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“I don’t th-think I can wa-walk much more,” he said.


“You walked today.”


“T-Too s-slow.”


“So what? It’s fine. I’m not leaving you behind.”


“You h-have to.” He let his head fall back, his eyes half-shuttered. His lips were split and bleeding.


“You would never leave me, or Ellie. You’d carry us if you had to.”


“D-don’t be too sure about th-that.”


“I could make a stretcher.”


His head moved in a weak negative. “J-just slow you d-d-down. We’re n-not getting anywhere f-fast this way. You’ll be a lot f-faster on your own.”


She would be; she knew that. Alone, she could cover twice as much ground in half the time, and if she kept heading southwest, she would run into Rule. If Larry was right—if Marjorie and Brett and Harlan were to be believed—whoever was there would want to help Tom.


Or, maybe, something else that Larry had said would be true:


They’ll shoot you on sight.


“We don’t have to decide anything right now. Come on.” She gave him a little shake. “You know medical stuff. Think. Would it help if, I don’t know, we got that gunk out of there?”


He gave a sluggish nod. “C-couldn’t hurt.”


“Okay, just give me a few minutes. I want to check out the cars. At the very least, we can use the mats. Better for you than lying on the floor.”


The Toyota was closest to the front door, and she searched it first. The car was barren and cold as a freezer. Her breath came in clouds as she hurriedly piled floor mats on the front seat, and then she thought, Trunk. Reaching in, she found the right button, popped the release, heard the trunk click open.


Jackpot. Inside the truck were a collapsible shovel and three signal flares. They could use the flares for fires, if they had to. Was there a way to reuse the striker? Tom might know.


The shovel was for camping, with a triangular steel head and a removable handle that unscrewed to reveal a six-inch blade saw. She pulled the shovel out to its full length, felt the heft in her hand. From the condition of the head, she didn’t think the shovel had ever been used.


Backing out with the trunk mat, her eye fell on a corner of white and red protruding from beneath the spare tire. Putting aside the mat, she reached for the bit of color. Was that …?


She felt a little squirt of adrenaline, which she tried to quash, but she knew as soon as her shaking fingers touched the cardboard, and then she was carefully prying the Marlboro box free. Interesting place to keep a stash, but she’d heard of people squirreling away drugs in spare tires, so maybe not so strange if you didn’t want your wife or husband to know you couldn’t quite kick the habit. The Marlboro box rattled and smelled like cold tar. She didn’t care about the cigarettes. But if someone had stashed the pack into the trunk for a rainy day, he’d need a light.


She was almost afraid to look, but she did. Inside the box were three cigarettes—


She let her breath go.


A matchbook. The book had once been white but was now gray. She could still make out the words beneath a stylized martini glass—eddie martini’s—and, in much smaller letters below that, the restaurant’s address and phone number. She held the matchbox between her fingers for several seconds, thinking, You just watch. There won’t be any matches left. There won’t.


But there were: a half dozen.


She let out a whoop. “Tom!” Elated, she ducked out of the trunk, shovel in one hand and the matchbox held high in the other—and then the stink of rotted flesh cut right through the lingering aroma of stale tobacco.


Later, she would wonder if things might have turned out differently if she hadn’t just inhaled a snootful of Marlboro. But that would be later.


Now she saw not just one kid, or two.


She saw three.


35


Two boys and a girl, and they were very close, no more than twenty feet away, and between her and the front door of the station. Judging from the snarl of leaves and debris in the girl’s hair, they must have come from the woods behind the gas station. They were filthy and dressed in a motley assortment of clothes that couldn’t be their own. The boys were older, maybe in their early twenties. The oldest, lanky with a flop of black hair, wore a woman’s pink, fur-trimmed parka. The other boy was very fat and wore the remnants of a tattered black poncho so thoroughly used that he looked like a Batman blimp passed through a shredder.


The girl was her age, Alex thought. Somewhere along the way, the girl had picked up a man’s torn camouflage pants and a too-small smeary gray peacoat that rode midway up her arms. Every inch of skin not covered by clothing was a swirl of dirt and blood and what was either engine oil or feces—probably both. The left sleeve was mangled, as if the girl had caught her arm on a branch and simply yanked until the wool ripped. The girl shifted, and Alex saw, peeking beneath her pants’ tattered cuffs, a single sneaker on the girl’s right foot. The girl’s left foot was bare save for an anklet of bloodied sock. Alex thought back to the blood-prints in the store and, with a sudden, sickening twist, realized that the footprint Robinson Crusoe had seen did not belong to Friday. The print had been made by a cannibal.


