Authors: Kendra C. Highley
Matt Archer: Monster Hunter
By: Kendra C. Highley
Copyright © 2012 by Kendra C. Highley. All rights reserved.
Second Smashwords Edition: March 2014
Editor: Cassandra Marshall
Cover Design: Streetlight Graphics,http://www.streetlightgraphics.com/
All rights reserved. This eBook is licensed for the personalenjoyment of the original purchaser only. This eBook may not be resold or givenaway to other people. If you are reading this eBook and did not purchase it, orit was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy.Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are a workof fiction or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living ordead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Table of Contents
About the AuthorDedication
When I was fourteen years old, I was forced to make my firstkill. Now I’m fifteen and I bagged two more just last week.
My name is Matt Archer. And I hunt monsters.
* * *
“Matt! Uncle Mike’s here. Get amove on!”
Mom was always in a hurry. Her jobas a lawyer kept food on the table, as she liked to remind us. But it also kepther in motion, saying stuff like “time is money.” My question was, if time wasmoney, then why weren’t we all rich? Smartass comments like that got megrounded though, so I kept my mouth shut and ran down the stairs.
After dumping my backpack andsleeping bag by the front door, I rounded the corner to the living room togreet Uncle Mike.
He rose from the sofa, toweringover me, and stretched. The muscles on his arms, neck and shoulders flexed likea pro-wrestler’s. Uncle Mike was a Green Beret, and it showed. “Hey, soldier,what’s up?”
“Like I’ve never heard that onebefore,” Mike said when I laughed at my own joke. “Ready to deploy?”
“Yeah. I decided to wear my camothis time, go in stealth mode.”
Uncle Mike looked down at his ownclothes. He was wearing old jeans, a bright red flannel shirt, and a ColoradoRockies cap crammed down over his light-brown hair. “Nice idea,” he said, “butI’m not sure the bears and deer will care much about your camo. Let’s moveout.”
The evening sky was streaked withgold and pink, but still light enough for us to make it to the campgroundsbefore nightfall. One of the advantages of living in Montana—good camping wasonly thirty minutes from anywhere. I piled my gear into the back of Mike’sJeep. The car smelled awesome: cigars and gasoline. Mom nagged him to quit withthe cigars, but I thought it was cool. Just like Wolverine.
“Hey, can we have the top down?” Iasked.
Mike shrugged. “If you don’t mindthat the wind chill will be forty degrees, doesn’t bother me.”
We pulled the soft cover off theJeep and packed it over the camping equipment in the back. The air was scentedwith pine; our trees were getting their “fall coats,” as Mom put it, and theneedles smelled like Christmas. This was my favorite time of year, beforewinter set in like an unwanted houseguest.
“Hard to believe it’s October.We’ll have to brace for a big snow soon.” Mike put the Jeep in gear and backedout. “Means this is the last jaunt of the year, Chief.”
I nodded, hoping the ache I feltin my chest didn’t show on my face. Camping with Mike was the only specialthing I had that my older sibs didn’t. My sister, Mamie-the-brain, was too muchof a bookworm to go with us and my brother, Brent-the-football-hero, had his“social engagements.” What it really meant was that I was neither a brainiac,nor popular enough to have other plans on the weekends, so Mike took mecamping. Honestly, I loved it, even if it branded me a dweeb with no sociallife.
Mike glanced at me, a sad smilepulling at the corners of his mouth. “Heard from your Dad?”
He tried to keep the anger out ofhis voice, but I still heard it, like sandpaper rubbing an old scab. “Brent gota birthday card when he turned seventeen.”
“That was April, man.”
“Yeah, well, that was our summergreeting, I guess,” I said. “You know what he sent Brent for his birthday? AHooterscalendar. Mom had a total fit.”
Maybe he’d send me one, too. Notlikely I’d get anything though. Since Dad ditched us while Mom was pregnantwith me, I was an afterthought. It seemed like Dad would rather spend whatlittle time he had to give on my popular-athletic-jerk of a brother. Not that Iwas bitter or anything. Well, notentirelybitter.
“At least he knows what Brentlikes,” Mike said, a soft thread of laughter floating through his voice.“Although, I can see how Dan-Dan would be pissed about it.”
“Don’t let Mom hear you callingher ‘Dan-Dan,’” I said, grinning.
“Not my fault I couldn’t sayDanielle when I was two.”
Mike was the only person who couldget away with calling my mom anything other than Danielle or Counselor Archer.Mom had a real weak spot for her baby brother—and she still called him that,even though he was thirty-eight. He’d stepped in for Dad after he switched fromactive duty to the reserves. Mike made sure I did Boy Scouts and taught Brenthow to throw and catch a perfect spiral. He had even helped Mamie practicedancing with a partner for the sophomore homecoming dance, even though shenearly broke his toes.
He was more family to us than Dadwould ever be.
Not that I was bitter or anything.
“So, Uncle Mike, any girlfriendswe need to know about?” I asked. “That last one was, um, interesting.”
“Candy was a trip, wasn’t she?Looked great in a bikini, but she was soboring. Ishould’ve known not to hook up with a woman whose idea of fun is museum hopping,”he said. “Nope, I’m single again, Chief. Good thing.”
Mike paused and shifted in hisseat. He had some bad news—I could tell. A hard rock of fear lodged itself inmy stomach. I tried to swallow, but the rock in my gut kept the spit in mymouth. Because I knew what was coming. This wouldn’t be the first time we’d hadthis sucky conversation, and I was really tired of it.
“I’ve been called up.”
I hated it when I was right.“Where? When?”
“Going to Afghanistan for a year.I leave for training in six weeks and deploy in January.” Mike managed anothersmall smile. “So much for ‘reservist’ status, huh?”
I took a shaky breath. No UncleMike for a year? “You’ve been on three assignments in the last three years. Youshould be done by now. Can’t you tell them no or something?”
Mike glanced at me, lookingserious. “The military isn’t a ‘pick and choose’ kind of operation. Orders are,well, orders. I have to go, Matt. I’m sorry.”
I stared out my window, trying notto cry like a little kid, but my chin was already shaking. That pissed me off;I was too old to have a little-girl-hissy-fit. “What’ll we do without youhere?” I turned back to glare at him, wondering why I was angry with Mikerather than the Army. “We need you more than they do.”
Mike sighed. “We’ll be fine, okay?I’ll be able to email you and call sometimes, and we can even do videoconferences. It’s not like we’ll be out of touch for a whole year.” He squeezedmy shoulder. “You’ll see. It’ll be fine.”
His voice trailed off at the end.Neither of us said what we were thinking—that maybe it wouldn’t.
We got to the campgrounds at sixand Mike put me to work unloading the Jeep before my feet hit the dirt. We onlyhad thirty minutes to set up the tent and start a fire before the sun set, sohe was in a rush, ordering me around like we were deploying a militaryinstallation. I worked fast, but Mike’s news pressed down on my chest worsethan when Brent sat on me.
The wind whispered through thepines and aspen trees lining the back of our campsite. The leaves kept saying,“shush, shush, shush,” like they knew how messed up I felt. It didn’t make mehurt any less, but I did feel calmer about things. Maybe I could get throughthe weekend without a meltdown.
After the fire was blazing, UncleMike tried to pretend nothing had changed in the last hour. “All right! Hotdogs…whoever can catch his on fire first wins!”
I played along and got flameagefaster than he did; I was good at burning hot dogs. It tasted like crap thatway, though. When I chucked the half-eaten frank into the bushes, Mike’s slysmile told me I’d been punked. Yet again. “You just like to see me try to eatashes, is that it?”
He raised his eyebrows beforegoing back to his perfectly roasted dinner. Just to spite him, I made two morehotdogs and scarfed down all the chips, too.
Before I had a chance to dig outsome marshmallows for s’mores, the air turned sharp and the wind gusted coldinto the campfire, sending up sparks. Uncle Mike rose to his feet, with anintense, alert expression I’d never seen before—like he could eat a brick andenjoy the crunch.
Without looking at me, he said,“Weather’s changing; best to get inside the tent, where it’s warmer.”
With nothing else to do, we packedit in for the night. Mike didn’t allow me to bring a cell phone or anythingelse electronic on our trips. I could’ve played cards or something, but beingoutside always made me tired and I went to sleep early because, yes, I’m justthat exciting. On the plus side, I had the craziest dream: Ella Mitchellditched her boyfriend for me. That wasn’t weird—that was plain, old wishfulthinking. The weird part was that she hopped up on stage during assembly andstole the microphone from Principal Stevens to do it. Then I ran down the aisleto thunderous applause, swept her in my arms and….
“Get back!” Mike yelled.
I sat up in surprise to seeshadows moving across the tent’s walls. One shadow was Mike’s, distorted in thebright moonlight. The other…heck if I knewwhatit was.Bulky, taller than Mike by a long shot, it grunted and snorted like an angrypig. Was it a bear? I rubbed my eyes and squinted. No, definitely not a bear.The thing was much too big and shuffled along on two legs.
When it roared, it didn’t soundlike any animal I’d ever heard, but more like a bulldozer’s engine. Every hairon my scalp stood up. Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t natural.
The two shadows circled oneanother, then the beast swiped at Mike’s head and he went down hard. Thecreature dropped on all fours, snuffling at my uncle. Even in shadowed outline,I could see claws to rival a velociraptor’s as it raised a paw over Mike’schest.
I clambered to my knees, yankingopen the zipper to my sleeping bag. “No!”
It paused and lowered its paw,turning its body toward the tent. Oh crap—now it knew I was here.
I watched the creature’s shadowget bigger and bigger as it headed my way. It didn’t creep. It didn’t barreltoward me. It strolled, like it wasn’t the least bit worried about what itwould find inside the tent. Terrified or not, something about its arrogance filledme with cold fury. My muscles burned and my heart beat double-time; I probablydidn’t have a prayer, but I wasn’t going down without a fight. I sure as hellwasn’t going to sit by and let this thing kill my uncle.
Uncle Mike usually brought a riflewith him, just in case we met a bear, and he’d made sure I could use it. I dugaround in our bags, throwing clothes everywhere, but the rifle wasn’t in thetent. The only thing I came up with was a wicked-looking knife with a smoothbone handle. I pulled it out of the leather sheath, shocked by its weight. Itwas much heavier than it looked and my fingers buzzed, like the knife wasvibrating in my hand. I must’ve been shaking really hard.
I gripped the handle of the knife,hoping I didn’t end up stabbing myself by accident. The blade was longer thanmost hunting-knives I’d ever used—maybe eight or nine inches—and honed to asharp edge. I had no idea where Mike would buy something like this, but onething was for sure: no one would want to be on the receiving end of thisweapon. It looked like it could gut a buffalo.
The creature walked the perimeterof the tent, brushing up against the nylon, and a rancid scent wafted throughthe walls. I gagged and threw up a little in my mouth. The stench reminded meof how the vent in my room smelled after my guinea pig got loose and bought thefarm in the air duct. Seriously freaked out, I held still, clutching the knifeso hard my knuckles ached. I was planning to let the beast stalk around outsideas long as it wanted. One thing Mike taught me during paintball was to makeyour target do the work. If you could be patient, you’d get the better strike,and I’d only have one shot.
The beast paused and I took a gulpof cold air, knowing I wouldn’t have to wait much longer. With a blur of claws,dark fur and sharp teeth, the thing crashed into the tent, ripping the nylonwith one slash. I didn’t have time to think or even get a good look at it. Whenit pounced on top of me, I thrust the blade into its stomach and twisted. The handleburned in my hand, glowing a faint green.
The beast howled and struggledagainst me, until I thought I’d drown in the reek of its fur. Somehow, Isquirmed out from underneath it just before it collapsed on the floor of thetent. Once it was down, I stabbed it in the back, over and over, swearing atthe top of my lungs. Some kind of red-rage took control, and I didn’t stopuntil the thing shuddered and was still.
In the quiet, I fell to my knees,shaking all over.
When I could finally breathewithout wheezing, I gathered up the last shreds of my courage and found ourlantern in the wreckage. Scared pissless or not, I wanted to see what attackedme. Squaring my shoulders, I turned on the light.
Then bit my own tongue trying tohold back a scream.
The creature was misshapen, with ahuge head, pointy ears and narrow snout, and it had to be at least eight feettall. Teeth like tusks protruded from its lower jaw. It had brown fur like agrizzly’s and its paws looked like a bear’s too, except bigger, with thosebrutal, velociraptor claws. If that wasn’t weird enough, the thing’s arms andlegs were long, like a man’s. It was like some mad scientist threw a bunch ofDNA into a blender andthisis what came out.
What the heck could it be? Was itsome kind of alien? A scientific experiment gone horribly wrong? Did we have aDr. Frankenstein living in Billings? Seriously, the creature looked like aresurrected Wookiee made from spare parts.
Utterly creeped out, I pulled theknife out of the beast’s back and dropped it on the ground. My hands had bloodon them, dark stains glistening in the moonlight, and now that I wasn’tfighting for my life, I shivered, half-freezing and clueless about what to donext.
Someone groaned outside.
I scrambled out of the tent,fighting my way free of the shredded nylon to find Mike. He lay crumpled in aheap just past the fire ring. Shallow claw marks had ripped through his flannelshirt, but not his undershirt or skin, and his forehead had only a small gashat the hairline. We’d been lucky.
“Uncle Mike, wake up!” I shookhim. Fear thudded in my chest at a random thought. What if there were morecreatures out here? “Come on, wake up!”
Mike groaned again and rolled ontohis side. “I’ll take a quad Venti Latte.”
I shook him again, hoping his brainshadn’t been scrambled by that punch to the head. He blinked, looked around,then sat up and grabbed my arm in a vice grip. “Where is it, Matt? Did it hurtyou? How’d you get away?”
“It’s dead, in what’s left of thetent.” I swallowed hard, realizing what I’d just said. “I killed it.”
Mike didn’t freak out; he didn’teven act surprised. “How?”
“I found a knife in your bag,” Isaid. “I-I stabbed it.”
And with that, I jumped up and ranto the bushes to throw up. Oh, my God…I killed something. I’d never killedanything, except flies, and those don’t count. Holy crap, what was happeningout here? What were those things? I heaved again, unable to stop my mind fromreplaying the scene over and over and over.
When I was done puking, Mike puthis hands on my shoulders and steered me toward the Jeep. “Get in; we’releaving. Be right back.”
I climbed into my seat, staringstraight ahead, seeing nothing but the underside of the beast and my handthrusting the knife into its gut. Flashes of light danced in front of my eyesand I broke out in a cold sweat. Having never fainted, I wasn’t sure if I wasabout to or not. Either way, better safe than sorry, so I put my head betweenmy knees. I caught a whiff of the creature—its smell was all over myclothes—and I had to pop the door and barf again.
Mike ran to the Jeep and got in.All he had was our backpacks, his GPS and the white-handled knife.
“What about the tent and ourgear?” I croaked while wiping puke off my chin with a trembling hand.
“We don’t need anything else, andwe’ve got to get out of here. I rolled the carcass down a ravine and threw somedead brush on top of it.” He slammed the Jeep in reverse and laid tread,peeling out from the parking slot. “Hopefully no one will find it before...”
“Before what?” I asked.
Mike shook his head. He drove afew miles, not saying anything, then pulled over at a rest stop. By then, blackspots were dancing in front of my eyes again and my skull felt too heavy for myneck. When he parked, Mike reached over and slapped me pretty hard. My head hitthe headrest and I brought my hand up to my cheek in a daze.
“Matt! Stay with me. We’ve got alot to cover and I need you to focus,” he said. He blew out a harsh breath. “Ican’t believe the knife let you wield it.”
I blinked fast to clear my vision,not understanding a word he said. “What?”
“You remember when I went on thatshort mission last year?”
Mike’s voice had a steeliness toit. Freaked out or not, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like where this washeaded. I gulped and cleared my throat; my mouth tasted all skanky. It was allI could do to keep from throwing up again, so I just nodded in answer.
“I got sent to South America—toPeru—on a highly classified mission,” he said. “People started disappearing andthe local government asked the U.S. to send some specialists down there tocheck it out. What we found was pretty surprising.”
How this had anything to do withgiant beasts in the woods of Montana was beyond me. “What did you find?”
Uncle Mike clamped his hands tothe steering wheel. “Turns out monsters are real.”Chapter Two
“If a monster falls in the forestand someone hears it, does that make it real?” I asked, my voice trembling.
“Bad joke, Chief.”
I drew a long, ragged breath andran my hands over my head until my fingers slid into sticky spots in my hair. Ishuddered and wiped my palms on my pants. “So, if monsters are real, why’d youget weird about the knife? Seems like we have bigger problems than the fact Iused whatever was handy to kill it.”
Uncle Mike stared intently out thewindshield. “Let’s go back to my apartment. I feel exposed out here, like we’rebeing watched. I’ll tell you more when we get there.”
I glanced around the woodssurrounding the rest stop. The darkness seemed absolute. Not even thestreetlights could penetrate it. “Yeah. Good idea.”
Mike pulled onto the highway.Instead of going to the suburbs, he took me to downtown Billings, where hisloft was. His two-story apartment was all open except for the bathroom, withbare ceiling joists and a stained-concrete floor—a real guy’s place. What Iloved most about it was that his bedroom was on a wooden-floored platformupstairs with rails around it, like he had a giant, floating bunk bed. Tonight,though, the dark corners gave me a chill and I wished I was more surrounded bywalls.
“Why don’t you get cleaned up.I’ll make some hot chocolate or something. Don’t think either of us is planningto sleep any time soon,” Mike said, shoving me gently toward the bathroom.
I locked the door behind me andleaned against it, taking some time to breathe before I got in the shower. I’dkilled something. With a knife. I stabbed it in the gut, gotten splattered withits blood, then stabbed it some more like I’d been sky-high on meth. What hadgotten into me? I never even shot at birds with my BB gun, for God’s sake.
I felt myself starting to lose it, so I turned on theshower, willing myself to forget. But when I pulled my shirt over my head, thesmell of monster filled the air and I hurled again. Hard to believe there wasanything left in my stomach.
Mental note: no more tacos forlunch. Ever.
While I waited for the water toget hot, I brushed the dust out of my hair, which had turned the brown a dirtygray. Then there were the glistening patches of slippery goo. My jeans werestreaked and stained with similar stuff and weird patches the color of darkmustard coated my hands.
It was monster-blood. And itwasn’t red.
Startled, I caught my eyes in themirror. They were full of horror and something else, a hardness, like UncleMike’s eyes. They were still blue, though. After everything that had happened,I kinda thought they might’ve turned green. I stepped back from the mirror andalmost fell into the bathtub.
That shocked me back into mysenses. Freaking wouldn’t help. Time to get a grip before I hurt myself.
I stripped off the rest myclothes, thinking about throwing them out the window to get rid of the stink,but I wasn’t sure how I’d explain the missing outfit to Mom. Instead, I took atrash bag out of the cabinet and stuffed everything in. It didn’t help. Evenafter double-bagging everything, the odor still seeped through, so I gave itup.
Once in the shower, I scrubbed myhands raw, feeling like the blood would never come off. Tears ran down my face,but I pretended it was just the shower water. Monster-killers don’t cry.
“Chief, you okay in there?” Mikesaid, sounding worried. “I have hot chocolate. Why don’t you come on out?”
I dried off and dressed in cleansweats from my backpack. Finding no other way to delay what I was about tohear, I opened the door, heading for the two-person dining table at the farside of the loft. Mike had changed clothes, too, and he must’ve cleaned up atthe kitchen sink because his hair was wet. It had grown out since his lastdeployment, curling up a little in the back. Too long for the Army…he’d have tobuzz it down soon. That thought didn’t improve my mood.
I took my seat across from Mikeand snorted a laugh. “NiceG.I. JoeBand-Aids, man.”
Mike touched his forehead. “Idon’t have any grown-up Band-Aids. I bought these for you when you were nine,remember?”
“You haven’t bought Band-Aids infive years?” I rolled my eyes. “Uncle Mike, you need a girlfriend or a wife.Then you’d have real Band-Aids and more in the fridge than skim milk and beerand limes.”
“Given the type of life I lead,girlfriends lose patience with me real quick. Kinda hard to get married if youcan’t keep a girlfriend.” He pushed a ceramic mug filled with hot chocolateover to me. “Drink half of that. Then, we’ll talk.”
He must have heard the samenonsense Mom had about warm milk being soothing. I took a few sips to satisfyMike, wishing I had marshmallows because it tasted bland, then set the mugdown. I was still completely wired, though; the cup hit the wooden tabletopwith a smash and I sloshed hot chocolate all over my hand.
I mopped up the spill, hoping hedidn’t see how my hands were shaking. “Maybe you should talk now.”
He rubbed his eyes, looking reallytired. He needed a shave and, for the first time, I could see flecks of gray inhis beard. It had never occurred to me that Mike might be getting older.
“So, last fall I went on thatmission,” he said. “We were sent to investigate disappearances from villageslining the edge of the rainforest. After asking around, we got a similar storyfrom all of them. Something was creeping out of the jungle at night andsnatching people from their beds. They never found any remains—the victimsvanished.”
“No bones? No nothing?”
“Nothing. Not a trace,” Mike said.“We set observation posts at three villages. We had night-vision goggles,heat-sensing cameras, the works. We were also armed to the teeth. No way wasthis thing getting past us.”
“So what’d you find?” I asked.
“A nightmare,” Mike said. “Thisgiant lizard came stalking out of the jungle, walking upright on its back legs.The creature was nine feet tall from snout to feet, and its tail was anotherfour feet long—it looked like an alligator from Mars. The guys I was with? We’dall seen things that would make a normal person pass out. When that thingshowed up, two of them ran screaming.”
The thing was terrifying enough tosend two soldiers in the Special Forces running? “What happened to them?”
Mike shook his head fast, like hewas trying to shake the memory from his brain. “The monster grabbed one. Weblasted that lizard with everything we had, but it didn’t do any good. Bulletsbounced right of its hide, and Seranto disappeared, just like the rest. Wedidn’t find anything but his helmet and his boots.”
“Oh.” My voice had changed when Iwas twelve, but you wouldn’t have known it by how high I squeaked.
“We got pictures of the creature,though. The scientists at the Pentagon interviewed us, but no one had any cluewhat it was. So on the third day, we decided to scorch part of the jungle;that’s how terrified we were. No one likes to see rainforest go up in smoke,but we were coming unglued. While we planned where to have the bombs dropped, amedicine man from one of the local tribes came to us.” Mike smiled. “Shocker—hespoke English.”
“Was he mad you were going to burndown the forest?”
“He was kind of peeved, yes, butthat’s not why he came,” Mike said. “He knew about the lizard. He called it amonster and said he could help us.”
A strange thrill ran down my back.“The knife…”
“Yes, Matt, the knife. That knifeis special. The medicine man made five of them, and told us they had powerfulmagic,” he said. “Most of us thought it was a crock until we picked one up. I’msure you know what I mean.”
I looked down at the fist clenchedin my lap. “It vibrated in my hand. And the handle turned green when I stabbedthe monster.”
“Well, there’s more,” Mike said.“It doesn’t always do that. The knife selects who can wield it. Some of theguys on my team couldn’t feel anything. When I picked it up, my entire armbuzzed and the handle turned bright blue. After that I could hack a tree branchin half with just one swing of the blade. The knives only reacted to threeother guys on my team, so the medicine man gave them to us. He said we’d needthem because ‘dark creatures’ would invade all corners of the earth. He keptthe last one, to protect his people.”
