I squeeze her arm and find her skin cool to the touch.
‘We’ll get them,’ I tell her. I’m not much for these leader-style speeches – that’s what John does – so I keep it blunt. ‘We’ll kill them all. He won’t have died in vain.’
‘He shouldn’t have died at all,’ she replies. ‘We shouldn’t have left him out there. Now they have him, doing Lord knows what to his body.’
‘We didn’t have a choice,’ I counter, knowing it’s true. After the beating we endured at the hands of Five, we were in no shape to fight off a battalion of Mogadorians backed up by one of their ships.
Marina shakes her head and falls silent.
‘You know, I used to always want Sandor to take me camping,’ Nine butts in out of nowhere, looking at us over his shoulder. ‘I hated living in that cushy-ass penthouse. But man, after this? I sort of miss it.’
Marina and I don’t respond. That’s the way Nine’s been talking since our battle with Five – these forced anecdotes about nothing, weirdly upbeat, like nothing serious happened out here. When he wasn’t rambling, Nine made it a habit to hike ahead of us, using his speed to put some distance between us. When we caught up, he’d have already caught some animal, usually snake, and be cooking it over a small fire he built on a rare dry patch of land. It’s like he wanted to pretend we were just on some fun camping trip. I’m not squeamish; I’d eat whatever Nine caught. Marina never did, though. I don’t think the roasted swamp creatures bothered her so much as the fact it was Nine doing the hunting. She must be running on empty by now, even more so than me and Nine.
After another mile, I notice the road getting a little more packed down and well traveled. I can see light up ahead. Soon, the nonstop buzzing of the local insect life gives way to something equally annoying.
I wouldn’t exactly call this place a town. I’m sure it doesn’t show up on even the most detailed map. It looks more like a campground that people forgot to leave. Or maybe this is just a place where the local hunters come to bro around and escape their wives, I think, noticing an overpopulation of pickup trucks in the nearby gravel parking lot.
There are a couple dozen crude huts scattered throughout this cleared stretch of swamp coast, all of them pretty much indistinguishable from an old-school outhouse. The huts basically consist of some pieces of plywood hastily nailed together, and they look like a strong breeze could knock them over. I guess when you’re building at the edge of a Florida swamp, there’s no point in putting too much effort in. Hung between the huts, lighting this grim little vista, are strings of blinking Christmas lights and a few gas-powered lanterns. Beyond the huts, where the solid ground sinks back into the swamp, there’s a rickety dock with a few tied-up pontoon boats.
The source of the music – the center of this ‘town’ – and the only solid structure built here is Trapper’s, a sleezy-looking bar housed in a log cabin, the name proudly displayed along the roof in sizzling green neon. A row of stuffed alligators line the bar’s wooden porch, their jaws open and searching. From inside, above the music, I can hear men shouting and pool balls cracking.
‘All right,’ Nine says, clapping his hands. ‘My kind of place.’
The place does sort of remind me of the off-the-grid spots I used to hit up when I was alone and on the run, places where the tight-knit and gritty locals made it easy to spot out-of-place Mogadorians. Even so, as I notice a scrawny middle-aged guy with a mullet and a tank top staring at us, chain-smoking in the shadows of the porch, I wonder if we should find a safer place for us to poke our heads in.
But Nine is already halfway up the creaky wooden steps, Marina right behind him, and so I go along. Hopefully this place has a phone so we can at least get in touch with the others back in Chicago. Check to see how John and Ella are doing – hopefully better, somehow, especially now that we know the cure-all Five claimed to have in his Chest was a bunch of crap. We have to warn the others about him. Who knows what information he might’ve been feeding to the Mogadorians.
When we push through the swinging saloon doors of Trapper’s, the music doesn’t screech to a stop like in the movies, but everyone in the bar does turn their heads to stare at us, almost in unison. The place is cramped, not much to it besides the bar, a pool table and some beat-up lawn furniture. It stinks of sweat, kerosene and alcohol.
‘Hoo boy,’ someone says, then whistles loudly.
I quickly realize that Marina and I are the only two women here. Hell, we might be the first women to ever set foot inside Trapper’s. The drunks staring at us range from tremendously overweight to alarmingly skinny, all of them dressed in halfway-open plaid shirts or sweat-stained wifebeaters, some of them flashing gap-toothed leers, others smoothing down unkempt beards as they size us up.
One guy, in a ripped heavy-metal T-shirt and with a lower lip stuffed with chewing tobacco, breaks away from the pool table to sidle up next to Marina.
‘This must be my lucky night,’ the guy drawls, ‘because you gi –’
The rest of the pickup line is lost to the ages because the moment this guy tries to slide his arm around her shoulders, Marina roughly snatches his wrist. I can hear the moisture on his arm crackle as it flash freezes, and a second later the guy is crying out as Marina twists his arm behind his back.
‘Do not come near me,’ she says in a measured tone, loud enough so the whole bar knows that the warning doesn’t go just for the dude whose arm she’s almost breaking.