Page 15


Jammed up against the rocks, almost horizontal, she felt the water’s suck and grab, but saw that she was in the shallows, in less than a foot of water, and that she was staring up at the sky—


And the mutt.


20


Water streamed from the mutt’s flanks. Blood bubbled from a slash on its shoulder where it had struck a rock or snagged a branch. But it was there and it was alive, and now the animal went for her face with a flash of fangs, white and deadly.


Screaming, Alex pressed back against the rock, her only working arm—the right—flying up to protect her face. It was instinct, pure and simple—and saved her life. Crabbed on her back, unable to get to her feet, she felt the dog batten down, waited in a slow-motion dread for the jaws to grind and for her bones to break … Or maybe it would go for her throat next, or even push her under the water, hold her there until she drowned. But then her arm did not break, and she realized the dog had misjudged and that all it had was a very big mouthful of sopping wet sweatshirt. The pressure around her arm lessened for an instant as the dog let up and shifted its jaws, trying for a better grip—


Mina sailed across her vision. In an instant, the mutt had let go of Alex and whirled, incredibly fast for such a large dog. The dogs crashed against one another, fangs clashing against fangs, a snarling ball of fur and muscle.


Move, get up, get up, get up! Alex broke from her paralysis and scrambled on hands and knees over slippery rock, trying to get her footing. She made it to one knee, pushed to her feet, and very nearly fell again. There was blood in her mouth, her head clanged with pain; her left arm felt dead. The foaming water grabbed at her legs and tried to pull her back in.


Ellie let out a piercing, terrified scream. Sick with horror, and still dazed from the fall, Alex saw that the shepherd had reached the V. As Alex watched, the animal took a cautious step and then another. On the third step, it slipped, its tail pinwheeling as it struggled to keep its balance.


Fall, Alex thought fiercely. Fall! But the animal did not fall. In a second, it had righted itself, and Alex knew she would never make it to Ellie in time.


She looked back at the dogs just as they broke apart. Mina was panting, the dog’s chest going like a bellows. Blood flowed from a rip in her neck, and as Mina danced back, Alex saw that the dog was limping, favoring her left flank. The mutt was also bloodied, but it was a bigger, more muscular dog, and Alex thought this was a fight Mina would lose.


Then Ellie screamed again, and for a precious, fatal second, Mina’s attention wavered. The dog’s head snapped around to search out her mistress—


And the mutt saw its chance.


Lowering its head, it rammed Mina, driving its shoulder into the smaller dog’s chest, knocking Mina head over heels. Writhing, vainly trying to twist in midair, Mina landed with a mighty splash flat on her back. Before she could right herself, the mutt was there, its fangs curving like the slash of scimitars. At the last second, Mina flailed upright, but the mutt adjusted the arc of its attack. Its jaws closed around Mina’s left foreleg. There was a loud, grinding crunch, and Mina let go of a high, eerily human shriek, and then she was on three legs, struggling to keep to her feet.


“No!” Alex shouted. Her paralysis fell away, and she closed her fingers around a rock the size of her fist and then let it fly.


The rock struck the dog in the ribs. With a small yip—the dog was more surprised than hurt—the mutt whirled to face this new attacker.


Oh God. Alex felt her insides turn to jelly. She reached to grope for another rock, not daring to take her eyes off the mutt. If it charges, if I miss—


In the next instant, the stench that filled her nostrils was so intense, so surprising, Alex gasped. Across the stream, she saw the mutt pull up with a start, its hammer-like head swinging up and then back upstream, and she knew that the mutt smelled it, too. She watched as its ears drew down tight on its skull and its tail tucked between its haunches. The mutt backed up a step, then another, and then it was splashing across the shallows and spurting up the right bank.


Alex couldn’t move. Balanced on three legs, Mina was rigid, the hackles bristling along her back, and then the dog was looking left, her lips peeling back in a snarl.


I know this smell, Alex thought—and then horror bloomed in her chest. Oh God, I know this.


The stench was like summer, hot and torrid: a stink of tarry asphalt and roadkill bloated with decay. The reek was thick as fog, a plague of rotted flesh and squashed guts, so bad it balled in her mouth and coated her tongue.


Her eyes inched left.


And that’s when she saw the man.


21


He stood in the trees at nearly the same spot where the dogs had appeared. His hair was very short, a military buzz cut, and he was filthy: his clothes ragged, his skin smeary with dirt and blood. He reeked of death and decay.


The wild dogs were terrified. She smelled their fear. The mutt had darted into the woods, but the collie was still there on the high bank, only twenty feet away from the man. Head low, teeth bared, the dog had shrunk back toward the river but could retreat no farther. On the tree and only ten feet from Ellie, the shepherd had turned to stone.


