Read Savage Online

Authors: Thomas E. Sniegoski

Savage

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This book is for Christopher Golden.

Thank you so much for all the knowledge, insight, and excitement that you share not only with me, but many other writers out there, and most especially, thank you for being a friend. (Cue Andrew Gold song!)

This book is also dedicated to James Herbert, and all the other writers out there from my childhood who entertained the crap out of me with their tales of animals running amok.

PROLOGUEAn Island in the South PacificTwo Weeks Ago

The absence of birds crying in the trees and the incessant buzzing of insects on this tropical island told the scientist it had happened again. He could hear only the gentle whispering of the breeze and the distant crashing of waves on the beach behind him, and he knew that every bird, every bug, every warm- and cold-blooded thing that had called this island retreat home was dead.

He took a deep breath, steeling himself for what he would find, knowing it wouldn't be pleasant, and began to follow his team toward the resort itself. Carefully he stepped over the dead birds and monkeys rotting in the newly risen sun, not wanting to disturb anything that could give him a clue as to what had happened here.

“Sir?” a female voice called out from somewhere up ahead.

He moved toward the sound, finding a set of wooden stairs that led up from the beach. The first human corpse, a middle-aged man, lay at the bottom of the steps on his stomach, arms reaching out, fingers dug deep into the sand as if attempting to drag himself toward the water.

The scientist knelt to examine the body. Even at first glance he could see similarities to the previous incidents, and a numbing chill ran down the length of his spine.

“Sir?” came the voice again, closer this time, and the scientist turned his gaze toward the woman standing at the top of the stairs.

“Just a second,” he called up to her. “I want to check something here.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of blue rubber gloves. He tugged them on over his hands, then grasped the body by the shoulder and pushed, balancing the stiffened corpse on its side. The smell was horrible, but that wasn't what caught his attention.

“Jesus,” the scientist said as he caught sight of seven Polynesian rats pushed into the sand, eyes wide in death. He guessed that they had been killed when the man fell on top of them, but that didn't explain why they were gathered at the foot of the steps.

The scientist leaned in closer, examining the rodents' teeth and claws.

“Anything interesting?” the woman asked.

He didn't answer at first, gazing from the crushed rats to the front of the stiffened corpse. Then he gently lowered the body back to the ground.

“I suppose you want me to see what you've found,” he sighed, rising to his feet.

“Why should we be the only ones to have nightmares later?” the woman questioned sarcastically as the scientist climbed the wooden steps.

Heaven's Breath was an exclusive, high-end resort on one of the smaller Polynesian islands in the South Pacific. It had catered to the wealthiest of businesspeople and their families looking to escape the day-to-day pressures of their hectic existences, but the scientist doubted that this was what they had expected for their three thousand dollars a day. What had been quite beautiful before the event was now just grotesque.

The stairs led up to a circular stone patio, in the center of which was a hot tub. A fully clothed woman's body floated there, a tiny Yorkshire terrier still on its leash floating beside her. The water was a disturbing rust color.

“Do we know how many?” the scientist asked, counting at least nine bodies within sight of where he stood. One in particular caught his attention and held it in a steely grip—a young girl, his daughter's age, arms and legs splayed, a cell phone just out of reach of fingers with chipped pink nail polish. He tried to imagine what it must have been like for her and felt his pulse quicken, his eyes begin to burn.

At the moment he wanted only to call his daughter, to hear her voice, and to tell her how much he loved her.

“The desk register said that there were twenty-five guests.” She gestured toward the main building where other members of the team were moving about. “We're checking the rooms now, then we'll move on to the surrounding jungle.”

“Anything different?” the scientist asked, noticing a shattered sliding glass door stained with drying blood.

“Not that we can see,” she answered. “So far, it's pretty much the same as the others. Estimated time of death for the bodies we've already examined coincides with the typhoon.”

The scientist gazed at the corpses strewn about, trying to imagine the horrors that had driven them out into a raging tropical storm.

A sudden thump from nearby was as startling as a shotgun blast.

“What the hell was that?” the woman asked, her hand going to the firearm she wore in a holster on her hip.

The scientist was already moving toward the sound, his body tensed, prepared for almost anything.

“Dr. Sayid,” the woman cautioned, but he quickly raised his hand, silencing her.

There was another sound, muffled. . . .

His eyes quickly scanned the area, finally focusing upon a dark teak chest in front of what looked to be a maintenance shed. He glanced back at the woman and motioned for her to follow him. She did as he ordered, weapon at the ready.

They stopped before the chest, ears straining for a sound of life amid all of this death.

“Want me to open it?” the woman whispered, squinting down the barrel of her pistol.

“I'll do it,” Sayid said. He reached out and grasped the handle. “Ready?” he asked the woman, who grunted her reply, her finger now twitching on her weapon's trigger.

The scientist took a deep breath, then pulled open the lid. The chest was filled with supplies for the hot tub, plastic bottles of chemicals, a coiled hose, brushes, and a heavy green tarp.

The tarp moved.

Sayid tensed as the armed woman beside him bore down with her gun, ready to fire at the first sign of hostility.

And then they heard the sobbing, a soft cry filled with so much fear it was almost palpable. The scientist could not help himself. He reached down into the chest, pulling aside the rough green material to reveal the source of such immeasurable sadness.

She couldn't have been any older than five; the My Little Pony T-shirt she wore was stained with spatters of blood. Her wide, brown eyes were filled with more fear than the scientist had ever seen.

“It's all right,” he said in his kindest, gentlest voice. “Everything is going to be fine . . . we're here to help.”

The woman had lowered her weapon and returned it to her holster. She stepped forward and reached for the child. “Let's get you out of there,” she said.

But the little girl began to scream, grabbing hold of the tarp and attempting to bury herself beneath it. “No!” she screamed over and over again. “You can't! We gotta hide. . . . Mama said we gotta hide or they'll get us!” Her eyes were frantically darting around, and then her gaze turned toward the sky. Sayid didn't think it was possible, but she looked even more scared.

He followed her gaze up and saw a pattern of dark clouds forming above; a low rumbling thunder from the swirling configuration implied another storm was inevitable.

“What is it, honey?” Sayid asked. “What do you see? Is it the storm?”

The child was frantic. “They'll come again,” she wailed pathetically, her face a fiery red from emotion.

Her fear made him again think of his own child, when she was just a little girl, and he reached down into the chest to scoop the frightened girl up in his arms, whispering assurances to her.

“Shhhhhh, it's going to be okay,” he said, but she fought him, arms flailing, legs kicking, her eyes fixed on the sky above.

“They're gonna get us,” she cried as he tried to hold her tight. She was like a wild animal fighting to escape. “They come in the storm!”

Fighting for its life.

“They come in the storm!”

CHAPTERONE

There must be a storm coming.

Sidney Moore opened her eyes to the morning and groaned, the beginnings of a sinus headache throbbing inside her skull.

Great,she thought as she lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling. For the briefest moment she felt a rush of panic that she might have overslept and that she was going to be late for school. But that was immediately followed by an incredible sense of relief when she remembered that school was over for the summer, never mind the fact that she had graduated. The pressures of high school were over and done, and the wonders of an unknown future were laid out before her eighteen-year-old self. But the thrill quickly soured, any potential this particular day might have in store for her dissolving as a knot of discomfort formed in her belly and she remembered the inescapable things that had lately been the source of her troubles.

The things that haunted and distracted her from the excitement of her future.

She rolled over with a heavy sigh and reached for her phone just as the large white head of a German shepherd loomed up from beside the bed and planted a wet kiss on her face. A kiss that smelled like the glue on an old envelope.

Lovely.

“Morning, Snowy girl,” she said, looking deep into the dog's icy blue eyes. Snowy's bushy tail began to wag wildly, and she pawed the bed for more attention.

“All right, all right,” Sidney exclaimed. “I'll get you some breakfast in a minute.”

Snowy sat down, watching with eager, hungry eyes as Sidney checked her phone for messages.

“Unngh,” she groaned, seeing that one of the dreadedthingsthat held back her anticipation had called while she slept.

Her boyfriend—ex-boyfriend—had left another message.

“Cody, why can't you just leave me alone?” she whispered sadly as she threw back the covers and climbed from bed.

Snowy excitedly leaped to her feet.

“Yes, yes, go on.” Sidney motioned the dog from the room with the hand that still held the phone, and Snowy bounded down the hallway toward the kitchen.

Sidney knew what she should do—delete the message and forget that he'd even called. She would be better off, she was sure of it, although there was still a part of her that cared for him. But that was the part of her that obviously wasn't dead set on leaving Benediction for college in Boston.

The part she was trying her damnedest to ignore.

The kitchen smelled deliciously of French roast, and half a pot sitting in the coffeemaker filled the air with the aroma that she'd always loved, even though she could barely stomach the taste.One of these days,she told herself as she picked up Snowy's water dish from the place mat on the floor and proceeded to rinse it clean before filling it with fresh water. Sidney had taken to imagining herself in deep with her college studies, pulling all-nighters with cup after cup of steaming hot coffee to keep her awake. Developing a taste for the stuff was one of the many things she was going to have to do while getting used to being on her own.

She set Snowy's dish down and went to the strainer by the sink for her food bowl. There was a plastic container in the corner beside the fridge that held the dog's food, and Sidney unscrewed the lid and poured a measured cup into the bowl.


Page 2

“Here ya go, girl,” Sidney said as she carried the dish across the kitchen. “Made it up fresh myself.”

Snowy wasn't looking, so she did not know that Sidney was speaking to her. The dog was standing in front of the sliding glass doors, looking out onto the deck where Sidney's dad was sitting, enjoying the early morning, as well as a smoke.

“Dammit,” Sidney cursed, bending to set Snowy's food bowl down. Sidney stomped her foot on the floor to get the dog's attention.

Feeling the vibration, the white shepherd turned to look at her.

“Here's your chow,” Sidney said as the dog dashed to her meal. “That's a good girl.” She patted her side lovingly, suddenly experiencing a strange wave of emotion over the idea that it wouldn't be long before she was gone and wouldn't be here to feed her special friend.

“I'm gonna miss you something fierce,” she said, continuing to stroke the dog's gorgeous white coat. The two had had a special bond from the first day her father had brought her home from the mainland as a special birthday gift, the bond only intensifying when she learned of Snowy's unique disability.

Her dog was deaf.

Snowy looked up from her bowl of dry food, chewing happily but empathically sensing the shift in Sidney's mood.

“That's all right,” she reassured the dog. “You keep eating.”

The shepherd did as she was told, digging her pointed snout into the bowl for the remaining kibble.

Sidney left the dog and went to the sliding doors, her mood shifting back to one of annoyance as she let herself out onto the deck.

“Hey, you're up,” her father said.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “Watcha doing?”

“Enjoying what's left of the summer,” he said, reaching with his left hand for his coffee mug. There wasn't any sign of a cigarette, which meant that he'd already disposed of the evidence. He lifted his chin and looked across the expanse of backyard to a house that could just about be seen through a section of woods. “I think the crap in the Mosses' yard is multiplying,” he said, and chuckled.

He was making reference to their neighbors across the way that they believed were hoarders. He knew that they always got a good chuckle talking about Caroline, her son Isaac, and the ever-increasing collection of stuff that piled up in their backyard. But she didn't feel like chuckling at the moment.

“Can I get you another cup of coffee?” she asked.

He finished his sip and then offered her the cup. “That would be awesome.”

She took the cup from him and started for the door. “Would you like another cigarette, too?” she asked, standing in the doorway from the deck into the kitchen.

Her father didn't answer.

“And I'll bring the phone out to you too so that you can call nine-one-one when you finish.”

“When did you get to be so fresh?” her father asked. “I remember that well-behaved little girl who wouldn't dream of disrespecting her father. Whatever happened to her?”

“She went away when her father almost died of a stroke from too much smoking and stress.”

“So who are you again?” he asked, trying to coax a smile from her.

“I'm the daughter that'll be making your funeral arrangements if you keep doing this crap.”

“So I had a cigarette, big deal,” her father said, a touch of petulance in his tone.

“You know that's not good for you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, waving her off.

Snowy pushed past her out onto the deck and to her father's side.

“There's a good girl,” her dad said, patting the shepherd.

Sidney watched him with a wary eye, paying extra attention to his right-hand side and how he avoided the use of it. Though he had regained some use since the stroke, it still wasn't all that strong.

“I should have her bite you,” Sidney said.

“She'd never do that. Would you, girl?” he asked the dog, staring lovingly into her focused gaze. “We're the best of pals.”

“I'm sure she'd be as mad as I am if I told her that you were killing yourself.”

“I had one cigarette,” he said. “Don't make such a big deal out of it.”

Snowy had brought him a ball, dropping it into the right side of the chair. He squirmed a bit, trying to grasp the ball with the hand on that side, but frustration won out, and he reached across with his left. He threw the ball and smiled as the dog bounded across the deck and leaped into the yard after it.

“You've only had one cigarette? Look me in the eye and tell me that.”

“Are you going to bring me that coffee or . . . ?”

“Thought so,” she said, going inside before she could say anything that might make the situation worse. Her mind raced as she stood at the kitchen counter.What can I do?Her father was a grown man and could do anything he wanted despite what she told him he could and couldn't do.

Her memory flashed back to the horrible day when he'd had the stroke, and how the world had suddenly become a lot scarier than it ever had been before, and she was forced to look at life through more adult eyes. It had always been just the two of them, her mother having walked out before she was even five, but after her dad got sick, she had no choice but to grow up.

The doctors hadn't been sure that he was even going to make it, but her father had surprised them, regaining his speech and most of his ability to walk. Sure he had to use a cane, but that was better than nothing. Better than being stuck in a bed.

But it wasn't enough for him. Her father wanted to be back to the way he was before the stroke, and that was something that couldn't be guaranteed. His recovery after getting out of the hospital had been slow, physical therapy only doing as much as the patient was willing to put into it. She couldn't even begin to count the number of times that they'd talked about him working harder—lots of tears and yelling, followed by promises that he'd do better, and he would . . . for a time.

It was like he'd decided that if he couldn't be 100 percent better, it wasn't worth the effort. And if it was bad now, how awful was it going to get once she went off to school and couldn't keep an eye on him? She imagined another phone call, and a ball of ice formed in her belly.

This was that other nagging concern preventing her from truly getting excited over her future plans. The other thing that held her back.

She heard the door sliding open behind her and the sound of her father's efforts to come inside.

“Do you still want that coffee?” she asked, taking the carafe from the coffeemaker.

“Yeah, that would be good,” she heard him say.

She filled the cup and was turning around to bring it to the small kitchen table in the center of the room when she saw that he was having some difficulty getting his right leg in through the doorway.

“Wait a sec,” she said, not wanting to spill the drink as she carefully set it down.

“I got it,” her dad said, but she could hear the frustration already growing.

She turned to see Snowy outside on the deck, tennis ball clutched in her mouth, as her father continued to struggle.

“Dad . . .”

“I'm fine,” he barked, his anger providing him with enough fuel to actually haul the semiuseless leg up over the lip of the slide and get himself inside.

That was when Snowy decided she and her ball were coming inside as well, her large and quite powerful eighty-pound body pushing past Sidney's father impatiently, throwing off his balance and sending him backward.

Sidney was on the move before her father hit the floor, reaching and grabbing at anything that might lessen the fall. Her father went down wedged into the corner of the kitchen, knocking some plants from the metal plant stand as his good arm flailed.

He swore as she got to him.

“It's okay,” she said, not wanting to make a big deal out of it. “I've got you.”

His breathing had quickened, explosions of expletives leaving his mouth as he settled. She squatted down, put her hands beneath his arms, and attempted to haul him to his feet. Sidney didn't consider herself weak by any means, but even though he had lost some weight since the stroke, her father was still pretty darn heavy, and not having the full use of his right side only made matters all the more difficult.

The first try was a failure, with her slipping to one side and him falling to the floor for a second time.

“Leave me here,” she heard her father say. The anger was gone now, replaced by something that sounded an awful lot like disgust.

“Yeah, right.” She tried again, getting a better hold beneath his arms, and managed to at least get him upright. “A little help here,” she said, chiding him. “That's it. You got it.”

He was helping now, though she could tell that he was tired. This only made her think of the man that he used to be. The guy who would be out of the house and off to one of his contracting jobs at five in the morning, only to return later that day to do even more work around their own house. She hated to see him this way probably as much as he despised being it, but what choice was there? The alternative was not an option she cared to consider.

Though she was certain there were nights that her father had considered it.

The idea of him being gone—being dead—nearly took her strength away, and she was afraid that she would drop him again. Snowy, ball still clutched in her mouth, stood across the kitchen, watching cautiously, tail wagging ever so slightly, the look in her icy blue eyes asking if everything was all right.

Then, at that very moment, Sidney wanted the answer to be yes, yes, everything was going to be fine. Pushing all the sadness and concern aside, she managed to pull her father up to his feet and, balancing him against her shoulder, dragged one of the kitchen chairs over close enough that she was able to assist him in sitting down.

“No gym for me this morning,” she joked, feeling out of breath from the struggle. She could tell he was exhausted as well, sitting slumped, head back. Snowy had come to him with her ball, checking the situation out, making sure that everything was as it should be. He petted her silently, the action helping to calm him.

“You good?” she asked, rubbing his back.

He didn't answer as she picked up his cane, leaning it up against the kitchen table. She then reached over and slid the mug of coffee closer to his reach.

“Here's your refill.”

He just nodded, letting the good hand that was petting Snowy reach for the coffee.

Sidney had been planning on having a cup of tea and maybe something to eat before getting ready for work, but glancing at the clock on the microwave told her that wasn't going to be possible if she didn't want to be late.

“If you're okay, I've got to get ready,” she told him.

He was mid-sip but finished and carefully brought the coffee mug down to the table. “I'm good,” he said as the mug landed without spilling a drop, and then he looked at her.

But in his eyes she could see how sad he was, and how tired.

And that he was lying.

CHAPTERTWO

Janice Berthold savored mornings like this.

They'd been coming to their home on Benediction Island during the summer months for as long as she'd been married, but there was still nothing better than when all was entirely quiet, and she was alone.

Whenhewas gone.

It wouldn't last for long, and she knew it but tried not to remind herself. She wanted to savor each and every minute—every second—of these precious moments of solitude.

Imagining how wonderful it would be withouthim. How every day would be just like this ifhewas no longer around.

She felt the muscles around her mouth contract and a smile begin to form. It felt strange.

Janice couldn't remember the last time she had genuinely smiled, the misery of her days withhimblocking any recollection of past joy.

And as quickly as it had come, the smile was replaced with an expression reflective of the grim reality in which she lived.

Her eyes slowly opened to the exquisite view from the sunroom window, but the undulating blue gray of the Atlantic could do nothing to recapture that so elusive bliss she had been experiencing.

Once again,hehad ruined it.

She decided to try again, closing her eyes, feeling herself lulled by the natural sounds of the million-dollar summer home: the ticking of the grandfather clock in the library study, the humming of the refrigerator from the gourmet kitchen, all wrapped up in the muffled rhythmic ebb and flow of the ocean outside.

Yes, she was almost there . . . almost . . .

The sound of the door coming open and then slamming closed tore her from the embrace of peace and dropped her back into hellish reality.

She could already feel it happening, all brought on by the sounds of his arrival and the knowledge of his presence within the once-peaceful house. She could hear him moving about, the irritating thump of his footfalls, the clamor of his car keys carelessly being thrown upon the granite countertop in the kitchen, the refrigerator door pulled open, its contents rummaged through, before the heavy door was slammed close.

She could feel her panic setting in, wanting to run and hide herself away someplace where he could not find her—could not affect her with his poisonous being.

But he would always find her.

“Janice!” his voice bellowed, shattering what remained of her blessed silence like a brick thrown through plate glass.

He expected her to answer, but that would just be foolish as he would find her all the faster. She stood up from the couch, steeling herself for the inevitable. His steps were coming closer, and she could see his grotesque shape as he shambled down the short corridor somehow sensing and being drawn to the room she was in.


Page 3

“Janice, where are you?”

His voice caused her flesh to tingle and itch as if covered with insects, the sound of her name coming from his mouth so sickening that it made her want to change it to something else entirely. But then he would eventually know it, and speak it, and it, too, would be corrupted by his foul mouth.

She could feel him there in the doorway behind her, the poison of his very presence radiating from his body.

“There you are,” her husband, Ronald Berthold, said, followed by the sloshing of water and the sound of him swallowing.

Though she would have preferred to look out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the undulating expanse of ocean, she braced herself and turned to look at him.

Her husband was drinking greedily from a bottle of water. He had been out for a morning run and still wore the sweat-stained T-shirt, running shorts, and sneakers upon his feet.

She could smell him now, smell his sweat, and almost became sick, breathing through her mouth to counter the nausea.

“Hey,” he said as he brought the bottle down from his mouth, screwing the cap back in place. “We should think about getting out of here sometime today. There's a pretty big storm coming.”

She'd heard the weather report earlier but had been distracted from the news by the fact that her husband had been getting ready to leave for his run. That was all she could focus on at that moment, the sweetness of him not being there. She would have tolerated the most destructive of natural disasters if it meant he wouldn't be there.

“I'll start to pack,” she said, hating to speak to him because it would only lead to him talking to her more.

She sensed his movement and turned to see that he had left the entryway and was approaching her.

Oh God,she thought, feeling her revulsion rise. She turned to face him. The smell coming off his body was nearly too much, and she felt herself grow light-headed.

“I should probably get started if we want an early start” she was able to get out without gagging, trying to move past him, but he reached out and gently took hold of her arm.

The feeling of his hand on her flesh was beyond awful, and it took all that she could muster not to scream. And to think that at one time, so very long ago, when she was too young and naive, she had actually invited his touch.

She fired a withering glance at his hand upon her arm, and he released her as if laser beams had shot from her eyes to sear his flesh.

“Let me shower and I'll go pick up Alfred from the vet,” he suggested.

“No, I'll do it,” she said quickly, seeing it as a way to remove herself from his loathsome presence, if only for a time. Yes, she would have to spend some of the time with the dog, but at least Alfred was somewhat tolerable.

“Are you sure?” he asked, his voice like nails on a blackboard. “I can do it . . . just let me clean up a bit and—”

“No,” she said with finality, already on the move to get away from him. “I'll do it. You stay here and get the house ready for the storm.”

She could feel his eyes following her as she was leaving the room.

“Okay,” he said. “See ya when you get back.”

Janice was already starting to feel better being away from him when she heard him call out from the sunroom, words that were like poison-dipped blades thrust into her flesh.

“Love you,” Ronald Berthold announced.

It was all she could do to keep from vomiting.

CHAPTERTHREE

Sidney had hoped that a warm shower would have helped her headache, but that wasn't the case. It felt as though she had a steel band wrapped around her forehead and somebody was slowly tightening it.

She sometimes had problems with sinus headaches, especially when the weather was going to get bad, so it didn't surprise her one bit to hear that a pretty serious storm was on the way.

Before leaving the house, she'd taken two Advil, but it hadn't done much of anything to cut the nausea-inducing pain, so she figured that maybe some caffeine might do the trick. At this stage in the game she would be willing to try just about anything. She wondered if it was entirely the weather's fault for her nasty head pain, or if it also had to do with what had gone on earlier at the house with her father, and the message she still hadn't listened to. Her eyes darted from the road to quickly glance at her phone on the passenger seat.

Snowy whined from the backseat of the Jeep, realizing where Sidney was going. Charter Street was unusually crowded for a week day, and it took her longer to find a parking spot. An SUV pulled out of a space directly across from the Sunny Side Up Diner, and she thought maybe there was the chance that today wasn't going to be as bad as she'd originally thought.

The dog started to pace in the back of the Jeep, going from the window on one side to the other, whining the entire time. Sidney turned in the driver's seat, motioning with her hand for Snowy to pay attention to her. She hadn't intended on bringing Snowy to work with her today, but seeing as her father wasn't having the best of days, she thought maybe it would be a good idea.

Sidney snapped her fingers, even though the dog could not hear, but the movement was enough to capture her attention.

“You be good for a minute, and I'll bring you a corn muffin, all right?” Sidney said, giving the hand signal that informed the shepherd that she was leaving for a moment but would be right back.

The dog sat obediently, watching her with a steely gaze as Sidney got out of the Jeep and crossed the street to the diner.

Jillian, a classmate of hers since kindergarten, was working the to-go counter and greeted her with a smile, and immediately asked how she and Cody were doing. Sidney thought about just blowing it all off and saying they were fine, and leaving it like that, but she just couldn't bring herself to do it, the words much harder to get out than she expected.

“We're not together anymore.”

The expression on her friend's face went from shock to sadness and sympathy.

“Oh my God, what happened?”

Sidney just didn't want to get into it right now and attempted to simplify. “It was just one of those things. We'd grown apart, and with me leaving for school, we thought it would be best if . . .” Sidney paused, and Jillian accepted this as an invitation to put in her two cents.

“That really sucks; I'm so sorry. I didn't think you two would ever break up.”

“Yeah, but . . . ,” Sidney said, eager to wrap the conversation up.

“I thought for sure that you two were like, permanent. I could totally see the two of you married and stuff, and . . .”

Sidney's headache had grown much worse, and her stomach wasn't doing too good at the moment either.

“Things change,” Sidney said firmly, but then managed to smile.

“Well I think it sucks,” Jillian added. “But who knows? Maybe you'll get back together.”

Sidney wanted to tell herno, that they wouldn't be getting back together, and the fact that theyhadbeen together for so long didn't necessarily mean that theyweregoing to be together for eternity. It was just over; things like this happened.

Instead she just smiled again, saying “Who knows,” and ordered up a large black tea to go, momentarily forgetting the corn muffin that she'd promised Snowy. But she quickly rectified the situation, putting the order in when Jillian brought her drink.

Waiting for the muffin, she distracted herself by watching the flat-screen televisions on the wall above the counter and the weather forecast that was predicting doom and gloom. From what she could see, the storm was going to make a direct hit on Benediction with some heavy rains and high winds and might even stay a hurricane instead of being downgraded to a tropical storm, which is what usually happened.

Great,Sidney thought, remembering the last bad summer storm and how they went without power for six and a half days, and that onehadbeen downgraded.

Jillian returned with her muffin and said again how sorry she was. Sidney thanked her through gritted teeth, leaving the diner with a wave while sipping from the steaming cup of tea. She decided to leave the tea bag in the boiling hot water, wanting the tea to be as strong as it could be to help alleviate the pressure in her head.

She stopped on the sidewalk for an opening to cross, darting out when all was clear. Snowy was patiently waiting, eyes fixed on her as she approached the Jeep. Sidney could see that her tail was wagging like crazy, somehow knowing that a special treat would soon be hers.

“Were you a good girl?” Sidney asked as she slid into the driver's seat.

Snowy didn't wait for an invitation, climbing from the back into the passenger's seat, snout having already found the bag that contained the muffin.

“All right, you gotta sit,” Sidney said while making the hand gesture that the dog was quite familiar with. Snowy sat, trickles of drool already leaking from the sides of her mouth in anticipation.

The dog watched as Sidney rummaged in the bag, first breaking off a piece of muffin for herself, and then another for the dog, which was gently plucked from Sidney's fingers. It wasn't long before the corn muffin had completely disappeared, most of it making its way into Snowy's belly. She didn't give the German shepherd people food all that often, but every once in a while Sidney liked to give her special pup a treat.

“There,” she said, crumpling up the bag. “How's that?” She rubbed the dog's head and pointed ears affectionately, then signaled for Snowy to return to the back before they could go.

Sidney turned the key in the ignition, starting the Jeep up, but before putting it in drive, she unconsciously reached for her phone, checking for new messages.

The message from Cody was still there, begging to be listened to.

She thought she was stronger than that, strong enough to put the phone away—maybe even delete the message—before heading on to work, but in a moment of weakness she called up the voice mail to listen.

