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At that, Ellie let out a very tiny—but very distinct—squeak.


Alex’s heart tried to blast right out of her chest. Ellie, no, shut up, shu—


The boy and the girl went still.


No, no, no … Alex watched in a kind of sick free fall of terror as Ponytail Blonde stiffened and then lifted her nose and sniffed. Testing the air, checking for intruders, trying to catch a scent—Alex understood that at once. After all, she smelled them, the dead woman, the burned tent, Ellie’s fear.


She and Ellie needed to get out of here, maybe make a run for it. There was enough light to see the trail. If she just flat-out dug in and ran, she might outdistance them. Alex had endurance; she was still shaky from this morning, but thank God, she was months out from chemo and strong enough. Except these kids were once athletes and they were acting like, well, animals. Real animals. So they were probably pretty fast, and even if Alex could get away, she didn’t think Ellie could.


She realized then that her hand had strayed to her Glock and thumbed away the retaining strap without her being aware at all. Could she do that? She’d only shot at targets, never anything alive, and her conscious mind balked: No, they’re kids; they’re my age. There’s no way I can just shoot them.


In the end, she never had to find out.


A crow saved them. Emboldened by the lack of reaction to its presence, the crow—very large and very stupid—decided to try its luck. It hopped up to Basketball Boy, hesitated, and then snatched at a stray lump of the liverish meat that had tumbled to the dirt.


Quick as a snake, the boy seized the crow by the neck. The crow let out a huge squawk of surprise. At the sound, the rest of the crows—the entire murder—lifted into the air in a squalling black mass. Distracted, Ponytail Blonde whirled around as the boy wrestled with the struggling crow. The crow was very strong, and it twisted, slashing at the boy’s face with its claws. Gargling in pain, Basketball Boy let go. The crow tumbled from his fists in a cloud of torn feathers. One wing was crooked, but the crow was moving fast, hopping away and pulling at the air with its one good wing.


It almost got away.


Spinning on her heel, Ponytail Blonde lunged as if sprinting for a crosscourt volley. She was, Alex saw now, wicked fast.


The bird began to scream in huge, raucous squawks. Ponytail Blonde bawled with excitement.


“Go,” Alex said to Ellie in a low, urgent whisper. “Don’t look back; just go, go, go for the trail and keep running!”


Without a word, Ellie scurried away, crashing through the underbrush so loudly that Alex cringed. Hand still on her Glock, she shot an anxious look over her shoulder, but either the crow’s shrieks drowned out the sound of Ellie’s flight or Ponytail Blonde was having way too much fun.


The girl clamped her hands around the animal’s neck and gave a savage twist. The crow’s neck snapped with a crisp, crackling sound like a Thanksgiving wishbone, and then Ponytail Blonde corkscrewed the crow’s head from its body with a gleeful squall.


Alex didn’t wait to see any more. She turned and fled.


15


“Alex?”


“Mmm?”


“Are we going to be okay?”


“Sure.” Alex hugged the girl closer, not out of affection but expediency. The less space between them, the warmer they’d be. Beneath them, their nest of leaves and debris crackled with a sound like dry cellophane. The debris shelter was warm, almost toasty from their body heat—captured as it was in a thick, three-foot mound of leaf litter. “We’ll be fine. Couple more days and we’ll be at the rangers. They’ll know what to do.”


They’d run as the sky fired with a startling, blood-red sunset, one that made Alex think of that really famous painting where the guy was standing on a bridge and screaming. They’d kept on running as that weird light faded, and then they’d run some more, stumbling on by flashlight until the only scents Alex picked up were of the forest and themselves. By then, with the moon not yet risen, the woods were black, and the going too treacherous for them to continue.


Ellie hadn’t wanted to eat. Really, Alex didn’t much blame her; she was pretty queasy, too—almost chemo-queasy—and wrung-out from the accumulated horrors of this terrible day. Clutching her useless iPod, Ellie watched as Alex threw together a debris shelter using pine boughs and deadfall. Somewhere along the way, the girl had vomited, and Alex used her shirt to get rid of the worst of the muck on Ellie’s face and parka. She managed to coax the kid into chewing the moist inner bark of a thin twig of white pine: It tastes like a sugar lemon drop, Ellie. Honest. Pines were famine food, too; the Ojibwa used to pound the dried pulp into flour, and Alex briefly considered then abandoned the idea. They were so not sticking around any longer than they had to.


