Hearing her thoughts come out of Ellie’s mouth thoroughly creeped her out. “No,” Alex said automatically. “It’s been too long. It would’ve happened already.”
Liar. The voice was small, only an inner whisper misting through her mind. You don’t know anything for sure. You’ve changed, and you’re still changing. You’re smelling things—and you’re smelling meanings. That zap was only this morning, and look how far you’ve come since then. Look how fast those kids changed. Maybe what happened to them hasn’t caught up to you yet.
Go away, you. She couldn’t worry about this now. She didn’t want to worry about it ever. All she wanted was to close her eyes and not dream at all; to wake up in her own bed and see that this was all a really bad nightmare or something.
“Come on,” she said, “go to sleep. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
“But I’m scared to go to sleep,” Ellie said. “What if I don’t wake up like me?”
“We’ll be okay.”
“How do you know? Maybe we’re going to die.”
“No, we’re not. Not today.” It was another automatic response, a little bit of the gallows humor—or reality—she’d adopted over the past two years. “And not tomorrow either.”
A pause. “I’m sorry about Mina. She wouldn’t leave. I couldn’t get her to come.”
“You did the best you could,” Alex said, though she doubted this was the case. The kid hated that dog.
“Do you think she’ll be okay?”
“I don’t know, Ellie. She seems like a pretty smart dog.”
“Maybe she’ll go wild.”
“Maybe. I don’t know how fast dogs go wild.” If they’re starving, maybe very fast. But that was her voice now, not this other whisper.
“Grandpa said there are lots of wild dogs in the Waucamaw already. He says that people leave them here because they think they’re doing the dogs some big favor by setting them free, only a lot starve and the ones who don’t go wild.”
“I don’t think worrying about Mina will help.”
“Oh.” Silence. “I wish I could do it all over again.”
“Everything. I wish I had been nicer to Grandpa,” Ellie whispered miserably. “I wish I’d been nicer to Mina. Maybe if I’d been better, my mommy wouldn’t have gone away.”
She wasn’t exactly sure what to say. “Your grandpa said your mom went away when you were really little. It couldn’t have been anything you did. You were just a baby.”
“Maybe. Daddy had some pictures, but he didn’t like looking at them because they made him sad.” Ellie was quiet a moment. “I don’t even remember what Daddy looks like anymore. He’s all blurry. He made me mad, too.”
“Because he went away when I told him not to. He said he had to because it was his job.”
Alex knew what this was like. “Sometimes when you’re sad, it’s easier to be angry.”
“Do you get mad at your parents?” asked Ellie.
Alex’s throat balled. “All the time,” she said.
Ellie fell asleep not long after, but tired as she was, Alex couldn’t relax. Her mind churned, and she was restless, jumpy, her legs a little herky-jerky. The feeling reminded her of the time Barrett tried a med that was supposed to make her not puke during chemo—Reglan, was it? She couldn’t remember; she’d been through enough drugs over the past couple of years to keep a small army of pharmacists in business. The problem with meds was that even the ones that were supposed to take care of side effects had side effects. Like the way Reglan made her all twitchy, with a horrible, total-body sensation of ants swarming over her skin. So she’d been a total spaz and nauseous, which sucked.
The distant cry of a coyote came then, a sound like the squeal of a rusty hinge. Maybe she should keep watch. There were animals, after all, and those two brain-zapped cannibal kids. Who knew what—who—they might have in mind for dessert. Yeah, maybe a quick turn around their camp. Better than lying here, ready to jump out of her skin. Reaching for her Glock, which she’d taken off along with her fanny pack before bedding down, she winced at the sharp, harsh crackle of leaves, but Ellie didn’t stir.
She cradled the gun. Its solidity was reassuring, and so was its scent: gun oil, the faint metallic char of burnt powder. The holster smelled like comfortable shoes mingling with just the tiniest whisper of sweat—a scent that was not hers; she knew that.
Oh, Dad, tell me what to do. Her throat tightened. Would he understand if she had to use the gun? Would her mother? Because if Alex changed even more—if she got like those kids—she’d have to take control, do something before it was too late. Anyway, it wasn’t like she’d never thought of suicide. Call her crazy, but suicide was a way of taking charge and fighting the monster, an alien invader she’d never thought of as remotely belonging to her in any way. Killing herself before it could finish its work was sticking her thumb in its eye, a way of depriving the monster of its final victory. Now, though, she and the monster might be inseparable, one and the same, and that changed everything.
