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Dance on Through

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It started out like every other day . . .

Except it didn’t.

Not really.

If he stopped to think about it . . .

There had been warnings. Subtle in their intent they were unable to gain his attention, unwilling to be clear enough to cause alarm bells to ring. His natural instinct, his ability to sense things that others couldn’t was blind to the terror that was to come, body and mind not prepared for what they were going to encounter.

So hard to believe monsters really do exist . . . the Boogeyman from childhood nightmares becoming a reality that even Ironhorse found difficult to comprehend.

Oh, he knew about aliens and their continuous effort to take over the planet, knowledge of their existence gained months earlier, fought them almost every day, but this . . . this was so much worse . . . this involved Debi, the young girl’s life put at risk . . . Ironhorse so afraid he wouldn’t be able to save her.

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It started out like every other day . . .

Patience lacking, Ironhorse paced the room, space limited, as he waited for the conversation to finish. He was sure they did it on purpose, talking in a language he sometimes found difficult to comprehend; he was a soldier, not a scientist. Certain they went out of their way to make him feel stupid, he waited until they made an explanation in laymen’s terms so he could understand what was happening.

Blackwood was excited, like a child on crack candy. Something else Ironhorse couldn’t understand; there were times, like this, where Blackwood took too much enjoyment out of a negative situation. The aliens were making another threat against humanity and Blackwood was enjoying himself. Ironhorse shook his head, turned and paced to the other side of the room.

They were huddled in a group in front of Norton Drake’s computer, expressions in awe of something flickering across the monitor. To Ironhorse, it looked like a bunch of numbers that didn’t add up, a series of crooked lines without purpose or direction, distorted shapes capable of causing mild nausea; it made no sense to Ironhorse. The image changed, something created that Ironhorse could understand . . . a map, a location of possible alien activity.

Drake’s fingers danced across the keyboard, a hard copy created. Blackwood stepped up to the printer, tore off a sheet of paper. Behind wire rimmed reading glasses, blue eyes gave the printout a quick glance before Blackwood turned away and walked toward the elevator, Suzanne in quick pursuit. Norton, a proud expression on his face, watched them go.

Ironhorse paused, his pacing interrupted. Confusion marring his own features he waited for an expected explanation. It didn't come. He wasn’t surprised. They were taking it too far, leaving Ironhorse to figure it out on his own. Ironhorse always considered himself a patient man, patience a requirement when fighting the enemy but Blackwood had a way of testing the soldier’s patience, a test Ironhorse failed too often. Failing again, Ironhorse snapped.

“Would someone mind telling me what the hell is going on?”

Blackwood turned to face Ironhorse, Suzanne stopping beside him. A big grin on his face, Blackwood said, “Weren’t you listening, Colonel?”

Only Blackwood had the capability to anger Ironhorse to the point of violence. He wanted to hit the man, feel his nose break beneath his knuckles. He wanted to knock him on his ass and leave him there to contemplate the error of his ways. Friendship keeping him in place, Ironhorse took a deep breath.

Hands on his hips, Ironhorse said, “Laymen’s terms, Doctor.”

“Norton detected alien transmissions . . .”

Deep breath.

“I figured out that much when Mr. Drake called to inform me he had detected alien transmissions.”

Suzanne ducked her head, gaze finding a spot on the floor but not before Ironhorse saw the smile crossing her features.

“Then no explanation is needed,” said Blackwood.

“Harrison,” said Norton. “Put the man out of his misery.”

Ironhorse glared at Norton. All innocence, Norton smiled back. Violence wasn’t an option with Norton Drake, the man confined to a wheel chair . . .

“Norton was able to locate where the transmissions originated.”

This wasn’t laymen’s terms, it was idiot speak. Blackwood was enjoying himself a little too much. He glanced at Suzanne hoping she would give him an explanation, put him out of his misery. It didn’t look good, her gaze still focused on an interesting spot on the floor. His day quickly turning sour, he looked back at Blackwood.

“Where are the transmissions coming from?”

“A two hour drive from here in a town called Ravenswood.”

“Any relation?” said Ironhorse.

“Careful, Colonel, your sense of humour is trying to escape.”

“Along with my sanity,” said Ironhorse, his voice soft, the words muttered beneath his breath.

“I’ll give you one guess as to what we’re going to do next,” said Blackwood.

Even he wasn’t that stupid. Walking toward the elevator, Ironhorse said, “Thirty minutes, people.”

“Colonel?”

Her voice hesitant, enough to stop Inronhorse mid stride. Bringing his heels together, he stood facing Suzanne, left eyebrow raised in a silent question.

Suzanne looked toward Blackwood and then back to Ironhorse. She seemed unsure. Something was wrong, Suzanne McCullough always so confident. Had he done something wrong? Had he taken it too far? Had she seen the threat of violence flickering across his eyes? She had to know, as much as he wanted to hit Blackwood, he never would . . . he would never hurt them.

“Kensington and Mrs. Pennyworth have the weekend off and I . . . I can’t leave Debi here on her own.”

Keeping his expression neutral, Ironhorse considered the situation. He didn’t like taking civilians out on an operation, not when he was certain things were going to become combative but Blackwood and Suzanne never gave him a choice. They didn’t ask. Blackwood was in charge of the project and he had made it clear from the start . . . they were going to be in the field and Ironhorse should get use to it.

It was something he couldn’t get use to, having to watch their backs and take care of his own. He was use to giving orders. He was use to having his orders followed without question. Blackwood was always so defiant; he had a knack when it came to disobeying an order, a constant source of irritation. They weren’t trained to fight and it didn’t matter how often he offered to teach them, they always said no and Blackwood refused to carry a gun . . . they didn’t make it easy. But when it came down to it, they had their own way of surviving, of fighting, of defending themselves and others . . .

Debi was a different matter, still a child, if put in a violent situation, she wouldn’t be able to fight back. It wasn’t a good idea to bring her along. He would have to keep her in sight at all times, keep her away from danger. Suzanne must have seen the doubt in his eyes, her body language becoming defensive.

“I’m not leaving her here.”

No she wasn’t. There had to be another way. “I’m sure Mrs. Pennyworth would be willing to give up her weekend.”

“I’m not willing to ask her,” said Suzanne. “She hasn’t had a day off since we arrived.”

“But you’re willing to risk your daughter’s life.” He knew he’d gone too far the moment he started speaking and for some unknown reason he couldn’t stop himself, couldn’t snap his mouth shut against words he knew would wound and hurt. Knew it when Suzanne’s expression turned from anger to hurt and quickly back to anger. If she slapped him, he would gladly accept. The only way he could make up for his hurtful words was to apologize and allow Debi to come with them. He just hoped it would be enough. He hoped he would be able to keep Debi safe, protect her from the enemy. Something nagged at the back of his mind, a whisper so soft, he couldn’t translate its meaning. “I’m sorry. I know you would never put her in harm’s way. And yes, she can come with us.”

It wasn’t enough. Suzanne turned, her body snapping away from him and took the stairs, her anger following her, a cloak of emotion. Knowing what was coming, Ironhorse looked at Blackwood, the man’s expression no longer cheerful. A quick glance toward Norton . . . they weren’t happy either. Without a word, Blackwood walked away, echoing Suzanne’s steps up the stairs. Ironhorse swore, the words muted, not wanting Norton to hear. He’d managed to piss everyone off. Again.

Lately, he always seemed to be pissing people off. They were always angry with him for some reason. He knew Blackwood hated everything military, the way they had treated his pseudo father left a bitter taste in Blackwood’s perception of the military but Suzanne . . . her uncle was military, a General; Ironhorse’s commanding officer but she seemed to react to him in a way that confused Ironhorse. She followed Blackwood’s lead. They all followed Blackwood’s lead.

The angrier they became, the more defensive he became, his stubborn nature floating to the surface. Things couldn’t keep going this way . . . someone was going to break, emotions were going to explode, he just hoped it didn’t happen when they were facing the enemy.

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The atmosphere thick with anger, Ironhorse sat in the passenger seat, gaze watching the passing scenery. He tried to prepare himself for an eventual violent confrontation with the enemy but found it difficult, his mind in turmoil. Couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened earlier, found it too hard to stop thinking about the words he’d spoken. Nothing more he could say, his apology rejected, Suzanne still so angry. He couldn’t and didn’t blame her. He’d spoken out of line. Her feelings hurt, it would take more than words to rectify the situation. It would take more than he had to gain her forgiveness. A soldier for most of his life, Ironhorse wasn’t use to emotions, didn’t know how to deal with it . . . not when it came to civilians.

He felt shut out, alone . . . nothing new. He’d felt this way since he’d made the decision to attend WestPoint, his father not happy that his son had chosen to join the white man’s army; his father so fixated on past history. Ironhorse closed his eyes and tried to remember his father’s face. He couldn’t, so long since he’d seen him, Paul Ironhorse no longer welcome in his father’s home. Heart clenching with emotion, he snapped his eyes open, ignored the moisture forming in his eyes. Tried to tell himself he no longer cared, a lie he wasn’t ready to admit.

Heritage not helping, it kept most people at arm’s length. It hadn’t been easy, working hard to get where he is, to gain the respect and loyalty given by the men and woman under his command. He didn’t know how to relate to the members of the Blackwood project; it had been a long time since he worked with a civilian. More effort was required, Ironhorse determined to gain their respect.

Time dragged, the silence continuing. Even Debi was subdued, her young mind very aware something was wrong with the group. She had tried to draw everyone into conversation, eager to gain information about the trip, questions asked and repeated, her excitement floundering when their responses were limited and uninspiring. And much like the teenager she was becoming, Debi began to sulk. Ironhorse had to give her credit she sulked like an adult, the occasional exasperated sigh an attempt to gain attention. He knew different, Debi too intelligent for her own good; attention focused on Debi, the Blackwood project might forget about their own troubling issues. It wasn’t going to work but he was thankful for her efforts.

He felt sorry for Debi, an aspiring young woman caught up in a war against aliens determined to take over the planet, to end humanity. Suzanne had decided to involve her daughter from the start, expressing the need to tell Debi the truth; if Debi found out another way, she would never forgive her mother.

Blackwood had agreed. Ironhorse was against the idea, unsure an eleven-year-old could handle the responsibility of keeping the war a secret. But handle it she did . . . Debi reacted as expected . . . scared, confused, angry, unsure if her mother was being truthful. Reality thrown in her face, she had no choice, brought into something beyond her control, taken from her life, her friends. Living amongst a group of adults, she grew in maturity, even with Blackwood’s child like tendencies, grew into someone Ironhorse admired and respected.

He wanted to talk to her, create a conversation but he had no idea what to say, unsure of how her mother would react, afraid Suzanne would pull her daughter away from him. Debi was the only person in the cottage who didn’t show him any anger. It was as though she understood him . . . as though she was the only person who liked him, so he thought. Everyone else seemed to put up with him, aware they couldn’t remove him from the project, General Wilson’s standing orders, so they accepted the fact he was there to stay.

Aware he was feeling sorry for himself, Ironhorse decided he needed a distraction, something to do, something to take his mind away from the morbid thoughts filling his head. If he were back at the cottage, he would go for a run, stuck in Drake’s van he could only sit and fidget. Needing something familiar, a task that would ease his troubles, Ironhorse decided to complete a weapon’s check. Most of his weapons in a duffel bag in the back of the van, he carried only his M9 Beretta in a shoulder holster and his long battle knife strapped to his back between his shoulder blades. It didn’t take long enough, so efficient, he was finished in a matter of seconds.

This was hell but he could cope, he’d been through so much worse in his life, emotionally and physically. He’d lived through nightmares with his mind and body still intact. He could get through this . . .

Debi let out another dramatic sigh, long and loud. She was good. A six sense told him what she was going to say next. He decided he would beat her to it, anything to break up the tension filling the van.

“Are we there yet?” said Ironhorse.

He got a reaction. Debi laughed. Norton glared at him. He could feel the emotion slung at him from the back of the vehicle. He’d cut through the anger, separated it only to have it fight back with more determination. Debi took it as an opportunity.

“Are we there yet?” said Debi.

Norton glared at Ironhorse for the second time. Ironhorse, innocent expression on his face, smiled back.

He could get through this . . .

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Ravenswood, no relation to Blackwood, was a small town with an even smaller population. The prominent road ran the length of the town. It looked run down, deserted, so many closed signs in business windows. Ravenswood was dying, only a matter of time before the last of its occupants left. Some of those remaining moved along the sidewalk, stopping in curiosity to watch the green van driving down Main Street. They looked uncertain, afraid . . . human.

At the end of town, tucked away in a corner was the ‘Dance on Through’ motel. Decrepit and dirty, it was their only choice of accommodation. Not bothered by appearances – he’d stayed in worse places – Ironhorse opened the passenger door and removed himself from the negative environment. He opened the sliding door and stepped away. Standing still, his back to the van, Ironhorse searched for anything that would threaten the safety of the others.

A shiver ran the length of his spine . . . a nasty itch crawled along his flesh. Something soft bit into the back of his neck, an uncomfortable sensation as it burrowed its way into his skull. A delicate hum inside his skull, brain vibrating like an electric charge. It wasn’t painful . . . just . . . wrong. An eerie feeling turned his head to the left, gaze settling on a cloaked figure standing a short distance away, face hidden within the shadows of the cloak’s hood. Fear pooled in his gut, the emotion so familiar. Words spoken, a soft whisper in his ear, the words distorted . . . he didn’t understand . . . the figure stepped forward . . .

Feet slammed against the pavement behind him. Released from the strange sensation, Ironhorse knew the source of the noise, he didn’t need to look . . . Debi making an excited exit from the van. He did shift with surprise when the young girl came to stand beside him, taking his hand in hers, pulling his gaze away from the dark figure now moving away. Confused, he looked down at her. She returned his gaze, adding a smile. Forcing himself to smile back, he wondered if she had concluded he was the reason behind the tension and silence throughout the two-hour drive. If she did understand, she wasn’t blaming him, instead supporting him, showing him that she was on his side. She had no idea of the reason behind the anger, probably didn’t care, too concerned with the way it was affecting him. She could see right through him and that fact didn’t bother him.

“Debi,” said Suzanne, her hand reaching for her daughter.

That hurt, he couldn’t deny it, felt like, she’d accused him of a crime against children. Did she really think he would hurt Debi? He would give his life to protect the twelve-year-old. He would give his life to protect the members of the Blackwood project. Why couldn’t they see that? Why couldn’t they understand . . . Grasping the situation with too much clarity, Debi rolled her eyes, bringing a glancing smile to Ironhorse’s face. She hesitated, taking too long to release his hand. Seconds felt like minutes, Ironhorse waiting for Suzanne to snatch her daughter’s hand from his fingers. Finally, after a gentle squeeze, Debi let go and walked over to her mother, standing by Suzanne’s side. She looked at the motel, her face scrunching up in disgust. He would have to make her feel better, tell her about the time he had to sleep with a dozen cockroaches.

Blackwood stepped out of the van, a piece of luggage in each hand and walked toward the motel. Suzanne and her daughter followed, Debi glancing back over her shoulder at Ironhorse. He waited for Norton, making sure the man disembarked without injury. Wheelchair set over the moveable platform, he watched Norton and Gertrude lowered to the sidewalk . . . Gertrude? Only Norton Drake would give his wheelchair a name, treat it like a person. Norton had programmed it to obey his every command. If only Ironhorse could do the same with civilians. With Norton following the others inside, Ironhorse waited until the platform returned to the inside of the van, reached in and removed his duffel bag, the weight of weapons reassuring him. Slammed the sliding door shut. A quick glance to his left, before walking toward and into the motel.

The inside of the motel looked as bad as the outside. Blackwood, Suzanne and Debi were at the counter talking to a man who looked burdened with the worries of the world. Norton moved closer, listening to the conversation. Not wanting to interfere, Blackwood capable of booking three rooms, Ironhorse stood back and listened to them conversing as his gaze searched the lobby. An empty snack vending machine sat in a corner on the left side of the room. To the right, a round table covered with worn A4 posters, a collection of children’s faces. Frowning, Ironhorse stepped toward the table, fingers reaching for the top poster, a black and white picture of a boy . . . interest ripped away, words spoken catching his attention . . . a possible threat.

“How old is the pretty girl?”

Ironhorse moved quickly, concern and worry filling his chest, a tight embrace reluctant to let go.

“Twelve,” said Debi, not understanding the question was wrong.

“You need to keep her close . . .”

Stepping between Suzanne and Debi, he placed his body in front of Debi. He reached back, gripping her upper arm with his left hand, keeping her in place. She acknowledged his intent, her small fingers gripping the back of his jacket. Knowing she would stay where she was, Ironhorse placed his hands on his hips, brushing his jacket back out of the way, revealing the butt of the gun in his shoulder holster.

The man behind the counter lifted his hands, surrender initiated, a placating gesture. “Are you a cop?”

“Worse,” said Debi, peaking around Ironhorse’s body, her blue eyes glaring at the stranger. She was taking strength from him . . .

Suzanne moved closer to her daughter and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She didn’t pull Debi away, keeping her where she was . . . behind Ironhorse, behind a wall of protection.

“I’m sorry. I was just trying to warn you.”

Before Ironhorse could respond, Blackwood rested his forearms on the counter, removed his reading glasses and said, “Warn us about what?”

Ironhorse understood . . . Blackwood believed they were dealing with something alien related. Ironhorse knew this had nothing to do with aliens . . . they had never shown an interest in children, not in the few months he’d been defending the planet. There was no mention of children in Blackwood’s notes, not in Doctor Forrester’s notes. No, only monsters of the human kind showed this king of interest in children.

The man shifted his gaze from Blackwood to Ironhorse. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

“Does it have anything to do with the missing children posters on the table?” said Ironhorse.

Everyone, including Debi, turned to look at the table, expressions of concern and curiosity marring their features. The man and Ironhorse stared at each other, neither of them wanting to break eye contact. Ironhorse stepped forward, closer to the counter, dropping his hands from his hips, the gun hidden once more. The others moved away, gathering around the table, a closer look at the posters.

“What’s your name?” said Ironhorse.

“Harold.”

Harold was tall, thin, under weight. He wore his weariness like a piece of dark clothing. His eyes were grey and dull, his face pinched with pain. Shoulders stooped, he looked like he was ready to give up on the world.

“Harold, if you go anywhere near her, I’ll kill you.”

Eyes wide with fear, Harold said, “No. No. You’ve got it all wrong. I’m just trying to warn you. It’s not safe here for kids of her age.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

Harold looked toward the table. “She’s not safe here. You should take her home.”

