blew off the mountainside. It sliced through the heavy warmth of the fog and raised bumps on my arms. I realized, with a strange sense of vertigo, that it was November. Families were getting ready for Thanksgiving, for turkey drowned in cranberry sauce and wine poured from bottles, not boxes. An owl hooted mournfully. I wondered if it was hurt, or of it was just alone and sad.

The road became dirt. We passed another sign, this one too coated to read until Ash wiped it off with her sleeve.

Property of Blackstone.

Around the next bend we arrived at a wide, chained gate. But not an upright gate. It lay on the ground, shoved down along with its two steel posts, which had been ripped up from their foundations.

"Did the earthquake do this?" Ash said as we moved across the chain link.

"Don't think so."

"Then what did?"

An answer came softly on the wind, or rather many answers. From that point on, no one spoke a word. We went up the slope of Blackstone's long, curved driveway, fog twisting through the woods on either side, and when we reached the top, when we looked down into the clearing where the mine's tall black pithead stood raised against the night, Ash whispered, "No . . ."

The clearing was full of children.

They trudged and crawled in circles through the mud. They sobbed. They moaned. They called out to mothers, fathers, to everyone but one another. The moon shone down on their despairing faces, their dried wounds. There was no blood left in their bodies. There was nothing left in them but pain, and they had followed that pain like a compass to its source, to the place where all of their endless agony had begun, one mile below the ground, at the tip of a knife.

The children of Sawtooth County.

The lost children of Honaw.

They had come home.

We stayed awhile, watching the children who had once been our peers. Their long trudge north from the Beast's mouth had not been aimless after all. It had been a pilgrimage. And now our paths had crossed again, here at the end of their journey and the beginning of ours. Except this time there was no dodging or outrunning them. Without me, Nip and Ash and Billy could have loaded their backpacks and crept around the clearing through the woods. Sure, it would have been risky. One snapped branch, one stumble, and then the whole mass is on the move, whimpering after you, your exit cut off, no hope of turning back. And who could say how long the schoolchildren would follow once they were on your tail, or if they would ever stop. But there would have been a chance.

"We'll think of something else," said Ash. "We'll find another way."

Only we wouldn't, and she knew that. We all did. Honaw was a burning house, and all of its doors were locked. The maintenance road past the mine had been our last window of escape and it too was barred. Which is why we were quiet going home. Which is how I realized the night was also quiet, like an auditorium with the lights down. Which is how the idea came to me.

There was just one thing.

One little thing.


____ ____

Author's Note:

Hey, everyone! If I want to add some art to these chapters (up there in the header area or down here in the footer, not within the chapter itself), who should I reach out to/where should I go? I'd love a little something to spice things up.

Coming up . . . Joel makes one last climb to the loft.


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