I only had time for a quick glimpse. The creature on top of me was pulling hard with all four of its limbs, digging its claws deeper into my back and legs. Muscles jumped and bunched under its hairless skin as it forced its head closer to my face. I gave it everything I had, but I couldn’t keep it from slowly closing the gap. I was waiting for it realize that at this distance it could just let go of the bar and bite my head off.
Hunger flexed in my hands. The bar between the creature’s teeth went flat and razor sharp. I let my arms relax, drawing the creature’s head as close as I dared, then shoved forward with everything I had. The blade sheared clean through its head, cutting through teeth, jaw muscles, and the back of its skull.
Hot black fluid splattered across my neck and face. I shoved the corpse off of me and got shakily to my feet, just in time to see the fox drop a leather tube next to Leon and bound away, untouched by the madness around it.
A few yards distant, shots were being fired. Chuck was firing from the ground while Anne stood over him shooting in the other direction. It was useless. The noise was attracting more of the things than they were killing.
My back and legs were torn up pretty badly, Anne and Chuck would be running out of ammo in moments, and we were no closer to getting out of this nest than we were when the attack started. We needed to run.
I heaved the dead creature off of Leon, and another one leaped onto me from the side. It hit me high, staggering me, and its teeth sank deep into my neck and shoulder. I expected it to start tearing chunks out of me, but instead it jumped off like I was a hot coal.
We sprang apart and stared at each other. I could feel its moist, dank breath on my face. It ran a black tongue over bloody teeth and squinted at me in the light. Then it raised its muzzle high and let out a strident, piercing call. A deeper cry answered from underground, the sound issuing from the burrows all around us.
Every creature in the graveyard froze.
The deep scream came again, louder this time, sounding like a cross between an enraged cougar and tearing sheet metal. As one, they turned and headed back into their tunnels.
We were alone.
grabbed the back of Leon’s wheelchair and started to heave him upright. My torn back muscles gave out on me about halfway up and I nearly dropped him. I eventually got it done, but it cost me. I had to hang on to the handles of his chair to keep from falling over myself while I waited for the pain to recede.
I hadn’t really been hurt since Belmont, but before that I would generally heal from injuries within minutes or hours, depending on how much damage there was to deal with. It had taken most of a week to repair all the damage I had done to my chest and heart with Hunger.
Anne walked up and showed me her pistol. The slide was locked back, empty. “Just in time.” Blood was seeping through her shirt, down low on her left side. I watched her release the slide and holster her gun. Her hands trembled.
Anne was always tough during a fight, but afterwards you could see how hard it was on her. Patrick had created someone with inhuman concentration during a crisis, but who was no more ready emotionally for this kind of horror than anyone else.
“You okay?” We were keeping our voices low, nearly whispering.
She nodded a little too quickly. “Just a scratch. Chuck’s cut up pretty badly, though. I think we need to get him to a hospital.”
“Can he walk?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll give him a hand.” I started to walk past her, and she gasped.
“Oh my god, Abe!”
“Christ,” said Leon. “You look like you had a nap on the floor of a slaughterhouse.”
Anne gingerly put one hand on my shoulder and took a closer look. “Your entire back looks like hamburger.” She gently moved some of the ragged pieces of my shirt aside. “Some of these tears are down to the bone. I’ll take care of Chuck, okay? Just wait here.”
As always, as soon as she was needed she took charge and acted like nothing in the would could touch her. Her gaze hardened and she stood taller, but you can only pull on your reserves like that for so long.
She went over to where Chuck was trying to get up without moving the upper part of his body. He was a big boy at over six feet tall, and had the build of a construction worker. He weighed over two hundred pounds, easy. Anne, on the other hand, was barely over a hundred pounds with her shoes on.
Nonetheless, she squatted down and worked one arm around Chuck’s waist. She took a deep breath, and with a grunt, lifted him smoothly onto his feet.
“Steady,” said Anne. “How do you feel?”
“I’m fine. Just kind of sleepy all of a sudden.”
I exchanged a worried glance with Anne. “That’s probably not good. What do you think?”
“Girl Scout first aid lessons don’t exactly make me a doctor, Abe.”
“How about being the smartest person available at the time?”
“That part’s certainly true. As far as I can tell, he’s got a bad bite on one arm and one thigh, and some deep cuts on his chest and stomach. The blood loss doesn’t seem to be too bad, so I’m guessing it’s mostly shock that we’re seeing here. We need to get him to the emergency room, though, and soon. Of course, that’s just my opinion, which I just pulled out of my butt, so he could be dying right now for all I know.”
Chuck spoke up, weakly. “I’m not dying. I been hurt worse at the quarry plenty of times.” He walked slowly next to Anne, leaning on her shoulder and cradling one bloody arm against his chest.
Leon pounded one of his numb legs with a fist. “Goddammit. I wasn’t worth shit back there, and now I can’t even help with the wounded.”
“It’s not like I’m any more useful than you,” I said. “Anne’s doing all the work.”
The pain in my back was already starting to fade, but I chose not to mention it. “Did you notice what happened back there? Those things took off and left perfectly good food on the table. The first one to get a good mouthful called the whole thing off.”
Leon shook his head. “No, that’s not what happened. The one that bit you didn’t call it off. All he did was run it up the chain of command. The boss under the graveyard is the one who called it off. It don’t matter that they look like a pack of animals, they’re smart.”