He could do that. Debi’s safety came first, the safety of the Blackwood project just as important. But would Suzanne allow him to take her daughter home, trust him with her daughter for two hours. If she did, and he drove Debi home, then what. He couldn’t leave her alone. He couldn’t stay with her. He wouldn't be able to ensure the safety of the others from such a distance. He was at a crossroad, torn between his fear for Debi’s safety and his orders to protect the others. It no longer felt like he was following orders; he liked these people, he cared about them, he wanted . . . he needed to keep them from harm . . . he needed to protect them from themselves. Maybe if he talked to Suzanne, asked her to take her daughter home.

He needed more information before he could make a decision.

“Explain it to me,” said Ironhorse, aware of someone behind him. Suzanne. He could smell her perfume. She set one of the posters – a young girl – onto the counter. In his peripheral, he could see that she was close to Debi’s age, blue eyes, blonde hair and a bright smile. Suzanne wrapped her fingers around Ironhorse’s forearm, a soft squeeze . . . he refused to look at her.

“Your little girl shouldn’t hear this,” said Harold.

Ironhorse waited for Suzanne to correct Harold. She didn’t. He turned his head, gave her a hard look.

“I’m sorry,” said Suzanne.

Did she mean it? Was she playing a game, anything that would entice him to protect her daughter? He didn’t care, too absorbed in the moment. He turned back to Harold. “She’s not my daughter but I will protect her as if she were.”

Harold nodded. “Not here.”

“Here and now,” said Ironhorse.

“I can’t explain it without alcohol in my system. If we can go back into the restaurant . . .”

“Is there coffee,” said Norton, rolling up to the counter.

“Um, yeah, if you can call it that.”

Blackwood joined them at the counter, leaving Debi behind. Suzanne, reacting at a much faster speed, turned to face her daughter, motioning Debi to her side. Ironhorse relaxed, the tension easing from his shoulders, the fear still gripping his chest. Everything felt wrong. They shouldn’t be here. He didn’t want to be here.

“Lead the way,” said Blackwood.

Ironhorse glared at Blackwood.

“He’ll be more willing to tell the story if we cooperate with him instead of threatening him.”

He hadn’t begun to threaten the man . . . not really. Seeing the sense behind Blackwood’s statement, Ironhorse nodded in agreement. There was plenty of time; the threats could wait until needed . . .

Ironhorse couldn’t help but notice Suzanne and Debi staying by his side, sticking close. Suzanne was aware of what he could do, what he was capable of doing. She had gone from being angry with him to being afraid for her daughter. He felt used but he understood and he didn’t hold her accountable, fear would do that to a mother, it would change their perspective, make a friend out of an enemy; she would do whatever it took to protect her daughter, even if it meant forgiving him for hurting her with words that should never have been spoken. He didn’t want it this way, he would rather her be angry than be put in a situation where she feared for her daughter’s life.

He felt his heart swell with emotion when Debi took his hand. She saw him as her protector but he knew there was more to it. Debi trusted him . . . trusted him to keep her safe. Determined to do whatever it took, Ironhorse made a silent promise . . . he would do everything possible to protect Debi McCullough, he would put himself in harm’s way to save her, he would die for her.

They stepped into the restaurant. Surprisingly clean, it was empty of patrons. Numerous tables on one side of the room, condiments resting on top of red and white chequered tablecloths. A long counter lined with stools separated the room from the kitchen. Two pots of coffee were brewing, an ugly gurgling sound that reminded Ironhorse of something else. A restaurant that once thrived had died a long, slow, agonizing death. The town of Ravenswood no longer what it was, its occupants desperate, scared . . . Ironhorse could see it in Harold’s eyes every time he looked at the man.

Harold led them to a table beside a large window overlooking Main Street. Ironhorse raised an eyebrow, not surprised to see a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass sitting on the table. Harold was prepared . . . the man sat down, poured himself a drink, downed in one swallow before filling the glass again.

“This is how I spend my days,” said Harold, emptying the glass a second time. “I sit here and wait for my son to come back.”

“And drink yourself into a stupor,” said Blackwood, sitting in a chair opposite Harold.

Harold frowned, a flicker of anger and resentment crossing his face. “Don’t judge me. You have no idea what I’ve been through. What this town has been through.”

“Tell us,” said Blackwood.

Ironhorse indicated to Suzanne to sit down next to Harold. She frowned at him, not sure she wanted to sit so close to Harold. Ironhorse nodded, reassurance given, she sat down. “Norton, take Debi to the other side of the restaurant. Stay where I can see you.”

“Help yourself to the coffee,” said Harold.

“I want to stay with you,” said Debi.

“This isn’t for you to hear, little lady--”

“Her name is Debi,” said Ironhorse sitting down beside Blackwood. Not his preferred position, he wanted to sit directly opposite Harold, wanted to see the man’s eyes as he told his story, better to see any lies. But Blackwood had taken on the predominant role, a need to always be in charge. Knowing what would happen, Ironhorse wasn’t going to ask him to move, embarrassment created because Blackwood would only argue and refuse to change seats. He was going to have to do with what he had.

Suzanne looked at Ironhorse, a question in her eyes. Ironhorse could read her like an open book. She wanted her daughter to stay. He could see her argument. If Debi knew what was going on in town, she’ll know what to look for, too scared to wander off on her own. If she could handle the revelation of aliens with decorum, she’ll be able to handle this in much the same way. Ironhorse didn’t agree but again, he wasn’t going to argue with her in front of a stranger. He nodded, hoping he wasn’t going to regret it.

Ironhorse reached back behind him, stole a chair from another table and placed it at the end of their table. “Sit.”

Debi smiled at him, sat down in the chair. She looked grateful, thankful to be treated as an adult. Eyes wide with curiosity Debi looked at Harold and waited with the patience of a child. Ironhorse didn’t like it, understood her curiosity was about to be wiped away, replaced with fear of the unknown. He didn’t know what was happening in Ravenswood but he had the worst feeling; knew it was bad . . . very bad. He’d had the same feeling more than once in Vietnam . . . before everything had gone to hell. He was certain without a doubt Harold was going to ask him to help.

In search of coffee, Norton rolled away. Ironhorse felt the need for caffeine, unaware if Norton was going to return with enough for everyone. He waited, his own patience beginning a departure.

Blackwood shifted forward in his seat, forearms resting on the square table. “What happened to your son?”

Blunt and to the point. Harold’s son was only part of the story. There was so much more going on here.

“What happened to the children?” said Ironhorse.

Harold poured another shot, his hand trembling with emotion. Almost threw the alcohol into his mouth and down his throat. Clenched his eyes shut as he gagged on the alcohol stinging his throat. He wiped a hand across his eyes, tears already forming. Harold took a deep breath, let it out, a shuttered release. Another breath, released in a much calmer manner.

“It all started five years ago. Beth Dodson disappeared in the middle of the night from her bedroom. The town searched for days but we couldn’t find her. But we didn’t give up, kept searching and then two weeks later Jack Gibson disappeared in the middle of the night from his bedroom. We thought we had some sick pervert taking children for his own pleasure . . .” Harold looked at Debi.

Ironhorse followed his gaze. Debi’s eyes were still wide, no longer filled with curiosity, fear taking its place.

“Keep the morbid details to yourself,” said Ironhorse, looking back at Harold.

“What did the sheriff think?” said Blackwood, leaning further forward, chest against the edge of the table.

“He thought the same as the rest of us. When Hannah Peterson went missing he called the FBI.” Another drink, his words already beginning to slur. “They couldn’t help. They couldn’t find anything that would lead them to the person responsible. They were here for months. There’s still an agent here working the case but he won’t accept what’s happening. He doesn’t believe us.”

“Where is he?” said Suzanne, turning her upper body to look at Harold.

“Agent Thompson? He should be here soon. Always eats here although the way I’m going, he’s going to have to fix his own dinner.”

Norton returned to the table, a tray on his lap; four cups of steaming coffee. Squeezing his wheelchair into a corner close to Ironhorse, he began to hand out the cups. His waiter job completed, he settled back and drank from his own cup . . . his face quickly screwing up in disgust. Ironhorse looked down at his coffee . . . decided he didn’t need a caffeine fix after all. Looking up at Suzanne, he shook his head. She raised an eyebrow and pushed her cup back into the middle of the table.

Harold laughed.

They looked at him with surprise.

“We had a baby boom. Firecracker night. So many kids disappeared the first year. After the sixth child went missing, it stopped. We thought it was over and then . . . the following year it started again. Three kids went missing that year all within a few weeks. Then it stopped again only to start up the next year. They’re all gone now. All our kids. My son went missing last year . . .” he looked out the window, searching for his son. “I keep hoping that I’ll see him walking down Main Street like nothing had happened. Like he’d never been gone.”

Suzanne rested her hand on Harold’s arm. Tears in her eyes, she looked to Ironhorse for answers.

“How old were they?” said Ironhorse, already knowing the answer.

“Twelve. They were all twelve years old.”

Shit.

An abrupt movement, Suzanne standing too quickly, her chair pushed away from the table. “We have to leave.”

They could leave but Ironhorse knew he was staying. “You go. Take Debi home. Blackwood and Norton will go with you.”

Blackwood turned in his seat, facing Ironhorse. “We can’t leave. If this has anything to do with why we came here . . . we have to stay.”

“We’re not leaving,” said Ironhorse. “You are and I don’t believe this has anything to do with them. It doesn’t fit their pattern.”

“And what pattern would that be?”

Deep breath.

“They’ve never involved children. They haven’t shown any interest in them.”

“There’s always a first time.”

“This isn’t it, Blackwood.”

“It has to be them,” said Blackwood. “What else could it be?”

“The Boogeyman,” said Harold.

Ironhorse felt the air catch in his chest, unable to take another breath. As a child, he’d heard stories. Sitting around a campfire, his Grandfather would tell him about the Boogeyman, more of a warning than a story. He had explained in detail how the Boogeyman would take children from their homes, never to return them to their families. He would take them while they slept and left no trace of his abductions. When he was older, Ironhorse learnt of a different version of the story. He’d learnt about the Corn Festival where young Cherokee males wore masks to scare the children; known as the Booger Man.

He believed his Grandfather’s version. His Grandfather had never lied to him; for a long time he had slept with the light on. A punch in the chest; he’d been twelve years old when his Grandfather told him about the Boogeyman . . .

“Ironhorse?” said Suzanne, reaching forward, an attempt to gain his attention.

A warm breath caressed his skin, words whispered. His skin began to itch, a painful feeling he couldn’t ignore. A humming in the back of his skull, this time more aggressive, a headache forming. The feeling of something so wrong returned. His gaze drawn to something outside, Ironhorse stood up and turned his head. The cloaked figure stood on the sidewalk, visible to everyone . . . but Ironhorse knew only he could see him, even Debi was blind to the threat.

Blackwood stood with him, putting himself in the way, Ironhorse no longer able to see cloaked figure. “Ironhorse, what’s wrong?”

The sound of his Grandfather’s voice. Trust in yourself

“Stay here,” said Ironhorse. “Stay with Debi!”

Removing his gun from its holster, he turned away, a fast walk turning into a run. He made his way through the lobby and out the front door. He stopped, gaze searching for what he believed to be the Boogeyman, a childhood nightmare becoming real. About to face something that had become an urban legend, a story told to scare children. Common sense told him he was grasping at straws; the Boogeyman wasn’t real. It was a nut-job taking on the persona of something so frightening . . .

There.

It . . . He was moving back into the shadows.

Careful and slow, Ironhorse moved toward the figure. He raised his weapon, a defensive position. His heart beat painfully in his chest, so afraid his bad dreams were about to come true. It didn’t matter. It couldn’t matter . . . anything to protect Debi.

The figure turned away from him, putting his back to Ironhorse before stepping into a side street. Ironhorse knew what he – he couldn’t find the strength to refer to him as it, not yet, not until he was sure – was doing, trying to draw Ironhorse away from a safe environment, trying to get him alone. Ironhorse stopped, about to return to the motel; he wasn’t going to put himself in a vulnerable position. If he followed the man into the side street, Ironhorse would lose any advantage he had; the other man would be waiting for him.

That uncomfortable feeling scratched at the back of his neck, forgotten headache increasing, gaining his attention. Lowering his weapon, Ironhorse lifted his left hand, pressing the palm against his forehead. He swayed on his feet, shifting his stance to keep his balance. Losing control, he could feel the need to move forward, to follow the man. He fought it with everything he had, aware he was losing, the feeling too strong. Dropping his hand away from his face, Ironhorse returned to his defensive position and took a step forward . . . a second step, a third. He couldn’t stop.

Whatever it was, it was in control.

Ironhorse stepped around the corner . . .

The figure stood before him, waiting.

Head lifted, face hidden within shadows . . . fingers, longs and thin unfolded from the sleeve of the cloak, growing in length, stretching outward. Skin pale, dry and brittle . . . a piece of string tied around the middle finger, its edges frayed . . .

Faster than Ironhorse could follow, the hand snapped upward, fingers wrapping around Ironhorse’s throat. He turned, taking Ironhorse with him, forcing Ironhorse backward, off the street and onto the sidewalk until Ironhorse’s back hit a wall; he wasn’t going anywhere.

The shadows beneath the hood of the cloak change, separated, a face revealed. Skin so pale . . . grey, carrying a sweaty pallor, stretched tight across high cheekbones. Lips thin, bloodless. Eyes black, too close together. Nose so flat it was barely visible. Its breath smelt of death . . .

Introductions made, Ironhorse felt more comfortable referring to this thing as it . . . it almost looked human, more human than scary . . . but not quite . . . it exuded a sickening aura, turning Ironhorse’s stomach. Fear gripped his chest, a tight hold, pain pinching beneath his ribs. His Grandfather’s stories were true, a warning given but not heeded. Now it was too late.

Ironhorse pressed the barrel of the Beretta against its chest and pulled the trigger, gun firing. It didn’t flinch. Lifting Ironhorse off his feet, it slammed his back against the wall. Ironhorse grunted in surprise and pain. Damn that had hurt. It leaned forward, its cheek resting against the side of Ironhorse’s face. He tried to pull away, the sensation of touch, of chilled, dry skin blinding him with nausea, his stomach turning away. Closing his eyes, Ironhorse held his breath, if he drew that rotten odour into his lungs . . .

“I came for you but you were protected. No longer. I will have you and the child.”

Eyes snapping open at the mention of Debi, Ironhorse tried to fight back. He fired his weapon a second time, kept pulling the trigger until the clip was empty. The loud gunshots left a painful ringing in his ears. A new fear; the sound of gunshots would draw the others out of the motel. Damn it. He’d made a mistake. If they left Debi with someone who couldn’t protect her . . .

Showing short, blunted teeth, it snarled at him. Pulling Ironhorse away from the wall, it waited a moment, staring into Ironhorse’s eyes. Expression changing, it smiled at him. With too much strength, it slammed Ironhorse against the wall. He knew he was in trouble, his head hitting a solid object . . .

Chapter Text

Ironhorse woke up feeling as he did every other day . . .

Except he didn’t.

Not really.

The pounding headache a new addition.

The nausea an added distraction.

It wasn’t a hangover, he knew that; he’d stopped binge drinking when the nightmares ended, the alcohol no longer needed, the images of bodies torn apart becoming dull, no longer fresh, shut away at the back of his mind where he could no longer see them. If he didn’t keep them hidden, the everyday reminder would break him, his mind crumbling under the onslaught. It’s what every soldier did, the only way to stay in the job; outer exterior cold and heartless: the inner full of torment and emotion kept under tight control.

His back ached, pain concentrated through his shoulders. He could remember no cause or reason for what he was feeling, no memory of an encounter with the enemy . . .

Oh hell no.

A stench of death filled his sinuses . . . memory snapping back to the present.

Debi.

An impulsive reaction, Ironhorse sat up, adrenalin and fear creating movement before he could stop and think about what he was doing; regret fighting the vertigo tearing through his skull. Chest tight with anxiety, he reached out with his arms in search of support, anything to keep his balance. If he fell back down, he didn’t think he would get back up.

Hands grabbed at his shoulders keeping him still, balanced. Voices he recognized kept the panic at bay. Opening his eyes, Ironhorse searched his surroundings through blurred vision. Concussion, it had to be a damn concussion. How can he fight if he couldn’t even manage to stay upright? He blinked, hoping for an improvement. Better, not enough.

He was in a motel room, he could tell that much, a bed beneath him. How did he get here? How long had he laid unconscious with Debi’s life at risk . . . with his own life at risk? Had he heard correctly . . .

‘I came for you but you were protected.’

“Colonel?”

“Debi?”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Suzanne kept her hand on Ironhorse’s shoulder, her gaze steady, watching his every move, ready to catch him if he fell. “Debi’s here. She’s okay.”

Ironhorse looked at Suzanne. Through a thin veil of fog, he could see the fear, her eyes pinched, her lips pressed into a thin line. “You have to leave. Now. Take Debi and leave before it comes back. You have to go now!”

“What happened out there?” said Blackwood. He sat on the other side of the bed, Ironhorse caught between the two scientists. Squeezing Ironhorse’s right shoulder, he continued. “We heard the gunshots--”

“You left Debi alone?” said Ironhorse, turning his head. A slow deep breath, the nausea beginning to ease, his headache ignored, fear for Debi’s safety taking control. He’d never been so scared . . . Vietnam had been hell, fear a regular companion but this . . . It was Debi. His body betraying him, he wasn’t sure he could protect her, keep her safe from harm.

“No. Of course not.”

Back to Suzanne. His fingers found her forearm, pulling it from his shoulder. A tight, painful grip, he tried to push her away, off the bed. “You have to leave! Now!”

He knew she wouldn’t argue, her intention to leave revealed in the restaurant. His encouragement not needed. Eyes wide with fear, he knew he didn’t resemble his normally confident self, probably gave off a vibe of crazy.

“What happened?” said Blackwood, tone impatient.

Ironhorse snapped his head around, a confrontation required. “Are you not listening, Blackwood. You have to go. Take Debi and leave before it comes back.”

Blackwood frowned. “It? What are you talking about? Did you run into . . .” Gaze shifting away from Ironhorse, Blackwood looked toward a corner of the room.

Ironhorse followed his gaze, finding Harold standing next to Norton and Debi. The girl looked scared out of her mind. Norton looked as though he thought Ironhorse had lost another screw, mind now held together with duck tape and glue. Harold held a look of understanding. If the man believed in the existence of the Boogeyman then it didn’t fucking matter anymore . . .

“It wasn’t an alien.”

Gaze flickering back to Ironhorse, a warning given. “Colonel, there’s no such thing as aliens.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Blackwood. The man knows it’s a Boogeyman taking the kids. An alien isn’t going to fucking matter. Take Debi and leave!”

