The Race – Chapter 18

Angie dragged herself through the loose dirt and dust. The stone wall gouged and scraped her back but she didn’t notice. She pulled and kicked and squirmed, knowing at any second a hand was going to clamp onto her ankle and drag her back in, away from the warmth, the daylight. Away from Hannah and Lara and Rob. Forever.

Her feet came free. She thrashed away from the tunnel and gasped in the warm, humid air. Birds sang and insects buzzed. She sobbed from the beauty of it. Then a branch snapped and Rob yelled from somewhere close.

Angie sprang to her feet. She was on the side of a small, thickly forested hill. Dark mossy stone glistened on the hillside where she’d come out. The mine shaft must have had an access there at some point, but it had been filled in by man or nature.

The hill dropped down into a brief valley with another, taller slope on the far side. Rob yelled again from somewhere below. Angie charged into the underbrush. Thorns and vines tugged at her. She tripped over a chunk of rock and fell into a tangled holly bush, tore herself free and kept going. A cool breeze pushed up from the valley floor. It carried something thick and rotten with it.

“Rob! Where are you?”

A man grunted.

A woman whimpered and said, “Please. Come on.”

Lara.

Angie turned toward the voices and crashed through a curtain of wild grape and dead saplings. A small wooden shack stood at the bottom of the valley. It was covered in moss and vines and leaned dangerously to the side. Rusted pots and pans were scattered around it, along with fat glass bottles filled with dirt and crusted algae. Lara sat on a large rock outside the doorless entry, gazing dumbly into the shack.

“Lara!” Angie skidded on her knees and wrapped her sister in a fierce hug. She felt the sticky blood around the bite wound on Lara’s shoulder. The rotten smell was stronger. Angie sniffed her sister, but it wasn’t coming from her. “You’re okay. You’re okay.”

“Make them stop,” Lara moaned. “I can’t wait any longer.”

Angie looked inside the shack. The Mechanic stood over Rob, choking him with both hands. Rob’s feet kicked wildly, furrowing the dirt and knocking glass bottles around. He was on top of a pile of dead bodies. Some had been chewed down to the bone. Some were half-eaten and bloated. All of them were busy with flies, maggots, and beetles. This was the Mechanic’s private stash.

Rob hacked and gasped. He pulled at the Mechanic’s wrists and tried to push his face away. The Mechanic laughed and tried to bite Rob’s fingers. Rob managed to get a grip on the Mechanic’s left ear. He twisted and pulled, trying to get the hands on his throat to loosen. The ear tore away in stuttering jerks. The Mechanic laughed and shook his head. Dark blood fell onto Rob’s face, into his eyes and mouth. He tried to cough and spit it out but couldn’t draw the air. He screwed his eyes shut against the stream of blood, then a darker curtain started to creep in from the edges.

His feet stopped kicking.

The only sound was fat drops of blood smacking against his face.

Then a clock chimed. No, it was deeper than a chime. More like a bong.

Bong.

Bong.

Was that his heart? The last few beats of it?

Bong.

The hands fell away from his throat. He sucked in a short gasp of air, choked on blood and started coughing. He blinked through the blood and saw Angie swing a rusty cast-iron skillet as big as a manhole cover into the side of the Mechanic’s head.

Bong.

The Mechanic’s head wasn’t shaped right anymore. His greasy hair was caved in above the missing ear and something grayish peeked out. He started to turn around.

Angie roared and hit him again. Teeth skittered against the damp wooden wall like buckshot. The Mechanic reached for her, caught her wrists on the backswing and started to twist.

Angie bared her teeth and tried to pull free. The Mechanic’s grip was like a vice. The sticky blood and callouses on his hands wouldn’t let her move an inch. He squeezed and twisted. Angie dropped the skillet.

The Mechanic pulled her in and lunged forward. His remaining teeth were chipped and split, needle-sharp. He let go of her wrists with one hand and clamped it around the back of her head, pulling her closer.

Rob reached up and grabbed two handfuls of the black, greasy hair. He planted his feet and pulled with everything he had, trying to yank the Mechanic away from Angie. That didn’t happen.

Instead, the Mechanic’s skull came apart. The trauma from the skillet had left it shattered, held together only by his scalp, and when Rob pulled the flesh tore. He fell back with two fists full of hair, scalp, and skull.

Above him, the Mechanic stood completely still. His brain bulged, glistening, from the back of his head. One side of it was scrambled. His mouth was wide open, gaping toward Angie’s face.

Angie struggled to tear her wrists free. The Mechanic’s grip held.

Rob scrubbed at the blood on his face and pushed off the bodies beneath him. He stood, fell against the wall of the shack and nearly toppled the entire thing, then found his balance and punched the Mechanic as hard as he could in the side of the head.

It was like pulling a plug. The Mechanic went completely slack. His grip released and he collapsed onto the dead bodies like a sandbag. Flies rose into a brief cloud, then resumed their work, some of them landing on the latest addition to the pile.

Rob and Angie looked at each other.

“My God,” Angie said. She fell toward him, her arms out.

“No!” Rob stepped away. “This isn’t my blood.”

Lara shuffled into the doorway. When she saw the Mechanic she stomped her foot and slumped against the rickety frame. “Aw, you guys. He was gonna eat me.”

Angie said, “What…Oh. Oh, Rob, no.”

Rob nodded and spat into the dirt. “Get Lara away from here. From me. I don’t want to…you know.”

“Is it happening already?”

Rob blinked through tears. “I can smell blueberry muffins.”

Lara brightened. “That’s me!”

“Hurry,” Rob said.

Angie turned and grabbed Lara’s shoulders, spun her around and started to walk both of them away. She asked Rob, “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. But get her away from me. Lara, baby.”

Lara twisted in Angie’s arms to look at him.

“Goodbye. I love you.”

Lara sighed and wiggled her fingers at him.

“Rob,” Angie said.

“You have to go.” Rob stood in the middle of the buzzing shack. “I can’t even smell the dead ones anymore. Or they don’t smell bad to me. You have to get away.”

Angie walked with Lara along the bottom of the valley. They got to the edge of the semi-clearing around the shack, then she stopped. “No. We’re out. The antidote.”

“That was a lie, Angie,” Rob said. “Even if it exists, they won’t give it to us. They’ll just kill us.”

“No. We don’t go back and ask for it. We go back and take it. We go back and kill them.”

And then you said: