Lucia ran over to the carriage and retrieved the old man’s walking cane, and then hurried back and gave it to Jason. She helped him to his feet.
He leaned hard on the cane. “Thanks. We need to get moving before one of those damn things comes to claim him,” he said, pointing to the screamer with a nod as he walked towards it.
He picked up the hunting knife lying next to Lee’s body and removed the screwdriver from his head. He stood and looked at the screamer for a moment, studying Lee’s pained expression—a happy witness to his agony—before stumbling back to the carriage and around to the remains of the old man.
They both looked down at the decapitated head and watched as the lips moved with unheard obscenities.
“How is that possible?” Lucia asked. “He’s no longer connected to the rest of his body, but he still looks as if he’s breathing and… Oh, God, he’s trying to speak.”
Jason smiled. “Told you I’m taking your ride, Pops.”
“I’ll help you. We don’t need to ride there. It’ll be slow going, but together we’ll make it.”
“I’m sorry, Lucia, but I won’t make it. Look at the state of me. I’ll either drop a mile down the road or get picked off by another bloody freak. I have to do this.” He hobbled towards the carriage door, turned the latch and pulled; it swung open with ease. Inside, he found the collected treasures of the two men. It appeared the vulturous pair had spent their time picking over the possessions of everyone they met. He scanned the interior and saw: a bundle of assorted clothes on the floor next to a gold clock, a diamond-studded gold crown sat upon a marble bust of a stern-looking man, and a scattering of coins from various nations mingled with assorted gemstones within a felled forest of rifles and shotguns. His gaze lifted to the many human tongues hanging from the ceiling; torn flesh held in place by large nails. He felt sickened, not by the grotesque sight but by how little it shocked him. A black sheet edged with gold tassels covered a large box on the leather seat. He pulled the sheet away and saw that it wasn’t a box but a rusted metal cage tied to the seat with thick rope. “Oh, dear God,” he exclaimed, looking at what was trying to remain unseen within the cage.
“What is it?” Lucia asked, peering into the carriage.
“It’s all right, son,” Jason assured the quivering creature.
In the cage, covered in dirt and curled up like a frightened dog, was a small naked boy, shivering, with a fearful expression upon his young strained face. His eyes were wide and flitted back and forth between the two shocked onlookers.
“Oh, you poor dear,” Lucia said, as she reached out towards the cage.
A feral scream burst from the boy’s tongueless mouth as he scrambled away from her approaching hand.
“He can’t be more than eight.”
“Get him out of there,” Lucia urged.
Jason climbed into the carriage and found a large padlock holding the cage door shut. He pulled at the rope, trying to move it from the seat, but it was too thick and as malleable as steel cable. “It’s okay, we’ll get you out.” He looked around for the keys but saw none.
“I’ll check him.” Lucia ran over to the old man’s body and searched his jacket pockets.
Jason tried to bend the bars by pulling and pushing on them, but they didn’t give.
“He hasn’t got any. I’ll see if the other one has the keys.” She ran to the rear of the carriage.
Jason remembered the hacksaw blade and called after her to get it. The boy watched with quizzical eyes as he searched again for keys or anything else he could use to force the cage open.
Lucia returned and handed him the saw blade. “He hasn’t got the keys either.”
Jason worked on the bars, but the saw kept slipping over the tubular metal. “We haven’t got time for this.”
“Our belts,” Lucia said as she removed hers.
“Our belts? What do you—?”
“Hurry. Take your belt off.” She jumped up into the carriage.
Jason unbuckled his and watched as she tied hers loose around the midsection of four vertical bars. He understood her plan. “I was just going to suggest that,” he said with a smile as he followed suit, removing his belt and tying it around the same bars. He picked up a rifle and slid the barrel into the loop of both belts and began to turn it. The leather creaked as the garrotte tightened around the metal. A moment later, the bars started to bend.
“It works,” Lucia said. “I wasn’t sure if it would.”
“It’s okay, kid,” Jason said to the boy. “We’ve got a Houdini in our corner.”
“Houdini?” Lucia asked.
“The escape artist…”
“Before my time.”
“You youngsters today,” he said, and then shook his head and tutted twice.
The middle of the four bars had come together and created a bigger gap either side. He unwound the barrel and untied the belts, and then repeated the procedure on the next four bars.
“Thanks, but I was sixty-two when I died. This is how I looked twenty years ago.”
“Yes… come to hell and have twenty years of lines and sagging vanish. Not how I’d choose to regain my youth.”
Jason thought of Derwood and the Roman soldier and wondered which century she came from. “I’m forty-two. What year was it when you—?”
“No. Twenty thirty-two.”
The boy slipped through the gap in the bars, pushed Jason over, ducked Lucia’s reaching arms and ran from the carriage.
“Hang on, we’re not going to hurt you,” Lucia called as she jumped down and ran after the boy.
Jason crawled to the carriage door, slipping and sliding over the gemstones. He reached the door and fell out onto the hard ground. Lucia had hold of the boy’s hand and was encouraging him to stay with them. The boy was trying to pull away from her.
“Twenty thirty-two?” Jason said to himself as he watched them. For some reason he found it more of a shock to meet someone from the future than the past. Maybe it was because she had confirmed her century whereas he remained uncertain about Derwood and the Roman.
“Stay with us,” she encouraged the boy. “We’ll keep you safe. We’re going to leave this place.”
Her voice was soft. Her voice reminded him of how Zoe’s once was.
The boy jerked his hand away from her grip and then ran towards the nearest dune and climbed. Lucia ran after him. Jason got to his feet once more with the aid of the cane. Within moments, the boy was over the dune and gone from sight. Jason watched as Lucia ascended the dune too.
