Page 21


Well, not quite empty. Her light glided over a workbench running along the near right wall. A rusted iron vise was clamped to one end, and there was a mousetrap atop the work space, but no tools and only a thin rat’s coil of wire hanging from the pegboard. A haphazard stack of cardboard boxes were piled against the brick to the right of the workbench. Christmas Ornaments was scrawled in black Sharpie on one. Another was labeled Fishing Gear. One stood open, and Alex saw a tongue of black cloth. The dead-meat stink was no stronger down there, though, and she thought Ellie would’ve mentioned a dead body or two.


She heard the creak of Tom’s footsteps overhead, and a spear of light pierced the darkness as he shone his flashlight down the stairs. “What do you see?” he called.


“It’s like I said,” Ellie called back.


“Workbench, boxes.” Aiming her light, Alex strafed the darkness to her left—and froze.


The metal cabinet was dark green, wide, almost directly opposite the stairs, and the door was open. Not much, maybe six inches, but enough so that when she moved a little to her left, her flashlight picked up a glint of metal, the twinkle of a scope.


“Alex?”


“Tom,” she said, and smiled. “Tom, it’s a gun safe!”


“What?” She heard Tom clattering down the steps, fast. “Wait—”


“So there are more guns?” Ellie asked. “That’s good, isn’t it?”


“I think so.” She started forward, reaching for the safe, wrapping her hand around the metal latch. “Good thing it’s open, too. Otherwise, we’d have to find the combina—”


From behind, Tom cried, “Alex, no, stop!”


Something slammed against her back as a bright orange flash erupted out of the dark, and a shotgun boomed.


26


The blast was deafening, loud enough that Alex thought her head would burst. Her ears shrieked with pain. The air split with the whirr of a slug where she’d been standing just a second before. Her throat closed on the choke of burnt gunpowder, scorched cloth, and hot metal, and her mouth was watering, her eyes streaming. She could feel the icy cold of the concrete against her hips. She thought Ellie was screaming, but the sound was muffled in cotton; she was virtually deaf and could barely breathe. Tom had hit her from behind, knocking her to the ground, but now his body lay draped over her. He was not moving.


“Tom?” She couldn’t hear herself, but felt the word in her throat. Still half-stunned by the blast, she tried turning over. God, please, let him not be dead. “Tom?” A moment later, his hand closed on hers and relief flooded her chest. She heard the low drone of his voice, but couldn’t make out the words. “What?”


“Booby trap.” His mouth was against her ear. “Are you okay?”


“Yes, I think so. What about you?”


“I’m fine.” Tom’s weight eased. The ringing in her ears had thinned to a high whine, enough so she could hear the dog barking from the bedroom overhead. Her head was killing her, and when she sat up, the darkness spun.


Tom aimed his flashlight at her. “You sure you’re all right?”


“Yeah.” She put up a hand to shield her eyes from the light, then spotted Ellie crouched a few feet away, mouthing hanging open, tears flooding her cheeks.


“Alex, are you okay?” The girl was crying and screaming at the same time. “Are you okay?”


“She’s okay.” Tom wrapped up Ellie in his arms and pressed her against his chest. “Honey, shh, calm down.”


“But she almost got killed!” Ellie shrieked. She grabbed fistfuls of Tom’s shirt and bawled, “I almost got her killed! If I hadn’t been so nosy, if I’d waited for you, she wouldn’t have—”


“This is not your fault, Ellie,” Tom said. “You didn’t touch the safe. Alex did. You didn’t do anything. And see? Alex is fine.”


What she’d been, Alex decided, was lucky. Clearly visible now that the concussive blast had knocked the blanket askew, the shotgun was wedged between two boxes, its barrel aimed at the safe. The muzzle flash had ignited the cloth, which still gave off a stink of burning wool. Now that she knew what she was looking for, she picked out the wire attached to the trigger easily enough and followed that to the mousetrap. A separate wire, cut from the same coil on the pegboard, snaked from the now-sprung trap, up the brick wall, over exposed beams in the ceiling, and then down to the top hinge of the safe’s door. When she’d dragged the safe open the rest of the way, the wire wrapped around the hinge had tightened, the holding bar on the trap had disengaged, and the force of the hammer snapping shut had taken up enough slack to pull the trigger.


She felt Tom’s hand on her shoulder and turned.


“How about we all go upstairs and celebrate being alive?” he said.