Taken back by the language, Blackwood looked down, hesitant before looking back at Ironhorse. “I’m not being an idiot, Colonel. I’m just trying to make you see sense. You hit your head. You’re not thinking straight. It has to be . . . aliens. An alien can look like a Boogeyman. You’ve mistaken an alien for something else.”

Harold stepped forward, hands together in front of his body, fingers tangled in an uncomfortable embrace. Gaze dancing between Ironhorse and Blackwood, he said, “Aliens? Aliens took our kids?”

“No,” said Ironhorse, flicking his gaze toward Harold. “The aliens have nothing to do with it.”

“Colonel--”

“I saw it,” said Ironhorse, looking back at Blackwood. “It had me up against a wall. It was as close as you are now. It wasn’t an alien. It wasn’t human . . . I was scared, Blackwood. For the first time since Vietnam, I was scared. I’m scared now. For Debi. It threatened her. It threatened . . . me. You have to leave.”

It was easy to see, Blackwood too involved in the project, didn’t believe him. “That’s an order, Mister!”

Blackwood sat back, his expression giving nothing away. “I don’t take orders from you, Colonel.”

Ironhorse looked down at the hand still on his shoulder, lifted his angry gaze back to Blackwood. Message delivered, Blackwood removed his hand.

“This is now a military operation, Blackwood,” said Ironhorse. “You’re no longer in charge. I am and I’m ordering you to take the others and leave.”

“You’re forgetting something, Colonel . . .”

So close to hitting the obstinate idiot.

“I’m not military and . . . I’m repeating myself . . . I don’t take orders from you.”

“Don’t make me shoot you.” It was an empty threat, brain too flustered to come up with something better. He wasn’t in control, not with Blackwood . . . never was, the man too stubborn for his own good.

“Guys,” said Norton, wheeling Gertrude closer to the bed, Debi sticking close to his side. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Blackwood stood up. “You’re absolutely right, Norton. Take Suzanne and Debi back home, I’ll stay here with the Colonel--”

“Blackwood!”

“I’m not leaving.”

“We are,” said Suzanne, moving closer to Ironhorse, her hip against his thigh. His hand still on her forearm, she placed her other hand over his, a soft grip, a contradiction to the tight embrace he still had on her arm. “You have to come with us, Colonel.”

Turning his head, the vertigo still threatening his balance, he said, “I can’t--”

“Colonel, you said it threatened you. You can’t stay here.”

“I have to stop it.”

“No. You don’t,” said Suzanne. “There are no children left. There’s nothing you can do.”

“It’ll move on,” said Ironhorse. “It’s been taking children for a long time. It’ll keep taking them.”

“How do you know?”

Ironhorse looked away, bit into his lip, the pain distracting. They didn’t have time for explanations. What the hell was he going to tell them . . . the Boogeyman had come to take him when he was twelve but something had stopped it . . . Ironhorse protected but he was protected no more. To make things even worse, he was Debi’s only real source of protection . . . a scared and concussed Special Forces soldier. They had to leave. Now. If it came back while he was in this condition, he wouldn’t be able to fight back . . . he wouldn’t be able to defend Debi.

“Paul, how do you know?”

“It said it came for me but I was protected.”

“You’re protected from it?” said Suzanne.

Words whispered. “Not now. When I was twelve.”

“You can’t stay here,” said Suzanne.

“Ironhorse,” said Blackwood. “If it isn’t an alien . . . you said it will move on. We can’t let it do that. We have to stop it. If we leave and it moves on to another town . . . what do you think will happen then?”

Back to idiot speak.

“I know. What do you think I’ve been trying to say. I’m staying. When it comes after me, I can try and stop it.”

“Try?” said Blackwood.

“I emptied an entire clip into that thing. All I managed to do was make it angry.”

Blackwood stared back at him.

“I’ll think of something else,” said Ironhorse.

Fabricated belief that honesty fixed all things. It didn’t, Ironhorse’s truth creating more damage. Debi began to cry. Norton placed his hand against her shoulders, fingers splayed as he began to rubs circles across her back, an attempt to calm the twelve-year-old. Emotions breaking her trance of fear, Suzanne stood up, stepped toward her daughter and took control of the situation.

“We’re leaving. Now.” Full of determination, Suzanne turned back to Ironhorse. “You’re coming with us and I won’t take no for an answer. If that thing does move on . . . what if it follows us, we . . . Debi will need you.”

Suzanne was making her own point. She made sense. If it didn’t stay, if it went after Debi . . . he had to stay with her, he had to protect her. He felt weak, didn’t feel well at all; pain, nausea and fear beginning to take a toll on his mind and body but he was determined to do what was needed. Blackwood, Suzanne and Norton could only do so much. Ironhorse had the experience, he knew how to fight . . . he knew what it took to kill.

“And if it doesn’t follow us?” said Blackwood.

Ironhorse knew Suzanne was right. “It will.”

“You’re not really in the best state to protect her,” said Blackwood.

“That won’t stop me,” said Ironhorse.

Blackwood raised his hand in a calming gesture and said, “I know, Colonel, but what will happen to Debi if you fall flat on your face if it comes for her.”

Ironhorse had enough, Blackwood pushing him too far, aware if he didn’t retaliate verbally, he would hit him. “You’re being an ass, Blackwood. I know what I’m doing. I know how far I can push myself. I’ve been doing this most of my life. Don’t treat me like I’m an amateur trying to prove a point.”

“That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Colonel,” said Suzanne.

He turned his head, a slow movement and when he looked into her eyes, she looked away. Only for a few seconds, returning her gaze, she looked him in the eye, a steady gaze.

“I know you will do everything you can to protect Debi.” She took a breath, gathered her thoughts. “This isn’t your fault. It was my idea to bring her. I should have listened to you--”

He shook his head . . . closed his eyes for a moment and took a breath. “It’s no one’s fault. We stumbled into a situation we didn’t foresee. If we had known--”

Suzanne nodded and sat back down on the bed, her expression telling Ironhorse things were about to become even more serious. She had something on her mind, something she wanted to tell him before . . . they didn’t have time. “Suzanne, there’s no need.”

“There is and I have to say it before . . . I may not get another chance.”

She was expecting death . . . his death.

“Suzanne--”

“Paul, please. Let me say this.”

Already embarrassed, he nodded.

“I know you have an opinion of us. Of how we treat you. It’s disrespectful. You’re so stubborn, so set in your ways . . . so damn military.”

Ironhorse raised an eyebrow. Except for the reference to the military, Suzanne was describing Blackwood.

She read his mind and Ironhorse didn’t like that, not at all. She shifted her gaze from one man to the other. “You’re as bad as each other. But if I know thing about you, Paul, it’s that I know what you’re willing to do for my daughter.”

Hesitation absent. “I would do it for all of you.”

“It’s your job, I know but it’s different with Debi . . . thank you.”

Enough embarrassment for the day. “Okay, people. It’s time to leave.”

He looked at Suzanne, raised his left eyebrow again, let her read his question. Understanding, she smiled back at him, stood up and gave him room to move. Pushing his body toward the edge of the bed, Ironhorse hesitated; a moment of doubt, unsure if he made it to his feet he would be able to stay there. Mentally, he shook it off, reassuring himself he could do this. If he wanted to, he could kick Blackwood’s ass. Smile on his face, Ironhorse dug deep, finding an inner strength that had saved him on more than one occasion.

Making it to his feet, he swayed dangerously, Suzanne reaching out to him. He shook his head. He had to do this on his own. Balance returning, headache pounding, the nausea not so bad, Ironhorse made a quick inventory. Battle knife still set between his shoulders . . . damn, that’s why his back hurt so much, surprised the weapon wasn’t broken, thankful for the thick, leather holster, the material protecting his flesh; it could have been so much worse than a case of what he was sure was deep bruising.

Removing the Beretta from its holster, he noticed the difference in weight, the clip empty. “Where’s my bag?”

“Here,” said Blackwood, moving away. He picked up Ironhorse’s duffel bag and stepped up to the end of the bed, dropping the bag down onto the mattress close to Ironhorse. “Are you sure about this? No one will blame you if you admit to having a concussion. Harold told us there’s an FBI agent in town. Maybe he could--”

Where the hell was the FBI agent? He should have come running at the sound of gunshots. Ironhorse looked at Harold. “Where is he?”

“The FBI agent? I don’t know. He didn’t come in for dinner. I’m sure he told me he’d be in town today. He might be fishing?”

“Fishing?”

“Sometimes he goes fishing.”

“You don’t know?”

“I’ve got other things on my mind,” said Harold, a defensive tone used.

“Ironhorse--”

“If he was here, what could he do? By the time you convince him of the existence of aliens and Boogeymen, it will be too late,” said Ironhorse.

Aware that Ironhorse hadn’t denied the accusation of a concussion, Blackwood stepped back, gaze refusing to deviate from Ironhorse. “You’re a stubborn bastard, Colonel.”

“You’re not too far off the mark there, Blackwood,” said Ironhorse as he reached down to his bag, missing the flicker of curiosity crossing Blackwood’s features. Unzipping the bag, Ironhorse removed a clip. Replacing the empty one, he chambered a round, removed the clip and added a sixteenth bullet, slammed the clip back in and set the gun back in its holster. Removing two extra clips from the bag, he placed them in the back pockets of his jeans, an extra weight he would have to compensate for, balance already broken. Taking out two more Beretta’s, Ironhorse handed them to Suzanne, nodding toward Norton; a gun for each of them. Suzanne took the guns, handing one back to Norton. He went back into the bag, fingers finding alternatives to the Berretta.

Ironhorse removed his jacket, buckled a weapons belt around and above his hips. He made adjustments, checking everything was in place. Beretta on his right side, tomahawk slightly behind him and to the left, a smaller knife against his left leg. He strapped the knife down, securing a thick strap around his thigh.

Harold stepped back. His face paling, he said, “Who are you?”

“He’s military,” said Blackwood.

“United States Army Special Forces,” said Suzanne. “He knows how to liberate the oppressed.”

Ironhorse’s head snapped up. A mistake. Too stunned to care, unaware Suzanne knew the United States Army motto.

Suzanne smiled. “Uncle Hank.”

Of course.

“Does he always come prepared?” said Harold. “I mean . . . is that legal?”

Debi took a gasping breath, her body turning to face the corner on the other side of the room. Ironhorse followed her gaze, his own breath catching . . . shadows were forming, dark shapes dancing, twisting, colliding, merging as one. A deathly stench brushed through the room . . . it was coming.

“Go!” said Ironhorse, his voice commanding, expecting everyone, including Blackwood, to obey. When Blackwood hesitated, his mouth open, ready to question his order, Ironhorse pushed the scientist toward the door. “Damn it, Blackwood. For once, do what I tell you.”

“There’s nothing there,” said Blackwood. “Is there?”

“Take Debi,” said Ironhorse, removing his Beretta. “Hold her close and don’t let her go. No matter what happens, Blackwood, don’t let go of her.”

Ironhorse turned his back on the retreating group, the sound of a door slamming turning him, spinning him back around. The door had closed, Harold making an exhausting attempt to open it. Debi screamed, a frightful sound, the girl was terrified, her pupils shrinking with fear and adrenaline. She could see it, knew what was coming.

It was too late, they’d taken too long to leave, a confrontation beginning.

Ironhorse took a long, slow, deep breath. Mind shifting into battle mode, body ready to fight . . . to defend, he turned and faced the oncoming threat.

It stepped out of the shadows, a languid movement, in no hurry. Left arm stretched outward, it raked long fingernails across the wall, grooves in the plasterboard created. It made a clicking sound, tongue flicking out between its blunted teeth. It stepped toward them, too close.

Bugs crawling on his skill, the sensation so real. Wondered if Debi felt it too. The commotion dug deep into his spine, a violent shiver as his body reacted to the feeling. It climbed its way up his backbone, biting at the base of his skull, hungry to go further . . . pain exploded in his skull. Growling deep in his throat, Ironhorse’s knees began to collapse . . . fought the inevitable with everything he had . . .

“Colonel?” said Blackwood.

“Get out!”

Ironhorse raised his Beretta, opened fire, emptying a second clip into the thing’s chest; knew it wouldn’t stop it. If he could buy enough time for the others . . .

“Go!”

Harold was struggling with the door, still trying to open it but it wouldn’t budge, held in a firm grip by something unnatural. “It won’t open!”

He couldn’t help, couldn’t turn his back on it. If he took his eyes off it . . .

Blackwood stood with his back to the wall, Debi tucked in behind him. Suzanne stood beside them, her body so close to her daughter’s, fingers gripping Debi’s left hand, the grip too tight, Debi wincing with the pain. In his wheelchair, Norton sat in front of them, four layers of defence. If Ironhorse went down, Norton would take over, then Blackwood and finally Suzanne. Ironhorse knew, when it came to Debi, they were ready to die for her, anything to keep her safe; no longer sure they could.

A heavy weight in his skull, words muted, difficult to understand through the pain as they invaded his thoughts, concentration too difficult; strategy beyond his reach. A thin layer of sweat broke out on his skin, the moisture cold against heated flesh. He felt ill to his stomach; the concussion responsible, or the thing standing before him, Ironhorse didn’t know. Fighting his own body and the uninvited presence in his skull, gaze held steady, unwilling to look away, Ironhorse released the empty clip, reached into his pocket for a replacement, slammed it home, chambering a round; surprised he managed to do it with trembling fingers.

Staring back at him, black eyes unflinching, it spoke, “Naughty boy.”

Voice full of gravel, a long time smoker, the sound rumbled through Ironhorse’s skull, a different kind of pain aggravating already fraying nerves. Ironhorse swallowed his fear, a tighter grip on the Beretta, waited for its next move. Sounds of a struggle behind him. Emotions wanted to turn his body, face the other way, find out what was taking them so long to open a damn door. Maybe if he just asked.

“What’s taking so damn long?”

“I told you,” said Harold. “It won’t open.”

If this was a ‘push not pull’ situation. Not the right time for fate to take on a bastard like personality.

The wait excruciating, they stared at each other, gazes frozen, the seconds passing slowly . . . so slow. It sniffed, eyes shifting, looking over Ironhorse’s shoulder, finding Debi. Thin lips stretched into an unyielding smile. It looked happy, satisfied.

Ironhorse could hear Debi. He could hear her fear, her breath short, static, her small lungs frantic . . . all for her. This is what he did. It wasn’t just a job, hadn’t been for a long time. This was who he was.

Ironhorse took the initiative, stepping forward . . .

“Ironhorse,” said Blackwood, urgent, scared. “No!”

Frowning, Ironhorse hesitated, knew with quick clarity it was the wrong thing to do. Blackwood was getting to him, reacting to the man’s voice when he should have ignored him; might have saved himself a lot of pain and trouble.

It raised its arms, fingers stretching, an ugly smile on its face as it moved forward . . . Ironhorse reminded of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster. A sudden movement, so quick, getting too close before Ironhorse could do anything to stop it. It ignored the gun, pushing it away, not interested in something that couldn’t hurt it, Ironhorse unable to resist. It slid its long fingers around the back of Ironhorse’s neck, pulling him even closer, almost an embrace.

Ironhorse lowered his arm, weapon held against his thigh, no sense in pulling the trigger, it wouldn’t do anything good. Ignoring the fear gripping his chest, Ironhorse refused to look away. The thing so close, its breath threatening to take him down to the floor. His own fingers stretching, he reached for the knife clipped to his belt. Hilt of the knife beneath his fingertips . . .

It blew a breath into Ironhorse’s face, his mouth. Ironhorse gasped in pain, the air pulled from his lungs. Knees buckling, Ironhorse began a quick decent, his motion stopped when it lifted him into the air. Turning, it threw him into the corner, into the moving shadows. Expecting to hit the wall, Ironhorse tried to prepare himself for the impact, shocked when he fell through, thrown from one bad nightmare into another. The sound of gunfire followed him into hell. The screams that followed, a terrifying sound, Debi’s voice breaking, told Ironhorse he had failed.

He hit the ground, body tumbling, everything ripped away . . .

.
.
.

Sobbing.

His hand held.

No way to start a day.

Something sharp beneath him, painful, digging into his ribs.

Really. Not a good way to start the day.

A breath taken . . . Ironhorse gagged on the stench filling his throat and lungs. Saliva filled his mouth, the bile rising up into his throat. He swallowed, pushed it back down where it settled at the pit of his gut. Instinct tickled at the base of his skull; something was wrong, the situation life threatening. He tried to move, unable to get very far, body lethargic, heavy with exhaustion and pain. Damn, his head hurt. Brain a mess, Ironhorse fought his way through stumbling thoughts, lucidity coming slowly; too slow. Concentration painful, he struggled to remember, to understand, to gain an explanation for the odor, the smell of decay.

His hand released, small fingers began to brush through his hair, soft pats accompanying the movements; he felt like a pet. The touch moved, Ironhorse finding it difficult to follow . . . fingers against his neck, his back, his face, coming to a rest across his shoulder. Whoever it was, they began to shake him, the movement slight but enough to turn his stomach, his headache increasing. He voiced a protest, a soft humming groan the only thing escaping through closed, dry lips.

“Colonel?”

Debi?

Damn it. What the hell?

He couldn’t stay where he was, not in this position, not when something was seriously wrong. He just had no idea what it was, had no understanding as to ‘how’, ‘what’ or ‘why’, the only information he could obtain was that it involved Debi. A slow image began to form, pushing its way to the front of his mind, a painful reminder. Events over the last hours revealed, Ironhorse felt sick to his stomach, his gut turning, rolling.

Ironhorse tried to move, he really did. So difficult, body disobeying, taking on a trait reminding him of Blackwood. Undeserved anger flowed through him, muscles twitching with emotion. Using the anger, taking advantage, Ironhorse tried again, putting everything he had into the attempt. Hands against his shoulder helped, pushing him over, Ironhorse rolling onto his back, arms and legs slumping back to the ground, limbs still too heavy. Inside his skull, his brain started a slow, sickening spin, it felt as though the floor was moving, a lazy turn.

A shuddering breath, the stench strong, stomach making a weak protest. He tried to open his eyes, the eyelids sticking, dried moisture coating his eyelashes. He gave up, his world still in darkness, mind in turmoil, lungs tight with fear. A sudden weight on his chest . . . a warm breath against his neck. Instinct wanting to react, unsure of the source, Ironhorse could do nothing; if it was a threat . . . he didn’t have the strength to fight back, not yet.

“Please, don’t die.”

