“It’s at the porch, twenty feet away. We may have to engage.”
He got onto his knees, raised the shotgun, and poked his head above the juniper.
Did you rack a shell into the tube?
Of course I racked a shell into the tube. I ghost-loaded this gun last night.
The abby was gone, but the smell of it was potent.
It shot up screaming on the other side of the bush, teeth bared, eyes like wet, black stones.
The blast was deafening, and despite the size of the thing, the slug punched it back into the grass. It went down on its back with a sucking chest wound, dark blood bubbling out like a geyser across the translucent skin.
Kate was already on her feet.
Hecter and Maggie frozen behind the bush.
Ethan said, “We have to move.”
He clawed his way out.
The abby was still alive, moaning and trying to plug the quarter-size hole, watching in disbelief as it bled out.
It reached for Ethan as he moved past, a talon catching on the hem of his jeans, tearing easily through the denim.
Kate was right behind him, Hecter and Maggie slower in coming.
“Move!” he yelled.
They ran into the street.
Sweat beaded on Ethan’s forehead, streaming down into his eyes with a saltwater sting.
They crossed the next intersection.
Nothing was coming.
Ethan looked back over his shoulder down Eighth.
Maggie and Hecter were running their hearts out, arms pumping, and nothing behind them as far as he could see.
The school took up the entire next block on Ethan’s right.
Playground equipment standing lonely behind a chain-link fence.
Seesaws. Swing sets. Slides. Merry-go-rounds.
A tetherball pole.
A basketball hoop.
The red brick of the school beyond.
Maggie said, “Oh my God.”
Ethan looked back.
She had stopped in the middle of the street and was staring at the school.
He ran back to her.
“We have to keep going.”
A door in the side of the building swung open and a man was standing in the threshold waving one arm.
Maggie said, “What do we do?”
What do we do?
One of those decisions that could decide everything.
Ethan scaled the four-foot fence and raced across the schoolyard, passing a sandbox and monkey bars in the shadow of a giant cottonwood whose yellow leaves had plastered the pavement.
The man holding open the door was Spitz, the Wayward Pines postman, an inventive position for a town that had zero need for the mail. Yet still, he’d walked the streets several days a week, stuffing mailboxes with fake junk mail, bullshit tax notices, and the like. He was a brawny, extravagantly bearded man, larger through the waist than one might think for someone who lived on his feet. Presently, he stood in a shredded black T-shirt and kilt—his fête costume—with his left arm wrapped in a piece of bloody fabric. He wore a nasty slice across his cheek and a piece of flesh had been gouged out of his right leg.
He said, “Hi, Sheriff,” as Ethan arrived. “Didn’t expect to see you.”
“Back at you, Spitz. You look like shit.”
“Just a flesh wound.” The man grinned. “We thought the other groups were wiped out.”
“Ours made it through the tunnels, up to the cavern.”
“How many of you?”
“I got eighty-three down in the basement of the school.”
Kate asked, “Harold?”
Spitz shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
Hecter said, “We thought everyone else had been killed.”
“We were attacked on the way to the tunnels. Lost about thirty down by the river. Brutal. As you can see, I got in a little scuffle with one of those sons of bitches. Took five men to drag it off and if one of them hadn’t had a machete it would’ve killed us all. I heard the gunshot a minute ago. It’s what drew me outside.”
“One came after us a little ways up the block,” Ethan said. “We thought maybe they’d all gone back into the woods.”
“Oh no. Town’s still crawling with them. I’ve been making house raids within sprinting distance. There’s people still hiding in their homes. I rescued Gracie and Jessica Turner just before dawn. Jim had nailed them into a closet. He isn’t with your group, is he?”
“I saw him last night,” Ethan said. “He didn’t make it.”
“That’s too bad.”
“How are your people?” Maggie asked.
“Three died from their wounds overnight. Two are in pretty rough shape. Probably won’t last the day. A bunch of us are scraped all to hell. Everyone’s freaked out. No food, just a little water from the fountains. We had a teacher in our group and if he hadn’t said to come here, we’d all be dead. No question in my mind. It was war last night.”
“How secure is the basement?” Ethan asked.
“Could be worse. We’re locked in behind two doors in a music classroom. No windows. Only one way in and out. We’ve built barricades. I’m not saying it’s impenetrable, but we’re hanging in.”
A scream erupted several blocks away.
“Better get your asses inside,” Spitz said. “Sounds like whatever you killed had a buddy.”
Ethan looked at Kate, back at Spitz.
“I’m headed for the mountain,” he said. “For Pilcher.”
Maggie said, “If there are injured people, I may be able to help. I was in school to become a nurse back in my old life.”
“We’d love to have you,” Spitz said.
A second scream answered the first.
Ethan said, “Do you guys have any weapons?”
Shit. He’d have to leave them with someone who could shoot. This group of people needed some form of protection beyond a big knife.
“Kate, you stay with them too,” he said.
“You need me.”
“Yes, but if we both go and get killed, then what? At least this way, you’re the backup plan if I don’t make it back. And meanwhile, you can protect these people.”
Hecter said, like he hadn’t quite fully committed to the idea, “Well, Ethan, I guess it’s just you and me then.”
“Will I be seeing you again, Sheriff?” Spitz asked.
“Here’s hoping.” Ethan grabbed Maggie’s hand, and said, “Bedside table drawer?”
“Yeah, go upstairs, turn right when you come off the staircase, it’s the door at the end of the hall.”