Pippi watched the two boys come nearer. With their eyes alit with laughter, they looked young and innocent, like children playing a game.
The larger boy stopped, raised his rifle to shoulder height. All at the same time, she felt something whizzing by her face, heard the crack of the rifle, and saw a piece of bark flying off the tree next to where she stood.
She stayed rooted to the spot. She knew she should run, wanted desperately to run, but her body refused to cooperate.
Jeremy grabbed her coat and yanked her behind a thicket of bushes, where they stood ankle-deep in leaves.
“Listen,” he said urgently. He tugged at her coat. “Are you listening?”
With robotic jerkiness, she turned her head to look at him.
“Yes,” she answered, marveling at how far away her voice sounded.
He lay face down on the ground. “Cover me with leaves.”
She gazed at him, not comprehending.
“Cover me with leaves,” he said harshly. “Now! Do it now.”
She dropped to her knees.
As she scooped the wet, soggy leaves over him, he said, “As soon as you’re done, I want you to start running. Zigzag through the trees. Make a lot of noise so they think we’re both running away. And whatever you do, don’t look back.” He turned his head and looked up at her. “Got it?”
Pippi nodded, but refused to meet his eyes. How could he talk to her like that? Blinded by tears, she finished covering him with leaves, then took off running.
The binoculars banged against her chest, branches tore at her hair, rocks tripped her, and still she ran.
She stopped for a moment to massage a stitch in her side. To her horror, she saw the boys up ahead, coming straight at her.
She looked around in confusion. Seeing the thicket of bushes and the mound of leaves covering Jeremy, she realized she had come full circle.
She glanced at the boys; they leered at her and licked their lips.
Her skin prickled.
The smaller boy, whose hair had been dyed a deep crayon blue, thrust his pelvis forward and cupped his crotch with his hand. The larger boy, blond ponytail swinging, flailed his arms and legs in a gross burlesque of a woman running.
The boys convulsed with laughter.
Still laughing, the blond boy raised his rifle. With his finger crooked on the trigger, he aimed it at her.
Suddenly the mound of leaves at the base of the bushes erupted. A creature—barely recognizable as Jeremy, with his tensed body and his rage-distorted face—sprang toward the young blond rifleman.
The boy didn’t even have time to turn his head.
Dressed in camouflage clothes as Jeremy was, it looked as if the very leaves reached out, grabbed the blond ponytail, pulled the boy close, and made three rapid sawing motions across his throat.
Blood spurted in a bright red arc from the boy’s neck.
It happened so fast that when Jeremy tossed the blond aside, the blue-haired boy was still cupping his crotch and laughing.
Jeremy turned to confront him. The grin slid off the boy’s face. He dropped his rifle and raised his hands. His eyes, the irises rimmed with white, were riveted on the bloody knife.