Her words, the fear and emotion in her voice, tore his eyes open. A flash of blonde hair. A soft, source of light. Fought hard to keep them open. Blinked, the effort too much, eyes closing. Ironhorse let out a sigh of frustration. This wasn’t working. He had to do something . . . do so much more than lie here waiting . . . waiting for it to come back. He knew it wasn’t close, leaving them alone, Debi not hysterical with fear.

A bite of pain through his chest; Ironhorse aware it would come back. Knew he would have to move, no time to wait. An order given, the fingers of his left hand curling, fingers of his right hand obstructed . . . something in the way. He couldn’t think about that now, he would find out soon enough, more important things to deal with.

“Where is it?” To his own ears, his voice sounded harsh, painful, the words no more than a whisper.

“I don’t know,” said Debi, her head resting against Ironhorse’s chest, her gaze watching him. “I can hear your heart.”

He smiled, couldn’t help himself. “I’m still here.”

“I thought you were dead, Colonel, and then you moved and then you didn’t. You were so still.”

“I’m okay,” said Ironhorse, reassurance needed, not so sure he was okay. “I just need a minute.”

“Okay.”

She was patient; more than he was . . . a drifting thought caught his attention. Angry he hadn’t thought of it sooner. Reminded of his role as her protector, Debi’s words bringing everything into focus, Ironhorse opened his eyes. Kept them open, not as difficult as it had been. In the ceiling above them, the source of light, a low wattage bulb shown down on them, a spot light. He shifted his gaze . . . beyond the light, darkness so thick . . . anything could be hiding . . .

Attempted to move, to take control of his body. Nothing but he could feel his strength returning, a slow incoming tide. He just needed more time. Chest tight with fear and worry, he looked down at the twelve-year-old. Her eyes wide, still so full of fear but there was a hint of anger, of rebellion. She made him proud.

Never thought there would be a child in his life, his career keeping him single; he’d sent too many letters to proud parents, spouses, sons and daughters. Aware he could and probably would die a violent death, he didn’t want a letter sent on his behalf . . . didn’t want to put anyone through that. He’d seen what the loss of a parent could do to a child, had seen what the loss of a child did to a parent. Ironhorse wasn’t Debi’s father . . . had only known her a few months but he’d grown fond of her . . . he didn’t . . . damn. Shook the thoughts from his mind. Now wasn’t the time to be morose.

“Debi, are you all right? Are you hurt?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re all right, though?”

“I’m scared.”

“Me too, Debi,” said Ironhorse. “Me too.”

“Can we go back now?”

“Can you see a door?”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

“You don’t have too. Use your eyes, Debi. Look around. Tell me what you see.”

“Can’t you see?”

No anger felt, no frustration, only understanding. As much as she had matured in the last few months, as well as she were dealing with the situation, Debi was still a child; he had to be careful with her. He couldn’t give her orders, couldn’t make demands . . . she wasn’t Blackwood; Debi would do everything he asked of her, without question, without hesitation. Blackwood could learn a few things from this kid.

“Yes, I’m just not ready to get up yet.”

Debi sat up. “You’re hurt. Aren’t you?”

He didn’t want to tell her the truth. He didn’t want to lie. He couldn’t be the cause of increased anxiety. Knew he had to tell her something. “I don’t know. Something isn’t right.”

“But what if it comes back?”

She was scared, for herself . . . for him. He understood that.

“Debi. Do you trust me?”

She nodded, her bottom lip trembling.

“Then believe me when I tell you that I won’t let it hurt you. I’ll protect you. And I promise you, I’ll get you back to your mother.”

Unexpected, Ironhorse surprised when Debi dropped across his chest, wrapping her arms around his upper body as best she could. She hugged him tight. Responding, he lifted his left arm, the limb weak, wavering but he managed. Arm around her back, he returned the gesture, ending it quickly.

“Now look for a door, a way out.”

Nodding, Debi did as he asked. Hands against his chest, she pushed herself upright. She hesitated before standing up. Turning in a slow circle, she searched through the darkness . . .

Ironhorse closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, listening for any sound, anything that would tell him it was returning, anything that would tell him he’d run out of time. He had to move, no choice left, time was running out. His mind drifted . . . wandered off the main path in a different direction. He felt like he could sleep . . . needed to sleep, body relaxing, a calm feeling taking over . . .

Flinched when fingers wrapped around his hand . . . Debi. A sudden return to reality. What the hell was wrong with him? He felt angry, having to remind himself of his situation. Still with Debi. In hell still. Danger still present . . . lives still at risk, his body betraying him in a way that left him more afraid. Fear that he wouldn’t be able to protect Debi so strong, doubting himself for the first time in a long time.

“I can’t see anything,” said Debi. “It’s too dark.”

Ironhorse nodded.

“I could . . .” said Debi as she let go of his hand, standing back up and taking a step toward the darkness.

About to wander off, take a stroll toward danger, Debi acting so much like Blackwood. Body reacting before he could tell it too, Ironhorse’s left hand snapped outward, body turning toward Debi, fingers grasping her leg, ankle thin beneath his touch. He pulled her back, close to his side. “No. Stay with me. I don’t want you to leave my side.”

Debi sat back down, tears already forming.

“I’m sorry,” said Ironhorse, fingers still wrapped around her ankle. “I don’t want you wandering off. It’s not safe.” A silent curse. Of course, it wasn’t safe. Debi would know that. She only wanted to help.

“You’re angry with me.”

“No. I’m not angry with you, Debi. We have to be careful. Both of us.”

“Mom says you get angry with Harrison when he goes off on his own.”

A flush of anger. He would have to have a word with Suzanne about that.

“You’re not Harrison. You’re strong, brave, determined and I’m proud of you.”

She smiled at him, expression quickly changing. Too young for wrinkles to form, she frowned. “You don’t think Harrison’s brave?”

Ironhorse looked away. “Harrison can be an idiot . . .” Mouth snapping shut, he understood he’d already said too much. Looked back at Debi and tried to rectify any damage he might have just caused. “Harrison’s passionate about what he’s doing. We all are, it’s just . . . sometimes he forgets he has help. He tries to do things on his own. Puts himself in danger.” He’s stubborn, frustrating, irresponsible and ignorant of authority . . . “He’s a good man, don’t forget that.”

“Mom says you’re a good man. She said it’s hard to see through all the . . .” Her frown grew as she tried to remember, Ironhorse not sure he wanted to know. “Military maleness.”

Eyebrow raised. “She said that?”

Reacting much the same way he had, Debi backtracked. “She likes you.”

Okay, we’ll get back to this later.

“Help me up,” said Ironhorse.

“Are you okay, now?”

“I think so.”

He did think so. He felt better, stronger, no longer weak but he needed to test his strength, find out if he was ready for battle. Took a deep breath, let it out in a rush of air. He moved his hands, something heavy in the right. He lifted his head, a small space created. Vertigo took the room on another spin, slower than before, somehow worse, a nauseated feeling, head falling back down. Pain burst through the back of his skull. Ironhorse swore as he closed his eyes, clenched tight against the pain. Breath increased, quick and harsh as he tried to get through it. Tried to stay conscious.

“Colonel?” Her hand on his shoulder, shaking him, making it so much worse.

Not wanting to snap, to be too abrupt. He didn’t want to upset her, not again. Calm. “It’s okay. I’m okay. I shouldn’t have done that. I won’t do it again.”

Satisfied, Debi stopped shaking him.

He couldn’t wait. Hesitation telling Debi something he didn’t want her to know. Lifted his head, ignored the result. Looking down, he noticed he still held the Beretta in his right hand . . . the weight, the obstruction. Surprised and grateful. With two guns, he wondered, only for a moment if he should give one to Debi, decided against it, the young girl having no experience with weapons. If they made it out of this nightmare alive, he would make it his responsibility to teach her. After this, he didn’t think it would take much to convince Suzanne.

“Remind me, when we get out this, to teach you how to handle a gun,” said Ironhorse.

“For next time?”

“For when you start dating.”

Debi didn’t need to know there might be a next time. He would do everything he could to make sure there won’t be a next time, not for Debi.

“I won’t need a gun for dating,” said Debi. “Not when I have you.”

Life was full of surprises today, each one more shocking than the last. Tension broken, it was time to get down to business. When he began to move, Debi reached forward, taking his hand, pulling him toward her. Together, they managed to get him sitting up. Time needed no choice but to take it. He folded his legs together, supporting his position, his head slumping forward. Skull heavy, the pain a weight he was finding difficult to carry, he waited. Just a few minutes . . .

A noise to their right . . . a soft shuffle, feet scraping across the floor. The smell all wrong, Ironhorse knew it hadn’t come back. Debi was another matter, terrified, she screamed, the shrill sound shattering through Ironhorse’s nerves. Welcomed adrenaline surged through his system. Ironhorse pushed himself up onto unsteady legs, knees locking into place, keeping him upright. He pulled Debi back, pushed her behind him. Knowing she would stay put, Ironhorse tucked the gun into his belt and reached back with his right hand, slipping the battle knife from its resting place; a gun would do no good, a knife cutting into flesh, a throat slit . . . it might make a difference.

He waited, impatient to get it over with, knife held at the ready. The sound of footsteps came closer. Debi gripped his waist, a tight hold but he could feel her tremors, knew she was terrified . . . movement caught his eye . . .

A child, a young boy, skin and clothes filthy, walked with a steady gate into the light, heels of his battered shoes scratching against the floor. Teddy bear in his right hand, the stuffed animal swinging back and forth, the boy turned his head, looking at Ironhorse and Debi. His eyes black, sightless, he stretched his mouth open, wide, a small toothless cavern . . . a silent scream. The boy turned away and moved on, out of the light and back into the darkness.

Ironhorse swallowed, fear and emotion caught in his throat, a difficult thing to swallow. Awareness came quickly, clarity slapping him hard . . . he’d just seen Debi’s future . . . No. He won’t let that happen. Refusing to acknowledge the existence of the idea crossing his mind, Ironhorse turned to face Debi.

Taking her hand, he said, “It’s time to go home.”

Chapter Text

Ironhorse took a faltering step, stumbled and fell to his knees, taking Debi with him. Heels of his palms, the knuckles of his fingers slamming against the floor, Ironhorse grimaced, jaw clenching against the profanity wanting to escape. Bad language used to often already, he didn’t want to voice anymore, not in front of Debi; too much of an influence, if she swore in front of her mother, Ironhorse blamed . . . it wouldn’t be pretty.

More pain he didn’t need or want, adding to an already impressive collection. Debi tugged at his shoulder, pulling at his shirt. Image of the boy flashing through his mind got him moving. He stood up, muscles flexing with pain, tight with tension, cramps already forming . . . dizziness circled, a floating sensation, weight pushing at the edges of his mind.

He could do this.

They could get through this.

They had to get through this . . .

He couldn’t let that happen to Debi.

“Hold onto me,” said Ironhorse, taking her hand and pulling it toward his waist. He watched, to make sure, as she tucked her fingers behind his weapons belt, holding on with a firm grip. “Don’t let go.”

“I won’t,” said Debi.

He looked down at her. “Promise me.”

Ironhorse wouldn’t hold her to it, would hold no blame if she did let go. Fear can make a person do things they normally wouldn’t do.

“I promise.”

One foot in front of the other, they left the security of the light, moving into the darkness. He needed to discover their location, find a solid object, a wall, a door, anything. Instinct told him they weren’t outside. Nature didn’t smell like this. No air against his face, no breeze tugging at his clothing, cooling the sweat on his skin. They were inside . . . inside what though, that was his main concern. They didn’t come in through a doorway, a solid opening, instead moving through . . . what . . . space and time, an alternative reality. Ironhorse almost snorted, keeping the sound to himself. If that were the case, they might never get back home.

So much for trying to be positive.

Out of the light, it was easier to see. He could make out shapes, flat and sharp. Could see solid objects. In front of him . . . a wall. He moved quickly, body protesting, Debi following, fingers tugging at the belt around his waist. Reaching the wall, he placed his left hand against it, fingers creating a line through a layer of something Ironhorse didn’t want to consider. They followed the wall, finding an edge, a doorframe . . . a door handle.

“It’s a door,” said Ironhorse.

“Is that the way back?”

“I don’t know.”

“Open it,” said Debi.

Pushy. He liked that.

“Wait!”

“What?” said Ironhorse as he turned to face Debi.

“What if the way out is behind us?” She raised her hand and pointed back to the way they had come.

“Do you think there might be two doors?”

“Harrison’s office has two doors.”

She had a point. Although a good one, he didn’t think there would be two doors but he wanted her to feel useful, give her something to do.

“We’ll circle the room--”

“It has to be a square room,” said Debi.

He smiled down at her. “We’ll square the room, if we get back here without finding another door, we’ll go through this one. Deal?”

“That boy . . .”

“He won’t hurt us.”

“Promise.”

“Promise.”

“I’m sorry.”

He frowned. “For what?”

“You’re here with me and that makes me . . .” She sighed, a long released breath.

“Happy?” It may be the wrong choice of word. “Grateful? Embarrassed to be seen with me? Do you want me to walk a step behind you?”

She smiled. “Grateful. I know I shouldn’t be. I’m really scared but I’m glad you’re here with me.”

“I understand,” said Ironhorse.

“You do?”

“Yes. Are you ready?”

“If you are?”

No.

Not really.

Still dizzy, nauseated, unsteady on his feet; doing his best not to let it show. He didn’t want to worry her, scare her anymore than she already was. The room was still moving, not just spinning, a rolling storm, his balance tested, a deliberate attempt to keep his attention. He couldn’t give into it, couldn’t let it beat him. As much as he wanted to sit down, rest his back against the wall and close his eyes . . . he couldn’t.

“Colonel?”

“I’m ready.”

“You don’t look well.”

He didn’t doubt that. Surprised she could see so much in the broken shadows drifting around them. No time to dwell on it but something told him Debi needed assurance. “I feel better than I look.”

“Promise.”

Too many promises made today. They were both scared . . . scared of losing each other in the darkness, scared of dying at the hands of something unnatural. Afraid of their future, the boy revealing something neither wanted. Ironhorse wasn’t going to let that happen, idea still forming at the back his mind, still unwilling to admit to himself that it might be his only choice. He didn’t have to decide now, not at this moment. They still had time. Debi still had time. At least until it came back; he would make his decision then and only then.

His hesitation making its own revelation, Debi frowned, expression filled with concern.

Ironhorse swallowed down the regret and guilt, his chest aching with the effort. “Promise.”

A blurted confession. Debi pulling at the belt around his waist. Words repeated. “Please, don’t die.”

At least she didn’t ask him to promise.

She looked up at him, her eyes pleading.

“I can’t promise you that.”

Tears welled in her eyes, overflowing. She nodded, looked down at her feet. He knew what she was thinking, her mind replaying images mirroring his own. One more promise, the only one that actually meant something, more than his promise to get her back to her mother. “I promise you, Debi, you won’t end up like that boy.”

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know.”

“He looked like a zombie,” said Debi.

A zombie? Really. “What kind of movies have you been watching?”

She smiled, wiped her face with her free hand, tears drying. “Dawn of the Dead.”

“That’s an R rated movie,” said Ironhorse. He didn’t like seeing her cry. Anything to keep the tears at bay. “How in the hell did you manage that?”

He could tell by her expression, she wasn’t going to reveal her source. She didn’t need too. There was only one place she would see a movie like that. Only one person who would allow her to watch it . . . “Norton.”

“How did you know?”

Raised an eyebrow at her.

“This is way scarier,” said Debi.

He knew she was trying to distract him, get herself out of trouble. She wasn’t in trouble but she didn’t know that. “Scarier than your mother finding out you watched an R rated horror movie?”

She stepped back away from him, left hand still gripping his belt, keeping her promise.

“She won’t find out from me,” said Ironhorse. He paused . . . “Was it good?”

“It was so good. Norton’s got the new one. He said . . . we were going to watch it on the weekend.” The tears were back. They were talking about mundane things, putting off the inevitable, delaying their future for as long as possible but they were only fooling themselves. Things didn’t look good, for either of them. Only one way to get out of this.

“We’ll confiscate the movie and watch it together,” said Ironhorse.

She only nodded. Eyes wide, tears unchecked. It had sunken in, Debi now aware she might not get back home.

“Popcorn, Dr Pepper and zombies. How does that sound?”

“Do you think we’ll get back home?”

“We’ll try.”

“Mom must be . . .”

“She knows you’re with me.”

“You kill people,” said Debi. “Don’t you?”

He turned away from her. “Are you ready?”

“I don’t want to see that boy again.”

Glancing back over his shoulder, Ironhorse said, “You don’t want to look for a second door?”

“I didn’t . . .”

He turned fully, trying to face her, the position awkward, Debi’s arm caught around his waist; almost an embrace, a hug. Best thing for them both. Careful of the battle knife, he pulled her closer, into a hug. She reciprocated, an opportunity to give-and-take.

“I didn’t want to go out there,” said Debi. “It’s out there, not in here.”

“Look at me,” said Ironhorse.

Debi lifted her chin, resting it against his chest, looking up at him.

“We can’t stay here. The way out isn’t in this room.”

“How do you know?”

“This is what I do. Trust me.”

You kill people.

“Please. Just trust me.”

“Mom said to always trust you.”

“She did?”

Surprise crashing across his features, he felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment when Debi laughed at him. Anything to drive the fear away, if only for a moment.

Debi turned serious, her laughter cut off, words spoken. “I trust you and not because Mom told me too.”

“You sound so much like your mother.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Yes,” said Ironhorse.

“She was angry with you, wasn’t she? In the van. Harrison and Norton too.”

“I said something I shouldn’t have. I hurt your mother’s feelings.” May as well be honest.

“What did you say?”

Not that honest. He pulled her arm from his waist, pushing her away. It was time to go. “We can talk about it later.”

“Why not now?”

“I don’t want to talk about it now.”

She looked down, nodded.

“Are you ready?”

“Yes.” A whisper.

“We have to go. As much as I enjoy having a conversation with you . . .” They’d been talking for so long, conversing, Debi always so easy to talk to but they couldn’t keep going. They had to stop at some point and now was as good a time as any, not willing to admit he didn’t want to anger Debi in much the same way he’d angered her mother. He needed Debi to trust him, not something she would do if she were angry with him. “We can talk about it later.”

Another nod.

Damn it. Civilians. There had to be a handbook on how to talk to them without hurting their feelings. Word by word instructions with accompanying images – the word idiot above Ironhorse’s head – with speech clouds. Maybe Blackwood had been right all along . . . the best way to talk to Ironhorse was through idiot speak.

“Do everything I tell you.” He didn’t mean it as an order but that’s how it came across. Idiot speak, but Debi wasn’t the idiot . . . he was, only making things worse. “Try not to behave like Harrison.”

