The thing across the room finally managed to find its balance. The books it had knocked from the table lay in tatters at its feet. Bright white gashes marred the surface of the side table she had lovingly polished so often over the years. Agnes stood, long skirt twisted around her legs, blouse torn in several places to reveal pale skin beneath. Her head hung down, chin against her chest, silver hair a long curtain that hid her face from his view.
Until the thing slowly turned its head and locked its cold, dead gaze on him.
Nothing of Agnes remained. Josh swallowed hard, feeling as if a large, hot stone had been stuffed in his throat. The fire burned fierce now, and sweat coursed down his body. His fingers fumbled with the rifle, working to cock it, his eyes locked on the thing as it turned and took a lurching, unsteady step toward him. Hands that had soothed his forehead when he had been sick with fever and held wet cloths to his skinned knees curled now into claws, eager to tear into him.
Josh double-checked to make sure the rifle's safety was off and that he had chambered a shell, then dried his palms on his breeches again. He took several deep breaths, watching as the thing lurched closer, its hands reaching out, fingers stiff, dirty nails ready to gouge his flesh. It was halfway across the room. Another five staggering steps and it would be upon him.
He stood and raised the rifle to take aim. His hands shook as the thing moved closer, its foot stomping hard against the floor. He licked his lips and dried his eyes on his sleeve. The lamp flame flickered again, slinging shadows around the room and across Agnes' chest.
As it approached, its steps became more certain. It was learning to walk again, and fast.
Josh blinked and thought back to Agnes's lessons on shooting. He could almost feel her standing behind him, arms around his shoulders, lips close to his ear as she said, "Don't pull the trigger. Squeeze it. Slow and steady."
"I'm sorry," he whispered and squeezed the trigger. The rifle bucked in his hand and the flash lit the room, burning an image of Agnes's cruel, hungry face on his mind.
The thing jerked back, a dark hole blossoming on the blouse covering its left shoulder. It took a step back, seemed to hesitate a moment, then stepped toward him again.
Josh cocked the gun and moved around behind the chair, raising the rifle to his shoulder. His vision blurred and a tear slid down his cheek, forcing him to dry his eyes on his sleeve.
He shot her again and let out a frustrated, horrified gasp as the bullet tore into her throat. Her head snapped back and she staggered a few steps, hands reaching up to cover the black hole in her skin. Josh could see her jaw working as if she were trying to swallow the lead, then she lifted her head and pinned her cold, dead eyes on him.
"Agnes," he said, his voice high-pitched and strained in the room. "You gotta stay dead. You would not want to live like this."
He worked the lever of the rifle and, even as his blood practically boiled beneath his skin, a cold clutch of fear gripped his stomach when the lever froze in the open position. Jammed.
"Shit," he hissed and looked down at the weapon. He struggled with it, sweat running off his nose and dripping onto the rifle, leaving dark drops on the wood stock.
Cold fingers gripped his arm and he screamed. Jerking his head up, he found Agnes reaching over the rocking chair, the back of it bouncing between them and keeping her from getting a good purchase. Her mouth stretched wide, saliva spilling over her lower lip, teeth glowing in the lamplight.
Josh jerked his arm free and the thing staggered, unbalanced by his sudden movement and the rocking chair. It looked down at the chair a moment and Josh could almost see it thinking, figuring out it kept them apart. It pushed the rocker aside and reached for him again, eyes shadowed now with the lamp behind it.
He stepped away, his back coming up against the wall, and he realized he was cornered. It had trapped him.
His fingers continued to work the jammed lever as the thing advanced. It dug cold, cruel fingers into his shoulders and leaned in, mouth wide. He braced himself against the wall and kicked it hard in the stomach. The thing staggered back, nails tearing through his shirt and digging furrows into his skin.
Josh cried out and jerked on the lever again. It moved this time and he felt the shell seat itself before the lever closed.
It was coming for him, fingers clutching for purchase.
He lifted the rifle to his shoulder, closed one eye, lined up the sight on the middle of the thing's forehead, and squeezed the trigger.