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The third boy—whom she had forgotten about—rammed her at a dead run. The blow drove Alex back against the unyielding metal of the Toyota. Alex felt a lightning surge of pain as the car’s rear fender jammed her spine. Gagging, Alex sagged, and then she was on her back, the boy slashing with a claw-fist. Alex’s face fired white-hot as the boy’s nails scored her flesh from the corner of her left eye to the angle of her jaw. Alex tried twisting away, but the boy brought his balled fist down like a hammer, catching her just above her ear. Her head banged the asphalt, and then a burst of wet copper filled her mouth—and she lost the shovel.

Dimly, her head singing with pain, Alex heard the boy screech again, felt his hands close around her throat, and then her air was gone. Her fingers scrambled over his, but he had her tight and he was shaking her now, pounding her head against the snowy asphalt. The edges of her vision went red and then black, and then the margins began to contract, grow smaller and tighter. Her lungs screamed, and her pulse thundered in her oxygen-starved brain. She fought, but his grip tightened; his thumbs crushed her throat, and the pain was huge: not just a burn, but a sensation of something breaking in two like a dry twig. Her arms and legs were no longer listening to her, and her hands began to loosen as her hold on consciousness started to slip-slide away. She was going numb, the strength flowing from her like blood, and the pain, too. The bitter cold was no more substantial now than smoke, and her vision was nearly gone, her consciousness fading, and there was nothing she could do—

And then, her mind gasped a single thought, so crisp and clear it was like a word scissored out of black paper: KNIFE.

Against every instinct, she made herself let go of the boy’s hands and reach for her boot. Her fingers brushed fabric and then curled in a sudden convulsive spasm, bunching her pant leg, not because she was thinking anymore but because she was dying.

Her hand closed on hard plastic.

With the last of her strength, she jerked the knife from its holder and drove the blade into the boy’s left flank. The knife was very sharp and she felt just an instant’s hesitation as the tip met fabric, and then the nothing as it sliced cleanly all the way through the parka and the shirt beneath and buried itself to the hilt in the meat of the boy’s back.

Arching, the boy shrieked. His hands flew away, and then she was gawping like a fish, pulling air in great, wheezy gasps that cut her throat. Tumbling from her body, the boy was shrieking, his fingers closing over the knife handle, tugging, trying to work the blade free.

Get up. The fog over her mind bled away. Gagging, she rolled onto her stomach—and spotted the Glock, six inches away.

Snatching up the gun, she twisted, crabbing onto her back. She saw the boy, on his knees, two feet away. Her knife, smeary with his blood, was in his hand now, and his raging eyes locked onto hers and he bellowed—

She squeezed the trigger.

The shot was very loud. The Glock bucked. The boy’s chest bloomed red, and the warm, wet blowback of his blood misted her face. The boy flopped onto his back without a sound.

She had time for nothing, not even relief. In the next instant, she heard that familiar papery rustle, turned, and saw Blimp Boy surging forward, Tom’s blood smeared over his mouth in an obscene leer. And then the fat boy loomed, huge and horrible, only five feet away; he was there, he was right there!

She shoved the gun at his face, and fired.


Tom bled a long time, soaking through a balled-up shirt and his own flannel before the flow finally slackened. Then he told her to use the bourbon. She didn’t want to—she knew the alcohol would burn like hell—but she did what he said. As soon as the bourbon hit the raw, macerated tissue, Tom’s whole body went rigid, the cords standing out like wires on his neck, his teeth bared in a grimace.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said helplessly. The last thing she wanted was to hurt him even more. Already dark amber, the bourbon turned a muddy brownish-purple as it mingled with Tom’s blood. She used a scrap of torn shirt to wipe away the sweat from his face.

“It’s okay,” he said, his voice rusty with pain. There was a crust of blood under his shattered nose, and his eyes were beginning to puff. “You’re doing f-fine.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. She felt sick, not with fear now or hunger, but dread. The wound was very deep, enough to expose tendon and muscle and a glimmer of bone. The blood welling up wasn’t pumping, and she dared to hope that he wouldn’t bleed much more. But she knew she could never move him now. Tom was too weak, too drained. He already had one infection, and she was pretty sure that human bites were as bad as an animal’s, maybe worse. “What about your leg? Should I wash—”

“Cut it.”

She froze, unable—unwilling—to believe her ears. “What?”

“Cut it,” Tom whispered in that same pain-roughened voice. “T-too much pus … has to d-drain.”

