Fuckity f**k f**k f**k, Royal says through clenched teeth when it’s over. His whole body looks strained to bursting, and his thin, ill-fitting skin shivers and tears a little with tiny wet pops. After a few minutes, his body relaxes and his breathing returns to normal.
Now me, Bodie says, and they exchange positions.
When Bodie is injected, he says nothing but she can see the muscles quivering with tension beneath his clothes.
Oh lord, Royal says, marching around the room in circles. I got a fire in me, Bodie. Right now? Right now I could f**k a hole in the world. I swear to God a’mighty, I could f**k a new Grand Canyon all by myself.
Settle down, Royal. We got things to do. Bring one of those for Mama.
Royal goes back to the table and fills a syringe with about twice as much of the clear fluid as either of them took themselves, then, yelping and clacking his feet against the ground, follows Bodie out of the room.
SO, MOSES Todd says when the two men have left, you wanna take a guess what that was about?
I ain’t ever seen anything like them before.
I can’t say as I have either.
They ain’t slugs.
Then what are they?
Mutants? he says.
Well, she says, they ain’t the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.
We’re in agreement there, lambchop.
Hey, she says, what you suppose they’re shootin up? It ain’t meth.
Some concoction of their own invention looks like. Whether it’s got something to do with their size and their looks is what I’m wondering.
What you saying, they metamorphosed themselves?
I ain’t saying nothin except you won’t find me puttin that stuff in my morning coffee.
She looks behind her. On the other side is an empty cell and then the cell with the meatskins, seven of them, wandering around in circles, bumping into one another like blind people.
What do you think they’re corralling slugs for? she asks.
I don’t know, he says. Could be they’re using them for somethin. Could be they’re eatin em. I seen it done before.
Yeah, she says. So have I.
You want to talk about an abomination, there’s one, he says, shaking his head. The food chain’s supposed to go one way if you ask me.
She hushes. She remembers the hunters she met. The plate of salty meat that tasted like rosemary.
Moses Todd sighs.
Well I’m tired of speculatin, he says. I’m just about ready to get out of here.
What you gonna do, bend the bars?
I don’t know. I’ll do somethin.
Great. When you got a plan, let me know what it is. In the meantime, I’m gonna get some sleep.
LATER THE girl comes in, Millie, the one from the woods. She has a loaf of bread that she tears into three pieces and pushes through the bars of each of their cells. Then she opens a sack and takes out three raw corncobs and passes those through the bars as well.
What you planning on doin with us? Moses Todd says.
But the girl doesn’t respond.
You know, we can’t stay here. We got places to be.
She leaves without saying anything.
Temple calls to Maury and holds up her corncob. She shows him how to shuck it and tells him to do the same with his.
The sun goes down, the rectangular window darkening. She sleeps.
DEEP NIGHT, the sound of Maury’s heavy breathing and the inexhaustible shuffling of the slugs, and she lays on her cot, thinking the world around her is so black that it makes no difference whether her eyes are open or closed. Her mind wanders in and out of tangled dreams so shallow they have trouble flinging themselves beyond the walls of the basement where she lies.
Once, from the carbon black of the cell next to her, she can hear the creak of cot springs and Moses Todd’s voice calling to her, barely more than a whisper.
Hey, girl. You awake over there?
Yeah, I’m awake.
Just this seems to satisfy him for a minute. Confirmation of awakeness, the fraternity of insomniacs.
Then he says, What you thinking about?
Me? I ain’t thinking about anything. You want a bedtime story, Mose, you came to the wrong person.
All right, he says. Fine.
She waits on his voice again but it doesn’t come, and soon the dark begins to worry her with its fingering in all the corners of her wakeful brain.
After a while, she says, Why? What was it you were thinkin about?
She hears him draw a big breath.
Oh, he says. Just somethin I saw a long time ago.
What was it?
It was in a place called Sequarchie, he says, speaking slowly. That’s in Tennessee. I was just passin through, and there was this woman, sittin out front of the hospital on the curb, leaning against a fire hydrant. They wouldn’t treat her, cause she’d been bit—had a man’s flannel shirt all bunched up against her neck. It was wet all through, and she kept trying to find a dry part to soak up the blood, but there wasn’t any dry part so she just used it for pressure. This was just after everything started, so there was lots of confusion. And that girl, she must of been eighteen, nineteen, she just come down out the hills where she was livin, and she hadn’t even heard that the dead they were comin back. I was a young man then, about her exact age, I guess.
He is quiet for a long time. She is beginning to wonder if he has fallen asleep when he starts up again.
Anyway, he says with a sigh. She tells me that her man, he died the week before, slipped and fell over a rock ridge while he was huntin, broke his neck. She buried him out back in a cedar glade by the stream, his favorite place to go off to when he had enough of the world. She thought that was it for her and him in this world, and so she commenced to mournin. Except—and she tells me this like I couldn’t believe it in a million years—except he comes back to her. He comes back to her one night, and she says it like it’s a revelation of pure love. He comes back to her, and he’s been so hungry with the missing of her that he tries to swallow her whole. That’s what she says. She keeps sayin it. He come back to me. He come back to me. And all the time, I’m lookin at her eyes, how they’re gettin cloudy at the edges—and how her skin is goin gray—and I know what’s happening to her even though she thinks she just needs some stitches and can’t understand why they won’t give em to her. He come back to me.
What’d you do? Temple asks.
Moses Todd goes quiet again for a long time. She wonders if she shouldn’t have said anything.
Finally he says, I left her there. I should of taken care of it. I should of put her down. But I was young. That was before I understood that things have a way about em that needs to be respected, pretty or not. Ain’t no code but one that doesn’t feel like it fits exactly proper.