I had a bad feeling about what I’dhear, but I had to ask anyway. “What’s up with the knives, then? I get thatthey’re magic, but why?”
“I can’t tell you anything else.The knives’ origin and workmanship is classified,” Mike said. “I probablyshouldn’t have told you this much, but given the circumstances....Look, let metalk to my superior officer. I have to call him to apprise him of the situationhere, schedule disposal of the monster’s body. I’ll ask if I can get youclearance. Since you killed one, there are things you ought to know, but I’mnot the one to tell you. Not yet.”
Great. I blew out an annoyedbreath before asking, “Did you kill the Gator-thing?”
“Yeah. The three of us with kniveshid in the brush, waiting at various points near the tree line. It happened tocome out on my end. I jumped the creature from behind and put the knife in itsneck. I had to slit its throat before it dropped.” Mike’s forehead was creased.“I take the knife everywhere. Better to have it and not need it, right?”
“But why didn’t you have ittonight? It was right there in the tent!” I said.
“The thing was creeping aroundoutside, so I felt around for the knife, trying to be quiet, and caught hold ofthe sheath. When I got outside, I realized I’d grabbed my hunting knifeinstead,” Mike said. His face turned red. “By then, the monster had spotted me,so I had to fight with what I had. I was trying to distract it, to keep it fromfinding you.”
“But it would have killed you!”
“Better me than you, Matt.”
Mike’s voice sounded hoarse andthick. I looked away and slurped down the rest of my cocoa, gross or not,because I sure didn’t want to watch a grown man cry. After a minute he wipedhis eyes, then got the knife out of his backpack. He put it on the table andpulled it from its leather sheath.
Mike laid the knife flat againsthis palm, like he was weighing it in his hand. Without looking at me, he put itback on the table.
“Pick it up, Matt.”
Picking up that knife was the lastdamn thing I wanted to do, but one look at Uncle Mike’s face told me to get onwith it. I reached out and wrapped my fingers around the bone handle. It glowedblue, then buzzed in my hand.
“What does this mean?” Iwhispered. I knew already, but hearing it from someone else would make it real.
Mike gave me a steady look. “Itmeans the knife belongs to you now.”
“Let me get this straight. We have magic knives andmonsters, and I’ve been chosen by your knife.” But to do what, exactly? Alittle worm of fear twisted in my gut, and I put my head down on my arms,trying to understand what I’d gotten myself into.
“Yourknife. Not mine, not anymore.” Mike’s voice held a weird trace of awe. “Theblade left me, Matt. I don’t understand how it happened, but you’re itswielder.”
Mike’s reaction bothered me…was he saying I would be stuckwith the knife? For how long? The worm of fear grew into a salamander, chasingits tail around my insides. The reverence in Mike’s tone disturbed me, too,like I’d done something spectacular rather than accidental. None of it madesense.
“I don’t get it,” I said into my arms, refusing to face him.“Why would it pick me? I’m only fourteen!”
“I don’t know, but it did, and there’s no turning back.Unless the knife passes to someone else, it’s your burden,” he said. “Matt,you’re a monster-hunter now.”
A monster-hunter? Was he serious? My head popped up from thetable.
“What’s Mom gonna say?” I asked. “We’re talking about awoman who carries a full-sized first aid kit in her purse. I doubt she’ll allowme to become some knife-wielding vigilante.”
Mike jumped up and paced around the tiny kitchen. “We can’ttell your mom. Dani would never let you hunt if she found out. The dangers aretoo great. She’d have a hard time understanding we have no choice in thematter, and she wouldn’t let you risk yourself.”
“So I have to kill monsters, and I can’t tell Mom about it.Could this get any more complicated?”
Why did the stupid knife pick me? I was a totally averageninth grader—I didn’t want be a hunter, fighting monsters on my own. All Iwanted was to learn about Gettysburg and hope that Ella smiled at me once in awhile.
“It’ll be okay, Matt,” Mike said. “We’ll just have to figureout what to do. I only have six weeks to get you trained up and running beforeI deploy.”
“No, you can’t leave. You have to stay and help me with theknife.” I glared at him. To heck with Uncle Sam.Myuncle was staying put.
“Sorry, man, that’s not possible,” he said. “I thought ofsomething that might help you, though.”
“It better be good.”
“You have fall break in a week, right?” Mike asked.
“I’ll take you to Fort Carson. We’re going to put youthrough basic.”
“Wait,” I said, “isn’t that the part where you have to getup at five every morning to run ten miles then do a hundred pushups?”
“Two hundred. Before breakfast.” His mouth curved up on oneside. “Matt, you’re in the Army now.”
* * *
I woke up Saturday morning with a nasty taste in mymouth—hot chocolate and puke. I rolled over, sliding and squeaking on Mike’sblack leather couch, and had to peel my left arm away from the cushions. Thegrain of the leather was imprinted on my skin. On top of that, Mike only hadtwo extra blankets, one of them looking like it’d never been used, and sincewe’d deserted our sleeping bags at the camp grounds, I’d ended up freezing mybutt off most of the night. These are the dangers of sleeping over at a bachelor’shouse.
“He needs a girlfriend,” I grumbled.
Mike responded by snoring like a T-Rex upstairs. It was onlynine and we’d talked until four. Old guys needed more sleep, so I let him be,heading off to brush my fuzzy teeth. That was a grosser process than normal, soI threw my toothbrush away afterward, hoping it wouldn’t crawl out of thetrashcan on its own.
Puke-fest overnight or not, it was breakfast time, and mystomach growled right on cue. I went to the kitchen, searched every cabinet andonly came up with a bottle opener, two cans of chili, and cocktail onions.
“You need a girlfriend, Mike,” I said, a little louder thistime.
He came down the stairs, the wooden steps creaking under hisweight, still wearing flannel pj bottoms and an old t-shirt with some cartooncalledRen and Stimpyon it.
“I’ll keep that in mind. What’cha looking for?”
“Cereal or something else normal for breakfast,” I said.
Mike dug the skim milk out of the fridge and sniffed it. Hedidn’t make a face, so it must’ve still been good. After pouring two glasses ofmilk, he dumped in some grey powder and stirred it up.
“Bottoms up,” he said, thrusting the glass at me.
“Chocolate milk? How old is that stuff? It looks like dust.”Sludge floated around in my glass. “You know, Mom’ll kill you with a fork ifyou poison me.”
Mike’s face got serious. “It’s a protein shake. We’ve got toput a little muscle on you. No more cereal, Matt. You need to eat like a man.”
A cold bead of sweat ran down my back. “You meant it…lastnight. I’m really going to basic, and I’m really gonna have to kill monsters.”
Mike nodded. “Drink up. Then we’ll talk about a fitnessregimen.”
“Uncle Mike, this is just stupid. Brent’s the jock,” I said.“I can run fast; that’s about it.”
Mike put his shake down on the counter and looked me squarein the eyes. “Everything happens for a reason. The knife chose you on purpose,which means you can do this. You have to.”
His expression was pride mixed with worry, but mostly pride.
I chugged the whole nasty shake in one go.
* * *
We pulled into my driveway just after two on Saturday, theJeep’s tires splashing in puddles from a sudden rainstorm. Mom had alreadyturned on the porch light. It glowed against the red brick walls and the oakfront door cheerfully, like my house was welcoming me. Dodging the rain drops,I ran with my backpack over my head to the porch. The air smelled damp, likemoldy leaves. Like fall and home. After everything I’d been through, I washappy to be here.
“You’re home early,” Mom said as I straggled through thefront door.
Thank goodness for the rain. “Yeah, it was too muddy tohike,” I said. “I left my camping stuff at Mike’s to dry out.”
Mike followed me in. “Dani, gotta sec? I need to talk to youabout fall break.”
We trooped through the entry into the living room. Mom sankonto the couch sitting closest to the fireplace. She patted the seat next toher. I took a load off and she put her arm around my shoulders. She’d laid afire, and we listened to the logs crackle while waiting for Mike to settle downin the matching recliner. It took him a while; he always fidgeted when he wasgetting ready to roll out some lies.
Like Mike had said last night, he didn’t plan to tell Momabout the monsters. He tried to justify that by explaining that dudes inspecial forces didn’t reallylie.They had cover stories.
Yeah, right. Tell that to the bobbing recliner and mytwitchy uncle.
Finally Uncle Mike got comfortable enough to speak. “I wasthinking I could take Matt to Colorado for a big hike. He’s old enough for someserious rappelling and I’d love it.”
My older brother appeared at the door to the kitchen,holding a peanut butter sandwich in each hand. Brent’s shoulders nearly filledthe doorway. I stared thoughtfully at the hulk, getting an idea…Mike said toeat like a man. Okay, Whatever Brent ate, I would, too.
Brent glared at us. “Hey, what about me? I like to rappel.”
My understanding was that seventeen-year-olds aren’tsupposed to whine. Brent did it anyway. He cocked his perfectly square head toone side—an amazing feat since he had almost no neck after all his weighttraining—and squinted suspiciously at us, like we were dissing him on purpose.Uncle Mike shot me a glance, and I saw him tense a little. We hadn’t counted onFootball Hero being in the way.
“I already took you out for your birthday,” Mike said. “Tothat concert in Helena, remember? This is an early birthday gift for Matt.”
Brent put his sandwiches on the coffee table without anapkin under them, ignoring Mom’s glare, and flopped on the couch hard enoughthat I caught air on the wave. “I get an overnighter, and he gets a week? Nicefavoritism, Unc.” Giving Mike a seriously dirty look, he said, “Why can’t I gowith you guys?”
So Mike let the shoe drop. Just not about the monsters.
“I’m shipping out in December. Fort Carson first, then on toAfghanistan in January. I seem to remember taking you on a big hike when youwere fifteen. Just in case I take a bullet or get stuck over there for twoyears, I thought it’d be nice to make sure Matt got his turn.”
Mom’s gasp drowned out Brent’s stuttered apology and mysister flew around the corner from the entryway. Mamie’s face was pale; she’dcaught the news, too. Mike had done a good job diverting Brent’s attention…andeveryone else’s.
Mom raked her hands across her head, spiking up her short,brown hair into a porcupine-like mess. “Upstairs, everyone. Now.”
Whenever Mom’s voice sounded like that, we moved, and todaywas no exception. The three of us climbed the stairs as fast as we could. Brentslammed his bedroom door before we could say a thing, so Mamie followed me intomy room.
“Afghanistan? For a year?” she whispered.
Mamie twirled one of her brown pigtails around her finger,her classic nervous tic, and burst into tears. I hated watching Mamie cry. Eventhough she wasn’t quite sixteen yet, she was the most together person in ourfamily and seeing her upset threw off the balance of my universe. Brent teasedher like crazy and I pulled silly pranks on her all the time, but the truth waseither of us would jump in front of a train for her. Something about beingsandwiched between two brothers ensured she’d have lifelong protection. It alsomeant the shy kid in her Latin class would never, ever,everask her out.
Feeling like the older brother in this scenario—even thoughI only came up to her eyebrows—I patted her on the back. “C’mon, Mamie, don’tcry. It’ll be okay.”
“I’m sorry, Matt. I know this is harder on you than the restof us. You’re Mike’s favorite, and I don’t mean that in a rude way, like Brentdoes. I’m glad, actually, since Dad isn’t around.” She pulled off her glassesto wipe her eyes, giving me what she probably thought was a brave smile. “I’msure it’ll be fine. We just have to keep believing that.”
A knock on the door interrupted us. Mike stuck his head in.“Hey, Daisy May, can I talk to Matt a minute? I’m staying for dinner; we’llhave a chance to visit more then.”
The use of her nickname made Mamie tear up again, but shenodded and drifted off to her room. I flopped down onto my bed and played withmy pillow. Mike looked serious, but I wanted to pretend everything was normal.Too bad we couldn’t.
“Dani said I could take you to Colorado,” he said. “We’llleave next Friday. It’s a ten-hour drive to Fort Carson so I’ll check you outof school before noon. We won’t drive back until the following Sunday to get afull week of training in.”
I’d never been to a Fort anything, and barracks were acomplete mystery. Would I be able to get network coverage there? The idea ofbeing without my phone or an internet connection for a week made me twitchy.“What do I bring?”
Mike winked. “Your camo, of course.”
* * *
Mike stayed for dinner and Mom fussed over him a lot. Thatdidn’t stop her from nagging me about eating my asparagus, though. And shewasn’t the only one checking out what I ate.
“Dude, your guts are gonna explode if you eat any moremeatloaf,” Brent said. “Leave some for the rest of us.”
Mamie glanced at me. “Matt, I thought you hated meatloaf.”
I shook my head, cheeks so full of the disgusting stuff Iwasn’t sure I could open my mouth without hurling. After a huge swallow and agagging shiver, I said, “No, I like meatloaf just fine.”
Mamie’s eyes narrowed, but Mom got to me first. “You must begrowing, sweetheart. There goes my grocery bill. Two teenage boys in the houseis going to bankrupt me.” She smiled. “I better start buying more peanutbutter.”
That was the rule. When Mom came home from work three yearsago to find that Brent had cleaned out the fridge only two days after her lastshopping trip, she’d laid down what we all called the “snack law.” If it wasn’tmealtime, we could eat all the peanut butter sandwiches we wanted. Nothingelse, unless she said okay. Mom said it was a cost-saving measure, but I thinkshe was just pissed that Brent ate all the cheese along with her hidden stashof M&Ms.
Mamie continued to watch me. She had one eyebrow raised andthat little half-smile on her face—the one that meant she was on the trail.Despite Brent saying she lived with her nose in a book, Mamie saw and heardeverythingaroundher. She was also smart enough to figure out any puzzle. I’d have to be morecareful.
After Mike left, Mom called a family conference. She settledus down around the glass-topped coffee table in the living room like she wasconducting a client meeting.
“We need to spend the next few months showing Mike how muchwe love him, okay? That means not putting demands on his time unlessheoffers,” Momsaid. “I’m also going to plan a surprise party. We’ll have it right before heleaves for Fort Carson. And let’s think about ideas for care boxes to send him.We can send one a month, with pictures, snacks and notes from home. If we mailone before he leaves, he’ll get it a few days after he arrives at base.”
We nodded and Mom started handing out assignments. “I knowit’s going to be hard without him here. We’re going to have to pull together.Brent—you’ll need to be more of a big brother and less of a liege-lord, gotit?”
“Sure, Mom, whatever,” Brent said. I figured he gave in soeasily because he was still embarrassed about sounding like an jerk to UncleMike.
Mom turned to me next. “Matt…well, just hang in there forme, okay?”
I smiled and saluted, and Mom laughed. “Mamie, sweetheart,can you keep an eye out for Matt if I have to work late?”
“Mom, I don’t need a babysitter,” I said. What, did shethink I was seven? Mamie was only sixteen months older than me and was scaredof crickets. How didsheget appointed to be my minder?
“I’ll watch him day and night,” Mamie said, giving me a slyglance.
I forced myself not to cringe, for fear Mamie would take itas another clue. Seriously, could this be any worse? Mom had just guaranteedthat my cover would be blown in short order.Chapter Four
Sunday passed in a blur of glum faces and soggy rain. Afterbrunch, Brent headed to his girlfriend’s and probably spent the afternoonmaking out, which meant he was the only one of us with a shot at a smile. Mamiehid behind a book, re-readingA Wrinkle in Timefor the umpteenth time in the recliner bythe living room window. While she was occupied with something other thanwatching me, I headed to my room.
I felt compelled to take a look at the knife without Mikehovering behind me, wearing his troubled frown. He doubted I’d need to use ituntil I’d been through some training, but we both felt it should be closer toits wielder.
I’d hidden it in the pocket of an old backpack stowed in thedepths of my closet. When I retrieved it and laid it on my bed it hummed,almost happily, when I touched it. The white bone handle was a little smallerthan a carving knife’s, and worn smooth, without markings of any kind. Thebrown leather sheath had been stitched with thick twine and fit the knifesnugly, allowing a wielder to draw the knife fast without the fear of the bladefalling out on its own. The blade itself wasn’t shiny—the metal had a bronzetint to it—and it measured nine inches from where it joined the handle to itsrazor-sharp tip. Clearly the knife had been designed with one purpose, as aweapon. And a badass weapon at that.
A little shudder ran down my spine. If I was going to wieldthis blade, I had work to do.
Mike had given me a list of exercises to start on, and Ineeded Brent’s weight set, so I sneaked across the hall. His weights were on astand in the corner of his room, but how he used them was beyond me. Therewasn’t a single spot on the floor, except for a trail from the door to the bed,that didn’t have clothes, cleats or other junk dumped on it. I picked my waythrough the mine field and grabbed a pair of twenty-pound dumbbells, thinkingI’d just take them to my room since I kept my floor somewhat clean.
Mistake. My arms dropped to the ground and my knucklesdragged like a gorilla’s. Maybe the twenty pounders were too much for the firstday.
I exchanged the twenties for the ten-pound weights. I couldcarry the tens without drooping, so I shuffled back to my room. Even with mylast growth spurt, I was only five-four and a hundred and seven pounds; twentypounds was nearly a fifth of my weight. I felt proud of myself until I noticedthe dumbbells had dust on them. Brent hadn’t used these little ones for a longtime.
DNA was a weird thing–all of us had the same smallish noseas Mom, and dark “Archer blue” eyes from our deadbeat dad. But our builds werecompletely different. Mamie was thin, like Mom, and a little taller than herfriends. I was on the small side, hitting below the fiftieth percentile on thestupid growth charts they use at the doctor’s office. Brent was the hulk of thefamily, a good ten inches taller than me and double my weight, all of it muscleand bone. For the nineteenth time, I wondered why the knife pickedme.
Thirty minutes of weight training was harder than itsounded, and it had sounded pretty hard in the first place. I worked out mybiceps, my triceps, my delts and a whole bunch of other muscles I didn’trealize I had. When I was done, my legs and arms felt like gummy worms.Exhausted, I curled up on my bed huffing and puffing.
“Hey! Who’s been in my room?” Brent yelled.
I bolted upright and regretted it when my head spun. Theweights were by my closet door, six feet from my bed, but I didn’t think Icould crawl across the room to hide them.
Brent flung my bedroom door open without knocking. “I knowyou were in there. What did you take this time?”
“Just your weights.” I pointed at the dumbbells, too tiredto lie. “Uncle Mike said I needed to do some weight training, you know, put onsome muscle.”
Brent paused in his attack, looking surprised. “Really?” Hesmirked. “I guess wimps have to start somewhere. Besides, a little musclewouldn’t kill you.”
He turned to leave and bumped right into Mamie. “Hey, LatinClub Princess, you’re liable to get run over if you don’t watch traffic.”
“Being an all-state strong, uh, safely doesn’t mean you cantackle people at home,” Mamie said, crossing her arms. “Have some manners, youNeanderthal.”
I’m not sure Brent understood what “Neanderthal” meant buthe could tell she was insulting him. “It’s strongsafety, genius.”
They glared at each other. Finally, Brent snorted and wentto his room, slamming the door like usual.
“Ugh, he’s loud,” Mamie said. “Why did Uncle Mike tell youto do some weight training?”
Crap, Sherlock had a clue. “He wants me to build up somemuscle for the rappelling trip.”
Her forehead wrinkled, making her glasses slip down hernose. “Is that why you’ve been eating so much? I know you hate meatloaf; Icould tell you were lying last night. And you ate about forty pancakes atbrunch today. Are you trying to gain weight?”
“Um, yeah,” I said. Not original, but that’s all I couldthink of.
“Matt, a week’s not enough time to gain much muscle.” Mamiegot her mother-hen voice on. “Is someone bullying you at school? If they are,I’ll ask Mom to talk to Mrs. Stevens.” That was her solution for everything.You have a problem? Tell an adult.
“No—school’s fine.” I said. “Uncle Mike told me it’s a goodidea, that’s all.”
“I promised Mom I’d keep an eye on you. Remember that.” Shegave me another long stare, then marched off to her room. She didn’t slam thedoor.
The next morning, I rolled out of bed, sore all over. Thatmust’ve been why Mike said to stretch after working out. A hot shower helpedsome. After I threw on a semi-clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt, I stumbleddown to breakfast ready to get this week over with so I could go to Coloradowith Mike. Mamie sat at the kitchen table, reading the paper, still in herrobe. She was always up as early as Mom. I didn’t know another girl who got upearly to read the news, from an honest-to-God newspaper, no less. Mamie wassick that way.
“Mom, listen to this.” Mamie pushed her glasses higher up onher nose. “‘The remains of newlyweds John and Marcia Carroll were discovered byPark Rangers on Sunday. While authorities aren’t providing many details, anunnamed source says they believe it to be a bear attack due to the nature ofthe injuries the couple sustained.’” Mamie turned to me. “Matt, the attackhappened in the same park where you and Mike were camping. Good thing you camehome early!”
Mom took the paper from Mamie. “Oh my gosh. I’ll need totell Mike. I don’t want you camping near any crazy grizzlies.”
Up to this point, I’d been shoveling eggs into my mouth anddrinking my milk as fast as I could. When Mom and Mamie both looked at me,freaked out, I had a hard time gulping down my last bite.
I had a hunch it wasn’t animals, which meant the creature Istabbed wasn’t the only one roaming the woods. Just knowing something was outthere killing hikers made me realize how important it was that I did everythingMike told me for the next few months.
And that included not letting Mom or Mamie know there weremonsters in Montana.
* * *
“Archer, what areyoulooking at?”
Carter Jacobs had everything I didn’t: awesome basketballskills, a dad who spent time with him and Ella Mitchell, the Goddess ofGreenhill High School. He played center for the varsity team and towered overnearly everyone but the seniors. I only came up to his chin. It was a real pityhis locker was five down from mine, and Ella’s was seven. I didn’t have aprayer of checking her out without being busted.
Carter’s blond hair fell into his eyes as he leaned over me,fists clenched. This was the closest to a fight I’d been in two years. I kindof deserved it, though. Ella had caught me looking—and hadsmiled back.After that, I didn’t reallycare if Carter killed me, because I could take that smile from Ella to mygrave.
“Pick on someone your own size, Jacobs,” a voice behind mesaid.
I stood up a little taller. Will always showed up right ontime. Carter frowned as my best friend stared him down. Already five-eleven,and with black hair and square shoulders, Will intimidated pretty mucheveryone, especially since he was fast and moved better than you’d expect for abig guy. Most people didn’t know he was a gentle giant. He’d creamed too manyquarterbacks for anyone to believe that—so many, in fact, the JV football teamcalled him Crusher. It was a play on his last name, Cruessan, and it gave him ahallway cred that kept me from getting too banged up by guys like Carter. Thatshould’ve been Brent’s job, but he was too cool to care what happened to hiskid brother.
“So,” Will growled, “you gonna let me hand your butt to you,or are you gonna turn around and forget this happened?”
Carter swore under his breath. “Whatever.” He pointed afinger at my chest. “Youkeep your eyes to yourself, got it?” He spun on his heel and strutted off,straightening his letter jacket in a really obvious way, as if there was asingle person left in the school who didn’t know he was a basketball star.
