Girl of Nightmares


Page 73


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"Cas! Watch it!"

My head turns at Jestine's warning, just in time to see the bleary eyes right where I feared they would be. Two inches from my face, and I'm tackled underneath him.

The weight is unexpected. It's like being steamrolled. And despite the strength in him, his arms are rubbery and soft; my nose is too close to his neck. I can hear his teeth snapping in my ear, and the skin around the knot of the rope is swollen and black, like an overinflated tire. During the roll to the ground, the athame got pinned at a bad angle. I can't get it up into his gut and I can just barely keep it tilted out of mine. When I push his head away with my other hand he jerks and bites down on my fingers. Mossy teeth grind right down to the bone and on reflex I curl my grip around his jaw. My fingers push through something soft and grainy. His rotting tongue.

"Keep running!" Jestine shouts, and then her foot connects with the corpse's rib cage. It doesn't roll him off, but in that split second, I can maneuver the knife. When he settles back down again, the blade slides right up under his sternum, and he dissipates in a cloud of the worst-smelling stuff I've ever come across.

"You all right?" Jestine asks. I nod as she pulls me to my feet, but after feeling the tongue and smelling that decaying swamp gas, I might throw up. We stagger and run. The trees open up on a clear day and a green meadow, where Carmel is kneeling over a collapsed Thomas. On the other side of the clearing, Gideon stands with two others in front of a long, black car.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

It's like having a nightmare and falling out of bed. We topple out of the Suicide Forest, haggard and bloody and half on our knees. And we wind up on four inches of soft grass, squinting against warm sunlight, staring into calm, condescendingly soothing faces.

The athame is still in my hand; I look back to the trees, expecting to see a row of pale faces in between the trunks, staring after us like prisoners from inside their cage. But it's just trees, and leaves, and moss. The instant that we left their boundary, they retreated, to return to the place where they hung, or lay in piles.

"It appears you were right, Mr. Palmer," someone says. "He made it." I look over toward the car. The man speaking is slightly shorter and younger than Gideon. I can't tell how much younger exactly. The hair on his head is blond, streaked with gray, so that somehow the whole slick mess winds up looking silver . He's in a black button-up and dark slacks. At least he isn't in a brown robe, swinging a censer.

"Don't worry," he says, walking toward us. "They won't cross into the meadow."

The nonchalant tone irks me, and Carmel grabs my arm just as I'm about to tell this clown where he can shove his meadow.

"He's still bleeding," she says. I look down at Thomas. He's breathing okay, and the blood coming up between Carmel's pressing fingers is a slow leak, not an arterial spurt. I think most of his exhaustion is from that whammy of a curse he pulled in the woods, rather than the corpse bite, but I wouldn't in a million years tell that to Carmel right now. She's ready to breathe fire.

Beside us, the man has his hands on both of Jestine's shoulders, looking at her fondly. "You did well," he says, and she lowers her head briefly. "Not a scratch on you."

"He needs a doctor," I hiss, and when Mr. Jackass doesn't respond, Jestine says it again.

"He's still bleeding. Is Dr. Clements here?"

"He is," he says, but doesn't look like he's in a huge hurry about it. When he smiles, I'm reminded of a snake's stretch, just before it eats the mouse. "Don't worry. The compound isn't far. We'll tend to your witch friend. And to you." His eyes drop to my split-open fingers, and I swear I see the corners of his mouth twitch.

"My name is Colin Burke." He's got the nerve to hold his hand out to me. Carmel slaps it away, leaving a streak of red across his palm.

"I don't care what your name is," she hisses. "And I don't care who you are. If you don't get him some help, I will burn your f**king place down." Go Carmel. Burke doesn't seem too perturbed, but Gideon finally pipes up, telling her to give Thomas over. He helps him to his feet and supports him on the way to the car, avoiding my eyes while he does it.

"Put something down over the seat," Burke says, and I'm this close to laying him out. But Thomas needs help, so I shut up and walk to the car.

* * *

The drive is quick, along a road that's part paved and part dirt path, cutting through the trees on the other side of the meadow, but the guy driving definitely doesn't hurry. He hasn't said anything to anyone, and I'd suspect that he's just a driver if it wasn't for the feeling that no one here is "just" anything. I glance at Jestine. She's pulled a cloth out of her backpack for Carmel to press to Thomas's neck. Concern wrinkles her forehead.

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