“Hey, it's me,”Cody's voice began. “I know you said that you didn't want to talk anymore about . . . about us . . . but I think we should—”

Sidney gasped, startled as somebody rapped a knuckle against the driver's-side window. Lowering the phone, she saw an all too familiar smiling face at the window, motioning for her to put the window down.

“Hey, gorgeous,” Rich Stanmore said cheerfully. He leaned into the car, reaching back to pet Snowy. “And how's my Snowy girl?”

“She's good,” Sidney answered. “What are you doing here? I thought you went back to Boston.”

“I did, but I'm back,” he said. He was holding a coffee from Sunny Side Up and took a swig. “My folks left during the week. Dad had to head back for some meetings, so they asked me to come this weekend to close the place up.” He had some more coffee.

“Just in time for the storm.”

“Mmmm,” he hummed, swallowing his sip. “Which makes you the perfect person to see.”

“Oh yeah, why's that?”

“Not only am I closing up the house, but I've got to take care of the sailboat,” he said.

“Yeah . . . ,” she said, still unsure what he was getting at.

“Well, I need to get it out of the water, especially if there's a storm on the way, and Dad has the truck . . .” He waited for her to catch on, but it still hadn't sunk in yet. “I was wondering if Cody could . . .”

She felt her stomach plummet at the mention of her ex-boyfriend's name. She had no desire to go again through the fact that she and Cody had broken up, and even less to answer the inevitable follow-up questions as to why, and how she was holding up, and blah, blah, blah. . . .

She just couldn't do it right then.

“I don't know; I guess I could ask him,” she said, having no idea why she would even suggest such a thing since they hadn't spoken since the breakup, and the fact that Cody hated Rich, having always suspected that the older boy had harbored a secret crush for her.

“Yes!” Rich said, pumping his fist in the air. “If you could do that for me, I would love you forever—seriously.”

“Let me see what I can do,” she told him, regretting each and every word. “But I've got to get to work.”

“Call me later?” he asked.

“Will do.”

“Okay,” Rich said, stepping back from the car.

She said good-bye, rolling up her window as she pulled out of the parking spot. Rich's reflection waved to her in the rearview as she headed down Charter, where she would take a left onto Lafayette.

The day just kept on getting better.

And Sidney seriously began to consider if it was too late to call in sick.

CHAPTERFOUR

Caroline Moss could not bear the thought of anyone in her home touching her things.

The woman sat in her favorite recliner, surrounded by the accumulation of years: stacks of newspapers and magazines, piles of junk mail, receipts, empty cat food cans and take-out containers. Furniture once covered in plastic to keep it clean had been swallowed up by mounds of stuffed animals, baby dolls, record albums, VCRs and VHS tapes, CDs, milk cartons, and clothing—piles and piles of clothing. To anyone else it would have looked like the town dump, but to Caroline, everything was something of value.

But now somebody was threatening to come and take her treasures away.

As she sat in the comforting nest of her things, Caroline quivered with anger, remembering the unexpected visit from her daughter, Barbara. Caroline managed to hold back another bout of tears, of which there had been many of late, all brought on because Barbara chose to stick her nose into business that didn't concern her. Caroline sneered with the memory of her daughter's overwrought emotional response, pleading with her mother to seek help, if not for her own sake, then for the sake of her brother, Caroline's son, Isaac.


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Caroline had argued a blue streak, telling Barbara that everything was perfectly fine, that she and Isaac were getting along very well and didn't need her involvement in their lives. But Barbara was always a stubborn thing, and when she got an idea into her fat head, there was nothing that was going to change it.

As if sensing their owner's distress, Caroline's cats—her fur babies—emerged from various places of concealment about the room, meowing and chirping as they approached. Some leaped up onto her lap, while others walked across precariously piled stacks of equal parts books and rubbish.

She'd lost count of how many there were now. All she knew was that they were her friends, her furry children. This was as much their home as hers, and she wasn't about to let anyone take it away from them.

But she'd agreed to her daughter's demands, agreed to let a television program about filthy people and their filthy, cluttered houses come see her home. It was the only way to shut Barbara up, to get her to agree not to call Adult Protective Services on her and Isaac.

The presence of her feline friends calmed her. She stroked them as they walked upon her or passed by on their way to some other area of the house also bursting at the seams with stuff.

Just the idea of somebody coming into her home, to judge her . . .

Caroline seethed, an anger that she worked so hard to control over the years bubbling to the surface. It was the kind of anger that could get her into trouble . . . the kind of anger that made her do things she always regretted later.

Sitting there in her chair, surrounded by her cats and by years of accumulation, she imagined how easy it would be to set it on fire. She bet that would make Barbara happy. It would certainly take away all her concerns.

Caroline saw herself burning with all her things and almost convinced herself that this was what she should do, but then she thought of her cats, her babies, and how they would suffer.

And then there was poor Isaac.

He was her other baby, her special boy. Hit by a car when he was only four and developmentally challenged as a result of extensive head injuries, he had brought her nothing but joy these sixteen years.

No, she could not do that to him.

But what to do?

A Maine Coon cat called Mrs. Livingstone got right in her face, meowing questioningly, before head-butting her.

“I don't know, pretty kitty,” Caroline said, running her hands down the length of the enormous cat, right down to the end of her fluffy tail. “Perhaps you could tell me?”

The cat abruptly turned around, sticking her furry behind in Caroline's face, making her laugh. “I'm not sure that would be effective,” she told the animal, who suddenly snarled and sprang from Caroline's lap with a hiss, angrily attacking the other cats meandering around the chair.

“Is that what you'll do to those horrible people coming to our house?” she asked the big cat. A full-fledged fight had now erupted, with Mrs. Livingstone spitting and swatting at the other cats.

“Maybe you've got a point,” Caroline said to her furry friends, deciding that there might be another option besides burning her house down or giving in completely to her daughter's whims.

Mrs. Livingstone leaped upon the back of an equally large male tabby called Manx, biting down into his shoulder blades and sending him scurrying away with a shrieking wail, books and stacks of paper falling from where they'd been precariously perched in his wake.

Maybe she could make it so difficult for them that they wouldn't want anything to do with her or her house.

Maybe she could fight them at every turn.

Maybe.

The cats were fighting again.

Isaac quickly reached up to both his ears, playing with the volume of his hearing aids so he would not hear them. He hated the sound of their fighting. The screeches, hisses, whines, and wails gave him scary thoughts and put horrible pictures inside his head.

He did not like that, not one little bit.

The young man played with the tiny controls. There was a sharp crackling followed by some low hums that tickled his throat, but it seemed to cancel out the noise of the battling felines.

He wasn't supposed to play with his hearing aids, but no matter how many times he promised his mother he wouldn't, he would still find his sneaky hands reaching up to play with the tiny knobs of the plastic devices. Without them he could barely hear at all, one ear almost completely useless. He called that one Steve, after his father whom he barely knew, but his mother always told him that the man was no good and completely useless.

Today Steve was ringing oddly, and it kind of hurt. Isaac's hands again went up to the hearing devices, fiddling with the controls, hoping to stop the strange sound in his Steve ear. He was tempted to pluck them both out, to surrender to the silence, but he could never do that. What if his mother needed him?

Isaac decided that he would rather deal with the cats, and was about to try and adjust the volume in his ears again, when Steve suddenly went quiet, the disquieting, unfamiliar sound now gone. The young man cocked his head to one side and then the other, listening for anything out of the ordinary, but things seemed to be back to relative normal. Even the cats had stopped, and he could just about hear the sound of the television from outside his room.The Price Is Rightwas on. That was his mother's favorite show.

He considered going to join her for the Showcase Showdown, but first he had to make sure that his room was in order. Turning very slowly where he stood, Isaac took in the details of his space. It was the exact opposite of the rooms outside his—very sparsely furnished with only his bed, a bedside table with a lamp on it, and a chest of drawers with a mirror. Everything that he owned was in a very specific place. He did not care for the messiness of the rest of the house and often tried to get his mother to clean it up, but he was finally getting to realize after all these years that it was just too hard for her.

For a moment he wondered how other boys and girls dealt with their messy parents and felt a familiar frustration begin to arise over the fact that he seldom had the opportunity to interact with people his own age, his mother having decided to homeschool him due to his disabilities.

Isaac's anger flared. He hated that word—hated to be reminded of the fact that he was different. As far as he was concerned, everybody had something that set them apart. Even Sidney, his neighbor across the way who he thought was the most perfect person in the whole wide world, had something that set her apart from everybody else at close inspection.

She never seemed to smile, Isaac mused, attempting to remember each and every time he and Sidney had seen each other. Sure, there had been attempts to smile, the corners of her pretty mouth going through the motions politely, but Isaac knew that it wasn't real.

She's just too darn serious,is what his mother said. And he had to agree.

He noticed that his hairbrush was askew ever so slightly and stepped over to the chest of drawers to align it perfectly. Happy that he had found the imperfection, Isaac stepped back to the room's center, and checked his surroundings once again. He looked at his reflection in the mirror, standing perfectly still so that he could check how he looked. His eyes moved over his image; his button-down shirt was fine, his hair combed just right, his scar . . . Isaac reached up to the left side of his head where the scar was, where his head had been opened when he was only four, and ran a finger along its puffy length. He hated the scar and wished it wasn't there, but it served as a reminder to him. He didn't remember the car running him over and crushing his head, but the scar did. It told him to always be careful.

Things looked good at the moment, and he slowly backed up to his door, reaching behind him for the doorknob.

He kept his eyes on the room and all his belongings as he opened the door behind him and stepped out into the chaos of the hallway.

Taking a deep breath, he took it all in. The amount of stuff stacked and lying on the floor of the hall path nearly sent him into a panic, but it was always this way after leaving the ordered universe of his room. It would take him a little while to get used to it. To adjust.

But he always did.

As he stood and adapted to his surroundings, his mind wandered, and he thought of the strange sound he had heard in his Steve ear back in his room. Reflexively his hand shot up to the ear and the device there. He was tempted to play with it again, but—

“Isaac?” his mother called from the living room, though there was very little room for living there. They could barely even watch TV.

He quickly took his hand away.

“Yes?” he called out.

“Come watchPrice Is Rightwith me,” she said. “The Showcase Showdown will be coming on.”

Feeling a bit more at ease, Isaac navigated the uneven surface of the hallway floor to join his mother, the disturbing sound he'd experienced in his bad ear forgotten.

For now.

CHAPTERFIVE

Sidney wasn't sure she'd ever seen the parking lot of the Benediction Veterinary Hospital this crowded before.

She drove down to the back of the lot where the hospital staff was supposed to park and walked up with Snowy obediently by her side. The way the morning was going so far, she really didn't know what to expect inside, and the tea had done very little for her headache.

Removing Snowy's leash from her back pocket, she fastened the clip to the dog's collar and reached for the door, opening it into chaos. It was as if everybody in Benediction had decided to bring their animals in at the same time. Not only were there barking dogs, held tightly on leashes against their owner's legs, and crying cats inside the confines of pet carriers, but there were squawking birds and wire cages filled with guinea pigs, rats, hamsters, and what looked to be a chinchilla.

Pam, one of the front-desk workers, looked up from her computer, where she was finishing up checking out a woman client, comically widening her eyes and making a twisted face.

Sidney approached the counter and asked, “What's going on?”

“I haven't a clue,” Pam said, handing the woman her credit card and receipt. “It's been like this since we unlocked the doors.”

Michelle, another of the front staffers, was busily checking folks and their pets in. “It's appointments, but it's also walk-ins, like everybody decided at the same time to pay us a visit today. It's crazy.”

“I'll be right out to give you a hand,” Sidney told them, navigating the meandering crowds with her dog.

“Excuse me,” the woman Pam had been helping suddenly said. “Exactly how long am I expected to wait before you bring me my dog?”

Pam, who was already finishing paperwork for another client, spoke up. “I sent one of the techs to get him, Mrs. Berthold,” she said as pleasantly as she could. “He should be right out.”

Berthold,Sidney thought as she rounded the counter and approached the door that would take her to the back area of the animal hospital.Why is that name familiar?

Just as she and Snowy reached the door, it flew open from the other side. Sidney saw who was standing there, and it all became clear.

Berthold. She'd seen the name on paperwork that she'd worked on quite a few times.

Alfred Berthold.

Alfred Berthold was a large male, brindle French bulldog with some serious aggression issues, and he was standing just inside the door no more that three feet away from them.

Normally it wouldn't have been a big deal, all the staff at Benediction Veterinary Hospital having been trained on how to handle aggressive breeds, but every once in a while a situation would arise. . . .

This was one of those situations.

Alfred saw Snowy, and Snowy saw Alfred. Although usually perfectly obedient, Snowy had no patience with outright nastiness. Sidney's special girl had no problems defending herself or protecting Sidney if necessary.

The problem that Sidney could see in that split second was that Alfred was being brought out to his owner by Maynard. Maynard was a good kid, everybody liked his easygoing style, but he was a bit of a stoner, and sometimes, well . . . sometimes he just wasn't paying enough attention. And she could instantly see the problem with Alfred's leash.

One needed to be on guard 100 percent when dealing with Alfred because he could be tricky. One minute he was completely fine, and the next he was trying to chew off some other poor dog's ear. Alfred was bad news, and now here he was, at the end of a leash being given way too much play, with Snowy right in front of him.

Sidney knew that things were about to go from bad to worse when Maynard uttered the words “Oh shit.”

She couldn't have agreed more.

It was as if somebody had fired a starter's pistol.

She saw it all in slow motion. Alfred's dark, beady eyes had locked onto Snowy, a stripe of brindled fur suddenly rising upon the Frenchie's back telling her that he was going to strike. Snowy had stiffened protectively, her own white hackles lifting on her neck and back as she readied herself. Sidney yanked back on Snowy's leash, trying to put herself between the two dogs and eliminate the challenging eye contact, but it was too late. Alfred lunged with a guttural snarl, striking her leg with his front paw and causing her to stumble back. Snowy reacted instinctively, moving around Sidney's recovering form to let Alfred know that he had gone too far. The bulldog sprang to meet the shepherd's attack, mouths filled with many teeth coming together in a snarling, ferocious mass.

“Pull him back!” Sidney screamed to Maynard, who seemed to be in a kind of surprised stupor.

Sidney was attempting to pull Snowy away, but she and Alfred were still entangled in their angry tussle. The animal hospital had erupted in sounds of panic, with all the pets voicing their concerns at once.


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A human voice rose above the cacophony.

“Alfred!” it cried out in panic, and Sidney saw Mrs. Berthold reaching into the mass of snarling and snapping dogs to separate hers from the other.

Sidney knew what was about to happen. She pulled back on Snowy's leash with all her might, dragging the dog away from Alfred, but it was too late. Alfred reacted as if Mrs. Berthold was part of the threat against him, and he snapped at her hand, his small, crooked teeth sinking into the tender flesh.

Mrs. Berthold's scream was piercing and startled Alfred enough that he let go of her hand, his fleshy face frozen as he realized for the first time that she was there. Thick trails of slobber dripped from both sides of the bulldog's jowls, and Sidney noticed that it was tinted pink with blood. A quick assessment of Snowy showed that she was fine, that there were no puncture wounds, the blood belonging to either Alfred or his owner.

The woman's hand was bleeding, the front of her blue silk blouse stained with drops of dark crimson.

Maynard had already begun to apologize to anybody with whom he could make eye contact, holding tightly to Alfred's leash as he should have been moments before.

“I'm so sorry,” the young man stammered. “He got away from me and . . .”

There would be time for apologies later. They needed to help this woman with her injuries. Spatters of red dappled the linoleum floor beneath her bleeding hand.

Pam was already moving around the counter with a towel.

“Could you take Snowy,” Sidney said, handing her dog's leash to Michelle, who took Snowy and led her outside as Sidney grabbed the towel from Pam. “Cover it with this,” she said, stepping closer to hold the towel beneath the woman's dripping hand.

The woman looked at Sidney with a dazed expression.

“Here you go, Mrs. Berthold,” she said, starting to wrap up the bleeding hand. Sidney took a moment to check out the wound and saw that it didn't look too bad, just a few punctures with some torn skin. “Apply pressure to stop the bleeding.”

Mrs. Berthold then looked at her, that dazed expression gradually morphing into one of absolute rage.

“Take your hands off of me,” she said with a snarl, causing Sidney to step back. The look on her face reminded Sidney of Alfred, just before he lunged.

“We're so sorry,” Sidney began. “Let me take you out back, and we can clean that up before—”

“I'm not going anywhere with you,” she stated. “Where's my dog?” She looked around at the faces watching her. “Where is he?”

Maynard was standing in the corner by the door with Alfred when her eyes locked on him.

“Give him to me,” she ordered, reaching for the leash with her good hand.

Maynard did as he was told.

She wrapped the leash around her uninjured hand and started to leave, Alfred walking by her side.

“Mrs. Berthold,” Sidney called to her. “You might want to have that bite checked out at the hospital.”

The woman stopped just before the door, turning to glare. Sidney noticed that Alfred was glaring as well.

“Thank you so much,” she said calmly, coldly, pulling Alfred closer to her side. “I'll be sure to mention your concern to my lawyer when we speak this afternoon.”

She then abruptly turned, taking herself and her animal from the building.

“Have a nice day,” Sidney muttered beneath her breath, unsure if she would be able to survive the surprises the remainder of the day might have in store.

CHAPTERSIX

“What was all the racket about?” Doc Martin asked, spinning her chair around from the desk where she sat working on the computer in the back office of the clinic. She took her black-framed glasses from her face and let them hang from a fluorescent-green croakie around her neck.

At a closer look, Sidney saw that she was working on a particularly challenging game of solitaire.

“Snowy and one of the discharges had some words,” Sidney said, kneeling down beside Snowy to better check her over.

“Bring her here,” the old vet said, leaning forward in her chair and motioning with her hands to bring the dog over. Sidney guided the dog to the woman. Snowy responded with a happy wag of her thick tail.

“How's it going, girl?” Doc Martin asked, placing her heavily veined, calloused hands beneath the dog's big head and tilting it upright to look into her eyes. She put her glasses back on her face and then proceeded to check out the splotches of crimson that stood out prominently on the shepherd's white fur.

“Looks like we've got some minor scrapes, but no punctures,” Martin said.

“Yeah, thought so,” Sidney said, stroking her dog's side.

“Who'd she go up against?” Martin asked.

“Alfred the Frenchie.”

“That evil son of a bitch? That bulldog's got a mean streak a mile wide.” She finished looking Snowy over. “She's fine. Clean the scratches with some antiseptic and she'll be good as new.”

Doc Martin started to rub the dog's ears, causing Snowy to make a low, grumbling moan of pleasure.

“How was the other one?”

“Alfred was fine. Maybe some scrapes too, but his owner's hand got bit.”

Martin's eyes widened. “Who did the biting?”

“Alfred. And we've got plenty of witnesses.”

“Phew,” Doc Martin said, leaning back in her office chair. “Lot harder to sue when it's your own beast that bites.”

Sidney used some antibiotic swabs to clean her dog's wounds and to wipe away the bloodstains.

“That's a good girl,” she said, looking into the dog's eyes, then kissing her on the nose.

“How's it going out there otherwise?” Doc Martin asked as she saved her solitaire game.

“It's a madhouse.” Sidney gestured to Snowy to go lie down, and the dog padded obediently across the room to curl up on a square cushion against the wall, beside a coatrack. “A lot of walk-ins. I'm going to see if there's anything I can do to help clear out the lobby.”

She went to the coatrack and took a lab coat from one of the hooks and put it on.

“When you're done with that, I've got some blood work for you to run, a few heartworm blood tests and a kidney function,” Doc Martin said.

“What are you doing?” Sidney asked as she headed for the door and the mob scene beyond it.

“After I finish my solitaire game?” Doc Martin asked with a smile. “I've got a spay and a neuter waiting for me, and a basset that swallowed five fifty in quarters.”

“You have fun with that,” Sidney said, pulling open the door.

“How could I not?” the old vet called after her. “I'm livin' the dream.”

CHAPTERSEVEN

Sayid watched as the child slept.

Her physical injuries had been minor, but not the emotional ones; he wasn't sure if the five-year-old would ever properly recover. The little girl whimpered pathetically, and his heart broke. It again reminded him of his own daughter back home, no longer a little girl, and the mysterious threat to their safety and the safety of so many others.

The child's stuffed bear fell from her grasp, and Sayid retrieved it, gently placing it in the crook of her arm. She reacted, embracing the bear as she rolled onto her side, pulling her knees up into the fetal position.

They had gotten very little from Heaven's Breath's lone survivor, but what they had begun to pull together from the evidence left on the island filled him with increasing dread.

“Dr. Sayid?”

The man turned to see his head of security, Brenda Langridge, in the doorway.

“How is she?” Langridge asked, her usual steely resolve replaced by a look of genuine concern. He believed that finding this child with him on the island had activated some sort of maternal instinct in the security head.

Stranger things have happened.

“Still sedated,” Sayid said. “They've tried weaning her from the sleep meds, but the night terrors are still quite strong.”

“Her entire family is dead, and we can only imagine what she witnessed before ending up in that chest. I wonder if it wouldn't have been better if . . .”

“It will take some time, but she'll survive,” Sayid said quickly. He reached out and laid a hand upon the child's foot beneath the blanket. “I think she's quite strong.”

“She's going to need to be,” Langridge said, the softness in her gaze suddenly turning quite hard.

“Do you have something to report?” Sayid asked.

“I do.” The woman held out a stack of papers. “The National Weather Service is currently tracking four tropical storms.”

He took the papers and began to study them. “Anything that might suggest these will precede an event?”

“Not yet. Three are likely to occur out at sea, but one is causing some concern.”

He continued to read the pages and found what Langridge had been referencing as she began to describe it.

“It's moving up the Eastern Seaboard,” she reported, “and is likely to make landfall somewhere on the coast of Massachusetts.”

The little girl in the hospital bed moaned woefully in her sleep, as if sensing Sayid's sudden feeling of dread.

CHAPTEREIGHT

The lobby was still full when Sidney came out from the back room, and she threw herself head-on into the chaos, helping the staff of the front desk as best she could by answering questions about medications, signing folks with their pets in for appointments, and checking them out once they'd finished. She'd even managed to answer a couple of medical questions that really didn't require Doc Martin to get involved. It was all good prep work for when she would someday have her own veterinary practice.

Sidney had always known her life would somehow involve animals. She remembered how convinced she'd been that a show on the Animal Planet channel was in her future, even going as far as having her father record video of her interacting with local wildlife and sending it to the cable network to spotlight her talents. Needless to say, the network never called, and she began to rethink her career opportunities. It was the summer that she turned nine when she decided she was going to work for the Benediction Veterinary Hospital and pedaled her bike in ninety-degree heat across the island to the hospital to inform Doc Martin of that fact.

Sidney smiled at the recollection of how Doc Martin had put her to work feeding and watering a litter of kittens that had been abandoned on the doorstep of the hospital that morning. Martin had even given her a ride home that afternoon, tossing Sidney's pink Schwinn in the back of her Subaru wagon, and speaking with her father, who, truth be told, hadn't noticed she was gone. Doc Martin had told Dale Moore that Sidney was welcome to come and help at the hospital anytime she liked. That was all Sidney needed. She'd shown up just about every day, voraciously absorbing everything she could about the hospital, even going as far as to take Doc Martin's veterinary textbooks home to read and study.

There was no wonder that she'd wound up where she was today: top of her high school class and heading off to Tufts University, where she'd eventually enter the veterinary science program. It was like she'd been preparing for it all her life.

She'd just waited on a woman buying flea-and-tick medicine for her cat when she realized that the lobby was empty.

“Hey, look at that.” She glanced from the empty lobby to the clock, noting that she'd worked through lunch and still had those tests to run for the doc. Pam and Michelle were giving each other high fives for surviving the ordeal as she headed for the back.

“Give me a holler if things get nuts again,” she called out.

Snowy bounded from her bed in greeting, and Sidney gave her some appropriate loving before getting to work on the tests that Doc Martin wanted.

She had just finished the last heartworm test when she felt her phone vibrate. Making sure that everything was done with the test first, she pulled the phone from her back pocket to see a text from Rich.

What's the word?????

She'd completely forgotten that she was supposed to ask Cody about that favor. About to send a text back saying that she was working on it, Sidney stopped, deciding that she should probably get in touch with Cody first before saying anything more.

Cody.

Again, she felt that horrible weight in her belly that threatened to grow, spreading through her limbs, dissolving her resolve and leaving her little more than a statue firmly rooted to Benediction and watching the world go by.

Dramatic, she knew, but at the same time there really was a part of her that would be willing to let her dreams of leaving the island go, to embrace the old and comfortable, and not have to think about troubling things like leaving her father and the person who, until not too long ago, she thought she loved.

It would be so much easier.

Sidney felt herself getting angry for even thinking such things. She'd wanted this for as long as she could remember, and she wasn't about to let guilt and doubt eat away at her dreams.

She considered calling Cody but doubted that he would answer while working, and the same for texting. When at work he was pretty focused on the job. Plus his father the hard-ass had a thing about cell phones.

What she had to do was obvious, but not what she wanted to do at all. She guessed that she could contact Rich and tell him Cody said no, but that would just end up contributing to the giant pool of guilt she was already carrying around. No, she pretty much knew what she would do.

A moment later Doc Martin came out from surgery, pulling off her bloody gloves and depositing them in the special waste container.

“Everything good?” Sidney asked, tidying up her work space.

“Yep, everything's fine,” the doc said. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her lab coat and tapped one out. “Except it was five fifty in change, some aluminum foil, chicken bones, half a tennis ball, the eraser end of a pencil, and three hair barrettes inside the basset.” Doc Martin put the unlit smoke in her mouth. “He was like a friggin' hairy piñata,” she said, lips tight around her cigarette.


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Sidney laughed.

“Hey, I've pretty much caught up here, and the front has calmed down. Would you mind if I took off early today? I've got to take care of something.”

“I don't see any problem,” Doc Martin said. “I was planning on closing early today anyway on account of the storm.”

“Thanks.”

“Everything all right?” Doc Martin asked. “Your dad doing okay?”

Sidney shrugged as she removed her lab coat. “As good as can be expected I guess.” She hung the coat on one of the hooks. Snowy was watching her expectantly from her bed.

“Us old folks can be a real pain in the ass,” Doc Martin said, making her laugh some more. “You'll be old yourself someday. How old are you now? Thirty-two?”

“Eighteen,” she answered, suppressing a smile.

“Going on thirty-two,” Doc Martin said with a nod. “So . . . Cody. Anything new with that?”

Doc Martin knew that they'd broken up, and why, and seemingly supported her decision.

“Nothing new. We're still broken up, but I'm going over to the boatyard to ask a favor for Rich Stanmore and . . . unngh.” She made a face and laughed uneasily.

“Is that a smart thing to do?”

“If I didn't have to do it I'd be ecstatic, but I told Rich I would. And besides, I can't avoid seeing him forever.”

“Yeah, you're probably right,” the old vet said as she walked to the back door, turned the knob, and pushed it open.

The door was practically torn from her grasp in a gust of wind.

“Crap!” she said, attempting to hold on. “The wind's really picked up. You be careful out there; do what you have to do and then get home.”

Snowy jumped up and was now standing attentively by Sidney's side, knowing that they were about to leave.

“If you need any help closing up, call my cell,” Sidney said.

Doc Martin had used her foot to keep the door from blowing wide open again and was trying to smoke, but the wind kept pushing the smoke back in her face.

“I'll be good,” she said. “I'll see you in the morning.”

Sidney gave her a wave and headed out the other door to say her good-byes to the front-desk staff.

“Heading out for the day,” she told them. “Everything cool?”

“A-okay, captain,” Pam said. “Going anyplace good?” she asked as Sidney placed her back against the door, ready to push her way outside.

Again she made the face. “Rather be going to a funeral,” she said, opening the door wide as she and Snowy left the building, escorted out by the laughter of Pam and Michelle.

But in all honesty, she really would have.

CHAPTERNINE

In a way, Cody Seaton was glad about the coming storm.

It had little to do with what the damaging high winds, rain, and pounding waves could do to the marina, and everything to do with the amount of work he and his harbormaster father had to do to maintain the safety of the boats still moored there.

It had everything to do with being distracted.

Cody moved down the docks. All the boats that could be removed had been yesterday—hauled back to homes or stored in the nearby boatyard. The remaining crafts were too big to move, and although ultimate responsibility for the safety of those boats rested with the owners, Cody still took it upon himself to make sure that they had been properly prepared. As he walked, he checked that all the lines were doubled and that chafing protection was in place where the dock lines passed through the fairleads and chocks or over the sides of the vessels. He checked to be sure that all the boats had ample fenders to protect their hulls when the waters became increasingly choppy.

Everything was looking pretty good, and he desperately started to go through his mental checklist to find the next thing that he could do to occupy his time.

To keep from thinking about . . .

Too late. He'd already opened that door. Before Cody knew it, his mind was racing, bringing him back to that night when his girlfriend did the unthinkable.

Just the thought of Sidney and what she had done to him filled him with equal parts anger and hurt. She had said that she didn't want to hurt him, but then turned right around and ripped the heart from his chest and threw it into the harbor.

She might as well have just shot him in the head.

Sure, they'd had their problems over the years. Who didn't? No one's relationship was 100 percent perfect, but he was at least willing to work on things.

She had said that she needed a clean break, a fresh start. But what about him? Had she even taken the time to think about whathemight want? They had been together for so long, he couldn't imagine their lives separately, and that just made him feel sick to his stomach.

The wind was picking up, and rain had started to spatter him and the docks. Cody pulled the hood of his Windbreaker over his head and reached into his back pocket for his phone. He'd promised himself he wasn't going to do this—constantly checking to see if Sidney had called or texted—but he did anyway. She hadn't, and it made him feel all the more terrible.

All he wanted was a chance to explain his side, how he would do anything to be with her. Things didn't have to change so dramatically just because she was heading off to college. He wanted an opportunity to be a part of that life, for them to experience it together.

He looked around the marina. His father expected him to take over as harbormaster once his dad retired, but if he had the opportunity to leave the island with Sidney . . .

His father opened the door of the office at the end of the main dock and motioned for Cody to join him. The young man slipped his phone back into his pocket and jogged over.

“Everything all right?” his father asked, squinting into the rain-swept wind.

“Yeah, everything looks good,” Cody answered.

“I was watching you from the window, just standing there in the rain. You sure you're all right?”

His father knew the situation. Sidney hadn't been one of his favorite people even before the breakup, and now . . .

“Yeah . . . just thinking.”

“I'm sure.” His father stared at him for a moment with those eyes that always seemed to know more than they should. “Hungry?” he asked finally.

“No,” Cody answered. His stomach hadn't felt right for days. He had no interest in eating.

“You need to eat.”

“I know.”

“Did you have anything for breakfast?”

“Yeah.”

“You're lying,” his father said matter-of-factly, pulling his wallet from his back pocket. “Go on to the diner and get us some lunch. Cheeseburger will do it for me; get yourself whatever.”

“I'm really not hungry,” Cody said as he took the money.

“You'll be surprised when you have something.”

“Maybe.” Cody shrugged.

“I'll hold down the fort till you get back,” his father said as he shoved his wallet back into his pocket.

Cody was already heading toward his truck when he heard his father's voice again.

“Has she called you back?”

The young man stopped but did not turn. “No . . . not yet.”

He braced himself, waiting for what the man would say next:Maybe it's all for the best. . . . You can do better anyway. . . . You were always more serious than she was. . . .But he said nothing, which in Cody's mind was the best thing he could have done.

CHAPTERTEN

Isaac's mother had found some walnuts.

She had been moving a box of cookbooks that she'd bought at a church flea market a few years back and knocked a plastic bag that had been wedged beneath a pile of aluminum pie plates and plastic take-out containers onto the floor. When she bent down to pick up the bag, she'd found the whole walnuts inside.

She had no idea where they'd come from or how long she'd had them, but she couldn't imagine that they weren't still good, and the perfect treat for her squirrel friends in the backyard.

Isaac did not want to go outside. He could hear the wind pounding at the house, the rain spattering against the windows, but his mother insisted.

“Our friends need their treat,” she told him as she put on the yellow slicker that she'd found beneath ten other coats hanging over the back of a dining room chair.

Isaac knew enough not to argue with his mother, especially these days, especially since his sister Barbara had come back into their lives. Instead, he went to his room and grabbed his own raincoat from where it hung neatly in his closet.

His mother called for him again, and Isaac pulled on his coat as he hurried down the hallway to the kitchen, careful not to slip on any of the debris that was in his path. She stood at the back door, hood over her head, plastic bag of walnuts in her hand.

“Hurry up,” she ordered, turning to open the door. There was a rush of wind into the kitchen, and it picked up stray pieces of paper and debris to create a mini tornado of trash.

“Hurry! Hurry!” she repeated. “Before the wind messes everything up!”

Isaac thought things were pretty messy already, but he did as he was told, passing through the swirling litter and closing the door firmly behind him as he joined his mother on the stoop.

From where he stood, Isaac could just about see Sidney's yard and house. He craned his neck to see if she might be out, but then quickly chided himself. Why would she be outside on such a horrible day? Sometimes, like his mother often said, he just wasn't thinking straight.

The backyard was as chaotic as the house. They picked their way over toys and flowerpots as they descended the steps into a large yard overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. Rusty bicycle frames, old tires, car rims, and garden statuary were nearly swallowed up by the overgrowth, and there were enough birdbaths to keep all the birds that called Benediction their home very clean indeed.

Isaac found that thought amusing, picturing cartoon birds scrubbing their backs with tiny brushes as they took their evening baths, but his musings were interrupted as a gust of wind picked up a blue kiddy pool and sent it hovering across the high grass toward them like a UFO.

“You should probably put some rocks in that,” his mother said. “Don't want it blowing away.” She was holding on to the back stairs' metal railing so she wouldn't lose her balance in the wind.

Isaac looked around and found a stone cherub lying on its side in the grass beside the house. One of its wings had been broken off, something his mother was going to fix, but never quite got around to. He walked over to the stone angel, lifted it up, and placed it atop the pool, looking up to see if his mother approved. But she'd already moved on, making her way through the grass to a metal bench just beside the run-down garage.

“Come over here and help me,” she called to him, motioning with a hand. “We've got a lot of hungry mouths to feed.”

He carefully navigated the yard, not wanting to trip on something hiding in the brush. But as he was concentrating so hard on his feet, another powerful gust took him totally unawares, and he stumbled after all, his shoe catching in the metal frame of an old bike and sending him to all fours in the high grass.

“Isaac!” his mother called out with concern.

But he could barely hear her, for the sound—that strange sound that he had heard primarily in his Steve ear—had come back and was louder now, making his head hum and his teeth rattle. He brought a dirt-covered hand up to his ear to turn down the sound, but only managed to make it squeal and crackle all the louder.

“Don't play with your hearing aids!” his mother yelled. “Come here and let me take a look at you.”

He wanted to do as she asked, but the sound had frozen him in place, stealing away his ability to act. The sound had become like a voice, but a voice he could not understand, drifting in and out among the static, like a bad radio station. It was just as much inside his head as it was in his bad ear.

It was like the sound was trying to tell him something, but no matter how hard he listened, he could not understand.

The rain was starting to fall harder now, the moisture of the damp ground under his knees soaking into his pants. He didn't like the fact that he was getting wet, but he could not concentrate enough to move. Even though he knew he was not supposed to touch the hearing aids, Isaac decided that he couldn't stand it anymore. He reached up to his Steve ear to tear the device from his head.

A hand wrapped around his wrist, stopping him. He looked over and saw that his mother now stood there.

“What did I tell you?” she asked, annoyed with him. “Do you know how much those hearing aids cost us?”

He wanted to apologize, to explain what was happening, but he was unable to speak, the sound inside his brain stealing away his ability to communicate. His mouth moved noiselessly as he tried to tell her. She continued to hold on to his wrist, preventing him from reaching his Steve ear.

The sound was growing in his brain, making him feelwrong.

It made him feel angry. The kind of special angry that he felt when one or more of the cats got into his room and messed things up. The kind of angry that made him want to hurt things. The sound continued to fill his head with bad feelings, and he could stand it no more.

With a cry of desperation he tore his hand from his mother's grasp, grabbed at his Steve ear, and pulled away the hearing aid. The sound coming over the hearing device was silenced at once, and he could move again, his mind no longer filled with such angry, horrible thoughts.

“You better not have broken that,” his mother snarled.

Isaac looked at his hand, and at the hearing device that he was holding, and hoped that he had broken it.

He never wanted to hear those horrible sounds again.

CHAPTERELEVEN

Janice Berthold held her breath as she ran her still-bleeding hand beneath the cold water from her bathroom sink. She could feel her heart beating in the wounds, as if the powerful muscle had somehow relocated from her chest to her hand, each pulse accompanied by sharp, stabbing pain.


Page 7

She squirted liquid soap into her good hand and gently rubbed the antiseptic around and into the wounds. That would be all that she would need, for the bite to get infected. Janice looked through the doorway of the bedroom bathroom at Alfred sprawled upon the floor, gnawing relentlessly on one of his toys. There was a part of her that felt a spark of anger toward the dog, but another that felt bad. The poor thing didn't know he had bitten her. He thought he was protecting himself.

Didn't he?

The French bulldog saw that she was watching him and locked eyes with her. She tried to find a sign that the dog was concerned for her, sorry for what he had done, but she saw nothing. It was like looking into the blackness of a doll's eyes.

But she knew that he loved her in his special way.

A faint noise from somewhere downstairs made Alfred bark, and she started, whacking her injured hand on the faucet. She swore at the explosion of pain, removed her hands from beneath the water, and turned the faucet off. Alfred had run off to investigate the sound, but she had already guessed what it was.

Whoit was.

She could feel herself getting immediately angry, the anger using the pain of her hand to fuel its severity. Grabbing a towel, she wrapped her throbbing hand, listening for the sound of his approach.

“Honey?” her husband called from downstairs. “You up there?”

No, I'm not. . . . I've gone away someplace where I never have to hear your awful voice again,she wanted to scream, but instead—

“Yeah, I'm in the bathroom.”

She dried her hand while listening to hear if he would come up to bother her further. First there was the sound of multiple paws coming up as Alfred returned, followed by Ronald's heavier footfalls.

Janice didn't want him to see her like this—injured, in pain. She could just imagine the indignities she would suffer because of it.

From a cabinet in the corner of the master bathroom, she removed some bandages and antibiotic ointment.

“Honey?”

She didn't answer, willing herself invisible—NO,willing herself to another part of the world.Another planet,if it were possible.

Ronald pushed the door open wider with a creak. She could sense him standing there, hear the sound of Alfred breathing alongside him, and again she wondered how she could have gotten here.

How she could despise another human being so much.

She must have loved him once, but in all honesty, she could not remember. The hate was so strong now it had burned away all memory of their past life, but what she did remember was what her life wasn't.

It wasn't what it was supposed to be like in the fairy tales, or in the movies. Love so satisfying that you didn't even need to eat to continue to live. He was supposed to give her that, but she came to eventually learn that it was all a lie. Ronald was supposed to give her this fantasy, but instead he gave her the monotony of life.

He wasn't a prince, or an action hero, or even a college professor.

He was a middle-aged, balding, certified public accountant, and he had tricked her into giving away the best years of her life.

Janice closed the cabinet door, catching a reflection of herself in the mirror over the sink, and wondered who the old lady was looking back at her.

“It's really starting to blow out there,” Ronald started. “Got the lawn furniture into the shed before it could blow away.”

“That's good,” she said, watching the old woman's mouth move as hers did.

“Everything go all right at the vet? Alfred's teeth look good—nice and clean. Did he behave himself?”

She must've moved a certain way to show him her wrapped hand.

“What the hell's wrong with your hand?”

“Nothing,” she said, tearing her eyes from the old woman in the mirror. “Just a little accident.”

He was suddenly there beside her, taking her hand in his, unwrapping the towel. His nearness made her flesh crawl, the painful throbbing of her hand becoming almost unbearable.

“It's nothing,” she told him, trying to pull her hand away.

“It's not nothing,” he corrected her. “That's a bite. Who bit you? Did one of the dogs at the vet . . . Did Alfred bite you?”

Alfred was sitting on the bathroom rug, watching closely with his dark doll's eyes.

“It was an accident,” she said, getting away from him before she started to scream. “There was a fight, and I got bit as I was trying to break them apart.”

She left the bathroom as quickly as she could, the closeness of him like poison to her body. Alfred followed her into the bedroom, as did Ronald.

“Did you call the doctor? Maybe you should go to the emergency room . . . you're probably going to need a tetanus shot, and maybe rabies.”

“I'm fine,” she said, even though the pain was worse now than before. “I'm just going to bandage it up and keep it clean.” She hoped that her assurances would get him to leave.

She had put the bandages and tube of antibacterial ointment down on her makeup table and thought she saw him leaving the room—

But he came up suddenly behind her.

“Let me help you with that,” he said, taking the ointment from the table and grabbing her wrist.

And that was when she knew it was going to happen.

That was when Janice Berthold knew she would kill her husband.

CHAPTERTWELVE

The poor weather conditions were starting to intensify. Sidney held tightly to the wheel of her Jeep, struggling to keep control as the wind and rain threatened to push her from the road.

Snowy whined in the backseat, and Sidney reached back to scratch her nose, keeping her eyes on the road ahead of her. “It's all right, girl,” she said, as much to reassure herself as the dog.

The visibility was bad, but Sidney finally spotted the turnoff for the marina through the driving rain. The lot was nearly empty; she didn't even see Cody's truck. Had she come all this way for nothing? The lights were on in the main office, and since she was there, she decided she might as well find out.

Throwing the hood of her light jacket up over her head, she opened the door and motioned for Snowy to exit, and the two of them ran across the puddle-filled lot to the front door of the office and quickly entered.

Cody's dad looked up from a stack of papers on his desk.

“Hi, Mr. Seaton,” Sidney said, removing her dripping hood. “Is Cody around?”

“No,” he said, standing and taking the papers to a file cabinet on the other side of his desk up against the wall. He pulled open the first drawer and dropped the stack of papers into it.

Snowy walked across the room to greet the man who slammed closed the drawer and turned, holding his hand out for the shepherd to sniff.

“Anything I can do for you?”

“That's all right,” Sidney answered, feeling very uncomfortable. Cody's father had never been one of the most talkative of people, and he gave off an air of sternness that by instinct forced her to be on her best behavior. “I'll try and get in touch with him later.” She motioned for Snowy to follow her as she flipped the hood back onto her head.

“Are you here about the two of you?” Mr. Seaton asked.

Sidney froze as she was reaching for the door. “Excuse me?”

“About the two of you,” he repeated. “I know that you ended your relationship with my son the other night, and I'm wondering why you're back.”

Sidney had never felt more on the spot, as if a bright light shone directly on her and alarms wailed in the distance.

“It's nothing about that,” Sidney said, pulling her hood back down and playing with her hair. She wished she didn't do that when she got nervous and quickly took her hand away. “I've just got something that I need to ask him. A favor for—”

“Maybe that isn't such a good idea,” Mr. Seaton interrupted.

“What do you . . .”

“Maybe it isn't a good idea for you to see him . . . talk to him, right now.”

She didn't know how to respond.

“Cody was pretty broken up,” Mr. Seaton explained. “He actually talked to me about it when he came home late the other night.”

Mr. Seaton was standing very stiff in front of the file cabinet, as if attempting to keep everything that he was feeling from leaking out of his body, but she could see it on his face. He was angry.

At her.

“My son and I don't talk about things,” he continued. “Especially things like this—personal things. It was probably something better suited for his mother, but . . .”

Cody's mom had passed away from breast cancer their first year of high school.

“He came into the house that night, and I've never seen him like that before. He's a strong boy, a good kid, but the person who came into my living room that night . . .”

Mr. Seaton stopped, and Sidney could see that he was remembering.

“That wasn't my son,” he said, shaking his head. “That was just a shell.”

She felt even more uncomfortable, wanting to quickly open the door and run out into the storm. Yes, she would rather have been out in the storm than in the office.

“It was a tough night,” Sidney agreed. “But it had to be said.”

“You were done with him,” Mr. Seaton said. “It was fun while it lasted, but now it's time for you to move on.”

“It's not like that.”

“Accepted to a fancy college on the mainland, all kinds of new doors will be opening for you, so why would you want to have anything to do with what's back here?”

“Mr. Seaton, I don't think . . .”

“Clean house, tie up loose ends, move on, and start fresh. I get it. I'd probably do the same if I was like you.”

The words hit her like a blow to the stomach.

“Like me? What's that supposed to—”

“I never could understand what he saw in you,” Mr. Seaton went on. “I always figured you were just hanging around until something better came along.”

“You know what?” Sidney could feel the anger surge, and her eyes burned with tears. As if sensing her emotion, Snowy moved to stand with her. “I think I've heard enough.”

“Watching my nineteen-year-old son cry made me think of all the things I've lost, and how I'd never wanted Cody to ever feel as bad. And yet, I think he felt worse.” His voice trembled with emotion.

Sidney managed to get the door open.

“I won't tell him you were here,” he added as she and Snowy stepped out into the storm, slamming the door behind them.

Sidney stood trembling in the rain, not from the raw dampness, but from hurt and anger. Things she wanted to say raced through her mind, and she was tempted to go back inside and really let him have it, but something held her back.

Was he right?

Sure, she had loved Cody as much as any fifteen-year-old high school girl was capable of loving somebody, but that love had changed as she'd gotten older and began to realize that the world was a much bigger place than Benediction Island. Was it sad that their love had lessened? Sure it was, but it didn't mean that what they'd shared had been a lie. They'd loved each other once and that was great, but now . . .

She reached up with a trembling hand to wipe away the scalding tears that were running down her cheeks. Snowy was watching her with curious eyes.

“I'm all right, girl,” she lied to the dog. “Let's go back to the Jeep.”

She had just started to jog with Snowy by her side when she heard the car horn. A red Honda Accord was coming down the drive, and she watched as it pulled into a parking spot not far from where she'd left her Jeep.

Rich Stanmore climbed from the car, pulling the collar up on his jacket as he approached.

“Hey,” he said. “Did you talk to Cody?”

“No,” Sidney started, just as Cody's blue pickup truck pulled up in front of the marina's office. Could things get any worse?

“Hey, there he is,” Rich said cheerfully.

The door to the pickup swung open, and Cody climbed out, holding a large white bag.

“Hey, bro!” Rich called out, waving.

“Don't,” Sidney warned, already getting a sense that things were about to become very bad.

Cody started toward them, his pace quickening the closer he came. When he dropped the lunch bag onto the wet parking lot ground, she realized that her biggest fears were about to come true.

Cody had never liked Rich or her friendship with him. It had always been a sore spot in their relationship. He had even accused her of breaking up with him to date Rich. Having Rich here now was a recipe for disaster.

“I asked Sidney to talk to you, but since I'm here—”

Before Rich could finish, Cody lunged at him with a curse-laced growl, grabbing him by the front of his coat and pushing him back onto the hood of his car.

“Dude!” Rich yelled in surprise.

“Cody, no!” Sidney cried, trying to pull her ex from atop her friend, as Snowy barked frantically.

“I knew it!” Cody lifted Rich up and slammed him down onto the hood again.

“What the hell are you . . .” Rich asked, still trying to figure out why he was being attacked.

Sidney grabbed at Cody's hands.

“That's enough, Cody,” she said firmly.

“I can't believe you two,” he said, lost in his anger. “Coming here to rub my face in it.”

“It's not what you think,” Sidney said, and she managed to rip one of his hands from Rich's jacket, slapping it away as Cody attempted to grab it again.

“It's not what you think!” She screamed this time, thinking maybe the louder she said it, the better chance it might have of sinking in.

He batted her hand away and she shrieked. It hurt like hell, and for a second she was afraid of him, afraid of the boy she used to love.


Page 8

It was her scream that took things in another direction. Cody stopped for a second, concern appearing on his face, giving Rich a chance to collect himself.

Pushing off from the hood of his car, Rich punched Cody in the jaw, sending him stumbling to the right. Snowy was going wild, barking and growling crazily, trying to involve herself in the violence, wanting it to stop. Sidney grabbed the dog by the collar, pulling her away from the fight. Rich didn't let up, following through with another punch before Cody could recover.

“What is wrong with you?” he shouted, hitting Cody again. “I didn't do shit to you!”

Cody blocked Rich's next swing, coming in low in a tackle, sending them both to the wet ground in a heap of swinging fists.

“You ruined everything,” Sidney heard Cody say as he crawled atop Rich, directing punches at his face.

She couldn't stand it anymore, again going in to try and break it up. She also let Snowy go, and the dog darted in, snarling and snapping threateningly at the two.

“Get off of him,” she commanded, wrapping her arm around Cody's neck in a headlock and using all her strength to pull him off. Rich managed to get his leg under him and kicked out, hurling Cody away.

She hadn't seen Mr. Seaton come out of the office, and he was suddenly there, between them, cell phone in hand.

“Am I going to need to call the police?” he asked, loud enough for them all to hear.

“You son of a bitch,” Cody spat, getting to his feet.

“C'mon,” Rich urged angrily. “Let's see how good you are when I'm ready.”

“Did you two hear me?” Mr. Seaton asked. He got in front of his son, thumping him back with his chest. He then turned around to face Rich.

“I'll have you both thrown in jail for fighting on my property without thinking twice.”

He glared at them, one and then the other.

“Go ahead . . . try me.”

No one moved, and Mr. Seaton abruptly turned and headed back to the office.

“Cody,” he called as he walked. “Where's my lunch?”

Cody managed to tear his gaze away from Rich, then walked to the rain-saturated white bag and picked it up carefully, bringing it to his father and leaving Sidney and Rich alone outside.

“What the hell was that all about?” Rich asked, touching his lip and checking his fingers for blood.

“We broke up the other night,” Sidney said, watching the door to the office.

“You broke up?”

“Yeah, and he thinks it was because of you.”

“Because of me? Shit.”

The door of the office opened, and Cody stepped out. Sidney had to grab Snowy's collar to keep her from running to him.

“No more, Cody,” Sidney warned.

“Go,” he said, waving them away with his hands. “My dad wants you both off the property immediately, and so do I.”

Sidney couldn't stand it anymore.

“What is wrong with you?” she demanded, not bothering to hide her anger.

“Back off, Sid,” he told her. “Take your new boyfriend and—”

“Cut the shit, Cody,” she screamed. “You know full well that Rich isn't my boyfriend.”

“It's true, Cody,” Rich said. “The only reason I'm here is that I asked Sidney to find out if you could give me a hand with my sailboat.”

Cody looked at her hard, she could see that his eyes looked hot—moist. He was on the verge of tears.

“You can tell me. I'm a big boy.”

“There's nothing to tell, Cody,” she said, bringing the volume down. She let Snowy go, and the dog went to him, hungry for his affection.

“Dude, if I'd known the two of you weren't together I never woulda asked,” Rich said sympathetically.

“So why are you both here . . . together?” Cody asked.

“Because I came to ask you the favor alone so something like this wouldn't happen, but you weren't here. I had a lovely chat with your father, by the way,” she added sarcastically.

“And I hadn't heard from her, so I thought I would come down and ask myself. Then I saw that Sid was here and . . .”

“Shit,” Cody said, lowering his gaze and focusing his attentions on Snowy, which was fine by her.

“Yeah,” Sidney agreed.

“I called you, and you didn't get back to me,” Cody went on. “So my imagination was already running wild when I pulled into the parking lot and saw the two of you. . . .”

“Understandable, I guess,” Rich said.

“No, it isn't,” Sidney answered angrily. “I told you why we were breaking up, and it had nothing to do with anybody else, but you still didn't believe me and had to come up with some reason to make me look even worse in your eyes than I already do.”

“Sid,” he started, looking up into her angry gaze. “I'm sorry.”

“You should be,” she shot back. “And you hit me back there.”

“I was slapping your hand away and—”

“You hit me,” she said more forcefully. “If you even think about doing something like that to me again I will most certainly press charges. Do we understand each other?”

She could see the shock in his expression, and she genuinely did believe that he was sorry, but she needed him to know that it wasn't cool in the least to put his hands on her.Ever.No matter the situation.

“Yes,” Cody said. “I'm so sorry.” Nervously he started to pet Snowy again.

“Then we don't need to mention it again,” she said.

Things then got awkward as they stood there in the rain, each of them hoping that the other would say something to shatter the uncomfortable silence.

Sidney concentrated on the weather. It was getting worse, the wind and rain picking up, the clouds in the sky above them moving and swirling about so quickly they could have been smoke.

She was just going to comment on it when—

“Sorry I attacked you,” Cody finally said to Rich, eyes darting about nervously. “There was no reason for it, and I feel like a complete ass.”

“It's cool,” Rich said, then stepped forward and extended his hand.

Cody looked at it for a moment before taking it in his. They shook firmly then quickly let go, stepping back. Sidney doubted the two would ever be best friends, but it was a start.

“This weather's getting not so nice,” Sidney said to change the subject, squinting as she looked up into the ferocious sky.

“The weather guys said that it would be getting bad in the afternoon,” Cody added.

“Which makes the timing on that favor even more crucial,” Rich said.

“What's the favor again?” Cody asked. “Probably the least I could do after kicking your ass.”

“You kickedmyass?” The favor was suddenly pushed aside by his ego. “If there was any ass kicked today it was me firmly placing my foot against your—”

“C'mon, don't you think I've had my fill of this crap today?” Sidney asked with disgust. “Ask your favor please, before I lose my patience,” she told Rich.

“I was hoping that you could help me get my sailboat out of the water before the storm,” Rich said.

Cody looked up into the angry sky. “Looks like you might be a little late.”

“Yeah, but if we hurry we might be able to miss the worst of it. What do you say?”

Cody looked to Sidney. “Probably the least that I could do, huh?”

Sidney agreed. “Probably.”

Yes,Rich mouthed, pumping the air with his fist.

CHAPTERTHIRTEEN

The storm had grown from bad to even worse in a short amount of time. Sidney was having a difficult time seeing through the deluge assailing her wipers. She was following Rich's car back to his parents' place, with Cody following her in his truck. For an instant back at the marina, Sidney had considered leaving the boys to handle this on their own, but something told her that might not have been the best of ideas, the potential of a fight breaking out all too real. So here she was.

“Really coming down, eh, Snowy?” she asked her dog, who leaned forward from the backseat, peering through the torrential downpour. It was like somebody was spraying a hose directly onto the windshield.

Up ahead she saw the flash of Rich's brake lights, followed by a left-turn blinker, which told her that they had arrived. Rich pulled his car over to a spot in front of the large two-story house, and she took one right beside it. She waited, listening to the incessant sound of pelting rain as Cody parked his truck near the two-car garage where the boat's trailer had been left.

When Cody had asked why the sailboat hadn't been taken from the water sooner, Rich had said that he and his parents had hoped to have at least a few more weekends of sailing before the inevitable end of the summer season. Normally his dad would have taken care of removing the boat, but he'd been called away by bank business, which meant that Rich could either take the risk of leaving the boat out during the hurricane or do something about it. He loved the boat and decided a quick weekend trip to Benediction, and hopefully some assistance from friends, would be in order.

“Do you want to stay here or come out in the rain?” Sidney asked Snowy.

“Woof!” the shepherd said.

“I thought so.” Sidney rubbed the dog affectionately behind the ears, then she opened the car door, and they both got out into the pouring rain.

Cody was already backing the truck up toward the trailer so Rich could attach it.

“That's good!” Rich yelled, and the truck came to a stop.

He began to attach the trailer to the hitch as Cody jumped out of the truck and headed back to help. Sidney was glad to see them getting along so well, for the moment anyway.

“Anything that I can do?” she asked, voice raised to be heard over the heavy rainfall.

“We're good,” Cody said, inspecting the connection. Rich gave her a thumbs-up as the two of them returned to the truck cab.

Why am I here again?she thought, becoming more and more rain-saturated each passing second.Oh yes, so my ex-boyfriend and my friend don't kill each other. That's it.

The truck pulled away with the boat trailer in tow, and she considered going back to her car to wait until they'd finished, but since she was already soaked . . .

“C'mon, girl,” she said, motioning to Snowy for her to follow. “Let's go see if the guys are gonna be able to do this.” She followed the side road, which went down to the beach and to the Stanmore's private dock. The wind was really getting intense, and a few times she thought for sure that it might topple her over. She considered that the weather might have gotten too bad for the guys to pull this off.

They must have sensed that their time was limited as well. The water of the bay looked almost black, reflecting the anger in the shifting clouds in the sky above, and Sidney felt the concern for her friends growing as they began to interact with the rough waters. She moved closer, watching carefully as they worked, Rich now on board the sailboat, its masts already removed, as he used the engine to carefully drive the boat onto the partially submerged trailer.

Sidney held her breath as the boat was secured, with Cody turning the winch that gradually pulled the boat onto the trailer. The sky had grown even darker, the blackness of it all seeming to be pressing down, coming closer to the land. There was a feeling in the air that she didn't like, a growing apprehension that seemed to foreshadow that something terrible was about to happen. A sudden tingling across the surface of her flesh made the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stand at attention. Snowy had begun to whine, telling her that something was most definitely up.

“Are we almost done, guys?” she yelled as she moved closer. They of course ignored her, as they finished hauling the sailboat from the water.

“Guys?” she called again.

“Yeah,” Rich said, pulling on the straps that secured the boat on the trailer.

“Almost,” Cody answered over the increasing wail of the wind.

It felt as though there was an electrical current suddenly running through her arms and legs, and she stamped her feet on the saturated ground to try to dispel the strange, tingling sensation.

“Something isn't right,” she said as she noticed Snowy suddenly tensed, hackles raised, lips peeled back in a savage snarl as she, too, reacted to the bizarre atmospheric change.

Sidney didn't know what to do or how she should react. The sky was black and churned and swirled above her, and at the moment she didn't believe that there was anyplace where she would be safe.

She was about to call out to them again when she noticed that Rich and Cody were both returning to the truck, Rich now giving her the double thumbs-up as they climbed into the front seats. The engine of the vehicle revved loudly, and the truck slowly advanced, pulling the trailer and sailboat from the water. She had started to walk back up the road toward the house when it happened.

When the heavens roared, and there was a searing flash that stole away her sight, and for a brief moment Sidney thought it could very well have been the end of the world.

CHAPTERFOURTEEN

It was like the storm was speaking to her—screaming at her—telling Janice to do it—do it now—or the moment would be lost forever.

The sound from outside was all encompassing, surrounding the house completely in its furious message.

Alfred yelped loudly as the lights flickered, and the power went out.

“Great,” Ronald said, standing beside her in the darkness.

Yes, yes it is,she thought, listening to the urgings of the storm. She reached out toward the top of her bureau for the bronze statue of a French bulldog that she had gotten from a dear friend the week Alfred had come to live with them.

“Do we have a flashlight up here, or is the one downstairs the only . . .”


Page 9

Janice followed the sound of his disgusting voice, the promise of never ever hearing it again adding an almost preternatural strength to her arm as she smashed the bronze statue into the side of his face. He went down with a yelp of surprise, and she stood above him still clutching the bronze Frenchie. She could smell something strong and coppery—her husband's blood. Even the stuff that coursed through his veins disgusted her beyond belief.

It was dark in the room, and through squinted eyes she tried to find where he had fallen, finally zeroing in on the sound of his labored breathing. He lay on his stomach, legs moving as he attempted to crawl. Janice straddled her husband, at first disappointed that he was still alive, and then strangely excited.

That meant that she would get to hit him again.

Ronald rolled over onto his side, and she could just about make out the wide whites of his eyes as he looked up at her.

“Why?” he managed as she found the strength to lift the bronze dog up over her head.

“Because I hate you,” she answered in all its cruel simplicity as she brought the statue down upon his head.

CHAPTERFIFTEEN

Sidney had never heard a clap of thunder so loud or seen a lightning flash so bright.

On instinct, she had immediately dropped to her knees in the rain, blobs of undulating color writhing before her eyes in reaction to the nearly blinding flare.

“Sidney!” she heard Cody call out to her. She could just about make out the shape of the truck ahead of her and her ex-boyfriend leaping from the driver's seat to help her up and bring her and Snowy back to the car.

“What the hell was that?” she asked, both scared and a little embarrassed.

“I have no idea, but I don't think we should be out here anymore,” Cody said, sliding into the driver's seat as she squirmed closer to Rich.

“Take us up to the house,” Rich said. “We'll stay there till this dies down.”

Cody brought the truck up to the front of the building with the sailboat in tow. The rain was falling in what seemed to be a single sheet. Even though they were no more than ten feet from the house, they could barely make it out in the drenching torrent. After putting the truck in park, Cody turned off the engine. They all sat there, listening to the nearly deafening hiss of the storm. Their visibility was zero through the truck's windshield; they might as well have been underwater.

“Are you okay?”

Sidney realized that Cody was talking to her, and she looked at him.

“I'm fine.”

“You're shaking,” he said.

She realized that he was right and chalked it up to being wet and cold, although she knew it was more than that.

“I'm soaked,” she said, throwing her arm around Snowy and giving her a quick hug. “Let's get inside and dry off.”

They exited the car into the ferocity of the storm. If it wasn't for being directly behind Rich as he ran, she could imagine herself getting lost and wandering off in the opposite direction. It was crazy; she could honestly say that she'd never seen rain like this before.

They all stood behind Rich, urging him to hurry as he fished his keys from his pocket to open the door. Then they rushed in, desperate to be out of the wet.

“Shit,” Rich said, flicking a light switch up and down. He walked down the hall and to the left, peering into the room beyond. “Power's out. No clock on the microwave.”

“That's all right,” Sidney said. “Just as long as it isn't raining on us, I'm fine.”

Snowy shook violently, and Cody leaped back with a squawk.

“Do you mind?” he asked the dog, who wagged her tail lovingly as she looked at him.

“Do you have an old towel that I can use to wipe up?” Sidney asked Rich.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, walking into the dark kitchen.

He returned with a flashlight and a roll of paper towels.

“Catch!” he said, tossing the roll to her.

Sidney pulled off a few sheets and went to work drying the hardwood floor.

“So was that really just thunder that seemed to shake the planet?” she asked.

“I don't know what it was,” Cody said. He motioned for the paper towels and pulled off a length to dry himself. “It sounded more like a bomb went off.”

“I'm surprised it didn't shatter any windows,” Rich said, perusing the living room on the opposite side of the foyer, his flashlight beam moving from window to window.

He returned to where they were all standing.

“Well, that was fun,” he said, and smiled in typical Rich fashion.

“Yeah, it was a blast,” Cody replied with a taint of sarcasm, rubbing a wad of paper towels over his dark, wet hair.

They found their way into the kitchen and gathered around the granite-topped island in the middle of the room. Rich left the flashlight in the center of the countertop to give them some light.

“Still sounds pretty nasty out there,” he said, leaning against the island.

They all listened and could still hear the pounding rain and wind, but strangely enough there wasn't any more thunder.

The sound they heard next was more localized and sounded like a cartoon spring being let go. Sidney's hand went to her stomach.

“Oh crap,” she said, and laughed. “Did you hear that?”

“Oh my God,” Rich said, laughing. “I didn't know what the hell that was.”

“I'm starving,” she said, defending herself.

“I'm pretty hungry too,” Cody agreed.

“Shouldn't have thrown your lunch in the parking lot,” Rich said with a smirk.

“Screw you.”

“You got anything to eat?” Sidney asked hopefully.

Rich looked around the kitchen. “House was pretty much closed up for the summer,” he said. He went to the cabinets and began opening the doors. “I don't think there's anything up here.”

He slammed the last of doors and lowered his hands. Sidney noticed him reacting to something as he reached into the pocket of his jacket.

“Aha!” he said pulling something out and dropping it in the center of the granite island. “Boom!” he added. “Who's the man?”

It was a half-eaten package of Starburst candies.

“I do believe there are three left.”

“Looks good to me,” Sidney said, peeling away part of the outer paper to help herself to one of the candy pieces. She was hoping for cherry but got lemon instead.Beggars can't be choosers,she thought as she unpeeled the candy and popped it into her mouth.

“Go ahead,” Rich said, gesturing for Cody to help himself.

“Nah.” Cody stepped back. “I hate friggin' Starburst.”

Rich rolled his eyes, reaching for the remaining candy and choosing one.

Sidney studied Cody as she chewed the sour candy.

“I never really noticed before,” she said in between chews, staring at him.

“What's that?” Cody asked.

“That you can be a real jerk a lot of the time.”

CHAPTERSIXTEEN

She'd only had the chance to fully cook one of the microwave dinners before the power went out.

Caroline peeled the plastic covering back on the one that had only partially cooked, sticking her fingers into the mashed potatoes to see how hot they were. They were barely warm, with areas of cold. She didn't hold out much hope that the Salisbury steak was any hotter.

“This one only got cooked halfway,” she said to her son, who was holding a glass jar with a candle burning within.

“That's all right,” Isaac said. “I'm not hungry.”

His free hand twitched at his side as he held back the urge to fiddle with his hearing aid.

“Well I'm not going to waste it,” she said. “And don't even think about touching that hearing aid again. We're very lucky that you didn't break it. There's no way to fix it if you do, you know—so leave it.”

“Yes, Mother,” he said, not making eye contact with her.

She knew he was upset with her for yelling at him, but if she hadn't, he would have broken those hearing aids. He'd had problems with that ear in the past, and the audiologist had adjusted things so it should have been working fine, but who knows what he had been up to when she wasn't watching him.

“Here,” she said, handing him the colder of the meals. “Eat what you can. I don't want you complaining later that you're hungry.”

With his twitchy hand he took the dinner from her.

“I'm going to eat in my room,” he told her.

“No, we're going to eat together,” she corrected. “Just like a family should.”

She could see him looking about the kitchen, and the less-than-clutter-free environment that existed. Yes, she was well aware that the house was a bit messy, but she was working on it.

That made Caroline think of her daughter again and the strangers coming into her home to film how filthy she was for all the world to see, and that just made her angry.

“We'll eat in the living room,” she stated firmly, taking her dinner and plastic silverware and making her way from the kitchen.

Normally she would have enjoyed some television while eating, but with no power there wasn't any chance of that. She knew that she had some batteries around someplace and considered sending Isaac to look for them, but decided that could wait, that maybe the power would return shortly, and there would be no need for batteries.

“Hold that candle a little higher,” she ordered her son, who was walking behind her. “I can't see when you hold it so low.”

“Sorry,” Isaac mumbled.

She hated to be cross with the boy, but as he'd gotten older, he'd become more defiant, wanting things done his way. She let him think he was the boss when it came to his room, but that was as far as she let him go. Isaac thought he was a man, but to her, he would always be her little boy and would always need her to care for him, even if he thought otherwise.

She carefully made her way across the uneven landscape of the living room, not wanting to tip over any of the stacked boxes or piles of important belongings on her way to the area of the room that she liked to call her nest.

“You can set the candle right there,” she told her son, motioning with her microwaved dinner to a relatively flat surface on top of magazines that had been stacked on the coffee table. She'd been meaning to go through those.

Isaac did as he was told, placing the candle down and partially illuminating the semiopen area where she liked to enjoy her television programs.

Caroline lowered herself into the chair at the center of her nest. She grunted as her butt sank into the cushion, the springs barely able to support her weight anymore. She would have to think about replacing it someday.

Someday.

Placing the serving tray of her dinner on her lap, she proceeded to peel away what remained of the plastic covering. She looked up from her steaming plate to see Isaac just standing there.

“Aren't you going to sit?” she asked her son. His face was eerily illuminated in the light of the candle.

He looked around. “There isn't anyplace.”

“Of course there is,” she corrected, annoyance in her voice. “Just move some things. Find a place.” She waved her plastic fork around in a general area.

Isaac seemed to be looking where she was pointing. He then turned and placed his own meal on a stack that looked relatively stable.

“You won't get angry if I move this?” he asked about a mound of things that she could not discern.

“I won't be angry,” she said, eyeing the pile as she popped a piece of Salisbury steak into her mouth and began to chew.

Isaac bent over, grabbed hold of the heap, and lifted it up from the floor. He gasped as living things quickly scurried away from the sudden exposure.

“What was that? What's wrong?”

Isaac dropped the armful and stepped back. “Mice,” he said, catching his breath.

“Mice?” she asked incredulously. “How could there be mice? Are you sure? Maybe it was just a trick of the candlelight.”

“I know what mice look like, Mother.”

“But how could there be mice? We've got cats and . . .”

And that was when she noticed something peculiar. Perhaps it was because the lights were off, but Caroline suddenly realized that there weren't any cats around.

“I know we have cats, but those were most definitely mice,” Isaac went on.

“Where are they?” Caroline asked, looking around the room, the dark corners made even darker by the fact that there was little light. “Where are the cats?” Even Mrs. Livingstone, who was always there to beg for a piece of her meal, was nowhere to be seen.

Caroline started to make the noises that usually brought her fur babies to her.

Had they somehow gotten out? Did Isaac leave the door open, and they all escaped out into the yard?

Panic began to set in.

She placed the remains of her meal on the cluttered floor and began to stand, wanting to search the room for herself. She felt something cold poke her hand, and before she could see what it was, there was a sharp stab of pain.

Caroline cried out, falling back down into her nest as she pulled her hand away.

“What is it?” Isaac asked.

“Something bit me,” she said, examining the bleeding wound in the fleshy part of her hand before bringing it to her mouth to suck on.

“Probably a mouse,” Isaac said, eyes darting around the room.

“We don't have mice,” she said, taking her hand from her mouth. “We have cats.”

The concern for her babies began to rise again, and she pushed herself up from her seat. “I have to find them,” she said. “Help me, Isaac.” She motioned with the noninjured hand for him to take it so she would not lose her footing on the debris-strewn floor. “We have to make sure that none of the doors were left open.”

“I don't think we left any—”

“We have to check,” she barked at him, desperate to find her cats.


Page 10

They were making their way across the uneven surface of the living room when they heard unfamiliar sounds.

Caroline stopped, looking around, attempting to zero in on the rustling noises. They seemed to be coming from all around them.

“Pretty kitties,” she said in a high, squeaky voice. “Is that you?” Again she made the noise that normally brought them to her. “Why are you hiding from Mommy?”

Mrs. Livingstone was the first to appear, her large head emerging from the shadows atop the china cabinet in the corner of the room.

“There you are,” Caroline said happily. The cat just stared at her with large, unblinking eyes, and as Caroline stared back, she noticed something of concern. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but it was something that she was going to need to check once she had the chance.

Is that some kind of a film coating Mrs. Livingstone's right eye?

Binky, Shadow, Cavendish, and Nero were the next to appear, each of them silently emerging from their hiding places.

Are their right eyes looking funny too?

She was about to mention this to her son when she noticed the strangest of things, odd at first and then, as the realization of what she was looking at sank in,disturbing.

“Do you see that?” she asked Isaac, wanting to be sure that it wasn't a trick of what little light was being thrown by the candle.

“I do,” he answered, his hand going up again to play with his hearing aid. This time she did not stop him. She was more concerned about what she was seeing.

Her cats were perched atop pieces of furniture, boxes, and years of accumulation, watching her and her boy with unwavering gazes.

Around the cats, in numbers too great to comprehend, were mice.

And the mice were watching them too.

CHAPTERSEVENTEEN

“Did you hear what I said?” Janice Berthold asked her husband, who was lying dead upon the floor. “I hate you.”

Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and she could just about make out the shape of her husband's body. She pulled back a foot and kicked him as hard as she could.

It felt surprisingly good, but not as good as the sensation she'd experienced when she'd smashed the statue into his face. She felt a flush of warmth on her cheeks and needles of sweat breaking out over her body.

Janice looked down again at the body before her, searching for any sign of movement, but she saw nothing.

Have I actually done it?she wondered.

It was something she had dreamed about doing for far longer than she cared to think. There had even been times when driving with him that she'd been tempted to reach across and grab the wheel, to send them careening off into space with the hope that he would die horribly, but she would survive.

She'd never wanted to take the risk that he might survive as well.

Continuing to watch the body at her feet, she still saw no signs of life, but she had to be sure. Janice squatted down to the floor, tentatively reaching a hand out to grab his wrist and check for a pulse. Her hand landed in something warm and thick puddling on the floor beneath her husband and quickly recoiled. She could see the dark, nearly black blood covering the side of her hand and almost cried out in disgust but managed to hold it together.

A little blood was a small price to pay to guarantee that he was actually dead.

Pulling herself together, she reached out again, taking hold of his limp wrist, feeling for a heartbeat. As far as she could tell, there was nothing, but she still didn't trust it. Letting his hand drop back to the floor, she reached up to the collar of his shirt, her fingers searching for his neck, where she would again attempt to verify if he still lived.

And what if he does?

Janice's mind raced. She supposed that she could always hit him again with the statue or maybe just pinch his nostrils closed and cover his mouth. She imagined that would do the trick as well.

His skin was going clammy as she pressed the flesh around his neck for signs that his heart was still pumping. As with his wrist, there was nothing that she could find.

A giddy laughter bubbled up from somewhere deep and dark; she might have actually done it.

But her happiness was short lived, almost immediately replaced with wondering what she was going to do now. Different scenarios began to play within her mind. She could call the police and say that there had been an attempted burglary, and that there had been a struggle and . . . If she used that one she was going to have to be certain to either dispose of the murder weapon or thoroughly wipe it down. She could always dispose of the body, and then report him missing. Disposal possibilities danced through her fevered mind.

Janice had been thinking about these things for a very long time, and now all she had to do was pick the one that guaranteed she would not be suspected of any wrongdoing.

She was trying to remember where Ronald stored their saws and plastic leaf tarp when she experienced the eerie sensation that she was being watched.

Still squatting by her husband's body, Janice slowly turned toward the bedroom doorway.

Alfred sat there, perfectly still, watching her.

“It's all right, baby,” she told the dog. Janice reached out her uninjured hand, trying to coax the Frenchie to come closer. Alfred remained in that spot, large dark eyes fixed upon her.

At first she thought it was just light reflecting unusually off the surface of the dog's right eye, but the longer she stared . . .

“Alfred, is there something wrong with your eye?”

She climbed to her feet, slowly approaching the animal, not wanting him to run.

“Let me see,” she said, focusing on what appeared to be some kind of glistening—almost metallic-looking—film over his right eye.

Looks like another trip to the vet,she thought, annoyed that this latest ailment hadn't manifested until after his last visit to the veterinarian's office.

Alfred suddenly sprang at her, forty pounds of French bulldog connecting with her midsection and knocking her backward into the room, where she tripped over her own feet and landed upon the corpse of her husband . . .

. . . who turned beneath her with a low, horrible moan and wrapped his arms around her.

Not a corpse at all.

CHAPTEREIGHTEEN

Rich reached the bottom of the wooden steps and stepped onto the dirt floor, his flashlight beam playing over the cellar space.

“Find anything?” Sidney called from the kitchen upstairs.

“Give me a freakin' minute, would you?” he asked, annoyed.

They were all still hungry, even after the Starbursts, and he told them that he thought he remembered seeing some canned goods down in the basement.

Sidney thought it was a great idea for him to look, so what choice did he have? If it had been Cody's idea, he probably would have just told him to choke the last Starburst down or suffer.

But it had been Sidney who'd asked, and he would have gone out into the hurricane to pick her wild berries if she'd asked. Rich had secretly harbored a crush on Sidney for the last two years or so. He had never done anything about it, her being with Cody and all, but now . . .

“Anything?” Sidney called playfully to him again.

“Will you shut it?” he said as he walked across the unfinished cellar to where his parents had set up some shelving to store emergency items for times very much like this. The storm was still going pretty fast and furious outside, and he hadn't a clue how long they might be holed up there, so he hoped that there was something on the shelves even remotely appetizing, or they were screwed.

Rich navigated the cramped space. The place had pretty much become storage for junk; stacks of old patio furniture, boat cleaning supplies, and boxes of beach toys were scattered about the room, placed upon wooden pallets to keep them up from the damp dirt floor.

The edge of his flashlight beam caught movement, and he shined it down to the floor to see the segmented body of a good-size centipede disappearing beneath a pile of garden tools. A shudder of revulsion went through his body as he reached the shelves.

“Bingo,” he said, finding that there were more cans on display than he expected. He shined the flashlight beam onto the cans to read the contents. There were lots of vegetables—peas and green beans making up the majority—but he doubted that was what Sidney had a hankering for.

And that had been the problem for years.

He'd wanted to talk to her about how he felt, but he was never quite sure how she would react. There were times when he thought he was getting a clear message and would psyche himself up to tell her his feelings, but then she'd say something about Cody and her relationship, and the wind would get totally taken out of his sails. That was just how it had been, and he'd pretty much given up on anything ever happening, until this afternoon in the marina parking lot when things suddenly changed.

“You'd better not be eating all the good stuff,” Sidney warned from the kitchen.

He ignored her, reaching for more cans and hoping for something other than vegetables. On the shelf below the veggies he found a can of SpaghettiOs with meatballs and felt as though he'd hit the lottery.

“Oh yes,” he said, taking the can, discovering that there were other delectable meals on the shelf as well—cans of cheese ravioli and corned beef hash. He tried to take them all into his arms while still holding the flashlight, which resulted in the SpaghettiOs falling to the ground.

“Shit,” he muttered, bending down carefully so as not to cause the other cans to tumble, and felt around for the wayward canned feast. His fingers touched it but also something else—something that tickled the flesh of his hand before the incredible sting of pain.

“Yarrrah!” Rich screamed, dropping all the cans as he pulled his hand away and held it up before the light. The skin had already started to redden and swell.

Something had bitten him.

The image of that centipede crawling beneath the tools filled his head, and he shuddered. Whatever it was that had bitten him, it hurt like hell.

“What's going on down there?” Sidney called out.

“Nothing,” Rich said, feeling embarrassed. “I'm coming up with a feast fit for royalty.”

He shined his light around the fallen cans and saw that there was nothing in their immediate area. But as he squatted down to retrieve them, the dirt seemed to come alive.

“What the f . . . ,” he began, the beam of his flashlight still illuminating the ground.

There were bugs coming up out of the dirt. Not just one or two, but lots, hundreds, and it wasn't even just one particular kind. He saw carpenter ants, centipedes, earwigs, and some kind of beetle that he wasn't at all familiar with.

There were all coming up out of the damp earth of the cellar floor and crawling toward him.

Rich backed up, deciding to leave the cans, and felt a sudden pain beneath the collar of his shirt.

“Ahhh!” He slapped his hand to his neck and felt something crunch and squirt with the impact. Bringing his hand away from his neck, he shined the light on his fingers and saw the remains of a pretty large spider.

“That's it,” he said, turning for the stairs. The beam of his light briefly touched the floor, where in every inch of dirt crawled some kind of disgusting bug.

He didn't understand what it was that he was seeing, telling himself that maybe the storm had something to do with it, the foul weather somehow stirring up the bugs that lived beneath his house. Before reaching the stairs, he glanced up to the ceiling and saw that it wasn't just the floor that was crawling with life.

Spiders. There were spiders everywhere that the light of the flashlight touched, and they all seemed to be heading toward him.

Rich ran for the stairs. He could feel the bodies of the harder-shelled insects crunching beneath his sneakers as he ran across them, but that was nothing compared to the absolute horror that he experienced as he saw the spiders dropping down on their silken lines, some landing upon him and crawling up toward his face at incredible speeds.

Crying out, he flailed his arms crazily, slapping at his body, diving for the first step, and nearly smashing his face as he fell, sprawling across the ascending stairs.

“What's going on?” Sidney asked, appearing in the doorway above. He had dropped the flashlight and had no intention of looking for it.

“Get out of the way,” he said, trying to keep the panic from his voice as he got his feet beneath him and sprinted up the steps.

“Rich, what is it?” she asked, obviously concerned. He gripped her by the shoulders and moved her out of the way as he slammed the cellar door closed.

Cody was smiling nervously by the granite island. “What?” he asked. “I thought you said you found food?”

He was about to tell Cody what he could do with the food when he felt movement just beneath his hairline, followed by sudden pain.

“Damn it!” he screamed, slapping at the back of his neck.

“What the hell is going on?” Sidney asked.

A spider the size of a quarter landed on the floor and started to crawl toward Rich's sneakered foot. He stomped on it, grinding it into the tile floor.

“Gross,” Sidney said. “That was huge.”

“They're all over the cellar,” he managed, his voice sounding raspy and out of breath.

“Spiders?” Cody asked.

“Everything!” Rich shouted.

He thought he felt more movement and reacted violently, tearing his shirt up and over his head and shaking it out.

“Are you all right?” Sidney asked.

He could see that she was smiling, trying not to laugh.

Cody didn't have that willpower. “Dude, you should see yourself.”

“You should see what it's like down there,” Rich said. “The place is infested.”

“Infested?” Sidney asked. “Did you ever have a bug problem before?”


Page 11

Rich shook his head. “No, nothing like this.” He was starting to calm down a bit but still shook his shirt some more just in case.

Cody was really laughing now, and it was taking just about everything Rich had not to go over and smack him, but Sidney was laughing as well, even though she tried to hide it by covering her mouth with her hand.

“Yeah, laugh it up you two,” he said, angrily. “I'd like to see the two of you go down there and . . .”

Sidney was looking around him to the cellar door, and he turned to see that Snowy was pawing at something.

“What have you got, girl?” Sidney asked, going over to the dog to see.

The white shepherd had her nose close to the bottom of the cellar door and had started to whine, backing away with a growl.

“What is it, Snowy?”

There was suddenly a steady flow of insects coming from beneath the door.

“Shit,” Sidney exclaimed, reaching for her dog to pull her away. “Do you see this?”

“I told you,” Rich said, watching in horror as the multitude steadily increased, the floor now writhing with insect life.

Insect life that seemed to have a purpose, crawling across the kitchen floor toward where they stood.

“What the hell is this?” Sidney demanded. It was all so strange she was having a difficult time wrapping her brain around the moment.

She found herself walking around the flow of insects, pushing past Rich, who was busy stomping on the bugs as they advanced, and grabbing hold of the doorknob of the cellar door.

“What are you doing?” Cody asked from where he stood behind the kitchen island.

She needed to see in order to begin to understand the situation. It was one of her more bothersome traits. Even after she'd been summoned to the office and told that her father had been rushed to the hospital, that they suspected that he'd had a stroke, she really hadn't believed a word. She'd needed to see him for herself. What if they were wrong? What if it had been nothing, and he would have been fine? She would have been upset all for naught.

It hadn't been nothing, but what if?

Rich had stopped stomping bugs long enough to spin around just as she started to turn the knob.

“You don't want to—” he called out just as she pulled the door open, wide enough to peer down into the darkness.

She needed to see if this was something.

Sidney's cell phone was in her hand, and she hit the button to turn on the light feature, illuminating the stairs in a harsh white glow.

It was something.

The stairs were invisible, every inch covered in squirming, climbing, skittering bodies, a moving carpet of insect life flowing up from the cellar's dirt floor.

Sidney barely had a moment to move herself from the opening as Rich's shoulder plowed into the door, abruptly slamming it closed.

“Oh my God,” she managed as she stared into her friend's frightened eyes.

“Yeah, oh my God,” he answered.

Cody was coming around the island now, an excited Snowy following him.

“No!” Sidney ordered, holding out her hand to them. “Keep her over there.” Cody instantly grabbed the dog by the collar, peering around the island to see.

The floor was covered in bodies of the living and the dead.

“What the hell?” Cody began, but Sidney was already directing.

“Find something to stick under that door,” she said, on the move, opening kitchen drawers.

Rich continued to stomp on the bugs that squirmed their way out from beneath the door, while Cody began to help Sidney with her search.

Snowy nudged her hand with a cold nose, and she took a moment to connect with the shepherd, making eye contact with her. “Good girl, Snowy,” Sidney said, raising her hand and making the gesture for the dog to sit and stay put. “That's a good dog,” she praised.

“How about this?” Cody asked, holding up a green quilted place mat.

“That might do it,” Sidney said. “Are there any more?”

“Hey, guys, you want to step it up a little? It's getting bad over here,” Rich cried out, and Sidney could hear the beginnings of hysteria in his voice, along with his heavy footfalls and the wet crunch of breaking bug bodies.

Cody approached with a handful of the place mats. “I found five of them,” he said.

Sidney grabbed them and moved toward the cellar door, Snowy beginning to follow.

“Keep her back, would you, Cody?” she said as she stared at the sight of bugs as they wriggled and squirmed for their freedom from the cellar and into kitchen. It seemed to take them a moment to get their bearings—to think of what they'd come up here for—then they made their way toward Rich, and her.

Weird didn't even begin to describe it anymore.

Sidney knelt down, shoving the first of the place mats underneath the space between the door's bottom and the floor. Some of the insects that managed to escape went right for her—a centipede at least eight inches long squirmed onto her hand, wrapping itself around her middle finger before finally making its way to the back of her hand, where it sank its pincers into her flesh.

“Ahhhh! Shit!” she cried out, shaking her hand savagely. She was tempted to take off, to leap back before any more of the bugs could bite her, but she knew that she had to get this done. The first of the cloth mats was in place, and she was starting on the next. She couldn't grasp the number of insects that were coming under the door, never mind the fact that they were all together, hanging out as if they were somehow friends. A big insect block party. It didn't work that way, she thought as a spider and cluster of ants went after her fingers.

Cody crushed the spider with his thumb, pressing its body into the floor with a disgusting sounding pop. He dropped down beside her with another of the place mats, starting to cram it beneath the door next to her last.

“My hero,” she said, and he just grunted, obviously as freaked out as she was by the situation.

“Guys, what the hell is going on?” Rich asked, his dance of bug death finally able to slow down some. He was looking at the soles of his sneakers with disgust.

Sidney got another of the mats shoved beneath the door, which pretty much closed up the opening.

“Are we good?” Cody asked, grimacing as he wiped his arms clean of straggler ants with the last remaining place mat.

“I think so,” she said, standing up, but keeping her eyes riveted to the row of green quilted cloth sticking out from the bottom of the door.

“This is just . . . ,” Rich said, and they looked over to see him staring down at the kitchen floor in front of the door, which was covered and smeared with the crushed bodies and guts of literally hundreds of dead insects. “This is just freaking disgusting. What's happening?” he asked in all seriousness, without a trace of his usual jokey persona that was normally present.

Cody looked to Sidney as Rich did the same.

She realized that they were looking to her for answers.

“You're asking me?” she said, eyes darting to the bottom of the door to make sure that the mats were still holding. They were. “I haven't a clue.” The wind howled outside, the rain upon the windows sounding like the pattering of thousands of tiny feet. “Maybe it has something to do with the storm,” she offered.

“How is that?” Rich asked, finding some bugs still alive and stepping on them with a crunch. “Why would a storm make bugs go crazy?”

“I don't know,” Sidney said, frustrated over the fact that she didn't have a good enough answer. “It was just a friggin' theory.”

“Best one we got, unless you've got something better,” Cody said, his attitude toward Rich rearing its head again.

“I'm not the animal expert,” Rich retorted, having picked up on the attitude. “I've just never seen anything like this before and—”

They all jumped at a thumping sound. Sidney believed, as likely they all did, that something had just been blown against the side of the house, but then it came again.

And again.

“What now?” Rich asked, slipping in the bug guts that covered the floor, but grabbing hold of the island's edge before he actually went down. If things hadn't been so tense at the moment, it almost might've been funny, but right then it just made the situation all the tenser.

There were multiple hits now. Loud thumps and bangs that seemed to be coming from all around the house.

Rich let go of the island and made his way toward the front of the house, careful not to slide. Sidney, Snowy, and Cody followed as the loud sounds continued.

Standing in the entryway, Rich listened.

“Is it just the storm?” he asked them.

The noises continued to pummel the home.

“I have no idea,” Sidney said, eyes traveling to the various points of impact.

“Maybe it's hail,” Cody suggested.

“Seriously?” Rich asked. “Hail? That's the best you could come up with? It's the freakin' summer. I don't think you can even have hail in the summer.”

Something hit off of one of the living room windows, broken glass tinkling to the floor beneath.

“Are you shitting me?” Rich said, heading toward the window where one of the curtains now billowed.

Sidney didn't really know why she reacted the way she did, but she called out, “Rich, no!”

He turned ever so slightly but continued toward the broken window. He grabbed the long, billowing material of the curtain to pull it away, but something was waiting for him behind it.

Rich let out a scream, jumping back as a raccoon, crouched among the broken pieces of glass, sprang at him.

CHAPTERNINETEEN

Janice cried out in a mixture of rage and absolute disgust, thrashing wildly atop the body of her husband as he attempted to put his arms around her.

His movements were weak, spastic, flailing, giving her the opportunity that she needed to escape his clutches. She would rather not have remembered, but the memory was suddenly there in her mind, a time when she actually welcomed Ronald's strong arms around her. But that was a long time ago, before the hate and revulsion.

Janice drove her boney elbows into her husband's ribs with all her might to break his hold on her, and to drive the disgusting memory away. An awful moan escaped the man, and all she could think of was a ghost roaming the halls of some ancient English castle.

Rolling off the thrashing man, she scrambled to her knees and began to stand. The fact that her husband still lived was a problem, and she at once began to formulate how she would finish what she had started. The pain in her hand was incredible, each rapid-fire beat of her heart like somebody taking a hot poker and driving it into the meat of her palm. She held the bandaged hand to her chest as she rose, keeping her distance from the man who twitched and flopped upon the floor of their bedroom. Perhaps he would still die, she thought as she watched him there in the darkness. Maybe he just needed a little more time.

The smell was instantly revolting, but familiar. A smell that she'd grown used to since purchasing Alfred, the pungent and incredibly strong smell of French bulldog farts.

Janice turned in the black of the bedroom to find the dog standing behind her, staring at her intensely. She again noticed the strange glassy shine over his right eye.

“Who wants a cookie?” she asked in the calmest of voices, not wanting the dog to pick up on her tension. There wasn't much that the dog wouldn't do for a snack. She figured that was all she needed to distract him from what she had done.

Alfred continued to stare at her intensely.

“Do you?” she asked him, again with little reaction.

She noticed that Ronald had gone completely silent and turned her attention from the dog to see that her husband now lay perfectly still.

Dead,she hoped.

Janice could not stop the smile from coming, her spirits lifted by the possibility of her husband's demise.

But her happiness was short lived. As she turned back to her dog, she found that he was right there in front of her, mere inches away, having silently come closer.

She actually gasped as she found the French bulldog looking up into her eyes.

“Let's go get that cook—” she started, but never finished. The dog silently lunged, his sharp, crooked teeth sinking into the flesh of her thigh.

Janice cried out, pulling away from Alfred's attack but tripping over the body of her husband and falling to the floor once more. The dog continued to come at her, powerful jaws widening for another bite. Janice kicked with her legs, attempting to drive the bulldog away, but it had little effect. Alfred snapped crazily, willing to bite at anything near his mouth. She tried to get up, to run away, but he kept at it, keeping her down at his level. Alfred dove at her side, going for the flesh of her stomach. She tried to grab hold, to wrestle and perhaps immobilize him, but the dog was too fast and strong, squirming from her grasp before lunging and snapping again.

Janice tried to get him to listen, screaming out commands, but her attempts at authority were falling on deaf ears.

Arms flailing, she managed to grab hold of some of the looser flesh and fur on the side of Alfred's face, yanking him back and holding him at bay. The dog silently twisted in her grasp, seemingly unaware of the pain that he must be causing himself as he tried to bite her. He brought one of his paws up as he twisted, trying to scratch her with his claws. With her bandaged hand she batted the paw away, but it still managed to dig bleeding furrows into her wrist. Her arm was getting weaker, and the dog seemingly stronger. Janice knew that it wouldn't be long before the dog grew so incensed and twisted so violently that he would cause the furry flesh on the side of his face to tear, and Alfred would again be free to bite at her.

Holding the dog at a distance as it thrashed in her grasp, she looked around the room for some sort of solution. In a flash of lightning followed by a nearly deafening crash of thunder, she saw the bathroom across from the bedroom and made her decision. Janice didn't waste any time and began to drag the struggling dog across the room toward the door. His movements were getting more wild and frantic, and she could feel the sides of his chomping teeth now rubbing against her hand furiously as he continued to fight and shake in her grasp in an attempt to bite her.


Page 12

Alfred planted his paws, but the hardwood floors of the bedroom were not a bulldog's friend, and he was easily dragged. The dog fought even more wildly now, as if realizing where it was that she was taking him. Alfred thrashed his muscular body and continued to try and gouge her with his claws, but Janice held tightly, for the alternative was something that she would rather not think about.

She made it through the doorway out into the hall, but the dog managed to get his claws dug into the wood of the door's threshold, and she found her grip on the dog's face sliding off just enough so that . . .

Alfred went wild, his savage jaws snapping crazily, like some kind of mechanized animal trap. Janice screamed as she pushed herself back with her legs toward the open bathroom doorway as Alfred came at her. Her hands shot out in front of her to hold him back, and the dog's mouth chomped down upon her fingers. She felt the fragile bones snap beneath the closure of his unrelenting jaws. The pain was blinding, and she saw brilliant explosions of red before her eyes as she struggled to retain her consciousness. Rolling over onto her knees, Janice furiously began to crawl her way into the bathroom. An incredible weight landed upon her back, driving her flat to the floor, and she felt Alfred's hot breath upon her neck. Scrunching up her shoulders, she reached behind her to try and knock the animal away. Her fingers touched on something cold and metal, and she at once knew that she was touching the dog's choke collar. Grabbing the chain, she yanked with all her might, flipping the dog over her right shoulder as she pushed off from the entryway floor to the bathroom.

Alfred rolled from her back into the side of the bathroom's trash can, barely pausing a second before he was charging her again. She'd managed to stand and reached over to pull a wicker hamper into the dog's path, blocking him. Janice used that moment to turn herself around and grab hold of the bathroom door to start to close it. Alfred sprang off the body of the hamper, wedging his head in the doorway just as she tried to pull it shut. The bulldog was wild, attempting to shake his blocky head free and force more of his muscular body through to get at her. Janice pulled the door with both hands, even though the pain from her injuries was excruciating. But she was willing to endure it to prevent what would surely be worse if the dog managed to get out of the bathroom.

Still pulling on the doorknob, she raised her foot, kicking the dog in the face once and then again. Blood dribbled down his dark nose onto his yellowed teeth, giving them a new, horrific look as they continued to snap and grind. Summoning all her strength for one final push, Janice lifted her leg and drove the heel of her sensible shoe square into Alfred's snout and managed to drive his head back into the bathroom and allow her to pull the door closed.

She stood there shaking, head pressed to the door. Alfred was going wild in the bathroom, repeatedly hurling his muscular body against the door. She actually started to laugh, a kind of release from the intense emotions that had been gradually building since smashing her husband's skull in. The door felt cool against her brow, and she closed her eyes, giggling insanely as the tension began to slowly leave her.

Alfred angrily continued to throw himself at the door, and she seriously began to worry that the French bulldog might be strong enough to punch his way through. She turned herself around, her back pressed to the vibrating surface of the door, and opened her eyes to the darkness of the room . . . and her husband standing mere inches from her.

Janice tried to scream, but the sight of him, the way his head was grotesquely misshapen where his skull had been smashed in, and how he looked at her, head cocked strangely to one side, with dark, dead eyes that seemed to bore into hers . . . it stole away her ability to cry out.

Then she noticed it, just as she had on Alfred. A shiny reflective coating over her husband's right eye. She wondered what it might mean as he lunged at her, his mouth agape.

Janice tried to escape, darting to go around him, but he was too fast. Ronald collided with her, slamming her back against the hallway wall, and lowered his face to her neck to sink his teeth into the tender skin and rip a huge chunk away. Her hands went to the spurting wound as she cried out; there was so much blood. Janice tried to push her husband away with one hand, but the blood from the neck wound had made the hardwood floor slippery, and she found her feet sliding out from beneath her.

Ronald stiffly lurched in her direction, his spastic movement reminding her of the mechanical historical figures at the Hall of Presidents in Disney World. Her head was becoming light, and she tried to use the wall to prop herself up, to make her escape toward the stairs and hopefully to freedom out into the storm, but Ronald caught her, driving her down to the floor again. Janice tried to fight him, but he was too strong. Again he lowered his bloodstained mouth toward her exposed neck.

He sank his teeth into her throat with a sickening pop, tearing the tender flesh away with a savage yank.

The man who had been Ronald Berthold watched the woman die.

No longer did he remember that he had once loved her, cared for her. Nor did he remember that she had tried to kill him.

Ronald Berthold was gone, and only the body remained.

The blood that had been gushing from the woman's gaping throat wound had slowed to a mere trickle as her heart ceased to pump. The man stared, watching for further signs of life, but there were none.

Satisfied, he struggled to stand, slipping in the coagulating puddle of blood and almost falling to the floor.

Almost.

The man caught himself against the closed bathroom door, a bloody handprint smeared across the white surface. The door suddenly vibrated menacingly as something on the other side threw itself against the obstruction.

The man stiffly stepped back from the door, staring at it with a questioning eye. It shook violently again.

Tilting his head from one side to the other, the man determined that something was on the other side and wished to come out. The man studied the door as it continued to vibrate and be pounded upon, his eyes fixing on the doorknob.

It took a moment, but the body remembered what it was for, reaching out with a blood-covered hand to grip the cool metal of the knob and squeeze it tightly, before slowly turning it to the right and—

Click!

The bathroom door swung inward with a prolonged creak, exposing the muscular figure of the dog standing there.

Waiting.

The man locked eyes with the beast, a kind of invisible communication seeming to pass between them.

The dog left the bathroom, briefly staring at the cooling corpse of the woman in the hallway before coming to stand beside the man.

They stood for a while, as if waiting for something—a message perhaps—and then began to walk toward the stairs.

Side by side, the man and the dog descended the steps to the first floor. At the front door, they paused momentarily before the man reached for the doorknob and, recalling what he had done just moments before, turned it.

He pulled the door open. There was a heavy gust of wind and rain, but the man and dog were unfazed by the fury of the elements as they walked together through the doorway.

Out into the storm.

CHAPTERTWENTY

Doc Martin should have left the clinic and gone home hours ago, but there she was, still puttering, having little need or interest to head home.

This was where she truly lived. This was where she was alive, and it had pretty much been that way since she'd first opened the practice nearly thirty years before.

The animal hospital was her life.

She was craving a smoke but dreaded the idea of going outside. The storm was raging and sounded like it could have gotten worse. The weather guys had said that this one was going to be a beaut, and for once it wasn't all hype. She seriously considered spending the night at the clinic. It wouldn't have been the first time that she'd sprawled out in her office chair, covered in blankets meant as donations from one of the mainland's many animal shelters.

She was about to start flipping through the first of at least twenty veterinary medical journals that she'd let pile up when she heard them.

It sounded as though a full-scale riot was going on in the kennels.

“What the hell is that all about?” she muttered, leaving her seat and heading to the door that led to the dog kennels.

Doc Martin opened the door to the sounds of the wild. It seemed as though every animal inside the caged compartments was in the process of losing its mind.

“Whoa! Whoa!” she called out as she stepped inside the room. “What's going on?”

The dogs inside their recovery cages were extremely agitated, barking and scratching at their compartment doors. The strong smell of urine and feces filled the air.

She stopped at the first cage to check out Lilly, the basset hound who'd had stomach surgery that afternoon. The dog was up on all fours, frantically pawing at the bottom of the cage door, and when she saw Doc Martin, she immediately threw herself at the door, biting ferociously at the metal.

“What's gotten into you?” she muttered to herself, concerned that the dog's frantic activity might cause her stitches to pop. Doc Martin was considering getting some medication to calm her down when she noticed similar activity in the cage beside the basset hound.

Rufus, a cute corgi/Labrador mix who had come in to have some teeth pulled, was spinning around inside his cage so fast that Doc was afraid he was going to hurt himself.

“Hey,” she said, approaching the cage. She laid her hand against the front of the cage door and tapped it to get his attention. “Knock it off before you break your friggin—”

The dog stopped on a dime and shoved his face against the metal grate of the door so hard in an attempt to bite her hand that blood actually squirted from his nose.

Doc Martin quickly pulled her hand away, and Rufus immediately went back to spinning. Feeling eyes upon her, she glanced across the way to see Beau, the standard poodle who had come in for neutering, staring intensely at her, teeth bared in a sign of absolute aggression.

She didn't know what was going on, but clearly something was up. It would have been easy to blame it all on the storm, to come up with some bullshit connected to atmospheric conditions, or even something as simple as intense fear caused by the sound of thunder, but she knew that it wasn't right.

Something was seriously wrong.

A glint of light from one of Beau's eyes caught Doc Martin's attention, and she moved closer to the poodle's cage. The dog reacted as aggressively as the others had, ramming his face against the metal cage door.

“What's wrong with your eye?” she asked the dog.

Beau's right eye seemed to be covered in a shiny, metallic film. She stared at it, moving one of her hands in front of the cage in order to get the dog to move his head around so that she could check it out better. She hadn't a clue as to what it was. The fact that it was only covering one eye was interesting as well.

Doc Martin was just about to check out the other dogs to see if they, too, showed any signs of this ocular malady when there was terrific crashing sound from the end of the row of cages. All the dogs went suddenly silent as the door of the last cage in the row exploded outward, twisted and hanging on by a single hinge, followed by the huge form of a bull mastiff named Bear who had been recently operated on for an ulcerated lower intestine. The two-hundred-pound dog resembled his namesake, lumbering down the aisle toward her, picking up speed and moving far quicker than an animal that had experienced that kind of surgery should have been able to move.

Just before turning toward the door, she caught a hint of it—a silvery glint coming from the dog's right eye. A cold chill of dread raced up her spine.

She was pulling the door open when Bear sprang, his two hundred pounds slamming her against the door and shutting it. The mastiff's massive head came down, jaws open to bite. She could smell the stink of his breath, a rotten, meaty stench mixed with a hint of anesthesia. The veterinarian rolled onto her back, wedging her forearm beneath the behemoth's throat, preventing his mouth from coming down. The dog was furious in his assault, pushing against Doc Martin's arm, jaws snapping, and all the while she was fighting for her life, she couldn't help but stare into the dog's right eye, at the silvery film that covered the dark, and normally quite soulful, orb.

Doc Martin knew that it was only a matter of time before the powerful animal broke through her defenses and likely tore out her throat. Remembering the surgery that she had performed on the dog, the veterinarian pulled up and lashed out with her legs at the animal's underbelly and at the fifteen-inch-long incision held closed with multiple metal staples.

Bear paused momentarily, grunting and starting to back away, before lunging at her again. This time she was able to plant one of her feet against the dog's chest and kick him back.

The mastiff awkwardly fell to his side, twisting upon the slick linoleum floor before climbing back up to his feet. Doc Martin noticed blood on the floor, spattering down from beneath the dog. The mastiff charged again, and pushing herself back up against the door, Doc Martin used all her remaining strength to kick him in the side.

The sound that followed was nasty, tiny pops followed by a wet tearing sound just before the dog's internal workings spilled out from the now-opened incision onto the floor.

The mastiff hesitated, swaying slightly as if attempting to discern the extent of the damage. Doc Martin tensed as the dog stood there, his muscles and limbs trembling as he started toward her again. She was ready to kick out, but there was little need. Bear took steps toward her before his front legs gave out, his huge head snowplowing along the floor, coming to a final resting stop between her legs.

Doc Martin pushed herself up along the wall, her entire body trembling. The dog twitched and moaned, his back legs kicking out, sliding him forward as if he was still attempting to come at her.


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The animals inside their cages were even wilder now, as if Bear's failure to kill her was driving them to even further madness. They threw themselves savagely at the cage doors, blood from their frantic attempts to escape spraying the floor outside their cages.

Unable to stand the sound and the sickening sight of their inexplicable insanity, Doc Martin quickly left the kennel, escaping to the safety of the office.

The kennel door now at her back, Doc Martin reached into the pocket of her lab coat for her cigarettes, taking one out and lighting up with a trembling hand.

What the hell is going on?

CHAPTERTWENTY-ONE

Cody couldn't help it.

He started to laugh.

It was like something out of a cartoon it was so outrageous. Rich was yelling at the top of his lungs, stumbling backward as he tried to pull the attacking animal, a raccoon, from the front of his shirt, but the raccoon was holding on, snapping at Rich's face.

It wasn't that it was actually funny—in fact it was pretty terrifying—but the insanity of it all, bugs by the thousands swarming up from the basement, raccoons breaking through a window gave Cody only two choices: either blow off some of this awful tension by laughing or scream like a crazy person and risk never stopping.

So he laughed, but only for a second.

Because then he saw the blood.

Cody ran to the scene, his eyes fixed on the wildly digging and snapping animal on the front of Rich's blood-spattered shirt.

“Hold still!” Cody screamed as he reached for the thing snapping, digging, and biting at Rich's chest. He grabbed a handful of fur at the back of the creature's neck, feeling its muscles tense as it tried to turn its head to bite him. But he just held on tighter, squeezing with all his might and pulling the raccoon away from Rich.

It was wild in his grasp, thrashing, clawing, and snapping in a desperate attempt to sink its teeth into him. It twisted its body in such a way that its back legs caught the underside of Cody's arm, and he cried out, feeling the flesh tear. He lost his grip, and the raccoon fell to the floor, immediately turning, fixed on Cody, preparing to attack.

And there was nothing funny about that at all.

It was taking all of Sidney's strength to hold back Snowy.

When the raccoon attacked Rich, the German shepherd had tried to make her move, but Sidney wasn't having any part of that, practically jumping onto the dog's back and throwing her arms tightly around her neck. She hadn't a clue as to what was going on, but she wasn't about to let anything happen to Snowy.

Snowy watched the struggle with the raccoon with a laser-beam focus, straining against Sidney's arms. And when Cody dropped the raccoon, the dog lunged, pulling Sidney to the floor as she broke the girl's grip and went for the ferocious animal just as it was about to go at Cody.

“Snowy, no!” Sidney cried, even though she knew that her dog couldn't hear her.

Snowy pounced on the large raccoon, clamped her teeth around the maddened animal's neck, and began to furiously shake the beast. It was never a pretty sight to watch, but it was nature, and there was very little to be done to curb the dog's natural hunting instinct.

Blood spattered the floor and walls as Snowy savagely shook her prey, at last releasing the animal, its body flying across the room, where it actually seemed to try and get up again, but then grew very still.

The three teens simply stood there, staring at each other in shock. Then Sidney rushed to Snowy, checking her over to be sure she wasn't hurt.

A part of Rich wished that she cared as much about his well-being, but that thought was quickly tossed aside when he heard more scrabbling at the broken window.

“What now?” Cody moaned, trying to examine the bleeding furrows in his tricep.

Rich moved toward the window and stopped just before the curtain, the sounds outside growing louder. “We've got to block that hole,” he said, on the verge of panic.

“Here!” Cody tossed him a small pillow he had grabbed from a nearby chair.

Rich cautiously pulled the curtain aside. Something was trying to crawl onto the edge of the broken pane of glass, but it fell backward into the darkness. He leaned closer to the window and peered out through the rain-swept glass. It was as if the shadows had somehow come alive.

Quickly he turned his attention to the broken windowpane, shoving the pillow into the square to block the opening.

“What were you thinking?” Sidney said to Snowy, checking her for injuries for the second time that day. There was blood around her mouth and on the fur of chest, but it didn't seem to be hers. Thankfully, she appeared to be fine.

The dog was panting, her dark eyes fixed on the corpse of the raccoon lying on the floor across the room.

“Don't you even think it,” Sidney said, holding Snowy's head to be sure the shepherd was looking at her. “You stay right here with me.”

She looked over at Cody and Rich, who stood by the window. The thumps and bangs upon the house continued, even as the winds howled and the rain whipped against it. “Everything all right over there?”

“Yeah,” Rich said, making sure the pillow was secure before turning away.

“No!” Cody said. “No, everything isn't all right. What the hell is going on?”

Sidney started to answer but stopped, shaking her head.

Frustrated, Cody strode over to the corpse of the raccoon, looking at the gouges beneath his arm and then at the dead animal. He nudged it with the toe of his boot. “Maybe it's rabies or something,” he said.

Sidney motioned for Snowy to lie down, gave her a quick pat on the head when she did, then walked over to join Cody. She squatted down for a closer look at the raccoon. It was a little mangy in appearance, but that wasn't necessarily a sign of anything.

“Guys,” Rich called out, a tone in his voice that Sidney didn't like.

She stood and turned to see Rich standing by the entrance to the kitchen. She and Cody quickly glanced at each other, then stepped toward Rich, only to come to a fast standstill. Insects had managed to push past the rolled-up place mats and were once again streaming up from the cellar.

“I don't think this is rabies,” Rich said, a tremble of fear in his voice.

“No,” Sidney agreed. “I think it's something worse.”

CHAPTERTWENTY-TWO

“That isn't right, Isaac.” Caroline's grip was very hard on his arm. “That just isn't right.”

Isaac had to agree.

They were standing amid the severe clutter of the living room, staring at the piles, boxes, and stacks of stuff that had created dark pockets and corridors of shadow from which the cats and mice—hundreds and hundreds of mice—now stared out at them.

“I'm scared,” his mother said, and something told Isaac that she had every right to be.

She suddenly screamed, yanking furiously on his arm. “Something bit me!”

Isaac felt it as well. Sharp, burning sensations in his ankles, as things—hundreds of things—moved about his shoes. He started to turn, to pull his mother out of there, when Cavendish sprang from his perch. Without a sound, the cat landed on Isaac's chest, claws digging through his shirt to the tender flesh below. Isaac let out a yelp of pain, instinctively swatting the clinging cat away.

“Stop it! You'll hurt him!” his mother screeched, pulling on his arm.

“No, Mother,” Isaac cried, somehow knowing that things were about to get even worse. “I think they want to hurt us.”

His sense of foreboding was intensified by the strange sensation he was picking up in his Steve ear. It made the flesh on the back of his neck tingle, his hair stand on end. He remembered the time he'd rubbed a red balloon on the top of his head and how his hair had stood up. This was something like that, but it wasn't fun like the red balloon had been.

Mice were leaping from the shelves, tiny bodies dropping down upon them, hanging from their clothes. His mother was screaming hysterically, flailing her arms, knocking over towers of books, dirty plates, and magazines. He saw at least two of the candles that his mother had lit when the power went out tumble out of view and knew that wasn't a good thing at all.