Will watched him go. “You know, he’s the reason I don’tbother wearing my jacket. He gives the rest of us a bad name.”
“Thanks for stopping by, dude,” I said. Will was such a goodfriend, it didn’t hurt my pride too much when he had to bail me out. “You knowhow he is about Ella. ‘Mine—back off.’ I don’t know why she puts up with it.”Girls were really strange sometimes.
“Some women like the caveman type,” Will said. “Or maybeit’s the older man thing. Having a sophomore for a boyfriend might be a thrillor something. I wouldn’t have thought Ella would be part of the Carter fanclub, but all the girls think he’s cute. I guess they don’t care that he’s anasshat.”
We walked to homeroom. In our eight years of friendship,this was the first class we’d had together since we were six. We must have cutup enough in first grade to get that little red sticker on our files that said“don’t put Archer with Cruessan.” Luckily, that warning hadn’t trickled upwardto high school.
I plopped my books on my desk, getting ready for a long,boring hour of algebra. Ella sat down in front of me, and I gazed at herperfect, dark red hair. It was long and a little curly and I had a feeling Icould get my hands lost in it, maybe while I…
“Mr. Archer, kindly tell us the answer to number seven,”Mrs. Burns said. Her pleasant smile said “caught you drooling, young man.”
“Um....” Number seven, crap, number seven. I scanned mybook, hoping for divine inspiration, because I didn’t even know which problemwasnumber seven.
God must’ve heard my prayers, though, because Ella held herhands behind her back. One had two fingers pointed up, and the other had threepointing down. Ella was good at math; I sure hoped that was a clue.
“Two-thirds?” I asked.
Mrs. Burns looked disappointed. “Correct. All right, clearyour desks. Quiz time.”
I managed to keep my head down and concentrate for the restof class. But only because I didn’t look at Ella. Or think about the lavenderv-neck t-shirt she had on. Or wish that she’d reach down to tie her shoe so Icould see if the v-neck gaped open any.
After the bell rang, she spun around in her desk to smile atme. She had a dimple on her right cheek and this dusting of freckles across hernose and when her green eyes caught me, I forgot my name.
“Matt, I’m so sorry for how Carter acted this morning,” shesaid. “He’s just in a bad mood because they lost their first game Friday.”
Will came up to us, waiting for me to get moving. “Ella, whydo you hang with Carter? He’s a turd.”
My face heated up. For all his protection skills, Will hadthe tact of a backhoe.
Ella crossed her arms. “Carter’s really nice once you get toknow him. Thoughtful, too.” She smiled, staring into space. “He gives me aflower every Friday and never blows me off when he says he’ll call. I thinkyou’d both like him if you hung out with us some.”
Will gave me this look that said, “Yeah, like I believethat.”
I needed to change the subject before he said anything outloud. “Hey, thanks for giving me the answer today, Ella. I’m, uh, a littletired and must’ve dozed off.”
While dreaming about you and me, alone in the supply closet.
“No problem,” she said. “Mrs. Burns is always trying to getthe jump on people—I like throwing her off. See you in history.”
Ella glided from the room, and her hips swung back and forthas she walked. I had to watch her go before I could gather up my own stuff.
Will smacked me on the back of the head with his binder.“There’s nothing to see here, citizen. Get a move on.”
I punched him in the arm. “Dude—‘he’s a turd?’ Are youkidding me?”
“Well, I was curious,” he said. “It still doesn’t makesense, but, whatever.”
I sighed. “Do you think I’ll ever have a chance with her?”
“It’s good to have a dream, man,” he said. “See you atlunch.”
Shouldering my backpack, I followed him out with my stomachdoing flips, not sure which was tougher to handle – a crush on Ella Mitchell,or a magic knife that killed monsters.
* * *
“You aren’t planning to eat all that, are you?” Will asked.
My tray was piled high with everything I could get my handson. I even braved the “Salisbury steak,” which looked like a soy-burger pattysmothered with a mud pie.
“Yeah. I’m hungry.”
I sat down at our usual table in the corner of the lunchroomand stabbed the muddy burger with my fork. When it didn’t leap off the table,yelping, I cut off a piece and tried a bite.
“It’s not bad.”
Will wrinkled his nose. “Dude,Iwouldn’t even eat that. What’s thedeal?”
“Trying to gain some weight. You know, pack on some muscle.Hey—think you could do some weight training with me?” I asked.
Will pushed his chair back. “Who are you and what did you doto my friend?”
I laughed. “Oh, come on. It’s not like I’m asking you to goshopping for dresses with me or something. I just want to bulk up some.”
“You must really have it bad for Ella,” Will said. “You’re anatural born runner, dude. I can try to help you train, but honestly, you’rewiry and you’re gonna stay that way.”
My shoulders slumped. Mike was an idiot to think this wouldwork.
“Wiry’s good, though,” Will said. “Being fast andflexible—that’s better than a mountain of muscle any day. Means you can fightmore efficiently.”
I rolled my eyes. “This isn’t about fighting Carter. I justneed to get stronger, okay?”
“Because I want to.” I clenched my jaw and glared at him.“Are you going to help me or am I doomed to pulling all the wrong musclestrying to learn this crap from a magazine?”
Will frowned like he didn’t quite believe me. “Yeah, okay. Ido strength training after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Thanks.” I went back to slamming down my mud pie.
* * *
I made it through the afternoon, but I didn’t know how. Mystomach rolled from my huge lunch, and my arms were sore again. It wasn’t untillast period that things started looking up.
I didn’t get to sit behind Ella in history. I got to sitrightnexttoher. I watched her twirl a strand of her hair with one hand, and tap her brightblue fingernails against her desk with the other. Every fidget, every stretch,every scratch of her pencil, every yawn—all of it was duly recorded in mybrain. God had been on his A-game the day He made her.
“All right, people. Essays on the Battle of Gettysburg aredue Friday. Extra credit to those who can recite the ‘Gettysburg Address’ to mefrom memory,” Mr. Anderson said as the bell rang.
Everyone sprang up, eager to escape Greenhill prison. Ishoved my books in my backpack, ready to run for the bus. It sucked that Brenthad football. Even if he was a butthead, I’d much rather ride with him thatendure the bus. Ella stopped me on my way out the door. We were about the sameheight, so I got to see the freckles up close. My heart thumped hard.
“Matt, I meant to ask you this morning. Have you changedsomething with your hair? I don’t know. You look older.” All this was said witha flash of white teeth recently straightened from braces.
“No, nothing new.” I smiled back. She actually noticed melast week and this week? Yes!
“I just wondered…” She trailed off and picked at herfingernail polish. “Well, anyway, whatever changed, it looks good on you.”
With a little wave, she was gone, leaving me to stand therewith my mouth hanging open. Maybe I had a chance after all.Chapter Five
On Tuesday, just in time for my muscles to get over Sunday’sworkout, I joined Will for my first after-school training session. The practicegym, not to be confused with the real gym where we had pep rallies andbasketball games, smelled like dirty socks and was full of JV football playerswearing gray sweats. Most of them stopped pumping iron or doing crunches tostare at me, the first flyweight ever to walk through the gym door. I wished Icould come clean about why I needed to train. Monster killing might have givenme a little cred.
I eyed the crowd of jocks. A bunch wore skeptical smileswhen they saw me coming. Two looked hostile. Then again, Sanders and McCoyalways looked pissed off. They were dumb as dirt clods and their tiny brainsprobably couldn’t make their faces do anything but scowl.
I followed Will to the dumbbell rack. He pulled up a pair oftwenty-pound weights. With what I hoped was a cocky grin, I grabbed twoten-pound dumbbells.
Will lifted an eyebrow. “Dude. Twenty pounds total? You’reright; we got work to do. I want you up to thirty by December.”
I sighed. “How much does a guy Brent’s size lift?”
“Bicep curls? Probably thirty pounds for twelve-rep sets,”Will said.
“Then why was he making fun of me? I’m not that far off.” Idid a vigorous set of curls in pure indignation. My biceps went on strike atthe seventh rep.
“Thirty per arm, man. Hell, Brent could probably curl sixtywith one arm if it was a single shot.” Will grinned and went back to his sets.
* * *
Friday arrived with the promise of a road trip and earlyrelease from school. I should’ve been stoked to go on my first militaryadventure, but I didn’t think I’d ever been as miserable. Every muscle in mybody ached, Ella had been out sick since Wednesday, and Mamie popped out frombehind corners at random times to check up on me. Even the monster attack,which had seemed unreal for the first few days, was haunting me again. Thingswent downhill from there, sinking into a valley of suckiness after secondperiod.
“Yo, Archer. McCoy told me you’ve been coming to the gymwith Cruessan. Guess I didn’t have to worry about you checking out mygirlfriend the other day. You already have one.” Carter’s face lit up with anasty smile. “So, when are you and Will gonna pick out engagement rings?”
Grinding my teeth, I clenched my fists and took a steptoward him. I had no idea what I’d do from there, but I was sick of this asshatriding me.
Carter snickered at my reaction. “Maybe Cruessan will takeyou to the Winter Ball. You’re short enough that he could tuck you under hischin during the slow dances. That would be so precious.”
A flash of magenta light exploded in my brain. I got rightup in his sneering face.
“You know what, Carter? One day Ella will figure out thatyou have nothing to offer except a half-decent hook shot. What girl even caresabout that stuff? When she finally sees you for the butthole you are, she’lldrop you in a heartbeat, and I’ll be right there, waiting.”
Carter’s nostrils flared as he shoved me into the lockerbank so hard I hit my head and saw stars. The impact jarred something looseinside my brain, though, and I got awfully calm for a guy in my presentsituation.
Right then, I knew. Monsters came in all shapes and sizes.
And I wasn’t afraid of monsters anymore.
Carter took a wild swing at my jaw. I ducked at the lastsecond and Carter punched the lockers. While he cursed about his hand, I poppedup behind him and slammed him face-first into his locker, then pinned his armbehind his back. Carter struggled and stamped on my foot, trying to break free.When I didn’t give, he elbowed me in the cheekbone with his free arm. Morepissed than I’d been in my life, I spouted off enough obscenities to fill adictionary of swear words and shoved him against the locker door with all myweight.
“You are a complete…”
Well, what I said was drowned out by shouts of “Fight,fight, fight!”
A hand clamped down hard on my shoulder. “Let go, Mr.Archer. Now.”
Mr. Nolton, our Vice Principal, pulled me off of Carter. Istrained against him and he gave me a sharp tug.
“Young man, we’re going to the office. You say one morething and I’ll have you expelled.”
That didn’t cool me off much, but I stopped struggling. OnceI was quiet, Mr. Nolton caught hold of Carter.
“You too, Mr. Jacobs.”
We marched down the hall at a brisk pace. Mr. Nolton was atall, reedy guy with the longest legs in the world, and he dragged me so fast Ihad to trot to keep up. He wasn’t fast enough, though; the news moved quickerthan we did and we had an audience every step of the way. Mr. Nolton opened theoffice door, jabbing a finger to point us inside.
Once in the office, I didn’t have a clue what to do. I’donly been sent to the principal once in elementary school, for setting off afew firecrackers at recess. Not one of the brightest things I’d ever done, butit had been pretty worth it at the time.
Unlike fighting Carter in a crowded hallway.
Carter seemed to know the drill, which didn’t surprise memuch. An idiot like him probably visited the office on a regular basis. Hestrutted over to Mr. Nolton’s office and let himself in. I crossed my arms,feeling defiant. Carter started the fight, so what if I finished it? Mr. Noltonscowled and towed me to the door marked “Mrs. Stevens, Principal.” He rappedtwice, waiting for a muffled “enter” before opening the door.
“Discipline issue, Mrs. Stevens. Caught this gentlemaninflicting bodily harm on another student—Carter Jacobs. Carter’s in my office.I’ll get his side of the story so we can compare notes.”
Mrs. Stevens was a plump lady, not much taller than me, withsoft brown hair and tough brown eyes. Like a grandma on steroids.
“A fight, huh?” she said. “Well, Mr. Archer, have a seat.”
Mr. Nolton nudged me into the office a little harder thannecessary and shut the door. I sat in the chair across from her desk. Mrs.Stevens pulled something up on her computer, probably my file. After she readit, she watched me. Her stare was laser-like, and I broke eye contact first,eager to escape her gaze.
“So, what happened?” Her voice was kind and vaguely amused.
I quit examining a thread on the carpet and looked up,shocked that she hadn’t yelled. “He said something rude about me and my bestfriend, so I told him off. Then he took a swing at me. I was just defendingmyself.”
She nodded thoughtfully and steepled her fingers. “Does thatmake it okay to tackle him in the hall?”
I flushed. “No ma’am, not at all. I should’ve walked away.If you want to know the truth, though, he’s a toad.”
Dumb, stupid, I just called Carter a toad in front of theprincipal? And if Iwas going to mouth off, couldn’t I have come up with a better word than toad?Maybe Lord Supreme Jackass?
Mrs. Stevens’ face stayed blank, but her eyes sparkled.“Carter has his own challenges to overcome, but your behavior wasn’t acceptableeither.”
I shrank down in my seat as she watched me in silence. Twominutes ticked by, then three. Finally, she smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile, butI’d take what I could get.
“I’ll let you off with a warning and two weeks detention,”she said. “You’re a good kid, Matt. From what I’ve seen, you haven’t been introuble much. I’ll chalk it up to raging testosterone this time. Next time,you’ll be suspended. Do we understand one another?”
I nodded like a bobble-head doll. “Yes, ma’am, absolutely.”
I also should’ve remembered what Brent said about pushingand shoving in football games—it’s always the second guy who gets caught.
Just then, the secretary poked her head in. “Matt’s uncle ishere. He says he’s checking Matt out early.” The secretary scowled, as if theidea that I’d get to leave school before last bell was personally offendingher.
“Thank you, Miss James.” Mrs. Stevens turned back to me.“Matt, I’ll call your mother later today to discuss the terms of yourdetention. Why don’t you try to blow off some steam over break.”
I nodded. Fort Carson would see to that. And so would Momwhen I got back home. At least I’d be on the road before she heard about it.
“Let’s not keep your uncle waiting,” Mrs. Stevens said. Shesmiled again; this time it was more friendly. “I’ll see you a week fromMonday.”
I hopped out of my seat and backed out of her office as fastas I could, practically bowing. Once free, I spun around without looking andran smack into Mike’s chest.
“Chief, what were you doing in the principal’s office?” heasked.
I shifted from foot to foot. “Long story.”
Uncle Mike’s lips tightened. “We have a ten-hour drive. Ihave the time.”
On the way to the parking lot, I owned up to the fight. Mikewas scowling by the time I got into the Jeep. My bags were already in the back;he must have stopped by my house on the way to pick me up. I stared out thepassenger window with my arms crossed, not in the mood to see the stern look onMike’s face because I didn’t know what to say in response. I was still tooangry.
Mike started the engine and backed out. He drove all the wayto the highway before he said anything.
“Okay, Captain Mayhem, what were you thinking, fighting atschool?”
I didn’t answer.
“Matt, if you get in trouble, Dani will put you under housearrest and monsters will roam free. Is that what you want?
A cold sliver of guilt slipped into my insides. “No. I’msorry, okay? I know what’s at stake, and I won’t get into another fight.”
“That’s right, you won’t.” Mike’s voice held a sharp edgeI’d never heard. “After next week, you’ll know better.”
That pissed me off more. “Carter gives me crap forbreathing, Uncle Mike. It was high time I stood up for myself.”
He pulled over to the side of the road and glared at me.“What’s Carter going to do to you by slinging insults? Nothing. Over the nextweek you’re going to be trained in hand-to-hand combat, among other things. Youget in a fight with that kid at school, and next time you’ll do him seriousharm. I have to trust that you can show some self-control. Suck it up and act likea man.”
He pulled back onto the road. “For the next week, I’m notUncle Mike. You call me sir or Major Tannen.”
Shocked that Mike would snap at me like that, I glared outthe window and didn’t say another word until we crossed into Wyoming two hourslater. We stopped for dinner at the Colorado border and had a perfectly normalconversation about the Broncos’ imploding season. I felt like things werestarting to thaw, but after dessert Mike disappeared to the men’s room with agarment bag. He returned wearing a crisply ironed, Army-green Class B uniform:olive-colored trousers, long sleeve shirt covered in commendation ribbons, goldoak leaf insignia for a major’s rank, tie, and black shoes shined within aninch of their lives. Seriously, if those shoes could talk, they’d be screamingfrom the rub-down they’d taken.
“We’re leaving,” he ordered.
Wondering what the heck had gotten into him, I left the lastbite of my pie and scurried out to the Jeep, dreading whatever came next. Hehardly talked the rest of the way and I shrank down in my seat, thinking MajorTannen was one scary dude.
I had to admit though, once we made it to Fort Carson, itwas kind of awesome to see dozens of uniformed soldiers saluting as Mike walkedby. He led me to a little house on the edge of the base that served as quartersfor visiting personnel. The building, consisting of two whole rooms and abathroom, was square, with walls made of cinderblocks painted gray and a floorof the same kind of ugly, thick vinyl you see in hospitals. The only furnitureI had in my room was a metal bunk, a metal footlocker and a metal foldingchair. A small, gray-tiled bathroom, with just a sink, shower and toilet,separated my room and Mike’s. His room didn’t look any nicer, except he had adesk. It was metal, too.
“Bed,” Mike barked. Then he shut the door to his room,leaving me alone.
I sat down on the Army-green blanket covering my bed,wondering how I got here.
A fire alarm went off directly above my bunk. At leastthat’s what it sounded like. The alarm shrieked, reverberating off every hardsurface in my room. Considering everything but my mattress and blankets wasmade of metal, the room buzzed until my brain screamed for mercy.
“I’m up, I’m up!” I rolled from the bunk just as Mikeflipped the lights on. I rubbed my eyes and tried to remember what I was doingin a room that looked like a prison cell. “What time is it?”
“Quarter of five. You have ten minutes to get dressed andfall out.”
Mike’s barked orders were much too loud for such an indecenthour. But there he was, already dressed in sweats and looking ready to rumble.
I shuffled to the foot of my bed. “Yeah, whatever.”
“The customary answer would be ‘Sir, yes sir.’”
“Are you kidding?” I asked, even though I suspected hewasn’t.
This morning, Mike’s eyes had that same hard look I’d seenthe night we’d fought the monster. Briefly, I thought about bailing and callingMom to come rescue me. But I wasn’t a wuss, so I saluted him in my pajamas.
“You now have nine minutes. And leave the knife here. Youwon’t need it.” He spun on his heel and clomped out of the room.
I picked up the clothes laid out for me on the footlocker.Mike had been joking about the camo. There was a gray t-shirt, sweatpants andhoodie, along with a black knit cap. The t-shirt and hoodie had “ARMY” printedacross the chest. Even though all the clothes were sized as smalls, theyswallowed me. I had to pull the drawstring on the pants nearly a foot so theywouldn’t fall off my butt. I grabbed a pair of gloves and trotted outside, gladthat Mike had let me use my own running shoes instead of combat boots.
I barely made it out the front door to the yard before Miketossed me a backpack. I caught it on the fly, then tumbled to our little patchof lawn with the bag on top of me. “Geez, Mike, what the heck is in this thing?Titanium bowling balls?”
He yanked me and the backpack off the ground. “That’s Majorto you.”
“Sir, yes, sir.” Not even here twelve hours yet, and I wasready to cry for my mama. Mike strapped the backpack on me. My legs shook withthe added weight.
“It’s only twenty-five pounds.” He flung his onto his backand tightened the straps. “Mine weighs twice that.”
“What’s the point? To see what kind of wimp I am?” I triedto keep the growl out of my voice, but failed.
A faint, amused smile crossed Mike’s face. “No. When you goout on a hunt, you’ll need to carry equipment. If you can’t hike through roughterrain with twenty-five pounds on your back, we might as well go home now.”
That hurt my pride. Of course I could carry twenty-fivepounds to stop monsters from rampaging around my home town. I forced my back tostraighten out. “So now what?”
Another faint smile; approving this time. “We run.”
Run was an understatement. Mike took off down the roadtoward the center of the base. Buildings passed in a blur of dark outlines as Ipounded asphalt trying to catch him. Every time I got close, he sped up. At onepoint, we started to overtake a squad of soldiers doing the same thing—joggingalong wearing backpacks three times the size of mine. A drill sergeant yelled asong that would get me grounded if I dared repeat it back home. Mike veeredright and we left the road.
“Why don’t we just run with them?” I said, barely able toget enough air to ask.
“How would we explain a fourteen-year-old, in standardphysical fitness uniform, running across base first thing in the morning?” Mikedidn’t sound winded. So unfair.
He turned sharply into some woods on the far side of thebase. The trees grew close together and the ground was uneven, thick withroots, fallen leaves and hidden holes, all perfect for getting hung up. I waswheezing before we’d gone a hundred yards. I felt myself slow down and thebackpack dug into my shoulders.
The sun wasn’t up and I could barely see Mike in front ofme. I thrashed along, trying to keep up, but my feet couldn’t go any faster.Mike ducked around a clump of brush, out of sight. Intent on catching him, Isurged forward only to slip on a loose rock. I twisted my ankle and rolled ontothe ground.
I sprawled out panting, not in the mood to get back up.“Uncle Mike? I need a break, man. I think I sprained my ankle.”
The only answer was the hoot of an owl.
Oh crap, he left me behind! “Mike—I mean, Major—stop! Youneed to wait!” I pushed myself to my feet and limped ahead. “Major, wait forme!”
Tears stung my eyes. No more of this “dudes in SpecialForces don’t cry” garbage. I was stuck in the woods with a hurt leg and no cluehow to get back to base. My breath came in gasps of cold, early morning air andthe trees seemed to close in on me, murky shadows hiding who knows what. Everyso often, the brush would rustle. I sank back down to the forest floor andhugged my knees to my chest.
I was lost.
“Mike, you butthole, you better come back for me!”
When I heard how small my voice sounded, swallowed up by allthose trees, I felt like a dork. Mike would realize I wasn’t behind him soon.In the meantime, how did I get back to base? At Boy Scout camp, I’d learned howto read a compass, and how to get around without one. I just had to stay calmand think. The house we were staying in was next to the road, and we’d turnedonto the northbound lane when we started our run. Then Mike had turned slightlyto the right when he ran into the words. Okay, good. Even with the twists andturns we’d taken, I knew we’d come into the woods heading northeast…I’d go backsouthwest and find the road.
Sitting with my eyes closed, I waited for my heart to slowdown. Feeling calmer, I stood up and put a little weight on my injured leg. Itdidn’t hurt too bad; I could walk. Ready to be on the move, I turned in acircle, getting my bearings. Over the trees, I could see a hint of pink in thenight sky.
I drew a compass star on the ground with a stick, using thesun as my eastern marker, then pointed my body toward the southwest. With moreconfidence, I picked up the backpack and limped that direction.
The trees rustled again, followed by a twig snapping. Ifroze. A rabbit? It was a rabbit, it had to be a rabbit. Then I heard a fewsoft crunches in the leaves.
A rabbit wouldn’t make that much noise.
My breathing got so loud I was sure the animal had heard me.This close to base, I didn’t think it was a bear or, god-forbid, a monster,even if Fort Carson was surrounded by wildlife conservation land. Probably adeer, maybe a stag.