Not waiting for her response, physical or verbal, Ironhorse turned back to the door. Knife held in his right hand, he reached out with his left, the limb trembling with weakness and fear. This was it . . . anything could be on the other side, including the thing that had brought them here. He could feel Debi’s fingers tightening around the belt, pulling it tight, the pressure around his waist increasing; it felt reassuring, knowledge that she was still there, still hanging on, keeping her promise. All he had to do now was keep his own promises. Knew without doubt, there was one he could keep . . . the others . . . he wasn’t as certain.

Fingers wrapped around the metal doorhandle, a cold sensation pushing through skin and flesh. It travelled his arm, quickly gaining ground, nudging at the base of his skull . . . turned the handle and pulled. It opened, easier than Ironhorse had expected. He stepped back, pulling the door with him. Light spilled into the room . . .

Without warning . . . a scream shattered the room.

Not Debi.

Ironhorse turned on his heels. Debi turned with him, staying behind him. Good girl. He stepped to the side, putting the wall behind Debi. The room revealed it didn’t take long to find the source of the sound. The boy stood on the other side of the room, the small teddy bear swinging by his side, in constant movement, the boy’s arm so still; the bear doing its own thing . . . the boy not involved. Two separate entities.

“Don’t look,” said Ironhorse, his warning drawing Debi out.

She stood beside him, watching the boy, her body shaking. There was nothing they could do for the boy, Ironhorse unsure of the best way to put the kid out of his misery. He realized the boy looked familiar, Ironhorse groaning with understanding; this was Harold’s son.

“What’s wrong?” said Debi, unable to shift her gaze away from the boy.

“Nothing.” He didn’t want her to know. “Let’s go.”

Hesitating, Ironhorse watched as the boy turned away, no real interest shown, the kid only reacting to the added light in the room. Surveillance, quick and professional, Ironhorse saw no other exit, no second door. The door behind them the only way out of the room.

“Should we take him with us?”

“There’s nothing we can do for him.”

“He’s dead?”

Not sure, of his assumption, Ironhorse studied Harold’s son. His thin chest was still. His diaphragm no longer expanding, his lungs no longer working. He wasn't breathing. Debi’s description of the boy had been correct. He looked like a zombie . . . the walking dead.

“Yes.”

“How can you tell?”

You kill people.

“It’s time to go.”

Ironhorse turned and faced the open doorway. He stepped out into a hallway, Debi still behind him. She pushed against his back, urging him forward. Realising she was still in the room, he took another step. Debi moved to his side. He looked to the left. The right. An empty, long, elongated hallway with no end in sight, it seemed to go on forever.

A reminder of long endless nights, dawn so far away . . . the sound of gunfire, explosions echoing in the back of his mind. Ironhorse felt as though he were back in Vietnam. Body standing in a long empty corridor, his mind somewhere else . . . he could feel the heat, the choking humidity. Smell the cordite and blood . . . sweat broke out on his skin, a numbing chill filling his limbs, his bones aching with the cold, an uncomfortable contradiction between hot and cold. He lifted his hand, palm against his forehead. His skin felt flushed with fever . . .

“Which way should we go, Colonel?”

Returned to the present.

Ironhorse wasn’t sure, no sense of direction. Both directions looked to lead nowhere. He felt lost. Turned to the right. Brightly lit, the hallway stretched on for miles, or so it seemed. The floor, its original format unknown, now covered in dirt, so much dust it had hardened over time, giving the floor a new surface. The walls were pale and stained, paint cracking and peeling away. He could see the outline of a door, another one further down. They offered hope, until he stopped to think about it. It was possible each room held an occupant similar to the one behind him . . . he didn’t want to see another child, not in that condition, one was enough . . . it was enough for both of them.

Turned to the left, everything the same. He didn’t know which way to go. Closed his eyes, allowed his instinct to lead him. Nothing. Damn instinct wasn’t working, staying silent, mind pulling him in neither direction . . .

Except it was.

Well not really.

Instinct was telling him to wait.

For what . . . anything could be coming. He opened his eyes as the feeling of frustration and hopelessness began to boil in his gut. He wanted to strike out, hit something . . .

A flash of movement in his peripheral. Ironhorse’s gaze flickered left, in time to see a silhouette so familiar, his heart clenching with emotion and hope. It couldn’t be. A glimpse of blue jeans, denim jacket, a plait of grey hair.

“This way,” said Ironhorse, moving quickly to the left, trusting what he’d seen. Words echoing . . .

Trust in yourself

The way out exposed.

He had to slow his steps, moving too fast for Debi to keep close, falling behind, her fingers slipping from his belt. When she regained her grip, they continued at a steady pace, making their way down the hallway. Ironhorse could feel the strength he’d recovered ebbing away, his steps becoming clumsy, feet beginning to drag across the floor. Not good. Sweat soaked into the back of his shirt, chilling his skin. He shivered, jaw clenched against the pain cramping through muscles.

Up ahead, another flare of motion. Not what he’d seen before. A black cloak, a hood full of shadows.

Shit.

“Back! Go back.”

Ironhorse moved backward, careful not to trip over Debi, the girl not moving as fast as he’d like. Turning to encourage her, he stumbled. A smell so foul, rotten . . . bout of nausea bringing him down. He lost control, knees weak, he fell onto his side, barely missing Debi, the young girl falling with him. Rolling over onto hands and knees, just in time, Ironhorse vomited. Not enough food in his stomach, bile splattering the floor beneath him. He gagged as his stomach convulsed. Arms and legs trembling, the sweat dripped from his face.

Felt like death warmed over . . .

Except he didn’t.

Not really.

He felt worse.

So much worse.

“Colonel, get up,” said Debi, tugging on his arm, not enough strength in her limbs to get him up on to his feet. “It’s coming.”

Lifting his head, he looked back over his shoulder.

It came toward them, slow, methodical, every step precise . . . savouring the moment. Shadows moved within the hood, shapes dancing over each other, fighting for control. A clicking sound, voice rumbling, gravel grating on fractured nerves . . . “Naughty boy.”

The nausea increased. An ignition of pain within his skull. Ironhorse felt faint, ready to succumb. Lax fingers released the knife. His muscles felt heavy . . . too heavy, Ironhorse falling back onto his side. Debi still gripped his belt, the strength of her promise keeping her by his side. He wanted to tell her to run . . . hide but he couldn’t find his voice . . . his breath. Lungs painful, he couldn’t take a breath . . .

Debi picked up the knife.

No.

“Debi . . . no.” The words came out strangled, his voice hoarse, weak.

Then everything stopped.

His lungs collapsing.

Everything going black . . .

. . . a sudden restart, painful, Ironhorse gasping in pain.

The nausea quickly abated, the pain rolling away, leaving his skull feeling empty. Strength returned, lungs reacting, dragging in a deep breath, releasing it and taking in another. An odd feeling, Ironhorse not waiting to understand . . . to figure out what was happening to him. He scrambled to his feet, crawling his way back up.

Debi stepped back, eyes wide, watching him . . . a different kind of fear showing in her eyes. She brought the knife forward, pointing it at his stomach. Tears filled her eyes as she took another step back, getting too far away from him, leaving herself open to danger. He had to get her back, quickly.

“I’m okay, Debi,” said Ironhorse, raising his hands, palms outward, a placating gesture. A quick look back over his shoulder, the thing gone. Ironhorse frowned, things tying together. Was the thing responsible for the pain and nausea? In serious trouble if it were. “I don’t know what just happened but I’m okay now.”

Promise.

“I thought . . .”

“I know what you thought, but I’m okay and I apologise for scaring you.”

“I thought you were dead. Your eyes were open but you weren’t . . .” She shivered, her body shaking with emotion. “I put my hand in front of your mouth. Like they do on TV . . . you weren’t breathing.”

Not exactly what he’d thought. Unconscious long enough to scare the shit out of her, make her think he wasn’t himself anymore . . . left her to defend for herself but not . . . not dead.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Ironhorse. He still felt a little dizzy, an ach settling at the base of his skull. Had everything stopped? It must have because he believed what she was telling him. “How long?”

She looked away.

“Debi. How long?”

“I don’t know . . . I thought you left me.”

He stepped closer, grateful when she didn’t react, didn’t move away. “Debi. I need to know. How long do you think . . .” Unable to finish, body becoming numb with the thought . . . not of dying. The thought of leaving her alone . . . leaving her to die, alone. It made him sick to his stomach.

“I think . . . a few minutes.”

It was his turn to take a step back. A few minutes. He’d stopped breathing for a few minutes. He didn’t want to believe it but knew it was true. Debi wouldn’t lie to him. She wouldn’t make something like that up . . . he understood her fear.

“You thought . . .”

Debi nodded. “I thought you were a zombie.”

He wanted to smile. To laugh at the idea but he couldn’t. He didn’t find this funny. Concentrated on something else instead. “Did you see where it went?”

“No. I thought you were dead, Colonel. I thought you left me.”

“Come here.” He stepped toward her, took the knife from her hand and hugged her. She cried against his chest, loud sobs crushing his soul. Didn’t feel it was right to remind her he’d made a promise, both of them aware the promises were now empty. Both of them aware they had little chance of escape.

This way

Ironhorse’s head snapped up and he turned toward the sound of the voice. His Grandfather stood in the hallway. Doubt crept into his chest, anxiety a painful bite. Was it his Grandfather? Had it been his Grandfather earlier? He’d trusted himself, following the glimpse of his past down the hallway, decision leading them to the Boogeyman. Could it have been a trick? Was this a trick, the thing trying to draw them closer, dragging them into danger without a fight? He didn’t know. Wasn’t sure he could trust his instinct anymore.

“Who is that?” said Debi, looking down the hallway, staring at the older man standing a short distance away.

Ironhorse hesitated, still not wanting to believe what he was seeing.

Trust yourself

You kill people.

“You can see him?”

Wiping the tears from her face, Debi nodded against his chest. “Who is he?

“It might be my Grandfather.” He wasn’t willing to give her anymore.

“Really . . . but . . . does that mean . . .”

“No, he hasn’t been here for a long time.”

“Is he here to help us?”

“I think so.”

“You’re not sure?”

“No.”

Not anymore.

“Why not?”

Ironhorse looked down at her. Debi stared back at him, hope glazing in her eyes. “What do you think?”

“He looks like you.”

There was a glancing resemblance.

“I like him,” said Debi.

Debi pulled away, gripped his belt with her right and moved forward toward his Grandfather, forcing Ironhorse to follow her. Still pushy. Still liked it, her approach showed determination, her will to survive so strong. He wasn’t going to let her down. Wasn’t going to damage the level of trust . . .

You kill people.

His first step difficult, mind expecting his body to falter, his legs to stumble. He held firm, managing one step and then another, finally getting into a rhythm, one foot in front of the other. Still felt dizzy, not as bad, the nausea taking a respite, the ache in his skull more irritating than painful. More confident, he stopped, pulling Debi close, beside him.

She looked up at him, a question in her eyes.

He shrugged.

Debi smiled. At what . . . well at him but why, he didn’t know. Civilians confused the hell of out him. His gaze followed his Grandfather, long plait trailing down his back, as he turned a corner. Ironhorse frowned. He couldn’t see a corner . . . couldn’t even see a door, an opening. Not much help to them if his Grandfather had vanished into a wall; dry sense of humour always so difficult to understand . . . unless . . .

A faster pace set, Debi had to jog beside him to keep up . . .

The hallway seemed to curve, a straight line changing into something else, shapes moving . . .

Ironhorse stopped, an abrupt halt, too late to protect Debi from the frightening sight in front of them. Children, at least six, huddled in a group, shoulders bumping as they swayed like a moving ocean, a tide rolling in and out. Small and thin, dressed in tattered pyjamas . . . boys . . . girls. Mouths wide, empty caverns . . . their heads twitching, an ugly tick.

Six children had gone missing in the first year. Had they found each other wandering the hallway? Company kept, staying close, searching for a way out; finding none, watching as one by one they changed into something else. It must have been terrifying for them.

Ironhorse pulled his gaze away . . .

His Grandfather in the distance, still moving forward.

No.

To keep moving, to catch up . . .

They had to pass the children.

Ironhorse turned, hunched down, close to Debi, looking her in the eye. He swallowed, a painful lump in his throat, chest tight. Knew the reaction his words would cause. They couldn’t continue, not until . . . she needed to know. She deserved so much better than this. Why hadn’t he been persistent? Given an order. Why couldn’t he have been more of a bastard? He shouldn’t have allowed Debi to come with them but he had and now . . . damn civilians.

“We have to go past them.”

Debi looked away, at the children. Looked back at Ironhorse. Brave and determined, her expression her answer. This kid was full of surprises. “Ready?”

She nodded. “Ready.”

“Hold on as tight as you want to,” said Ironhorse. “Close your eyes if you need to. I’ll lead you past them.”

Debi looked grateful, closing her eyes, trusting his words, his voice . . . him. She came in close, wrapping both her hands around his belt, holding tight. She trusted him. Put all her faith . . . put her life in his hands . . .

You kill people.

Ironhorse knew she hadn’t meant anything by it, knowledge and curiosity guiding her thoughts, her words but he couldn’t stop thinking about it; three words and they nagged at him with continuity. He was conflicted. She trusted him. He knew that, believed it but he was beginning to doubt the why. Did she trust him because she respected him, admired him, believed with all her heart that she could trust him to protect her or was the trust there because she knew he could kill . . . because he did kill?

If they survived, he would have to sit her down, tell her he killed out of necessity . . . in defence of others. It wasn’t something he did out of joy, out of a need for violence. He wasn’t a murderer, a killer . . . he was a good man, why couldn’t they see that.

You kill people.

Mom says you’re a good man. She said it’s hard to see through all the Military maleness.

Is that what Suzanne really thought of him? Is that what they all thought of him? Military first, a man second . . . were they really that blind to the man he was? If they hated him so much . . . if they thought so very little of him . . . why did he bother? Why did he stay? He could leave now. Just walk away from everyone and everything. From Debi . . . He could walk away without guilt or regret, find a dark corner of solitude and drift away . . .

“Colonel?”

Ironhorse blinked, pulled from his thoughts. Understood something was playing with his mind, creating self-doubt, pushing him to leave Debi behind and it had been working. More caution needed, he had to concentrate. He could feel his headache building . . .

Is that why his heart had stopped? Had it been an attempt to get Debi to leave him? Had it tried to play with her mind, failing, resorting to something more physical to separate them? It hadn’t worked. Debi had stayed with him waiting to see if he had become something else.

“Colonel.”

Ironhorse shifted his gaze, looking down at Debi. She was looking back at him, the fear back in her eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, unable to find the words, voice caught in his throat. Snapped his mouth shut. Deep breath. He was thinking too much, the thoughts and questions tearing through his mind distracting him from the objective. He had to stop thinking and start reacting . . . too many emotions getting in the way.

Hurry

The voice in his head pulled him forward, Ironhorse following his Grandfather’s instructions. He stumbled . . . not again. Not now. Not when they were so close to the group of children. Body disloyal, Ironhorse began to feel frail, an old man – an unusual feeling – muscles trembling. He needed to sit down. He needed to rest, an overwhelming urge to stop, to lie down and die . . . another trick.

Don’t stop

Debi waited patiently beside him, still so trustful, her grip so tight, it caused Ironhorse to grimace, the embrace around his waist too tight. The nausea returned, a pungent odor drifting across his senses. The smell of death taken as a warning, Ironhorse rushed forward, taking Debi with him . . .

The smell of death his only warning.

Chapter Text

Appearing in front of Ironhorse, a magician’s trick, it stood tall, cloak drifting behind it, movement formed, no breeze felt. Ironhorse struggled to a stop, heels scraping across the floor, balance shifting forward, able to stay upright. Debi slapped up against him, before falling back, her grip on Ironhorse’s belt keeping her off the floor. Hearing Debi’s fear, her breath quick and harsh, Ironhorse stepped back, a slow movement, gaze held firm, unable and unwilling to look away.

Its arm snapped forward, long fingers curling around Ironhorse’s throat, pulling him away from Debi. Body lifted, space created beneath his feet. So much like last time, Ironhorse suddenly aware of what was about to happen, not looking forward to it, not wanting to lose consciousness, not again, certain his skull wouldn’t survive any more blows; one concussion on top of another not always a good thing.

The thing paused, its face shifting forward within the cloak, the shadows retreating. It came closer. Ironhorse tried to move away, turn his head . . . anything. Couldn’t move within its tight grip. It lifted its thumb, pressing it into Ironhorse’s right cheek, using it to turn Ironhorse’s head away, forcing his eyes to look somewhere else. Heart pounding, imagination running wild, Ironhorse unsure of what was about to happen . . .

Debi was looking up at him, her features frozen with fear, her fingers still wrapped around his belt, still holding on . . . still trusting him, even in his current predicament. Whatever was about to happen, he didn’t want her to see it. About to voice a warning, to tell her to look away . . . tell her to let go and run . . . to follow his Grandfather . . .

It tucked its face against Ironhorse’s throat, drew in a long breath through its flat nose, sniffing the sweat on Ironhorse’s skin, the touch turning Ironhorse’s stomach. It snatched its head back, screaming in anger and frustration. Grip held firm, it pushed Ironhorse away, turned his head back, holding him up, their gazes level.

Words spoken, the tone filled with silent anger. “Where is he?”

Taken by surprise, Ironhorse frowned in confusion. What the hell?

“The man who protects you. Where is he?”

Movement on the other side of the thing, not the children. A flicker of blue denim. Its grip around Ironhorse’s throat grew stronger, tightening, pulling him closer, putrid breath ghosting across Ironhorse’s skin. Pain began to crawl along the back of his skull, pushing deep, words whispered so only he could hear.

“If I can’t take you, I will take the child.”

You kill people.

Not thinking, only reacting to the words, Ironhorse struck upward, palm of his left hand slamming up against the thing’s jaw. Its head snapped back, slowly returned to its original position, a smile creeping over its face. Ironhorse gripped the handle of the knife, drawing it back . . .

It tutted, tongue clicking against its teeth.

It was going to retaliate. “Debi! Let go. Now!”

He could only hope she had listened, done as he’d asked. No time to find out, already moving through the air, his body hitting the wall. Only thrown a short distance but there was enough strength used to make it painful, the wall cracking beneath the onslaught. He felt his shoulder give under the impact, grateful when it moved back into place. He could only go one way; down. Ironhorse fell, collapsing onto the floor, the knife falling from his fingers. Lurching up onto his knees, he tilted, falling forward, hands reeling, searching for something to stop his body from going back down. He had to fight back . . . trained to fight back, to defend . . . Debi.