But he couldn't help her. There were mice on his head, and they were biting him. He grabbed at the tiny attackers. They bit at his fingers, and he tried to ignore the stabbing pain as he tore them away, throwing them to the floor, where they simply began climbing up his legs. Isaac kicked out with his limbs and stamped his feet. He could see blood on his hands and on his clothes, and that just made him all the more frantic. He thought of his room—his perfectly clean and structured room. In there he could clean away the blood from his body and change his clothes.

He was preparing to make a run for his special place when his mother let out the most horrible of screams. Isaac turned to see that she had fallen sideways onto bags of old winter clothing. She'd often talked about how she was collecting them for a charity. She'd said that somebody was really going to appreciate those winter things, but nobody ever had.

Isaac rushed to help her up, ignoring the nibbling mice that were scaling his body. He gasped at the horrifying sight of her as he drew closer. The cats—Binky, Nero, Shadow, Cavendish, and Mrs. Livingstone—were all on top of her, clawing and biting as she struggled to get up, but she was unable to get her footing beneath the shifting bags of clothing.

“Get away from her!” Isaac yelled.

The cats did not seem to hear him, continuing to savagely scratch and dig at his mother as she moaned beneath their onslaught. He'd never seen them act this way toward his mother. Sure they'd fought among themselves, but they loved his mother, often all lying with her on the mattress that acted as her bed, purring loudly.

“Get away from her now!” he yelled again, reaching down to swat at the all-black cat named Shadow. His fingertips roughly brushed along the cat's back, and it instantly spun around, jumping onto his arm, biting and clawing, back legs kicking and ripping through the fabric of his long-sleeved shirt, drawing blood.

Isaac whipped his arm back and forth, but the cat still hung on, sinking his claws and teeth into his flesh. The pain was incredible; his shirt was reduced to bloody tatters. And for the first time, Isaac began to fear for his life.

All the while, the sound in his Steve ear was growing worse, spreading to the area where the doctors had put the metal plate. He forced himself to ignore these sounds and strange feelings that made him scared and angry, and concentrated on trying to save himself and his mother.

Isaac plowed through the piles of clutter, knocking aside two card tables placed tightly together to accommodate a jigsaw puzzle of two kittens in a flower basket. He reached the huge china cabinet made from dark, heavy wood, drew back his arm, and slammed it as hard as he could into the doors, the cat, still clinging to his flesh, taking the full brunt of the hit. Isaac felt Shadow's grip loosen then tighten again, the biting even more vicious. Again he slammed his arm into the front of the cabinet, this time shattering three of the glass panes. The cat finally lost his grip, and Isaac quickly pulled his arm back, leaving Shadow inside the cabinet, his body broken and covered with shards of glass.

Isaac's arm burned and throbbed, but at least he was free of the cat, and he turned his attention back to his poor mother. Caroline had managed to roll onto her knees, huddled within the confines of her stuff, trying to protect her head and face from the remaining cats who tore at her back and buttocks. She cried hysterically, trying to push herself deeper into the layers of her belongings for protection.

Isaac lumbered toward her, spying a desk lamp that stuck out from the top of a box filled with items left when his sister moved out ten years before. The box had been destined for the trash but never made it there. Mother had wanted to look through it, in case his sister was throwing out something that could still be used. And for once, she was right. Isaac grabbed the lamp, pulling it from the box like Excalibur from the stone.

He didn't want to hurt the cats, even though there were times when they would get into his room and mess things up. He knew that he could be quite strong if he wanted to be, and his mother had always taught him to control his temper. But now she was being hurt, and to make that stop he had to do something that he didn't want to do.

Focusing on his mother's cries, Isaac swung the square stone base of the desk lamp and connected with Binky. Without a sound, Binky soared across the room, crashing into a stack of green plastic milk crates before disappearing beneath a sea of clothing and stuffed animals.

Only for a second did Isaac think it odd that the animal didn't cry out. Nero was now digging at his mother's hands as she attempted to protect her neck. The cat turned his gaze on him and bared needle-sharp teeth. Isaac swung his makeshift weapon and smashed it into the cat's face. But Nero still clung to Caroline's back, even though his jaw hung crookedly and a stream of black, blood-tinged drool dripped from the side of his mouth. Isaac lashed out again, this time hitting the animal so hard that his head was practically torn from his body, blood spattering nearby boxes in a crimson streak.

Mrs. Livingstone and Cavendish had darted for cover when the battle with Nero started. There were no signs of them, but the mice were swarming.

“Mother,” Isaac said, bending toward the cowering woman. “Mother, we have to go.”

She was crying hysterically, the words that were leaving her mouth unintelligible. Something about the cats, and how could they hurt their mother this way.

Isaac didn't understand it either, but he knew that it wasn't the time to wonder. He reached down, grabbed hold of her arm, and yanked her to her feet. Her face was a mess of blood and deep scratches. He could feel the panic starting to rise but managed to hold it together, knowing that he had to be strong for the both of them.


Page 14

“We have to leave,” he said again.

She looked around, flinching as mice continued to fall from various high places around the room.

Still clutching his lamp weapon, Isaac tugged on his mother's wrist, attempting to lead her from the living room. He didn't look down as he walked but could feel the mice being crushed with each footfall. They were not his concern.

“Why?” Caroline was asking behind him. Isaac had only seen her drunk once in his life, and the way she sounded now reminded him of that time. She had won a bottle of champagne at a church raffle and drunk half of it one Saturday afternoon. He remembered that she had cried a lot and had said that she felt sad for him because of his injuries. That maybe it would have been better if he hadn't lived after the car accident.

“Why would my fur babies want to hurt us?” she asked him through the tears.

He didn't answer, just continued to drag her over the piles of material that had tipped during their struggle.

“Maybe they're sick, Isaac,” she suggested.

Still he moved forward. They were almost to the kitchen.

“Isaac!” she screamed, suddenly stopping and ripping her hand away from his. “Are you listening to your mother?”

“We have to go,” he told her, averting his gaze. He hated to see her bloody like that.

“But what if our babies are sick? We can't just—”

Mrs. Livingstone attacked from out of nowhere, flying through the air and landing on Caroline's shoulder. Caroline screeched as the cat sank her needle teeth into the soft flesh of her neck. She managed to grab Mrs. Livingstone by her fluffy Maine Coon cat tail and yanked. The cat came away, eerily silent, but so did a large chunk of Caroline's neck. She flung the cat away and clamped her hand over the spurting wound, trying to stem the flow of crimson. She dropped to her knees, and Isaac could see a swarm of eager mice already heading for her.

He rushed toward her, stomping on the mice. As he did, he caught sight of Mrs. Livingstone calmly watching the scene from a nearby sewing machine cabinet. A shudder of terror passed through him.What's the matter with her eye?he wondered.

But he had no more time for thought. His mother was covered with gray and black mice. They were in her hair and moving beneath her clothing, and she twitched and moaned pathetically as they bit her repeatedly.

“No! No! No!” he cried, grabbing handfuls of the tiny life forms, squeezing them with all his might before throwing their crushed corpses among the other refuse.

His mother's hand was still clamped to the bite on her neck, and he could see the blood oozing from beneath her closed fingers, running down her neck, and soaking her shirt. She was trying to speak, her mouth moving strangely as her eyes bulged.

He hauled her to her feet. She was heavier now. He pulled one of her arms around his neck and placed one of his around her waist and began to drag her toward the kitchen. As they passed the sewing machine cabinet, he saw that Mrs. Livingstone was gone.

They were finally in the kitchen, and Isaac couldn't help himself. He stopped and turned his head to see if he could see Mrs. Livingstone. His heart jumped painfully in his chest at the sight of not only Mrs. Livingstone, but Binky, Cavendish, and Nero following closely, with what could only be described as a sea of mice flowing over the clutter, heading directly for him and his mother.

Isaac fixed his sight on the back door, hauling his mother across the trash-strewn floor with renewed vigor, knocking things from the kitchen shelves as he navigated the best he could. He could hear the storm raging outside and briefly considered stopping to grab his raincoat but realized that was probably not the smartest idea.

For a moment he thought his hearing aids were acting even more strangely, as the sound of a high-pitched alarm suddenly filled the home, but then he saw the trails of smoke wafting from the living room and realized that the smoke detectors were letting him know there was a fire. He remembered the candles and how they had fallen over in the struggles.

From the corner of his eye he caught movement and instantly lashed out with his lamp club, catching Cavendish as he sprang. The overweight cat fell into a shelf above the sink, filled with decorative teacups. There was a deafening crash as shelf, teacups, and cat fell into the trash-filled sink. Isaac actually felt a twinge of sadness as Cavendish lay still in the wreckage. He had liked Cavendish best; that one had never made a mess in his room.

Caroline had fallen from his grasp and was curled in a tight ball on the kitchen floor. Isaac reached down to pick her up, never taking his eyes from the living room doorway. Mice were pouring into the room, scampering up onto the counters, and streaming across the uneven surfaces toward them. His mother was making awful sounds now, and her skin had taken on a strange grayish color. Her hand fell away from her neck, the wound continuing to bleed quite badly. Isaac thrust his arm around her waist again and managed to get her up, then balanced her weight against his hip as he opened the door to the outside.

The cats came from opposite sides, Mrs. Livingstone descending from the top of the refrigerator, and Binky from the kitchen island, both landing on Isaac's back. Fighting through the pain, he opened the wooden screen door and pushed his mother outside, closing it tightly behind her.

Then he spun, swinging his lamp. The pain in his back was so bad that he thought he might pass out, explosions of color like fireworks blooming before his eyes as Mrs. Livingstone continued to gnaw and claw at his back, while Binky ripped at the flesh of his legs and stomach. Isaac fell to his knees, hearing the wind rattle the screen door behind him, feeling the spray of rain as it blew through the screen. He had been so very close.

So. Very. Close.

He felt the life going out of him as the cats continued to bite and scratch.

Then something exploded in a rush of fire just outside the kitchen doorway; tongues of flame reached into the kitchen to stroke the water-stained ceiling.

It was if the fire gave him life, the sight of orange flame and thickening black smoke allowing him to tap into some reserve of strength that he wasn't aware existed.

With a surge of energy, Isaac screamed and threw himself toward the storm door, not even slowing down to unlatch it. He barreled through the woven screen and over the metal railing, where he landed in a heap beside his mother on the rain-soaked ground.

He felt Mrs. Livingstone squirm fitfully beneath him and pushed himself up from the ground to find the cat's crushed body, her head bent at an awkward angle but still trying to snap at him.

Already soaked to the skin by the driving rain, he managed to get to his knees and crawl to his mother. She was lying on her side, facing away from him, her face pressed to the ground. Gently, he took her arm and rolled her onto her back.

A blood-covered Binky looked up from the hole he had burrowed into Caroline's chest. Isaac gasped, falling heavily backward onto his butt. The cat glared at him, a glint of something silver over one of his bulging eyes. He seemed to consider Isaac for a moment, then continued to tear into Caroline's still form.

Isaac was horrified. His hand found a rock in the mud beside him and he grabbed it, forcing himself to stand on shaking legs. He was about to bring the rock down on Binky's head when movement from the corner of the yard distracted him. The undergrowth was moving, a wave of animal life—squirrels, chipmunks, snakes, bugs, and mice—flowing through the grass toward him.

A tiny voice in his head told him to run. He looked down at his mother. He didn't want to leave her, but even he understood it was too late for her, and if he stayed, he would die too. Isaac cried out with rage as the lightning flared and the thunder crashed. He threw the rock with all his might at the swarm of life, but it was like tossing a pebble into the ocean, if the ocean was a living thing that wanted to chew the skin from his bones.

Not wanting to see what the wave would do to his mother, Isaac turned and raced across the yard into the woods.

As the storm raged on.

CHAPTERTWENTY-THREE

Sidney wanted to try something.

She stood in front of a line of insects that had made it up the stairs and through the place-mat barrier they'd shoved beneath the door. She was fascinated by the spiders, ants, centipedes, beetles, millipedes, and some bugs she had never even seen before coming toward her.

“What are you doing?” Rich asked incredulously. He was stomping on even more bugs as they came out from beneath the door while Cody attempted to reinforce their barrier with some dish towels.

“I'm curious,” she said. She took one step back and then a wide step to the right. Within seconds the bugs had changed course to follow her.

“You're shitting me,” she said.

“What?” Cody asked. He stood up and crossed the kitchen toward her.

“Watch,” Sidney ordered. The bugs were almost upon her. She moved around toward the back of the flow.

It took only a moment for the flow of insects to follow, heading directly for her once again.

“That's crazy,” Cody said.

“Ya think?” Rich said, coming to stand beside Cody.

Sidney tried it again a few more times, and each time the bugs changed course, coming menacingly toward her.

“They're actually coming after me,” she said as she pushed her foot toward the front of the mass. A spider lunged forward, striking at the toe of her shoe, as a swarm of ants climbed up onto her foot. She quickly shook them off. “They've become incredibly aggressive.”

Rich approached, and as if sensing his presence, the flow of insects turned toward him. “But why?” he asked. He started to step on the bugs, grinding them into the floor as they continued to come at him.

Cody helped with some strays.

“I don't know,” she said, petting Snowy's head as she thought. “What could affect insects, as well as mammals?” She looked over to the dead raccoon.

“You said it might have something to do with the storm,” Cody offered. “That sounds as good as anything.”

There were more bangs and slams against the house, but they'd grown used to the sounds by now.

Sidney walked over to the raccoon and dropped to her knees next to it. “Maybe some sort of toxin,” she said, thinking out loud. “Maybe something in the runoff from the storm.”

Cautiously she touched the raccoon. Pushing up the loose skin around its mouth, she examined the gums for any discoloration or evidence of a toxin. At a glance everything looked relatively normal, and she moved on to the raccoon's eyes, first checking the left and then . . .

“What the hell is this?” she muttered.

“What?” Cody asked. “Did you find something?”

“Yeah,” she said, pulling the skin wide above and below the animal's orb. “Maybe I have.”

She studied the eye and the strange, almost reflective cataract that covered it. The shiny substance appeared to be breaking down, partially sliding off the eye. She'd never seen anything quite like it before and wondered if it might have something to do with—

A thump and crashing sounds came from upstairs.

“What now?” Rich moaned, and headed toward the stairway, peering up through the darkness to the landing.

“What is that?” Cody asked Sidney as he squatted beside her for a closer look at the raccoon.

“I don't know,” she replied, “but I'd like to find out.”

The silvery substance was sliding across the surface of the eye and pooling at the bottom of the raccoon's eyelid.

“Hey, Rich,” Sidney called out. “Do you have a trash bag I could put this in?”

“I think there's a box under the sink.” Rich turned toward the kitchen, but more noise from upstairs distracted him, and instead he climbed the first few steps.

Cody stood and went to check under the sink. Sidney could hear the sounds of bugs crunching beneath his feet as he walked. He returned with a green trash bag and snapped it open.

“Do you want me to do it?” he asked.

“You're such a gentleman.” She lifted the raccoon by the tail and dropped it into the empty bag. Cody smiled at her, and despite the strangeness of the situation, she smiled back as she took the bag from him.

“What are you planning to do with it?” he asked.

“I'd like to get it to Doc Martin,” she said. “Maybe she can run some tests and see what's—”

Sidney was interrupted as Rich nearly fell down the stairs and rushed toward them.

“What?” Sidney asked, moving toward the foyer.

“Don't!” Rich screamed.

There was movement in the dark at the top of the stairs, and she gasped at the sight of multiple fur-covered bodies amassing on the landing.

Squirrels. Hundreds of squirrels.

They began to descend in a wave, their tiny claws scrabbling across the wooden surface.

“Shit, we got to go, guys,” she said, backing up quickly toward her friends.

“Go? Go where?” Rich asked. “There's a freakin' storm out there!”

“Someplace,” she screamed, waving the trash bag. “Anyplace . . . but we can't stay here.”

Snowy began to bark crazily as the squirrels flowed down the steps into the foyer, heading for the kitchen.

“Oh my God,” Cody said. “OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod . . .” He stood frozen, watching as the animals moved toward them, just like the flow of insects from the basement.

“Move!” Sidney shouted. She grabbed Snowy's collar and pulled her, but the path to the back door was blocked by yet another swarm of insects from the basement. Instead, she led the shepherd into the nearby bathroom, the guys close behind her.

“What are we doing?” Rich asked, his voice loud and high pitched.

“I don't know,” she snapped. “But at least we should be safe for a while in here. It'll give us a chance to figure this out.”

Cody slammed the bathroom door on the wave of angry life swarming behind them.


Page 15

CHAPTERTWENTY-FOUR

Doc Martin dragged Bear's body across the threshold from the kennel, a wide smear of crimson on the linoleum floor marking their passing.

The animals in their cages were still throwing their bodies mercilessly against the doors, trying to escape and get at her. With a grunt she pulled the mastiff into the office and allowed the kennel door to close, muffling the sounds of the crazed animals beyond.

She leaned against the wall to catch her breath.

“You're a big boy, aren't you,” she said to the dead dog. She reached into the pocket of her lab coat and removed a pack of cigarettes, at that moment not really giving two craps about office rules.I'll be sure to fine myself in the morning,she thought, popping a smoke into her mouth and lighting up.

They'd always told her that the cancer sticks would be the cause of her death, and typically she'd believed them. Now she stared at the massive dog at her feet. Never had she thought one of her own patients would do her in.

She took a long drag on the cigarette, feeling her nerves start to settle.

Then, cigarette sticking from the corner of her mouth, she bent down, took the big dog by his front paws, and pulled him to the nearby examination room. Lifting with her knees, she managed to haul the dead beast up and flop him onto the metal table.

“Holy crap,” she said breathlessly. “What the hell were they feeding you?”

She took a few more puffs on her smoke before throwing the butt into the metal sink, then she plucked two rubber gloves from the box on the counter and turned back to the mastiff.

“All right then,” she said, pulling on the gloves. “Let's see if we can figure out what's happened.”

She started by feeling the animal's body, looking for any odd lumps or lesions, but other than the gaping surgical wound, she felt nothing. Next, she placed a hand against the dog's massive head and pulled open his eyes. She shined the penlight from her lab coat pocket into the left eye and then the right.

“Well, what do we have here?” she asked aloud as the beam of light reflected off a metallic, almost spiderweb-like covering on the right eye.

The vet took a scalpel from another drawer in the supply cabinet and began to poke at the covering. At first she believed it to be some kind of cataract, but the more she examined it . . .

Holding the flesh around the eye wide, she peered even closer. From the looks of it, the cataract—or whatever the hell it was—appeared to completely encase the eye.

Doc Martin wanted an even closer look. Flipping the scalpel around and using the rounded end to wedge beneath the eyeball, she forced it upward, eventually popping it from the skull.

She held the still-attached eyeball in her rubber-gloved hand, slowly turning it. The foreign material did indeed cover the entire orb and then entwined around the optic nerve, going farther up into the skull cavity.

“Huh,” she said, letting the eye dangle against the mastiff's face. She stepped back and removed her rubber gloves, tossing them in a nearby trash can.

Doc Martin knew what she wanted to do next, but in order to do that she was going to need to take a look inside the dog's skull. A slight smile formed on her face as she left the examination room, remembering how they told her she was crazy when she'd invested in the bone saw.

CHAPTERTWENTY-FIVE

Dale Moore sat in the darkness, listening to the sounds of the storm raging outside.

He picked up the cell phone that rested on his thigh, looked at the time, and dialed Sidney's number again. The call, as the twenty or more calls before it, didn't go through.

Maybe a tower's come down with this wind,Dale thought as he hung up and placed the phone back on his thigh.

But that didn't explain where Sidney was.

He racked his brain trying to remember if she'd said anything to him about her plans for the day and evening. They hadn't talked much after the business of that morning, each annoyed with the other. The only thing he knew for sure was that she was going to work. He picked up his phone again and looked at the time.

Something thumped outside, and he looked in the general direction of the sound. The wind howled like a hungry wolf, and he could hear the hissing patter of rain against the windows.

It sounded pretty bad out there, which just made him worry all the more. He figured she was probably hanging out at the animal hospital, helping Doc Martin until the storm calmed down. That's just how she was, but still, he'd like to know for sure.

When Sid's mother had left them, his daughter had suddenly become his focus; everything he did was somehow connected to her, her well-being, and her happiness. It had become his job to make sure that she had everything she needed to live her life in the best way possible. Dale recalled, with a twinge of guilt, the amount of time he'd spent away from his little girl, the special jobs that he'd sometimes taken on the mainland, leaving Sidney to fend for herself. But truth be told, it had all been for her. A lot of the money he'd made had gone to her college fund, to help her with her dream—with her future.

His right arm began to ache, a dull throbbing pain to remind him that it was still there. How could he forget? Too many cigarettes and stress.

He'd thought he was going to die, to leave his little girl all alone, but then he'd gotten better—if you want to call it that—and he began to worry that it would have been better if he had died.

Sure, it would have been tough for her at first, but then she would have gone on with her life and on to to great things. Amazing things.

But with him alive—if you want to call it that—Sidney was left with the burden of his care. He remembered the days following his release from rehab and the things that his daughter had had to do for him.

Things that a daughter should never have to do for her father.

Dale felt that familiar anger again. He and it had become old friends, the anger usually rearing its ugly head when he was feeling sorry for himself. It was the kind of anger that resulted in him doing something he knew he shouldn't. Something that both he and his daughter knew was completely stupid, like smoking cigarettes or changing the batteries in the smoke alarm or flipping the mattress on his bed.

He wondered what sort of stupid thing he would do now.

His mind raced with a number of really dumb things, but instead, he just sat on the couch and stewed, waiting for his daughter to come home.

His thoughts drifted to the near future when Sidney wouldn't be there anymore, when she'd be living in Boston and going to college. He decided that he'd probably miss moments like this, worrying about where she was in the storm.

The house shuddered in a blast of wind, and his concern began to amplify. He grabbed his cane and maneuvered himself off the couch, slowly crossing the living room to the window that looked out at the road. Pulling the shade aside, he squinted through the glass at windswept darkness outside. It was as bad as it sounded, the rain blown sideways by the intensity of the wind. It was no surprise that they'd lost power and cell signal.

For a brief moment he considered trying to pull out the old generator in the garage and starting it up, but then he heard his daughter's angry voice in his head and decided against it. Bitterness at being an invalid began to surge through him, but something outside caught his eye, mercifully distracting him from his rage.

At first he believed it to be debris caught up in the exceptional flow of rainwater that was running like a river past his house, but as he watched, it changed course, moving against the flow of water and heading directly for his home.

“What the hell is that?” Dale muttered. Whatever it was, it had moved out of the road and into the grass before the white picket fence. He left the window and went to another, hoping for a better angle. Through the rain he could see something moving around the fence and through the grass, coming up toward the front—

The front doorknob violently rattled, startling him.

Dale went to the hallway and stood, staring at the front door, listening.

Again the knob rattled.

It has to be Sidney,he thought, moving toward the heavy wooden door.But why would she use the front door when she always uses the back?

His brain was already formulating reasons as he moved his cane from his left hand to his weakened right and reached for the door chain. He slid the chain across and popped it from its track, then undid the lock above the doorknob before taking it firmly in hand, turning, and pulling it open.

“Where the heck have you been?” he found himself asking the man who stood on the doorstep. The man who was most definitely not his daughter.

“I'm sorry,” Dale started to apologize, about to ask if there was something he could do for the stranger, but the next words didn't come as he noticed the odd way the man was standing, the way he swayed, and the way his head tilted weirdly to the left.

Then lightning flashed, and Dale saw the paleness of his flesh, the blood that covered his face, and the unnatural contours of his skull.

The ghoulish stranger seemed to smile as he lurched forward, wedging himself in the doorway, even as Dale attempted to close the door. Dale struggled to push the door closed, but the man pushed harder, causing Dale to lose his balance and fall backward to the floor.

The door had swung wide in the struggle and wind, and the assailant just stood there, as if waiting for something. Dale floundered upon the floor, searching for his cane. He found it and pulled it toward him, rolling onto his side and using it to push himself up onto his knees.

He heard a strange, snuffling sound from the entryway behind him and turned his head to see that an ugly bulldoglike dog had joined the stranger in the entryway.

Now Dale knew who this was. He was one of the summer folk, those who usually came out to the island at the end of May and left on Labor Day. Dale remembered because before his stroke this man had called him for a construction quote on his summer house. While at the house, Dale had had a less than pleasant encounter with this nasty bulldog.

Berthold was the name. Alfred, he believed the dog was named.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded as he fought to his feet.

The dog moved into the hallway, the man following him. The way they moved made Dale think of the walking corpses in that zombie show that was so popular on television.

He actually managed to right himself and turned toward the intruders. “Get out!”

Instead of leaving, the dog sprang at him, knocking him backward with the weight of his thrust. Dale managed to stay on his feet by angling his body in such a way that he fell against the hallway wall. He raised his cane to club the dog that crouched before him, but the man, as if responding to some inaudible command, came at him next, his hands reaching out . . .

Cold fingers wrapping around Dale's throat . . .

And he began to squeeze.

CHAPTERTWENTY-SIX

Isaac ran through the thick underbrush that separated his family's property from his neighbor's, driven by the terror he had just experienced.

The ground was wet and slippery and fraught with hidden dangers. It was hard for him to see in the dark and pouring rain, and he found himself stumbling over trash covered by years of rotten leaves, sticks, and tree branches. There were rusted bike frames, rotting wooden doors, and even an old dollhouse that looked as though it had erupted up from beneath the slimy ground cover.

Something snagged his ankle, and Isaac went down on all fours, his fingers sinking into the rotting detritus. He began to panic, thinking that a snake had tripped him up, but as he pulled his foot away, he saw that it was in fact an old garden hose. Feeling relieved, and just a bit foolish, he freed his foot and pulled his hands from the sucking mud. But as lightning flashed, he saw that there were things moving on his hands; worms entwined around his fingers as earwigs traversed the muddy flesh of his hand and up his arms.

Isaac shook his hands crazily, wiping away the filth and crawling things as he again began to run. He wasn't sure exactly where he was going, just that he had to get away from his house.

He tried to remember what this area of the yard looked like when it was light and not in the midst of a hurricane. Finally, he stopped for a moment in the hissing rain, closing his eyes to picture the backyard.

In his mind he saw her, Sidney, his neighbor and his friend. Just the thought of the girl who didn't smile was enough to bring him some measure of solace. She had always been nice to him, even though she never seemed to be all that happy.

Isaac looked through the thick underbrush in the direction he believed Sidney's house to be. Maybe she would help him. He could tell her about the cats and the mice.

And his mother.

Images of his mother lying dead in the backyard, a cat burrowing deeply into her chest, made him want to fall to the ground in a tight little ball.

But things rustled in the wet leaves and squirmed upon the ground, and he knew that whatever they were, they were coming for him. If he didn't move, they would get him.

The hearing aid in his Steve ear began to make that sound again, as if picking up some frequency broadcasting nothing but fear, menace, and unspeakable violence. If he chose to listen, he knew that he would be lost to it, falling into the embrace of the sound that was nothing but bad.

Like a bad radio station playing in his ear, wanting him to do horrible things like the cats and mice and creepy crawlers in the dirt.

Isaac's hand shot up to his Steve ear, fiddling with the settings of the hearing device. For a brief moment he could have sworn that he heard his mother screaming his name over the sound of the howling winds, and he quickly pulled his hand away, listening carefully as he peered through the darkness.


Page 16

“What are you doing here?” yelled a voice that Isaac realized wasn't his mother but was close by. Carefully he moved closer to the sound, only to hear the voice again, angry and insistent.

“Get out!”

Lightning flashed, illuminating the angry sky as well as his surroundings, and he saw that he was standing near the back of Sidney's house. He realized then that the voice he was hearing was coming from inside his friend's home.

And it sounded like someone needed help.

Isaac ran across the yard, toward the sounds of struggle becoming more pronounced over the raging of the storm . . .

