Snow is like water. The snow was still screaming down the rise and she knew she must be going very fast. She kept swimming, aiming for what she hoped was up, scooping away snow, pushing for space—for air. If I can just get to the surface . . .

Something whacked her left hip. Maybe a tree or a rock; she didn’t know. A blaze of pain raced across her pelvis, and she opened her mouth to scream. A fist of snow instantly jammed into her mouth, forcing its way down her throat—and now she was choking, flailing, no air at all. Another wham! The impact slammed her shoulder blades. The plug of snow in her throat popped onto her tongue and then she was spitting, scraping her hands in the white space before her mouth and nose, dragging in a lungful of air and then another—

She was slowing down. The drag of the snow was decreasing, no longer rushing past in a roar. Getting near the bottom. She kept clawing snow from her face, pulling in what air she could. The rise can’t be that high. Has to stop—

All at once, the snow and she stopped moving. It was as if someone had thrown the switch, killing the power. Stunned, she could only lie there a moment. Where there had been a roaring, there was now nothing but a profound, dead silence. It was completely dark. She knew her eyes were open, but there was nothing to see. At all.

I’m under the snow. Horror erupted in her chest. Got to dig myself out. I’ll run out of air, I’ll suffocate, I’ve got to . . . Her left arm was bent at the elbow, close to her face. Her right had worked its way over her head, and was starting to hurt. She needed both hands to dig her way out, and something rigid: Leopard’s knife or even the butt of the Glock, except . . . no hard knuckle of plastic in her spine. Lost the Glock; must’ve gotten ripped out. But the knife was secured to a leg sheath, and she thought it was still there. Hard to tell with all this snow, but if she could get at it . . . She felt her right biceps flex.

But her arm wouldn’t budge. For a crazy, wild, terrible moment, she thought, I broke my back. I’m paralyzed, that’s what it is. Then she sent a silent command to her toes, felt them wiggle in her boots. After three more seconds, however, she discovered her legs wouldn’t move at all, no matter how much muscle she put into it. She felt the fingers of her left hand feather her cheek, but that arm wouldn’t move either.

Then she knew the truth. She wasn’t paralyzed. Oh, she could move, but only a little because of all that snow, compressed around her body, molded to her like concrete. The snow had her and wasn’t about to let go.

She was buried alive.

12

“Shut up!” Quick as a snake, before the thought streaked from a glimmer to a certainty, Greg whipped Dale a fast one across the jaw. The blow was hard, a crack like the shout of a walnut bursting under pressure. The punch jerked a gasp from Dale at the same moment that it exploded in Greg’s hand, a bright ball that mushroomed to a burn he felt all the way to his elbow. “Shut the f**k up!” he screamed.

“Attaboy!” Aidan crowed as Lucian and Sam whooped their approval. But Pru only groaned, “Greg, man, what are you doing?”

Kincaid—his friend, a nice man, someone Greg really liked—held out his hands. They were saturated with blood. “Greg,” he said, that one eye shining and so bright it hurt to look. “Stop, son. You’re better than this. Don’t you see what’s happening? Peter and Chris would never—”

“BUT THEY’RE! NOT! HERE!” Greg bellowed. He could feel the cords knotting in his neck. One more second, and the top of his head would blow like a grenade. “They’re gone, and it’s all on me, and you’re a f**king ghost, you’re nothing!”

But he thought of his mom and dad at the same moment: how ashamed they would be. His mom never cursed, and the one time his dad really let go, he’d smashed his thumb with a hammer, so that was understandable. Neither ever raised a hand to him or his jerky older brother, never.

Yeah, yeah, but you guys aren’t here either. Things aren’t so easy anymore, so give me a break.

“And you,” he said to Dale Privet, “you’re one to talk about us. You’re a thief. You came to steal. You’re no better than the rest of us.”

“But you don’t understand. I was just so hungry,” Dale whispered, tears leaking from his eyes to trickle down his temples. The purple imprint of Greg’s fist was stenciled on the old man’s cheek, and there was smear of fresh blood on Dale’s chin. The rest of his face was the color of salt. “You don’t know what it’s like, now that there’s nothing coming in. Peter and your boys used to bring food, but now we got nothing. No deer either, no raccoons—all the game’s run off or dead. There’s nothing out there anymore, and I got no ammo to speak of even if there was. What am I supposed to do, eat bark? Eat dirt? And my granddaughter, she’s just a baby, she—” Dale’s mouth suddenly clamped shut.

“Granddaughter?” Greg was breathing hard, and God, his head hurt from the thump of that migraine, a molten throbbing that pushed behind his eyes and might just dribble out of his ears. But his heart—he felt that clench and go hard as stone. “You said you were alone.”

“I—” Dale’s eyes were so huge with terror and dread, the irises were nothing but pinpricks. “Please. They haven’t done anything. It was me. You have the power to save them. Do whatever you want with me, but—”

At that moment, Greg’s radio, which was clipped to his hip, let out a rapid series of clicks: break-break-break.

“Well, look at that, Dale,” Greg said, with absolutely no humor. “Saved by the goddamned bell.”

Backing away, Greg acknowledged by keying the unit with a quick double-click. One of a half dozen World War II relics Rule had scrounged and then doled out to key personnel, the radio was always kept to a single dedicated channel. To save on batteries and

il sa j . bick boost transmission distance, no one used anything but coded clicks and Morse. Greg listened to the comeback, responded, then seated the radio on his hip again. “Come on,” he said to Pru. “Lookout says something’s up.”

“That’s what I’m telling you.” Kincaid finished taping gauze to his cheek. His blood was already drying to a rusty bib on his parka. He favored them all with his one-eyed stare. “I felt it, and this isn’t earthquake country. It’s the beginning of something else, something . . . bad.”

“Uh-huh.” Aidan snorted. “Next thing you know, he’ll be spouting Bible shit like Jess.”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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