Something struck his right side, pulling the air from his lungs, a painful gasp, throwing him off balance once more. Bones giving in, cracking, the pain tearing through his torso, Ironhorse landed on his back. He curled his knees up, rolling onto his undamaged side. Fuck, that hurt. Eyes tearing with the pain, making every attempt to get back up, Ironhorse searched for its position. It was moving in toward him, intent on creating more damage.

“Leave him alone!”

Debi went to his defence, Ironhorse not sure, if he should be angry, fearful or damn proud. It was a stupid move on her part but he couldn’t help but admire her courage. Debi a distraction, it turned away from Ironhorse, attention now on someone else. Body cramping with the pain in his chest, his lungs fighting for breath, Ironhorse watched, waiting for an opportunity.

It moved quickly, distancing itself from Ironhorse, no longer interested, as it grew closer to Debi, hovering over her. Debi stepped back, nowhere to go, her back against the wall. So close to Ironhorse but so far away.

Debi screamed.

It took Debi’s hand, pulling her away from Ironhorse and down the long hallway. Debi fought back, trying to pull herself from its grip, too young to have enough strength to break its hold. Even if she had the strength, she wouldn’t have managed it, the thing too strong.

“No . . .”

Aware of the danger, the threat of more physical violence, Ironhorse looked for his battle knife. Treacherous fingers wrapping around the hilt of the knife, Ironhorse ignored the pain and shifted his body until he had the wall against his own back. Using the wall as a crutch, he used his knees and pushed himself up. He clenched his jaw against the pain circulating through his side, chest tight with his struggles to take a deep enough breath to get air into his lungs.

Fear fuelling his body with adrenaline, Ironhorse moved. How he managed it, he didn’t know; too much pain, too little breath, his body weak. Condition of his body not stopping him, Ironhorse kept moving, now close enough to strike. He reached forward, free hand grabbing its left shoulder. Digging his feet in, Ironhorse pulled it back and with his right hand, he drove the knife into its back; contradicting movement, the thing moving backward, the knife moving forward, his aim accurate, the blade cutting through what Ironhorse hoped was a spine. Making the decision to leave the knife where it was, Ironhorse turned toward Debi.

A deep growl in its throat, it let go of Debi and reached behind its back . . .

Not waiting to see what happened next, Ironhorse grabbed Debi’s wrist and pulled her toward him. Turned her away from it and pushed her forward, ahead of him, Ironhorse keeping his body between Debi and the thing behind him.

“Run.”

Debi hesitated, fingers of her right hand reaching for the belt around Ironhorse’s waist. Taking her hand in his, Ironhorse began to run, giving Debi no choice but to keep up. He could feel each step, cracked ribs moving in a way nature had never meant them to move, the pain becoming almost unbearable. Breath already short, it caught in his chest . . . so close to the group of children. No time to stop, not willing to look back . . . not willing to take the time to slow down, allow Debi the courtesy of closing her eyes.

Ironhorse kept her in front of his body, urging her forward when she did begin to slow down. About to pass the small horde, Ironhorse shifted his position, putting himself between Debi and the kids. He felt their limbs, their shoulders brush against his side . . .

A bone, numbing chill shot through his body, joints in his limbs seizing. Ironhorse stumbled, fell, landing on already damaged ribs. The coldness in his body quickly forgotten, Ironhorse cried out when the pain exploded across his side and chest, fractures turning into clean breaks; bones snapping so loud Ironhorse could hear the sound over the blood rushing past his ears.

Pain the center of his attention, Ironhorse allowed his head to slump forward, forehead bouncing off the floor. Used the last of his remaining breath to curse his luck, their situation, his failure. Voice loud, the language colourful, he swore until he had nothing left. He could no longer breathe. Silently cursed his stupidity, wasting his breath for no other reason than to let out his frustrations. Losing control of your emotions in the midst of battle was stupid and risky and he’d done just that, his training thrown out the window.

Damn, stupid idiot.

Cursed himself one more time just for the hell of it.

Debi, his only reason to keep going, pulled at his shoulder. She was yelling at him to get up, tears sounding in her voice, her fear heavy in her tone. She must have thought he was leaving her . . . again. He tried to move. Couldn’t. It felt like his side was on fire, ribs set alight and left to burn. Wasn’t even sure he wanted to move, too aware, knowledge gained from previous experience . . . the pain not always worth it.

Words fighting to break through his barrier, Debi continued to yell, did something that tore at Ironhorse’s heart . . . she began to beg.

“Please, Colonel. Please don’t leave me. Please!”

Debi was worth it. He had to keep going . . . for her. This was who he was. He would die to protect her. Felt damn sure, that was how this was going to end, with his death . . . with Debi’s, it was inevitable but he would stay alive for as long as he could. Keep Debi alive for as long as he could and when the time came . . .

“Please, you can’t leave me here. Colonel, please.”

Fingers wrapped around his ankle, the pressure becoming painful, the touch so cold he could feel it through his jeans, the leather of his boot. It wasn’t Debi, he knew that much, the twelve-year-old in front of him, doing everything she could to get him moving. Fear gripped his heart, the anxiety biting painfully. It was so hard to breathe. Curiosity was going to get him killed . . . he wasn’t a damn cat; lifted his head, the movement slow, his head aching with the effort. About to look back over his shoulder, Debi’s warning, her voice telling him not to look, stopped him, his imagination taking over.

Ironhorse felt his body shift, moving backward, a violent tug on his ankle. Shit. Pain spiked through his side, his chest. He clenched his jaw, struggled to breathe through the pain, his head falling forward, smacking against the floor. Managed to take a short, quick breath through his nose, drawing a foul odor into his sinuses. It was gut wrenching, a smell of piss and shit . . . Closed his eyes, tried not to think about what these kids had gone through before they . . .

Debi screamed at him, revealing her own fear and frustration. “Get up!”

Found it so difficult to disobey, her fear driving him forward. He pulled back, drawing his knee up beneath him, the hold on his ankle reluctant to let him go. No option. No time to be careful, Ironhorse rolled over onto his back. Tried to ignore the pain squeezing his chest, a difficult thing to do. Lifted his head, looked down at his leg. Breath catching in his throat, he regretted his decision to move, wishing he’d stayed where he was, the image in front of him burned into his memory; he would never forget it.

She looked frail, skin so pale, limbs so thin but her grip was strong, her fingers long. Hair blonde, her blue eyes now black, mouth open wide, her scream silent. Easy to recognise, so much like Debi. This child’s face was on one of the missing children posters on the table back at the Dance on Through Motel. If he didn’t do something, if he didn’t stop Debi’s possible future from becoming a reality . . . she looked so much like Debi.

Another tug on his leg, so brutal he could feel it in his hip. Stomach churning at thought, Ironhorse drew his other leg back and kicked out at the child, heel of his boot striking her forehead, her skin shredding away from bone. Leg dropping back to the floor, Ironhorse could only stare, guilt ripping through his chest. It didn’t matter she looked dead, chest so still. It didn’t matter she intended to cause him harm. None of it mattered; he’d caused injury to a child.

Moving closer, she snapped her jaws at him, revealing small, white teeth. Fingers crept along his leg. Swallowing the guilt, he kicked out a second time. Her left cheek collapsed beneath the blow. He hated this. Kicked out again, her neck snapping. She let go, fingers uncurling from his ankle. Right cheek resting against her shoulder, she sat back in a crouched position and stared back at him, waiting.

Ironhorse felt numb, the pain in his side, his chest a distant memory.

You kill people.

If there had been any chance of bringing them back . . . if he managed to kill the Boogeyman, return the kids to their families . . . if there was any life left in them . . .

“Colonel! Get up!”

Damn pushy.

It wasn’t easy. Body trembling with emotion, Ironhorse struggled, fought damn hard to get back up onto his feet. A simple thing so hard to do. Debi helped, keeping him balanced as he wrestled his way back up, pulling him away from the group of children. They were watching him, black eyes staring at him. It made him uncomfortable . . . unwell. Standing on unstable legs, his balance crooked, Ironhorse felt dizzy, still nauseated, head aching . . . a tight vice squeezing his skull, pain in his side returning with a vengeance. He raised his right hand, palm against his forehead and tried to take a breath. A small amount of success, air trickling into his lungs.

He jerked with surprise when he felt something against his waist, realized it was Debi taking up position, holding onto his belt. Wasn’t sure if he could handle it, pain snapping at his side every time she would pull at the belt. Slow to comprehend, he finally registered the fact Debi was standing next to his injured side. If she did pull on the belt, the pressure would be against his other side. Damn kid was smart, very aware of what was happening around her.

Far enough away from the pack of children, Ironhorse decided to take a moment. Told himself he needed to make some ground rules, instil in Debi the need for her survival, her life more important than his. Ignored the fact that he didn’t think he could go any further, ready to drop and die where he was. He had to make her see reason.

“Debi,” said Ironhorse, stopping their movement, turning Debi so she was facing him. He wanted to lean over, be at the same level so he could look her in the eye. Knew that if he did, he would keep going down, aware he wouldn’t be able to get back up. “The next time I go down, don’t wait for me. Keep going. Follow my Grandfather, he’ll show you the way out.”

“No.” Debi shifted her gaze, looking back at the children. “No.”

Decided honesty was his best chance. “Debi, I’m--”

“No.” Turning away from him, Debi pulled on his belt, Ironhorse automatically taking a step to follow her.

Ironhorse grabbed her arm, forcing her to stop, turning her body but she refused to look at him. “Debi--”

“We have to keep going,” said Debi.

“We can’t. I can’t. Not like--”

“Your Grandfather will be waiting.”

Deep breath.

Except he couldn’t take one.

Small, shuttering breath instead.

“Debi--”

“I like him.”

Damn it.

“You’re starting to sound like Blackwood.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“No!”

He had expected tears, an expression of fear. Not this. Not her ability to behave so much like Blackwood, her stubborn betrayal leaving him breathless. Ironhorse looked back down the hallway. The children still gathered in a group, returned to their previous positions, bodies swaying, their heads twitching, now impartial, interest in Ironhorse lost. Turned to his right. Saw his Grandfather standing a short distance away, waiting . . . waiting for them.

“Move it, soldier!”

Snapping his head back toward Debi, Ironhorse narrowed his eyes. Unfazed, she looked back at him. He knew what she was doing. Too damn smart for her own good. She was taking on the role of the protector. That wasn’t her job. It was his. He didn’t need protecting . . . He could see the doubt filling her eyes, worried she’d done the wrong thing. Ironhorse wanted to wipe the doubt away. He gave in, caved under that expression. Kids, they were worse than civilians.

“You’re right.” For now. “We stay together.”

“Can we please go home now?”

We can try.

Not trusting his voice, Ironhorse nodded, wrapped his arm around his broken ribs and began to move down the hallway toward his Grandfather, following when he turned and walked away from them. They moved slowly, not fast enough, Ironhorse unable to increase his pace. Debi, more patient than he deserved, stayed with him. She didn’t drag him forward, not wanting to force him into moving beyond his endurance, encouraging him, soft-spoken words, her tone confident in his abilities.

Every step caused a stab of pain to flow through him, gathering with intensity across his ribcage. Tried to hide his limp, his entire right side still burning, his leg giving way beneath the weight of the pain. Breath short, his lungs empty, the effort to take in air too much of an effort. He knew he was close to breaking point . . . too close. With every step, all he wanted to do was stop, collapse into a heap and stay there. His body kept hesitating, taking longer each time, each step becoming too difficult, the pain becoming unbearable. He felt light-headed, his strength ebbing away. He just needed to last a little longer; last long enough to get Debi back home.

His Grandfather stopped in the middle of the hallway, turned his head, gaze staring at the wall. Not just a wall . . . the outline of a door. The way out? Ironhorse paused, waited, mind expectant, body weak. If it came back now, when they were so close . . .

“Debi . . .” said Ironhorse.

“No.”

Damn it.

His Grandfather smiled.

Was everyone was against him?

Knew if he stopped to think about it . . . then yes, everyone was against him.

“Stay behind me,” said Ironhorse, not caring that his tone reflected his anger. Damn civilians just didn’t give a crap about orders.

“You’re angry with me.”

“This isn’t the time.”

“I’m sorry,” said Debi. “I don’t want you to die.”

He knew it was wrong to ignore her but they were running out of time. If that thing was going to come back, it will be now, when they were so close to a means of escape. Ironhorse breathed through his nose, little air getting into his lungs. No smell of decay, his nausea remaining in its current state; very unpleasant. The Boogeyman not close, it was time to move and they had to move quickly.

Clenching his jaw, Ironhorse took a step forward . . .

A rush of hot air behind them. They staggered forward, the air a physical movement, carrying enough strength to create a reaction. Ironhorse stumbled as he looked back over his shoulder. It was there, standing so still, its cloak a soft wave of motion; the small group of children gathered behind it. Holding Ironhorse’s battle knife in its right hand, it tilted its head to the side, an aggressive tick made.

Ironhorse pulled Debi’s hand from the belt around his waist, pushing her toward the door. “Go!”

“Colonel?” She didn’t go far, quickly moving back to his side, her refusal to leave him fuelling his anger.

“Damn it, Debi. Do what I tell you!”

Tears in her eyes, Debi let go and ran to the door. Ironhorse tried to stay close, to keep up with her. He staggered to the wall and using it as a physical support, limped his way to where Debi was stubbornly waiting for him by the door. Her expression forced the anger to drain away, guilt and regret nudging their way into his soul. He shouldn’t have yelled at her, nothing he could do about it now . . . always making people angry. If they just did, what he asked. Why did they always have to argue, refuse to obey a simple instruction, especially when all he was trying to do was save their lives. Civilians.

She was still crying when he nudged her aside, gentle in his intent. Fingers gripping the doorknob, he glanced back, the thing still standing there, still watching. What was it waiting for? The metal was cold, chilling his flesh, the feeling walking the length of his arm. He opened the door. More afraid of keeping Debi behind him, Ironhorse took her arm and pushed her into the room, stepping into the dark space behind her and closed the door.

The shadows were pale, faint enough to allow them to see. His Grandfather stood on the other side of the room, back to a wall. Ironhorse watched as his Grandfather turned, took a step and disappeared through the wall. It had to be the way out. This was it. It was now or never.

“Go. And don’t wait for me.”

She looked up at him.

“I’ll be right behind you,” said Ironhorse. “I promise.”

No hesitation, Debi followed his instructions, slowly making her way across the room. Her footsteps soft, she stumbled. What little breath he could take in caught in his throat. Ironhorse stepped forward, away from the door. Debi regained her balance and continued, reaching the wall in a matter of seconds but it had felt like hours. Still stubborn, she turned around to face the room . . . faced Ironhorse and waited, an obstinate expression on her face.

Vulgarity on the tip of his tongue, Ironhorse stepped forward and carefully made his own way to the other side of the room, feet catching on the floor every time he looked behind him, gaze searching for the threat he knew was coming. His lungs ached to take in a deep breath, anxiety causing them to work overtime, chest hitching. Surprised when he made it to Debi’s side without any hindrance other than his own body.

What in the hell was it waiting for?

Reaching out, a tentative touch, Ironhorse splayed the fingers of his left hand against the wall, a large dark stain beneath his fingers. He expected it to give way under his touch, for his hand to fall through, instead, the wall felt warm, peaceful. . . solid. This couldn’t be the way out. He let out a breath of irritation and defeat. His Grandfather had led them to a dead end.

Run

Run where? Into a solid wall? Then it hit him, a hard slap of understanding. They couldn’t just step through it, they had to take a running leap of faith. He was convinced, not sure, if Debi would be. He turned to face her, a quick glance around the room first before settling his gaze on her.

“Debi,” said Ironhorse.

She looked up at him, still so trustful, even after his show of anger. “I don’t care if you promise, Colonel. I don’t want to leave without you.”

Tried to keep a calm facade. “We can’t just step through the wall. We have to run and jump . . .”

Her expression changed, confusion taking control. She looked away from him, taking a moment, allowing her brain to try to comprehend his words. He’d done it often enough himself, hard to think when someone was staring back at you. Taking too long, Ironhorse gripped her shoulders with a soft embrace, a gentle shake to gain her attention. She stumbled, her balance shifting. Something was wrong.

“Debi?”

She turned her gaze back to him. Blinked, the movement so slow, her eyes a darker shade of blue . . . too dark, a change of colour.

“I don’t feel well,” said Debi.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

They were running out of time.

They had to leave. Now.

It made no sound, Ironhorse only recognising its company when it shifted through the shadows, its form darker than the shades of black and grey. Ironhorse stepped forward, drawing Debi behind his body, his last act, a final attempt to protect her. He reached for a weapon, the gun tucked into his belt, fingers grasping the butt of the Beretta, grateful he hadn’t lost it earlier. Knew it wouldn’t be any help, not against the thing standing in front of him but . . .

Ironhorse had two choices; take the risk to try to escape or he could end it here and now. He didn’t want Debi to turn, had promised her he wouldn’t let her end up like those other kids. Ironhorse knew he wouldn’t survive another confrontation. Wasn’t sure Debi would be coherent enough to take a running jump through the wall while it was distracted with him. He wasn’t sure about anything anymore . . . no longer certain he could get Debi back to her mother. Decided it might be best if he did the right thing . . .

A bullet to her brain, a quick and painless death . . . if Debi wasn’t already beyond help.

It clicked its tongue, tilted its head.

Ironhorse understood; it knew what he was thinking. It would stop him before he could pull the trigger. It would stop them if they tried to escape through the wall. Failure heavy, his shoulders slumped, his body sagging. It was over.

Smiling, it stepped closer. Waited.

He knew what it was waiting for. Debi was turning. It didn’t need to do anything, not unless Ironhorse tried to carry out his intentions of making it all so much easier for Debi. Even more difficult, he had to do it without it or Debi knowing. If Debi came to the realisation that after everything they’d been through, he was going to kill her . . .

It rushed forward. Ironhorse raised his weapon in response, an automatic reaction, grimacing when the movement caused the pain to rip through his side.

It stopped, so close, hesitant. Something wasn’t right.

“Shoot it in the head,” said Debi, her voice hoarse, sounding like an experienced smoker.

He couldn’t take his eyes off the thing in front of him. Couldn’t look at Debi. So quick, it would reach Ironhorse in the blink of an eye. “It’s not a zombie.”

Its head twitched as it took a step back, its gaze shifting to the side, away from Ironhorse.

No, it couldn’t be that simple.

A flash of blue denim and grey hair in his peripheral . . .

It feared his Grandfather?

If it was so afraid . . . his Grandfather capable of doing something to stop it. Why didn’t he do anything to stop it? Ironhorse felt sick with confusion, too many questions without answers.

“Shoot it in the head.”

