The barn’s west door suddenly swung open. A head appeared, a froth of white above broad shoulders. “Isaac!” Chris bawled. “Barricade the doors! There are ten, there are ten!”

The old man’s head jerked back as the barn door snapped shut hard enough for Chris to hear the faint clap and then its echo. Okay. He’d warned them. Now to help them. Crossing to the door, he hesitated, studying the jamb, that lock. God, a dead bolt? Whatever. Just do it. Backing up, he aimed his right shoulder, grabbed his right arm with his left, then charged. He hit the door hard enough to feel the impact in his teeth. His shoulder let out a bark of pain. The door, solid oak and stout, shivered, but there was no splinter or scream of wood. He hammered the door again, and a third time, a grunt jumping past his teeth. By the fourth time, the bark in his shoulder was a roar, and still the door held tight.

“ Damn it.” Cold air gushed through the shattered window. His puffing breaths plumed as he planted his fists on his hips and tried thinking past the ache in his shoulder. Maybe have to climb out the window after all. That was when he noticed what he should have seen at the very beginning. This door locked from the outside but swung in.

“Hinges.” He spun back to the table. Hannah hadn’t given him a knife or fork, but . . . “There is no spoon,” he said, giddily, sweeping that up along with one of Hannah’s books. The spoon was heavy stainless steel and would break before it would bend. Wedging the handle under the hinge pin’s flattop, he beat it with the book’s spine. To his surprise, the pin let out a metallic screak after only a few blows and jumped a half inch from the knuckle. “Come on,” he grunted, beating the spoon. The pin hitched another half inch. “Come on, come—”

The unmistakable crackle of gunfire came through the broken window. He froze, heart thumping. Another shot. The distant bawl

il sa j . bick of cattle and bray of horses. Shit. “Got to get out,” he said, using his fingers to pry the pin the rest of the way. The hinge uncoupled, and now he could see a gap between the top rail and frame. One more, then I can just tear it down. Dropping to a crouch, he braced his shoulder against the jamb, rocked the now nicked handle beneath the head of the middle pin. This time, there was more resistance from the weight of the door. His left hand ached from his death grip around the spoon; his right wrist was throbbing. The spoon had punched and then cut a crescent moon through the book’s clothbound cover and a quarter inch of pages. Thank God it wasn’t a paperback−and then he wondered if he wasn’t getting just a little hysterical. More spackles and muted pops of gunfire, and now he was talking to the pin: “Let go, let go, let—”

Shooting straight up from the middle hinge, the pin popped free to clatter to the floor. Shoving the spoon into a back pocket, Chris flung the book aside, then wrapped his hands around the edge of the door and put his weight into it. The butt hinge cried in a long, high squall before giving way all at once. Raking the door aside, he bulled into the hall.

His room was at one end. Two doors on his right, one on his left, and, a little beyond that, a short banister marking the head of the stairs. Wheeling around the newel post, he pounded downstairs. Through pebbled glass sidelights on either side of the front door, he could see a huge porch he hadn’t known was there because his room was at the back of the house. To his left was an enormous front room with several long benches that looked like some kind of meeting room. He spotted a swinging door at the far end. Jess’s house had a door just like that, between the kitchen and parlor.

Grab a knife. Sprinting across the front room, he straight-armed the push plate, banging the door aside. Maybe a poker from the woodstove.

The kitchen was on the southeast corner of the house, same as Chris’s room, and already going thick with shadows. Directly ahead were eight chairs ranged around the long oval of a butcher block pedestal table, draped with a light blue tablecloth and set for a meal, probably a late dinner for Jayden and Connor. An ornate, old-fashioned kerosene wick lantern with a frosted shade and green glass base stood in the center. To the right was a black cast-iron cookstove on a square of raised red block, with a box of oak splits, a pail for ash, a brush, and shovel. On the stove, a saucepan steamed. Three iron pots and two large skillets dangled from a potrack. Beyond the kitchen table were oak cupboards; a butcher block bristled with knives. The way out was a door with floral chintz to the left of an old-fashioned refrigerator.

Then he registered what he hadn’t a split second before. The room wasn’t toasty warm and it wasn’t freezing. But there was a lingering raft of cold air, as if someone had just gone out—

Or come in.

That also was when he noticed how the flowery curtains over that kitchen door . . . still swayed. Not a lot, but enough.

It dawned on him then. The kitchen was right below his room. Whenever Hannah worked in here, he heard her. So when he’d shouted his warning, he’d shown the Changed exactly where, in which corner of the house, they should start looking.

A small shuffle.

Right behind him.

69

Rifle. Alex knew from that distinctive whipcrack. Close, coming from the west. Before the first echoes had died, she was pelting up the hill. “Penny, get in the house, get in the house!”

The smell was rolling from the woods, too: not only that familiar scent of cool shadows but a rancid fug of desperation. It’s Wolf, close enough to smell now. Wolf was in trouble, maybe hurt. She felt herself reaching out to him before she even realized what she was doing—and deep in her brain, the monster again shuddered to life, her thoughts slipping sideways. In an instant, she was both in her body and elsewhere, seeing through Wolf ’s eyes: tangy fear in her mouth, sour sweat on her chest. Ahead, the house was coming together out of the trees, light winking off windows like beacons. Something heavy, the sack, tried to slip off her shoulder—

Only it’s not me. Her head was huge. Yet everything that was her felt very far away, like Alice shooting up after nibbling that Eat Me cake. Alex was in here and out there, with Wolf.

The air crackled with more gunfire. The sound socked her back into her own head. They’re heading straight for us. Her stomach doubleclutched with dread. Move, move, move!

She sprinted for the house. Ahead, Penny and Bert were just scuttling inside, though Penny was awkward, slow. Darth grabbed the girl’s arm and reeled her in. As Alex tore up the last few steps, the big boy clamped a hand the size of a ham on her shoulder and heaved her the final ten feet. She gave a startled yelp as she hurtled past the threshold to crash onto hardwood.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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