All at once, his strength evaporated. He felt himself go limp, the rope saw through the tender flesh of his neck. What should have been a surge of bright pain was only the tiniest blister of a faraway firecracker, sputtering fast. His mind slipped, his hold on consciousness slewing as it had when Hannah’s poison streamed through his veins. An insidious blackness oozed over his vision as the edges of his world collapsed.

Just before he lost his sight completely, he saw something—someone?—suddenly rear, seeming to emerge from the guts of the earth. A voice, very distant, as wispy as smoke: “Over here!”

But then, that was it. All at once, Chris was falling, all thought disintegrating, and where there should have been a floor or the ground or the earth to hold him, there was nothing except Jess pulling together in a swarm of shadows. He thought she might be saying something, but he was moving so fast, he shot past and never—

102

Rolling, Tom surged through the gap. The nearest Chucky, a beefy kid in stained jeans and a too-large camo-jacket, had a knee in the dark-eyed boy’s back and a rope in one hand. Tom could tell the darkeyed boy was nearly gone; the kid’s body quivered, his face was black, and his eyes rolled to show the whites going crimson with hemorrhage. Beyond them, Tom glimpsed the smaller boy thrashing and kicking at another Chucky, a very large girl raining punches.

“Over here!” he shouted. Flinching, the beefy Chucky relaxed his hold on the boy, who collapsed in a heap and didn’t move. Tom fired, a quick three-shot burst, a soft pfft-pfft-pfft. The Chucky’s chest ruptured in a crimson starburst, and he was falling back even as Tom was clambering out of the crawl space and advancing, moving fast. The girl was still whaling away on the smaller boy, but now seemed to realize the danger, and she was rearing back, beginning to turn.

“Stay down!” Tom roared at the smaller boy. The girl flung herself to one side as Tom squeezed off another burst, stitching shots in the front and storm doors. Jags of glass splashed to the floor, and then the smaller boy was singing, “Gun, gun, she’s got my gun!” Tom saw it at the same moment as the girl pivoted; heard the bolt being thrown as the barrel of a long gun swung around. Dropping to one knee, he ducked under her line of fire and aimed up. One second, the girl’s head was there, and the next—

“Who . . .” The second boy was panting, trying to roll, get to his feet. Blood streaked his face. Tom couldn’t tell if it was all his, but at least this kid was breathing. “Who are . . .”

Tom didn’t reply. Turning, he raced back to the dark-eyed boy. The kid—seventeen, eighteen, he thought—was still down, not moving at all, sightless eyes staring, tongue purple and bulging, blood on his throat, that rope cinched tight. God, no. Tom dropped to his knees, stripped away the rope, then drew a hissing breath through his teeth at how deeply the kid’s neck was cut.

“No.” It was the smaller kid, his voice breaking. He knelt by the body. “No, no, he can’t be dead, he can’t—”

“Quiet.” Turning his head, Tom listened for a breath. Nothing. No whisper of air against his cheek. Kid, come on. Closing his eyes, he put his head on the boy’s chest. Silence. Don’t do this, kid, don’t . . .

Beyond Tom, from the kitchen, came the enormous bang of a door smashing drywall. Startled, still on his knees, he jerked up. Hurtling out of the pantry, swarming up from the gap in the floor through which he’d slithered only moments before, was a girl: a silent, deadly horror with a monstrous rip in one cheek through which he could see teeth and pink gums and tongue. In her hand was the largest, sharpest corn knife Tom had ever seen.

“Get back!” Sweeping the smaller boy aside with his right hand, Tom lunged for his Uzi with his left. She was so fast, all he had time for was a one-handed snatch, his left fist closing around the barrel of his Uzi, and then he was swinging up, aiming for her knife hand. She saw it coming and dropped in a lunge, like a fencer coming in under a blade, as the Uzi whizzed past. Pulled off-balance by his own momentum, Tom caught the glint, heard the corn knife whistling in a fast, sidelong chop for his exposed left flank, and thought that might just be the last mistake he ever made.

A brown blur rocketed into the girl from behind. There was a clash of teeth, and then the Chucky was screeching, surging to her feet as the dog clamped down on her left arm and dug in. Spinning free, the corn knife whirred past Tom’s chest, missing by a fraction of an inch, to bury itself in the opposite wall. Out of the corner of his left eye, he saw the smaller boy scrambling for his rifle. Not three feet away, the Chucky whirled like a dervish, and the dog, jaws snapped tight, sailed round and round like a shot put.

And when he saw the dog, Tom thought, Wait . . .

To his right, the kitchen door suddenly crashed wide open. Flipping the Uzi to the ready, Tom jammed the stock into his shoulder and whipped his weapon around just as a corn-tassel blonde—much too young to be a Chucky; Tom still had the presence of mind to see that—bolted through the door.

“Mina!” the girl screamed, socking a Savage to her shoulder. “Release!”

At that, Tom felt his heart burst with a shock of disbelief and a swift, sweet, stunning joy. For him, and only for a split second, the world simply stopped, fell away, and there was nothing he wanted more than to sweep her up, hold her close, but then he was breaking his stance, pivoting back for the Chucky, trigger finger taking up the slack.

“Shoot her!” the brown-haired boy screamed as he charged to Tom’s side. “Shoot her, Ellie, shoot her!”

They all fired, together, his Uzi still quiet but the boy’s rifle roaring and even the Savage making a very large noise for such a puny gun.

Then, still on his knees—because, all of a sudden, he couldn’t find his feet; he would fall for sure—Tom was shouting, throwing his arms wide. “Ellie! Honey! Ellie, Ellie!”

She’d been so focused on the dog and the Chucky, he doubted she’d registered anything else. At the sound of his voice, she turned, her eyes going huge and incredulous and so very blue, and then she was flying across the room as Mina, wuffing hysterically, darted for him, too.

“Tom!” she shrieked. “Tom! Tom! Tom!”

She’d have bowled him over; he was sure of it, because she was running so fast and his heart was so full; but he could take that, he wanted that—and she might have, too.

If not for Mina, beside herself with joy, who got there first.

103

“I like fires.” Threading on another marshmallow, Chris held his stick well above the flame’s reach. “Actually, I just like s’mores . . . hey, you’re burning.”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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