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Decimate
Author: Christopher Rice

 

PROLOGUE

SHADOWS

Fourteen Years Ago

Claire followed her brother into the woods because she was afraid he wouldn’t come back if she didn’t go with him. They were only two years apart in age, but up until that camping trip, which would shatter their family, she’d assumed she would always be his protector.

In the wild, Poe tended to flip over large rocks without pausing to see if a snake was coiled underneath, to head in the direction of strange noises with a confident stride, arms swinging, backpack bouncing, heedless of whatever animal might be lurking past rustling branches. His curiosity had frightened her from the moment he first learned to walk. At ten years old, he loved the world so fearlessly she worried its sharp edges would one day result in an injury that crushed his spirit.

And so she went with Poe into the dark that night because if he took a wrong step, she’d be there to pull him from the waters of the lake their father had described in seductive detail before nodding off next to their illegal campfire.

“Trees go right up to the edge,” their dad had explained, one hand outstretched, eyes glazed from the shots of Wild Turkey he’d promised their mom he wouldn’t drink during the trip. Back then, with his shoulder-length hair and heavy beard, he dressed the part of the naturalist he’d always wanted to be, not a guy who spent most of his days installing drywall for house flippers who’d just relocated from Los Angeles to Spokane. “No docks. No beach. No real shore when you get right down to it. Just this almost perfect bowl of clear water surrounded by gorgeous pines. And you don’t have to deal with any boaters because nobody’s going to hike in a bunch of equipment through all that. Some days, when the light’s just right, you can see down forever.”

Lake Michele, it was called, and the description made Poe’s round blue eyes blaze in the campfire’s glow. “Can we go tomorrow, Dad?”

“Next time, kiddo. Mom’s watching the clock and wants us back before Sunday.”

He’d fallen asleep in his folding chair next to the fire’s last embers. And because Claire knew her brother, she knew he would wait and try something reckless. So when she heard him sliding out of his sleeping bag later that night, she reached through the shadows and grabbed his arm with the same force she used to keep him from stepping off a curb before the signal had changed.

“Come with me, Bear,” he’d whispered in response.

Most of the time, her little brother’s nickname for her—a product of the way his toddler-aged mouth had rebelled against hard consonants—made her feel loved, but out here in Glacier National Park, it made her think of the black-and-white pictures she’d seen in her father’s dog-eared paperback copy of Jack Olsen’s Night of the Grizzlies, a true story about a series of fatal bear attacks in the 1960s. Not only had he kept the book hidden in the shed, he’d also underlined passages and made notes. This made her feel good. It meant that even though her dad always pretended to be unafraid of the wild, he was privately assessing the risks.

But tonight, thanks to the Wild Turkey, he’d be no help unless she woke him. And if she woke him, she’d pay a serious price with her brother, who was still her best friend.

“There’s a full moon,” Poe whispered. “We’ll be able to see down forever.”

The way he repeated their father’s words, his exact intonations, made Claire feel like some anxious outsider to the intrepid spirit that united the men in their family and left her and her mother on the margins, dismissed as whiners and crybabies. If she hadn’t been roused by his movements, he might have slipped off and come back without her knowing, and then she wouldn’t have been faced with this choice. But now she knew, so she had to go.

Their father shunned traditional campsites, dismissing them as overused trash magnets, and so the minute they left the little clearing where they’d spent the last two nights, branches started scratching at their Gore-Tex jackets and they had to step over giant rocks every few feet. The slow going made it easy for Claire to reach out and break a branch every now and then, marking the path back for when it was time to turn around. After a half hour of strenuous hiking, Poe’s excited chatter started to take on the same refrain, most of it attempts to assure her they hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

“It’ll be cool, Claire. Timmy Preston’s always bragging about how his dad took him to Europe last summer and he saw the Eiffel Tower and stuff and now I’ll be able to tell him we saw all the way down to the center of the earth and all we had to do was drive to Montana.”

“The lake’s not that deep.”

“How do you know? You haven’t been there.”

“No lake is that deep, Poe,” she said.

“I think there’s one in Africa or something.”

“There isn’t.”

He was baiting her, of course. They all knew she was the only member of their family who read Wikipedia for fun. There was no point in getting into a dispute with her about geography or history. But she played along because it was preferable to letting the quiet of the vast forest close in around them.

For most of the trek they’d been ascending a gentle slope. Everywhere their flashlight beams landed revealed thick brush.

Poe came to a sudden stop.

His beam had landed on a rock ledge several paces ahead. As she caught up to him, she saw the seven-foot drop just beyond. If he hadn’t lowered his flashlight at just the right second, he might have broken his leg.

“Poe,” Claire whispered. “We need to go back. Seriously.”

“No, look.”

Beyond the drop-off, a steep but manageable slope descended toward shadowy trunks. Between them, water sparkled in the moonlight. Poe reached back and took her hand. He aimed his flashlight at her stomach so that it sent a soft glow up onto their faces without blinding them.

“OK. Make you a bet,” Poe said. “If we can’t see all the way to the center of the earth, then—”

He never finished the sentence.

The earth under their feet shook with enough force to send gooseflesh up Claire’s legs. Her flashlight was ripped from her hand, the beam bouncing wildly as it sailed through the branches. Then she felt like she’d been punched in the stomach and her head yanked sideways, as if someone had pulled hard on her straw-colored ponytail.

In the next instant, she felt her brother’s chest slam into hers. The same force that had torn her flashlight away had driven the two of them into a half embrace. The rush of hot air on her face was his breath, she realized. He was screaming, but his scream was drowned out by a thunderous growl that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. Her feet had left the earth. Since their bodies were intertwined, she realized his must have too.

They were flying.

Her ears popped like they sometimes did on planes.

A landslide, she thought.

But when Claire slammed back to the earth with enough force to knock the wind out of her, Poe was gone, and there was no tidal wave of mud and debris. Broken branches rained down, shorn leaves slapping her face. The pain of the impact was delayed, and then it spread. Her right shoulder felt like it had been torn open. The throbbing in her head became a tightening vise. She felt swarms of something crawling under her skin, scrambling to break free.

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