Authors: Andrew Smith
Tags: #Social Issues, #Survival Stories, #Action & Adventure, #Juvenile Fiction, #Violence, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Friendship
It was Marbury, but it was different, too.
It was Marbury magnified, intensified.
We didn’t mean for this to happen.
The Hunters sniffed the air, widening their nostrils. They moved steadily through the dark sea that covered this new world.
But the sheets of rain fell so constantly I was certain they couldn’t possibly see me, as I watched them through the jagged mouth of the door’s shattered window. And still, they kept coming toward the house, sloshing, swinging their heads from side to side, huffing and hissing to sniff for meat.
And I was standing there, barefoot.
I needed to get my shoes on.
I took a deep breath, slipped away from my doorpost back down the hallway toward the bedroom.
And I left a wet trail of blood with each footstep. I saw how it tracked my path behind me, so I opened the door onto the bathroom to let more light into the hallway.
Something was wrong with me.
One of those black slugs I’d seen had attached itself to the top of my foot. Sickened, I watched as it pulsed like an external heart, sucking my blood. Slender and slick with oily skin, uncoiled, it may have been two feet long. Then it detached and began worming its way higher, pulsing its head up the bend in my ankle.
I’d seen leeches before, but this was something else. It moved fast. It made a mess of me.
I slipped the edge of my knife beneath it and pried it away.
It made a squeak, like a crushed bird, and I flicked the thing onto the floor and sliced it in half. It popped like an overripe blueberry, spraying blood—my blood—exploding outward in an awful red chrysanthemum. The thing wriggled and fought before finally relaxing in death.
If I’d had anything at all inside me, I would have vomited. My stomach twisted and crawled upward toward my throat. I pulled my pant legs up and looked for more of the things.
Maybe I got lucky. Maybe not.
I’d have to watch that rainwater,
I went inside the bedroom, sat down, and started to put my shoes on. Before I did, I pulled the legs of my jeans up past my knees again, just to make sure that was the only one of those leech things I had to deal with.
The safest place to wait, I reasoned, would be in the hallway. I didn’t think the Hunters could get inside the house behind me, and in the other rooms I might be visible from the outside through any one of the broken-out windows.
I squeezed the handle of the knife so tightly my hand began bleeding again. I waited in the middle of the hallway, leaning against one wall to make myself less visible. I felt like I was going to faint from the adrenaline rush, my heart pounding as loud as the rain.
Maybe this would be it,
Maybe Jack’s universe would just end here in this broken-down house.
Maybe dying would be just like another trip through a lens, anyway.
Fuck this place.
* * *
Of course they knew where I was.
I saw the widening gray swath of light as the front door pushed carefully open. The rain got louder. Then there was nothing, but I could visualize what they were doing: sniffing, smelling me, listening, waiting.
When a shadow darkened the entryway, I leapt out from my hiding spot in the hall, hoping to surprise whichever one came through the door first. It was the big one. And when he caught his first glimpse of me coming from the darkness of the hall, he cocked the pickax back in both hands like he was getting ready to swing a baseball bat. But before he could hit me, I buried the knife up to my fist, straight into his armpit.
He wailed, swung.
I saw a flash of movement behind him, the other one, hesitating, pushing his way into the house.
The weapon arced over my head. It buried its point up to the jack handle in the damp wallboard of the hallway. The knife slipped in my grip as I tried to pull it free, twisting and turning, the gristle and bone tearing at its edge. There was so much blood, but I managed to keep hold on the knife as the big Hunter fell back, clawing at his side, releasing his weapon. I pushed him on top of his partner, and felt him twitch and gurgle when he fell onto the gig in the other one’s clawed hand. The big Hunter collapsed between us, dying, wheezing, splashing in the rainwater and gore.
The smaller one ran out of the doorway.
I went after him.
As soon as I stepped past the open door, I was ankle deep in water. My mind flashed on the image of those black leeches, but I forced myself to keep my eyes up.
The Hunter was nowhere in sight.
I slogged around to the corner of the house, waited, breathed, before cautiously stepping around the side.
