It wasn't so much the hunting. It was the killing.
That was what brought Gordie Wilson out to the Santa Ana foothills on a sunny May morning like this. That was why he was cutting school even though he wasn't sure he'd get away with forging his morals signature on another readmit. It wasn't the wild-flower-splashed hills, the sky blue lupines, or the fragrant purple sage. It was the wet, plopping sound when lead met flesh.
Gordie preferred big game, but rabbits were always available-if you knew how to dodge the rangers. He'd never been caught yet.
He'd always liked killing. When he was seven, he'd gotten robins and starlings with his BB gun. When he was nine, it had been ground squirrels with a shotgun. Twelve, and his dad took him on a real hunting trip, going after white-tailed deer with an old .243 Winchester.
That had been so special. But then, every kill was special. It was like his dad said: "Good hunts never end." Every night in bed Gordie thought about the very best ones, remembering the stalking, the shooting, the electric moment of death. He even hunted in his dreams.
For one instant, as he made his way along the dry creek bed, a memory flickered at him, like a little tongue of flame. A nightmare. Just once Gordie had dreamed that he was on the other side of the rifle sights, the one with dogs snapping behind him, the one being hunted. A chase that had only ended when he woke up dripping sweat.
Stupid dream. He wasn't a rabbit, he was a hunter. Top of the food chain. He'd gotten a moose last year.
Big game like that was worth observing, studying, planning for. But not rabbits. Gordie just liked to come up here and kick them out of the bushes.
This was a good place. A sage-covered slope rising toward a stand of oak and sycamore trees, with some good brush piles underneath for cover. Bound to be a bunny under one of those.
Then he saw it. Right out in the open. Little desert cottontail sunning itself near a squat of grass. It was aware of him, but still. Frozen. Terrific, Gordie thought. He knew how to sneak up on a rabbit, get so close he could practically catch it with bare hands.
The trick was to make the rabbit think you didn't see it. If you only looked at it sideways, if you walked kind of zigzag while slowly getting closer and closer...
As long as its ears stayed down, instead of up and swiveling, you were safe.
Gordie edged carefully around a lemonade berry
bush, looking out of the corner of his eye. He was so close now that he could see the rabbit's whiskers. Pure happiness filled him, warmth pooling in his stomach. It was going to hold still for him.
God, this was the exciting part, the gooood part. Breath held, he raised the rifle, centered the crosshairs. Got ready to gently squeeze the trigger.
There was an explosion of motion, a gray-brown blur and the flash of a white tail. It was getting away!
Gordie's rifle barked, but the slug struck the ground just behind the rabbit, kicking up dust. The rabbit bounded on, down into the dry creek bed, losing itself among the cattails.
Damn! He wished he'd brought a dog. Like his dad's beagle, Aggie. Dogs were crazy about the chase. Gordie loved to watch them do it, loved to draw it out, waiting for the dog to bring the rabbit around in a circle. It was a shame to end a good chase too soon. His dad sometimes let a rabbit go if it ran a good enough race, but that was crazy. What good was a hunt without the kill?
There were times when Gordie... wondered about himself.
He sensed vaguely that his hunting was somehow different than his dad's. He did things when he was alone that he never told anybody about. When he was five, he used to pour rubbing alcohol on earwigs. They'd writhed a long time before they died. Even now he would swerve to run over a possum or a cat in the road if he could.
Killing felt so good. Any kind of killing.
That was Gordie Wilson's little secret.
The bunny was gone. He'd spooked it. Or ...
Maybe something else had.
A strange feeling was growing in Gordie. It had developed so slowly he hadn't even noticed when it started, and it was like nothing he'd ever felt before -at least awake. A ... rabbit-feeling. Like what a rabbit might feel when it freezes, crouched down, with the hunter's eyes on it. Like what a squirrel might feel when it sees something big creeping slowly closer.
A... watched feeling.
The skin on the back of his neck began to crawl.
There were eyes watching him. He felt it with the part of his brain that hadn't changed in a hundred million years. The reptile part.
Gingerly, flesh still creeping, he turned.
Directly behind him three old sycamores grew close enough together to cast a shade. But the darkness underneath was too dark to be just a shadow. It was more like a black vapor hanging there.
Something was under those trees. Something else had been watching the rabbit.
Now it was watching him.
The black vapor seemed to stir. White teeth glinted out of the darkness, as bright as sunlight on water.
Gordie's eyes bulged in their sockets.
What the-what was it?
The vapor moved again and he saw.
Only-it couldn't be. It couldn't be what he thought he saw, because it-just couldn't be. Because there wasn't anything like that in the world, so it just couldn'tIt was beyond anything he'd ever imagined. When it moved, it moved fast. Gordie got off one shot as it surged toward him. Then he turned and ran.
He went the way the rabbit had, slipping and slithering down the slope, tearing his jeans and his hands on prickly pear cactus. The thing he'd seen was right behind him. He could hear it breathing. His foot caught on a stone, and he fell heavily, arms flailing.
He rolled over and saw it in the full sunlight. His mouth sagged open. He tried to scoot away on his backside, but sheer terror paralyzed his muscles.
Deliberately it closed in.
A loose, blubbery wail came from Gordie's lips. His last wild thought was Not me-not me-I'm not a rabbit-not meeeeee -