I crept forward a few paces and didn’t hear anythingfollowing me. With a ragged sigh, I started up the trail. A shadow, low to theground, darted between the trunks of two trees, slipping in front of me.
Oh, my gosh. Had I really just seen that?
The shadow shifted through the trees to the right of thepath, and a branch shook. Too big to be a raccoon. But just the right size tobe a cougar. I halted again and waited, afraid to blink in case the animalcould hear my eyelashes rub together. If I got mauled by a cougar, Uncle Mikewould have to re-up for an extra tour in Afghanistan so Mom couldn’t kill him.
When the shadow didn’t move, I took a step, then another. Ireached the spot where the shadow had stopped and looked around.
Nothing. Just my imagination.
I squared my shoulders, lifted my chin, then marched aheadas if I had nothing to fear. Never mind that my pulse was sprinting; I couldfeel the artery in my neck throb. Could the cougar hear my heart pound?
I took a few more steps. Another twig snapped, behind methis time.
Something was watching me; I could feel eyes trained on myback. I stood with my feet cemented to the ground and caught the sound of asingle footstep, just barely crunching the leaves. The shadow in the treesahead moved.
I forgot about my ankle and took off running.
With a mighty screech, a huge mass lurched out of theshadows and tackled me. I squirmed, keeping my hands up, so the cougar couldn’tget my face. Digging my feet into the dirt, I tried to roll the cat off of me.It was too heavy. Terrified, I kicked with all my might, connecting with whatfelt like a guy’s thigh.
“Oof.” A deep voice I didn’t recognize. Chuckling, the mansaid, “Major Tannen, you were right. The kid’s got a lot of fight in him.Quick, too.”
A pair of big hands pulled me up. The man wore all black,including the same kind of knit cap I had. He pulled it off and the silver inhis salt-and-pepper hair gleamed in the dawn light slanting through the trees.Not much older than Mike, but definitely career military; I could tell by hisposture. He was at least six-four, maybe six-five, and he had to weightwo-fifty.
Mike came up behind us. “Told you, sir.”
“Did I hurt you, son?” The man brushed leaves off my hoodie.“I didn’t mean to knock you down. You moved too fast for me to get a good gripon your arm and I slipped.”
“Who the heck are you and why were you stalking me throughthe woods?” I asked, pausing to give Mike a dirty look.
“Colonel Ryan Black.” The man stuck out a hand. “And youmust be my new monster hunter.”Chapter Seven
After my tussle in the woods, Mike and Colonel Blackconceded that I needed some breakfast. As we walked down the road toward thelittle bunk house, I asked about something that had been bugging me.
“Colonel Black, are you surprised the knife picked afourteen-year-old?”
“Well…I’ll be honest. Yes, very,” he said. “But I’ve had aweek to get used to the idea. Major Tannen briefed me right after the knifetransferred to you.” He gave me a quick look and I could see worry in his eyes.“We’ve got some work ahead of us, getting you trained. It’s not going to beeasy—probably painful. Are you up for that?”
I mulled it over. “Have to be, don’t I? No real choice butto suck it up and learn as much as I can this week.”
Colonel Black’s shoulders relaxed. “I’m glad you’re takingit seriously.” He nodded at my leg. “How’s the ankle?”
“Barely feel it,” I said. “Guess I walked it off while the‘cougar’ was chasing me.”
The men laughed as we turned onto the drive near ourbarracks. The sun had nearly risen, and the little house looked shabbier bydaylight. The brick was a dingy ivory color and the screen door had a few holesin it. Tired as I was, though, I doubted a five-star hotel would have lookedbetter.
Mike let us in. “Grab the knife.”
Now I got why Mike had insisted on leaving it behind for ourrun. It wouldn’t have been good if I’d stabbed the colonel in the back duringhis ambush.
“Where to next?” I asked.
“Colonel Black’s office,” Mike said.
I crossed my arms and made an impatient noise. “Food first.”
“Matt, you’re going to eat in my office,” Colonel Blacksaid. “We don’t want the whole base to know you’re here until we can concoctsome kind of story for it. My team will know, but that’s it for now. They’ll behere at oh-nine-hundred to meet you. Now, let’s go, Private.”
“Private? Oh, come on…not even a sergeant or something? Ikilled a monster on my own, sir. That has to earn me three stripes at least.”
“High expectations there.” Mike pushed me out the door,wearing a wry grin. “I’d guess corporal at best.”
Colonel Black’s office was closer to the center of the base.It was a good sized room with a large desk, a narrow window that cranked openand a little wooden table with four folding chairs. Not fancy, but comfortable.Once we got settled, he rang for his secretary, who turned out to be a staffsergeant with a buzzed head and a big nose.
“Kingston, breakfast for three,” the colonel said. Kingstongave the colonel a crisp nod and marched down the hall.
“See, even your secretary gets to be a sergeant,” I said. Heprobably hadn’t killed a monster by himself. But, no,Iwas a private.
Uncle Mike dropped into a chair at the table. I joined himand asked, “The monster team…are they all part of the 10thAirbornelike you?”
Mike had told me that the 10thSpecial ForcesGroup was a tough bunch of Green Berets who liked to jump out of airplanes anddo other dangerous—and righteously awesome—things. Behind enemy lines usually.
He shook his head. “They’re from the covert operation inSouth America. The general heading up that mission hand-selected a team ofGreen Berets from the 10thand other units. But since ColonelBlack’s our commanding officer, we’re based here.”
I looked back and forth between Colonel Black and Mike. “Andthe team knows about me?”
The colonel busied himself with a stack of papers on hisdesk. “Not yet.”
That didn’t sound good. Even if Colonel Black was sort ofokay that I was fourteen, I wasn’t so sure everyone else would be.
Breakfast arrived. Kingston came in carrying a tray loadeddown with eggs, bacon, and toast. Starved, I grabbed a plate and attacked thefood.
Mike chuckled as I stuffed my face. “Took my advice abouteating like a man to heart, huh?”
I nodded, too hungry to answer him.
“Just don’t make yourself sick. We ran hard this morning andyou’re going to work again this afternoon. Last thing I need is to be cleaningup puke,” Mike said.
“I won’t,” I said after gulping down a bite. “Is there anymore bacon?”
Smiling, Colonel Black pushed the platter my way.
We left Colonel Black’s office just before nine, headingdown a long, pale green hall and through a concrete walkway to an adjoiningbuilding. The conference room was square, its plain white walls covered withbig paper maps that had red and yellow pins stuck in them. The pins markedlocations in China; the western edge of Peru, in the Amazonian rainforest;central Australia; and Billings, Montana. A single blue pin had been stuck inBotswana in Africa. I stopped to touch the red pin marking Billings. I had afeeling that one was for me.
A couple dozen padded, plastic chairs sat in rows facing ascreen and a small lectern. Colonel Black took his spot at the front of theroom. A few men had already arrived, wearing BDUs—battle dress uniform.Camo…finally. Mike and the colonel had changed into BDUs as well, but I stillwore my sweats and felt self-conscious because I hadn’t bothered with a showerafter our trek through the woods. I’d turned down my chance to clean up so Icould stay in the office to finish off the bacon instead. Maybe that had been amistake. I’d have a hard enough time winning these guys over without lookinglike a gym-class reject.
More soldiers arrived, all of them with “high and tight”haircuts, polished belt buckles and big, black boots. Most were roughly thesize of Mike—over six feet and muscular. A few were bigger. The only thing Ihad in common with these guys was my two-blade buzz cut.
Right at nine, Mike pulled the door closed and calledeveryone to order. I glanced around the room, feeling really small in mytoo-big sweats. Twelve hard faces stared back.
Mike caught my eye and mouthed, “You’ll be fine.”
I didn’t have time to wonder what that meant before themeeting got underway.
Colonel Black moved in front of the podium. “Good morning,gentlemen.”
“Hooah!” they answered in concert.
Colonel Black waved me up. I stood next to him with my kneesknocking together, wondering how he’d explain who I was.
“This is Matt Archer, Major Tannen’s nephew. He killed amonster in Montana a week ago.”
Well, blunt was one way to go.
All their eyes swiveled back to me. A few of the men smileda tiny bit, like they didn’t believe it. I flushed under the weight of theirstares.
“Obviously the U.S. is being invaded now. Major Tannenbrought some pictures of the creature’s body, along with the autopsy records,and we’ll brief everyone on them later. This is an issue though, because we’respread thin at the moment. Parker’s team is in China, at the request of theChinese government, dealing with the mutant Pandas. Things have escalated inthe Amazon again, and Ramirez’s team went back down there two months ago.” Hepaused. “We’ve also received unconfirmed reports of lion-like beasts roamingBotswana. Brandt’s team left last Monday to scout out the situation.”
The soldiers watched Colonel Black with intenseconcentration. I imagined they all had the same question…what does that have todo with the kid?
“On top of all this, the Australians have formally requestedour assistance. The Dingoes are leaving the deep outback and threateningpopulated areas, so Parker or Brandt may have to head there next. With most ofyou, including Major Tannen, shipping out over the next several weeks, we don’thave enough coverage to deal with Montana. But there might be a solution.” Thecolonel paused. “Major Tannen’s knife settled on Matt. Maybe he could cover thearea for us.”
It got so still, I could hear a Humvee rumble by on the roadoutside.
“A kid?” someone asked from the back. “The knife chose akid?”
I clenched my jaw and stood up taller, about to bark that Iwasn’t a kid, but caught Mike’s eye. He shook his head a fraction, his facedead serious.
The colonel sighed. “Yes. That’s why I called you in. I needto see if one of you can take it back. Major Tannen tried but the knifewouldn’t leave Matt. I just want to be sure our only option is afourteen-year-old, because that’s a lot to saddle him with.” He held out ahand. “Matt, knife please.”
I dug through my new Army backpack, strangely reluctant togive the knife up. When I touched it, it pulsed against my fingers. I drew itout of the bag, the smooth bone handle now glowing blue, and laid it on thecolonel’s open palm. The second it touched his skin, the handle went dark.
The colonel nodded slowly. “All right, that’s one of usdown.” He passed it to the next guy.
The knife went around the room, to one soldier afteranother. It never glowed or vibrated. Finally, the last guy, a burly GreenBeret with white-blond hair and black eyes, gave the quieted knife to Mike. Theknife didn’t register the change, not even for its old master.
“Here you go, Chief.” Mike laid the knife on the podium,like he didn’t want to hand it to me directly.
I stared at the knife. Sheathed, it didn’t look all thatscary. I reached out. My hand had barely touched it when the handle glowed blueand the knife vibrated on the table, sounding like a muted cell phone getting acall. I picked it up, feeling it buzz my arm, and glanced at the crowd. Theskeptical looks had been replaced with astonishment in some cases, admirationin others.
“Guess that’s settled, then,” Colonel Black said. “Matt,welcome to the team.”
“As you can see, there’s a hole in the paneling at the backof the hut. The ‘Gator—’” Colonel Black nodded to me, “that’s the code name—wasintelligent enough to pull away the wood and grab the victim from her bed.” Thecolonel paused to flip a slide on his laptop, projecting the image of a smallwooden house with a gap in the back wall. “They’re efficient hunters. In everyattack we’ve seen, they surveyed an area, then stalked their victims. We stillhaven’t found any dens, either. They hide themselves well. All we really knowis that they’re smart enough to be extremely dangerous.”
I threw my hand up, forgetting this wasn’t school. A few ofthe men chuckled. “Sir, what exactly are these things? The monster wekilled…well, it looked like a bear, but it didn’t, if you get what I mean. Ithad a bear’s fur and the same kind of big paws like a grizzly. But the face wasall wrong; it was squashed and it had a bigger snout, with these tusk things,like a boar would have. Its legs and arms were longer too, built kinda likeChewbacca, except not as nice.” That got another few laughs. “Oh, and its bloodwas the color of spicy mustard.”
Colonel Black nodded. “That’s it in a nutshell, Matt. Theyseem to be hyper-intelligent, mutated animals. And they’re getting smarter at anaccelerated rate.” He pulled up a new slide. “This one, taken in Peru, is of aGator.”
The creature resembled a cross between a crocodile and agiant iguana. It had a flatter face with pointy horns along its head and backlike an iguana, but its hide was thicker, with larger scales, and its talonedfeet were webbed, like a crocodile’s. The Gator’s arms and legs werehuman-length and muscular. In the picture, the monster lay crumpled on a junglefloor, bright green blood oozing from its slit throat.
HolyJurassicParkreject. I scooted my chair away from the screen. “Maybe youshould call it a Croc. It doesn’t look like an alligator.”
Mike laughed from the back of the room. “The scientists toldus that too, but we’d already named it.”
I rolled my eyes. Middle school science had taught me thedifference. Shouldn’t these guys know, too?
Mike sat down behind me and put his hands on my shoulders.“No matter what we call them, the monsters hunt humans. That first picture, ofthe hut? The Gator took a pregnant woman. It ate her and the unborn baby.”
I pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes, feelingtruly sick. “Oh, my God.”
“Gentlemen, we’re finished for now,” Colonel Black said.“Next briefing at fifteen-hundred. Dismissed.”
Metal chairs scraped the floor as the soldiers stood. No onesaid a word, but once they made it into the hall, I could hear them whispering.Mike gave my shoulder a squeeze and got up to shut the door again. When he cameback, his face was blank, but his muscles were bunched with tension under hisBDUs.
“Matt, Colonel Black has some things to tell you. You’vebeen given clearance; it’s time you knew what was going on. This isn’t going tobe easy to hear.” He glanced at the colonel. “We have an idea of where themonsters are coming from.”
“You mean this isn’t some weird pollution problem?” I asked.“I figured some animals got into some toxic waste like the Joker inBatmanand turnedinto monsters.”
Colonel Black pulled a chair around so we huddled togetherin a little group. “No. They were created.”
“By terrorists? They can do that?”
The colonel shook his head. “Not by humans.”
My toes curled up inside my running shoes. Just when Ithought this couldn’t get worse, it did. “Aliens?”
“No,” the colonel said. “Something equally fantastic, though.”
My face must’ve turned green, because he hurried to explain.“Really bizarre cases of malicious mischief have been occurring worldwide forthe last few years. For example, one of the stone Gargoyles at Notre Dame cameto life a few months ago. It flew off the cathedral’s roof and pelted the crowdwith rocks. The media played it off as some kind of stunt, but we knew better.For the most part, no one has died in any of these incidents. Scared, sure;hurt sometimes, too. Never killed. The monsters represent a more organizedassault.”
Too much information. My brain wanted to explode, and theyhadn’t even told me the punch line. “So, where are they coming from, then?”
The colonel rubbed his hands together like they were cold.“Several months ago, we received intelligence reports that leaders of mysticalreligions had started conducting rites and rituals not seen forcenturies—rituals to ward off evil. We wondered if the activity was related toattacks, so we sent delegates to speak with some of these medicine men,shamans, witch-doctors and priests.”
“What kind of evil?” I whispered, like if I said it louder,a poltergeist would show up.
“Every religion believes in a dark force of some kind—evilspirits, demons, and the like.” Colonel Black’s eyes never left mine. “All theleaders we spoke with said a war was coming. Seems the forces of darkness, nomatter what religion you may or may not believe in, have come together to wagewar on humankind.”
I looked at Mike. He stared back without a hint of a smile.Holy crap, they were serious. I wrapped my arms around my chest. “Where do theknives fit in?”
“Conventional warfare doesn’t exactly work against thingsthat go bump in the night, Matt,” Mike said. “We tried flame throwers on theGators, and they walked right through the blaze. We tossed grenades; all thatdid was stun them. Bullets are useless. Parker says the same thing about thePandas. My hunting knife didn’t make a dent in the monster we encountered lastweek. Short of a bomb blast, you name it, we tried it. Nothing we have killsthem.” He nodded at the blade in my lap. “It takes special tools to stop thesethings.”
“So why do they work when nothing else does?” I asked.
Colonel Black exchanged a glance with Mike again, then said,“When we went to Peru to check out the Gators, we met Jorge. He’s…a veryunusual man.”
Another truck rumbled by and Mike got up to pace. I waited.
“He’s a medicine man to several local tribes in theAmazon—and he went to Yale.” Colonel Black raised an eyebrow. “Jorge holds aMasters in chemistry, of all things. When he was a child, some missionariescame to his tribe. One of them was a high school science teacher. Jorge said hefollowed the man around, learning everything he could—including English.”
Mike smiled. “The teacher was from New England, so Jorgespeaks English with this very formal, clipped accent. Bit of a shock if youaren’t expecting it.”
“Anyway,” the colonel said, “the missionaries convinced hisfamily to allow Jorge to study in the United States. He lived here for about fifteenyears before returning to Peru.”
“Wait. Jorge’s got a chemistry degree, and he lives in therainforest?” I asked. Not what I’d do, but, okay.
“It’s his home, Matt. He chooses to live among his peopleand tend to their needs, as his father did,” Colonel Black said.
“So how did he get tangled up in all this stuff?”
“Well,” the colonel said, “Jorge says the monster attackswere foretold by his elders. He believes the creatures were created by darkspirits who want to cleanse the earth of the human race, and the knives are theonly weapons that can stop them.”
“So Jorge says we’re facing terrors from heaven knowswhere?” I asked. “Until we’re wiped out?”
“It would seem so.” Colonel Black’s expression was every bitas serious as Mike’s. “The monsters are probably just the beginning. Afirst-strike, maybe to see how well-defended we are.”
My stomach sank. “Then why doesn’t Jorge make more knives?That’d be what I’d do if the devil was planning to open the gate to Hell.”
“Jorge had enough material to make six, but didn’t, onpurpose. We asked if he could make more and he told us five was a powerfulmagical number,” the colonel said. “Magical numbers seem to matter. The numberthirteen is considered significant in many cultures. The moon has thirteencycles per year, for example. And the Gators showed up in a pack of thirteenlast fall. Then thirteen Pandas arrived in the spring.”
“But if there were only thirteen,” I asked, “then whyhaven’t Ramirez and Parker finished theirs off yet? I’d think they could kill offthat many in just a few months.”
“You know what a lunar eclipse is?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah. The earth orbits between the sun and moon,which casts a shadow on the moon.”
“Right,” Colonel Black said. “Sometimes they’re partialeclipses, and don’t cover the whole moon. Other times they’re full, causing thenight to be darker, under a blood-red moon. Full eclipses only come every threeto four years. But when we have them, there are three in a year’s time. Therewas one last October—visible on every continent but Africa. Then another inApril, again not visible in Africa. Finally, we had one more, last month, andthis one was visible in Africa, but not in Australia.”
I raised my eyebrows. The timing couldn’t be coincidence.
“The first Gators came the night of the October eclipse lastyear. Another thirteen Gators came in April, in addition to some new creatures,the Pandas and Dingoes. Thirteen more Pandas and Gators came last month, afterthe September eclipse, and now we have new monsters in Billings and Africa, butno new Dingoes, from what we’ve heard.”
“So we ended up with thirty-nine Gators, and twenty-sixPandas?” No wonder Parker and Ramirez had their hands full.
“Yes. Our assumption is that there are only thirteenmonsters in Montana, Australia, and Botswana,” the colonel said. “There won’tbe another full eclipse for two years, so Jorge believes once we exterminatethese beasts, they won’t return for a while.”
“Good thing.” I thought for a minute. “But why did themonsters show up in those places? Why not London, or New York City? They’d do alot of damage in a big city.”
Colonel Black spread his hands. “Our theory is that theother monsters chose those locations because some powerful shaman lives there.Ancient, mystical religions are practiced in each of those areas. So maybe themonsters are targeting holy men that pose a significant threat, like Jorge. Wethink the Gators hit Peru because he made weapons that could kill darkcreatures.”
“Why Montana, though?” I asked. “There aren’t any big-timeshamans in Billings, are there?”
Mike winced. “Matt, there weren’t any monsters in the U.S.until I brought the knife back home.”
There was a sharp note of guilt in his voice that made menervous. “But—”
He cut me off. “I’m the only wielder who went home. Thegeneral wanted a knife stateside while we assessed the threat, so I wasreleased from duty while the others were sent abroad to investigate otherparanormal events. Billings isn’t exactly a prime target, which leads me tobelieve none of this is a coincidence. I brought the magic of the knife homelast spring. And then we had a lunar eclipse in September. So monsters came toBillings.”
“Then…why are they still sending you to Afghanistan? Ifthere are monsters here, you should stay and help me.” I looked at the colonel.“Right? He can stay now.”
Colonel Black shook his head. “Major Tannen has a missionthere, son.”
Mike caught hold of my arm and squeezed. “The monstersaren’t the only threat. I’m leading a small team into Afghanistan to check outsome newly reported supernatural incidents. The peacekeeping effort is mycover.”
“So you can’t stay here,” I said.
“I wish I could, but I’m needed elsewhere.” Mike let my armgo, his eyes sad. “The human race is in this together, Chief. Most people justdon’t know it yet, and we hope they never find out.”
I walked to the window, staring out at the traffic movingalong the road. I was smart enough to understand what this meant, even if I wasfrightened out of my mind. Was I going to act like a scared brat, knowing morepregnant women, maybe even kids, could be killed if I begged Mike to stay?
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay. I’m in.”
* * *
Mike and I jogged along the same road we’d taken to thewoods in the morning, but now it was busy, with trucks and Humvees rattling by.Squatty, gray buildings lined the street, all square and boring, especiallycompared to the forest and mountains abutting the base. Camo was everywhere andbarked orders filled the air.
The afternoon had warmed up into the seventies so I tradedthe sweats for shorts and a t-shirt—all standard issue. I felt better, too.Having a plan, even in the face of total insanity, was better than curling upin a corner.
“So when do I get my Class B uniform?”
Mike snorted. “When you’re eighteen, and then only if youenlist. I’d prefer that you go to college first and come in as an officer. Fornow, though, let’s just focus on keeping you alive that long, okay?”
I hoped he was kind of joking about the keeping me alivepart, but I didn’t think so. “Sure, okay.”
We headed for the woods at a gentle trot. Now that I wasn’ttotally freaked and alone in the dark, I could appreciate the juniper andpinyon trees, along with a scattered aspen here or there. My Plant Sciencemerit badge came in handy sometimes. As the branches swayed, the warm afternoonbreeze filled with the sharp scent of pine. Sagebrush grew up along the trees,covering the ground, its grayish-green fronds poking out in all directions. Itwas a relaxing scene when you weren’t expecting an ambush.
At the trailhead, we met up with a soldier I recognized fromthe meeting this morning.
“Oy, Major. So, this is the wunderkind.” Master SergeantSchmitz was the smallest member of the team, only about five-eight, but totallyspit and polish. His hair was a faint, dark smudge on his skull, and his browneyes darted constantly, like he expected enemies to leap from the bushes at anysecond. “Hello, Mr. Archer. Just so you know, I’m here to teach you something.”
Mike dragged me past him, following the narrow dirt pathwe’d run on in the morning. Surprised we didn’t even stop to say hello, Iasked, “Aren’t we gonna wait for the Master Sergeant?”
I turned back to ask Schmitz what I’d be learning. He wasgone. Poof. Like a ghost. “Whoa! He wasright there!”
“Who was right there?” Mike asked. “I don’t see anyone.”
“Schmitz, you idiot. Where did he go?”
