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When they stopped to rest, Ellie only sat and stared until Alex coaxed her into moving on again. Despite rationing themselves a half cup of water a day, there were only two swallows left in her bottle. The river was still miles in their future, and Alex knew they were in big trouble.


Because they’d hit the damn fork in the road.


Alex stood there a few seconds, absolutely stupid with amazement. The valley trail was marked with blue blazes so faded that the bark had bled through and turned them gray. Yet other than that first dilapidated sign, they’d not run across a single marker. And now this: a fork and faded blue blazes on both trails, each of which was thick with weeds. Neither trail looked as if anyone had taken it in quite a while.


“Which way do we go?” Ellie finally asked.


Something her father always said bubbled up from memory. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”


“What does that mean?”


“It’s a joke,” Alex said. The memory gave her an idea, though.


Ellie said, “What are you doing?”


“Just … hang on.” Closing her eyes, Alex inhaled again. She smelled herself, big surprise. Successive days of stewing in her own sweat had left an itchy rime on her skin; her cheeks were puckery with dried salt, her mouth gummy, and her tongue so swollen she could barely choke back the instant Jell-O she’d swallowed dry to save on water. There was Ellie’s distinctive scent, and there was also the forest itself and its welter of aromas: the sharp turpentine of pine and the dry spice of dead leaves. Then she caught it: just the faintest whisper of wet.


She opened her eyes. “This way,” she said, and pointed to the left fork.


“Are you sure?”


“As sure as I can be. The station’s northeast and the sun’s behind us on the left. If we go to the right, we’ll be heading south, and that’s wrong.”


They walked as the day died and the sunset fired the sky with that weird, blood-red light. The wet smell got stronger, or maybe that was wishful thinking. Alex would’ve kept going, except that by dark Ellie was stumble-down exhausted, and the last thing they needed was for the girl to turn an ankle or break a leg.


Unbuckling her fanny pack, Alex handed over the water bottle. “Go ahead. I’ll put the shelter together.”


Ellie shook her head. “I’m not thirsty.”


“Drink it, Ellie.” Alex raked up leaves. “We’ll hit the river tomorrow. We’re really close.”


“But there won’t be any left for you.”


“I’ll be okay,” Alex said, though it was more of a vocal tic than something she really thought about. Arms full, she pushed to her feet, then gasped at a sudden swirl of vertigo.


“Alex?”


“It’s nothing.” Well, that was bull; she was dehydrated and running on fumes. Her face was clammy, and her entire body felt shivery and weak. She waited until she was sure she wasn’t going to pass out and then made her way to the frame of boughs she’d constructed at the base of a white pine. Dumping the leaves, she began pushing them into the shelter. “I’m just tired. Come on, drink up.”


Ellie looked doubtful but tipped the last of their water into her mouth. The sight and that lovely, liquid sound and the smell set off an aching so strong, Alex could feel it in her bones. Turning away, she pushed into their shelter, busying herself with their bed of leaves.


There’ll be water tomorrow, she thought furiously. You just focus on …


A soft sob from outside the shelter, and Alex frowned. “Ellie?”


“I’m …,” the girl choked. “I’m …”


Alarmed, Alex scuttled out of the shelter. “What’s wrong?”


“I-I’m sorry. I’m s-sorry about everything.” Ellie’s face knotted, but she was too dehydrated for tears. “This is al-all m-my f-f-fault.”


“It’s nobody’s fault. We’re both doing the best we can.”


“But I’m not! I st-stole your f-food and you’re giv-giving me your water. I don’t know anything important. You make the f-fires and tell us wh-which way to g-go. You know how to do everything!”


She surprised herself. “Well, then, we have to change that. Come on, I’m going to teach you how to start a fire from scratch.”


Startled, Ellie looked up, gulping back tears, “Really?”


“Yeah. Really.” What had Aunt Hannah said? It’s not your competence I question. Being competent was Alex’s best line of defense against the monster. Maybe all it gave her was an illusion of strength, but she would take that over feeling helpless any day. She gave the girl a little poke. “Come on, we need to get fuel.”


Ellie scrambled up to comply. She was so eager, she hauled back a small dead pine—the whole bloody tree, as Aunt Hannah would’ve said. The tree was too newly dead, too green to be useful, but Alex stifled an impulse to point out to the girl what she’d done wrong. Instead, she showed Ellie how to take from the tree what they could use—dead needles, the thinner branches—and then had the girl segregate and mound the fuel.