Over the sound of the bad radio whispering horrible things in his Steve ear.

The bad, bad radio.

CHAPTERTWENTY-SEVEN

Dale stared into the eyes of the man who was trying to kill him.

The eyes were wrong, one bloodshot and horribly dilated, the other covered with a silvery film.

Then things started to go black, and he felt himself begin to slip away.

He tried to fight back, using every single bit of strength he could manage, but his attacker—attackers—were too strong.

The dog had taken hold of Dale's cane in his powerful jaws and was attempting to wrench it from his grasp. Dale held on with all his might, believing that if the cane was lost, he would most assuredly follow.

He flapped his arms wildly as his legs weakened and he began to slide down the hallway wall, the stranger's hands still wrapped tightly about his throat. He felt the fingers on his left hand begin to loosen as the dog tugged on the cane, and panic set in. The dog temporarily released the cane to take a better grip, and Dale used the moment to lash out with his leg, kicking the bulldog square in the face and driving him back. He managed to bring his cane up and swing it into the man's horribly pale, blood-covered face, hitting him right above the nose and opening a huge, oozing gash.

The man grunted, his hold on Dale's throat weakening, allowing Dale to squirm free and slide to the floor, where he began to wildly swing his cane in an attempt to keep his attackers away. The bulldog suddenly emerged from the shadows, moving lightning quick to sink his nasty teeth into the meat of Dale's left arm. Dale cried out. Reflexively, his hand opened, and he heard the sound of the cane hitting the floor. He tried to retrieve it, tried to recapture the only thing that might save his life, but the dog held tightly to his arm, dragging him away from the prize.

Berthold kicked the cane away as he lumbered closer, then dropped on Dale's back, pinning him to the floor.

Dale tried to throw the man off, bucking and thrashing wildly, but his attacker was too heavy and the bulldog still held on to his left arm, while his useless right arm flopped pathetically against the floor. He felt the man's cold, bloodstained hands wrap around his jaw from behind and begin to savagely pull upward. With intensifying horror Dale wondered which would snap first, his neck or his back.

Berthold continued to pull, and Dale screamed in agony, the tendons and muscles in his neck and back strained to the point where they would soon tear, and then the bones would—

“What are you doing to him?” a voice boomed from someplace close by. “What are you doing to Mr. Moore?”

Dale managed to twist his body to see the familiar form of his neighbor, Isaac Moss, standing soaking wet just inside the doorway. Dale tried to warn him away, but found that he was only capable of making a strangled, gargling sound as his neck was about to be broken.

“You let him go!” Isaac shouted, coming farther into the house.

The bulldog released Dale's arm and moved to jump over his prone body to get to the youth. Dale reached out as the dog leaped over him and took hold of his muscular back leg.

The dog fell, then tried to spin around, jaws snapping savagely. Dale held tight, even as the dog's razor-sharp teeth ripped the flesh from his knuckles.

Isaac rushed closer. He kicked the dog savagely, knocking him across the room.

“Get out of here, you bad dog!” he yelled. Then he grabbed hold of the man atop Dale and wrenched him back, throwing the attacker to the floor.

“And you get off Mr. Moore!”

Dale scrabbled across the floor and pushed up against the wall. He'd never realized how strong Isaac had become as he'd gotten older, still remembering the quiet youth who rarely left the house in all the years that he and Sidney had lived here.

Isaac stood, watching the man he had thrown to the floor slowly start to get back up. The bulldog was stalking in from the living room, the pair seeming to act in tandem.

“What should I do, Mr. Moore?” Isaac asked, his voice nervously high pitched.

Dale wished that he could do more to help the young man, but in his current condition he was next to useless. “We have to get them outside,” he croaked, still feeling the effects of his neck being crushed.

Berthold silently lunged at Isaac, attempting to put his hands around the teen's throat. Isaac backed away as the man grabbed for him. Dale saw that the dog was maneuvering around behind Isaac to attack and managed to bend down and snag his cane from the floor. He hobbled as quickly as he could toward the scene unfolding before him, raised the cane with his left arm, and brought it down hard on the dog's head before he could attack the boy. Dale found it incredibly strange that the bulldog barely made a sound as he collapsed to the floor and lay there motionless.

Isaac's attacker paused as the dog fell.

“Throw him out, Isaac!” Dale cried. “Grab his clothes and toss him out!”

Isaac immediately reached out, grabbing the man by the back of his shirt, spinning him around, and hurling him toward the open front door and the storm that raged outside.

The man stumbled but stopped at the doorway, appearing to collect himself as he slowly turned.

Dale made it across the hall in time to club the man in the forehead, then fell to his knees. Berthold seemed stunned by the blow, falling backward onto the outside landing, where he lost his footing and tumbled down the stairs to the soaking concrete walkway.

Dale leaned on the cane and turned to where the dog still lay prone upon the floor.

“Grab its collar, Isaac!” Dale yelled. “Drag it to the door by the collar!”

With a tentative hand Isaac grabbed the dog by the chain choke collar and began to drag him across the floor toward the door. “Like this, Mr. Moore?”

“Just like that, Isaac,” Dale said. “Quickly now.”

Dale looked out to see that Berthold was recovering on the walkway.

Isaac was almost to the door when the dog began to awaken. The animal tossed his head savagely to one side at the youth's wrist, and Isaac let out a loud squawk, letting go of the collar to avoid being bitten.

The man outside was slowly rising. They didn't have much time.

The dog's head was apparently still rattled from the hit. He attempted to climb to his feet but slumped back down to the floor.

“We have to get it out the door—fast!” Dale said.

“It'll bite me,” Isaac said.

“It'll try to kill you if it gets a chance to wake up,” Dale added, hobbling closer to the animal. Dale quickly reached down, grabbed the dog by the collar with his left hand, and tried the best he could to drag it. The dog traveled less than a foot before he was trying to bite him again.

“Damn it,” Dale hissed.

Dale looked over to see that Isaac looked very upset, one of his hands up at his ear where Dale could see that a hearing aid had been placed.

“Isaac?”

The young man's hand was at the hearing aid, his eyes locked on the dog as he started to get up again.

“The bad radio,” Isaac said, his face grimacing as if he were in pain. “The bad radio is inside my head.”

Dale didn't know what that meant but looked over toward the open door to see Berthold coming up the stairs. They had to do something right away, or things were about to get very bad once again.

The man was coming in through the doorway when Isaac lost it. The teen began to scream at the top of his lungs, going for the still-recovering dog, snatching him up from the floor, and running with him toward the doorway.

Dale barely had the chance to get out of his way, stumbling over to one side and almost hitting the floor. He watched as Isaac ran, thrusting the squat body of the dog at the man, knocking him backward, the two of them tumbling down the three brick steps to the wet sidewalk.

Isaac was wild-eyed, standing just outside the doorway panting. His hand was at the hearing aid once again, snatching at it with clawed fingers as if the device was somehow hurting him.

Dale moved as quickly as he was able, careful not to fall as he got to the door, watching as the bulldog clambered to all fours, Berthold right beside him.

“Isaac, get in!” Dale yelled.

The youth turned around slowly to look at him, and then obeyed, coming in from the landing.

Dale slammed the door closed and locked it, leaning his trembling body against it as fists pounded on the other side.

“It's the bad radio,” Isaac said. “It's all the bad radio's fault.”

Dale had no idea what the young man was talking about as he leaned his aching body back against the wall, but as far as he was concerned, it sounded like as good of a reason as any.

CHAPTERTWENTY-EIGHT

If it was fifteen years before Sidney saw another bug, it would still be way too soon.

It amazed her how they could get themselves through the smallest cracks. Almost immediately, spiders, ants, and centipedes began to find their way under the bathroom door, heading to the first person in line, which was her.

“Give me some towels,” she ordered. She'd dropped the trashbag with the raccoon inside by the tub and was crushing the next wave of attacking insects beneath her sneakered feet.

Rich reached into a small cabinet above the toilet and pulled some out before tossing them to her.

She began to shove them tightly against the bottom of the door. She yelped as a centipede slithered over her sneaker and under the cuff of her jeans, and she stomped her feet and swatted at the leg of her pants until the thing dropped out. Half of its body was crushed, but that didn't stop it from trying to get at her again.

“So now what?” Cody asked as Sidney jammed the last of the towels against the door.

“Now they won't be getting in,” she said, double-checking her handiwork.

“Sure,” Cody agreed. “But in case you haven't noticed, it's a little cramped in here.”

Sidney stood and gave the bathroom a good looking over. She noticed the frosted glass window directly opposite the door.

“Where does that go?” she asked Rich.

“Backyard,” he answered.

Something larger than an insect pounded on the door.

They looked at each other, a spark of fear evident on all their faces.

Whatever was outside the door hit it again, causing it to shake. And then it began to scrape on the door, claws scratching furiously at the cheap wood.

“That door isn't going to last,” Sidney said matter-of-factly. “We're going to have to go out the window.” She pushed past Rich and tried to open it, but it wouldn't budge. She checked to see if it was locked and found that years of paint had made the latch inoperable. She turned to look at Rich.

“We never opened it”—he shrugged—“so when Dad painted—”

He was interrupted by the sound of splintering wood.

“We have to break it.” Sidney's eyes scanned the bathroom and stopped on the metal towel rack attached to the wall. “This'll do,” she said, grabbing the rack in both hands and giving a savage yank.

“Hey!” Rich objected as she pulled it again. “You're wrecking the place.”

The rack came loose, plaster raining down to the tile floor. “Seriously, Rich?”

“Guys!” Cody's gaze was fixed on the bottom of the door, where the wood had started to pock and crack above the barrier of towels.

Snowy sniffed at the towels, then barked wildly. The noises on the other side of the door stopped for only a moment before beginning again all the more furiously.

“You were saying?” Sidney said to Rich as she began to bang on the center of the window with the end of the towel rack. She was surprised it didn't break. In fact, she was barely scratching it.

“Let me try,” Rich said, taking the metal rack from her. He hit the window squarely in the middle, and a fine crack appeared. “It's all about the muscle,” he said, hitting it again. More cracks spiderwebbed through it, but still it didn't break.

Snowy was barking again, her snout jammed into the towels at the bottom of the door, where pieces of wood were beginning to fleck away.

“What the hell is this made of?” Rich asked, preparing to strike the window again, but Sidney was too impatient.

“Give it to me,” she said, yanking the towel rack away from his hands.

Rich looked shocked and maybe even a little hurt, but she didn't care. Time was running short.

She planted her feet and mustered all of her strength before swinging the end of the rack into the window like a baseball bat. The glass splintered, and several pieces fell away into the yard outside. Wind and rain whistled through the opening as she continued to bang away at the glass.

“Hold off,” Rich said, reaching to carefully pry away the jagged glass with his fingers. Sidney handed him the towel rack and went to see what she could do about the door.

She couldn't do much. The bottom of the door was being gradually broken away. From the sounds of it, there was more gnawing now than digging.

This was getting way too freaky for her.

“Whatever is on the other side is going to be able to get under there soon,” Cody warned. He nudged the towels farther beneath the door with the toe of his shoe.

“Yeah,” Sidney agreed, looking behind her to the window. Rich was doing a good job, and almost all the glass was gone from the frame, but the opening looked much smaller now.


Page 17

Rich peered out into the stormy darkness as he pulled the last of the glass from the frame. “Got a bit of drop back here,” he said as he turned to face them.

“Are we going to fit?” Cody asked.

“We'll fit,” Sidney said firmly. There wasn't any question—no other option.

From the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of fur on the floor and gasped as a small, black, clawed limb reached through an opening in the door, ripping even more of the cheap wood and drawing it away. The scratching and gnawing sounds were intensifying by the second.

“Go,” she said, pushing Cody toward the window. Then she grabbed Snowy by the collar and hauled her toward the window as well. “You're going to have to help her.”

“You first,” Cody said, “and we'll pass her to you.”

Sidney shook her head. “No, you first, then Rich and I will get Snowy out. Rich will go next, and then me.”

“I don't think—” Rich began.

“I do the thinking in this group and that's my plan.”

“What if we don't like it,” Cody said as Rich nodded emphatically.

A squirrel forced its head through the hole in the door, flashing sharp yellowed teeth before retreating.

“Not enough time for a new plan,” Sidney said. “I win. We have to go now.” Sidney pushed Snowy closer to her ex.

Cody looked as though he wanted to argue some more, but common sense prevailed, and he started to move. He stepped up onto the toilet and pushed himself through the window, his broad shoulders barely clearing the frame.

“Give me a shove,” Cody shouted over his shoulder as he kicked his legs and wriggled, trying to maneuver through the tight space.

Sidney and Rich each grabbed a leg and began to push, and a moment later Cody dropped out of sight, followed by a slight thud and a grunt.

Sidney stood on her toes to peer outside. “You all right?”

She saw him climbing to his feet, muddy and wet.

“I'm good. Get Snowy out here.” He raised his arms, preparing to catch the large dog.

Sidney squatted down in front of the dog to capture her attention. It was obvious that the shepherd was quite nervous by the streams of drool that were dripping from her jowls as she panted. Sidney rubbed the dog's ears lovingly and looked into her eyes. “You're going to be all right,” she said as calmly as she could, hoping that the dog would pick up on her intent.

The door was breaking away; she could hear the crunching and splintering of wood but refused to turn around.

“Ready?” Sidney asked Rich, who nodded.

She rose from her squat and placed her hands beneath the dog and began to lift. Rich joined her as Snowy began to wildly squirm.

“It's okay—it's okay,” she said to the dog as she looked into her dark brown eyes. “We've got you.”

They lifted her head through the window first. She was still squirming like crazy but quickly seemed to put two and two together as she must have seen Cody outside and below.

Snowy's back legs were scrabbling for purchase, and Rich assisted by placing them up onto the sill.

“There she goes,” Rich said as Snowy disappeared.

There was a brief yelp of pain, and Sidney immediately panicked, sticking her head out into the rain to see what happened.

“Is she all right?” she called, holding her breath as she waited for the answer.

“She's good,” Cody said. “I think she might've landed on a paw funny, but she's good,” he added.

Sidney could see Snowy excitedly circling Cody, looking up at the open window space. He was rubbing her head and praising her for being a good girl. Snowy loved Cody, which was just one more reason that Sidney felt like such a terrible person for breaking up with him.

“Sid, look,” she heard Rich say behind her, and turned from the window to look at the bathroom door.

Something bigger than a squirrel was trying to push its way beneath the door, fighting the insects that swarmed in around its struggling head. She didn't know what it was, but it had some nasty claws and was making short work of what remained of the bottom of the door.

“You next,” she said, grabbing hold of Rich's arm and pulling him toward the window.

“No, you,” he said, fighting with her.

“We've already had this discussion and I won, remember?” she said. “I'll be right behind you.”

He looked at her hard for a moment and must have realized it would do no good to argue. Time was running very short. Without another word, he grabbed the trashbag and climbed atop the toilet. He shoved the bag out the window, then hoisted himself through the opening and disappeared.

“All right?” she called out, now facing the disintegrating bathroom door.

“We're good,” she heard Rich reply.

The bottom of the door was pushed inward with a loud cracking sound, and a groundhog forced its bulk through, allowing a swarm of insects and an assortment of rodents—she saw mice, ground squirrels, and even some chipmunks—to flow in to attack her.

She could see that they would be on her in seconds and decided that she wouldn't take any chances of not making it through the window. Her eyes touched upon a lighter sitting on the back of the toilet tank next to a candle.

Flame.Fire. Something to drive them back.

She squatted down quickly and opened the cabinet beneath the sink and found what she was looking for.

A can of bathroom deodorizing spray.

Yeah, this will do nicely,she thought, remembering her younger days, hanging out with friends and matches.

The groundhog was looking at her with one cold, dead eye and another that glistened as if covered with some sort of reflective cover, just like the raccoon.

She pointed the can of deodorizer at the bottom of the door, and all the things that were now squirming inside to get at her, and pushed down on the spray head while bringing the lighter flame toward the chemically sweet spray streaming from the nozzle.

The vapor ignited in a rush of fire and intense heat, engulfing the flow of life as it squeezed beneath the door. Sidney kept her finger on the nozzle, moving the orange flame from left to right, driving some of the larger life back and igniting the towels wedged beneath the still-intact sections of door. She found it odd that none of the animals made any noise when burned, no hisses or squeals or cries of any kind at all, making something that was already incredibly strange and disturbing all the more so.

The animals had retreated temporarily, but she could already hear movement, guessing they were about to attempt to come through again. Sidney released the canister plunger, stopping the flame, and turned back toward the window, ready to make a run for it. The groundhog, or whatever the hell it was, with fur blackened in places and eyes seared red and oozing, shoved its head back beneath the door and again begin to drag itself inside, pushing the smoldering towels aside and opening up a larger passage.

And opening the floodgates.

The space beneath the door gaped wide, and a steady swarm of insects and vermin flowed into the small bathroom, moving immediately to attack her. Sidney jumped back, away from the swarm, stomping on and swatting at the animals and bugs. The back of her foot came up against the bottom of the bathtub, and she nearly lost her balance, grabbing on to the shower curtain so as not to fall. As if sensing an opportunity, the rodents sprang, moving with incredible speed up her body, seeking out any areas of soft, exposed flesh to scratch and bite. She reacted as best she could, grabbing at the warm, biting bodies, crushing them in her hand and tossing them away. If she weren't fighting for her life, the feeling of the tiny, hollow bones of the rodents breaking beneath her fingers probably would have made her throw up. Hopefully, there'd be time for throwing up later, if she got through this.

The burned groundhog and three raccoons were forcing their way in beneath the crumbling wooden door, and she knew that it was probably only seconds before they were at her. Her eyes darted over to the open window as the boys called to her from outside. She had to get to them.

The animals' numbers were growing. It was completely insane, but there wasn't any other way to look at it. They wanted to kill her.

Climbing into the bathtub, she used the shower curtain as a shield against the encroaching onslaught, yanking both the plastic liner and the cloth curtain down from the rod and throwing them over her head like a cape to cover her body.

The groundhog leaped over the lip of the tub, mouth agape, squared yellow teeth ready to take a bite. She lashed out with her foot, knocking it away. The raccoons came next, springing at her but sliding from her body as they came in contact with the slick material of the shower curtain. She could hear the smaller critters as they attempted to attack her, their bodies pattering off the plastic covering her body. It was a good idea but one that she was sure the animals would eventually find a way through.

She wasn't going to give them the chance.

The guys were yelling to her from the backyard. She stuck her head out the window briefly, seeing that Cody was attempting to climb back in.

“I'm coming now,” she called, using the toilet to give herself the leg up she would need to crawl through.

Something heavy struck her from behind, and Sidney lost her balance, her foot sliding off the plastic toilet lid and making her collapse to the floor. Still mostly covered, she lay there, collecting herself, listening to the sounds of claws sliding across the plastic covering her while trying to keep anything from crawling beneath.

Ready to rise, she was struck again by something heavy, and she found herself being slammed against the bathroom wall. She had no doubt that it was the raccoons working in tandem with the groundhog to keep her from escaping.

How is this even possible?Her panicked thoughts attempted to understand the insanity of the situation.

She moved toward the window again, listening to the sounds of clawed feet scratching upon the tile floor, and braced herself. The weighty body of one of the varmints struck again, but she was ready, bracing herself against the onslaught.

“Sidney, where are you?” Cody yelled up from the yard below the window. “C'mon!”

She used his voice as a beacon, sliding along the wall until she reached the window again. Mice and squirrels and chipmunks landed upon her plastic cloak, sliding back down to the floor, where they quickly resumed their attack upon her.

Lifting the makeshift cape over her head and face, she saw the opening and made her move, leaping up onto the sill of the window, squirming within her cocoon of plastic. The wood of the window frame was rough against her stomach, scraping away what she thought to be layers of skin, but that was the least of her concerns. Sidney wriggled her body through the opening, inspired to move all the faster by the sounds of multiple clawed feet clicking upon the tile floor of the bathroom. She imagined the sight of them in her mind, a wave of bugs and vermin surging toward her across the bathroom floor desperate to claw and bite—

To kill.

Shedding her plastic skin, Sidney squirmed into a position where both her legs were now sticking outright into space, and she brought one leg and knee up, pushing off on the small windowsill to finally send herself flying over the edge.

The ground rushed up to meet her, and she braced for the pain of impact. There was a flurry of movement just before she hit, and she found her fall halted by the arms of her friends catching her.

“What took you so long?” Cody asked as he and Rich lowered her to the ground. Snowy jumped up onto her chest, licking at her face happily.

She didn't answer, looking up to where she'd just fallen from. There were animals leaping onto the sill, spilling over the edge to land in the grass at their feet.

“We should go,” she said as she stood, motioning to her dog to follow when she started around the house toward their cars.

And then she remembered.

“The raccoon,” she said, stopping short and turning.

Rich and Cody stopped and stared.

“The trash bag with the dead raccoon,” she explained.

Rich turned and ran back to the yard where he'd dropped the bag.

“Are you all right?” Cody asked.

She looked at him strangely.

“I'm as good as I can be,” she said. “Given the circumstances.”

Rich returned, and she grabbed the bag from him before continuing around the house to the front drive, Snowy trotting by her side.

Even above the pouring rain she could hear something and stopped to listen.

“What now?” Rich asked, watching her.

“Listen,” Sidney said. “Do you hear that?”

It was sort of a rustling sound, but from all around them, growing louder than the heavy rainfall. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end, and an icy chill ran down her spine as the sounds intensified, coming closer.

From every open space around the yard, from around the house, they saw movement. Things making their way toward them.

“You're shitting me,” Rich said, already on the run.

Cody was running too, though he continued to look back to where they had just come from.

Sidney looked as well. At first she didn't understand what it was that she was seeing. It was like a wave of water, like a river that had overflowed its banks and was coursing in through the woods of Rich's backyard. But that would have made some sort of sense.

What she was seeing made no sense.

Instead of water there were living things—mice and rats, and cats and squirrels. She even saw some smaller dogs within the wave of life rolling toward them.

“Sidney, move!” Cody screamed, and she hoped that this was all some sort of crazy dream.

But it wasn't. It was real.

The wave of animals flowed across the lawn, obliterating any sight of grass. It was as if a living cover was being slowly pulled over the entire expanse of Rich's backyard.


Page 18

Sidney managed to tear her gaze from the terrifying sight to see that Cody and Snowy were waiting for her. They urged her on, Snowy barking excitedly and Rich waving with his hands as they ran alongside Rich's house toward the driveway.

The bushes and trees to the left of her rustled, but she refused to look there, knowing full well what she would see and afraid that her brain just might completely shut down from the sight of it.

“Get in the truck!” Cody screamed to Rich.

The ground was crunching beneath her feet, and Sidney looked down to see that it was covered with the glistening bodies of june bugs—hundreds and hundreds of june bugs writhing en masse, crawling upon each other and now attempting to crawl on her. She kicked out with her feet, clearing a swath in front of her, continuing to follow her dog and friends to Cody's truck.

The ground before the driveway was moving, the living flow spreading there as well. They all reached Cody's truck, grabbing hold of the door handles to pull open the doors and—

The doors didn't open.

Sidney looked across the truck to see Cody reaching into his pockets.

“Locked? Are you kidding me?” she asked.

“What the frig is wrong with you—you locked your truck in the driveway of my house—in a freakin' hurricane?”

Cody didn't answer, ripping the ring of keys from his pocket and dropping them to the ground.

“Damn it!” Sidney heard him scream.

Hand still clutched to the wet metal of the door handle, she looked about her and felt her terror grow. There were larger things among the small ones, almost as if the smaller animals and insects had failed in their duty to kill them and now . . .

She heard the car lock pop and yanked on the door, crawling up into the front cab, with Snowy and Rich right beside her. Cody sat behind the wheel, feeding his key into the ignition.

“Lock the doors,” she said, eyes scanning the night outside the vehicle. “Please lock the doors.”

Cody hit the switch that made his and the passenger-side doors lock up tightly, and she found that she really felt no better. All around them, the night was moving.

The truck engine roared to life, and the headlights of the vehicle illuminated the darkness before them.

No one in the car said anything. Their voices had been taken from them by the horror of what they saw.

The row of cats in the headlight beams was growing, more and more of the water-drenched felines casually emerging from the darkness of the woods that surrounded the house.

It was one of the scariest things Sidney had ever seen in her life.

Then dogs showed up.

CHAPTERTWENTY-NINE

Gregory Sayid huddled in a darkened corner of his office talking into his cell phone.

“I'm not sure how long I'll be,” he said. “Hopefully, not much longer.” The scientist paused before saying anything else, thinking about the events that had already occurred and what was likely occurring on an island in Massachusetts as he spoke to his daughter.

She then asked about his current assignment.

“You know I can't talk about that,” he said. “Yes, it's top secret,” he mimicked her with a fake chuckle. He hoped that she couldn't pick up on the concern and sense of impending dread in the manufactured attempt at jocularity.

“I'm fine, seriously,” he told her.

His daughter was as perceptive as he feared.

“I should probably get going.” Sayid turned from his darkened corner and noticed that he wasn't alone. Brenda Langridge leaned casually against the frame of his office doorway.

He turned away from the security officer's scrutinizing eyes.

“I love you too,” he told his daughter. “Be good, and I'll see you soon.”

He listened to her tell him good-bye and the sound of the connection being broken as she hung up before he ended the call.

“You know I could have you arrested for breaking protocol, right?” Langridge said as she pushed off the doorframe and entered his space.

“If it would mean that you'd lock me away someplace for the next twenty-four hours or so, I might be down for that,” he told her as he sidestepped to his desk.

The top of the desk was a sea of files and paperwork. To anybody else it was an example of complete chaos, but to him it was actually a kind of order only he could understand.

“No such luck,” she said, eyeing the wreckage of his desktop. “We'll be ready to take off within the hour.”

Sayid sat down heavily in his chair. He knew that they'd need to head to Benediction as soon as humanly possible, but the idea of what they would be encountering—what they might find—was still an incredible weight on him.

“When are they estimating the storm letting up?” he asked, not looking up. He took a file from a smaller pile and opened it, wanting to check some things before they had to go.

“The National Weather Service estimates that it's got at least another ten to twelve hours before it subsides,” Langridge said, stepping closer to his desk, tilting her head to see what was in the file he was working on. “That is, if the storm continues to behave like a normal storm, which we're not sure that it will.”

He was reading a morning report on the child that they'd brought back from the Heaven's Breath occurrence.

“How's the survivor doing?” Langridge asked as she leaned over his desk, attempting to read upside down.

“Alexandria,” he said, jotting down some notes in the file.

“Excuse me?”

“The survivor,” he said, turning his gaze to the woman. “She has a name. Alexandria.”

“Right,” Langridge said, acknowledging the information but still not saying the child's name. “How is she?”

“Better,” Sayid said. “They're weaning her off of the sleep and antianxiety meds, and she seems to be adjusting.”

“And has she said anything more about the event?”

“The doctors and nurses are avoiding the topic,” Sayid explained. “Letting her adjust some more before—”

“It might be beneficial to have some firsthand information before Benediction,” Langridge explained.

Sayid now believed he understood why the security officer had refused to call the child by name. Just being known as the survivor, the child was simply another source of intel. Just a source of information, and not a little girl who had lost her mother and father when a mysterious storm raged over an island paradise and . . .

His mind was filled with the horrific images of the bodies that had been recovered after the storm.

“It might be,” Sayid answered, “but I don't feel that she's far enough along to be able to contribute anything of use right now.”

“So we're just going to go by the latest reports.”

“Yeah,” Sayid confirmed, closing the child's folder and leaning back in his chair. “At the moment it's the most up-to-date information that we have.”

“Information that says that these mysterious storm manifestations seem to somehow affect the behavior of native animal species.”

“That's right.”

“Affect? I'm not even sure I understand what that means.”

