If I let go. Not exactly a thought. More like a last gasp. All at once, he stopped pushing and let his shoulders sag, his neck stretch. He felt her knees stutter as she began to slide, her center of gravity shifting. Off-balance, she rocked forward.

“AAHH!!” He shrieked it, unaware that the scream was even in his mouth until it wasn’t, and then he was surging up, his right arm suddenly free, the hand hooking into her parka. He yanked her down as quickly and viciously as he could. At the same time, he whipped his head up. There was a loud kunk as the dense bone of his forehead smashed into the delicate ridge just above her left eye. He knew the hit was good the instant he felt her socket cave, the second her whole body unlimbered from the shock.

The Chucky didn’t wail or scream. She had no time, or breath, for it. Stunned, she pitched right, and he went with her, using her weight as a fulcrum. Even then—bloody, a wound in her belly, blind in one eye, and probably in ferocious pain—she sensed what he meant to do. Somehow, she got her hands up, fingers clawed, and flailed, wildly, trying to snag something: his parka, an arm, anything. Yet, to his relief, she had no knife, and the advantage was his now.

They spooned, her back against his chest. In a novel, he’d have broken her neck. A quick snap, the crackle, done deal. But that kind of move, what they showed on TV or in a movie like it was no big deal . . . it’s make-believe. The neck is much stronger than you think.

Instead, he hooked his right arm under her chin. Ramming his left hand against the back of her head, he grabbed his left arm with his right hand, the better to hang on to the blood choke—

And felt something that did not belong. In a classic figure-four choke hold, eight to ten seconds of pressure on the carotids—thirteen at the max—and an opponent, even that burly, double-wide guy with the neck of an ox, slides into unconscious.

Unless that guy is smart enough to protect his neck somehow. Which, apparently, this Chucky was—because what circled her neck was a leather collar with a metal D-ring. Jesus, a dog collar? Frantic, Tom tried shifting his grip, working his arm higher to hook directly under her ears, but they were wallowing in snow and he was already tiring, his grip starting to weaken. Then his arm slipped.

Her reaction was instantaneous. Bucking, she threw her left arm up and back, her fingers aiming for his eyes. He jerked his head right, a reflex he knew, too late, was a mistake and exactly what she was counting on. Cocking her right elbow, she thrust back, fast, jamming the bony point into his ribs. Pain sheeted his vision and he gagged. Dimly, he felt her twisting, knew he no longer had the advantage. Get up, get out from under, get to the Bravo! Going for the weapon was another mistake, because it meant turning his back on her, but he simply didn’t see any other option. She was strong, and he couldn’t hang on forever. That she’d even thought to wear something to protect her neck was a whole other level of crazy, and he couldn’t wait and hope she might bleed to death, because a gut wound takes time, more than he had. Shoving her to the left, he let go, rolled right, spun onto his hands and knees.

That was as far as he got. She kicked him, high, at the small of his back. A red tidal wave of agony roared up his spine, and he let out a choking UNGH! The next thing he knew, he was on his belly, writhing, coughing against the snow, trying to worm away. Every nerve sputtered; his muscles sizzled. He felt as boneless as a jellyfish from the spinal shock. Blinking through sudden tears of pain, he made out his pack, the Bravo, but it was so far away! Then he spied something else, much closer, less than twelve inches from his nose . . .

There was a crunch of snow, the chatter of rock. The sun was behind him and he saw her shadow, black and inky, leaking over the snow, seeping onto his flesh as she came for him.

With a wild cry, he lunged, got his hand around the ski pole only a foot away, and then he was whipping onto his back, the pole whistling through the air; and now she wasn’t a black shadow but a white and red missile launching itself—

Just in time, he got his arms tucked. She saw what he was doing, tried twisting in midair, but she wasn’t a cat, just a crazy-ass and very smart Chucky, and she failed.

Shrieking, she slammed down, the metal tip of the ski pole punching through just beneath her breastbone. The force was so great his arms nearly buckled. By some miracle, the fiberglass pole didn’t snap in two but held as her arms and legs splayed in a weird star.

Yes! Still hanging on, he shoved, knocking her to one side, but he wouldn’t let go. This was one weapon he would not lose. How he got on his feet, he didn’t know, but then he was crouched, his thighs bunching, and she was still skewered, feet planted, her own hands wrapped around the pole to brace herself, as if they’d decided to play a strange game of tug-of-war. They stayed like that for a second that seemed a century.

In that moment, he finally saw what was wrong, how very strange her eyes were: not only fevered with a killing frenzy but jittery, the pupils so wide the irises were reduced to thin dark rims.

And there were no whites. At all. The whites of her eyes weren’t bloodshot; they were crimson, as if her eyeballs had been cored with a grapefruit spoon to leave mucky, blood-filled sockets.

My God. The sight chilled him to the bone. Where did you come from? What are you?

As if in answer, her lips skinned back in an orange grin.

“Jesus,” he said. “Just die.” Heaving with all his might, he flipped her to the snow the way a fisherman might jam a speared fish into sand, and then dropped his weight in a single, killing thrust.

And then it was done.

Almost. Spent, the adrenaline that had fueled him for just long enough now seeping out with his blood, Tom could feel his joints trying to buckle. Trembling, he staggered back until he felt a knob of stone at his back. He was going cold, all over, in an insidious black creep as fatigue and blood loss stole his strength. Propping his hands on his thighs, he struggled to stay upright and sucked air, trying to clear away the cobwebs, waiting for his mind to firm.

Got to get out of here, back to camp. He didn’t have a med kit, and it would be dark soon. With his blood perfuming the air, who knew when the next Chuckies would show? Strip out of as much of my stuff as I can and take hers. Those over-whites have her blood on them. So maybe they won’t smell me. But I have to be careful. Can’t lead Chuckies back to camp; got to protect the kids.

This was all so strange. A ton of dead people up at the lake, plenty to eat, but absolutely no Chuckies snacking on anyone. Lots of juicy kids at camp—an abandoned farmstead, out in the open, plenty of pasture—and no Chuckies there either, as if the camp existed under a dome, an invisible force field. Which he had always wondered about.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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