And Justice for All
The Road Out of Hartley
Shadows fly just at the edge of your vision. Your bodies make full contact with the floor.
A shout echoes back to you from your childhood, someone shrieking with glee, "The floor is lava!" Now that the prophecy has been fulfilled, you would very much like to go back in time and punch that someone in the goddamned mouth.
Something not human, something of heat, something oozing and elemental hulks out of the Sheriff's Office and down the street of Hartley, Texas.
It has been forty seconds since the shotgun blast and the tephric roar, since the screaming and choking and gurgling – not all of it from your own throat. Since the soft sizzling and hissing and blistering of flesh. Finally there is a moment of silence.
It does not last.
The shadows, three of them, return before two minutes have passed. The town's sirens begin to keen, heralds of some awful portent.
A voice near you whispers. "Ah yeah, there it is. It can always get worse." The sound is gravel and glass crunching under tires.
Within seconds feet batter the ground through all seven blocks of town. Car doors slam. Shouts of urgency bounce off the tiny constructs of old siding and rusting corrugated steel. A small voice cries for the loss of one Marquesa delle Zampe Dolce, she of the Soft Paws. A sharp, sudden smack puts an abrupt end to the lamentation.
No one waits to find out exactly what the sirens mean. These are not the familiar air-raid-rebranded-as-tornado klaxons, the ones that say to stay put and take shelter. No, these are something older, something more urgent. These are from when the water tanks held petroleum. These are pulsing with the words every resident has felt pounding in their chests for the last two months, since the arrival of Anselm Teel: Run. Run. Run. RUN.
Heat has burned away your clothes and earthly possessions, seared its way through your skin, filled your veins, and settled into your marrow. It has claimed your body and there is no room for you in that body anymore. You have been pushed away, above it, beside it, outside it. You and the other displaced shadows look down at the bodies coated in the settling ash.
The glow of heat begins to fade from the substance coating your body. It takes lava only fifteen minutes to cool if the flow is inactive, and this flow just walked itself out the door and down Main Street.
Through the busted windows you hear the approach of a vehicle. A door opens, closes. There are footsteps. Justin Price, freshly gouged and bloodied, stands at the edge of a curtain of heat.
He takes in the scene with a side of deep breath. "Fuck."
He steps back, out of the Sheriff's Office proper, onto the wooden porch. He examines the floor, the door jamb, the window frame. A few places smolder but he seems satisfied that ignition is not imminent.
He seats himself in the Lotus position and closes his eyes.
"Really?" A voice that is brush-fire and crackling flora says, impatiently.
"Can you get them out?" he opens one eye to respond to a shadow in the room. "Didn't think so. Now shush."
Puddles well up on his skin. The sheen lifts itself off of his body, away from his limbs. He goes limp and falls to the side. The shimmering grows larger, coalesces, forms dripping limbs of its own. It is the glimmering of the sun on water. It is the lapping of water against a dock. It is the ebb and retreat of the tide before a tsunami.
This form crashes forward on two legs. Its four arms elongate and puncture the cooling rock. Some of your flesh sloughs off during the hasty excavation, but one by one you are removed and carried to the vehicles waiting outside. It places you into a car trunk where you're packed in like a fish: plenty of cool packs, at least one other body to keep you company. The watery form trickles over your limbs hurriedly. The popping blisters have turned your flesh almost craterous. The viscous, milky fluid pools in them. If you are unfortunate enough to be alive and conscious now, you might be comforted by the observation that at least there is no pain. Not yet. There will be pain, and days of it, but right this second you are fortunately numb. Of course, any amount of medical training would tell you that this should not be a source of comfort. You are either so damaged your nerves have revolted or you are in shock. The pooling plasm does not completely remedy either, but if you were aware you would note (even without medical training) that wounds which might have threatened appendages or soft tissue almost instantly become less severe. No one will lose an eye, or an arm, or a foot to the eruption of Anselm Teel's wrath.
Once the last body is safely stowed the construct crests and crashes back over Price's body and he struggles back to his feet. He hitches his vehicle and Carver's to Sabina's truck. He inhales, looking at the motorcycle. He squats and tries to lift, testing its weight. He shakes his head, steps away, and holds his arms out like a magician. Or Magneto. Watery, dripping tendrils flow forth and lift the bike into the bed of Sabina's truck. He has a feeling he'll have to apologize to Stitch for a few scratches, but says to no one in particular that if it’s between apologizing to a living man for property damage, or hauling a dead body across state lines, well…
It has been four minutes and thirty-seven seconds since the shotgun blast. The town is nearly empty. Price hauls himself into the driver’s seat of Sabina’s truck. He looks for keys, glances back at the Sheriff’s Office, and hunches over a sigh. His hand hovers near the right side of the steering wheel. He points and a tendril extrudes, seeking the mechanism by which the car might start.
It has been five minutes since the shotgun blast. Justin Price is leaving Hartley. He hauls with him two cars, one truck, one motorcycle, five bodies, and three ghosts. He is less than thirty miles away when the explosions start.
The ride to safety takes two hours and forty-nine minutes. It might be faster if Price drove on anything besides the backroads, but between double-towing and the trunks full of bodies he is more inclined to be safe than sorry. He has been sorry enough, of late.
You will come back to consciousness in a comfortable bed. Well, in a bed that would be comfortable if your skin were in a mood to entertain any sensation besides pain. There is pain, and days of it.
Sabina wakes in a room all to herself.
Stitch and Maxwell will thrill to discover that they are roommates, though not bedmates.
Carver and Atilla share the third room in this quaint safehouse.
It is sparse. It is cold. It is quiet. It is still.
Monitors – the sort one would use to care for an infant – sit on a table beside each of your beds. The first to stir will see a familiar figure fill the doorway of your room, the figure of Justin Price.
It is clear once he takes in a breath that he has been holding it, waiting for confirmation that the bodies in his beds are actually alive.
The wounds on his face and arms have scabbed over. His clothes are clean.
Your bodies are covered in bandages. A dry erase board on the wall of every room details the last time each bandage was changed.
And somewhere in all of that, you are given your second chance.