He stared at her for a moment, not sure how much more he should say before the next debriefing, but decided that it was inevitable she would know, so why not now.

“The storm—or something in the storm that we haven't yet quite determined—affects the behavior of local insect and animal life.” He paused, seeing that she was truly listening to him now.

“It appears to make them more . . . aggressive,” he explained.

“Aggressive how?” Langridge asked.

He thought about how he might say it, remembering the bodies that they had found and the shape that they were in, and decided that there really were not too many ways.

“It turns them into killers,” Sayid told her.

CHAPTERTHIRTY

The first thing that Cody noticed about the dogs was the way they moved. There wasn't that fluid, natural movement when a dog trotted or began to run. This was stiff, odd, like the animals were getting used to their legs.

The dogs came from the woods surrounding the house, from all sides, and Cody found that he even recognized some of them from the neighborhood, having seen them walking with their masters down the street or chasing a stick at the beach.

The only thing that wasn't familiar about them was the dark stains around many of their muzzles. Cody didn't even want to acknowledge the reality of what the stains could be or he just might find himself screaming at the top of his lungs and boarding the next train to Crazy Town.

The dogs stood in a formidable cluster at the left of the two-car garage, the pack of cats—was that what it would be called, a pack?—had collected over to the right.

“What are we waiting for?” Rich asked, his fingers nervously tapping on the dashboard.

Cody really didn't have an answer other than he was mesmerized by the weirdness, feeling relatively safe to observe the strangeness of it all from the inside of the car.

“We need to see Doc Martin,” Sidney spoke up. “She needs to take a look at the dead raccoon if we're going to have any clue as to what might be going on here.”

Cody said nothing as he put the car in reverse, turning his head to look behind him as he began to back down the driveway and—

“Son of a bitch!” he exclaimed, slamming his hand angrily against the back of the seat.

“What?” Sidney asked, concerned by the outburst as Snowy began to bark.

“The sailboat,” he said, pointing out the back window. “The trailer is still attached.”

Rich and Sidney turned around briefly and then back.

“I'm not going out there to unhook it,” Rich said.

“Well don't look at me,” Cody added.

A Labrador retriever landed atop the truck as if it had dropped out of the sky, its claws raking across the surface of the hood as it rammed its face viciously into the windshield.

They all screamed at the suddenness of the attack, the dog's yellow teeth scraping along the surface of the curved glass, leaving bloody smears as it attempted to bite them through the transparent obstruction.

“We'll take the sailboat with us,” Rich screamed, pushing himself back in the seat as more of the dogs rushed toward the vehicle. “Just go!”

Cody put the car in reverse, turning again in his seat to watch out the back. The truck began to rock as it was struck on all sides.

“What the hell?” Cody said, staring out the driver's-side window at the nightmarish sight of four dogs throwing themselves into the side of the vehicle with enough force to dent the door.

Snowy was barking wildly at the Labrador, which continued to stare in at them, snapping at the glass, its mouth smeared with bloody foam.

In the side mirror Cody could see that the dogs were circling the vehicle, moving faster and faster, building up speed before they plowed into the truck once again on all sides.

“We really should get out of here,” Sidney said, eyes wide and darting around.

Cody wanted to do what she asked, but . . .

He checked his mirrors as he began to back up, then slammed on the breaks again. The Labrador on the hood slipped and slid off to the side to join its angry brethren.

“What now?” Rich asked. He looked like he was going to jump out of his skin with each new bang, bump, and thud.

“I don't . . . ,” Cody began.

“You don't what?” Sidney asked as they were hit on both sides with enough force to make the truck rock.

“I don't want . . . I don't want to hurt them!” he finally screamed, leaning on his horn, hoping that the sound maybe would drive them off.

Yeah,thatwill happen.

The dogs continued their assault, running about the car, darting in to collide against the sides and doors as well as bite at the tires.

“You just have to go,” Sidney said. “Don't worry about them . . . you don't have a choice.”

He could see that she was just as upset about the potential as he was, but there was no choice.

Cody stepped on the gas, and with the car still in reverse, backed up as quickly as he was able while paying close attention to the boat and trailer still attached to his truck.

He turned the wheel to the left, angling the car from the driveway onto the road that ran in front of the Stanmores' property. He then put the car in drive, the vehicle continuing to be hit from all sides as he sped up, the last sight he saw reflected in the rearview mirror being the pack of cats moving as one living mass following down the driveway before dispersing suddenly into the woods as if they had never been there.

Sidney turned in her seat to look out the back window at the boat and the road behind them. A pack of dogs ran through the pouring rain in pursuit of them, showing no signs of slowing.

“They're still chasing us,” she said, turning back around. “This is so freaking insane I don't even know what to say.”

“What's to say,” Rich said. “Something has made all the animals and bugs and stuff go batshit crazy. How's that?”

“Sounds right,” Cody said, continuing to drive.

Sidney pulled the bag containing the body of the raccoon a little closer. “Which is why getting this to Doc Martin is essential,” she said.

“Here's a question,” Rich suddenly blurted out. She looked over to see that he was pushing himself over against the passenger-side door as he spoke.

“If something is making all the animal life on the island go nuts . . . ,” he said.

“Yeah?” she urged.

“What about Snowy?” he asked. “Why isn't Snowy trying to rip our throats out?”

She watched him eye her dog before raising a tentative hand to pat her head. Snowy accepted the affections lovingly, leaning over to lick Rich's face.

“I don't know why,” she said as she put an arm around her dog. Snowy then decided that she needed a kiss as well. “Maybe whatever it is that's causing this . . . she hasn't been exposed to it.”


Page 19

She continued to think, going through countless scenarios, but nothing really felt right. They were all easily picked apart.

“This is why Doc Martin is our best bet,” she said. “She can take a look at the specimen we have, and maybe we can learn something.”

She looked through the windshield to see where they were and saw that they weren't that far from the center of town.

“We'll head by her place first,” Sidney said. “If she's not there, she might still be at the hospital and—”

“There's someplace we have to go first,” Cody said, staring straight ahead.

“Someplace first?” Sidney questioned. “Where?”

Rich was leaning over in the seat, waiting for the answer.

“The marina,” Cody said. “We're going to pick up my dad.”

Sidney was going to argue but quickly realized if she did, she'd sound like a total bitch. Of course he wanted to pick up his dad.

“Yeah, good idea,” she said, nodding in agreement. “And then we'll go get mine.”

CHAPTERTHIRTY-ONE

Doc Martin pulled the clear plastic shield down over her face and picked up the rotary bone saw from the table.

She remembered how her staff, Sidney included, had laughed when she'd told them that she wanted to invest in the equipment.

“What the heck for?” Sidney had asked. “Are we going to be filmingCSI: Benedictionhere?

They'd all had a good chuckle, but then Doc Martin bought it anyway. One never knew when a good necropsy might be in order. And even though she already had adequate tools for the job, an electric bone saw was just so damn sexy.

Now it would prove its weight in gold.

“CSI: Benedictionmy ass,” she said, hefting the saw in her rubber-gloved hands. She flipped the switch to on, and the battery-operated motor hummed softly.

“Sorry about this, big guy,” she said as she leaned over and touched the spinning blade to the side of Bear's head.

She couldn't help but remember Bear when he was alive, a gentle giant of a dog. Even as a puppy, he was huge, and she used to joke that he must have been given some sort of growth hormone or been exposed to nuclear radiation to grow the way he did. There had been talk among the office staff of charging for rides on the huge mastiff's back at the next school fair.

But the good memories were warped with the recollection of the usually gentle giant attempting to tear out her throat.

Doc Martin chose to believe that it wasn't Bear's fault at all, that something else—some unknown malady—was responsible.

A malady that she was hoping to discover and perhaps be able to cure.

The circular cuts around the dog's skull finally met end to beginning, the acrid smell of burning bone and blood filling the air of the cramped operating room space. She leaned over and flicked a switch to turn on the ceiling fan to suck out the lingering dust and odor, again grateful that the emergency gas-powered generator had kicked in as it was supposed to.

She set the bloody saw down on the metal table beside her and reached over to peel the layer of fur and skin away from the dog's head to expose the skull. Doc Martin then grabbed a thin chisel and hammer from the tools on a stainless-steel tray. Leaning over the dog's corpse again, she wedged the end of the chisel into the bloody line around Bear's skull and gently tapped it with the hammer. She did that all around the dog's skull until the bone cap lifted with a wet sucking sound.

“All right then,” she muttered as she set her tools and the skull cap down upon the instrument table. “Let's have a look.”

At first perusal the brain looked fine. Doc Martin touched the tips of her fingers on each of the cerebral hemispheres; they were squishy, spongelike, just as they were supposed to be. Carefully she reached down into the skull with both hands and gently lifted the brain so that she could see beneath it.

An icy cold finger of dread raced up her spine as she saw it.

“What is this?” she asked herself.

To the untrained eye it would have looked like just another part of the brain, but Doc Martin knew better.

It appeared to be some kind of growth. A tumor perhaps. She leaned in for a closer look, noticing the tendrils that spread out from the mass to other parts of the brain. Remembering the silvery sheen that covered Bear's right eye, she paid special attention to the occipital lobe and saw that it was permeated with thin, capillary-like growths that appeared to weave together to form a thicker connection that disappeared into the gray matter.

Doc Martin tugged slightly on the brain, pulling it farther back from the front of the skull to observe the optic nerve. The thick, silvery tendrils were completely wrapped around the sight nerve leading to the dog's right eye. It reminded her of an old telephone cord—before phones were cordless and could fit in your pocket.

The doctor was stumped. In her many years as a veterinarian she had never seen anything like this.

Setting the brain back down inside the skull, she turned her attention to the mastiff's right eye, still hanging from its socket. She gently lifted the orb, holding it between forefinger and thumb, and looked directly into it.

She was shocked to see the pupil suddenly dilate beneath the shiny membrane, opening and closing, reminding her of the lens of a camera as it tried to focus.

“How is this possible?” she muttered. The dog was dead; there shouldn't have been any activity in the eye, or any other part of the animal for that matter. Carefully she put the eye back on the table and lifted the brain for another look at the growth. It might have been a trick of the light, but she could have sworn that it had pulsed with life. She stared, and it did not move again.

She returned to the eye. It too showed no further signs of function, appearing as it should have, dead and lifeless.

But Doc Martin knew what she had seen.

The eye had focused.

Watching her.

CHAPTERTHIRTY-TWO

It continued to pour as Sidney and her friends drove through the storm-wrought streets. Nightmarish scenarios, half glimpsed through the rapid passing of the wipers over the windshield, told them that all of Benediction was experiencing the same horrors.

Houses were on fire, shapes that could very easily have been bodies were lying by the sides of the road, packs of wild things—dogs, cats, raccoons, and whatever else called the island of Benediction home—were emerging from the thick of darkened woods to chase them as they drove past.

It was like a nightmare, but Sidney didn't think she'd ever had one so terrifying.

“It's gotta be the end of the world,” Rich said as he gazed out through the windshield.

“Don't be ridiculous,” Sidney snapped, not even wanting to think about the possibility of such a thing. There had to be a logical explanation for what was happening, and once they figured it out, it would be fixed

“You don't think that's possible?” Rich asked. “What happened at the house, never mind what's going on out here?”

“I'm sure there's a logical explanation for all of it.”

“The whole freakin' town has gone nuts, Sid.” The pitch in his voice was climbing.

“I know what it looks like,” she said, trying to be calm. “But it's not going to do us any good to make crazy assumptions before we know all the facts.”

She saw the shape before anybody else did, a lone figure stumbling out from a swath of total black on the left and into the road.

“Cody, look out!” she cried, grabbing his arm as he pulled the wheel savagely to the right and slammed on the brakes.

The tires squealed as the truck skidded sideways across the wet road, whipping around the trailer with the sailboat. The trailer disconnected with a wrenching snap, and both trailer and sailboat flipped over, sliding several feet before coming to a stop, blocking the road.

It was silent in the truck except for theswish-thunkof the wiper blades moving across the windshield, as they waited for the next horrible thing to happen.

“Is . . . is everybody okay?” Sidney finally asked, quickly checking out Snowy, who appeared to be fine.

“Yeah, I'm good,” Rich said, looking around. “What the hell was that in the road?”

Without a word, Cody opened the driver's-side door.

“What are you doing?” Sidney asked, grabbing his arm again. “You can't—”

“That was a person we almost hit,” he yelled, then yanked his arm from her hand and got out of the truck.

“Be careful,” she called, already sliding across the seat to follow.

“Sid!” Rich exclaimed.

“I've got to make sure he's all right,” she said, turning toward her friend, who rolled his eyes with exasperation but reached for the handle of the passenger door.

Snowy jumped down beside Sidney, who placed a hand on her back, signaling for the dog to stay by her side. She stood in the pouring rain for a moment, eyes scanning the darkness for Cody and for any animals that might be coming to attack them. She spotted him a short distance away, walking down the center of the road.

“Look at my friggin' boat!” she heard Rich cry out. Glancing over her shoulder, she watched her friend as he approached the sailboat resting on its side, then she turned and ran after Cody, Snowy at her heels.

“Cody, wait up!” she hollered.

Up ahead, lying in the road, was a body.

“Oh my God,” Sidney said, immediately taking the phone from her pocket and dialing 911. As with the other calls that they'd attempted, it didn't go through. Whatever was happening on the island was wreaking havoc with cell phone signals. “There's still no signal,” she said, looking at the phone's illuminated face.

Snowy whined as they grew closer to the figure lying so very still in the dampness of the road.

“Hello?” Cody called out. “Are you all right?”

He knelt down on the road beside the figure, a man lying on his stomach. Cautiously Cody reached out to turn him over, but something didn't feel right to Sidney and she reacted.

“Don't,” she ordered.

Cody's hand stopped mere inches from the man. He looked at her, a glimmer of annoyance in his eyes.

“I just want to see if . . .”

She was about to explain herself when the figure began to move, but not in a way that was at all natural. “Cody” was all she could manage, her eyes locked on the body.

“What?” he asked, looking from her terrified expression to the man.

The man's clothing was moving—no—something was moving under the man's clothes.

Cody fell backward, startled by the writhing layers of cloth. Sidney grabbed him beneath the arms and tried to haul him to his feet, just as multiple rats emerged from the back of the man's collar.

The rats paused and looked around, noses twitching as they sniffed the wet air, until their gazes fell on Sidney and Cody.

Then they opened their bloodstained mouths together and bared their nasty teeth.

Nearby, Rich stood before the wrecked sailboat and wanted to cry.

Scenes from summers past played out before the theater of his mind, followed by what was sure to be the echoing voice of his father in the not too distant future:What the hell did you do to the boat?

Yeah, this'll be fun to explain, if I ever get the chance,he thought.

The trailer was trashed, and the sailboat was lying on its side in the middle of the road. If a car was to come along in the gloom . . . He didn't even want to think of the repercussions.

Rich remembered the emergency equipment in a white metal box on the deck of the boat and went to look for it. It was slippery in the driving rain, but he managed to climb over the side and up to the deck of the steeply pitched boat. He found the box, still intact, near the wheelhouse. It was held closed by clips that he quickly undid, causing the lid to drop open, spilling the contents out over the side of the deck and onto the road below. Thankfully, the green plastic lantern he was looking for was secured inside the case, and he reached in to remove it. Taking his prize, Rich clambered down awkwardly from his perch and back onto the road. His fingers searched the buttons, and he managed to first turn on the lantern and then the flashing safety beacon.

The beacon pulsed brightly in his hand as he began to walk around the wreckage of his boat to place it in the road.

Sidney's scream cut through the wind and hissing rain like screeching brakes. Rich spun around, eyes searching through the gloom for his friends. Down past the truck he saw Sidney, Cody, and Snowy reacting to something that at first he could not see, but then he did.

Rats.

And lots of them.

Still holding on to the safety lantern, he started toward them and nearly lost his balance as his foot slid across something on the ground—a road flare that he remembered putting in the emergency box a few summers before.

And as he looked at the flare, he got an idea.

The number of rats that were flowing out from beneath the man's clothing was obscene.

How is it even possible?

It reminded Sidney of the clown car from the circus that her dad had taken her to see in Boston when she was little. She remembered how hard she had laughed when the little doors opened on the tiny yellow car and the clowns had just kept coming and coming.

But she wasn't laughing now as the rats kept coming and coming.

“Get back to the truck,” she found herself saying as she started to back away. Snowy was already on the move, romping forward to snatch one of the gray-furred rodents up from the ground and giving it a shake so quick and savage that its neck was broken at once.

Cody was closer to the man's body, and a few had managed to crawl up onto his legs, even as he furiously backpedaled away. He yelled like a wild man as he reached down to tear the fat-bodied rodents off of him, throwing them into the road, where they simply rejoined the writhing mass of furry bodies that was on its way toward him.


Page 20

“Cody, c'mon!” Sidney screamed, stamping down on one of the four rats that surged at her, the remaining three darting back before attempting to come at her from another angle.

The thought of how many rats had been on the poor guy made her sick to her stomach. Getting hit by Cody's truck would have been a blessing.

Cody ran away from the body, a line of gray-bodied vermin trailing after him as if attached by some invisible wire. Snowy wanted to go after more of them, her hunter's instinct in full view, but Sidney was afraid that even the shepherd would have become overwhelmed by the crazy number.

Mere inches from reaching them, Cody went down. He cried out in pain as he pitched forward, falling hard upon his chest. There was a cluster of rats on his legs, scurrying up his back to reach his head and neck. Sidney saw no other choice and let Snowy free, the dog instinctively reacting, bounding to Cody's aid. The rats attempted to defend themselves against the dog, but Snowy was just too fast, savaging the rodents as they swarmed.

But the rats' numbers were growing, now coming out from the woods on either side of the road.

Sidney helped Cody up from the ground. “All right?” she asked as she pulled him by the arm. He lurched and stumbled.

“Twisted something,” he said, face contorted in discomfort as he struggled to his feet.

Cody was standing, and while she helped him to remain upright, she looked toward her dog, signaling Snowy to come. But Snowy wasn't looking; instead she was facing off against the continuous advance of rats, ripped and broken bodies—trophies—piled at her paws.

“Can you stand by yourself?” she asked Cody, slipping out from beneath his arm. He acknowledged that he could, and she ran to the side of the road, looking for something that she could use as a weapon. Prepared to do whatever she had to in order to ensure the safety of her friends and dog, she found a thick piece of broken tree limb and went to join her dog. Hoping to buy them some time to get back to the truck, she screamed like a maniac, throwing the piece of tree into the midst of the gathering rodents, dispersing them.

“C'mon, girl!” she yelled, grabbing hold of the dog's collar and giving it a solid yank, but Snowy did not want to go. The dog planted her feet, ready to protect those she loved from the potential onslaught.

Sidney hadn't even heard Rich as he ran up from behind, throwing the fiery, hissing end of a road flare into the path of the advancing rat swarm.

The heat and flame seemed to confuse them, driving them back.

But the moment was only temporary.

“The truck!” Rich screamed as he turned away from the rats and started to run.

Sidney gave Snowy's collar a solid yank, and this time she obeyed, trotting alongside her master as they all ran back to the truck. She attempted to help Cody, but he assured her that he was fine, limping slightly in front of them to haul open the driver's-side door.

Sidney watched with a mixture of complete fascination and horror as the rats converged upon the flare, multiple plump rat bodies swarming upon its burning end, extinguishing the fire before turning their full attention to them once again.

“Get in!” Cody urged, and she listened, allowing Snowy to hop in first, with she and Rich climbing in behind her. Cody returned to the driver's seat, slamming the door closed just as the first wave of rats reached the truck.

They looked out through the driver's-side window at the rats and were struck by the insanity of what they saw. The rats were all perfectly still, watching them through the truck's windows.

“Look at their right eyes,” Rich said.

In what little light there was they could still see it—a shiny covering glistening over the right eyes of every single one of the rodents. It was just like the raccoon and the other animals that had attacked them.

“What are they waiting for?” Cody asked.

Sidney could feel their beady eyes, like bugs on her skin.

“I don't know and I don't want to know,” she said. “Let's get the hell out of—”

There were noises, soft dinging sounds reminiscent of a cooling engine.

“They're underneath the truck,” Cody suddenly announced, turning the key in the ignition and slamming the car into drive. “I know what they're doing. They're trying to figure out how to get inside,” he said, gunning the engine and heading down the road, leaving the swarm, and Rich's boat, behind. “But I'm not about to give them a chance.”

CHAPTERTHIRTY-THREE

Doc Martin sat smoking a cigarette, surrounded by the dead.

She'd been back to the kennels four times, carefully taking potentially affected animals from their cages, euthanizing them, and cutting open their skulls, looking for a pattern.

With each case, she found the same thing: a strange growth affecting the entire brain but connecting directly to the optic nerve and seemingly altering the function of the right eye.

She brought the cigarette to her mouth and took a puff, blowing the smoke into the air above her head, wallowing in the implications of what she had found.

What could possibly be responsible for this mutation—that was what she believed it to be—and how had it affected all the animals at her hospital?

Her thoughts began to creep outside the self-contained universe of the hospital, and she felt the cold fingers of icy dread grip her heart. If what she had witnessed in here was happening out there, in the town . . .

Doc Martin dropped the cigarette to the floor and stomped out its still-burning tip as she stood. Going to the box on the counter, she found herself a new syringe and retrieved the bottle of pentobarbital used for euthanasia, slipping it into the pocket of her lab coat. She grabbed the heavy towel that she'd used to remove the insanely violent animals from their cages and headed back through her office to the kennels.

She needed to be sure before she allowed herself to panic.

Doc Martin wondered how many more would need to be put down and necropsied before she was absolutely convinced of her findings.

As many as there were left in the kennel was the sad answer.

CHAPTERTHIRTY-FOUR

Cody took the corner leading down into the marina parking lot a little too fast, and the back end of the truck skidded across the wet surface of the road as he gunned the engine.

“Take it easy, Code,” Sidney said. “All we need is to crack up the truck. Then where would we be.”

“Yeah,” Cody responded flatly.

He drove down into the parking lot, taking a side road that went along the back of the property leading to his house. Pulling into the driveway, he then backed the truck up, putting it parallel to the steps before the front door.

“You guys stay here,” he said, putting the car in park but leaving the engine running.

“Wait a sec,” Sidney said, grabbing his arm. “We're going with you.”

“I think it would be better if you stay here,” he reasoned. “I'm just going to run in, find him, and drag him back out.”

Rich pressed his head against the passenger-side widow, attempting to look out through the torrential rain. “What if you run into trouble?” he asked.

“Good question, Rich,” Sidney replied. She noticed that she was still holding on to Cody's biceps and slowly released her hold on him.

“That's why I think you should stay here,” he told them. “If there's trouble, I'm going to need somebody to save my ass.”

She wasn't crazy about his plan, but he reassured her.

“Seriously, I'll be in and out,” he said, opening the door to a rush of cool, salty air. “And besides, there shouldn't be any problem—I don't have any pets.”

He gave her a hint of a reassuring smile as he slipped from the driver's seat and slammed the door closed. Sidney watched him as he crossed in front of the truck, climbing the stairs two at a time before reaching the door and going inside.

It seemed as though he was in there forever.

“Do you think we should go in?” Sidney asked, petting Snowy nervously, her eyes never leaving the slightly open front door.

“No, give him a little while,” Rich said. “He probably has to fill his dad in as to what's going on before coming out.”

“Never mind the fact that his father will probably think he's on crack or something,” Sidney offered.

“There is that,” Rich said with an agreeing nod. He then looked away from the view of the front door, across the driveway, and down into the marina parking lot.

“What's going on over there?” Rich asked.

Sidney looked in the general direction and saw that there was a light inside the office flashing off and on.

“Is the power back on?” she asked, looking around for more signs that this was the case, but not seeing anything.

“The marina probably has a generator,” Rich said, watching the light go on and off. “I think somebody might be trying to signal us.”

Rich leaned over Snowy and Sidney and tapped the horn three times.

“What are you doing?” she asked him, not sure if it was a smart thing to draw attention to themselves.

“I think Cody should know about the light in the office,” Rich said, watching the door for signs of their friend. He was going to beep the horn again when Cody came out the front and down the steps.

Rich rolled down the window. “Somebody's flashing the light in the marina office.”

Cody looked in the direction, seeing the light being turned on and then off and then on again. Sidney was surprised when he started across the slightly wooded area and down the hill into the parking lot.

“What the hell is he doing?” she asked. “Is he freaking insane?”

Quickly she slid over in the seat, getting behind the wheel of the truck and putting it in drive.

Halfway down the hill to the marina parking lot Cody realized that what he was doing probably wasn't the smartest of things, especially given the current situation.

His father hadn't been in the house. He'd thought maybe he had gone up to bed early, but the second floor was as empty as the first. It didn't look as though his father had been home.

The relief he'd experienced when Rich pointed out the flashing light in the marina office was huge, momentarily canceling out his common sense.

Cody sped up his pace as he reached the lot. He kept his eyes on the front door to the office, and how the lights continued to flash off and on, and was startled—coming to a sudden stop—as the door came flying open and his father appeared in the doorway.

Cody raised his hand in greeting and was about to call out to the man when he saw that his father was yelling something to him that he couldn't quite hear over the storm.

Then he noticed the blood on his father's hands and the cuts that now adorned his face.

And was finally able to understand what it was that his father was yelling.

He was telling him to run.

Panic gripped him, and Cody started to look around the parking lot for any signs of trouble, while continuing toward the office. He started to run across the rain-swept parking lot, then felt his blood temporarily freeze in his veins, stopping him cold, as he saw something moving out from beneath a parked car. It turned out to be an empty potato chip bag caught in the stream of rainwater, and he breathed a sigh of relief as he continued toward his father.

His dad still stood frozen in the doorway, and the closer he got, the more he saw the look of absolute horror on the older man's face. Cody wanted to tell him that everything was all right, that he and his friends were here to take him with them, but then he realized that his father wasn't lookingathim—

He was looking above him.

He heard the sound coming closer and looked up just in time to see the huge seagull as it descended, sharp yellow beak pecking at his scalp. Cody cried out at the sudden pain from his head, arms thrashing above him to drive away the attacking bird. And where there had only been one before, now there were many, their powerful wings beating the air as they dove to attack.

It was like being in the center of a tornado, the flock of seabirds swirling around, pecking and slapping him with their powerful wings.

Cody could feel the warmth of his own blood as it ran down his neck and back. He raised his hands above his head in an attempt to ward off the birds' assault, but those too became objects of their attacks.

Blinking the blood from his eyes, he saw his father about to move from the front door. Gulls were swooping to attack him as well, and Cody screamed for him to get back inside the office.

The birds seemed to be making a conscious effort to take his own eyes, pulling at the soft flesh of his cheeks as he tried to get to cover. The pain was beyond words, and Cody felt his frustration and rage blossom. He reached up, blindly grabbing hold of anything he could—a wing, leg, or neck—to squeeze and twist before tossing the broken animal to the ground.

But for each one he took out, six more swooped in to take its place.

Cody kept his eyes tightly closed, wanting to hold on to his sight for as long as possible. He hoped that he was traveling in the right direction.

His father called out, and he tried to respond, to tell the man to protect himself, but a gull was suddenly at his face, a sharp yellow beak darting between his lips, attempting to snatch his tongue away like a fat worm. Cody went wild, swinging his arms, but with his eyes closed, he lost his balance, falling to the wet pavement on all fours.

The gulls did not let up, touching down upon his back and pecking at the soft, exposed flesh of his neck.

Cody was unable to rise, the multiple feathered bodies attacking relentlessly, but he knew that he had to keep moving. He started to crawl across the lot, hoping that he was heading in the direction of his father's office. The gulls' numbers were so great that he could no longer move, and he curled himself into a tight ball, wrapping his arms about his head in an attempt to protect his eyes and face.

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