By the time Alex returned to the kitchen with Ellie, Tom had prepared a feast: panfried hamburgers with all the trimmings, a huge salad, and fried potatoes. “Wow,” Alex said, “I thought all you knew how to do was raccoon. Where’d you learn to cook?”


“For your information, I love cooking.” He grinned. “My mom’s a fantastic cook, and so’s my dad.”


“I don’t suppose you’ve figured out dessert.”


“As a matter of fact.” Tom produced a box of Oreos from behind his back. “Ta-da. I liberated them from behind a sack of dog food. There’s one more box and a package of Mallomars, too. Somebody didn’t want to share.”


“They had a dog?” Alex asked, and wondered, What happened to it?


“This is very nice of you, Tom,” Ellie said in a small voice. She was quite pale. No amount of reassurance from Alex had worked; the little girl blamed herself for what had happened down in the cellar. She’d been virtually mute as Alex stripped her out of her clothes, scrubbed her clean in the wood tub they’d dragged to a back bedroom, and then dressed her in a woman’s flannel shirt and jeans rolled up to her calves. “But I don’t think I’m very hungry.”


“Well, I’m starved.” Dropping into a chair, Alex grabbed up a hamburger bun and spooned out a huge dollop of mayonnaise.


Tom grinned. “Nothing like a little near-death experience to work up an appetite. Ellie, you want something, feel free.”


“I’m not hungry,” Ellie repeated. She looked uncertainly at Mina, who’d scrambled for the bowl Tom plunked on the floor and was now practically inhaling kibble. “I should maybe just go lie down.”


“That’s fine, honey.” Layering his burger with lettuce and tomato, Tom squirted a spiral of ketchup. “You do whatever you want. Pass the mayo, would you, Alex?”


“Sure,” Alex replied, although her mouth kept trying to twitch into a smile. She caught Tom’s warning look and rearranged her features to as bland a deadpan as she could manage. Alex understood reverse psychology when she saw it; she hadn’t spent all that time staring at her shrink’s carpet for nothing. As Alex forked a burger onto a mound of lettuce, she saw Ellie slide into a chair.


“Mustard,” Ellie said in a very tiny voice. “And relish. Please.”


“One spoonful or two?” asked Tom.


“Two.”


Tom doled out relish. “And let me give you some of this tomato here … There, that’s good. Try that. There’s more where that came from.”


They ate in a silence that was comfortable and almost heartbreaking because it was so normal, and Alex thought that Tom was right. Food was fundamental. After so long a time of eating only in memory, feasting in actual fact—with all its aromas and tongue-popping tastes—was a celebration.


The silence also gave her a chance to think about that cellar. Leaving aside how dumb she’d been—the promise of more guns had swept away every particle of good sense—that dead-meat stink, however faint, meant one of two things. Either the rangers had changed, or maybe some other brain-zapped crazy had been rummaging around down there. Either would account for why the rangers had cleared out in a hurry.


But why set a trap? She bit into her burger and slowly chewed as she thought the problem through. A booby trap like that would only work if you knew where the gun safe was. Tom had missed it; Ellie had found the cellar by chance. So, presumably, only another ranger would know where the safe was, or that a cellar even existed.


Say, hypothetically, there’d been two rangers. Say one had changed, and the other hadn’t. Had the normal one set the trap, hoping to kill the ranger who’d changed? Or—


Wait a second. Tom said Jim was still partly Jim after he went crazy. What if the ranger who’d changed set it to take out the one who was still normal?


“That burger okay?” Tom asked.


“What?” Alex looked up and realized she’d stopped chewing. “It’s great,” she said around burger, and swallowed.


But she thought, Those brain-zapped kids changed the very first day. Jim was older and he changed on the second day and ended up just like those kids. And now, maybe, there’s a ranger, and that would make four people who changed.


Well, actually, there were five. Because she had changed, too—just not in the same way as the others.


Not yet.


27


Tom looked up from the farmer’s sink where he stood doing the dishes. Perched on a windowsill over the sink, a Coleman lantern hissed out brilliant, harsh white light. “She asleep?”


“About thirty seconds after she told me how she’d never sleep again,” Alex said. Fingering up a dish towel, she accepted a dripping plate and began to dry. “Actually, I don’t think she would’ve settled down without Mina and if you hadn’t dragged out the mattresses and made up beds in front of the fireplace. How’d you get so experienced in dealing with kids?”


“Twelve years of four little sisters.” Tom fished a handful of forks from the soapy water, scrubbed, dunked them in rinse water.


“Four? Ouch. What did you do wrong?”

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