Bryce slammed his foot on the brake. The car slid on the hard packed earth, grinding sideways. For a moment, Eddie feared they'd roll. His fingernails dug into the dashboard.
The car stopped inches from a fence pole. All went silent except the staccato knock of the engine and Eddie's kettledrum heart.
"If the troll is out there," Bryce said, "He knows where we are."
"Let's hope he's not," said Eddie. He stood up in his seat, scanning the black horizon. The pale pink moonlight wasn't bright enough to illuminate what might be out there. His eyes stopped on a rusty sign illuminated by Bryce's headlights. It hung on the fence a few feet away.
SIMP FREE ZONE
This territory is protected by the FSC Army. Violation of these borders is punishable by immediate death. Stay clear. Disease-free applicants are encouraged to find a quarantine station to apply for admission.
"What the hell is a simp?" Bryce asked.
"I..." Eddie began. "It doesn't matter. That sign is old and rusty. It takes moisture to make things rust."
"My point is, that fence is as alien to this desert as we are. It came from somewhere else. I don't think we need to worry about zombies."
Bryce turned sharply at the word "Zombie," but he shook it off and turned the car north.
"I guess we can't drive with the lights off anymore," Eddie said.
"Not until we find a way past this fence," Bryce said. He sped up, but the ground here was rocky, preventing them from reaching anything close to full speed.
As they drove, Eddie kept an eye on the fence, looking for any openings. In places, the dried husks of vines and moss clumps hung from the fence, evidence that the fence had not been in this desert for long. Then Eddie spotted a gap in the links. "Stop. Stop."
They stopped, facing the hole. The fence appeared to be torn, as if some giant had pulled it apart like tinfoil.
"Can you drive?" Bryce asked.
"I think so. I mean, I have a driver's license."
"Okay, I'm going to go pull that fence aside. There should be enough room to drive through."
He jumped out. Eddie reluctantly slid into the driver's seat. As Bryce pried at the loose fence, Eddie felt for the pedals, familiarizing himself with the car. How hard could it be?
The surrounding area suddenly lit up with noon-day brilliance. Eddie threw his hands up, terrified. He heard laughter. The light shifted. Eddie heard the unmistakable sound of a pump-action shotgun chambering a new round. He covered his face.
"Well, well, well," a gravelly voice gloated from the wall of floodlights. "Looks like the chase is over."
The Troll! The troll had caught them. Why hadn't Eddie heard them approach? Did they cut their engine and coast here?
"Get out of my car, you little whelp. Let me get a look at you."
Eddie dropped his hands and strained to see the speaker. Against the blazing lights, a seven-foot silhouette loomed before him. Eddie scanned around. Bryce was no longer by the fence. He'd run away.
"If I have to repeat myself, it might spoil my good mood. You want to find out what happens when I'm angry?"
Eddie threw his door open. "No, please. I'm coming out." He stepped out, stumbled and fell onto the dirt. A creature barked, almost like a dog, but with a bird-like screech.
"Keep Gristle still," the troll muttered.
"Sorry, boss," said a girl's voice.
"But if this kid runs, turn the dog loose."
Eddie stood up. He held a hand over his eyes to block out the light. Four figures, including the dog, stood only twenty paces away. One was huge, seven feet at least with shoulders as wide as the convertible. The monster's horns rose up into the darkness above. "You're too big for the car," Eddie said under his breath.
"What did you say to me?" the monster growled.
"I'm sorry. I mean, what do you care about that car? It's not like you can drive it."
"You cain't talk to the boss like that," the girl demanded. "You apologize right now or Gristle here'll--"
The troll put up a hand. "Enough, Ganny. I'll deal with him." He put a cigar to his mouth. The end glowed as he drew in a puff.
Then he pointed the cigar at Eddie. "Let me explain how things work, lad. That car is mine. I found it. It's my property. That's all you need to know. Get it?"
"Uh, yes sir."
"You stole my property. That makes you a thief."
"I beg your pardon, Cornelius," said the silhouetted boy, the last of the troll's entourage. "He is not the one who took your car."
"Nah," agreed the girl called Ganny. "He ain't. He was a black fella. Bigger than this kid."
"Is that so?" Cornelius the troll asked. "So, tell me, lad, where is your friend?"
Eddie wondered that himself. Bryce had been right there at the fence. Eddie was about to explain this but stopped himself. No use getting Bryce caught as well.
"There's no one else," he said. "I mean, I stole this car from some other guy miles back."
Cornelius said nothing. He wheezed like a bellows as he breathed. Finally, the troll said, "Lies are dirty things." He stepped forward, halving the distance between them. His cohorts stayed behind. "A lie stains your soul, lad. I know. You can't clean it off with soap and water. You need something extra powerful."
"The truth?" Eddie asked.
"You feel like telling me the truth?"
"I... uh... I already did."
"Is that so? I think different. I think you are lying."
"I love this part," Ganny whispered to the boy.
Cornelius continued forward until he stood toe to toe with Eddie, staring straight down at the young man's upturned face. "So I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to hogtie you and drag you back to my compound behind my jeep. Then I'm going to drop your sorry ass into my own bathtub."
Heat radiated off the troll. Cornelius stank of carrion and something toxic.
"A... a bath?" Eddie said.
"Personally, I take lye baths. That should wash the lies away. See, a lye for a lie. That's what the good book said."
"I think you're misquoting."
"You think I'm wrong?"
"I think you just want to torture me."
The troll threw back his head and laughed. "Not at all. A lye bath is actually quite refreshing." He crouched. His hand shot forward to catch Eddie's jaw. "Bathtime is the best part of my day. Keeps my skin soft."
Pain bloomed up Eddie's cheeks where Cornelius held him. It wasn't the firm pressure of the troll's grip. It was the contact of his skin. It burned Eddie, not with fire, but with a poisonous sting. Eddie struggled to free himself, but the troll gripped behind Eddie's cheeks. Eddie wouldn't get away without breaking his own jaw. What was that stench? Was his flesh burning?
Cornelius released him. Eddie fell to the ground, free, but his face was still on fire. He needed something to wash off the caustic poison. He stumbled back to his feet and ran for the car.
"Where do you think you're going, lad?" the troll growled. He stomped after Eddie. Eddie pried open the lid of the cooler and retrieve a can before Cornelius knocked him down with the swipe of his hand. Eddie didn't even feel the impact. He popped the can open and dumped soda all over his face. He wiped it away with his shirt.
"He's got sody-pop, boss," Ganny said. "You never said that car had anythin' in it."
"You can have all you want, Ganny," Cornelius said. "But first, let's get this lad up and--"
An explosive rat-tat-tat cut him off. The dirt next to Eddie and Cornelius exploded into puffs of dust, causing them to lunge back away from each other. The flash of gunfire punctuated the darkness above the jeep's floodlights. The trail of bullets in the dust continued towards Cornelius. Then, when the blindfolded boy retreated towards the dark, the line of bullets swooped around him and shepherded him back into the light like an angry dotted line of dust.
At last, the gunfire stopped.
"Do I have your attention?" asked Bryce's voice from behind the wall of jeep lights.