29. Run to the Hills

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They were on the staircase. They were coming up the steps. A girl, a boy, and another girl. Blood coated their fishbelly skin. Their wounds puckered like chapped lips. Nip aimed Colossus down onto them and spotlighted their moaning faces.

"Oh sweet candy-coated Jesus," Ash said. "Is that—?"

Yes, it was. His mouth had grown a second wooden tongue and his outstretched hands were smashed into bouquets of splinters, but it was him.

"Kory Yenders," said Nip.

"Who?" said Billy.

"Your understudy." I climbed off my chair, which Ash immediately folded. The first girl was almost to the top. Her scalp hung unpeeled over one cheek, dangling matted hair, but the pair of long legs reaching from her mini-skirt looked just fine. A bit pale, but still beautiful. Still healthy. I wondered briefly if the fog not only stopped death, real death, but decomposition. Something like that, with that power . . . it was no wonder the tents on the highway were full of mad doctors. To those in authority, all this horror must have seemed a miracle. The Beast and its gurgling maw must have opened to them like the mythical Fountain of Youth. Were they attempting to understand the blood? Unlock its secrets? Distill it? Bottle and mass produce it? How much pain would they cause, trying to repackage this curse into a cure? How much pain would they let continue?

How much?

"Out of the way!" Ash charged out of the house, Bitchmaster raised like a battering ram. It caught the mini-skirted girl in the breasts and sent her flying. Her body collided with Kory, who launched back in his fake-tux tee-shirt and landed against the pigtailed girl behind him, at which point all three tumbled down to the fork in the staircase. They slammed into the railing and stopped there, a mess of limbs.

"Come on!" said Ash. "Hurry!"

I followed Nip and Billy on my butt. Not fast, though. My feet caught on a step and folded my legs under me, trapping me against myself. As I fought to untangle them, my gaze strayed through the railing. The woods were a dark red mass visible only by starlight. At first all I could see was movement, swarming, like flies in a bowl of overripe fruit. Then the bones of the trees separated themselves from the flesh of the bodies walking among them, and my breath stopped. All those children. All those children coming to hear the music.

"Joel!"

Colossus's beam flooded over me from the driveway. I got moving again and soon arrived at Kory Yenders, caught between the two girls in a flailing KY sandwich. His body held down Pigtails while his wooden tongue, even sharper than the tongue he'd wielded in school, stuck through Mini-Skirt's neck and made wind of her moans. As I squeezed past, Kory clutched at me and the shard of his forefinger dug into my calf. I yelled. Not from pain (I felt nothing) but from anger. The leg was useless, but it was my leg. I beat away his splintered hand with the drumbeater, then I shoved off down the remaining steps to Billy and Ash, who grabbed one of my arms apiece and carry-dragged me to the open back door of the van.

"Shotgun," I yelled.

"Fuck off." Ash slammed my door and jumped behind the wheel. The engine was already running. I looked out the window. Bodies shuffled out of the murk beneath the staircase. Hands pawed onto the driveway, reaching up from the muddied slope that bordered the house to the south and east. We were being surrounded.

"Get in!" Ash said to Nip, the only one of us still outside the van.

"But . . ."

He pointed the flashlight up the staircase, to the front door swinging freely on its hinges. The children wouldn't just visit the house. They would let themselves in, along with whatever else our music beckoned from the night. Inside my head I saw a dripping screen, torn into flaps by long hooked claws.

Jooooooeeeel.

"Forget it!" Ash said. "It doesn't matter!"

Nip hopped in beside me with Colossus and the van became so bright that when he switched off the beam, darkness closed us inside a black box. Ash flicked the headlights on as we left the driveway, and there, emerging from the woods, slipping in and out of the fog, wandering along the road, were children. Everywhere children. They twisted after us, only to turn and continue the other way. Maybe I would have been surprised by that, maybe, if it had been any other band than Iron Maiden playing in the loft.

"Up the irons," I said.

"Up the irons," said Nip.

"Up the irons," said Ash.

As the van carried us uphill toward the mine and maintenance road and whatever waited beyond, we continued our chant, softly, like a prayer.

The clearing was empty except for thousands of footprints. Ash let the van idle beneath the pithead. Its massive black frame blocked the stars. The cage that once carried miners down into the mountain was gone. In its place yawned an enormous rectangular hole, surrounded by a waist-high guard rail.

"That's strange," I said.

Ash looked back at me. "What?"

"It's just . . . those guys that came into the house, they said nobody'd been down into the mine since the explosion."

"So?"

"Shouldn't the cage be up here then?"

"One of the kids must have bumped into the button and sent the cage down." Billy pointed to what looked like an electrical box mounted on the frame of the pithead. The box was open, and inside it there was a large red knob.

"But there's no electricity anywhere," said Nip.

"Lift has a backup motor, runs on oil or something. Dad told me. Its up there, I think." Billy gestured up at the shadows between the pithead's high, interlocking beams. "They're big on backups, miners. You'd be too if you ever had your helmet run out of juice underground."

"I'm sure we would," said Ash. "Fortunately we only have to worry about our flashlights lasting us down the mountain."

Billy's eyes lingered on the hole in the earth. "We've got plenty of batteries."

"Yes. Yes we do." Ash eased on the gas. "Let's start using them, yeah?"

We parked at the fence across the clearing and unloaded the van. I was last out, as usual, and last to see the gate. It hid beneath a tangled red hide of ivy. Ash peeled a brittle tendril off the latch, and I got a funny feeling inside me, a first-day-of-school feeling. She pushed open the gate and shone her flashlight down a rocky, root-bumpy path. The feeling grew so intense my skin tingled and a knot twisted deep in my stomach.

"Here we go." Ash struck off down the old maintenance road, Nip and Billy close behind her. I paused at the gate as the wind carried by a fading guitar riff. With it came the shadow of a melody. Two Minutes to Midnight. I looked back across the clearing, my body clenched tight, every ache and pain inside me rising to the surface.

"Joel?" said Nip. "What is it?"

"Nothing."

I started down the path, but my mind wandered the other direction . . . to the darkness below the pithead . . . to the radio in the loft . . . and I couldn't help but wonder how long before those batteries died, before the music ended and the audience shuffled home and the way back to Honaw was cut off behind us forever.

____ ____

Author's Note:

Up the irons.

That is all.

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