“I guess it wasn’t enough for them to be built like a tank with fangs, they have to be organized, too. Speaking of animals, did I really see a fox run across the graveyard and deliver your mail, or was that just the blood loss getting to me?”
Leon let his wheelchair roll to a stop. He pulled a tube made of pale leather out of his lap and held it up. “It happened. There’s something inside, but I haven’t opened it yet.”
“Let’s wait for Henry before we take a look.”
“That was my plan.” He put it back in his lap and resumed forcing his chair over the bumpy trail.
Anne wasn’t so matter of fact about the whole fox thing. “Are you kidding me? Just now, while we were fighting a pack of honest-to-god monsters, you got a delivery from a cute woodland animal? And you’re just now mentioning it? And you’re both like, oh, did you get a fox delivery during that monster attack? Sure did, bro! High five! What the hell is wrong with you two?”
I shrugged. “To be fair, this isn’t any weirder than the dead squirrel deliveries we’ve been getting. And I’m pretty sure neither one of us used the word bro.”
“Everybody is crazy but me.”
“Every crazy person says that.”
She glared at me. “You should be so glad that I’m out of bullets.”
“They say that, too.”
By the time we got to the truck, the majority of the muscle and tendon damage to my back was healed, so I was able to lift Chuck into the cab. Leon stared at my back without comment from his wheelchair, but I could tell what he was thinking. If he felt any bitterness, he didn’t show it.
We raced north up I-85 to the hospital. I put in a call to Henry while I drove to tell him what had happened. He cut me off and told me to tell him the rest when he arrived at the hospital. I tried to tell him that he didn’t need to come out, but he hung up on me.
When we burst into the emergency room, everyone turned to stare. I imagine that a bloody man in tattered clothes holding up another bloody man clutching one arm, accompanied by a bloody woman and a bloody guy in a wheelchair is quite the sight, no matter how much time you spend in the ER.
Things got busy as hospital staff arrived with gurneys and questions. We claimed it was an animal attack in the woods, which was pretty close to the truth, and everyone was examined, injured or not.
Leon and I were inspected and released, my wounds having closed up during the drive and Leon not having been wounded in the first place. Anne, who had claimed to be fine back at the graveyard, needed a dozen stitches to close a claw wound on her left side, near her hip.
Chuck was in worse shape. We didn’t know yet how badly he was hurt, but got concerned when they wheeled in an IV rack with a blood bag hanging from it.
They sent us away to emergency room purgatory to wait in hard plastic chairs next to people clutching bloody towels or coughing uncontrollably. After an hour, an ER nurse walked up to us and hugged Leon. She was a heavyset woman in her early fifties, and she looked tired.
“Leon, honey, are you all right? After all you’ve been through, I nearly had a heart attack when I saw you come in. You want me to call your momma and tell her you’re here?”
“No thanks, Aunt Emily, I’m fine. This is Abe. He’s staying with us at Uncle Henry’s for a while.”
She seemed to take in the state of my clothes for the first time. “My lord, do you need to see a doctor?”
“I’m good. It’s just my clothes that are a mess.”
“If you say so. I’m Emily, pleased to meet you. I’m Leon’s aunt on his momma’s side.”
“Pleased to meet you, too, ma’am.”
“That pretty little girl will be done with her stitches in just a few more minutes. The other one, now, he’s been chewed up pretty bad. They gave him blood and antibiotics, and he’s going to need to rest for the next couple of days. If he gets a fever, you bring him back and we’ll take a look.”
Leon looked as relieved as I felt. “That’s good news, Aunt Emily. We’ll take good care of them.”
“I know you will.” Emily hesitated a moment and glanced at me. I guess I seemed okay, because she went ahead with what she wanted to say. “Leon, baby, I need to tell you something. Little Paulie came in last night all beat up.”
Leon looked shocked. “Is he okay? Who did it?”
“Them hoods who are always dealing behind Carlotta’s feed store, who do you think? I don’t know if he got it in his head to run them off or what, but if Carlotta hadn’t heard all the commotion and called the Sheriff, I think it would have gone past a beating. As it is, they tore him up pretty good. We sent him home, but I want you to call him and make sure he stays away from those men. He has no business getting mixed up with their kind. He’s a good boy.”
“I will. Thanks, Aunt Emily.”
Emily hugged Leon again and went back to her rounds. Leon just sat there next to me, his face like stone and his hands clenched on the arms of his wheelchair.
“Worried about your friend?”
“Cousin. Paulie’s my cousin. And that dumb shit knows better than to go messing around behind the feed store where the dealers hang out. Time was my Aunt would come to me to have a word with anybody who messed with my family. Now she wants me to get on the phone and tell Paulie to back down. I mean, shit. What else am I good for, right?”
“If he’ll listen to you, then you could end up saving his life.”
“I’d rather have a talk with the guys that put him in here.”
I shrugged and leaned back in my chair. “That’s what friends are for.”
Thirty minutes later, Henry found us in the emergency room. He handed me the fresh t-shirt he thought to bring because he’s a genius. I shrugged it on, promptly ruining it. Still, it was better than walking around in bloody tatters. I filled him in while we waited for the others to be released.
Henry listened patiently with that far-away look that I remembered from countless briefings back in the day. When I was done, he said, “Those creatures were definitely feeding on the dead in that graveyard, but they don’t sound like any ghoul that I’ve heard of. For one thing, ghouls are said to be human-like in appearance, and two, they’re solitary creatures. They don’t live in packs. But now that I have a description, I’ll go back through my books and see if anything catches my eye.”