This cannibal—the girl—had a club: a polished length of what looked like very stout, very heavy wood, probably an ax handle.


The car. She could dive in, lock the doors. But she was afraid to move. Her knees were wobbly. The Toyota’s open back door looked a million miles away. Anyway, she couldn’t just wait them out. The front door to the store was open, and so was the back, and if they got in, they would find Tom—


The girl rushed her. She was absolutely silent and insanely fast. Her wiry arms lashed out in a blur, her left hand hooked into a claw, the right swinging the club. Almost too late, Alex ducked. She heard the club whir through the space where her head had been a second before. Then she screamed as a starburst of pain tore into her scalp. The girl had her by the hair, and now Alex was lurching forward, being pulled and dragged off her feet. Off balance, her boots tangling, she stumbled to the icy asphalt, still clutching the shovel in her left hand. The matchbook went flying as she tumbled onto her back. She saw the blur of the club again as the girl cocked her elbow, and Alex jerked left just as the club axed down, crashing against the concrete with a solid thunk, so hard that the club splintered. A huge, ripping laser burned fire into her scalp, and she felt a stinging jolt; then she was free, rolling away onto her hands and knees.


Left with nothing but a bloody knot of Alex’s hair and a toothpick of a club, the girl bawled in frustration. The boys had not moved; Alex didn’t have time to wonder if maybe they took turns or simply thought the girl could handle her. Scrambling, Alex was just getting her feet under her when the girl charged again.


What happened next was pure instinct. Still crouched on the ground, Alex saw the girl coming, heard the slap of that bare foot, felt her fingers fist around the shovel. Her brain detached, and her body simply took over, because then she was unfurling, driving forward, closing the gap.


She feinted low, then aimed high. The shovel cut the air, blade on, in a vicious chop. The sturdy metal edge sank into the soft exposed flesh of the girl’s neck. There was a great jet of spurting blood burning into the snow like red sprinkles on white icing, and then the girl was falling away, the momentum wrenching the shovel out of Alex’s grasp. The girl sprawled, hands wrapped around her throat, gargling as blood pumped between her fingers. The shovel clattered to the ground.


Her own momentum spun Alex almost completely around. Disoriented, she looked up, realized she was staring at the stalled Caravan half-in, half-out of the gas station’s driveway, and thought, Oh God, they’re behind …


She caught a papery flutter, the thud of boots against thick snow, and as she turned, a black rippling blur swooped in from her right.


The gun, she thought suddenly. In her terror, she’d forgotten all about it. She fumbled the coat open, wrapped her fingers around the grip. The gun, the gun, the gun, the gun …


Blimp Boy plowed into her. The Glock went flying; she saw it cartwheeling through the air, heard the thunk as it hit the Toyota, and then she was on the ground again, the boy using his weight to pin her down. The tattered plastic of the boy’s poncho dragged at her arms like tentacles, and she thrashed, trying to bat her way free. Gasping, she looked up to see the kid’s lips twitching back from teeth that were stained and slimy with gore.


“No!” she screamed as the boy’s teeth flashed—


Tom slammed into the boy. The blow knocked Blimp Boy onto his back, and then he and Tom were rolling, thrashing, grunting. The pudgy boy was snapping at Tom’s face, his teeth clashing together. Tom rammed the heel of one hand into the boy’s lower jaw. The pudgy boy let out a gurgling howl as his teeth drove into the soft flesh of his tongue. Rearing up, mouth drizzling blood, the boy let loose with a vicious backhand to Tom’s jaw: a solid crack loud as a gunshot. Tom’s hold slackened for just an instant, and then there was a flash of bloodied teeth as the pudgy boy’s jaws battened down on Tom’s neck, just above his right shoulder.


Tom screamed.


No, no, no, no! Frantic, Alex clawed her way to her knees. Tom and Blimp Boy were still struggling, but even if Tom hadn’t been sick and weak, the boy was much heavier and he was astride Tom. Tom’s shirt was saturated with blood. Blimp Boy brought his cocked fist down. There was a sound like eggshells being crushed by a heavy boot as the blow connected with Tom’s nose, and then Tom went limp.


Screaming, not even aware that she was moving, Alex grabbed up the fallen shovel, wound up, and then swung it with all her might. The shovel hit with a hollow thunk; she felt the jump and sting of metal against her hands and the force of the impact shiver up her arms. Howling, Blimp Boy went sprawling, but he was still conscious, already rolling onto his hands and knees.


That’s when she spied the butt of the Glock sticking out from behind the rear tire of the Toyota. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Blimp Boy on all fours, shaking his head like a dog, and she whirled, grabbing for the gun …

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