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31. All His Wishful Thinking 

Benjamin pushed Hobbs to the roof of the car, where, as far as he could tell, the gimps would be too stupid to find her. Maybe she’d be safe. He pulled the shotgun from his shoulder and jumped from the car. He landed behind the back bumper, dodged an incoming bone blade, and then he shoved the gun barrel up under the closest gimp’s chin and blew the head clean off.

      He knew it was useless to glance at the keyhole of the Mustang’s trunk. There would not be a key there. The key was inside the car, stuck in the ignition, hanging from the key chain amassed with Nancy’s this and that: mini-bobble heads, charms and trinkets, a tiny troll doll with a glut of pink hair. He’d somehow gotten the trunk open earlier without that key. Brenda had flung him through the air, oh yeah, he remembered it clearly now. He’d slammed into the back fender, and the impact of his body had popped open the trunk.

      He cocked the shotgun with an arm jerk, then he grabbed the face of an attacking boneman and squeezed. Blue sparks erupted blindingly off the monster’s charred skin. Benjamin could feel his fingers dig in through the gimp’s skull like wet potter’s clay. He shoved his hand deeper and grabbed the tough-skinned fruit that had leeched onto the dead man’s brain. He popped the fruit open, pulled its mulched remains from the skull, and then tossed the gelatinous morsel to the dirt.

      Behind him, from inside the trunk, he could just hear Brenda’s muffled yells, the peeps of a chick under all the noise the speed gimps were making. She was telling him she couldn’t open the trunk, that she’d tried her brand-new skills, her magicks, but to no avail. Or something like that. He’d already figured that much out. He knew Brenda, knew she was not one to hide, to sit idly by as all hell broke loose around her. And so there had to be some sort of complication, some defective equipment, rusted up latch. Either that or she just couldn’t figure out how to go about opening the trunk; if that was the case, maybe he’d tease her about it later, and they’d laugh. Depending on her mood. Depending on whether they lived through this.

      He had another gimp’s face in hand now, squeezing, and he’d jammed the tip of the shotgun up under another boneman’s chin. It struck him how, for someone who had little idea of what he was doing, he was very aware of his surroundings, and he was extremely calm. He knew if he thought about this too much his confidence would deflate, and his actions would stumble into awkward, unfocused flailings, and then he’d be dead. So he didn’t wonder at his control. He kept working at stepping around to the rear fender, where he would then throw himself against the metal hide of the car, the particular spot he’d slammed into earlier, and the hood would pop open—he’d decided it was an impossibility that once he hit the fender in the right spot the trunk would not pop open, which he knew was the single most idiotic piece of selective reasoning he’d ever come up with—and Brenda would have her chance to save the day.

      He’d kicked a gimp out of the way, pulled the trigger of the shotgun, popped another piece of bad fruit, and managed to step around to a spot where he could throw himself against the fender. He elbowed a turned-around, confused gimp out of his desired flight path, which was direct and only a couple feet from liftoff to landing, and he readied himself, eyeing the rear fender, willing it to comply with his desperate wish.

      Talon-tipped vines erupted from the ground surrounding Benjamin. They rocketed straight into the darkening sky, forming a fibrous cage, entrapping him in a tube hardly wider then he was. As this event developed, Benjamin saw the white glint of a horizontally swung sharpened arm bone jetting his way, about chest level, on his left. He crouched to avoid the gimp’s attack, while his brain prattled on about a fender and throwing himself at it and the release of the caretaker and how slow he was and something about being a pussy. He squatted within the gloomy confines of the circular vine cage that was rising around him, and his thoughts turned to death, his own...and how the vine daughters must have somehow learned how to sniff out their prey without the help of their furry little familiars, the kittens. But, then again, they hadn’t actually skewered him, now had they. And then he was shooting up into the air like a model rocket.

      It happened in the time span of an eye blink. It took him a bit longer to figure out what had happened. As he’d crouched down to evade the bone swing, his knees had pressed into one side of the rising vine-tower interior, his back pressed against the opposite side, and his body, wedged tightly in the tube like an oversized spit wad in a plastic straw, had gotten stuck and risen up with the vines. The vines’ malleable, twining cage had conformed to the shape of his body, binding his arms, pressing the shotgun to his chest, constricting his shoulders and head, and he couldn’t breathe. Where his bare flesh touched the leafy tendrils, blue sparks danced crazily, and he had to close his eyes against the electric storm, and he envisioned himself a stubborn turd in an astronaut’s ass.

