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The crazy man let go of a high, gargling scream and began backpedaling, crashing against a tree, twisting and turning, spinning in a wild, jittery dance.


In the next instant, Alex heard the unmistakable sound of a bolt being thrown and then a commanding rap: “Call off your dog!”


Across the river. Alex saw another man pushing from the woods, rifle held high. He was much younger, closer to her age, and his face was streaked with grime, a slick of brown curls plastered to his forehead. “Call it off! Do it now! Hurry!”


“Mina!” Alex shouted, and then, desperately, “Mina, come, off, off!”


Incredibly, it worked. Mina bounded away, lunging for her and then, spinning around, pressed against Alex as if to stand between her and the crazy man. Dropping to her knees, Alex threw her arms around the dog, fisting her hands into the scruff of the dog’s neck. “Good girl, stay, stay!”


The crazy man bellowed. His face twisted; his eyes shone from his bloody face like beacons, unearthly and mad.


“Jim!” shouted the man with the rifle. “Jim, over here, here!”


The crazy man—Jim—whipped around to face him. The reek of death and insanity steamed from his pores, wreathing him in a thick, choking stink as tangible as smoke. Throwing his head back, Jim bayed, a weird, eerie howl that spiked her brain: a sound she would never forget.


“God forgive me,” the young man said, and squeezed the trigger.


The slug drilled Jim between the eyes and exited in a mist of blood and brain and bone. Jim’s arms dropped limp and lifeless to his sides, as if he were a marionette suddenly without his puppeteer, and then his legs folded and he toppled from the bank. His head struck a boulder and then the current grabbed him, sweeping him downstream. The water might have carried him to the shallows, but his foot wedged in a rock tumble and held him there. A few moments later, the water bled in a swirl of burgundy red that widened to the black maw of a whirlpool as Alex’s vision began to fade and her mind wobbled.


“Alex?” Ellie’s voice sounded very far away. “Alex, are you okay?”


No, I don’t think so. Alex began to fall as the whirlpool sucked her down, dragged her under. I think I’m passing—


22


When she woke, the light was gone, the darkness was heavy and hot, and her head was splitting. She couldn’t move, couldn’t see, and she thought, This is it; I’ve stroked out and I’m going to die. She let out a long, low moan.


“Alex?” A metallic snick, a spear of white light, and then she felt the girl’s arms thread around her throat. “Alex?”


“Ellie,” she breathed in relief. Her own arms were snarled in a tangle of oversize flannel shirt, and she had to work to shuck free of the sleeping bag. The movement made her head ache, but she didn’t care. “Hey,” she said, hugging the girl close. “You okay?”


“I’m f-fine.” Ellie’s head moved against her neck and then Alex felt the splash of tears. “I was so … so sc-scared that maybe you were d-dead….”


“Hey, it’s okay, we’re okay.” Right about then she realized that other than the shirt and panties, she was naked and her skin was slick with sweat. The dull red eye of a catalytic heater glowed in one corner, and she thought, Tent. I’m in a tent.


Everything came back then: the pack of wild dogs, the river, that choking stink of death, Jim, and … “Ellie, where are we?”


“In Tom’s tent. Don’t you remember?”


“No. Well, I remember the guy with the gun—”


“That’s Tom.”


“Tom.”


“Yeah, Tom Eden. He carried you back and fixed up your head. He said in the army, you learn how to do a lot of stuff.”


“My—” Her hand crept over her hair to a rough square of gauze bandage, with something prickly beneath: stitches. She must’ve been really out not to have felt those. “How long have I been asleep? What day is it?”


“Thursday. You were asleep for all of yesterday and today.”


“Two days?”


“Uh-huh. Tom said you had a concussion. He said it was a wonder you hadn’t passed out way before you did. He’s outside, making dinner. I came in to see if maybe you were awake.”


“Where are my clothes?”


“Right here.” Ellie aimed the light to the right. The hiking pants and underwear were Alex’s, but the rest—a forest green turtleneck, a set of long black underwear, a pair of wool socks draped over her hiking boots—was not. The flannel shirt she wore was probably Tom’s, too, which meant a whole bunch of other things—all of them boiling down to his having undressed her, like, completely. Which she just didn’t want to think about, much less try to remember.


“Okay,” she said. “Tell him I’ll be right out.”


