“Just be glad that’s all it was.” Propping his own gun against the wall, Jayden helped him to his feet. “Can we get out of here? This place gives me the creeps, and it stinks. That cat’s probably dragged in all sorts of crap. It’s probably crapping all over the place.”
“Sure.” Shaking his head clear, he looked around and found his rifle, which had jumped from his hands to slide a few feet from the understairs closet. With a groan, he bent. “We should anyway,” he said, flicking the safety. “Even though we’re inside, someone might’ve heard the shot and come to check—”
At his back, the door to the understairs closet slammed open with a loud bang, and then Jayden was screaming, “Chris! Look out look out look—”
“This is dumb,” Ellie muttered, darkly, one hand hooked under Mina’s collar and the other clutching her Savage. Huddled by her side, Mina only shuffled but didn’t break her stance. Any sound she might have made—and she wouldn’t, no matter what Chris said, because Mina was trained to be quiet—was stifled by the loop of a leash cinched down around her snout. Ellie crept forward, aimed a peek around the corner of the woodpile three yards over, but saw only the garage nestled in the woods and the far corner of the house into which Jayden and Chris had gone what seemed hours ago.
Pulling back, she gnawed her lower lip, tried to think of what to do, how long to wait. She could feel the dog vibrating under her hand. Mina wanted to go, get in the fight . . . if there was one. Ellie still wasn’t sure. Oh, she wasn’t stupid. That gunshot had been very muffled, a tiny pop at this distance but distinct enough that she understood what it was. Yet there was only the one: no return fire at all. No shouts or screams either, which, even with miles between her and the house, she’d probably hear because it was so creepy-quiet.
Anyway, it wasn’t as if she would go running to see what happened. Only little kids did that. But she should do something, because, right now, she figured one of two things was happening: either Chris or Jayden was picking himself off the floor because one of them had tripped, or they’d both been jumped and were now being torn up by a swarm of people-eaters—in which case, what were she and Mina doing sitting on their butts?
She snicked the safety of her Savage, on, off, on, off. On. Off. Made a decision.
“I’m going to count to ten,” she said to Mina. “Then we’re going.” Which route to take? She ought to stay under cover, out of sight. Scooching forward, she gave Mina a little tug to move her out of the way, then hitched around for a better view of that yard waaay out there. Honestly, she needed binoculars. Her eyes roamed over gray trees and clean white snow blushing here and there with shafts of the setting sun; settled on the garage set well back in the woods. A straight shot from here, and then she could—
A twinkle of light. A second later, the garage door cracked open. A hand appeared, and then an arm, following by the hump of a shoulder . . . and Ellie watched as the girl, a spidery, slinky thing, emerged—with a big honking knife.
Oh! Ellie’s heart jumped a jig. She crowded herself and Mina back fast. Don’t see me, don’t see me! In the brief glimpse she’d had of the girl—and oh boy, she was a people-eater, all right—Ellie registered only long hair clotted with dirt and something wrong with the girl’s face. Like another people-eater had taken a big chunk? Ellie wasn’t sure. She waited, her heart boing-a-boing-a-boinging in her chest, ears alert for the shush of snow or crack of a branch. Nothing came, and Mina didn’t budge.
Okay, so the people-eater doesn’t know I’m here. Lucked out. But now Ellie really had to do something. Maybe that shot she’d heard was a signal: Come and get it; we got juicy boys.
Easing just far enough to clear the woodpile, Ellie saw the girl, low to the ground, scuttling like a tarantula. Blocky and square, that knife looked more like a cleaver.
Ellie’s hand squeezed her rifle, but who was she kidding? If she sent Mina after the people-eater, her dog might get chopped. Fire off a warning shot, though, that might help Jayden and Chris, but that people-eater would find her pretty quick, too. But I have to do something . . .
From deep in the house came a wild but very muffled shout, a sound swaddled in cotton, and then a soft bam. Something breaking, or a door slamming?
At the same moment the girl reached the corner, wormed her way beneath a long, whippy piece of metal where the house met the ground, and went under the house.
That did it. There was something inside with Chris and Jayden, something very bad, and now this equally awful people-eater was coming at them from behind.
“Go, Mina!” Jumping to her feet, Ellie whipped the leash off Mina’s muzzle. The dog took off like a rocket, and Ellie was right behind, screaming, “Go, Mina, go, Mina, go, go, go!”
Chris only had time to register Jayden’s shout and the crash of the door. In the next second, something launched itself into his back, spinning him completely around. He got a brief glimpse of the kitchen before the Changed—girl or boy, he didn’t know—bowled him over, slamming him face-first to the floor. His forehead connected with wood, and he felt the tender skin, which was only just knitting up from the fight with that Changed in Hannah’s kitchen, tear as he bounced. Face roaring with pain, blinking away a sudden wash of warm blood, he got one knee under him and tried bucking the Changed from his back. Behind him, near the stairs, Jayden was still screaming, and then he heard, dimly, what sounded like heavy boots clumping down steps. Another yelp from Jayden, this time one of panic, quickly choked off, and Chris realized that there had been something besides a cat upstairs after all.
Chris heard a whickering over his head; felt something slip around his neck. An instant later, he had no air. Dropping his useless rifle, he clawed, trying to work his fingers under the rope as the Changed put a knee in the middle of his back and pushed at the same time that it pulled. Chris felt his nails score his skin; his pulse thundered; black spiders scurried over his vision. His chest felt as if someone had dropped a huge weight, caving in ribs, smashing his lungs. He reached back to swat at his attacker with both hands but managed only increasingly feeble slaps. He felt the Changed grope then fist his hair, crank his head to expose his neck as the rope crushed his throat. Chris was losing control of his body now, beginning to jitter. The pain in his chest was ferocious, a hard boil that would blow him apart. Everything was going black, inside and out. He couldn’t fight anymore. His legs were juddering uncontrollably now, and so were his hands. He only just registered the slap of wood, the drum of his boots.