28.1 Encore

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Man, we lit it up.

Nip shook the rust off his fingers and pretty soon they were striking lightning from the Gibson's crusty strings. He started to laugh hysterically, muted by the storm. Meanwhile Ash had the mic out and was parading in front of the open window, stomping her bare feet like she had on the biggest blackest boots in the universe. Her voice was constantly evolving, reaching higher and sharper notes. And me? I battered the drums. I beat them within an inch of their life, every blow kicking red dust up into my face, every thud echoing inside my enraged skull. The cymbals peeled until they shone gold. The toms sprayed invisible bullets.

Billy's face was a battleground of flinches. He inched desperately toward the trapdoor.

Ash's finger stabbed at him.

"STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU FUCKING ARE, BILLY RASCOE."

He froze against the wall and from there we marched on to the finale, the whole loft vibrating as the song gained momentum, as the guitar and drums and microphone mixed like the powders in a bomb, building up for an explosion fit to tear down mountains. And when the shockwaves were through, when Billy lowered his hands from his ears and opened his eyes hopefully, did we stop? Absolutely not. We fed the gutted song into the jaws of another, bigger song, and after that one was spent, we did the same to it. Number of the Beast. Iron Man. School's Out. We played them all. We played until I could no longer tell apart the throbbing in my head and arms and legs, until Nip had rubbed his fingers raw and Ash had burned her voice to charcoal, until the very act of playing was pain, and then, only then, did we let the music die.

I let go of the drumsticks.

Nip un-slung the Gibson.

Ash dropped the mic and fell back against the windowsill. Her expression was one of complete calm and satisfaction. It changed. She turned to the night. Nip joined her. Billy moved across the loft, looking a bit like someone who had gone twelve rounds in the ring—and lost. When he reached the window, his body went stiff. I heard a sound beneath the ringing in my ears.

The sound was moaning, and it was coming from the woods.

In abundance.

Ash backed from the window. She came to me, leaned over, and kissed me on the mouth. Her lips were trembling with excitement. "How did you know?" she said. "How did you know they would come?"

In my head I heard Lana Del Rey's soft, sad voice singing we were born to die.

"Just a guess."

She kissed me again, longer. "You're the worst," she said, her mouth an inch from mine. "You're the absolute worst, and I hate you, I hate you and your stupid pretty face, and if you ever call me a bitch again, I'm going to end you."

"Never again."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

Ash straightened. "Pack your bags, everybody. We're . . . Nip?"

Billy stood alone by the window. He pointed to the ladder.

I felt Ash's kiss fade and thought of Nip's brother, his bully of a big brother, who had gotten a girlfriend and run off to New York and never come back.

Iron Maiden was blasting out the window at full volume as I said my last goodbye to the loft and dropped through the trapdoor. All the cushions and pillows in the house could not save me from another visit to Nowhere. When I landed, I kept falling. Down and down I went, away from the light of Colossus and into the dark.

Then, with a rubber band's snap, I was back.

"Are you okay?" said Ash.

"Yeah." I climbed into Bitchmaster. "Where is he?"

Ash pointed to a shut door. "We tried to get him to come out, but . . ."

I nodded.

The door belonged to Ash's room. I had never been inside it before, and what I saw by the glow from the hall surprised me. There were no posters on the walls, no heavy metal icons or apocalyptic visions. The dresser was bare except for a few empty water bottles and cans. A Teddy Bear rested on the lowest shelf in the bookcase. Its paws were sewn to a big red heart.

Nip sat on the bed. He flicked on his flashlight, shining the beam up at his face. I shut the door behind me.

"Hey. Dipshit."

"Hmm."

"Catch!"

I snapped my arm at him. He flinched.

"Got you."

He looked the other way. I rolled over to him quietly. I put my arm around the back of his neck, loose at first, then tighter, pulling his head into my chest. His hair smelled foul. His hair smelled better than I smelled.

"After we all get out of here . . . after Billy's gone off paying his way across the country in blowjobs and me and Ash leave you in a ditch somewhere, alone, so that the two of us can be happy, I want you to know that we'll still think of you. Once or twice a year."

Nip's breath came out in hot jagged snatches. He was trying not to laugh, and shaking with the effort.

"You're such a dick."

"So I've been told," I said, lowering my knuckles toward his exposed head. "So I've been told."

The four of us paused at the front door, Ash and Billy wearing full backpacks, Nip rubbing the top of his skull, me holding the drumbeater across my lap. Up in the loft, Bruce Dickinson howled to the night.

Ash reached for the doorknob.

"Are you ready?"


____ ____

Author's Note:

How about you all? Are you ready?

Coming up, the kids make a break for it. But escape won't be easy, because the other kids are out in numbers . . .

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