30. Mercy

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At every bend in the path, I braced myself for the old football field. The woods would sheer off, and there it would be, its grass prickly sharp in the moonlight, its sidelines overgrown. It had been gray the last time I'd seen it, and it remained gray in my mind, just like the bleachers on the cloudy day I skipped class and cracked my head on the ground. But the football field never came. Around every bend waited another stretch of rocky red soil, and another, and another, until I lost all sense of where we were in relation to where we started. Fog wove through the trees, tangling around naked trunks and limbs. A frosty wind edged the air. The path became steep enough I had to give over control of Bitchmaster, but not quite so treacherous I was forced to climb off and crawl on my butt. Ash was breathing harder. So were the others. Billy hunched beneath his bag. Nip alternated Colossus between hands, his arms trembling. No one called for a break. A break would give us too much time to think about how weak we all were after the last month, and how far we had to go.

That was a question.

How far we had to go.

I began to breathe harder myself, even though I was doing none of the work. We were three or four miles in, the night black as dead embers above the fog. Around us the trees were stained only on one side, the side facing Honaw, and a few branches still dangled pink leaves. I clamped my hands on the wheels, dragging Bitchmaster to a stop. Tears poured down my cheeks.

"What's wrong?" Ash came around and knelt in front of the chair. "Is it your head?"

It was my head. It wasn't my head. It was all the things in my head, and the aching in my legs, and the fact that for every Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Metallica song we had fed ourselves in the last few hours, it was Lana Del Rey I heard when I shut my eyes. I shut my eyes now, trying to stop the tears. But they wouldn't be stopped. They had been held back too long. The voices on the radio, Joel, my aunt's voice on the radio, Joel, all of town on the radio, Joel, Joel, Jooooooel.

"We can't leave," I said.

Ash and Nip were quiet. Billy shrugged off his backpack and let it fall. "You're joking," he said.

"I'm not. No. I'm not." I looked straight at Ash. "You told me, in the loft, you told me something we all knew but nobody would say out loud." She took a step back, her face unsure how to set itself. I spoke louder, so the others could hear. "It's in us. Its breath. Its blood. It's inside us." I closed my fingers around a wisp of fog and felt my palm dampen. "Maybe running is enough. Maybe enough clean air will flush it from our systems. Or maybe not. Maybe we run to the other side of the country, the world, and grow old only to find out at the last moment—the moment—that we can't cash out, we're stuck, that our lives may have been ours but our deaths still belong to it."

"I'll take that chance," said Billy.

"Will you?" I asked.

His eyes dropped.

"What choice do we have?" Ash said quietly.

I took a slow, deep breath. My tears were still flowing, but my voice was calm. "That night, that first night, when you went to the school to help. I never asked, but you saw its mouth. Didn't you?"

Nip gave a tiny nod.

"Was there a way down into it?"

No one answered at first.

Ash said, "You know how a dog's tongue hangs out on a really hot day, or when it's sick? That's how its tongue hangs out." She sank into herself and stayed there awhile. "Only it doesn't face the right way. At least not our way. It's backwards. The tongue is backwards. It should have hung toward the foothills—that's where the bottom jaw is, where everything that didn't get swallowed got pushed—but it doesn't. The tongue. Its tip was hanging north, up over the road and the kids, the school kids—"

"They were crawling up it," said Nip.

"So there is a way down."

"Yeah." Ash nodded. Then she shook her head. "But why would anyone want to go down?"

I looked at Billy, who was turned half away from us, like he was thinking about taking off and putting this conversation in the rearview mirror. "How many times did your father tell his story?"

"What?"

"How many times did you hear your father tell his story?"

"Three or four times." He swallowed. "A day."

"How well do you remember it?"

"The fuck does it matter?" Billy reached for his backpack.

"Do you remember the combination to the safe?"

Billy drew his hand back slowly. Nip and Ash stood as still as the miles of woods that surrounded us.

"You're not thinking . . ."

I don't know who spoke the words, but I know how I answered.

"We ride the cage to the bottom of the mine. We unlock the safe, and we grab every packet of explosives left. It'll all be there if those men in our house were telling the truth. Then we load up the van, and we go on one last ride down the road, and we blow the hell out of its throat, we cave that fucker in, we take its breath away, and we kill it." My tears ran faster. My voice cracked. "It's in pain. Let's put the poor thing out of its misery."


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Author's Note:

Guess what song is going up for the the next chapter, as the kids prepare to head down into the mine. Into the dark.

Go on, guess . . .

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