“Careful or I’ll make you drop and give me fifty.” Mikegrinned, then cupped his hands around his mouth. “Schmitz!”
“Sir,” he called, from somewhere in front of us.
“How did he move so fast without us seeing him?” I hadn’tseen or heard a thing, but in thirty seconds he’d gotten past us.
Mike yawned. “That’s what you’re here to learn. I’m going totake a nap. Major’s privilege.” After a sly glance, he turned toward base. “Youcan come back once you find him.”
“Oh, that’s just great!” I kicked at the ground. “Find aghost in the forest. Great.”
Schmitz called out—now behind me to the left. “Have a goodnap, sir. This’ll be a while.”
“Can someone tell me why I’m hunting the invisible man inthe woods?” I thrashed through the sagebrush along the trail, not findinganything but moss and a few crickets.
“Because if you can learn to move the same way I do, you’llbe able to sneak up on monsters,” Schmitz said, breathing down my neck.
I jumped in surprise and spun around to find him rightbehind me. “That was seriously awesome. Can you really teach me how to sneaklike that?”
“If you listen to me, by Friday even the Major will have ahard time finding you out here. That’s what we’re working toward. A littlede-mon-stray-shun.” Schmitz bobbed his head as he spoke.
A grin spread across my face. “Excellent. Show me how.”Chapter Nine
Most of the week passed in an exhausting, non-stop whirl ofearly morning runs, brush-crawling, learning how to track monster prints in thedark, and equipment training. I went through four sets of sweats in the firstthree days, ripping holes in the knees or elbows, and I was constantly filthy,sweaty or bloody. Usually all three at once.
My favorite part of the training turned out to behand-to-hand combat exercises. I spent two hours every morning getting my butthanded to me in a small gym with stark-white walls and a worn wooden floor.Fighting equipment, including staffs and practice swords, were on racks boltedto the walls. Serious work went on in this place. Lucky for me, thick, red matspadded the hard surfaces, otherwise I would’ve been sporting some broken bones.
Lieutenant Johnson, my fighting instructor, was a huge blackguy with a deep voice and a lot of patience. He was well over six feet tall,and broader than a bus, so he had to stoop to square-off with me. Which didn’tmake me self-conscious or anything, especially since I was supposed to betrying to hit the guy.
“Archer, feint right, more weight on your back leg, soyou’re stable.” He chuckled when I moved. “Your other right.”
With a sigh, I shifted the other direction. I kept makingstupid mistakes, and it was starting to wear me down. “All right, all right.Let’s go, old man.”
“Oh ho, talking smack? Kid, I invented smack.” Before Icould blink, I was upside down, hanging by my knees on Johnson forearms. Theblood rushed to my head. He swung me back and forth a little, just to be asmartass. “Most officers would do worse than this for back-talk. Maybe make youclean the floor with a toothbrush. Lucky for you, I’m nice.”
“Understood, sir.” I squirmed, but he didn’t let go.
“You want down? Say please.”
Feeling like a bat at roost, I crossed my arms. “Fine, let’ssee how long you can hold me, sir. I bet I can outlast you.”
Johnson laughed, a rumble that vibrated against the hard surfacesin the room. “You weigh, what, a hundred pounds? Archer, I can walk around allday carrying a hundred pounds.”
To prove it, he walked around the gym, me dangling with myankles over his left shoulder, his arms around my waist, and my head banginginto his knees. My gray t-shirt slid downward, showing off my belly-button.Here I was, fourteen years old, being carted around like a preschooler. Johnsonknew how to make a point.
Properly embarrassed, I gave up. “Fine, you win. Please putme down, sir.”
He flipped me over and set me on my feet. Once my head quitwhirling, I picked up my practice knife and assumed the correct stance, kneesbent, knife hand down and back, left fist up.
And then I was hanging upside down again.
“Archer, the monsters aren’t gonna give you a minute tocollect your wits. Don’t tell me you’re ready, justbeready,” Johnson said. He put me down,his expression stern. “Fighting fair doesn’t count in a life or deathsituation. Stealth, cunning, and decisiveness–that’s what matters. Make sense?”
Life or death. Like I needed that little reminder. In a way,maybe I did, though. I couldn’t let myself fail. “It does, sir.”
He rushed me. I dodged and managed to duck Johnson’s arm ashe swung out to catch my shoulder, but I didn’t get away fast enough. Hegrabbed my hip on the follow through, and I landed on my right side, ear first.
“Ow!” My tongue ached and I tasted blood. “Crap, sir, thathurt!”
Johnson pulled me to my feet. “Is that what you’re gonna sayto those mutant grizzlies? ‘Crap, Bear, that hurt!’”
“No, sir. I’m gonna sneak up on it and stab it.” My voicesounded tougher than I felt, but I gritted my teeth and assumed the stanceagain.
Johnson lunged. I struck out with my right hand, aiming forhis head. I missed and he flipped me onto the floor. On the plus side, I didland a punch on his shoulder before I went down.
“Better. You anticipated an attack, kept your guard up,”Johnson said. “We need to work on avoiding an attack more. You’re quick—it’sjust a matter of practice and knowing what moves to make.”
I forced myself to sit up. “Don’t make me anticipateanything for the next five minutes, okay, sir?”
He laughed and sat next to me. “You got it.”
“Why’d you call my Montana monster a Bear?”
“You said they looked a little like a grizzly in thebriefing. Why not Bear? Fits with Panda and Gator,” Johnson said. “Good enoughcode name, right?”
“I guess.” I paused for a minute, curious about something.“Did you ever fight any of the monsters, sir?”
Johnson cocked his head. The overhead lights gleamed againsthis bald scalp. “I was down in Peru with Major Tannen.”
“What was it like? My fight happened so fast, it’s like itwasn’t real.”
“Combat’s like that.”
When he didn’t add anything, I asked, “Well, were youscared? Of the Gators?”
“Those things are freaks of nature. They’d scare anyone. ButI couldn’t just sit there and watch them kill people.” Johnson’s voice trailedoff at the end. He shook himself. “Getting those knives was a godsend. Nothingelse slowed those Gators down.”
“So what did the rest of you guys do while theknife-wielders hunted?” Parker and Ramirez had teams with them, but what gooddid extra men do if the knife was the only weapon that worked?
Johnson laughed. “Archer, who do you think you’re talkingto? Think we sat around all day, knitting socks? The teams have all kinds ofjobs—setting traps, tracking the monsters, evacuating civilians, intel, flushingthe beasts out with ordnance. Just because I didn’t have a knife in my handdidn’t mean I wasn’t fighting, too.”
“Sorry. It’s just…well, I’m gonna be out there alone, sinceUncle Mike’s leaving.”
My stomach flipped a little at the thought of being on myown. If I didn’t ace this training, what was I going to do? I couldn’t letMontana, or my uncle, down.
“The major won’t let that happen. You’ll have some help. Notsure who though…wish it could be me, but I’m being deployed. Almost everybodyis.” He stood. “Okay, let’s practice avoiding an attacker.” The lieutenantpulled me up. “You know the drill…”
Johnson put me through my paces and I spent the evening inbed, nursing a whole lot of bruises. But it was so worth it; I had a feelingschool hallways weren’t going to be a problem ever again.
* * *
On Wednesday, I jogged to the woods and the now familiar“Cougar” trail. I dodged Humvees and marching soldiers, enjoying the sounds ofthe busy base. Uncle Mike had concocted some story about me visiting FortCarson for a school report, so no one batted an eye as I ran past the barracksand administrative buildings until I reached the cutoff to turn into theforest. Schmitz was already waiting for me, but that was evidenced only by thestopwatch and hat lying on the ground by a tree.
I sighed. “It’smyturn to hide, Master Sergeant.”
A pair of hands grabbed my arms and I jumped sky high. Iturned to glare at Schmitz. “Youhaveto stop doing that! It takes ten minutes to get myheart rate down.”
“I’m not stopping until you beat me,” he said. “Until then,I plan to scare the crap out of you each and every time you show up, Mr.Archer.” Smirking, Schmitz picked up his stopwatch and jammed his camo hat onhis close-shaved head. “You’ve got five minutes. Go!”
I took off, muttering, “Today’s the day, dude.”
There wasn’t any wind, all the trees were still, so beingstealthy was tougher than usual. Deciding to risk a fake-out, I made two falsetrails, first by leaving footprints in the dirt near a small gully filled withpine needles and leaves. Then I bent some grass and broke a few twigs near ahuge aspen tree, hoping Schmitz would think I’d climbed up. Finally, I crept tomy resting spot, walking in a random path over pine needles to hide my footprints.Crawling underneath a thick patch of brush, I hugged the earth, pressing downtight to the ground so I wouldn’t jiggle the scrubby bushes keeping me out ofsight. All I could see or smell was moss, soil, and branches. My mind quieted,and I concentrated on the dirt under my body, pretending to be the forestfloor.
“Time’s up!” Schmitz called. “My turn. Stop where you are.”
His feet crunched by once or twice, and he thrashed throughthe trees nearby, but he never found me. When Schmitz’s stopwatch beeped again,he shouted, “Time’s up.” He sounded excited. “You finally did it! Where theheck are you?”
I popped up six feet in front of him. “I hid close; thoughtyou’d look further out. Guess I was right.”
“No kidding. Right under my nose the whole time.” Schmitzlaughed. “I owe you twenty.”
That was the deal—whoever lost had to do twenty pushups. I’ddone so many for my instructors that my shoulder muscles had knots in them.When Schmitz dropped and did his, I grinned the entire time. It was nice to seean adult pushing the ground for once.
After I finished playing hide and seek in the woods, I wentto Colonel Black’s office for equipment training. He wasn’t there, but Kingstonlet me in. The little table where we’d had breakfast the first day was covered withcool, slick-looking gadgets.
“What’s all this?” I reached for a black rectangle thatlooked like an oversized iPhone.
“Stop.” A soldier stood in the doorway behind me. “Look withyour eyes, not with your hands, Mr. Archer. Without proper instruction, youcould break something. The equipment on that table is worth more than a hundredvideo game systems.”
“Really?” I rubbed my hands together. “Awesome.”
“No, not awesome. These are tools, not toys, Mr. Archer.Understand?” The man walked around and stood between me and the table. He wastall, pale, with perfectly buzzed hair. I could see my face reflected in theshine on his boots and his BDUs had creases ironed into them.
This guy would be a barrel of fun, no doubt. I wanted toplay with the gadgets, though, so I decided to suck up. “Absolutely. I promiseto treat everything here with respect.” After a glance at his rank and namepatches, I added, “Specialist Davis, sir.”
“I’m not an officer—I work for a living. Just Davis orSpecialist will suffice.” He pulled out a chair and pointed at it. “Have aseat; it’s quiz time. What’s the most important piece of equipment you’ll needon a hunt?”
I checked out the gadgets. “The GPS? That’s what theiPhone-looking thing is, right? That way I won’t get lost.”
Davis stared me down until I squirmed. “What about theknife, Mr. Archer?”
“Um, yeah,” I muttered, feeling my face get hot. “I thoughtyou meant—”
“Put it on the table, with the rest of your gear,” Davis cutin, eyes piercing mine. When I laid the sheathed knife on the table, he asked,“What do you know about that blade?”
“It kills monsters.” I crossed my arms and glared. If hecould be a butthead, so could I.
“It’s a supernatural blade, created by a medicine-man inPeru. It’s made of a metal alloy, including copper and gold, and infused withchemical compounds made from plant materials native to the Amazonianrainforest.” He rattled off the details like he was onJeopardyor something.
Not to be outdone, I added, “And it picks its master.”
Davis nodded. “It does. Still seems fantastic if you ask me.Either way, there’s more to those knives than we understand.”
That got my attention. “Like what?”
“The medicine man told us about a war—”
“With evil spirits—I already heard all that.” I drummed myfingers on the table, wishing he would hurry up so I could get my hands on thenight-vision goggles.
Davis scowled. “Don’t interrupt me.”
When I sighed and gave him a “please, go-on” look, he stoodand paced, lecturing down his nose like my least favorite teacher. “He told usabout a war against the forces of darkness, which had been foretold by apre-Incan holy man. They believed a team of hunters, warriors marked by blood,would lead the battle to save humankind. The warriors would fight, even in theface of death, assisted by special knives.” He pointed at my knife. “The kniveshave some really interesting lore: ‘born of the ground, tied to the heavens,the blades of redemption will meet their brothers in unearthly combat to fightfor men’s souls.’”
Goosebumps covered my arms. “Any idea what it means?”
“Well, everyone has a theory,” he said. “Personally, I thinkthe blades are more powerful than we understand. So be careful with yours.”
He cut my question off. “That’s all we know. Everything elseis just speculation, and I like facts. Now, let’s talk about your night-visiongoggles.” His expression clearly said “conversation over,” so I turned myattention to the toys.
Two hours of instruction later, he finally let me touch theGPS system, the satellite phone, and the night-vision goggles. To mydisappointment, he didn’t let me take anything with me when we were done.
“Next time, I’ll teach you maintenance and how to pack eachitem for travel,” he said.
“You’re gonna teach me to pack?” I stared at him indisbelief. “Um, how hard can that be?”
“If you don’t want to break everything while crawlingthrough the forest? Somewhat complicated. Oh-nine-hundred tomorrow. Don’t belate.” With that, the specialist picked up my electronics and left.
“That man needs a hobby,” I muttered, pushing my aching bodyout of the folding chair. “Or a girlfriend.”
I went back to quarters for a shower, a new pair of sweatsand an afternoon nap so I’d be rested for night maneuvers. Searching for tracksin the dark took some doing; I needed to be sharp. Especially since Mike haddeveloped a habit of jumping out from behind trees to startle me. Between himand Schmitz, I had no idea why I hadn’t died of a heart attack yet.
Mike wasn’t in quarters when I got back. Except for morningruns and night-stalking exercises, he had turned my training over to variousinstructors. I didn’t mind, though; when he wasn’t watching out for me, he wasplanning his op to Afghanistan with Colonel Black. He had things to do. So didI. Showered and stretched out on my bunk, I thought how cool it felt to be justlike him. I was protecting the world from monsters.
* * *
Thursday night, I sat on my metal bunk, leaning against thewall at the head of the bed. I left the window open and listened to vehiclesgrowl along the road even though it was past eight o’clock. The base neverstopped moving. Kinda like me over the last week.
My cell phone rested in my lap. For the most part, I’d beentoo busy to miss home, but I was having a hard time tonight. Mike had warned methat if I called Mom I would get an earful about the dust-up with Carter. Myfamily thought I didn’t have cell coverage, out rappelling in the mountainswith Mike, so I knew no one would call to check on me. I wondered what theywere doing, and whether or not they missed me.
Mike knocked on the door separating my room from thebathroom, then poked his head in. He was already dressed in BDUs for our nightmaneuvers. “Chief, I thought you’d be crashed out. We have tracking exercisesat oh-one-hundred. You should get some sleep while you can.”
I shook my head, my chest feeling tight. “When I get backhome, how will I do this alone?”
Uncle Mike sat at the foot of my bunk. It squeaked from theadded weight. “You aren’t alone, Matt. You have an entire team of Green Beretsat your back.”
“That’s just it,” I said, embarrassed by the tremble in myvoice. “I don’t. Johnson told me everyone’s leaving, either on regulardeployment orders that can’t be changed because they’re needed elsewhere, or tocheck out supernatural activity, like you. I can’t even meet the otherwielders. They have their own creatures to fight.”
“Colonel Black and I have been interviewing personnel fromFort Carson, people outside the 10thAirborne, but good soldiers.We’ll find you a partner” he said. “I promise.”
“Be good for you to find this ‘partner’ before I leave base,you know,” I said. “Since you’re abandoning me.”
The second I said it, I regretted it. The hurt look onMike’s face made me want to crawl under the bed. Being homesick and in a pissy mooddidn’t excuse being an a-hole.
“I have to find the right person and that takes time. Ican’t entrust your safety to just any master sergeant with good hand-to-handcombat skills.” Uncle Mike stood. “We’ll find someone. For now, focus on themission. Logistics have a funny way of sorting themselves out.”
I picked at my cuticles, ashamed for doubting him, and evenmore ashamed for continuing to doubt myself. If I was going to do anyone anygood, I had to stop being a coward and prove I was worthy of being chosen. “I’msorry…for what I said. I know you and the colonel won’t leave me twisting inthe wind.”
“Never.” Mike dropped a hand on my shoulder. “Matt, I’mproud of you.”
He left and I stretched out in bed, feeling better. Mikealways had my back. I wouldn’t gripe again—to prove I had his.
* * *
Friday, it all clicked.
“No, Archer, no,” Lieutenant Johnson said during our finalworkout in the fighting gym. “If I’m coming at you with a left hook…don’t justduck then stand there. Duck and hit me on the underside. Don’t worry about thatwooden knife, man, you won’t hurt me.”
I lunged and he grabbed my arm at the elbow. With a whirland a twist, I ended up flat on my back.
“Down again, kid.” Johnson’s voice rumbled like a Harley inprime shape. “All right, let’s do it over, and this time, don’t get all niceon...”
Before he finished the sentence, I popped into a crouch andgrabbed his knees from behind, butting him with my shoulder to make them bend.Johnson rolled over my back as I turned a somersault underneath him to keepfrom getting kicked in the head or squashed. After he dropped, I jumped on him.
Putting my knife against his throat, I said, “Something likethat, sir?” I gave him a little smile, trying not to whoop with excitement.
Johnson laughed, his brown eyes alight. “Yeah, man, yeah.”
I glanced at Mike, who was leaning up against the gym wallto watch us spar and he smiled at me. I’d improved in my training much fasterthan he expected. He’d told me so, and that made me work even harder.
I even aced equipment training.
Later on Friday morning, Davis paced around Colonel Black’soffice, barking out questions. “Name the standard night vision goggles suppliedto the U.S. Military.”
“ATN PVS7-DP. They include Automatic Brightness Control andsixty hours of battery life,” I recited.
“Correct. At what elevation above the horizon does yoursat-phone get a signal?”
“Any elevation above ten degrees.”
“Yes. What’s the resolution on your GPS display?”
“Four hundred by two-forty.” I rolled my eyes. “Any morequestions, Specialist? I read the manuals like you assigned, so hit me.”
“That won’t be necessary. Let’s see how well you packed.”
Davis picked up my equipment bag and balanced it on hishand. “Feels even.” He unzipped it and rifled through the contents, taking along time to check everything out. “All the gear’s in the right place,except…where’s the knife?”
I’d tried something different from his instructions, and ofcourse he noticed. “Front pocket. It’s easier to find it there and besides,when we locate a trail I’m going to keep the knife on me, not in the bag.”
Davis gave me a curt nod. “Good. I’ve been wondering howlong it would take you to figure that out. Speed drill. Unpack it all and packit back up.”
I hid a grin. No matter what it sounded like, Davis had justcomplimented me.
* * *
Right after lunch, Master Sergeant Schmitz asked Mike toattend our “dem-mon-stray-shun” in the woods. I wore a brand-new pair of BDUsthe colonel had special-ordered to fit me. I even had a name patch with“Archer” on it. My sneakers ruined the look, but Mike promised to buy me someboots for an early Christmas present.
Colonel Black in tow, Mike strode out to meet Schmitz,looking agitated. “Schmitz, appreciate the effort, but we don’t have time.Something’s come up. Matt, come on out; we need to talk.”
“Find me first!” I was thirty feet ahead, hiding under somebushes that surrounded an aspen tree, but I started moving right after I calledout.
Mike came toward the sound of my voice. “Fine, found you.”
By that point, I’d already crept the other direction throughthe dense sagebrush. I settled down on my belly in front of the colonel towatch the progress, keeping my breathing even and quiet, just like Schmitztaught me.
Mike thrashed around the brush. “Kid, come out of there.”
“Out of where?” I yelled.
Schmitz laughed his head off. “Told you the kid was a quickstudy. He’s so much lighter than we are that it’d take a bloodhound to find himunder cover.Ican’t even find him most of the time now. He’s too dang quiet. Kinda freaky,huh? Like he’s a sneaking-savant or something.”
Colonel Black’s eyebrows shot up. “Must be if you can’t findhim, Schmitz.” He called out to his right. “Matt, there were two monsterattacks last night in Billings. Get your butt out here, now.”
I jumped to my feet. “Two more?” My limbs were shaking fromthe exercise but also from something else. Not fear. Excitement. “Does thismean I need to go back, sir?”
Mike threw up his hands when he saw how close I was. “Yes. Iknow we had more training planned, but we can’t wait.” He smiled. “I’ve talkedto Johnson, Schmitz and Davis. Everyone says you’re good to go.”
“Even Davis?” That was hard for me to believe.
The colonel laughed. “Even Davis. He’s not good with lettingother kids play with his toys, but you convinced him.”
“So,” Mike said, “you ready to do this?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll go pack at once, Major.” I stood up tallerand saluted—right hand at my eyebrow, crisp and straight and tense—the waythey’d showed me. I turned and made it three steps before my “Special-Forces-swagger”left me. I pumped my fist in the air. “Let’s go hunt some monsters!Chapter Ten
We didn’t drive home. We flew.
In a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
“All right, Matt. You have the satellite phone and mynumber.” Colonel Black hurried us to the helipad. “We’ll give you periodicupdates on sightings and let you know if there have been attacks.”
I gave him a quick salute. “Yes, sir.”
“It’s good to have you on the team, son. You sure were fullof surprises this week.” The colonel helped me into my seat and got myheadphones untangled for me. “Godspeed.”
“Thank you, sir.” I tried to act nonchalant about ridinghome in a helicopter, but it wasn’t easy. A stupid grin kept erupting across myface.
Colonel Black said his goodbyes to Mike, and let him know acouple of enlisted personnel would drive his Jeep to Billings. Mike and Ineeded to hunt as soon as we got back, which is why I got to ride in the BlackHawk. We didn’t even bother to change out of our BDUs in our hurry.
The helicopter zoomed into the sky, leaving the ground andmy stomach behind. It was the most amazing flight of my life. The countrysidelooked much closer than from an airplane, like we were flying in the clutchesof a giant eagle. The vibration of the rotors rumbled in my back and chest, asif I was one with the machine. If only Ella could have seen me. Carter would’vebeen an afterthought.
On the flight, I caught Mike watching me with the same awedlook he’d had the night the knife had transferred to me.
“Something wrong?” My voice crackled over the headphones.
Mike flipped the switch that cut our conversation off fromthe pilots’ speakers. “I was thinking about when you asked why the knife pickeda completely average ninth grader instead of a trained soldier.”
My insides squirmed. “Yeah, I still wonder that sometimes,actually.”
“Matt, you’re far from average,” he said. “I don’t know howthe knife sensed it, but you’re fast, have a good sense of direction and cancreep around the woods without being seen better than I can. And I noticedsomething else.”
“You don’t panic. That day you got ‘lost’ in the woods, yougot yourself under control and made a plan much quicker than Colonel Black andI expected.”
“So you were watching me gripe and moan, curled up in a ballon the forest floor? Thanks for that, man.” I fiddled with the cord of myheadphones, embarrassed. I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought about that before,because of course they’d been watching me. Now, though, it hurt my pride tohear about it after finishing my training.
