As we passed he returned grimly to his task, though his arthritic hands could hardly close around the stick. There was something almost regal about him, I thought; a defiance I admired. He was a holdout who refused to give up his post. The last watchman at the end of the world.
Turning with the road, we moved through a zone of buildings that shed their skins as we walked: first the paint was singed away, and farther along the windows had blackened and burst; next, the roofs were caving and the walls coming down, and finally, as we came to the junction with Smoking Street, only their bones were left—a chaos of timbers charred and leaning, embers glowing in the ash like tiny hearts beating their last. We stood and looked around, thunderstruck. Sulfurous smoke rose from deep cracks that fissured the pavement. Fire-stripped trees loomed like scarecrows over the ruins. Drifts of ash flowed down the street, a foot deep in places. It was as close to Hell as I ever intend to find myself.
“So this is the wights’ front driveway,” said Addison. “How fitting.”
“It’s unreal,” I said, unbuttoning my coat. Sauna-like warmth rose all around, radiating through the soles of my shoes. “What did Sharon say happened here?”
“Underground fire,” Emma said. “They can burn for years. Notoriously difficult to extinguish.”
There was a sound like a giant can of soda being opened, and a tall prong of orange flame shot up from a seam in the pavement not ten feet away. We started and jumped and then had to collect ourselves.
“Let’s not spend one minute longer here than we need to,” said Emma. “Which way?”
There was only left and right to choose from. We knew that Smoking Street terminated at the Ditch on one end and at the wights’ bridge on the other, but we didn’t know which way was which, and between the smoke, the fog, and the wind-blown ash, we couldn’t see far in either direction. Choosing at random could mean a dangerous detour and a waste of time.
We were getting desperate when we heard a warbling tune drifting toward us through the fog. We scuttled off the road to hide among the carbonized ribs of a house. As the singers approached, their voices growing louder, we could make out the words to their strange song:
The night before the thief was stretched,
the hangman came around
I’ve come, he said, before you’re dead,
a warning to expound
I’ll strangle your neck and send you to heck
and cut off your arm and do you some harm
and flay your hide and give you a riiiiiiiiide …
Here they all paused for breath, then finished with: “SIX FEET UNDER THE GROUND!”
Long before they emerged from the fog, I knew whose voices they were. The figures took form in black overalls and sturdy black boots, tool bags swinging gaily at their sides. Even after a hard day’s work, the indomitable gallows riggers were still singing at the top of their lungs.
“Bless their tuneless souls,” Emma said, laughing softly.
Earlier we’d seen them working at the Ditch end of Smoking Street, so it seemed reasonable to assume that’s where they were coming from—which meant they were walking in the direction of the bridge. We waited for the men to pass and disappear again into the fog before venturing back onto the road to follow.
We shuffled through reefs of ash that blackened everything—the cuffs of my pants, Emma’s shoes and bare ankles, the full height of Addison’s legs. Somewhere in the distance the riggers took up another song, their voices echoing weirdly through the burned landscape. Nothing around us but ruin. Now and then we heard a sharp whoosh, quickly followed by a spout of flame bursting from the ground. None erupted as close as the first one. We were lucky—getting roasted alive here would’ve been easy.
Out of nowhere a wind kicked up, sending ash and hot cinders skyward in a black blizzard. We turned and covered our faces in an effort to breathe. I pulled my shirt collar over my mouth, but it didn’t help much and I started to cough. Emma took Addison into her arms, but then she started to choke. I tore off my coat and threw it over their heads. Emma’s coughing quieted and I heard Addison’s muffled voice say “Thank you!” beneath the fabric.
It was all we could do to huddle there and wait for the ash storm to end. I had my eyes closed when I heard something move nearby, and peeking through slit fingers I saw something that even here, amidst all I’d witnessed in Devil’s Acre, startled me: a man strolling casual as could be, a handkerchief pressed to his mouth but otherwise unperturbed. He had no trouble navigating the dark because beams of strong white light were shooting from each of his eye sockets.
“Evening!” he called out, swinging his sight-beams toward me and tipping his hat. I tried to reply but my mouth filled with ash and then so did my eyes, and when I reopened them he was gone.
As the wind began to die, we coughed and spat and rubbed our eyes until we could function again. Emma set Addison on the ground. “If we’re not careful, this loop will kill us before the wights do,” he said. Emma handed me back my coat and hugged me hard until the air cleared. She had a way of wrapping her arms around me and nudging her head into the hollow of my chest so that no gaps were left between us, and I wanted badly to kiss her, even here, covered in soot from head to toe.
Addison cleared his throat. “I hate to interrupt, but we really should be getting on.”
We unhooked our limbs, slightly embarrassed, and continued walking. Soon pale figures appeared in the fog ahead. They were milling in the street, crossing between shacks that encrusted the roadside. We hesitated, nervous about who they might be, but there was no other way forward.