“Quiet!” Cutter snarled. Dropping onto her chest, he brought his face so close his spit sprayed her cheeks. Sweeping up both her arms, he grabbed her wrists in one hand and pinned them to the floor. “Be quiet, unless you want me to snap your little neck right now!”

She wasn’t screaming; she had no breath for that. Shaking her head wildly from side to side, she strained, her tortured lungs singing, the blood booming in her temples. Breathing was like trying to butt a mountain out of the way with her chest. She managed another suck of air, her nose wrinkling against a weird perfume souring Cutter’s flesh: oily onions, greasy sweat—and peanut butter.

“Guh.” If she could’ve opened her mouth, she’d have bitten him. “Guh-get off.”

“You gonna scream?” When she shook her head, he eased his hand away. “We need to have ourselves a little talk.”

“There’s n-nothing to t-talk about,” she stammered. “You . . . you’re st-stealing f-food from little k-kids.”

Cutter’s eyes flattened. “I’m taking my share. I’m taking what’s mine.”

“You g-get rations.” By now, Tori must be wondering. She’d come down to check, probably with one of the dogs, too. Even if she didn’t, Tori had that shotgun. If she could keep Cutter talking . . . God, where was their other guard, Benton? Unless he was in on this, too. “We’re all on rations.”

“But you kids get more. They save the best for you.” Cutter sported a full, gnarled gray wire of beard so dense there might be things living very comfortably in there. “We take all the risks and we’re supposed to be grateful for a cup of watered-down tomato soup?”

“Please. Just let me go. I won’t say anything.” For some reason, her eyes zeroed in on a glop of peanut butter clinging to a tangle at the left corner of his mouth. In the bad light, the smear looked like a rat turd. “You can have my rations. You can just have them.”

“Yeah? Well, what if I want more?” He drew the word out, his voice in her ear again, his reeking breath hot on her neck—and yet she never had felt so cold in her life.

Her heart tried dying in her chest. “I . . . I don’t have anything else. Please, just . . . I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”

“Who you going to tell? The Council? Your boyfriend, that Pru? What if I was to tell how some kid thinks he can buy me off with a measly can of beans? You think people might be interested in why those boys come to pass the time with such pretty girls? And here that Peter only seven weeks in his grave, and you already finding someone to warm you up.”

“No. I . . .” Her tongue clung to the roof of her mouth. “It’s not what you think.”

“Oh, I got a good imagination. So . . . you liiike Pru?” He drawled the word, his voice lazy even as she became aware of the increased grind of his hips. “You liiike what he does?”

“No. He’s just . . .” She strained against Cutter’s weight. “Please, let me go, let me—”

“Here’s what I want.” His mouth, the lips thick and cold and moist as worms, dragged over her throat. “I want you to be as sweet to me as you’ve been to that Pru.”

“No.” She was gasping again, trying to hold back tears. “Please. I’ll scream.”

“You scream, and I’ll tell how those boys were here, and it won’t matter what you’re up to, how nice Pru is. They’ll be watched. But you don’t want them anyway. You want a man, and I can be niiice.” His hips jerked in a sudden, hard thrust, his breath suddenly clogging as he worked his knee between her legs. “I can be sweet to a sweet thing.”

In the next moment, she felt his body lift, his free hand dropping and then fumbling at her waist. She let out a short, sharp cry. “No! N—” His mouth clamped on hers, and she gagged as he worked his thick tongue between her lips and licked her teeth. Bucking, she tried to bite, but he wrapped his free hand around her throat and rapped her head so hard that all the circuitry shorted.

“You like it rough?” His voice was ragged, his face choked with blood. “I’ll show you rough; I’ll show you what a man—”

She heard the loud bang, an explosion of wood against cinderblock. In her terror, she thought it was her mind snapping. Hadn’t they talked about that in health; how the brain could let go, be elsewhere, hide? But then she felt Cutter rear in surprise, saw his eyes go wide with shock, and thought, Tori.

“Jesus!” Cutter started up. “N—”

Something—someone—hurtled over her head. Slamming the stillshrilling Cutter to his back, whatever this was darted its head, once, like a snake striking at prey. There was a loud tearing sound, a ripping of wet cloth—and then Cutter was only thrashing, gurgling, both hands trying to staunch sudden, pulsing red jets from a throat that was no longer there. His blood hit concrete in hard, frantic splashes. The Changed—a boy—rode him, but only for a second.

What happened next nearly splintered her mind.

Planting a hand on Cutter’s forehead, the Changed plunged a clawed hand straight down into Cutter’s throat. Sarah couldn’t see Cutter’s face, but the old man’s legs stiffened, his boots jerking as if he’d been electrocuted. The boy’s back tensed and there came another of those loud, wet-cloth rips. Cutter was still juddering in his death dance as the Changed sank his teeth into a limp red tube of steaming flesh.

On the floor, Sarah began to scream.


Reining in his horse at the village hall, a hulking two-story brownstone capped with a clock tower, Greg dismounted. Tethering his mare to a wrought-iron railing, he untied a bulging navy blue pillowcase from his saddle. The contents ticked, glass against glass, as he hefted the makeshift sack over his left shoulder. It had taken them a long time to both search the rest of the house and then pack up the stash, which the stuffy-nosed, still-bleeding Verna assured them was the very last of what they’d squirreled away. Chester still hadn’t shown by the time they left. Neither had the cat.

By then, Greg didn’t care. His only concern was getting the jars out of his hands, out of his sight, then finding someplace quiet to lie down, and screw food. He passed a hand over his suddenly watering eyes, wincing at a needle of pain jabbing his temples. Another whopper of a migraine muttering in there, building itself up to a real roar, the kind of monster headache that made him queasy and fractured his sight with wavering lines and jagged shards of light. Kincaid said that was normal—called it scintillating something or other—and doled out some advice, too: Reduce your stress, son, and you might feel better.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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