“I’m trying to pay you a compliment,” Uncle Mike said. “WhenI gave you that twenty-five-pound pack for our first run, you had troublecarrying it. But when you thought you were lost and being chased, you didn’teven seem to notice the weight. It’s like intense situations give you strength.That’s a rare quality, Chief. And an important one.”
I thought about the fight with Carter, how I’d been able topin a much bigger guy against his locker once my blood boiled.
“Guess we’ll get to test your theory tonight,” I said.
I hoped I wouldn’t disappoint him.
We made it to the Billings airport just before sunset andlanded on the helipad on the far end of the general aviation buildings, where arented SUV waited. The crew helped us load everything into its trunk, then wewere off.
“Good thing I set up my backpack yesterday,” I said, stillfinding it amusing that Davis had made me practice packing my gear.
“Yep.” Mike’s shoulders were tense. He glanced at me, hiseyes dark. “You have everything?”
I patted down the pockets on my BDUs to make sure I had mycompass and flashlight. The knife was safely stowed in the front pocket of myequipment bag. “Yeah.”
Mike’s chest heaved as he took a deep breath. “Okay. This isyour show. I’m just here to give you backup and pointers. Tell me what to dofirst.”
My show? Wasn’t this supposed to be a ride along? “Um. Well,we need to find a good entry point into the woods. One that’s close to home, soI can get there on my bike when I hunt alone.” I winced at how stupid thatsounded. The mental image of me riding my bike to go on an unsupervised monsterhunt—carrying a backpack containing a deadly knife, a top-of–the-line handheldGPS, and a pair of night-vision goggles—seemed a little ridiculous.
To my surprise, Mike looked impressed. “I hadn’t thoughtabout that. You’re right, we need to find you a way in that’s close enough tohome. Any thoughts on where?”
That was easy. “Yeah. My friend Will’s house butts up to thewoods where we camped, at the opposite end from the campgrounds. I’ll have afour- or five-mile hike to get into the center of the forest, but that’s apiece of cake after running with you this past week.”
Mike turned out of the airport’s main driveway. “All rightthen, off to Will’s.”
* * *
We parked down the street from the Cruessan’s house. Miketook a long look and whistled. “Good Lord, kid. What, did Will’s family win thelottery or something?”
Will’s house was a nine-thousand-square-foot mini-mansion.I’d gotten lost in it a few times. “No. His dad’s retired NFL and owns some cardealerships. His mom’s a neurosurgeon.” And they were never home, which madethis the perfect spot to sneak in. “They have six acres out back, so we canskirt the house to the woods without being seen.”
That earned me an approving smile—a real one, not the faint,fleeting ones I’d gotten on base all week. “Good thinking, Chief. Really good.”
We crept around the back edge of Will’s property, passingthe detached four-car garage. There was a gap in the hedges that I couldsqueeze through easily. It was a bit of a challenge for Mike, but he made itand we sneaked into the back yard.
“Didn’t they have a garage on the house?” Mike asked.
“Yeah. That one’s for the actual cars. The detached garageis where they store the boat, the ATVs, and a bunch of hiking and campingstuff. Will’s dad is a big outdoorsman. We play ping-pong out here sometimes,too.”
“Must be rough being this well-off,” he whispered.
I sighed. “Believe it or not, it is. Their housekeeper,Millicent, hangs with Will most of the time. His parents travel a lot. But wehave him over for dinner about once a week, so he gets plenty of nagging andworry-warting from Mom.”
Mike grunted. “That sounds familiar.”
We got into the woods via a small gap in the trees near thesoutheast corner of Will’s property. I’d only made it ten feet before Mike heldup a hand. “Stop.”
I skimmed behind a holly bush. “What?”
“Thought I saw someone moving on the back patio.”
“Probably just Millicent. She smokes, but doesn’t wantWill’s folks to know, so she sneaks a cigarette out there.”
“Okay. Oh, as your uncle, let me just say that smoking’sstupid.” Mike gave me a self-righteous nod and crept into the trees.
“Sir, yes, sir.” I followed him, laughing that my cigar-lovinguncle would give me an anti-smoking lecture while he dragged me into the woodsto hunt a big, hairy monster.
We fought our way through scrub brush and pines until wefound one of the main hiking trails. The night was cloudless, with a waxingmoon lighting our way. The weather stayed mild, about forty degrees, and if Ihadn’t been apprehensive about what we were looking for, it would’ve been agreat hike. We trekked single file, marching toward the coordinates of the lastattack. I stopped every so often to don my night-vision goggles and search thetrees for heat signatures, but the beast eluded us for the first hour.
About three miles in, we found the first hint that we weregetting close. I scanned the ground with my flashlight, looking for signs. “Mike.”
Two giant paw prints crossed the trail, leading off to theeast. The prints were longer than my size-eight sneakers and they sank downinto the dirt, like the creature who made them weighed more than arefrigerator. Mike took a picture of the paw print with his digital camera,then gestured for me to lead him through the trees. I followed the tracks untilI pushed into a small, moonlit clearing. I stopped short, hand over my mouth soI wouldn’t yell in fright.
The remains of a deer had been scattered in a twenty-footradius around the clearing. Bits of meat hung from the pines, stuck in theneedles, and splattered the matted mulch of the forest floor. The stag’s hornshad been discarded to one side. Everything else, including its hooves, wasgone, taken.
“A bobcat or grizzly didn’t do this,” I whispered.
“Not even a person with a machete could do this, Matt,” Mikesaid, his nose wrinkled in disgust.
“God.” I blew out a little breath, trying to keep my stomachsteady, determined not to throw up. “Major, what do I do if it hurts me? How doI get away?”
Mike froze. “There won’t be time.” He turned to me. “Youhave to be on constant alert and move fast. Youcannothesitate. Kill the monster beforeit kills you. Period.”
My knees threatened to turn to jelly, but I gave myself amental slap in the face and squared my shoulders. “Then let’s get moving andtake this one out.”
I searched the brush for tracks. Based on the broken twigs,crushed leaves and huge paw prints, the monster had continued on to the north.Its claws left four gouges at the front of each footprint. That should’vescared the piss out of me, but my pulse quickened with anticipation—we had itnow. I started ahead, but Mike didn’t come.
“Did you hear something?” he asked, looking behind us.
“No.” I strained my ears. A few leaves crunched together.“Wait, yeah. Doesn’t sound like a monster though. Too small. A raccoon, or abig rabbit?”
Mike stared at the trees without moving. Finally, he shookhis head. “Just an animal. I’m keyed up; we’re getting close. Let’s go quiet,though, just in case.”
We moved silently through the evergreens, using branches andshadows to hide us as we followed its tracks. Only ten minutes later, we foundit. A huge shadow shuffled through the trees fifty feet in front of us. Itlumbered without caution, as if it didn’t care who or what it ran into.
Cold fingers prickled down my back. As we crept ahead, Iwondered if it would be able to smell us. Almost at my thought, it turned ourdirection, and sniffed the air. Mike held up a fist—the sign for “halt”—andmotioned for me to get down. I crouched in the brush, holding my breath. Aftera moment, Mike pushed forward again.
As we sneaked closer, we caught glimpses of the monsterthrough the branches. Its shaggy fur was mottled, with both dark and lightpatches. Same short snout and curved, boar-like tusks as the first one I’dkilled, but this monster was taller and lankier. The Bear stood on its hindlegs and pulled eggs out of a bird’s nest, popping them in its mouth like theywere mints. Mike and I held so still that I could hear the poor eggs crunch inits teeth.
With a shock, I realized the knife was still in mybackpack—I’d forgotten to put it in my pocket when we found the trail. I triedto pull the knife out of my bag, but the zipper stuck, making a grinding noiseas I tugged it.
The monster’s ears pricked up. Had it heard us?
“Steady, Matt,” Uncle Mike said, his whisper barely audible.“Get ready. I’ll divert it, and…”
Something crashed through the trees off to our right. “Ow!”
Will fell out of the bushes, ripping the sleeve of his skijacket on a branch, and landed on his knees right in front the creature. TheBear jerked its head in his direction and Mike and I flattened ourselvesagainst the ground. Will’s head tilted slowly upward as he checked out thebeast in front of him, his mouth hanging open. The Bear flexed its claws andtook a few steps toward Will with a pleased-sounding grunt.
I yanked the knife out of my backpack and tried to get up,but Mike held me down.
“Lemme go,” I whispered. “It’ll kill him!”
Mike shook his head. “We wait. Need to see what it does toget a better point of attack.”
In the meantime, Will had gone rigid, still kneeling on theforest floor, staring at the beast with terror painted all over his face. Themonster lumbered toward him, its eyes wide.
“Nice bear…thing. Nice bear,” Will babbled to the monsterlike it was a stray dog. “I’ll be going now.”
He scrambled to his feet. The Bear leapt on top of him; theytumbled to the ground in a heap of fur, arms and legs.
Mike was up like a shot, waving a tree branch. “Hey, ugly!Over here. Pick on a man, why don’t you?” He glanced back at me, face tense,then darted his eyes to the right.
He wanted me to crawl right and get behind the beast. Inodded and started moving.
Will lay flat on his back with his eyes screwed shut,saying, “I don’t believe in Bigfoot. I’m asleep. I’m asleep. Okay, Will, wakeup now.”
Mike walked backward, shouting insults, most consisting ofsome really cool swear words, and whacked the branch against a tree trunk. TheBear couldn’t have understood the insults, but it shrieked at Mike anyway. Thesound, like school bus brakes forced to stop short on the highway, filled thewhole clearing. For the first time ever, my uncle looked scared.
“Come on, you hairy mess, bring it.” Mike’s voice shook ashe swung the branch at the monster’s head. “Let’s dance.”
It loped toward him, howling. Mike backed himself into agroup of trees that grew in a thick line. Caught, he took one last look my direction,steel in his eyes, and gripped the branch like a baseball bat.
That’s all he said—but I understood. He’d let the monsterget him if that meant I could kill it and help Will escape.
“Not today,” I whispered.
Everything around me slowed down and came into sharp focus.My heart rate slowed; I felt steady, ready. I made my way behind the monster,then unsheathed the knife.
The thing lunged at Mike, growling in rage, and swiped athis head. Mike ducked, but not fast enough. Its claws cuffed his ear. Mike wentdown with blood streaming from the side of his head.
The sight pissed me off. Forgetting all my training, I flewout of the brush with a bloodcurdling yell.
The monster whirled around.
Johnson’s voice growled instructions in my head.Just wait. Make it come to you.Patience, Matt, patience.I bent my knees in the defensiveposition Johnson had taught me. I needed to stay on my feet and move at thelast possible second.
The Bear ran my direction…maybe because it sensed easierprey. I was the weaker one. Or so it thought.
It flung its arms wide, like it planned to wrap me up in abig hug and snap my spine.
Don’thesitate. Use its momentum. Kill it before it kills you.Ichanted Johnson’s orders, waiting for the monster’s rush. No matter what, Iwasn’t going out cowering like a kid. Tonight, I was a Green Beret.
I pulled my arms up to chest level, elbows turned out, myright palm wrapped around the bone handle, and my left palm flat, pressedagainst my right fist for added resistance.
It took a final bound, leapt at me with a shriek.
I braced my feet.
The monster realized, too late, that it had brought aboutits own death. It couldn’t stop when I sidestepped underneath its arm. Itwisted my shoulders, rotating the knife upward for the only blow I knew I’dhave. Missing wasn’t an option.
And I didn’t.Chapter Eleven
Will threw up a second time and wiped his mouth with theback of his hand. His breath came in rasps. I’d pulled him up and dragged himaway after I took out the Bear. Now he sat against a massive juniper twentyyards from the carcass. He closed his eyes, wheezing harder, pulling at hishair while he rocked back and forth. Each time he did, his back banged againstthe tree trunk. He was so messed up, I didn’t have time to think about what I’djust done.
I knelt next to him, worried he’d hyperventilate. “Dude,calm down. Everything’s gonna be okay now. It’s dead. I killed it.”
Will’s eyes flew open. He scrambled away from me and threwup again. I rocked back into a squat. “Major, he looks pretty bad. We need toget him out of here.”
Mike came over to squat with me, bringing the first-aid kit.He pulled the first piece of gauze off his ear without saying anything. Thegash had cut a jagged tear through his earlobe. Had to hurt like heck, but Mikeslapped a fresh piece of gauze against it without flinching.
“Maybe,” he said. He watched Will for a moment, then hisface went from concerned to cast-iron. “Will, get your butt off the ground.Matt, you, too. We have work to do.”
At the sound of the “Fort Carson bark,” I jumped up. “Sir,yes, sir.”
Will shrank lower, shaking his head. Mike stood and jerkedhim to his feet. “The only way to get over a shock like this is to get busy.Now can you walk, or are you a total pansy?”
Will cringed and threw me a horrified look. It hurt me to doit, but I met his gaze and snapped, “Do as the major says. Move it.”
He swallowed hard. “Okay. Where are we going?”
I strode into the woods without looking back. “To get rid ofthe body.”
* * *
We stood over the dead beast, listening to the pine treeswhip in the breeze. The monster lay in a pool of blood with one arm flungaskew. Its eyes were bugged out, as if it still couldn’t believe it had beenstabbed. I’d done that. My knees shook. I’d felt so brave in the heat of themoment, but now that it was all over, I couldn’t believe it was real. I had tokeep it together, though; I couldn’t freak. If I was going to do this job, itmeant focusing on the task at hand without thinking too much about it.
Mike moved us upwind, because the thing reeked. “Let’s finda ditch or a dense clump of brush. It’ll take some effort, but you’ve got tohide the body well enough that it won’t be found.” He punched Will in theshoulder. “You with me, Cruessan? Once it’s hidden, Matt knows what to do.”
“I call Colonel Black and they send a team out for retrievaland disposal,” I said. “We have to make sure it’s hidden because it might be afew days before he can get enough personnel assembled to make the trip fromColorado. And I need to mark down the GPS coordinates of the dump site, so theteam can find the body.”
“Retrieval….and disposal?” Will stared at me like he’d neverseen me before. A stranger—who he’d known since first grade. “Who are you people?”
“I’m your best friend, Matt.” I glanced at Mike to see if Icould say more. He gave me a brief nod. “Remember when I asked about weighttraining and you wondered why? Well,thisis why. I’m a monster-hunter.” Igave Will a once over; he still looked like crap. “I’m betting you wish youhadn’t followed us, huh?”
Will jerked nervously. “Oh, yeah.”
“Whydidyou follow us?” Mike asked, with a hint of a growl.
“I thought I saw a man sneaking around the property and wentto check it out,” Will said. “When I got close enough, I heard you bothtalking, then Mike said something about smoking being stupid. I wondered whatwas up.” Shaking his head, he followed my lead and took his place on the otherside of the Bear.
Moving that three-hundred pound carcass was a big, messy,exhausting job. Dark smears of blood streaked the leaves and the ground alongour trail. We huffed and puffed, dragging the body by its arms until blackspots danced in front of my eyes. Legs strained, shoulders ached. Mike pitchedin some, but made me figure it out for myself most of the time.
After half an hour, we’d moved the body thirty yards throughthe trees to a small ditch filled with decaying leaves. Will was white in theface and muttered to himself the entire time. I didn’t bug him. It had taken medays to get used to the idea that monsters were real. He needed some time, too.
We heaved the body over and rolled it down the little hill.I threw leaves, branches and dirt on top of it until I’d totally coveredeverything. When I was done, I unbuttoned my camo jacket to cool off. I wascovered in dirt and had the Bear’s blood splattered all over my arms, hands andpants. No telling how freaky I looked. I wished I could wear gloves when Ihunted, but the knife didn’t respond unless it had skin-to-handle contact. Theblood wasn’t toxic; I’d just have to get over the gross factor.
Will sat slumped on the pine-needle-covered ground, staringinto space. Every once in a while he’d wipe his hands on his jeans or tug atthe collar of his ski jacket, muttering something about death. Mike knelt nextto him. Without warning, he slapped Will’s face. Will’s head wobbled on hisneck and he cried out in surprise. I winced in sympathy, but it had to be done.
Mike put his hands on Will’s shoulders to steady him.“Cruessan, I know you’re freaked out and sick and tired and wondering why youaren’t dead.” Mike’s voice softened. “When you get home, it’d be understandableif you hid under your bed and didn’t come back out. But, we need your help. Youhave to keep quiet about what you saw. You’re Matt’s best friend. Can I trustyou to keep his secret?”
Will nodded and whispered, “I won’t tell. I’ll cover foryou.”
I smiled a little. Will had my back; I could always count onhim. Always. Will always had my back…a light bulb went on in my head.
I plopped down next to Mike and shook his arm. “I have anidea. You haven’t found me a partner. What about Will? He’s strong as an ox andhe has a four-wheeler. His house would make a great base of operation, too.It’s the perfect arrangement.”
Mike raised his eyebrows. “Matt, I’m not sure aboutthis…it’s too dangerous. It’s bad enough that you have to—”
“I’d much rather work with him than some random lieutenantfrom Fort Carson,” I said.
“I’m sitting right here, you know,” Will mumbled.
I turned to him, willing to beg if necessary. “Dude, you’vehiked these woods your whole life; no one knows them better. Having your helpwould be huge.”
Will blinked rapidly, looking confused, flattered andterrified all at the same time. He took a deep breath. “Maybe you should tellme exactly what I’d be getting into, first.”
I launched into the story. Will’s jaw hung slack throughoutmost of explanation.
“Monsters?” he asked. “Really?”
“That thing wasn’t the tooth fairy, man.” I rolled my eyes.“Look, since the knife chose me, I’m the only one able to hunt them down andI’m gonna need help.” After a loaded silence, I squeezed his shoulder. “I’dtrust you with my life.”
Will thought about it. Eventually a hard smile spread acrosshis face. “Hell, yeah, I’ll do it.”
Mike looked alarmed by Will’s sudden enthusiasm. “Cruessan,you sure about this? I definitely prefer Matt working with someone he knows,but we’re not talking about paintball, here. Maybe you ought to sleep on it,just to be sure.”
“Uncle Mike, he gets it,” I said. “He’s not taking itlightly. Will just makes decisions quicker than I do. He’s always been thatway.”
Will got to his feet, standing only a few inches shorterthan Mike. “These things invaded my backyard. I want to help kick them out.”
“Good,” I said, before Mike could protest. “Can we go home,now? I’m tired.”
“Me, too,” Will said.
We hiked back to the Cruessan’s house, and made sure Willgot inside okay. Then Mike and I headed to the rental SUV, ready for some rest.Mike kept his jaw clenched and didn’t say much on the drive downtown to hisloft.
“What is it?” I asked.
He pulled into the garage at his apartment building andparked before answering me. “I hate this.”
Mike sounded bitter; wrecked in a way I’d never heard before.I sat up straighter. “Whoa. What’s the deal?”
“You’re not even fifteen, Matt! You’re a kid, Will’s a kid.And I’m sending you out into the woods with a knife to kill eight-foot tallWookiees.” Mike pounded on the steering wheel. “I just slapped a fourteen-year-oldto get him over battle shock. What in the world am I thinking? What’s the Armythinking? We’re out of our minds!”
Watching him melt down rocked the thin resolve I’d manage tobuild over the last week. “Uncle Mike, if we don’t do it, who will? The knifepassed over a colonel and a bunch of Green Berets forme.You said this stuff happens for areason, that itpicked mefora reason.”
“I know I did. And I meant it,” Matt said, strangling thesteering wheel in his hands. I scrunched down in my seat, horrified to see himso frustrated and pissed. “But now Will, too? This is pure insanity. Ifsomething happens to you boys out there, I won’t be able to live with myself.”
“You can’t worry about me. You have to worry about keepingyourself safe in Afghanistan.” The steel in my voice surprised me. I soundedlike Major Tannen. “I can’t do my job if I’m worried about you worrying aboutme. Besides, now that Will knows, nothing will stop him from helping me, so youneed to get used to the idea.”
Mike pinched the bridge of his nose. “I hope nothing goeswrong.”
Wiping my face free of any fear, I said, “It won’t. I trustWill. Heck, I can practically read his mind. We’ll make a great team. You’llsee.” I popped open my door. “I’m starving. Please tell me you have more thanchili and cocktail onions in the apartment.”
Mike laughed sadly. “How about we order a pizza?”
After eating two-thirds of a large pepperoni pizza, I sleptlike the dead. We got up at nine and spent most of Saturday morning discussingtactics. Mike had calmed down overnight, and was now in full planning mode. Ihad the instructions down as well as I could without getting more actual huntexperience, so he started pounding me with a long list of training exercisesfor Will. Most of it involved teaching him to be more quiet in the woods. UncleMike’s list for me included as much weight training as my body could stand, inaddition to eating protein four times a day.
I agreed to all of it, but in my mind, the bigger issue wasMom.
“Keeping this from Mom is gonna be pretty hard, you know.Mamie’ll be worse.” I poured Cap’n Crunch into one of the two bowls Mike owned.“At least you got me some cereal.”
“Only because I’m feeling guilty. Starting tomorrow, cerealis no longer part of your diet.” Mike sighed and scratched at his unshavenface. There were more gray flecks in his beard than just a few weeks ago. “Iknow it’ll be hard. But if Dani finds out, she won’t allow you to hunt and theBears will continue to prowl. Most moms are like that; they don’t care if ahundred strangers die as long as their own kids stay safe. So you’ll need toget better at cover stories and learn how to sneak out of the house.”
“I’ve been working up a plan,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “Matt, there’s something else. Next time,donotyelland rush the monster. No doubt it was effective, but when I came around aftergetting my bell rung, I heard that scream of yours and about had a stroke whenthe Bear ran at you. All of this–sneaking out, finding your prey on the quiet,mounting a surprise attack–it’s really important. You need to limit yourexposure.”
I nodded. “I wasn’t thinking. Next time, I’ll sneak up andget it from behind. I’ll oil my backpack’s zipper, too, so it won’t stick.”
“Good. Okay, tell me how you’ll be getting out of thehouse.”
* * *
“My goodness, kiddo, look at you!”
Mom gave me a stunned grin as Mike and I returned from our“rappelling trip” on Sunday afternoon and found her in the kitchen, cookingdinner. The smell of spaghetti sauce made my stomach growl. I thought seriouslyabout diving into the pot and going for a swim.
She wiped her hands on a dishtowel. “Did you grow two incheswhile you were gone? I swear, you look like you’ve aged.” Mom put a hand on myhead and ran it level to her nose, like she was trying to measure my height.
“You were the one who said I was growing when I ate all thatmeatloaf a few weeks ago. Guess you were right,” I said. She wasn’t though; Imight be a little taller, but not much. Mom saw something else, and I didn’tthink it had anything to do with how tall I was.
Mike shot me a sly look. “Fresh air, exercise and as manyscrambled eggs as he could hold. That’s the secret.”
Mom shook herself and snapped out of “welcome home” mode.“Hmm. I know another secret.”
Uh oh. That was her “you’re grounded” voice.
She must’ve seen the guilt on my face, because she said,“That’s right. Were you planning to tell me about the fight or the two weeks’detention? Mrs. Stevens called but you were already on the road.”
I kicked at the tile floor. “Mike said he called you.”
“That’s not the same asyoucalling me, young man.” Mom glaredfirst at me, then at Mike. “Michael, even if you did discuss it with Matt, aweek’s worth of fun wasn’t exactly what I had in mind after the principalcalled.”