This had to be a trick or something,
I thought. There was no way he could move that fast.
And just when I turned back toward the door, he was on me, leaping down from the edge of the upper floor. Before I could manage to move, I was completely underwater.
I thought I would drown. I was sure of it, and it struck me how I didn’t care. But I watched in a sick kind of fascination, interested in how I could see the wavy image of the Hunter pinning me down above the surface.
Next thing I knew, everything was red, and his grip slackened.
For a second I almost believed I had gone through the lens—ended up somewhere else again. I half expected to hear the ghost, Seth, making his calling taps to me. But then I realized I was still underwater and clutching my knife. I pushed myself up, gagging and spitting, and got to my feet.
The thing that had pinned me down was choking, coughing blood from his nostrils, madly pulling at a slender steel spike that speared cleanly through his neck. But there was a barbed point on the spear’s tip, and the more the Hunter tried pulling the projectile out of his throat, the worse his injury became. And I could see the frantic spray of blood with each beat of his heart, until he finally gave up and sat down and put his face down into the black lake I was standing in.
I looked up into the eyes of a freckle-faced redhead boy who was standing in the middle of a green fiberglass canoe, holding on to something that looked like an oversized red plastic squirt gun. He was smiling, shaking his head at me, cursing, “Good God damn, you’re all kinds of stupid, Odd. You better get the hell out of the water before one of them suckers gets up inside your rig.”
That was the first time I ever saw the kid.
I looked at the kid for a second, holding my knife point angled toward him while the rain came in relentless blurring waves between us. And he stood there with that relaxed expression on his face, one foot up on the gunwale of his stupid boat, just rocking, watching to see what I’d do.
I put the knife away. Then I pulled the dead one out through the doorway by his feet.
“Shit on a sidewalk,” the kid said. “Did you kill that one all by yourself?”
I went inside.
I wanted to hit something.
I think I wanted to hit that kid.
I went down the hallway and threw myself onto the floor when I got inside the room, crazily tearing at my bootlaces and socks. Watery blood ran through the little hairs on my shin. One of the black things was snaking its way up my pant leg, so I grabbed the tail, but it slimed free of my grasp and kept going. I squeezed both hands around my knee, making a kind of tourniquet to block its path, and I tried pushing it back down. But the thing wouldn’t move.
That’s when the kid came in, holding the dripping spear in one hand while slinging his ridiculous red pistol over one shoulder. He seemed to be amused by what was going on, all gangly and gaunt, twisted up in a sodden tornado of clothes that were far too big for him.
“You are not going to win that one, Odd.” The kid put his spear down against the wall. “If I was you, I’d get out of them pants quick as shit. There’s probably one up the other leg, anyhow. Or two.”
I really wanted to hit him.
I clawed at my belt. My hand throbbed with pain. The pants were glued to me. I kicked and flailed, pale and wet, until I finally got all my clothes flung down. And the goddamned kid was right. One of the things was all the way up inside my thigh, right next to my balls. I pried the creatures off with my knife blade and cussed a dozen times while I hacked them to pieces on the floor.
“They’re pretty much dead, I’d guess, Odd,” the kid smirked.
“Fuck that. Stop calling me that.”
I looked like that tattooed dead guy in the sink, smeared and streaked all over from my crotch down with rainwater and blood. I grabbed a blanket from the floor and wiped myself clean, glaring at the kid the whole time I was doing it.
I picked up my pants, turned away from the kid. I shook my jeans as hard as I could and turned them inside out twice, then shook them again for good measure before slipping myself back into them, buttoning up. And I knew that kid was watching me the whole time, entertained. That made me even madder.
I could feel the heat and redness in my face like I was cooking from the inside.
“Fuck this place,” I said.
Then I sat down and put my head between my knees.
“You killed the shit out of that big one, Odd. You must be one hell of a fighter for being so scrawny.”
And I wanted to tell him to fuck off, that he was a good thirty pounds lighter than I was, even counting all the wet shit he was wearing, but I decided not to talk for a while.
Try to relax, Jack.