But they would be in a world of hurt if Alex couldn’t find water, and soon. The stream was back the way they’d come, but there was no way she was retracing her steps, not with those kids out there. They just had to hope another stream intersected the trail, because, at this rate, the river was still three days out. Not good.


Now, Ellie asked, “What about food?”


“We’ve got Jell-O and the power bars.”


“But I ate one.”


“It’s okay, Ellie. You were hungry, it’s fine.”


“I stole it.”


She decided on a different tack. “When we get to the river, we’ll fill up our water bottles and catch a couple fish.”


“But you said fishing would slow us down.”


“Well, not necessarily. If we’re stronger, we’ll move faster. You’ve got the rod and lures, right?”


“Uh-huh.” Ellie’s voice was so drained of color it sounded transparent as glass.


“So we’re set.”


“What if they’re not biting?”


“They’ll bite.” Then she thought of something. “Your grandpa took you out of school to go hiking, right? So when were you supposed to go back?”


“To school? Um … Tuesday.”


Today was Saturday. “Which means you’d have to get back on Monday, latest. So, is there anyone at your house?”


“Just Mrs. Pierce. She lives next door and takes in the mail and does stuff with the lights.”


“So there you go. If you guys don’t show up by Monday, Mrs. Pierce will get worried. She’ll probably phone the rangers at the park entrance or maybe the station. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rangers know all about you by the time we get there.”


“Won’t anyone worry about you?”


“Sure, but not for a while.” It occurred to her then that without her watch, she might easily lose track of the days. One more thing to worry about. Maybe notch a stick …


“What if Mrs. Pierce doesn’t worry? What if it takes her a couple days?”


“Well, you worrying about her not worrying won’t help. Don’t sweat it. Come on, try to get some sleep.”


“I can’t.” A rustle as Ellie squirmed. “These leaves are itchy.”


“Try.”


“But what if … what if that girl … what if they …?”


“They won’t. It’ll be okay.”


“But how do you know?”


“Because we ran a long time and they didn’t come after us and now it’s dark. If they were going to chase us, they’d have done that already.”


Pause. “Why were they doing that? Why were they—”


“I don’t know.” Maybe the brain-zap made the kids go crazy, like the deer and the birds. But the birds were back to normal and so was Ellie, and eating people was way, way out there. Just thinking about it stroked gooseflesh from her skin and set her teeth. Had those kids killed that woman? They must have. She looked pretty old, like fifty or sixty, so between the two of them, taking her down might have been easy. Alex could almost see the movie in her mind, like one of those Animal Planet videos: the kids attacking, pouncing, swarming over the woman, tearing open her belly, ripping out her throat with their teeth.


God, just like animals. She shuddered at the thought. And what was with that stink? It smelled like … she didn’t know … roadkill, yeah, but it was a really old smell, too. No, old wasn’t the right word either.


The kids smelled … wild. They were wild. They were like zombies—only alive instead of coming back to life. Or maybe they had died and then …? No, no, that couldn’t be right. Could it? God, she didn’t know. All she knew was their electronics had fried and so had their brains. The brain-zap hit them all: the animals and these kids and her and Ellie. Until now, she’d thought that she was the only one who’d changed—a stupid assumption, but she just hadn’t had anything to go on. Hell, she’d never stopped to consider that the zap might cover a big area: not just the mountain but the valley, too. The mountain was, what, five miles back? So, if the zap was a circle, say, with a radius of five miles, square that and times pi and …


Oh my God. Her breath caught. Eighty square miles? The Waucamaw was huge, almost four hundred square miles. If she was right, that zap hit a fifth of the wilderness—a lot of land. And how many people? This far north, the fall colors were past peak by a good week, which meant that tons of tourists already had come and gone.


And what was with those kids? They’d changed in a way that was different from her.


Or maybe not. She remembered how Ponytail Blonde had tested the air. What if their sense of smell sharpened, too? What if that’s the first step?


Her restless mind strayed back to those gunshots. For the first time, she considered that maybe the question wasn’t what those guys had been shooting at, but who.


Was that going to happen to her? God, she’d put a bullet in her head first. But what if she didn’t notice until it was too late? Worse, what if she didn’t want to stop the change? What if she didn’t care?


“Alex?” Ellie’s voice floated out of the dark. “Is what happened to those kids going to happen to us?”

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