Ellie spoke first. “Help us! Please, help us!”


The man opened his mouth, and for a crazy second, Alex thought they might actually be all right—a hope that fizzled fast.


What came from the man’s mouth was a formless bellow, something so primitive it raised the hairs on Alex’s neck. And then he was moving, charging, arms out, hands fixed into claws, that wild roar going on and on.


Alex had just enough time to think, God, no, Ellie!


The man charged straight at the collie. He was insanely fast and as agile as a panther. The collie immediately sprang to its right, but it was too close to the edge. One back paw swung out over the drop, and the collie skidded. In the next second, the man’s hand shot out and grabbed a handful of the collie’s matted fur. The dog let out a high, bloodcurdling yelp as its feet left the ground, and then the man was swinging it, spinning the helpless animal around, using the collie’s weight the way an athlete built speed to throw a shot put.


He smashed the collie against a tree. There was a sickening thunk, and then the dog let out an abortive ungh!, dropping in a loose heap like a sack of wheat. Foaming, the crazy man loomed for a moment over the stunned dog. Then he reached down, hooked a hand on either jaw, and gave a vicious yank, scissoring the collie’s jaws apart.


There was a snap of bone, a ripping sound like cloth being torn in two. The collie let out a deep, guttural shriek as its mouth split.


Ellie screamed.


Alex watched, a cold fist of horror where her heart had been, as the man bent over the dazed, bleeding animal. For an insane moment, Alex thought he was going to kiss it. Instead, he wrapped up the dog in a gigantic bear hug—literally clasped the dog to his chest—and squeezed.


There came a series of popping, splintering sounds as the dog’s ribs broke. Huge bubbles of crimson blood boiled from the dog’s mouth, but the collie made not a sound, not even a whimper, because it couldn’t. The man was crushing the life out of it, driving the air from its ruined lungs.


Incredibly, the man laughed. The sound was gleeful and crazy and drove spiders scurrying up and down Alex’s back. Still laughing, the man reached into the collie’s mouth and tore out the animal’s tongue.


“Alex?” Ellie quavered. She tried twisting around on her perch. “Allleeeex?”


She couldn’t answer—didn’t dare. Pressed against her side, Mina was trembling. Alex watched as the man bit into the thick, still-dripping flap of muscle, tore off a chunk, and chewed—and then, just as quickly, spat it out.


Ellie let out a screech of revulsion and terror, and Alex thought, No, no, honey, be quiet.


On the tree above Ellie, the shepherd came alive. It tried backing down the limb, but the animal was panicked, moving too quickly. Alex heard the loud skittering of its nails on the wood, and then the shepherd slipped sideways. It bulleted for the water, bouncing off the hump of a nearby boulder before doing a spectacular belly flop. An instant later, the dog’s head bobbed to the surface, and then it was pulling furiously for the far shore even as the river swept it downstream toward Alex and Mina.


The sound of the splash made the crazy man look up. His chest was a fan of blood. His smeary chin glistened. Alex didn’t move; she finally understood why rabbits went so still. Don’t see me, don’t notice me. She saw him glance downstream at the shepherd, which had made the shore now, less than ten feet from Alex. By her side, Mina let out a warning growl, and Alex felt a spike of alarm. But the shepherd was interested only in getting away, and it ignored them, lunging up the bank and out of sight.


Alex’s eyes shifted back—and then she felt the day crash down. The man was on his feet now. Still clinging to the tree, Ellie seemed to have finally gotten the message. She had gone small and pink and still, but it was no use. The crazy man knew she was there, and Alex saw, in a flash, that he meant to have her.


She would never scale the bank in time. He was too far away for a rock. So she did the only thing she could.


“Hey!” Splashing across the shallows, she hit the left bank at a run and plowed up the incline. “Hey, over here, hey!”


It worked. The man rounded, his mad eyes swimming with hemorrhage, and that dead, hot summer stink washed over Alex again. His face twisted, and then he was starting for her, mouth open, clots of gore and stringy flesh hanging from his teeth.


Mina raced past, faster than Alex would’ve thought possible for a dog with only three good legs, there and then gone in a flash. The dog sprang, battening down on the man’s right arm. Bawling, the man jerked Mina, not a small dog, clean off her feet. Still howling, the man twisted first one way and then the other, but Mina hung on, her body whipping back and forth like a flag in a stiff breeze. With a roar, the man drew back his left fist in a wild roundhouse punch. He was aiming for Mina’s head, but the dog saw the blow coming and let go of the man’s right arm. As soon as her hind legs hit the ground, Mina launched herself in one nearly seamless movement, her jaws wide, making the switch from right arm to left. Catching the man’s wrist, the dog ground down with an audible, grinding crunch.

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