Where am I?”

“You’re safe,” Hannah said from a swirl of shadow—or that may

have been his vision beginning to dim. “Chris,” she said, “let us help

you.”

“Help?” His laugh was weak and strangled. “You tried to kill me.” I have to get out of here. He took a swaying half step. His legs were suddenly wooden. The gun was growing unbelievably heavy, as weighty as a boulder, and he understood that in two or three seconds, he would faint. “Please,” he groaned. “Let me go. I don’t want to hurt

anybody, I don’t—”

With no warning at all, his strength fled as if he’d been unplugged.

His knees buckled. From somewhere distant, Chris heard the thud as

the gun hit the floor. There was nothing in his hands now, not even

the old man.

“You tried to kill me, y-you t-tried . . . oh God . . .” His eyes rolled;

there was no more light and nothing to see, and he was hurtling fast

in a black swoon.

“Quick, catch him!” someone said. He thought it might be Ellie.

“Don’t let him fall—”

“Chris?” A voice from the dark. “Chris, answer me. Are you okay?” “I . . . I don’t kn-know.” His tongue was bloated, his mouth numb.

His chest was heavy, a huge weight pressing him down, down, down

into the black.

I’m on the snow again. I’m under the trap.

“N-no.” When he tried to turn his head toward the voice, his

neck locked tight. “Don’t k-kill me again. P-please. I don’t w-want

to d-die.”

“Shh. Don’t be afraid. I’m here now, Chris. I won’t leave you.” A

hand, strong and sure, cupped his cheek. “Open your eyes. It’s time

to come back. It’s time to see.”

“I c-can’t.” He was shivering. “I d-d-don’t want to see.” “You have to. No more hiding in the shadows.” The voice was

calm but remorseless. “You’re not eight anymore. Come on. Come

back now.”

“N-n-nuh . . .” But his lids were lifting, the darkness peeling away,

a film seeming to dissolve from his eyes. At first, there was nothing but a glaring bright fog, like strong light bleeding through heavy mist. Then he saw the fog curl and eddy as Peter’s face pulled together, the

pieces knitting from the neck up: chin and mouth, nose and forehead. But no eyes. Only blanks, smooth skin over bone.

“Where are y-your eyes?” A fist of horror squeezed his heart.

“P-Peter, whwhere . . .”

“Oh, silly me.” And then the skin over Peter’s sockets peeled apart.

“There. Better?”

Chris felt the scream boil up his throat and try to crash from his

mouth. Peter’s eyes were caves, not deep black mirrors like Jess’s,

but red and vast and filling fast. They brimmed in bloody rills that

oozed down his cheeks and leaked over his lips. When Peter smiled,

his lips skinned to reveal a bristle of too many teeth that were wet

and orange.

“Peekaboo,” Peter said. Thick scarlet teardrops trembled on his

upper lip to drip directly onto Chris’s face and splash into his own

staring eyes. There was a sssss sound, the hiss of a snake, the boil of

acid, and then the pain, and Chris was blind and he was screaming—

“Huh!” Chris heard the cry bolt from his mouth.

“Christopher?” Not Peter or Lena or his father, but an old man. A

dry, cool palm found his forehead. “Christopher, are you back with

us?”

Is this another dream? He lay absolutely still for a long moment. A

new nightmare? He was under a thick down comforter and still mostly

naked, although someone had slipped on a pair of underpants. There

was also something unfamiliar around his neck. Cord?

“Christopher?”

“Y-yes,” he croaked. He dragged his lids up, wincing against bright

spokes of yellow-white light jabbing through two windows directly

opposite the bed. He would’ve raised a hand to shield his eyes, but he

couldn’t move his arms. Sheets were noosed around his wrists, and

his ankles were tethered to the bedposts.

“There you are. Welcome back.” Reaching for a stoneware jug on

a nightstand, the old man splashed water into a clear glass. “Thirsty?” He was about to ask why he was tied down but then considered

that if a kid had grabbed his gun, he’d have done the same thing. “Is

it drugged?” he rasped.

“No. Here.” Slipping an arm under Chris’s shoulders, the old man

propped him as he drank. The water was clean and odorless and

cool as a balm. He felt the chilly slide of its course from his tortured

throat down the middle of his chest and then the cold explosion in his

empty stomach. When he’d drained the glass, the old man lowered

him, then settled back into his own chair. “That should stay put. We

fed you a bit of broth yesterday, so . . .”

“Yesterday?” When he ran his tongue over his still-dry lips, he

tasted old blood from where the skin had cracked. “How long have I

been here?”

“In this room?” The old man laced his fingers over his stomach.

His hair, which floated around his shoulders, was as snowy white as

his beard, although his upper lip was bare. But the resemblance was

clear, especially the eyes, which were as bright and black and keen as

an old prophet’s. “Six days ago. I arrived last night just before sunset.

I was here when you surfaced the first time.”

He caught the emphasis. “What do you mean, in this room?

Where was I before?”

“What do you remember?”

“Snow,” he said, hoarsely. He didn’t want to think about the

dreams. “The trees. Spikes and green glass, and the sound of the

limbs breaking, like bombs.”

“That was the tiger-trap. What else?”

“Weight on my back, and I remember the cold, and it hurt . . .

my chest, whenever I tried to move. I couldn’t breathe, like kn-knives

. . .” He was starting to shiver. “I c-couldn’t . . .”

“Easy.” The old man laid a calming hand on Chris’s forearm.

“That’s in the past.”

“But how far in the past?”

“Two weeks.”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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