      He figured this must have been how Ibucus traveled in the vines. Benjamin had been swiped up within the Lady’s cocooning roots, and they’d been velvety compared to these brute cords. It was no wonder the Brini’ King wore the suit of armor. The pressure on Benjamin’s body, the constriction of this sphincter, seemed enough to crush bone. A frantic thought of Benjamin’s was that the vines might force his trigger finger to tighten, and he might very well blow his head off, depending on where the barrel was tucked and aimed. His body was going numb with the daughter’s embrace. He focused on his trigger finger, straining to keep that one tiny bit of him stalwart and unyielding.

      The vines went limp. He began to fall.

      Just as they’d performed during Ibucus’s pompous arrivals, the few of which Benjamin had been witness to, the vines were lowering him to ground level. The sparks had calmed, had ceased to be, in fact, and Benjamin opened his eyes to blackness. The daughter still had hold of him, curtaining the early evening’s light from his eyes, but somehow she’d grown immune to his touch. He’d be unveiled any second. The vines would peel away from him and expose him like the unexceptional, droopy stamen of an exotic flower. At that point, he’d be able to see what the hell was going on. And he’d be open to attack. Lots of attack.

      Benjamin, besides being cushioned within the intertwined tube of vines, slammed into the ground with such force that he was sure he’d broken every bone in his left side. Déjà vu, he thought, and then he knew he wasn’t broken, that he wouldn’t be sitting this one out, that he’d have to stand up and get back in the game. He should curb all this wishful thinking, this fantasizing of being taken off the field on a stretcher. Didn’t seem that that unlikelihood was in the cards today. The vines had relaxed themselves, and he found he could move his arms and legs, which were, once again, as he’d suspected, unbroken. Could he consider himself lucky? He decided no, he’d rather not call this luck at all. More like bullshit, he told himself. And no one’s ever come across any good bullshit. It’s all bad.

      After a few seconds of limited fidgeting in the dark, the first thing Benjamin did was move the tip of the shotgun barrel out from under his chin. He pushed the gun away from him and clawed at the weave of vines in front of his face. He pushed his head out of the vine tube and thirstily sucked in air. His eyes flitted about, expecting the glint of sharpened bone coming his way. What he did see didn’t make any sense. Then his sluggish brain got to work sorting out what had happened and where he’d crash landed.

      The vines hadn’t willingly lowered him to ground level. That swinging bone sword that Benjamin had crouched down to avoid earlier had kept right on coming after the vines had lifted him up into the air. The stupid gimp had severed the daughter’s leafy, licorice-whip limbs, its blade’s trajectory unstoppable, unalterable, following through the exact spot Benjamin had been standing a split second before. And that’s why the blue sparks had died. The vines had saved his life by some dumb twist of luck. No, not luck, he reminded himself. Bullshit. A dumb twist of bullshit.

      He’d landed only a few feet from where he’d been lifted up. Lying on his left side, he was peering under the length of the wrecked Mustang. The white bulk of the tree trunk and serpentine surface roots were just up ahead. The vine tube had wedged up under the back bumper of the car. He could see the crazed dance of charred gimp feet stumbling about around the car, slowing their pace as he watched, tiny storms of dirt settling back to the surface of Hog Hill’s crown. And he could see the dead (the re-dead, Benjamin supposed) bonemen piled up around the car, their hewed skulls dribbling embittered juice to the dirt.

      Benjamin did not want to leave the blanketing cover of the interwoven vines, but he figured it was either that or keep still and quiet, and he was in no mood to stay still or quiet. One of the bonemen might eventually figure out he was hidden in the dead vines anyway. It’d be best to get himself under the Mach 1 and act his part of the monster hiding under the bed. The dumb gimps would never think to look for him under the car. Once he got himself situated, he’d be able to sneak peeks around the hilltop, see if he could spot William, try and figure out the situation, dismal as it may be.

      He pulled himself from the vines, dragging the shotgun with him, moving slowly so as not to attract too much attention from the walking dead stationed around the car. He placed the shotgun in the dirt beside the back tire, and then twisted his body until his back was in the dirt and weed. It was dark under the car, couldn’t see much of the Mustang’s under frame. He felt about, found something he could grab onto up in the car’s guts, and pulled his battered body farther into the shadow under the car’s trunk.

      He heard a voice. Sounded close. It was calling his name. He spotted a rusted out hole in the flooring at the back of the trunk.

      “Give me your lighter, Albie,” Brenda said from above.

      The hole was small. He could see it dimly, a hint of dark depth in the shadowy belly of the car, two inches wide, if that. Nancy should have had that fixed, Benjamin noted. Best to catch rust early, before it spreads like cancer.

      Benjamin gazed up into the hole, wanting to see Brenda’s dark green eye, the flecks of gold there, the soothing pool of calm she’d be able to pull him into if only he could see her eye.

      “Give me your lighter,” she said, soft words, intimate teasings.