He had to do something. If he could distract it, long enough to turn the gun on Debi . . . Ironhorse pulled the trigger, his aim true, the bullet smashing through its forehead. It staggered back, fell, collapsed onto the floor.

Seconds passed, Ironhorse fighting his balance, his own body tilting, the recoil of the gunshot almost enough to send him to his knees, shock and adrenaline keeping him upright. He waited. No real understanding as to why. He should be moving, escaping through the wall . . .

A basic necessity to be sure, Ironhorse needed to know it was dead. He had to know it couldn’t continue. A strong need to understand it couldn’t move on to another town. He couldn’t leave, not until he was confident it couldn’t take any more children. He needed to know he hadn’t failed, that Debi would be safe . . .

It didn’t move, so still, its cloak motionless.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” said Ironhorse, the words whispered, afraid if he spoke too loud, it would move, retaliate, kill him, leaving Debi on her own to turn. He couldn’t believe a bullet to the head had killed it. Couldn’t believe it had been that easy . . .

“I told you.”

Pulling his gaze away, Ironhorse looked back at Debi. She looked pale, sick, a thin veil of sweat on her skin. Pain etched in her features, her body shook and her legs trembled. Aware of what was about to happen, Ironhorse moved, not quickly enough, Debi collapsing onto the floor.

No. Please. No.

Dropping his weapon, Ironhorse fell to his knees beside Debi and cradled her in his arms, against his chest. He checked for a pulse . . . if she died now, so close . . . Still alive, heartbeat so slow, so weak. No time left. They couldn’t stay any longer. Ironhorse could feel his own weakness, still dizzy, the vertigo stronger than it had been, the headache still living at the back of his skull, the nausea still rippling through his stomach. Killing the thing hadn’t been enough, this place, this environment draining the life from their bodies.

Preparing himself, Ironhrose took a breath, not enough air getting into his lungs. It was going to be brutal, he knew that, no doubt more painful than he could ever expect but he had no choice; Debi dying just a little bit more with every passing second. Using his knees, Ironhorse pushed himself up, taking Debi with him, her body held in his arms like a small child. Pain erupted in his side, clamping around his chest, a small whimper escaping. He could feel the darkness creeping toward him and breaking through the edges of his consciousness . . . closed his eyes . . .

Not now.

Snubbing the pain, the need to fall down and stay down, Ironhorse took a moment, allowed his body to gain control over the threat of a loss of consciousness. Limbs trembling, legs making their own threats, the darkness retreated, clarity returning once more. The pain grew, pounding against his ribs; worried he’d caused more damage, sharp bone tearing through muscle or worse, his lung.

It didn’t matter, so ready to give his own life.

Ironhorse stepped back, giving himself enough room and before he could think about what he was about to do, what the result would be to his own injury, he made a silent plea and ran toward the wall. It seemed to open up before him, giving him a glimpse into another world . . . his own world.

Heart clenching with relief, unaware of the movement behind him, Ironhorse jumped through the door created. Breath torn from his lungs, he had only one thought; this was going to hurt like a bastard-son-of-a-bitch.

The distance short, Ironhorse already turning his body; if he landed on his feet, he wouldn’t be able to stay upright beneath the weight of Debi and the pain gorging itself on his insides; his intention to land on his back, Debi protected, kept safe from injury.

He could feel her warm breath against his throat; hear the scream of surprise from her mother . . . feel the pain explode when he landed on his back. Pretty damn sure, he’d blacked out for a second or two. Slid across the floor, the carpet rough beneath him, coming to a stop when his head slammed into something solid and unmovable. Damn. Almost as painful as the landing . . .

“Debi!” Suzanne moved forward, disregarded Ironhorse and tore her daughter from his embrace.

Tried to tell himself Suzanne was emotional, grateful to have her daughter back.

“Colonel,” said Norton.

Gaze following the direction of the voice, Ironhorse looked up. Grimaced when he found Norton’s features hovering above him. Realised the unmovable object was Gertrude. Swore. He’ll be in trouble if he caused any damage.

“Nice to have you back.”

It was nice to be back but he couldn’t pull in enough air to speak. Lungs already starving the landing hadn’t helped, only making things worse. He blinked, keeping his eyes open such a difficult task. Had to make sure Debi was all right. Couldn’t breathe. The pain beyond anything he’d endured previously, head and side screaming for attention, one trying to outdo the other. Panic bubbled inside his chest, the anxiety sending him into a different kind of hell, one he had never experienced.

“Colonel?”

He struggled to breath, to pull in a breath, even a small amount, anything that would satisfy his lungs. He knew his lungs weren’t the problem, his diaphragm seizing but he couldn’t stop the increasing panic. Everything hit him at once, physically and mentally, body crossing the line of accepted hostility; it could tolerate no more. He needed to relax and wait it out. His diaphragm would start working again.

“He’s hurt,” said Debi as she tried to pull herself from her mother’s arms, Suzanne reluctant to let her go.

Debi’s voice a great relief; she was going to be fine. Ironhorse closed his eyes.

An open palm on the side of his face. Not enough strength to open his eyes to see who it was. Didn’t really care; too busy trying to take in a breath. Couldn’t, the panic increasing. He thought he would die a violent death, a fate he’d accepted long ago. Didn’t think he would suffocate to death on the floor of dirty motel room because his damn diaphragm refused to work.

“Relax, Colonel,” said Blackwood, his right hand against Ironhorse’s cheek, a touch of encouragement.

He was trying. Still couldn’t breathe, each attempt causing the pain to stab through his side. His panic continued to grow, his limbs jerking with the effort. A subconscious movement, Ironhorse raised his arms, his hands, fingers clawing at his throat . . .

“Ironhorse!” Blackwood wrapped his hands around Ironhorse’s wrists, pulling them down, keeping them out of the way. “I’m sure you’ve been through something like this before. Relax. Small breaths.”

No. He hadn’t been through anything like this before. Hadn’t known what it was like to suffocate. The closest he’d come was in Vietnam when CS gas was used to try to draw the Viet Cong out into the open, a sudden change of wind direction sending Ironhorse and others into hell. The gas non-lethal it had caused disorientation, made it difficult to breathe . . . lives lost as a result, so many men unable to defend their positions. Ironhorse had been lucky, tucked away, hidden from the enemy . . .

Eyes snapping open, the memory unwelcomed, Ironhorse took a breath. Flinched back from Blackwood’s close proximity, breath catching, a cough rising up into his throat. He tried to swallow it down, a losing battle. The cough ripped from his throat, he could do nothing but grimace, eyes watering with the resulting pain. Ironhorse rolled onto his left side, curling his legs toward his chest, arms embracing his side.

“You’re okay,” said Blackwood.

No. He wasn’t. Not even sure he would be. Ironhorse took stock. Noticed he felt the same, vertigo and nausea still active, blow to the head the probable cause, Gertrude’s metal frame causing more damage. If he didn’t have a concussion before, he sure as hell had one now.

Blackwood reached beneath Ironhorse’s shoulders and tried to pull him up. He let go, shocked when Ironhorse cried out, grunting in pain when he fell back to the floor.

“Sorry,” said Blackwood.

“Just . . . leave me here.”

“No can do, Colonel. You’ll be more comfortable on the bed.”

“No . . . damn it, Blackwood,” said Ironhorse, desperation lacing his voice. “Please just . . . just give me a . . . damn minute.”

“Giving orders again, Colonel?”

Ironhorse glared at Blackwood, expression weak from pain. He saw the fear and worry in the man’s eyes, Blackwood trying to hide behind his words, failing miserably, his emotions clear, expressive.

“Where are you hurt?” said Blackwood as he patted Ironhorse’s shoulder, willing to wait but wanting more information.

“Ribs are . . . broken. Hard to breathe.”

Blackwood looked to the other side of the room, the man standing beside Norton fidgeting, nervous fingers worrying themselves into a knot. “Harold, is there a doctor in this town?”

“Ask him if he saw my son,” said Harold.

Ironhorse closed his eyes, hiding his emotions behind closed lids. Now wasn’t the time to reveal what he’d seen in that other place. A distraction needed, his own physical needs not enough, said something he knew would get everyone’s attention, including Harold.

“Debi needs a doctor,” said Ironhorse. “She’s sick.”

“I feel better now,” said Debi, finally managing a successful escape. She pulled away from her mother and rushed to Ironhorse’s side.

Ironhorse looked up at her, smiled. She smiled back at him. Debi did look better, her skin no longer pale, the sweat drying on her skin. The pain he had seen was gone, so was the fear, her eyes blue once again. She was okay, alive. He hadn’t failed her.

Looking up at Blackwood, Debi said something that had Ironhorse cursing softly, his words muted as he turned his face into the carpet, hiding his face from everyone. “The Colonel stopped breathing.”

Blackwood put a hand on Debi’s thin shoulder. “He’s fine now. He just had trouble breathing there for a minute.”

“Debi,” said Ironhorse, an attempt to deflate the situation. “Don’t . . .”

“No. He stopped breathing in there.” She pointed toward the wall. “For a few minutes I think. I thought he was dead. I thought he turned into a zombie.”

“Harold,” said Blackwood, voice snapping with fear. “Get a doctor. Now!”

Nodding, Harold turned away and walked out of the room.

Ironhorse decided he didn’t want to argue. He really wasn’t feeling well.

“Colonel, let’s get you up onto the bed. We can sit you up. It’ll be easier to breathe.”

Hands, arms gathered around his shoulders, lifting him with a strength he didn’t have. A short, sharp breath, Ironhorse gritted his teeth and clenched his jaw. He wasn’t ready, the need to stay still so strong. He didn’t want to move. They didn’t give him a choice. A stab of pain through his side, wrapping around his chest, a painful embrace. He whimpered, the pain too much.

“Sorry, Colonel,” said Blackwood.

Ironhorse wasn’t sure he was.

Balance tested, they raised him up onto his feet, his legs unable to take his weight. He didn’t need to. They walked him to the bed, his feet shuffling along the floor, Ironhorse struggling to help. Lost his vision, his awareness, his knees buckling . . .

. . . came back seconds later, his body already laid out on the bed, upper body resting against the head board. Sighing in relief, Ironhorse opened his eyes. Flinched away from the face too close to his own. Suzanne leaned over him, a curious expression on her face, her eyes full of emotion. She pressed her palms against his face, a hand on each side. Moving even closer, Ironhorse unsure of what she wanted, Suzanne touched her lips to his forehead, a gentle kiss. Embarrassed, he closed his eyes, opened them when she moved away, removing her lips from his skin, her hands from his face.

“Thank you,” said Suzanne. “You saved her life. Brought her back. Thank you.”

Incapable of finding his voice, Ironhorse could only nod, grimacing when the pain rolled through his skull.

“What happened in there?” said Blackwood, standing over the bed, looking down at Ironhorse.

A short breath, ribs protesting, Ironhorse tried to find his voice, about to speak, interrupted by Debi.

“We killed a fucking zombie,” said Debi.

“Fucking A,” said Ironhorse, closing his eyes, staying awake was becoming a difficult process.

“A zombie,” said Norton, wheeling Gertrude closer to the bed.

“As in ‘Dawn of the Dead’, Mr. Drake and we’ll have a conversation about that later.”

“You want to borrow the video?”

Ignored the question, his mind and body shutting down, Ironhorse allowed his thoughts to drift . . .

Chapter Text

Ironhorse woke up feeling cold all over, his body chilled.

Except he didn’t.

Not really.

His left side warm, an area on his chest not as cold as the rest of him.

He could feel the comfort of a thick blanket, the material tucked under his chin, around his shoulders. It did nothing to threaten the chill in his limbs, his muscles aching with the cold. A smell of mothballs assaulted his senses, the odour disagreeing with his stomach. Ironhorse turned his head away and tried to take in a cleaner breath, the air cut off when pain echoed in his side and chest, a reminder he didn’t want, images flashing through his mind like a slide show, more horrific than any holiday snap he’d seen.

They had made it out alive. Survived a living nightmare.

“Paul?”

Unexpected company. Not really in the mood to talk or entertain. Not that they would give him the choice, the decision taken away from him, treated like an invalid desperate for company. He could put it off, simulate sleep . . . another breath, features creasing, lines of pain revealed. No sense in hiding. He opened his eyes, snapping them shut when the overhead light glared down at him. A few moments to adjust. A second attempt.

Sitting in a chair beside the bed was Suzanne. She smiled down at him, humour written in her gaze. Unaware of what was so funny, he frowned at her. Suzanne nodded toward something on his other side, her smile growing.

Feeling vulnerable, Ironhorse shifted his gaze, looking down at his side. Debi lay curled up against his side, fast asleep . . . a source of warmth, her head resting on his chest. Feeling awkward, Debi too close, Ironhorse moved away, ignoring ribs arguing against the movement, creating space between them, her head falling away, a soft thump against the mattress.

“She wanted to be close,” said Suzanne, smile dropping from her face.

Ironhorse thought she was angry.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realise it would make you uncomfortable.”

“She’s twelve,” said Ironhorse, very uncomfortable with Debi being so close.

“A twelve-year-old who still sits on her mother’s lap.”

“I’m not her father, Suzanne.”

“No,” said Suzanne, leaning closer, fingers rearranging the blanket around Ironhorse’s shoulders. “But you have a special bond now.”

“I don’t feel comfortable with . . .”

“I’m sorry, Paul. It won’t happen again.”

He allowed himself to relax, closed his eyes, felt damn sure she’d just lied to him . . . easier to allow her daughter one small comfort. Ironhorse couldn’t blame her. Debi had gone through hell and Ironhorse decided – went against his own discomfort – to give the kid what she needed to get through the aftermath.

“Are you all right?”

A release of breath, a suppressed sigh.

He was fine.

Except he wasn’t.

Not really.

He felt . . . strange, lethargic, a familiar feeling he couldn’t name. The ache in his skull paled in comparison to the pain that had tortured him earlier. The nausea dispelled, a feeling of hunger replacing it, one good thing. His side and chest full with a dull ache . . . took a testing breath, lungs filling with air. A sharp twinge of pain before it faded back into a mild ache. So grateful he could breathe again. Took another deep breath just because he could.

Ironhorse opened his eyes, looked back at Suzanne. He wasn’t going to admit anything, not yet, not until he heard what the doctor had said. Comparing notes, he would know what he had to admit to and what he could keep to himself.

“What did the Doctor say?”

Suzanne looked away, back over her shoulder before flicking her gaze back to Ironhorse. Following the direction her gaze had taken, he found Blackwood and Norton. They sat in the corner of the room, a table between them. Spread out on the table was the missing children posters, a collection of children once alive, now dead. Confused, Ironhorse raised an eyebrow at Blackwood, not surprised when the man looked away. Norton unwilling to help, Ironhorse looked back at Suzanne.

For some reason, she found it difficult to look him in the eye. He waited, expecting bad news, his lack of patience showing across his features. When no news came, he pushed the blanket away from his shoulders and made every effort to sit up. Managed to do it but it had cost him, pain flaring in his side, a tight cinch around his chest, the air seizing in his lungs. He slumped back against the headboard, a groan passing through his lips. Closed his eyes and wrapped his arm around his ribs. The pain didn’t linger, drifting away, now a distant memory. The strange feeling finally recognised . . . analgesics; someone had given him what felt like a strong painkiller. He hated the way they made him feel; groggy and slightly nauseated, glad he’d slept through most of the physical side effects but they also loosened his tongue, always said too much, revealing information he preferred to keep to himself . . .

He could feel something rough beneath his arm. Opened his eyes and looked down. The doctor had wrapped a bandage around his ribs, tight enough to make breathing easier. The rest of his upper body bare, he couldn’t find the energy to be embarrassed or cover himself up. Bruises marked his chest, dark purples spreading out from beneath the bandage. Understood there would be matching bruises across his back.

Suzanne stood up, moved around the bed to the other side, a subtle glance given to Blackwood as she passed him. She reached down, placed a pillow beneath her daughter’s head, sat down on the edge of the bed and watched her daughter, fingers brushing the blonde hair away from Debi’s face, tucking it behind an ear, the movement becoming repetitive. Ironhorse could see she was afraid, unsure . . .

“Suzanne? What did the doctor say?”

She didn’t respond.

Worry began to churn in his gut. They were hiding something from him. Confident in his knowledge, he looked at Suzanne, waited for her to look back. It took too long, her gaze finally lifting, finally gaining the courage to look at him. The anxiety must have been showing in his features, Suzanne quick to diminish his fears.

“The doctor said you’ll be fine. Two broken ribs and a mild concussion.”

“Then what is it?” said Ironhorse. “What’s got you so afraid?”

Blackwood shifted in his seat, a look of concern and worry in his blue eyes. “They want you to go back.”

“Go back? I’m surprised we’re still here.”

Looking away, Blackwood stared at Norton. “Not home. Back . . . there. They want you to go back for their children.”

Surprised, Ironhorse couldn’t comprehend what Blackwood was telling him. “Back?”

Standing up, Blackwood gathered the posters and walked to the bed, sitting down on the chair. “They think . . . no, they’re hoping because you came back, because you brought Debi back that you would be able to do the same for their kids. They’re hoping you’ll go back and get their children.”

It felt like someone had slapped him in the face. “I can’t.”

Suzanne gripped his hand, squeezing his fingers. “We understand that you wouldn’t want to go back there. Debi told us what happened--”

“I can’t help them. Their children are dead.”

“Are you sure?” said Blackwood.

Ironhorse could feel the anger rising, muscles tense, hands clenching into fists. “What are you saying, Blackwood? Do you really think I would lie about something like that? They’re dead. I can’t change that. I can’t help them.”

Blackwood shook his head in denial, a deep breath, a frustrated release of air. “No, of course I don’t think you’re lying. It’s just . . .”

“What?”

“Leaving them in there.”

“Believe me, Blackwood. I don’t think they care,” said Ironhorse, looking away for a moment. “Debi was right. They were like zombies. They were dead but . . . they still moved. I . . .” Lifting his hands, pulling his left hand from Suzanne’s grip, he rubbed at his eyes, an attempt to dislodge the image of a young girl with a broken neck.

You kill people.

Lowered his hands. “She wouldn’t let go. I didn’t have a choice. She wouldn’t let go. Even with a broken neck, she kept moving.” He looked at Blackwood, shifting his gaze to look at Suzanne. “They’re dead. I can’t help them. I can’t bring them back.”

Suzanne nodded. “Someone has to tell Harold.”

“I’ll do it,” said Blackwood, standing up and moving away from the bed toward the open door. “The Colonel’s been through enough.”

“I saw Harold’s son,” said Ironhorse. “He still had his teddy bear.”