“I can’t,” she said, horrified. “Tom, I can’t—”

“Please. Alex … I can’t … can’t do it m-myself.” He paused, his chest heaving, his face oily with sweat. When he spoke again, his words broke with airy gasps. “The knife … use a fl-flare … st-sterilize …”

“But I’ll burn you.”

Tom actually laughed, a faint splutter that quickly died. “Least of my p-problems. Skin’s dead anyway, but the … the tissue underneath … m-might be okay. But you have … have to d-drain it. A-Alex … Alex, d-do it, please.” His glittery, fever-bright eyes locked on hers, and she read his desperation and fear. “Before I l-lose my n-nerve …”

This was like his story about Crowe. For Tom to ask her to do something like this, he must know he didn’t have many options left, or much time. But what if he was wrong? What if she did more harm than good?

Outside, she retrieved her boot knife, prizing it from the dead boy’s clutching fingers. Plunging the knife into deep snow got rid of much of the gore, and then she used bourbon and water to wash away the rest. At the convenience store’s front door, she twisted off the cap of one of the flares and scraped the tip against the striker. The flare caught, the crimson flame spitting fiercely. The knife’s handle was a hard black polymer, so she was able to hold it without burning herself as she heated the blade, watching as the color changed from silver to a dull gold to a bright lava-red.

“Tom,” she said, kneeling over him. The knife had cooled to a dull orange, but she could feel the heat radiating in waves and knew the steel was still plenty hot. “You’re absolutely sure there isn’t another way.”

“C-cut it fast as you c-can. I’ll try n-not to move. Once you’re through skin, you’ll have to … have to maybe c-cut deeper. H-heat will help with th-the bleeding. When the pus starts coming, st-stop. You’ll … you’ll kn-know when,” he panted. Turning his face away, he pulled in another gasping sob. His eyes screwed shut and his hands balled to fists, but a deep shudder was running through him now, a trembling he couldn’t control. “I’ll t-try to stay on … on t-top of it, but no matter what I s-say … don’t stop, Alex. Finish the j-job….”

Oh please, God, she thought, staring down at Tom’s thigh and the blackened, angry eye of his wound. Please save him; please help me.

She had seen movies: scenes where men dug around for bullets with bare hands. In movies, people passed out when the pain was too much.

But this wasn’t a movie or a book.

This was, in fact, much, much worse because Tom did not pass out, and he lasted only three seconds before he began to scream.

“That’s the best I can do.” She thumbed his tears away. His pain-ravaged face was dead-white, his eyes sunken into purple-black hollows. The fleshy lips of his wound gaped, and his thigh was streaked with thin rivulets of bright-red blood, but there seemed to be very little pus left. The air reeked with the stink of dead meat, boiled pus, and cooked blood. The mats under his leg had gone soupy with the muck, and she’d dragged them out, pitching them into the snow before retrieving the floor mats from the abandoned van. She’d used straight bourbon on the raw flesh of his thigh, but now she used a wad of torn shirt, stuffed with snow, to mop sweat from his forehead. “You smell like a bar.”

“Yeah.” His weary gaze fixed on her neck. “L-lot of b-bruises.”

Her throat still felt broken. “You should see the other guy.”

“Not … not a joke. That was t-too close. C-can’t l-lose you …”

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, knowing deep down that she would be forced to. She sponged away dried blood from his chest. His torso was stippled with other, older wounds, shiny with scar tissue.

“Sh-shrapnel,” he whispered, feeling the question in her fingers. “Got myself fr-fragged six months ago. You ought to s-see me l-light up metal detectors at an air-airport.”

“And this?” She touched what looked like small burn marks just under his left armpit. Then she peered closer and made out letters:


Thomas A.

A series of numbers. Social security number, Alex thought. The line below read O POS, and, beneath that, Catholic.

“A tattoo?” she said.

“Yeah. We call them m-meat t-tags. Sometimes there’s not a lot l-left after …” He swallowed. “You know.”

“Tom.” She reached up to stroke the damp hair from his forehead. His lips were pale, as transparent as glass. “What are we going to do?”

“St-stick to the p-plan.” He tried a smile that quickly faded. “We … we leave in the m-morning. All I n-need is a little r-rest.”

He needed a lot more, and she knew it. They spent the night on a mound of car mats in the convenience store’s back room. A few hours before dawn, Tom either passed out or fell asleep—she couldn’t tell which. Stretching out along his left side, she hugged his body to hers, so close she heard his heart. She was exhausted but afraid to sleep, worried that he would be dead when she woke up. But eventually, her thoughts thinned and she spiraled down and—


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