Cole and Naomi became still, and soon they were both murmuring softly in their sleep. Dee turned over onto her stomach, the stiffness in her joints excruciating after nearly twenty hours in this hole.
She crawled up the embankment and peered out past the trees.
A bonfire raged in the middle of the clearing and some of the men had gathered around it, their faces aglow, while others carried the pieces of the cabin they were using for firewood over to what she now realized was a pyre.
Mathias had been hoisted up in the middle of the blaze. Even from sixty yards away, she could see that the crossbeams which held him were still standing and that in fact her imagination had failed to concoct anything as remotely evil as what they had actually done to the man.
The soldiers’ laughter sounded alcohol-infused.
Somewhere out there, a woman wept.
Dee eased back down into the depression and roused her children.
They crept all the way back to the razorwire, which no longer hummed, and followed it through the trees. The fire was roaring now, shooting flames thirty feet high. From Dee’s vantage, she could see one of the soldiers running naked through the grass carrying a burning branch, which he delivered onto the front porch of a cabin.
The soldiers hooted their approval, assembling to watch as the flames licked out along the sides and the roof like molten fingers. Then the voices started up from inside.
“Keep running, guys,” Dee said, “and don’t listen.”
She could hear the people beating on the inside of the door and pleading to be let out, the soldiers talking back, taunting them. What welled up inside of Dee nearly drove her out into that clearing. Maybe she’d only kill one or two of them before they stopped her, but God, in this moment, nothing would feel so right.
Naomi had stopped just ahead at a break in the fence where the soldiers had come through the night before, the razorwire severed and pushed back.
“Be careful, Na,” Dee said, and she lifted Cole in her arms and followed her daughter between the coils of wire.
When they were through, she set Cole down and they all jogged away from the screaming in the clearing.
Naomi was breathless and crying. She stopped, said, “We have to help them.”
“Baby, if there was even a slim chance, we would, but there isn’t. We’d end up dead, just like them.”
“Are they hurting?” Cole asked.
“I can’t stand hearing it,” Naomi said.
“Come on. We have to keep moving.”
In a little while, they came out of the woods onto the road about a hundred yards up from the checkpoint. Dee took the Glock out of her parka and they moved toward the vehicles up ahead.
No light. No movement.
The sound of voices in agony coming through the trees with the distant glow of flames.
A pair of hummers still sat in the road and the dead soldiers, too.
They arrived at Ed’s Jeep.
“Tires are still inflated,” she said.
Out of the gas cans fastened to the luggage rack, only one had survived the gunfight to hold its contents.
“We taking the Jeep?” Naomi asked.
“If the engine isn’t damaged. Why?”
“Ed’s still in the driver seat, and he doesn’t smell good.”
Dee went around the back of the Jeep and stood beside Naomi.
“No, Cole, stay there.”
“You don’t need to see this.”
“What is it?”
“Ed’s dead, Cole. It’s nothing good to see. Just stay right there, please.”
She held her arm over her nose and mouth, could only imagine what the potency might have been in warm temperatures.
Ed had swollen up against the steering column, his head resting on the wheel. Dee grabbed hold of his left arm. Rigor mortis had come and gone, and it bent easily as she heaved Ed out of the car. Finally got him free and he tumbled out of the driver seat onto the dirt road, his legs still caught up in the floorboard.
“Give me a hand here, Na, but don’t look at his face.”
They dragged him the rest of the way out of the car and off the side of the road into the trees. Dee found a couple of extra shirts in the cargo area and she spread them across the driver seat to cover the sticky, rotting blood.
There was no more screaming in the woods.
“It still smells bad,” Naomi said.
“We’ll keep the windows down. This cold air will scour it out.”
They grabbed a few candy bars and packages of crackers from the banker’s box. Cole sat in the front passenger seat so Naomi could stretch out across the back, and Dee climbed in and worked the driver seat forward until her feet reached the pedals. Right away, she could see that driving was going to be impossible. Five bullets had come through the windshield into Ed, and around the puncture holes, each of them had made a circle of fractured glass that destroyed the translucence.
Dee got out and climbed up onto the hood and stomped on the windshield. All she managed to do was punch out a hole in front of the steering wheel where the cracks had weakened the glass.
The engine cranked on the first try. She shifted into gear and turned on the parking lights and eased onto the gas. They crept forward, Dee listening to the engine which rumbled smoothly, no audible sign of damage. The oil and temperature gauges offered no indications of malfunction.
She steered between the hummers and dead soldiers and accelerated down the dirt road, wind blasting through the windshield in a freezing stream. The car reeked of gasoline and decay and the bits of glass she sat upon cutting through her jeans, but at least they were on their own and moving away from the clearing. In this moment, safe.
Fifteen miles on, the dirt road intersected with an interstate. All lanes, east- and westbound, empty under the stars. She accelerated down the exit ramp, hit eighty after a half mile. At this speed, the rush of air coming through the windshield dried her eyes to the brink of blindness, so she braked down to forty.
Her children slept.
In every direction, no glimmer of habitation.
The milemarkers streaking past every couple of minutes.
The long vistas and the straight trajectory of the interstate gave a sense of safety, the security blanket of seeing what was coming long before you reached it, no hairpin turns, but it didn’t last.
Just shy of midnight, she turned north onto Highway 89.
Got twenty miles up the road and through a ghost town of charred houses before exhaustion forced her off the highway at a reservoir.
Killed the engine, left the kids to sleep—Cole curled up in the front passenger seat, Naomi in back. She popped the cargo hatch and dug out Ed’s sleeping bag and the roadmap, leaving the hatch open to air out the interior.