“I’ll tell him,” said Blackwood, pausing in the doorway, turning and looking back at Ironhorse. “I’m glad you made it back. You and Debi.”

“I’ll go with Harrison,” said Norton, following Blackwood through the open doorway. “In case he needs backup.”

“We thought we lost you both,” said Suzanne, pulling his gaze away from Blackwood and Norton. “You saved my daughter’s life. I will never forget that.”

“Your daughter is . . .” Ironhorse hesitated, not sure how to express in words what he wanted to say.

“Special.”

“Pushy.”

Suzanne frowned. “Pushy?”

Ironhorse smiled. “Pushy. Meaning confident, determined, brave and smart. Just like her mother.”

Held his breath when he realised what he’d said. Damn drugs.

“She’s a lot like Uncle Hank.”

Words tumbled out of his mouth before he could stop them. “You told her I kill people.”

Suzanne seemed confused with the change of direction their conversation was taking. Ironhorse didn’t really care, wanting to know why she would tell her daughter he killed people.

“She told you I said that?”

“No,” said Ironhorse, shaking his head, closing his eyes when the vertigo drifted through his mind, clearing within moments. When he stopped to think about what Debi had said . . . you kill people, don’t you. It had been a question not a statement. Opened his eyes. “Why does she think I kill people?”

“What makes you think--”

“Something she said,” said Ironhorse. “Why does she think I kill people?”

“Colonel, you--”

He knew what she was going to say. Could see it in her eyes, the way she avoided his gaze for a moment. Her body language an obvious tell, limbs becoming tense, fingers fidgeting through her daughter’s hair. “I didn’t become a soldier so I can kill people.” A long, suffering sigh over an explanation told so many times it felt like he was reciting a speech. “I don’t enjoy it. I do it to protect those who can’t defend themselves. I do it because I have to, not because I want to . . . I can’t do this. I can’t keep defending what I do to people like you.”

“You don’t have to, Paul.”

“It’s just . . . it sounded like an accusation. She thinks I murder people, Suzanne. Why does she think that?”

Suzanne looked down at her daughter. Ironhorse could see that she was gathering her thoughts. If she said the wrong thing, gave an explanation that only made things worse . . . She returned her gaze to Ironhorse, her expression confident. He knew she was going to tell him the truth.

“She doesn’t think that. We don’t think that about you,” said Suzanne. “When I told her the truth about the Blackwood Project, I explained what everyone would be doing. I told her you were a soldier like Uncle Hank, that you were there as security.” She hesitated, a moment to gage his reaction.

“You told her you didn’t want me there.”

“Yes,” said Suzanne, refusing to look away. “I love my uncle but--”

“But you don’t agree with what we do and how we do it.”

She smiled. “You’re answering your own question.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be.” A deep breath before she continued. “Debi had a homework assignment last year. It doesn’t matter what it was . . . she went to Uncle Hank. He wanted to be honest with her. He told her things, things that he’s done as a soldier. Uncle Hank wanted her to understand. She did. That’s why she doesn’t--”

“Hate me.”

“We don’t hate you, Paul. We were angry the military tried to take over a civilian project.”

“That wasn’t my decision.”

“I know that,” said Suzanne. “We know that. We allowed our anger over the decision my Uncle made to make our judgements about you. We didn’t give you a chance. You’re the perfect soldier and sometimes it’s hard to see past that.”

“Military maleness.”

“She told you that?”

“Yes.”

Suzanne looked down at Debi.

“Talking about normal things helped us.”

Nodding, Suzanne said, “She’s taken what Uncle Hank told her and has associated that with you. She’s assuming you’ve done the same things he has.”

“It didn’t come from you?”

“No. She’s curious. You should talk to her about Vietnam.”

A dark expression crossed his features. “I don’t talk to anyone about Vietnam.”

“I’m sorry, Paul, I didn’t mean--”

“No, I’m sorry. I don’t like talking about it.”

“I understand.”

“Do you?”

“Yes. We were wrong. We misjudged you. You deserve to be here. You’ve proven that more than once. You proved that today. If you weren’t here . . .” A sob tore from her throat.

He looked away, not sure how to handle an emotional civilian.

“You saved my daughter’s life.”

Embarrassed, he tugged at a loose thread in the blanket, waited until she gained control of her emotions.

“Have I answered your question?”

“Yes,” said Ironhorse, grateful she’d been truthful with him. “When she said that, I thought . . .”

“You thought what?”

“That she might be scared of me,” said Ironhorse, looking at Suzanne, searching her eyes for assurance.

“She isn’t scared of you, Paul. She keeps her distance from you because it’s what she thinks you want.”

“I’m not good with civilians.”

“We didn’t make it easy for you.”

“We’re having a movie night on the weekend,” said Ironhorse, saw the glint of amusement in her eyes. “Debi and me.”

“That’s a good thing. You understand what each other went through in there. You can talk to each other about it. If there are things you want to talk about but feel you can’t talk to Debi, you can talk to me.”

“We saw things, Suzanne. Debi’s going to have nightmares.”

“You both will.”

“I can deal with nightmares. I had them for a long time after Vietnam.”

“How did you deal with them then?”

“Alcohol.” Realised he’d said too much again. Looked away.

“Did it help?”

“No.”

“It won’t help this time either,” said Suzanne.

“I know that.”

“What happened in there, Paul?”

Looking back at her, he said, “I thought Debi told you?”

“She told me what she saw. I want to know what you saw.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Yes.”

“Are we having a counselling session?”

“It can be. Do you want it to be a counselling session?” Her tone careful, Suzanne waited.

“No.”

“Okay. I won’t push you. If you do need to talk . . .”

“I know where to find you.”

Suzanne smiled. “You look tired. Try and get some more sleep.”

He didn’t think he could sleep. Wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“Is Debi all right?”

“The doctor said she’s fine. He gave her a mild sedative to help her sleep.”

He wasn’t going to tell her what happened, didn’t think it would help if he told Suzanne her daughter had started to turn . . .

A visual snap of blue in his peripheral.

An odour of something rotten . . .

“Suzanne . . .”

A nasty feeling crawled across his skin, the length of his spine, his body shivering in response, pain tingling in his side. The feeling dug deep into the back of his neck, headache returning with vigour. A soft hum vibrated through his skull . . . words spoken, the voice soft . . .

“Naughty boy.”

It was back.

Body snapping forward, pain pulling at his side, Ironhorse searched the room looking for two things: its entry point and a weapon. He found neither. The weapon’s belt around his waist was gone, his bag nowhere in sight. Realised it didn’t really matter, his weapons useless against the thing; shot, stabbed, it kept moving, kept going . . . just like the children. He couldn’t kill it. It wouldn’t die. It wasn’t going to leave them alone until it had drained them of life.

Ironhorse didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know how to fight it. If it took them back . . . reminded of something it had said . . .

The man who protects you. Where is he?

He hadn’t understood at the time. He did now. Back under his Grandfather’s protection, it wasn’t back for him . . . it had come back for Debi and there was nothing Ironhorse could do to protect her. He wouldn’t be able to stop it from taking her back. Debi would turn, just like the others, just like Harold’s son.

“Colonel? What’s wrong?”

“It’s here.”

Suzanne frowned. “You said you killed it.”

Now obvious he hadn’t, her words a recognition of his failure. “I thought it was dead. I was wrong.”

Suzanne moved her body closer to her daughter, leaning over Debi. “How do you know it’s here?”

“I can feel it.”

“You can’t see it?”

“Not yet.”

Dark patches formed on the walls, the ceiling. Doorways. Shadows drifted into the room. They moved through the air, tumbling over each other, fighting for dominance. The motel room door slammed shut, the sound vibrating through the room.

Suzanne screamed . . .

Not slow in its movements, it dropped from the ceiling. Ironhorse fell back, shoulders and the back of his skull hitting the headboard of the bed. It came to a stop, hovering over the length of Ironhorse’s body. Ironhorse didn’t need to look to know Suzanne was pulling Debi away from the bed, out of harm’s way . . . not that it would do any good.

Its cloak moved more slowly, lowering itself to the bed, surrounding Ironhorse, walls of dark material shutting him in, locking him within its embrace. With nowhere to go, a private situation, Ironhorse looked up into its face. Bullet hole still gracing its forehead, it looked content, pleased, a large smile cracking its lower face. Its black eyes blinked, a slow methodical movement; intent on taking its time, enjoying the moment. Arms falling toward the bed, long fingers gripped Ironhorse’s hips. A snap of movement, Ironhorse pulled into a horizontal position.

Chest tight with fear, Ironhorse couldn’t move, his limbs so heavy. Its fingers crept along his body, an insect crawling across his flesh. Skin itching at its touch, it continued, tracing the edge of the bandage, tugging and pulling, increased pressure on his broken ribs. Gritted his teeth, tried to clench his fingers, to form a fist, dig his nails into his palms . . . anything to stop the pain showing on his face but he couldn’t move.

It kept going, dragging its long fingers over his chest, toward his neck. Ironhorse knew what was coming but he still couldn’t move; he tried, tried damn hard, his body refusing to carry out his commands. Remembered what had happened with their first confrontation; it had controlled his body, his movements, taking control, forcing him to obey.

Drifting down, still so slow in its progress . . .

“Colonel!” Suzanne’s voice, her fear evident.

Taking a risk, not sure, he was doing the right thing, not sure, he would be able to speak, Ironhorse called back. “You have to leave. Take Debi and leave town.”

“We can’t leave you.”

“GO!”

Its smile grew, almost splitting its face in half. White gums, short blunted teeth. Unconcerned Debi might evade its intentions, too confident Suzanne wouldn’t be able to escape with her daughter, its gaze grazed on his features, eyes taking in everything.

Any chance of survival fled, Ironhorse losing hope. He couldn’t fight back. He couldn’t stop it. It was over, the end too close, only a matter of time before it decided to stop playing him . . .

Then it would take Debi.

Determined not to give in so easily, Ironhorse struggled to move, his fingers twitching. It was a start, but not enough. Knowing Debi would die if he didn’t do something, anything to stop it, he put everything he had into it, tried to do everything he could to move.

It reached his neck, long fingers of its right hand wrapping around his neck, the frayed piece of string tied around its middle finger brushed against his skin. Lowered its head, so close to Ironhorse, its flat nose giving it room to get too close, its breath rancid as it flowed over Ironhorse’s face.

He couldn’t help but breathe it in, feeling it in his lungs, spreading out to his limbs. Nauseated, he swallowed down the bile trying to escape. Watched as it closed its eyes, relying on touch and smell. It washed his face with its tongue, scratching his cheek. Sniffed his skin . . .

Ironhorse closed his eyes, unable to watch, unable to fight back, limbs still refusing to move, his fingers becoming still. He couldn’t do anything . . .

“Look at me.”

Against his will, his eyes opened, stared up into eyes so black.

“Here, in this place, you are not protected.”

Ironhorse understood. “You let us escape.”

“In there, in my world, I can not feed on your life force, your soul, but here . . .” Its smile grew, wicked, confident, the expression filling the lower half of its face.

Damn thing wouldn’t stop smiling at him.

“Even here, you can not fight me. You can not win. You will die and then I will take the girl. She will become like the others.”

“I won’t let you take her.”

It laughed, spittle wetting Ironhorse’s face. “You can not kill me.”

Ironhorse made another connection. “And you can’t feed on me in this world either.”

“No. But I can kill you.”

“Why haven’t you?”

“I like your fear.” Saliva dripped from its mouth, a long string of bodily fluid. It broke, falling and landing on Ironhorse’s cheek. It leaned even closer, using its tongue once more to wipe up its mess. Lifted up slightly, looked into the dark eyes beneath it. “You fear for yourself, your own life but it is nothing compared to the fear you have for the girl. You make me hungry and she is worth the wait.”

Nothing Ironhorse could say, words wouldn’t be enough, words unable to help or stop it. Still tried to move, limbs still refusing to obey. He didn’t know how to break its hold over him. He felt helpless. Afraid. It was right, more afraid for Debi than his own life . . .

If it fed on fear . . .

Finally, something he could work with. He had no control over his body, but he could control his emotions.

It cocked its head. As though it could read his mind.

Ironhorse held his breath, controlled his thoughts and tried very hard not to think, struggled to keep his one and only plan to himself. Took control of his emotions, pushing the fear aside, allowing the anger move in, to take over. Came to the realisation that his plan had a single fault; if he no longer showed his fear, it would have no reason to keep him alive. With nothing else, body still held in its mental embrace, he had no choice. He had to try something. He couldn’t die knowing he didn’t do everything he could to protect Debi . . . if she died because he gave up . . .

“It will not work.”

Did it know? Was it trying to trick him into revealing his intentions?

“You can not fight me. You have no control over your body.”

Decided it might be worth the effort to keep it talking, a method of distancing himself from his fear. It would also give the others time to get away. He listened for any sign that Suzanne and Debi were still in the room, too distracted earlier to hear the door. Another memory flashing through his mind, Harold unable to open the door. If it were the same now . . . but he hadn’t heard any struggle, Suzanne’s voice. He had no idea if they were still here. The thing above him didn’t seem concerned, in no hurry to go after them. Maybe they were still here. He had to take the chance, create more time.

“You couldn’t control it in there.”

“No but that does not matter. Once I have my victim in my world, there is no need for control. The more they move around in my world, the more they see. Their fear grows, as does my appetite. The more afraid they are the more I eat.”

“That’s how you take the children. You control them.”

“Children are easy. I only control them to stop their screams.”

Ironhorse swallowed.

“You came for me when I was a child.”

“Yes.”

“I was protected.”

“Yes. By what, I did not know. I know now. He can not help you here.”

“How do you know that?”

“Your distractions will not work. Do you think I am not controlling them? Do you think they have escaped? They are still here . . . under my control. I will have the girl and there is nothing you can do that will stop me.”

It was right.

His heart sank, a heavy weight in his gut, the feeling of failure flooding through him . . .

A war cry split through the silence.

Ironhorse recognised the voice. His Grandfather.

It flinched, a flash of fear in its eyes. It was still afraid of his Grandfather and that renewed Ironhorse’s hope. Its fear had meaning . . . if it was afraid, it could die, it could be killed. He didn’t know how, mind reeling at the thought.

Its gaze flickered away. Its cloak moved, fluttering as if caught by a breeze. “He is here.”

“You’re afraid,” said Ironhorse. “You’re showing fear.”

“He can not hurt me.”

“Maybe not but I’m sure he can tell me how . . .”

Wrong thing to say.

Its fingers tightened around his neck. Something cold seeped through his flesh, the string on its finger scraped across his skin. It snapped upward, standing upright, taking Ironhorse with it. Its grip so tight, Ironhorse fought to breathe . . . couldn’t. Experience told him it would be a matter of seconds before he lost consciousness. He had to do something . . . now, no time left.

Ironhorse searched the room . . . looking, always looking for something . . . a weapon.

Noticed the room was empty, Suzanne and Debi no longer here. It had lied to him and the vulnerable idiot that he was he had fallen for it . . . no, something . . . someone was there. Blue denim and grey hair, his Grandfather stood in the corner by the door.

It holds its life in its fingers

He had to be cryptic.

It felt like a slap, brain waking to the obvious, so simple.

Darkness pressed against the edges of his vision. He was losing precious time. Put everything he had into moving his limbs. His legs swayed, no support beneath, his body held up, his weight supported only by the fingers digging into his flesh; it put a strain on his neck, his shoulders. Tried to move his arms . . . couldn’t.

It turned around, feet stumbling on the bed, lost its balance. Fate deciding to interfere? No. It regained its balance, its stance confident as it faced his Grandfather, Ironhorse’s back turned toward his heritage.

Ironhorse felt it, a life force moving through him, an entity without physical form. He felt his Grandfather’s embrace, his love . . . felt his own fingers move, his arm lifting. His Grandfather had managed to do something Ironhorse couldn’t; he’d broken the spell, the thing’s embrace. Taking advantage, Ironhorse raised his arm, fingers reaching for the string tied around its fingers. He felt a laugh bubbling in his chest at the irrationality of it all . . . a piece of string, it had been there in front of him all this time and he hadn’t known it . . .

It roared with anger and fear when Ironhorse gripped the string between trembling fingers. It felt rough, frayed beneath his touch. He pulled at the string, his effort weak, no air in his lungs, his body fighting to stay awake.

It acted quickly, its movements frantic as it let go of Ironhorse.

Ironhorse fell, his fingers still holding onto the piece of cord around its fingers. It had caused its own death, its fear of death taking control of its actions. The string came away, breaking into fragments. Ironhorse hit the bed, body bouncing on the mattress. Above him, the thing crumbled into itself, its body dissolving, falling to the bed in a thick layer of dust . . .

Reacting, Ironhorse rolled off the bed, not wanting any of it to touch him, not wanting to breathe any of it into his lungs. He landed painfully, crawling away until his back slammed against the wall. His chest heaved as he drew in breath, his heart pounded against his ribs, a spasm of pain in his side. He ached all over but he didn’t care . . . it was over.

Debi was safe.

It would take no more children.

An explosion of sound to his right, Ironhorse’s body jerking with surprise and fear. Afraid he was wrong, afraid it had come back, he moved away, pushing himself further into the room. Backed into a corner he could go no further. His heart paused, stumbled, the fear so strong . . . if it came back . . .

Blackwood burst into the room.

His relief so strong, Ironhorse slumped, his shoulders sagging. Head falling forward he closed his eyes. He needed a moment, a few seconds to gain control of his fear, his emotions. It was over . . . he just needed . . . his body began to shake, the adrenaline draining away, the tremors increasing his pain.

Blackwood fell to his knees in front of Ironhorse, reached forward with his left hand and gripped Ironhorse’s shoulder. With a gentle touch, he lifted Ironhorse’s chin.

“Ironhorse?”

Opened his eyes, aware they would reflect his fear he kept his gaze down. “I’m okay. It’s over. It’s dead.”

Blackwood looked back over his shoulder, stared at the layer of black dust on the bed. “How?”

“Does it matter, Blackwood? It’s dead. Leave it at that.”

“Are you sure?

“This time? Yes. I am.”

“Colonel?”

Debi.

Blackwood patted Ironhorse's shoulder before standing up and moving out of the way . . .

Embarrassment lacking, Debi ran into the room, Suzanne close behind her, and fell against him, arms wrapping around his waist. He grunted in pain, his broken ribs taking most of her weight. Found he didn’t care. He needed this as much as she did. He put his arms around her, pulling her closer, embracing her. She pressed her face against his chest, her skin warm, her tears damp . . .

It’s done. You’re safe now.

Blue denim, grey platted hair, the image fading, disappearing.

“Thank you, Grandfather.”

It was over.