Mina spotted her first. Her tail thumped, and then she was heaving to a stand. Her left leg was splinted, but she pranced over to Alex, who dropped to her knees and wrapped the dog up in a hug. “Good girl,” she said. “You are such a good girl.”


“Welcome back.” Alex looked up to see Tom by the fire, poking at something sizzling in a cast-iron skillet. “How are you feeling?”


The questions were in her mouth, but then she caught a whiff of frying meat and sputtering fat that made the words drown as her mouth watered. “Oh my God, that smells great. What is it?”


“Raccoon and white beans, and there’s tea.”


“Raccoon.” She saw Ellie put a hand to her mouth to cover the giggles and then looked back at Tom. “Like, you caught it?”


“Well, it sure didn’t get Fed-Exed. Besides, the dog needs the meat … Look, sit before you fall down.”


“Ellie said you think I have … had a concussion. Aren’t you not supposed to sleep if you’ve had a concussion?”


“Well, I guess you had other ideas,” he said, and she decided Tom Eden had a very nice smile, especially that dimple on the left. He wasn’t that much older either. Maybe … nineteen? Twenty? She wondered if there was a graceful way to figure that out, and then wondered why she was wondering.


Tom said, “How does your head feel?”


“Like someone bashed it with a brick.”


“I’ll bet. I’ve got some ibuprofen, but you should get something in your stomach.” He aimed a knife. “Med’s in that canvas bag over there, and you can use that jacket. It’ll be a little big, but it’s better than nothing. Sorry about your sweatshirt, but it was pretty badly ripped and I used it for the dog’s splint.”


The coat was a lot better than nothing: charcoal gray and long enough to fall midway between her butt and knees. The fabric gave off a musky scent that smelled of safety, like being wrapped up in strong arms that you knew would never let go.


Tom held up a mug and an aluminum camp plate heaped high. “I know you’re hungry, but take it slow, okay? Be nice if that stayed down.”


Ellie was already gobbling and Alex’s stomach was screaming with hunger, but she made no move to take the food. “Look, I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, and I know you shot that guy …”


“That guy’s name was Jim, he was a really good friend of mine, and you’re welcome.”


“Oh. I’m sorry. And thank you. For saving us, I mean.” She wouldn’t back down. “But I don’t know you, and I don’t remember what happened after you … after you shot your friend.”


“Well, you passed out. Any closer to the river, and I’d have had to go in after you. After I made sure you were still breathing … Ellie, what happened next?”


“You helped me get off the tree, Tom,” Ellie said. Her chin glistened with grease. She beamed at Alex. “Tom let me carry his gun.”


“Which you did very well,” said Tom.


“Because you had to carry Alex and her head was bleeding like stink.”


“Which it was.” Tom looked back at Alex. “Then I stitched you up and set up camp, got Ellie out of her wet clothes, and then Ellie and I got you out of your wet clothes, and then … Do you really want me to go on?”


“No … yes.” She hugged herself. “Are you a, I don’t know, a nurse? Or, like, in medical school? How do you know so much?”


“You learn basic battlefield medicine in the army, and then some, if you hang around the medics and care to learn.”


“Okay. So, if you’re in the army, how come you’re here?”


“I’m on leave from Afghanistan. We were camping—me; Jim; his uncle, Stan; and Jim’s dad, Earl. Jim was my team leader, and no, I can’t tell you exactly where we were, because then I’d have to kill you.”


She tried not to smile. “That’s not very funny.”


“No, I guess it isn’t.”


“Where is Stan? Where’s Earl?”


“Look, I’ll be happy to answer all your questions after we eat.” When she remained on her feet, he placed the mug and plate on the ground. “At least sit down.”


“Why?”


“Because when you pass out again and fall into the fire, I don’t want to have to put out your hair, and I’m kind of partial to that turtleneck.”


Now she did smile. She lowered herself to a cross-legged sit. “Better?”


“Much.” His dimple showed. In the firelight, his skin glowed orange. “Ellie said you were kind of stubborn.”


“Oh yeah?” Alex shot Ellie a look of mock outrage. “She say anything about herself?”


“She said you used to think she was a pain.”


“Well,” said Alex, fishing up her plate, “she was.”


“Hello, I’m right here,” said Ellie, sounding very pleased.


“I think, given everything that’s happened, we’re all entitled to a couple bad days,” said Tom.

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