Maggie wiped her mouth and took a few deep breaths.
“You okay?” Ethan asked.
“I can’t do it. I thought I could but—”
“I know you can.”
“No, I should just go back.”
“We need you, Maggie. The people in the cavern need you.”
“You’ll be with me,” Ethan said, “and we’ll take it one step at a time.”
“You can do this.”
“I just need a moment.”
He’d seen this in war. Combat paralysis. When the total horror of the violence and the constant threat of death overwhelmed a soldier. In his time in Iraq, the nightmare scenario was a sniper’s bullet or an IED. But even on the worst days in the streets of Fallujah, there wasn’t anything that wanted to eat you alive.
He gave Maggie a hand up.
“You ready?” he asked.
“I think so.”
He pointed across the street. “We’re going to cross to that house on the corner. Don’t think about anything else.”
“You’re going to see some bodies in the street. Just want to warn you. Ignore them. Don’t even look at them.”
“Danger areas.” She tried to smile.
“You got it. Now stay close.”
Ethan picked up his shotgun.
Butterflies in his stomach.
That old, familiar fear.
Five steps out from the side of the house, the bodies in the street were in full view. And you couldn’t not look at them. He counted seven people, two of them children, literally ripped apart.
Maggie was keeping up.
He could hear her footsteps a few feet behind his.
They hit the street, nothing but the sound of their footfalls on the pavement.
Up and down First Avenue—nothing.
It was so quiet.
They crossed into the yard and accelerated the last few steps to the two-story Victorian.
Crouched down under a window.
Ethan glanced around the corner.
Made another scan up and down First.
He looked back at Kate and Hecter and raised his right arm.
They came to their feet and started jogging, Kate out in front and moving with confidence, like she knew what she was doing, Hecter a few uncomfortable paces back. Ethan could tell the moment they saw the bodies. Hecter’s face fell and Kate’s jaw set and they couldn’t tear their eyes away.
Ethan looked at Maggie, and said, “You did great.”
Then all four of them were together again.
Ethan said, “Street’s empty. I don’t know why it’s so quiet, but let’s take advantage. All four of us this time. We’ll head out into the street and go right down the middle of it.”
“Why?” Hecter asked. “Isn’t it safer to stay near the houses, not so out in the open?”
“Corners are not our friends,” Ethan said.
He gave Hecter and Kate a minute to catch their breath.
Then he stood.
“What’s the next destination?” Kate asked.
“There’s a green Victorian two blocks down on the other side of the street. A row of juniper shrubs along the front. We’ll get behind those. Everyone ready?”
“Want me last in line?” Kate asked.
“Yes. Cover everything on our right and glance back every so often to make sure we aren’t getting flanked.”
It was a deceptively peaceful morning on Eighth Street.
They jogged down the middle of the road, quaint Victorians on either side and all those white picket fences bright and perfect in the early sun. Ethan’s stomach ached with hunger. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.
He switched between studying the houses on their left and the road ahead.
The side yards unnerved him more than anything. Those narrow canyons between houses that led into backyards he couldn’t see.
They reached the first intersection.
So strange. He’d expected the town to be thick with abbies. Wondered if they’d left. Raided town for a night and gone back out into the wild the way they’d come—through Pilcher’s gate. That would simplify things if he could get control of the fence and just shut them back out.
The green Victorian was close now, two houses down.
He picked up the pace and veered toward the front yard.
Suddenly Kate was running beside him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, breathless.
“Faster,” she gasped. “Just run.”
Ethan jumped the curb, sprinted through the grass.
They reached the junipers.
Scrambled through the branches.
Ducked down in the shadow between the bushes and the house.
Everybody out of breath.
Ethan said, “Kate, what happened?”
“I saw one.”
“Inside one of the houses on the street.”
“It was just standing at a window, looking out.”
“You think it saw us?”
“I don’t know.”
Ethan rose up slowly on his knees, peeked through the branches.
“Get down!” Kate whispered.
“I have to check. Which house was it?”
“Brown one with yellow trim. Swing on the front porch. Two gnomes in the yard.”
He saw it.
Saw the screen door swinging closed, heard the distant slap of the wood smacking the frame.
But he didn’t see the abby.
Ethan lowered himself back behind the bushes.
“It’s outside,” he said. “The screen door just closed. I don’t know where it is.”
“It could be coming around the house,” Kate said. “Sneaking up along the side. How smart are these things?”
“Do you know how they hunt? How finely tuned their senses are?”
Maggie said, “I hear something.”
It was a clicking, scraping sound.
Ethan straightened just enough to peek through the branches again.
The abby was moving upright on the sidewalk toward the house.
The clicking was its talons on the concrete.
A large bull.
Two hundred fifty pounds at least.
It had fed recently. Ethan could barely see the pulsing of its massive heart through the dried blood and viscera that clung to its chest like a bib.
At the foot of the porch, it stopped.
Turned its head.
Held his finger to his lips and leaned over so he could whisper in Kate’s ear.