If Mom only knew; Fort Carson hadn’t been fun and games.Honestly, I thought I’d been punished pretty well in Colorado.
“Dani, Matt knows his actions were unacceptable.” Mike metmy eyes with a firm stare. Major Tannen was back, and still one scary dude.“And he agreed that he’ll maintain discipline at school. He promised me.”
Mom looked back and forth between us, brow furrowed. “Matt,did you promise Uncle Mike?”
“Yeah, Mom. I won’t cut up like that again.” Nice andhumble; maybe it would work and she wouldn’t ground me.
“You better not. And to make sure you mean it, you’regrounded for the next two weeks. School, detention and your room are the onlythree stops you’ll be making.”
She did that paradoxical Mom thing where she kissed me onthe forehead after chewing me out, then went to the mud room with a pile of mydirty clothes from the trip.
What a homecoming for a monster-killer.Chapter Twelve
It felt weird going back to school. I’d spent the last weekpracticing mortal combat skills and today I was in algebra, sitting behind Ellaand her strawberry-scented ponytail. All my daydreams came rushing back. At onepoint, she leaned forward to get her book out of her bag, forcing her hot pinklong-sleeved t-shirt to pull up. For a brief moment, I saw a sliver of skinabove the waistband of her jeans. That made my morning, at least until the bellrang.
After class, Ella turned to me, but she didn’t smile. “So, Iheard you slammed Carter into a locker before break.” Her voice was stiff.
My face got hot and prickly. “Um, yeah, just a littlemisunderstanding. He…”
“Matt, I thought you were different,” she said, her tonesofter now. “Other guys spout off all the time, but not you. I’ve never seenyou pick one fight, and I liked you because of that; you were a good friend.”
She picked up her books and left the classroom, walkingfast, before I had a chance to finish saying, “…started it.” Watching herdisappear, I whispered, “I just lost my temper. It won’t happen again.”
“Aw, who cares,” Will said, whacking me in the shoulder withhis math book. “Carter had it coming. You needed to trounce him.”
“I care.” I stared out the classroom door. She’d said she“liked” me—as if she didn’t anymore. What if she hated me now, all for shovingCarter when he deserved it?
“Dude, we got bigger things to worry about than your undyinglove for Ella.” Will grabbed my bag and pushed me out the door, away from Mrs.Burns’ superhuman hearing skills. “I bought a spare gas can for the ATVyesterday and hid it in the garage. You know, in case we get called and have toroll fast.”
“For a guy who puked six times on Friday night, you sureseem to be excited about all this.” I shook my head, still upset about Ella.“No, wait, you sound exactly like I did after I got over the shock. I wasreally jacked up, too.”
Will laughed. “I just wish we could tell people, you know?How awesome would that be? I bet Ella would give you another look, clobberingher idiot boyfriend or not.”
“Yeah. That thought definitely crossed my mind.” Four hundredtimes…this morning.
Carter found us at lunch. Will had been keeping tabs on mein the hallways, and we’d avoided him all morning. But since we had the samelunch period, there was nowhere to hide.
“Archer, heard you got detention,” Carter said, an evilglint in his eye. He shook his blond hair like a model in a shampoo commercial.“I got off with a warning. Guess talking down the principal gets added to thelist of all the other things you can’t do.”
Uncle Mike started lecturing me inside my head.What are Carter’s insults going todo to you? Nothing. You could hurt him if you lose your temper. Keep ittogether.
Trying to sound bored, I said, “Maybe I didn’t want to avoidthe punishment. Makes that beat-down I gave you more valuable because I have topay for it.”
Carter clenched his fists. “You better watch your mouth orwe’ll finish that fight.”
Will stood up, scraping his chair along the linoleum. Hebunched up his broad shoulders menacingly. “Leave. Now.”
That earned me another withering look from Carter. “Stillletting Cruessan do the heavy lifting, huh, Archer?” he said. “Coward.”
With that one word, Carter almost made me forget my promiseto Mike. I got up slowly, my eyes never leaving his face. “You don’t get tocall me coward.”
Carter took a step back. After one last glare, he turned andstalked to the basketball table, like he’d put the fear of God into me,straightening his letter jacket as he went. What a tool.
“Sorry about that, dude. I keep forgetting…you don’t need myhelp anymore.” Will sat and stared at his lunch tray looking like I’d caughthim stealing my pocket change.
I felt bad for him—his perspective of me had changed in abig way, but old habits die hard. “No problem. He just needed to prove he wasstill a badass to his friends. Can’t have a freshman giving him crap.”
I went back to wolfing down my double cheeseburger, notgiving Carter another thought. When I finished a bite and reached for my milk,I noticed Will staring at me. “What?”
“I don’t know what’s happening to you, but when you staredCarter down, you could’ve melted a hole in his forehead with your eyes.”
Will glanced at the basketball team table. Carter must’vefelt our stares, because he flipped us the bird. When I didn’t do anythingother than glare at him and eat French fries, he turned his back on us.Grinning, I picked up my cheeseburger again. I must’ve learned more than Ithought last week.
“Well, guess this means I’m off hall patrol.” Will leanedhis chair against the wall, resting it on two legs, and swung his feet in theair. “Maybe you should covermeduring passing period.”
“Whatever, man. Happy to help you out. Oh, and save me aspot at the weight rack tomorrow. I’m ready to try the fifteen pound dumbbellsafter detention. We need to keep in shape, so we’re ready when we get called.”
Will gave me a fist bump across the table. “Rock and roll,dude. Rock and roll.”
* * *
I wrapped up detention with Mrs. Stevens in mid-November.During my two weeks in her office after school, she made me readTo Kill a Mockingbirdand write an essay about tolerance and loyalty. I got a laugh out of it becauseif anyone needed that particular assignment, it was Carter Jacobs.
But as the month went on, any confidence I’d felt after mytraining wore off. I didn’t have a chance to prove myself by killing anothermonster because the Army hadn’t called. Strange that the activity just stopped.I wondered if my kill had scared the Bears off, but that didn’t make sense. Ihad more pressing things to worry about, though. Mike was leaving Decemberfirst.
“That’s great, Ryan….Yes, the Saturday after Thanksgiving,at Brownstone….Wonderful, see you then.”
Mom ended the call and crossed something off her checklist.Our kitchen table, a large wooden rectangle that could seat six, had becomeparty central. She was always parked there and had so much stuff spread out weusually had to clean papers off its top to eat.
“More RSVPs?” I asked. Mike’s send-off was getting bigger bythe day, between the catered dinner and the twenty million people showing up.
“Yes. Mike’s friend, Ryan Black, can make it.” She smiled atme. “I don’t think you’ve ever met him. He’s a colonel out at Fort Carson. Imet him a few years ago; really interesting guy. You and Brent will like him.”
Mom knew Colonel Black? That could be a problem.
She noticed I wasn’t entirely there. Her smile faded. “Matt,sweetie, are you okay? You haven’t been yourself lately…”
Crap. “I’m fine, Mom.”
Her eyes searched mine. “If there’s something you need totell me, I promise I’ll understand and try to help, no matter what it is.”
Understand the fact that I was part of an elite militaryunit that hunted and killed deadly monsters? Somehow, I didn’t think so. “Mom,really, it’s nothing. I’m just…tired. I think I’ll go lie down for a while.”
I escaped to my room and flopped on my bed. There was aspider building a web in the corner above my closet. Spiders were cool; theyate bugs. I didn’t mind sharing my space.
“You don’t have much to worry about,” I told it. “Steadysupply of flies, nice warm web…bet your uncle isn’t going to Afghanistan.”
Mamie peeked through my cracked bedroom door. “Who are youtalking to?”
She opened the door wider, wearing a sympathetic smile.
“A spider.” I kicked off my shoes and pulled my knees up togive Mamie a place to sit at the foot of my twin-sized bed.
She had her holiday ribbons tied to her pigtails. Brown andorange for Thanksgiving today would give way to red and green on Friday. Iwondered if anyone at school made fun of her braids. If they did, they werejerks. Mamie without pigtails would be like Christmas without snow. It was aconstant, and had been since I could remember. I needed constants right now.
“It say anything back?” Her voice was light.
“Matt, I know you’re hurting. But, it’s the holidays,school’s out for a week. We should be having fun, even if we don’t feel likeit. Want to play Wii Tennis with me?”
I laughed. “Wow, you really are trying to cheer me up. Iclobber you at tennis.”
“Whatever it takes…so let’s go. Maybe I can beat you once.”
I rolled off my bed and stretched. “Not a chance…”
Mamie’s eyebrows shot up. “Matt, when did your arms get sohuge?”
Surprised, I flexed to see what she was talking about. Mymuscles were definitely bigger than they had been, and I had that awesome linerunning down the middle of my upper arm where the bicep separated from thetricep. Look at that—welcome to the gun show. That got me thinking…maybe Icould accidentally-on-purpose pick up something heavy right in front of Ella.She’d be sure to notice that, right?
With a pleased laugh, I said, “I’ve been working out withWill. Trying to bulk up, you know?”
Mamie continued to stare, amazement giving way to suspicion.“Uh huh. Why this sudden interest in physical fitness?”
“Physical fitness? Mamie, you sound like a dictionary.” Timeto start wearing long-sleeves around the house; I couldn’t give the bloodhoundany more clues. “I just felt like it, okay? Now quit stalling—you threw down;it’s time for you to lose.”
She wasn’t convinced, I could see that, but she stopped doggingme.
Tennis went as predicted, and Mamie lost gracefully fivetimes out of five.
* * *
The scent of Mom’s pumpkin pie hung in the air–spice andcinnamon. Too bad I hated the flavor and texture of pumpkin pie filling,because it smelled great. Mom had decorated the dinner table with her goodtablecloth and napkins, complete with one of those stupid paper turkeys withthe fan shaped tail, but none of us really felt like celebrating. Either way,it wasn’t Thanksgiving dinner without a pie browning in the oven, even if wewere miserable.
“Brent, can you put the cell phone down long enough tofinish dinner? It’s Thanksgiving, for goodness sake.” Mom jabbed her fork inhis direction.
Mike gulped down a mouthful of green bean casserole,obviously trying to head Mom off. “Dani, I think you should cut him someslack.”
“Yeah, Mom, listen to Mike.” Brent slid his phone into hislap and hunched down over his plate to shovel a few bites into his mouth.Something was eating him. He hadn’t finished his first plate, with smallerportions than usual, and I was already on seconds.
“That’sUncleMike to you,” Mom said, scowling. “And it’s certainly not okay for you to sassme at the dinner table, young man.”
“Dani….” Mike’s tone held a note of warning.
That got through to Mom and she saw it, too. Her scowlmelted into a frown. “Sweetheart, are you getting sick?” She reached across thetable to feel Brent’s forehead.
“Mom’s right, you do look off,” Mamie said. “Do your jointsache?”
Mom followed up. “And if they do, is it sharp and stabbing,or dull?”
Mike shot pointed looks at the mother-hens, but neither ofthem noticed. They were too interested in smothering Brent with concern. Mikelooked to me for help and I shrugged. How would I know what it took to stopthem from overdoing the love?
“Damn it, just leave me alone!” Brent shoved his chair backso hard it toppled over and stormed from the kitchen. I heard his door slam afew seconds later.
The mother hens jumped like they’d been caught napping by afox. Mamie’s lips quivered; it didn’t take much to reduce her to tears thesedays. I got up to pat her shoulders.
“He’s just stressed out or something, Mamie. Playoffs didn’tgo well–he’s probably still mad about that.”
“No, that’s not it,” Mike said. He wouldn’t look at us, spendingtime cutting his cranberry sauce into smaller and smaller chunks with his fork.“He, uh, he’s having a rough day.”
We stared at him, astonished. Brent had “grown out” ofconfiding in Mike years ago.
Mike tugged at the collar of his sweater. “His girlfriendbroke up with him this morning. By text. He didn’t want anyone to know, buthe’s pretty upset about it. He was trying to convince her to take him back.”
Mamie went on red alert. “You’re kidding me! By text? When Isee that little…well, that was just mean!” She sniffled angrily and wiped hernose with one of Mom’s good linen napkins.
Mom sighed, her eyes focused on a spot outside the kitchenwindow. “Honey, let’s leave it to him. He’s usually the one to break it offwith a girlfriend. Far as I know, this is a first for him.”
She picked up Brent’s plate and carried it upstairs. Wecould hear his voice rise and fall, telling her about it. While we sat aroundthe table, waiting for Mom to come back, the pumpkin pie started to smellburned. Tears streamed down Mamie’s face again.
“So,” I said, to break the tension, “anyone want to playBoggle?”
Mamie cracked up while crying at the same time. That madeher blow a snot bubble and it was over. I gave her a fist bump for upping thegross factor. Mike shook in silent laughter with his eyes squinted shut untilhe ran out of air. He finally gave a great, gasping wheeze and collapsedhowling against the table top.
Best Thanksgiving ever.
* * *
“All right, present, check. Photo album, check. Index cardsfor bon voyage messages, check. Email list for Mike, check.” Mom muttered theselittle reminders to herself while she ran around the living room wearing oneshoe and trying to put an earring in. She paused in front of the decorativemirror on the entryway wall to finish with the jewelry. “Make-up, good. Hair,well, it’ll do.”
“You look great, Mom,” Mamie said.
She was right; Mom did look nice. She had on this blue dressthat wrapped around in front, and she was pretty skinny these days—her latestdiet had worked. Her brown hair was spiked up in all the right places. It wasmeant to look like she ran her fingers through it, a feat that took her tenminutes and a handful of gel. Mamie was all dressed up, too, wearing a lightblue sweater over a short, beige skirt. She’d even lost the pigtails, lettingher hair hang down her back. I wasn’t sure I liked it—she looked eighteen. Goodthing that shy kid in her Latin class wasn’t around. I might’ve had to glue hiseyelids shut.
While they gushed about the party, I got sick to my stomachfor the tenth time that day. It was bad enough sending Mike off without havingto make small talk with Colonel Black while I pretended not to know him. If Imade it through the night without going insane, I planned to drink a gallon ofmilk when we got home then sleep until noon on Sunday.
Brent shuffled into the living room, looking uncomfortablein a navy blazer that strained across his shoulders and dress pants he hadn’tworn in months. He’d been really subdued since Jada dumped him. Funny thingabout that, though—he was nicer because of it. After sweeping back a lock offreshly gelled hair that had gotten stuck to his forehead, he waved me over.
“Dude, come here. Your tie is all crooked.”
A week ago I would’ve told him to shove off and fixed it myself.Tonight, both of us were messed up enough that a little brotherly affectiondidn’t seem stupid. I let him straighten out the knot.
“You know,” I said, “ if you just buzzed your hair likemine, you wouldn’t have to mess with gel and stuff.”
Brent pushed me into the wall. “Maybe, but then I’d look asgeeky as you.”
I shoved him back. “At least I don’t look like a greased upgorilla.”
Mom broke it up and hurried us out to our minivan. We got toBrownstone in plenty of time for her to fret over the last minute details.Brownstone was this fancy old restaurant downtown, with cloth napkins andcandles and waiters for every little thing. One waiter for the water glasses,one for the food, and one that walked around the room asking if the meal wasokay.
Mom had reserved their back room for the party. The wallswere dark brick and the lights were dim, for “atmosphere.” Two long tables randown the middle, each covered with white tablecloths and centerpieces with realflowers and little American flags stuck in them. I wrinkled my nose. Uncle Mikewas a beer and pizza guy. None of this really seemed likehim.
“Do you think Mike will care about color-coordinatednapkins?” I asked Brent while Mamie and Mom buzzed around the room. “Heck, aslong as they feed me, I’ll sit on the floor.”
I pulled one of the little flags out of a centerpiece andstuck it in pocket of my dress shirt. It looked better there than lost in allthe flowers.
“Women are like that. Details matter. But I’m with you; whogives a crap? Bring on the steaks.” Brent dropped onto one of the spindlylittle chairs set up around the table, fingers twitching at his pocket. Cellphone withdrawal.
People, and then more people, arrived. Friends from theArmy, friends from his civilian job at the bank, friends from...well,everywhere. I didn’t think the back room at Brownstone could hold a crowd thissize. Colonel Black arrived a few minutes before Mike was due. He scanned theroom, and his eyes went right over me, like we’d never met. But I knew he’dseen me.
Mamie squealed. “He’s here!”
I stood in the doorway to the back room with Mamie. Theother thirty or so people shushed and hid behind the wall, but I could tellMike knew what waited for him. He winked at me and sighed, like he was steelinghimself for combat. After he stepped through the door and I heard all thescreaming, I realized he was.
It took three hours for poor Mike to shake hands and talkwith every single person there. Except us. I was beginning to feel like thiswasn’t my farewell at all. He’d fly out at noon tomorrow and I’d hardly seenhim all night.
While I watched Mike work the room, Colonel Black sat downnext to me. “So, you must be Matt. Your uncle talks about you all the time.”
I bit my lip to keep from busting up. “Yes, sir.”
“Seen any good monster movies lately?” He raised oneeyebrow.
“Yes, sir. About, what was it that Mike called it? Aeight-foot Wookiee.”
After a glance to make sure Mom wasn’t watching us, thecolonel leaned in. “We picked up your kill; took it back to base for autopsy.You stabbed it in the heart—fatal blow right off the bat. Good work.”
“Beginner’s luck,” I said, pretending to be modest whilegiving myself a mental high-five.
He got serious then. “The major told me about your desire toadd your friend, Cruessan, to the team. I don’t think this is a good idea,son.”
I crossed my arms. I’d counted on the arguments. Mike hadgiven up on talking us out of it; the colonel would have to get over it, too.“Will wants to help. And from what I’ve heard, you haven’t found anyoneavailable at Fort Carson that’s ‘right’ for the job. Will is.”
The colonel’s eyes narrowed. “That doesn’t mean Iwon’tfind someone.I’ve expanded the search to other bases. It’s not safe for two teenagers tohunt these things alone.”
“Colonel Black, Will’s the only person I trust enough, otherthan Uncle Mike,” I said, trying to keep my voice down even though I wastotally frustrated. “If the Army won’t let Mike stay home, then Will’s my nextchoice. You want me to fight, you have to let me do it my way. With Will, Istart with a leg up. He knows the woods, he’s fast, strong and has plenty ofequipment.” I glared at him. “And, besides, how are you going to stop him?”
“I could tell his parents,” the colonel growled.
I shook my head. “But you won’t. Because then I’d tell mymom, and the game would be up for everyone.” Blackmail sucked, but sometimesyou had to do it. “Will’s my partner, no exceptions. I won’t fight without him.Period.”
He sat quiet for a while, a silent struggle playing acrosshis face. “I’ll give you a month. If you convert a hunt successfully, thenwe’ll talk about a longer-term solution.” He sounded resigned. “Still nosightings, but there was a mysterious disappearance in the woods a few daysago. You’re on alert, okay? I may call soon.”
“Yes, sir. I have the sat-phone hidden in my backpack at alltimes. If possible, though, don’t call between eight and three-fifteen. If myteachers catch me with that thing, they’ll confiscate it, thinking it’s a fancycell phone.”
Colonel Black chuckled. “Right. We won’t call you duringschool hours. Oops, your mom’s looking this way. Better move on.” The colonelclapped me on the back and got up.
After another ten minutes, I decided I couldn’t take theparty anymore. I pushed my way through the crowd and wandered out front. Brentwas already out there, sitting on the bench next to the valet stand under therestaurant’s green awning. It was colder than Hades, but he didn’t have hiscoat. Neither did I; getting away from the crowd was more important than beingwarm. I plunked down next to him.
“Doesn’t seem real that he’s leaving, does it?” Brent asked.
“No.” I shifted on the bench. “You know, I just realizedsomething. Mamie didn’t get her birthday card from Dad. She’s been‘sweet-sixteen’ eleven whole days, and not a word.”
“Bastard,” Brent said. “I hate the man. Seriously.” His facehad a pinched look, bitter and angry to the core. “Didn’t call when I signedwith Washington State, either. His kid’s gonna play football at a Pac-12 schooland he didn’t bother to say congrats. I’m glad he left us.”
Suddenly, Brent’s break-up with Jada had a lot more meaning.A girl had dumped him and his father didn’t give a crap. My chest burned. Theonly man who did give a crap was being taken away. How were we going to makeit?
Mike must’ve sensed we were thinking about him, because hecame looking for us. “Guys, it’s twenty below out here. I know the party’s abeating, but I’ve been waiting for you two to liven things up a little.” Heleaned down and put a hand on my shoulder, mischief in his eyes. “Please, I’mbegging you. Juggle dishes, I don’t care. If we stay buttoned down one moreminute I’m going to lose it.”
Brent and I glanced at each other, sly smiles stretchingacross our faces. We trooped inside intending to give Mike the going-awaypresent he wanted most, not caring what price we’d pay with Mom later.
A full-sized sheet cake—vanilla and chocolate with “GodspeedMike” written in blue on the white frosting—was set up on a little table at thehead of the room. Brent pinched my arm and winked. I nodded. Bingo.
Mom, with a smile too bright to be real, stood to make hergoodbye speech, quavering voice, unshed tears and all. I watched Mike. He stoodbehind her, staring at nothing, his face drawn. Brent kicked my foot under thetable. We got up and inched our way through the chairs toward Mom, Mike and thecake. Mom went on and on, but the only words I heard were “going to miss him,”“keep yourself safe,” and “back in a year.” By the time she wrapped up, Brentand I stood beside her, a few feet away from the cake.
“Mom? How about Matt and I help serve,” Brent said, his truepurpose carefully covered up by his sincere voice.
Mom beamed. “Oh, honey, how sweet.” She handed him the cakespatula and the other guests watched as Brent cut a huge corner piece.
“Uncle Mike,” he said, a laugh barely contained, “this isfor you.”
Now, I thought he was going to shove it in Mike’s face. ButI was wrong and next thing I knew, I was cleaning frosting out of my nostrils.
“Oh, that’s so uncool, dude,” I said. “It’s on.”
After wiping cake out of my eyes, I grabbed a hunk from theother end and aimed for Brent. He ducked and the cake plastered Mike on theside of the head. From then on, it was pandemonium. Even Mamie got splattered.We were all laughing so hard we tuned out Mom’s feeble attempts to get us tobehave. I’m sure the other guests thought we’d gone crazy and Brownstoneprobably wouldn’t ever get the blue icing stains out of their whitetablecloths, but the huge grin on Mike’s face made the mess worth it.Chapter Thirteen
The Monday after Thanksgiving break was bleak. The skieswere dark gray with thick, low clouds and the air smelled like frozen iron. Abig snow seemed imminent, and I kept waiting for the blizzard to come, hatingthis feeling of limbo. At home, we all went through the motions, trying not tothink about Mike doing a ten-mile run at Fort Carson. In a month, he’d be inAfghanistan, but he was as gone now as he would be then.
When I trudged into algebra, my heart got heavier. Ella wasthe only person in the classroom. She had on jeans and a kelly-green Notre Damesweatshirt, with her hair in a twist. The new hair style made her look older,and I liked it. But something seemed wrong. Her eyes were red and she wasbreathing hard, like she was trying not to cry. I put my books down, walkedaround to the front of her desk and knelt so I could see her face better. Assoon as I did, she started bawling like crazy.
“Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry…I, uh.” Oh, crap. What did I do toupset her? “Look, I’m sorry. For whatever I did. Really…sorry.”
I probably would’ve kept on babbling apologies, but threegirls came in. I groaned—the Ponytail Gang. Will and I called them that becausethey dressed alike and did their hair in bouncy ponytails every day. Today theyhad on mini-skirts and leggings, never mind the cold. They were all cute,various shades of blond and popular. They were also mean as a nest ofrattlesnakes. No one had been able to explain that to me yet, why rude peoplewere always popular.
Ella quickly turned her head and swiped at her eyes with theback of her hand. I hurried to my desk…but not fast enough.
“Wow, Ella,” Caitlin said, an ugly streak in her tone. “Thatwas quick.” She tossed her dirty blond ponytail over her shoulder and floppeddown at her desk two rows over from us. Tara and Jenna hung in the doorway,identical mocking smiles on their faces.
Ella kept her back to them, turned sideways in her chair. Icould see the tear tracks on her face. In that moment, I wanted nothing morethan to give her a tissue and offer the Ponytail Gang up as bait for my nexthunt, but something in the way Ella held herself convinced me to keep still.Jenna plopped her books down on the desk behind Caitlin’s and walked over toElla with a spring in her step.
“Oh, poor Ella. What a tough morning.” Jenna glanced at me,smirking. “At least you have someone’s shoulder to cry on.”
Ella didn’t acknowledge Jenna at all, but I saw her fistsclench in her lap.
Jenna leaned on Ella’s desktop. “This is for the best, youknow. You need someone easier to manage. I hear some guys in Chess Club arelooking for girlfriends.”
What was Jenna talking about? Did she mean…?
Before I could complete that thought, Tara giggled. The onlytrue blond, she wasn’t the brains in the outfit. She just came along for theride and added the laugh-track to Jenna and Caitlin’s cruelty. I had no ideawhy they were going after Ella while she was upset, but man, slamming Carterinto a locker seemed nice compared to this.
“Ladies, something going on here?”
I had never been so thankful to see Mrs. Burns in my life.She was like a gray-haired guardian angel in a wool sweater, marching to herdesk with her laptop bag and a grim expression.
“No ma’am. Just asking Ella about her weekend,” Jenna said,cocking her head like “I’m pretending to be thoughtful, so I can be a witch.”
Mrs. Burns watched, eyes narrowed, as Jenna pranced acrossthe room to sit behind Caitlin. She glanced back at Ella then scrawled out anote. “Ella, would you mind taking this to the office? The copier in theteacher’s workroom was jammed, and I need to hand it out today. Thirty copiesshould do it.”
Ella jumped to her feet, grabbed the paper from Mrs. Burns’hand without looking at it and fled from the room. Other students, includingWill, filed in as the passing bell rang. Over the din of homeroom chaos, Jennaand Caitlin had a loud conversation. Tara, who sat next to Jenna, hung on everyword.
“Oh yeah, he totally dumped her. Too boring, you know,”Caitlin said. “Can’t believe he picked her over…”
My heart leapt into my throat. Thatwaswhat they meant—Carter dumped Ella!Was he stupid? Wait…yes, yes he was. I couldn’t decide whether to jump ontoMrs. Burns’ desk and shout for joy that Ella was available, or to punch Carterin the head for hurting her feelings.
Stupid Tara put in her two cents. “I heard it was ‘cause shewouldn’t let him do anything but kiss her…too prude for second base.”
Half the class laughed behind their hands at that announcement.Mrs. Burns stopped writing problems on the white board, scowling at thePonytail Gang. None of them noticed.
I sat up straighter, my insides boiling. Carter dumped Ellathen talked trash about her? He was definitely getting a punch in the head. Myface burned hotter every second that passed.
Jenna preened a little. “I heard that too. I mean, come on,how middle school can you get? And it’s not like she’s that cute, no matterwhat everyone says. Maybe Carter will wise up this time and go for someone moremature.”
The classroom got way too small for me and my temper.
Before I could stop myself, I jumped to my feet and shouted,“Someone like you, maybe? That’s what you mean, right?” I looked her up anddown, hoping she could see the disrespect in my eyes. “Carter can haveyou—you’re a perfect match. And neither of you are worth a damn.”
There was a ringing silence. Oh...what had I just done?
Mrs. Burns cleared her throat loudly and pointed at my desk.“Mr. Archer, kindly take your seat.”
Jenna made that little “uh” noise girls make when peeved andnot getting their way. “Mrs. Burns, he should have to apologize for beingrude.”
“And for cursing,” Caitlin added, with a whine.
Mrs. Burns, wearing a very odd smile, walked to Jenna’s deskand whispered something to her. After that, Jenna was quiet for the rest ofclass.
Ella didn’t come back.
* * *
At lunch, I kept an eye out for Ella. After my stunt inmath, I didn’t know if I was in for a big “my hero” moment or a kick in thepants.
Will kept laughing and shaking his head every so often.“It’s not like the whole freshman class doesn’t know you like her, but, dude!You might as well have rented one of those advertising planes to fly a bannerthat said ‘Matt loves Ella’ with a big heart around it.”
I picked at my lunch. For once, my appetite was all butgone. “I know. Stupid!” I banged my head against the table. “I couldn’t letthem talk about her like that, though. You didn’t see her before she ran out ofclass. Dude, she was wrecked. Crying, the whole bit.”
Will swallowed a ginormous bite of pizza. “No, I guess youcouldn’t help yourself. And Carter’s a moron.”
“Yeah,” I said, prodding my half-eaten pizza with my fork.“I hope Ella’s not too mad at me.”
He whistled softly. “Looks like you won’t have to wait longto find out.”
I followed his gaze. Ella was gliding across the cafeteria,regal as a queen, heading straight for me.
“Will, what do I do?” I put my napkin down and ran my tongueover my teeth, just in case pepperoni had gotten stuck in them.
“Don’t look at me, dude. You’re the Prince Charming in thissituation. I’m just the big guy in the background–you know, the one who holdsthe spear and grunts every so often.”
She stopped at our table. Behind her, a hundred and twentypeople watched. “Hi, Will.”
Will jumped, looking startled to be noticed. “Um, hey,uh…Ella.”
She turned back to me. Before I knew it, those green eyeshad me hypnotized. Who cared if everyone was watching? If she asked me to do aswan dive off the table smack onto the floor, I’d do it, pronto.
“Matt, I need to talk to you. Can you meet me after school?”
“Um, sure,” I said.
She nodded briskly, then walked away, furious whispers andstares following.
“Any idea what that means?” I asked, hating to hear my voiceshake. I hunted monsters! Real-life, honest-to-God monsters! How was it that agirl terrified me worse than that?
“No clue, dude,” Will said. “You want the rest of thatpizza?”
I pushed my whole tray over to him and glanced at thebasketball table. Carter was looking my way. He gave me a jackass smile asJenna came over. She draped herself across the back of his chair, her lipsclose to his ear. Carter turned to face her, tugging her into his lap just asElla walked past them. They laughed when Ella bolted through the doors at theopposite end of the cafeteria.
I’d make this right if it killed me.
* * *
While the rest of the students in history class stared atus, Ella and I ignored each other. The clock moved one click at a time, and Mr.Anderson’s lecture on the “Roaring Twenties” roared right through my brain intospace. When the bell finally rang, several people lingered, waiting to see whatwe’d do.
“Class dismissed, people,” Mr. Anderson said as he sortedessays on his desk. When no one moved, he said, “I don’t know what the deal is,but skedaddle…go catch your rides home.”
The room cleared. I was glad I didn’t have to run for thebus. Will had done me a favor and called Millicent at lunch, telling her weneeded to stay after and asking her to pick us up. I texted Mamie so she wouldn’tworry that I’d missed the bus. The words “girl trouble” got a response of“understand” and that was all there was to it.
Ella picked up her bag and stuffed her books inside. “I needto go get my coat.”
“Me, too.” I followed her out, wondering if I should offerto carry her books, but decided that was too old-fashioned. On the way there,my phone buzzed.
“Go ahead and answer that if you need to. I’ll be at mylocker,” Ella said, continuing on down the hall.
When I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket, it didn’t showan incoming call. I closed my eyes and groaned. Not now. The ring soundedagain, and I wrestled the sat-phone out of my backpack, glad they’d gotten meone only slightly larger than a regular cell phone. It would’ve been hard tohide a big, clunky box with a separate antenna.
The display lit up as it trilled another quiet ring. The IDsaid “Black.”
I stared longingly at Ella, who was doing the combination toher locker, then pressed the talk button with a frustrated sigh. “Archer here.”
“Sorry to call you this soon after school, but park rangersdiscovered the remains of four bodies this morning. We’ve triangulated thelocations of the remains in an attempt to pinpoint the Bear’s den. I’m sendingcoordinates to you now. You and Cruessan are on alert tonight. Call me onceyou’re at his place and ready to be briefed. Say, thirty minutes…you can makethat, right?”
The fact that other people had to come first really hit meover the head right then. I watched Ella put on her coat. This sucked. “Yeah. Ican make it.”
After I rang off, I went to her, my feet feeling too big andheavy to make the trip. “Ella, I’m really sorry, but something’s come up. Ihave to head out, um, right now.”
The look on her face made me want to fall on my knees to begforgiveness for upsetting her again. She managed a teary smile. “Sure, Iunderstand. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Thanks.” Feeling braver, I brushed her wrist with myfingers. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
I left by the side door without looking back at her. Icouldn’t do it.
* * *
“Lock and load!” Will said. He scurried around the garage,making sure the ATV would start and that all the gear was packed up.
“This is it, man, we’re really going! Hey, I dug out some ofmy heavy-duty winter coveralls.” He held them up. They were camo-print, with abunch of zippered pockets on the chest and legs. “These are my old ones, fromwhen I was ten. They should fit you.”
“Gee, thanks, dude. Nice of you to remind me that I’m ashrimp,” I grumbled.
“Youwillthank me,” Will said, grinning. “They’re made out of GOR-TEX, so the coverallsaren’t bulky and you can move fast in them. Perfect for stalking monsters.Those crap BDUs the Army gave you have nothing on these.”
I nodded, unable to muster up much excitement. Ella’s hurtexpression kept tapping me on the shoulder, begging me to relive it untilColonel Black called to give us our briefing. I put the sat-phone on speaker soWill could hear.
“The remains were found about three miles east of where yougot the last kill,” the colonel said. “Program these numbers into your GPS.”
I punched in the longitude and latitude as instructed.“That’s an eight-mile hike from Will’s. Think we can use the ATV for part ofit, sir?”
“Probably, but at the first track you find, cut the engineand go on foot. Mike told me about your less than stealthy attack last time.Try to do it like you were taught—by the book. Got it?”
“Sir, yes, sir.” I rolled my eyes at Will, who was laughing.I pushed the mute button. “This from the guy who called a monster ‘good bear?’”
Will made a face at me as I unmuted the phone. “Anythingelse, sir?”
“Yes. Sunset in Billings is at four-thirty today. With thehike and the tracking, you’ll be out late. Is that an issue?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Will said. “My folks are in Aspenand Millicent has her ‘programs’ to watch.”
I cleared my throat—it had constricted. Our first solohunt…this was it. “I can talk my Mom into letting me stay over at Will’s. I’lltell her we have a school project or something.”
“Then saddle up, boys,” the colonel said. “You’re goinghunting tonight.”
The ATV purred along the trail. Mr. Cruessan liked his toys,and we benefitted. The black four-wheeler we rode was Will’s own personal modeof transportation—a hand-me-down from when his dad bought two new ATVs, bothbigger. With special, heavy-duty tires, Will’s ATV could drive through anythingbut foot-deep snow, and it had a tight turn radius, making it perfect fortrekking through the woods. The four-wheeler made for a bumpy ride, especiallywith me on back, but it beat hiking. Will even had an extra helmet for me.
Reflected in the headlights, the trees passed as shadows setagainst a blur of pale gray and white snow. Thin clouds danced across the sky,blocking out what little light the waning moon gave. This was both good andbad. We’d have an easier time sneaking up on the monster since it was darker.But the same could be said for it sneaking up on us.
I held the GPS in one hand and the seat rail with the other.Our green dot made steady progress toward the coordinates Colonel Black hadgiven us. After driving five miles, we got our first sign.
“Will, cut the engine.” I shook his shoulder to make sure hestopped. The stupid helmets made it hard to hear, but better safe than sorry.It’d be difficult to explain that I’d failed to make a kill because I’d gottena concussion.
Will parked the ATV near a large pine and covered it with acamo blanket while I put on the night-vision goggles to make sure nothing washiding, waiting to attack us. No heat signatures—all clear. I pulled off thegoggles and clicked on my flashlight, shining it across the trees.
The torn up deer I’d seen with Mike had been bad enough.This time, it was a bobcat. Strewn around the gnarled roots of big spruces, andhanging from the lower branches of pines, were the torn remains of meat andentrails. The only reason we knew it was a bobcat was because the monster hadleft its head behind; outside of that, there wasn’t a bit of its pelt, claws orbones to be seen.
“Holy Mother of Brett Favre. Is that what I think it is?”Will asked, looking like he was about to hurl our hastily eaten dinner of KungPao chicken all over the snow.
“Unfortunately.” I closed my eyes, trying to block out theimage of ground meat stuck in the evergreen branches. “It also means we’regetting close.”
The front pouch of my backpack flashed. The knife wasvibrating, waiting to hunt. I slid it into my thigh pocket, to keep it close.“We hike from here.”
Will strapped on his backpack, fumbling with the claspsbecause his hands were shaking. “The thing did that. It tore a bobcat intohamburgers.”
I put a hand on his arm. “You knew this. You knew. Seeing itmakes it tough, but nothing’s changed, okay? This is the same as it was thefirst time. Follow the plan…that’s it.”
“Follow the plan, right,” he said, with a jerky nod. “I cando this.”
Will’s panic made me feel stronger, like holding himtogether kept me from falling apart. I led him away from the ATV, examining thebrush around the slaughtered bobcat. Holding the penlight in my teeth, I gotdown on my hands and knees to check for broken leaves or smudged moss.Paw-prints, larger than Will’s size thirteen boots from heel to claw, weredistinct in the snow that had made it through the trees. The tracks led off tothe east.
I stood and shrugged my pack onto my shoulders. “This way.Let’s go.”
The terrain was rough and the snow made things worse byhiding holes and rocks. Both of us fell down more than once even though I keptthe pace slow. It took us thirty minutes to make the next mile, and we gotslapped by wet, snow-covered branches as we headed off the trail into thedeeper woods.
The further we went, the more concerned I became about Will.He jumped at every rustle we heard, always twisting around to see if somethingwas behind us. We could get hurt if he got so scared he bolted at the wrongtime. I stopped him. “Listen, we can do this.”
“But what’ll we do if we can’t?” Will’s teeth chattered. Aswarm as our coveralls were, I knew it wasn’t the cold.
“If something happens to me, stay hidden as long as you can,then run like heck,” I said, giving him a level stare. “The knife only works inmy hands. You won’t be able to fight this thing by yourself. So if I go down,you run—understand?”
He nodded and I started along the trail again. The thing wasclose; the knife buzzed my pocket, almost like a warning. I motioned for Willto creep along behind me, but he didn’t follow.
“Did you hear that?” Will whipped his head around.
Twigs snapped, pine needles crunched–something big wasplowing its way through the trees off to the right, bearing our direction.
“Get down, get down.” I shoved Will into a clump of bushes.“Lay flat on your belly. Don’t move, not one inch.”
Will huddled to the ground. I spotted a mature pine acrossthe trail with branches low enough for me to climb. Sneak attack. If it was themonster, I could drop on it, stab it in the back before it knew I was there. Iscaled the tree and made it halfway up before the monster came crashing throughthe bushes right in front of Will. He managed to stay quiet, but I don’t knowhow. I wanted to scream my head off.
Of course the moon picked that moment to shine a littlelight down on us, giving me a full view of the horror standing below. This Bearstood much taller than the first two, maybe nine feet. Its dark coat was glossyand thick, and it was more muscular than the others, with bulkier arms andlegs, and a broader torso. Tusks jutted out of its mouth, curling upward to itsnose, ending in cruel points. The tips of its long claws looked so sharp that Iwondered if it had sharpened them on a rock or something.
Did the Bears know how to do that?
I shook in my tree, watching it lift a paw to its mouth,finishing a meal of what was probably bobcat sirloin. While it chewed, itsniffed the air. I worried it had already smelled us and was on the lookout fordessert. Fighting an urge to run, I got the knife out of my pocket, hardlydaring to breathe. It buzzed softly, but intently, in my hand, like it knew wewere in stealth mode. I tensed on the branch, ready to jump onto the beast’sback once it was under my tree. Closer, closer, closer.
RollerCoaster of Love,by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, started playing inthe bushes, followed by a beep, beep, beep.
I muttered curses under my breath. Will didn’t turn hisringer off? We were so screwed.
The Bear’s head jerked in Will’s direction and its pointedears twitched. The bushes trembled as he hurried to shut off his cell phone.The beast lumbered his way, swiping its claws along the brush. It snuffled atthe ground with its squashed-looking nose, then froze, its body quivering likea hound pointing at prey. The Bear had found Will.
I didn’t have a choice now—it was too far away for me tojump on its back. So I leapt out of the tree, shouting, “What’s up, ugly?”
The thing straightened up and turned my way. Then itlaughed.
The thinglaughedat me.
Oh, man, I was a goner.
The Bear glanced in Will’s direction then turned back to me,as if it was weighing its options. I took a step toward it, jaw clenched, andgrowled through my teeth, “Come and get me. Or are you scared?”
The thing gave me an indignant look, and screeched, throwingits head forward and leaning my direction, mouth wide and teeth bared. The noisecut through me like a saw blade. Then it laughed again. “Huh, huh, huh.” Itsounded like a hoarse dog barking, assuming the dog was a pissed-offRottweiler.
I backed away, willing it to follow. The Bear saunteredalong, looking smug, staying with me. Behind it, I saw Will stick his head upthen drop back down. The bushes rustled as he crawled off to a new position.
Pushing my way through a cluster of evergreens, I came outinto a little clearing about ten feet across. In a moment of terrified absurdity,I thought the space looked the same size and shape as a boxing ring. Maybe itwas a good place to make a stand.
The Bear entered the clearing, and when it saw me, it pulleda pine branch about the diameter of my arm off the nearest tree. With agrunting chuckle, the monster snapped the branch in half like a twig. The worldswam before my eyes, but a bluish glow in my hand yanked me out of my panic.The knife was ready to rumble, and an unnatural calm washed over me.
“So that’s how you want it to be?” I called. “You don’t knowwhat you’re dealing with here.”
It stopped and stared at me, neither of us moving. We werelike runners waiting for the starter pistol. My heart thundered in my chest;adrenaline was a scary thing.
Then the monster raised the stakes.
“Mun. Et Mun.” It licked its lips. “Et Mun.”
Holy…oh my…freakin’ A! Oh, it talked. Oh, holy zombieapocalypse…ittalked!Itwanted to eat me!
The knife buzzed so hard it made my whole hand shake. Again,waves of calm washed over me, locking down my nerves. I gripped the handle,treating the blade like it was an extension of my arm.
“Yeah, well, I don’t taste so good. I bet you’d make a nicerug, though.”
“Huh, huh, huh.” The Bear crouched, its mouth spread wide inwhat must’ve been a smile.
Then it sprang.
I rolled out of its way as it flung itself forward. With aspeed I didn’t know I had, I spun around and jumped on its back, digging myfingers into its thick, shaggy fur.
The Bear stood and jerked wildly, trying to shake me off. Ihad to use both hands to hang on, trapping the knife in between the palm of myhand and the creature’s coat. When I didn’t let go, the monster rushedbackward, heading for the trees at the edge of the clearing. Did I let go andget trampled? Or hang on and get smushed?
Out of ideas and headed for broken ribs or worse, I decidedI’d have to chance letting go. Before I could, though, a piercing blue-whitelight stung my eyes. The beast stopped mid-move and lifted an arm to block outthe beam.
Just enough time.
I let go with my knife hand and stabbed it in the back. TheBear reached around with its long arms, howling in pain, to grope for theknife. I released my hold on its coat, grabbing the handle with both hands. Myweight, combined with the power of the blade, sliced a wide-open seam down thething’s torso as I slid down its back.
Once my feet hit the ground, I jumped clear. Still clutchedin my right hand, the knife flashed green then went dark. The blade, my chestand my arms were covered in thick blood and dark, sticky fur.
With a surprised gasp, the monster reeled and fell sideways.A few twitches later, it was dead.
Will stepped out of the trees, pale and shaking, holding anLED flashlight. “You got it.”
My breath came in great heaves and I sank to my knees. “No,man,wegot it.”
* * *
“Sir, they understand us! They talk, they laugh. Holy shit,sir!” Now that the danger was over, and the Bear’s body safely stowed behind arotted, fallen tree, I was freaking out, big time.
“Matt, slow down.” Colonel Black’s voice was even, measured.“First things first. Are you and Will safe?”
I took a long, ragged breath. “Yes, sir. We’re fine. Alittle bruised and stuff, but nothing serious.”
“Good to hear, soldier. Where are you? Have you made it backto Cruessan’s house?”
Will’s bedroom was the size of my living room and lit upbrighter than a baseball field at a night game because neither of us wanted tobe in the dark. I turned to check on him. He sat in the middle of hisking-sized bed with a blanket pulled up around his ears. All I could see werehis eyes. They looked like mine—he’d seen too much.
“We’re at Will’s and settled,” I said. “I’ve got coordinatesfor you. This one was a lot bigger and smarter than the last Bear. Colonel, itlaughed at me and ittoldme it was going to eat me. It talked!”
There was a very long pause. “Remember what I said at FortCarson, about them getting smarter at an accelerated pace?”
“All of them are, not just your Bears. Ramirez called in tosay that the South American Gators are pack hunting, making it very difficultto attack them with only one knife. Parker said the Pandas are doing ‘snatchand grab’ jobs, stealing people from their homes under cover of night, justlike the Gators. Parker’s worried, because they’ve started migrating to morepopulated areas.”
A shiver ran down my body from the crown of my head to theends of my toes. “So it’s true, then. All of them are getting smarter.”
“It appears so,” the colonel said. “Keep your eyes open. Onthe next hunt, we need all the details, however small.”
“Well, we only saw one Bear tonight. And it wasn’t verystealthy. Maybe they aren’t developing as fast as the others.”
“Let’s hope,” he said. “The coordinates just came through.I’ll let you know when we’ve made the recovery.”
“Do you need me to come along?” I half-hoped he wouldn’t,but I didn’t know how to say that without sounding like a chicken.
“Maybe next time. For now, I think you need a littledistance.” The colonel’s voice held a firm calmness that settled my nerves muchlike the knife had. “In the meantime, be ready for action. Looks like we’re infor a heavy campaign.”
“Yes, sir.” I hung up with the colonel. “Will, if you wantto quit now, I understand. If you’d let me use the ATV that would be a bighelp.”
Will dropped his blanket and scowled at me. “Are youkidding? There’s no way I’m letting you go out there by yourself. You’d getkilled! Besides, I’ve figured something out.”