32. An End to the Music

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Everything after that slow crawl up from the earth happened fast, no time to think, no time to look back. We returned to a world where superficial detail did not exist, where flesh did not exist, only naked gleaming bone.

The ride stopped.

The cage slid open.

It was still night, that much I knew. It was night and the schoolchildren were back in full attendance. They surrounded the pithead and the van, which had been backed up to the gate of the cage. The trunk door flipped up and revealed Nip on the inside, bent over and waving desperately.

"Come on, come—"

He froze for a second as he saw Billy's father hobbling after us.

"Hurry."

Children spilled around the van into the cage, coming for us with outstretched arms. Ash and Billy pushed me through the closing gap. I slammed into the bumper, my knees acting as brake pads. Nip grabbed me under the arms and helped me up into the van. It was rocking. The engine was on. He scrambled over the milk jugs, popping the caps off a few, and dove over the backseat. I crawled after him through the spilling gasoline as Ash and Billy dove into the trunk behind me. Once I had dragged myself between the headrests, I spared a glance over my shoulder. Carl Rascoe stood tall in the crowd.

"Dad!" Billy shouted, kicking out at faces while Ash hammered away with Colossus, its beam flashing about, schizophrenic. "Over here!"

The blind prunes of Carl's eyeballs twitched. His swollen body changed course and heaved for the van. He grabbed Billy's leg. Billy grabbed his wrist. Then Ash took his other wrist and together, as the children dragged at them, they dragged at Carl. He wanted to come, he wanted so badly to come and clutch his son and never let him go, but his incredible mass did not want to leave the ground. He pushed and wormed and for the longest time went nowhere, until, finally, his left knee got up onto the bumper and his weight shifted in his favor. Ash and Billy landed back on their asses, their faces carved open and bleeding, their sleeves ripped down to the skin.

"Go!" they shouted.

Nip was behind the wheel, sitting way low in the seat so he could reach the pedals. He hit the gas. The van's back tires sprayed mud as they found traction. We lurched away from the pithead, Carl's legs dangling out of the trunk with a young boy clinging onto his ankle. The boy's body dragged along for a dozen yards before tearing loose and tumbling through the muck. But things did not calm down there.

Children made a dark and restless sea of the clearing. We forced our way through that sea, its waves crashing against the hood, breaking and crunching and moaning. Fog bloodied the night. Bitchmaster had been left behind again, this time for good, but I wouldn't realize that until later. Much later.

It was all a lot for my cracked head to handle, the bouncing, the jostling, so I shut my eyes. I didn't open them until we were off Blackstone's property and on the Road. The trunk was closed. Ash and Billy had Carl's wrists pinned to the floor. His hands twisted around and around, looking for something to hold onto, to squeeze. The two of them, Ash and Billy, were arguing about whether we should stop at her house. Ash wanted to get a blanket to wrap up Billy's dad. Billy wanted to keep going and get it done. Their voices were loud loud loud inside my skull. That was when I saw the drumbeater sitting in the front by a half-empty jug of gasoline. How either item had gotten up there, I didn't know, but I decided I wanted to hold the drumbeater. I pushed myself over the seat divider. What happened next was a simple chain of events.

Nip glanced away from the road, at me.

The road twisted.

Something moved in the road, on its stomach, and Nip stomped reflexively on the brake. My hand missed the drumbeater and closed on air. I was flying.

Not for long.

My cracked forehead hit the dashboard and

I floated up a staircase, my feet dangling beneath me, bouncing lightly on each step. At the top of the staircase was a door. The door was open.

Inside the door

red footprints and red handprints mottled the carpet. I saw them from up close, because I was hanging low. One of the handprints was much larger and rounder than the others. You don't belong, I thought.

Then the handprint went away and

why were there two sofas? There had only ever been one sofa in Ash's house. This new one sat far back in the shadows. She didn't see it. She was staring at me. She looked scared, like somebody had jumped out at her and yelled, "Boo!"

I tried to tell her about the sofa.

I said, "So. Fa."

Behind us came a voice. Billy's voice. "I packed up all our food and water again. We can leave them here until it's done."

Ash said nothing.

I pointed at the sofa. The diamond ring glittered suddenly, brightly, on my middle finger. Somebody had turned on a flashlight.

Nip. There was a thick blanket under his arm. He held it out to Ash. "Here."

The blanket was for Billy's dad, but I didn't care about Billy's dad. I cared about the sofa. It was moving. Its matted brown cushions gave a shiver and rose on top of bulky legs. It had legs, like it had a head, like it had a long pale stripe running down that head. It opened its jaws and roared a howling roar that chased the light out of the room. The last thing I heard Ash say, the last thing I ever heard her say, was my name.


____ ____

Author's Note:

Coming up next, the climax . . .

Be ready.

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