“What were you doing out in the water like that, anyway? Going for a swim? How dumb can you be, anyhow?”
I kept my head down. I wanted to punch myself, now, for thinking that all I wanted was to go home.
Awww… poor Little Jack wants to go home.
“But that other one never saw this shit coming at all. He probably pissed on you when that spear hit him in the throat. Ha-ha! I bet he did, too! Never seen shit like that. You ever seen shit like that, Odd? I damn near missed him altogether. That would have been a bad ending for you, Odd. A bad, wet ending. With suckers in it. In you! Ha-ha! I don’t think he’d have given me the chance to try again. You ever seen shit like this?”
The redhead proudly waved his red gun around in front of me, but I didn’t want to look at him. I realized I had the dead Hunter’s blood in my hair, inside my clothes.
“It’s a speargun, is what it is. Yep. When the Rangers came around taking all the guns from everyone at the beginning, I knew where my daddy had this one hid away. If Fent’s crew caught me with it, well, shit, I don’t need to tell you what they do to Odds with guns, do I? I bet I don’t. I lay that you seen it for yourself, what Fent does, ain’t that so, Odd?”
Fent is looking for you.
“Where’s the old man, anyway? You seen him? You know that old man with tattoos on his nuts and everything? Damn, I told him, I bet getting your rig inked hurts worse than dying. You seen that old man, Odd?”
“He’s in the kitchen.”
That’s all I said to him. I was relieved when he left, could hear him moving down the hallway, slogging over the junk in the living room. I kept my eyes on my feet. They were so pale, and I felt like I was never going to dry out.
The kid came back a minute later.
“You didn’t kill him, did you? No. I know you wouldn’t. I could tell just by looking at an Odd like you that you wouldn’t kill that old man. You can just tell those things about people sometimes, don’t you think?”
“There’s a little boy in there. Dead, too.”
“Dead? Shit, pretty soon there’s going to be none of us Odds left. Rangers, too. Even if they have guns, they can’t stop this shit. Every time you turn around, there’s fewer and fewer of them. Us, too. I think Fent’s and a few other squads is the last of the Rangers, but I don’t know. I never been anywhere else, just heard about all the other elses. That’s why it’s better to just be nobody. Like us. We’re the smart ones. That’s why that Hunter never seen shit like that speargun of mine. Well, I guess he did one time. And that was enough. Ha-ha!”
I really wanted the kid to shut up. I shook my socks, squeezed them out, and started slipping them onto my feet, trying to ignore him. I could feel him coming closer to me.
“How old are you, anyway, Odd? What’s your name?”
“You talk too much, kid.”
“My name’s Quinn Cahill and I’m fifteen years old, and I’ve lived right here for my entire life.”
The kid wiped his palm off on his pants and stuck it out to me.
“I don’t care about any of that, kid. I’m in the wrong place and I just keep fucking things up. I need to get out of here.”
I shook out my boots, felt all the way down to the toes with cautious fingers, and began tying them up again. The kid dropped his hand, but I still didn’t want to look at his face.
“Don’t you have anyone else looking out for things with you?”
I said, “Don’t you?”
“You ain’t got a shirt, then? What happened to it? I bet I got a shirt at my place you could have.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
I stood up, wavered a little bit. I wondered how much blood those things took out of me.
“Are you hungry? I bet you haven’t eaten in a bit. Looks like it, anyway. I got some food, Odd. Anyhow, I suspect you had a shirt at some time, especially if you’re the one that Fent’s been hunting for these past seven days now.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Maybe you don’t.”
So I looked at Quinn Cahill.
I knew he was lying about being fifteen. He looked like a little kid, but there was still something in his eyes that showed me this boy was not at all uncomfortable with killing things, even if it was Hunters. And I also couldn’t help but think he was playing me for something, and he knew exactly what he was doing.
I didn’t answer him.
“Listen,” Quinn said. “Hear that? It stopped.”
I hadn’t noticed how quiet it was. Maybe my breathing had become louder than the rain.
“I need to get the boat back before the water goes away. I got to leave, Odd. You coming?”