“Don’t you know it’s not polite to just walk into someone’s house without an invitation?” she asked.
Her voice stopped it in its tracks. It tilted its head.
Blood—from one of her neighbor’s no doubt—dripped off its chest onto the floor.
Belinda put down the next card.
“I’m afraid this is a one-player game,” she said, “and I don’t have any tea to offer you.”
The monster opened its mouth and screeched a noise out of its throat like the squawk of a terrible bird.
“That is not your inside voice,” Belinda snapped.
The abby shrunk back a few steps.
Belinda laid down the last card.
“Ha!” She clapped. “I just won the game.”
She gathered up the cards into a single deck, split it, then shuffled.
“I could play Solitaire all day every day,” she said. “I’ve found in my life that sometimes the best company is your own.”
A growl idled again in the monster’s throat.
“You cut that right out!” she yelled. “I will not be spoken to that way in my own home.”
The growl changed into something almost like a purr.
“That’s better,” Belinda said as she dealt a new game. “I apologize for yelling. My temper sometimes gets the best of me.”
The light in the distance was getting closer, but he couldn’t see a thing around him.
Tripping every few steps, he tore up his hands as he grasped for branches in the dark.
Wondering, Could the abbies track us? By scent? Sound? Sight? All of the above?
The torchlights were close.
He could see his group in the illumination.
Ethan came out of the trees at the base of the cliff.
There was already a line of people moving like ants up the rock, the glow of torches high above like a strand of Christmas lights strung across the cliff.
Ethan had climbed this route only once before while infiltrating the Wanderers, Kate and Harold’s secret group.
Steel cables had been bolted into the rock in a series of harrowing switchbacks over man-made footholds and handholds.
A dozen people stood around the base of the cliff, waiting their turn to ascend. He looked for his family, but they weren’t there.
Hecter walked over. “This is a bad idea,” he said. “Putting children on the cables in the dark.”
Ethan thought of Ben, drove his son out of his mind.
“How many are coming?” Hecter asked.
“More than we can handle.”
Down the mountainside, Ethan could hear branches snapping.
He had a pocketful of twelve-gauge shells and he started feeding them into the magazine while he watched the edge of the forest.
With the last shell in the tube, he leveled the shotgun on the woods.
Thinking, Not yet. Just a little bit longer please.
Hecter tapped Ethan’s shoulder, and said, “It’s time.”
They went up the rock face, clutching the freezing cable.
By the time Ethan reached the third switchback, the forest below him was alive with screams and shrieks.
Wails lifting up through the trees.
The nearest torch was twenty feet above, but the stars were numerous and bright enough to light the rock.
Ethan glanced down the cliff as the first abby came out of the trees.
Then five more.
Soon there were thirty of them gathered at the base.
He kept climbing, trying to focus on clutching the cables and stepping sure-footedly, but every time he looked down there were more abbies than before.
The rock went vertical.
He wondered how Theresa and Ben had fared.
Were they safe in the Wanderers’ cavern now?
Above him, a scream that plummeted in his direction.
Closer, closer, closer, closercloserclosercloser . . .
Growing exponentially louder until it was right on top of him.
He looked up as a man rocketed past, arms flailing, eyes gaping wide with horror.
He missed Ethan by two inches and his head struck a ledge twenty feet below, the blow sending him somersaulting the remaining distance toward the forest floor in dead silence.
Ethan’s legs felt like liquid.
A tremor moved through his left foot.
He leaned into the rock and clutched a handhold. Shut his eyes. Let the panic course through him and burn itself out.
The terror passed.
Ethan went on, pulling himself up foot by foot on the rusted cable as the abbies ripped apart the man who’d lost his footing on the cliff.
Ethan reached the plank walkway.
Six inches wide, it traversed the face of the cliff.
Hecter was already halfway across.
The forest was now three hundred feet below.
Wayward Pines was somewhere out there, the town still dark but filled with distant screams.
On the rock below, Ethan spotted movement.
White forms climbing toward him.
He shouted to Hecter, “They’re on the cliff!”
Hecter looked down.
The abbies climbed fast, fearlessly, like the possibility of falling did not exist.
Ethan stopped, holding the cable with one hand while he tried to get a decent grip on the Mossberg.
He called out to Hecter, “Come here!”
Hecter turned awkwardly on the narrow planks and headed back toward Ethan.
“I need you to hold my belt,” Ethan said.
“There’s not enough room up here for me to stand and aim.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Hold the cable with one hand, grab my belt with the other. I’m going to lean out over the edge and take a clean shot.”
Hecter sidestepped the last few feet to Ethan and grabbed hold of his belt.
“I assume it’s buckled?” he asked.
“Good one. You got me?”
“I got you.”
And still it took three seconds for Ethan to steel his nerve.
He let go of the cable and slid the strap of the shotgun off his shoulder, aimed the luminous sight down the face of the cliff.
Ten abbies were making an ascent in a tight cluster. He tried to focus, to put the fear out of his mind, but he kept seeing that man falling toward him, his head cracking open on the rock.
Ethan’s stomach turned. The world seemed to rush up at him and fall away at the same time.
Get it together.
Ethan drew a bead on the leader.
The shotgun bucked him back against the cliff and the report raced across the valley, bounced off the western wall of rock, and returned.