“We can help you, please come back,” she yelled, fervent despair in her voice as she looked off into the desert from the peak about sixty feet up.
After putting his belt back on, Jason leaned over and picked up the old man’s glasses and put them on too. “You can keep the hat,” he said to the gawping head. With slow painful moves, Jason gathered the pliers, the two hunting knives, the screwdriver, and the baseball bat. He threw the bat up onto the driver’s seat, put the knives in his belt, and threw the rest into the carriage and shut the door.
Jason looked down at the old man. Decapitation meant he no longer had the use of his body, but the man retained his ability to see and hear all. And judging by the frantic horror on his face, his mind remained in working order too. If his skull remained unbroken, Jason wondered, how long would he stay this way?
The low rumbling call of a caretaker took dominance over the wind. Jason moved to the back of the carriage and saw the ethereal creature on all fours by Lee’s corpse. It looked like a wolf about to howl at the moon. But what came next wasn’t a howl. An ear-shattering screech emanated from the creature as it consumed the screamer with one long inward breath, extinguishing its black flame. Jason watched in nervous awe as the creature’s mouth opened and exposed the void within. Its head moved this way and that over the corpse. A moment later, the body disintegrated to nothing, and the caretaker became a mere vibration in the air, before it vanished into the wind.
“Oh, crap,” Jason exclaimed, as he realised what would happen next. “Lucia, get down here quick,” he shouted. He opened the carriage door again, and then stepped back and pulled one of the knives from his belt as his eyes scanned the carriage, inside and out. He ducked down and checked below. “Lucia. Shit. Hurry!” He looked along the human train, readying himself to act as fast as his battered body would allow. The moment Lee appeared again, he would pounce on him before he had a chance to open his eyes.
“He won’t survive out there,” Lucia said as she rejoined Jason.
“The creature, did you see it?”
“Yes, but it’s gone now.”
“And it took Lee with it…” Jason flashed his eyes at her to coax understanding.
“I don’t know,” he said, pulling the other knife from his belt and handing it to her. “Take this…”
“Are you sure he’ll return here?” She took the offered knife.
“I’m not certain, but I think they used it in some way when they did whatever they did to get sent to hell. I get reset to my old house, you to the well, and them to this carriage.”
“I’ll check the other side.”
Jason dropped the walking stick and reached up to reclaim the baseball bat from the driver’s seat.
“He’s not here,” Lucia called out.
“Come on, you bastard, where are you?”
“There,” Lucia screamed. “He’s over there, at the front.”
Jason looked along the line of men at the front of the carriage. Lying on the ground a few feet from the man at the front of the line, Lee began to stir. Jason staggered as fast as he could towards him.
Lee sat up and was immediately set upon by the two men at the front of the line, who pulled at their wire restraints and kicked him with their blistered and bruised bare feet. Jason raised the bat as he lumbered towards his target, until he came into range and swung the bat with all his might, catching the side of Lee’s head and knocking him flat again with a satisfying, immobilising thud. Jason fell on him, pulled the hunting knife from his belt, and rammed the blade into Lee’s renewed and undamaged throat. He pulled the knife out and then plunged it back in, over and over again, until the connection was cut and the head rolled free from the body.
Jason looked at the two men who had helped him. They smiled back through quivering lips as they offered their bound wrists. The wire had dug so deep that it had worn an inch-wide gouge into them, and the metal barbs scratched against unprotected bone. They tried to speak but all that came out was unintelligible moans and hissing—their tongues removed, and no doubt added to the carriage’s inner decor.
This is it, Jason thought. This is where you pussy out and fail because you’re weak. You won’t make it on foot… He shook the disparaging voice from his head. No! I’m not weak. I will go through with this. I’m in hell, nothing matters anymore and nothing ever will unless I…
With unacquainted composure he instructed the men, “Don’t fucking smile at me. Your work isn’t done, you just have new hands holding your reins. You’ll pull that carriage and take me to that mountain, or,” he looked down at Lee’s head and the panicked eyes staring back at him, “or you’re all going to end up like these two dumb shits.”
“What are you doing?” Lucia asked with fear and a growing sadness in her voice.
Jason hobbled as fast as he could to the old man, picked up his head and then returned to the front of the human train. He dropped the old man’s head next to Lee’s—father and son together again. He used the knife to dig a hole next to the two heads.
“Just leave them,” she pleaded. “You don’t need to do anything more.”
“If I leave them in the open someone might come along and finish them off. I don’t want to have to deal with them again. While their skulls are still intact, they won’t be going anywhere.” He leaned over so he was nose to nose with the old man, and then he yelled, “Do you hear me? You fuck. I hope time is slow for you both, down there beneath the sand.” He heard himself laugh.
Once it was deep enough, he placed both the heads into the hole so their terrified faces looked up at the sky, and he watched their mouths moving with silent words of antipathy. He covered the hole with sand until nothing of the two heads remained on view. Then he stood and watched as the wind blew the ground smooth again. A moment later there was no evidence a hole had ever been dug. He turned to face the twelve bound onlookers, meeting each and every hopeless gaze with hard contempt. “Stamp down hard as you march over them. And you will march, or I’ll dig twelve more holes.”
“Please don’t do this, Jason.”
“Are you coming?”
“Not like this.”
Jason moved to the carriage, slammed the side door shut and then climbed up onto the driver’s seat. After putting the walking stick and bat on the seat next to him, he picked up the reins.
Lucia stood next to the carriage and looked up at him.
He looked down at her and thought he saw pity in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I have to do this.” He snapped the reins.