I’ll be the monster. If I use the gun, I won’t be taking it out. I’ll be killing me.
Then she had another, even more horrible thought. What if she was all right, but Ellie changed? Could she shoot a little kid?
God, this was all so messed up! She burrowed out of the shelter fast, winking against the burn of tears. After the warmth of the shelter, the slap of the chilly forest air set her teeth, and she stood a few moments, shivering in the dark, her throat working. The rasp of her breaths seemed very loud, and she clapped a hand to her trembling lips to catch a sob. Stop this, stop this! She had to get ahold of herself. She had to deal. She was the only one who could. Ellie was just a little kid, so it was up to Alex to get them out of this. She just didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself—
Time. The airplane. The plane. That’s what had been bothering her all day: that feeling like a toothache, that thing about time. The airplane hadn’t come back, and it always came back at the same time, every day.
She hadn’t heard the airplane on its return trip.
She ticked through the possibilities. Maybe the plane had crapped out and could no longer fly. Or maybe she’d just missed it. There’d been a lot going on. Maybe the plane’s engines wouldn’t carry into the valley, or it had altered its flight path. Maybe it didn’t fly back to its home field on Saturday nights. Maybe it came back on Sundays.
Or what if the plane had been airborne when the zap happened? Would the plane crash? She thought back over the time frame of that morning. The plane passed overhead at 7:50. The zap happened at 9:20, ninety minutes later, give or take. Where would the plane be then? That depended on its speed, right? It might’ve landed before the zap. Or maybe not. If the plane crashed, would she hear it? She thought not.
But assuming she could hear it and the plane a) hadn’t crashed and b) flew a regular Saturday afternoon route, then either she’d missed it in all the excitement—or the plane could not fly, and if that was true, then this thing was way bigger than eighty square miles.
There were two ways to figure this out. She could wait for morning, get herself oriented, and listen for the plane. If it flew over or near the valley, she would hear it. If she didn’t hear it, that didn’t necessarily mean anything bad, but she’d still have a lot of questions.
One thing about being really far away from other people and cities: no light pollution. Even with a moon, she should be able to spot planes even high overhead. First, she had to find a break in the trees. Now that her eyes had adjusted, she could make out her immediate surroundings: a murky patchwork of moth-eaten splotches of gray at her feet, the blacker forms of trees rearing up from the forest floor, glimmers of moonlight that shone through gaps in the forest canopy as dull, silver coins. The moonlight was a little off. Not as bright as she expected. Too gray. Weird. In the four days she’d been on the trails, the moon had been waxing. The last time she’d noticed, the moon was, what, three-quarters full? Well, maybe the moon was setting.
A splash of silver-gray light glimmered off to her right, which meant a large break in the trees, and she moved that way, slowly, one hand in front of her eyes to ward off low-lying branches, pausing every few paces to listen, wincing at the rustle and stir of the forest with every step. Twice, feeling a little foolish, she even sniffed, registering cold leaf rot and soggy wood but no roadkill reek—nothing that translated as wild or dangerous. So that was good.
The gap in the trees was as big around as a house, and she stood in the center, her head back and her left hand raised to block out the indirect light of the moon leaking from behind a veil of pine. The stars were a little off: not hard and glassy the way stars were in fall and winter, but hazier, like summer stars. Well, that was strange. Stars always seemed brighter this time of year, not only because the view was different but because cold air held less moisture and the Earth was turning from the Milky Way. With fewer visible stars in the sky, the ones that were left were easier to see and appeared brighter. But this sky looked fuzzy, the stars not glassy but gauzy silver burrs.
Now why should that be? The rusty cry of a coyote sounded again, though she barely heard. Instead, frowning, she turned a slow circle, her eyes gliding over the night sky and those strange stars—and then the moon.
No. Her heart jerked in a sudden, painful lurch, and her mouth fell open. She was so stunned, she forgot to breathe. No, it can’t be.
But it was.
The moon was blue.
PART TWO: TOM
By Tuesday afternoon, three days after what Alex had come to think of as “the Zap,” she had not heard or seen any planes, the moon was a deep, dark blue, and they were down to two packets of instant Jell-O and half a power bar. Alex’s head thumped from hunger and caffeine withdrawal, her stomach had shriveled to the size of a raisin, and her thoughts were starting to get muddy, sluggish, and thick. On the thin side to begin with, she’d definitely lost more weight. She kept hitching up her hiking pants, and she’d jabbed another hole in Ellie’s belt to keep the girl’s jeans from puddling around her ankles.
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