      “Sure, sure,” he said, digging in his pocket awkwardly in the confines underneath the car. He pulled out his silver Zippo and poked it up through the hole, feeling remorse as it was taken from him. And then he felt like a dumb goat for doing it, for handing Brenda the fuel needed to blow up the interior of the trunk in a fireworks show, something he wouldn’t have done if he’d been in his right mind. She was going to end up hurting herself, for sure. Had she spelled him? Turned him into her lap dog, her funny little monkey? No, he was that already.

      “Damn it, Bren,” he said up at the hole, knowing she’d worked her magic on him all right, the magic she’d always worked on him ever since they’d started going out. She’d always been able to manipulate him into doing whatever she’d wanted him to do.

      “Quiet,” she whispered down at him. “Get away from the car, Albie. I don’t think they know I’m—”

      Benjamin felt a vising grip around both his ankles. He was violently tugged from under the car and lifted up into the air. The back of his head scraped against a ribbon of Hog Hill’s surface rock and then bumped into something that clinked and clanged, which, when he twisted around for a brief second, he saw was a pair of armor-plated boots.

      “I found me a rabbit, boys,” Ibucus said in his high birdsong voice from above. “Pulled it right out of the briar patch, I did.”

      Benjamin was looking at the dead vines piled at the rear of the upside down car. As the blood rushed to his head, setting up a tremendous pounding, he wondered if Ibucus had arrived within the same vines that had lifted him into the air. The Brini’ King could have been nestled within the vine tube below the gimp’s amputating slash. If this was Ibucus’s transport, then maybe the vines hadn’t learned how to sniff out human blood independent of the kittens, and it’d been a circumstance of being in the right place at the right time, or maybe the opposite, when those vines exited the dirt and rose up and up and up.

      Hard not to call that luck. Good or bad. But still, he decided, he wasn’t going to call it that.

      Benjamin couldn’t get William in view, but everything was upside down, and he was getting dizzier with each beat of his heart. The tide of panic was coming in fast. He pushed at the ground with his hands, tried to kick his feet free from the Brini’ King’s grip, and he screamed, “Help!”

      He stopped struggling, finding his plea for help overbearingly ridiculous, a cry he’d kept buried for the last twenty-some hours, one that should have sprang to his lips earlier but had been kept at bay. Who the hell did he think was going to come running up to rescue him? For a second he was afraid he was going to burst out laughing. He didn’t figure that was the appropriate monster hunter tactic to use in this situation.

      “I want my mommy,” Benjamin added, and then giggled madly.

      The efforts he’d made to release himself from Ibucus’s grip had been weak, the last struggles of some poor thing caught between dying and dead. He had exhausted himself. Awake too long. Battered and bruised. He had nothing left in him. He was done. Finished. And this realization was freeing in a way, and it made him laugh harder, uncontrollably.

      After a few penduluming moments of upside down, head-pounding merriment, Benjamin felt the grip on his ankles relax, and he crumbled to the bloody, dead-strewn ground, spasming with laughter. It felt good to laugh, and he couldn’t do much about it, so he let it wring itself out of him, his body shaking with it, his eyes flooding with tears.

      After a while he lay spent, his abdomen bewitched with quick twists of cramp, threatening twists demanding he quiet down. He was pressed against the muck layering the ground, weighed down by his exhaustion. He’d never felt so heavy. He could hardly muster up the strength to turn his head, but he finally managed it, and he looked at the metal boots of the monster standing beside him. He grittily forced his eyes up the armored body to the helmeted head. The helm’s faceplate had been lifted, and Ibucus was looking down on Benjamin with his sparking, electric eye. His cartoon lips were puckered in impatience.

      The laughter tried to escape through his nose this time, and that didn’t feel all that great, so Benjamin opened his mouth to let it out, a crazy burble of hysterical laughter, the likes of which he’d never experienced. It was sort of like throwing up a quart of whiskey mixed with red table wine—something Benjamin just happened to know about. His abdomen had rebelled, twisted up like a dishrag. He struggled to sit up, got his ass up under him, and leaned against the Mustang’s back bumper. He lowered his head and slowly gained control of himself. He did not want to laugh anymore, but, damn, the monster standing over him was one funny looking motherfucker.

      He heard an intake of breath above him, and he knew Ibucus was attempting to utter words of some sort. Benjamin’s fit of unbound mirth must have left the Brini’ King tongue-tied.

      Don’t start laughing again, he told himself. Try and die with a little dignity, eh?

      Something landed between Benjamin’s outstretched legs, rocking back and forth a few times on a slab of bloody surface rock. Benjamin lifted his head and stared at it, refusing to recoil, too tired to recoil. It was Beanstalk’s severed head, its cheeks bushy with blood-soaked beard. One cataract-filmed eye was open and bulging from the torn socket.

      Benjamin closed his eyes. He figured he was done laughing.