Leaped over the curb and hit the opposite sidewalk, nearly tripping over a raised lip of concrete, but he somehow managed to stay afoot.
Twenty yards carried him to the next block west of Main, and he looked back two seconds before he made the turn, saw the first group of lights emerging out of the alley.
If he was lucky, they hadn’t seen him.
He ripped around the corner.
Kept to the sidewalk, hauling ass under the pitch-black shade of the pines.
The next street stood empty as well, and a quick glance over his shoulder confirmed only a handful of pursuing lights, still a good twenty seconds back if he had to guess.
Ethan dropped another block west and then barreled south.
The street terminated.
He’d come to the edge of town.
Stopped in the middle of the road, bent over with his hands on his knees, gasping for air.
People were coming, both behind him and now from the west.
Figured he could run two blocks uphill back to Main, but that seemed unwise.
Get moving. You’re squandering your cushion of distance.
Straight on, a Victorian mansion backed up against the surrounding forest.
His legs burned as he pushed on, crossing the street, bolting alongside the house.
Three strides before he reached the pines, the voice of a child shouted, “He’s going into the woods!”
Ethan looked back.
Twenty or thirty people swung around the corner of the mansion, flashlights blazing, running toward him as one, and for a moment, Ethan wondered why their proportions seemed all wrong.
Legs too short, heads too big, lights held much closer to the ground.
It’s because they’re all children.
He rushed into the trees, gulping air perfumed with the bittersweet fragrance of wet pine.
It had been hard enough to see in town, but inside the forest, it was impossible.
He had to flick on the flashlight, let its wobbly beam steer him between trees, over rotten logs, saplings and low-hanging branches whipping at his face.
The children entered the wood on his heels, footsteps crushing wet leaves, snapping fallen branches. He had a vague idea of where the river might be, thinking if he kept moving right, he couldn’t miss it, but already he felt disoriented, his sense of direction unraveling like a poorly tied knot.
A girl screamed, “I see him!”
Ethan glanced back, just a quick turn of the head, but his timing couldn’t have been worse—he crossed through a patch of deadfall, his feet entangling in a mass of twisted branches and roots that slammed him to the ground, stripping the flashlight and machete from his hands.
Footsteps all around him.
Approaching from every side.
Ethan struggling to pick himself up, but a vine had ensnared his right ankle, and it took him five seconds to rip free.
The flashlight had gone dark when he’d fallen, and he couldn’t see it or the machete or anything. He ran his hands across the ground, desperate to find them, but all he grasped were roots and vines.
He clambered to his feet, blindly fighting his way through the deadfall as the lights and the voices closed in.
Without a flashlight, he was hamstrung.
Reduced to jogging with hands outstretched—his only defense against plowing into a tree.
Frantic beams of light crisscrossed in front of him, giving fleeting glimpses of the terrain ahead—a pine forest choking to death on underbrush, long overdue for a cleansing fire.
Children’s laughter—carefree, giddy, maniacal—filled the woods.
A nightmare version of some game from his youth.
Ethan stumbled out into what he figured for a field or meadow—not that he could see a damn thing, but the rain now hammered him with greater intensity, as if he were no longer protected under the forest’s umbrella.
Up ahead, he thought he heard the rush of the river, but then lost it to the sound of hard breathing coming up behind him.
Something crashed into his back—not a particularly jarring blow, but enough to unbalance him for the next.
And the next...
And the next...
And the next...
And the next and then Ethan hit the ground, face jammed in mud, everything drowned out by the laughter of the children, a full-body assault coming from every side, every angle—superficial punches that didn’t stand a chance of hurting him, the sting of shallow cuts, the occasional and far more disconcerting heft of blunt objects striking his head, and all of it, with every passing second, increasing in frequency, like he was being attacked by a school of piranhas.
Something stabbed into his side.
He cried out.
They mocked him.
Another stab—oceanic pain.
His face flushed with rage, and he jerked his left arm out of someone’s grasp, and then his right.
Got his palms on the ground.
Pushed himself up.
Something hard—a rock or a log—thudded into the back of his head hard enough to jog his fillings.
His arms gave out.
Face-first back in the mud.
Someone said, “Hit him in the head!”
But he pushed up again, screaming this time, and it must have taken the children by surprise, because for a split second the blows stopped coming.
It was all the time he needed.
Ethan got his feet underneath him and forced himself up, took a swing at the first face he saw—a tall boy of twelve or thirteen—and knocked him out cold.
“Get back,” he seethed.
There was enough light that for the first time he could actually see what he was dealing with—two dozen children from seven to fifteen years of age encircled him, most holding flashlights and a variety of makeshift weapons—sticks, rocks, steak knives, one with a broom handle with the mop end broken off leaving a jagged splinter of wood.
They looked as if they’d dressed up for Halloween—a ragtag assembly of homemade costumes pieced together from their parents’ wardrobes.
Ethan was almost grateful he’d lost the machete, because he would’ve hacked these little shits into pieces.
There was an opening off to Ethan’s left—a weak link in the circle he might have charged through over two children who stood no taller than his waist.
But then what?
They’d give chase, run him to death in these woods like an injured deer.
Turning slowly, he locked eyes with the most intimidating of the bunch, a post-pubescent, blond-haired boy armed with a tube sock stretched to the max, its pocket weighted with an ominous-looking sphere—perhaps a baseball or a globe of solid glass. The teen wore a suit that must have belonged to his father—several sizes too large, the sleeves hanging down to his fingertips.