“The foundation’s really important. If you don’t build it right, you’ve wasted your time. Now, this is the best part.” Tearing open an alcohol swab, nose twitching against the sharp chemical alcohol sting, Alex pinched out the wet gauze square most of the way, then had Ellie hold on to the foil as she lit one of their waterproof matches. “Okay, hang on to the foil,” she said, then passed the flame beneath the swab. The swab caught with a very small whup. A tiny, liquid-like flame sprouted, bright and blue.


Ellie gasped. “Wow.”


“Yeah, wow. It’s cool because it lasts a lot longer than the match, but now you’ve got to use it to light the tinder.” She watched as Ellie touched off the tinder, saw the yellow-orange bloom as the tinder caught and then almost died. “Here, look,” she said, and gently blew on the guttering tinder, which then brightened as hot and blood-red as those fiery sunsets. “Come on, blow—just not too hard.”


The fire went out twice: once when Ellie blew too hard and again when she didn’t blow hard enough. On the third try, the fire caught and held. “I did it!” Ellie whooped. Alex started to laugh as Ellie jumped up and did a little dance, pumping her fist in the air. “I did it, I did it!”


“Yes, you did,” said Alex, giving the girl a hug. “You totally rock.”


They sat up for the next few hours, feeding the fire, basking in the warmth. Ellie didn’t want to let the fire die down, but Alex finally insisted that they had to sleep.


“But it’ll go out,” Ellie said. “It’ll die.”


“Not if we bank it. Here.” Using a long, stout branch, Alex showed Ellie how to position the burning wood to restrict airflow. “This is where the ashes get really important,” she said, and began carefully scooping out handfuls of cool ash which she drizzled over the flames. “The ashes are like a blanket. They protect the embers during the night. Tomorrow morning, all we have to do is give the embers some air and fuel, and we’ll have fire.”


“But if we stay to restart it”—Ellie’s face creased with worry—“won’t that slow us down?”


“No, it’ll be good practice. We’ll be fine.”


By the time they crawled into their shelter, Alex felt better than she had in several days. She was still very hungry, but she could stand this. They were close to water, and soon they would be at the ranger station. They would be okay. If they absolutely had to, they could stay put for a day, maybe near the river. Maybe that would be smart. Getting to the rangers sooner wouldn’t help Jack and there was Ellie to think of. Maybe, she thought drowsily, they should hang out at the river, catch some fish …


“Alex?”


She crawled back toward consciousness. “Mmm?”


“Thanks.”


“Mmm,” she said again, and yawned. “No problem.”


“No, I mean, not just for the fire. Thanks for not leaving me.”


That made her wake up. Wasn’t a lot of this her fault? Not Jack, of course, but if she’d not gotten so freaked, had a bit more patience, they might be in a lot better shape, with food and plenty of water and maps. And here Ellie was thanking her.


“I shouldn’t have left you,” she said. “You weren’t ready, and I was too freaked to see that.”


“You won’t leave me again, will you?”


“No.” She meant that.


“Promise?”


“Promise.” She crooked her little finger. “Pinky swear.”


After a moment’s hesitation, Ellie threaded her pinky around Alex’s. “You won’t forget?”


“Never,” Alex said, and thought maybe they’d turned some corner. By tomorrow, when they reached the river and there was water and fish, their worst days would be behind them.


Famous last words.


17


One second she was sound asleep, the next she was vaulting to consciousness, fully alert, certain that something was wrong. The light was gray in the shelter, and Alex could see splinters of white through the roof of pine boughs. From beyond the shelter came the early morning chatter of birds. She’d cinched the hood of her sweatshirt down around her head, but her face was freezing, her nose a lump of ice, and she heard the sough of the wind through the trees and felt it lick her face with its promise of water.


Wait a minute.


She came up on her elbows and then saw why she was so cold. Why there was wind on her face.


The leaves she’d mounded so carefully at the mouth of the shelter were gone. She saw daylight … and she was alone. Her fanny pack was there, but Ellie’s backpack and the Glock were gone.


She tunneled out of the shelter so fast that the ridgepole came crashing down. She saw, in an instant, that the fire was as they’d left it. So Ellie hadn’t tried to start it on her own.


“Ellie?” she called. Louder: “Ellie?”

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