“Ask the bad guy you stab when he least expects it.”
“You just said I’ll get myself killed.”
“Not if the first stab’s so good you don’t have to do it again.” He pushed to his feet. “Come on, relax. I was joking.”
“She’s not laughing,” said Ellie.
“This is for just in case,” said Tom.
“You say that a lot,” Alex said.
“Because I mean it.” He ran a critical eye over her body and then shook his head. “There’s still something missing,” he said, patting around his pockets. “Just give me a sec … ah …” He pulled out a holstered handgun. “I knew I had this on me for a reason.”
She knew what it was before her shaking fingers pulled the Glock free. The magazine was missing, but there was no mistake. “My dad’s … Tom, where … how …?”
“Hey, cool, you fixed it!” said Ellie. “Tom made me promise not to say anything. We went back for it the morning after … you know. Tom said you wouldn’t wake up and Mina would protect
you, so I showed him where I dropped it.”
“You went into the water?” Alex asked, incredulous.
“Not me,” said Ellie. “It was way deep and really cold. Tom got it, though. It only took him four tries.”
“I didn’t want to say anything until I had a chance to take it apart, clean it, get it back in working order. Ellie told me it was your dad’s. I figured you would want to have it, and it’s a perfectly fine weapon. Here.” He held up the Glock’s magazine. “The extra’s still in your fanny pack, and I tossed a couple bricks into our gear, too.”
“Thank you.” She carefully butted the magazine into place. “I mean that, Tom.”
“I know.” He held her gaze for a long moment, then said, “Best jack a round into the chamber before you safety that thing.”
“Just in case,” she said.
“So do I get a knife?” Ellie asked.
Tom and Alex looked at each other, and then Alex said, “You started this.”
“Okay, okay,” Tom said. “You can have a knife, Ellie, only yours is going to be a regular old knife-knife.”
“What?” Ellie cried. “That’s not fair. How come she gets a boot knife and I don’t?”
“And I want it on your belt, in the sheath, thumb guard on, at all times.”
“I can’t even use it?” Ellie looked unhappy. “Then what good is it?”
“If you need to skin a rabbit or whittle a fishhook, I’ll show you. It’s like when I showed you how to work the gun. It’s just in case.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ellie grumbled. “If it’s for just in case, how come you guys look like you’re going to war?”
No one had a good answer for that.
They piled into the truck, with Ellie between Alex and Tom. Tom slotted the ignition key and paused. “Not too late to change our minds.”
“No, let’s go.” Ellie twisted around to peer out the cab’s rear window. “You sure Mina will be okay? Even with the crate, it’s awfully cold.”
“With all those blankets and a fur coat to boot? She’ll be fine.”
“Okay. Should we maybe lock the front door?”
“Let’s leave it,” Alex said, her eyes rising to brush over Tom’s. “Someone else might find their way up here and need a place to stay.”
“Or maybe the rangers will come back,” Ellie said.
“Let’s do this,” Tom said, and cranked the ignition. The truck’s engine caught with a throaty bellow, and then he dropped the truck into first. “Say good-bye, house.”
“Good-bye, house,” Ellie said. She waited a beat, then added, “Soooo … are we there yet?”
Alex and Tom both looked at Ellie and then at each other, and burst into laughter.
That was the last good time.
PART THREE: THE CHANGE
The gravel fire road was riddled with ruts, and the truck lurched and dipped, the rough stone crunching beneath the tires and pocking against the undercarriage. Their speed was pitiful, and after an hour, they’d only covered ten miles. Three miles farther on, they hit the paved access road and then made better time, the tires humming over asphalt as they headed due east. After twenty miles, Tom said, “Parking lot coming up. That where you left your car?” When she nodded, he said, “You want to stop? Might be something you want.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to say that there was nothing of her old life that she wanted at all, other than her aunt. She’d briefly considered asking Tom to head south, not north. He might do that for her, but given the little they’d gleaned, venturing out of the park was dangerous enough. Heading for a major city in a state loaded with nuclear power plants and storage facilities was probably suicidal. They didn’t call it “Nuclear Illinois” for nothing; the first chain reactor ever constructed was squirreled away in squash courts beneath the bleachers of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. That was where Fermi coined the word
Now, she only nodded. “Sure.”
“Wow,” said Ellie as Tom doglegged left past the park entrance booth. The booth was stone with a large picture window in front and a sliding-glass window on the side, like a serving window at McDonald’s. The picture window was smashed, the door hung open, and both the American and state flags puddled on the grass at the base of a large flagpole. The ropes were gone. “Someone was pissed.”
“Or looking for something they could use.” As they pulled around the bend and into the lot, Tom said, “I was afraid of that.”
This late in the season, there wouldn’t have been many cars to begin with, and there were only six now in litters of pebbly glass. All the cars had been sacked: broken windows, open doors, gaping glove compartments, battered trunks, dented fenders.
“There may not be much left,” Tom said. “Which one’s yours?”
Alex pointed. Her Toyota stood on the left, in a corner of the lot, near a freestanding shelter with a trio of smashed vending machines. The Toyota was a wreck, and the trunk had been popped, the spare tire left leaning against the rear fender.
“Hey,” said Ellie suddenly, and pointed to the right. “Over at the bathrooms. Look!”
A tall, slight man, with a froth of white hair, slipped from the side entrance marked WOMEN, which would’ve struck Alex as strange in any other setting. The guy was old, about Jack’s age, and clad in dirty jeans and a smeary olive-green parka. One fist gripped a baseball bat. He looked oddly familiar, but Alex didn’t recognize him until he pushed a pair of glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
“Hey, I know him,” she said, leaning forward for a better look. She told Tom about the school bus. “He was one of the teachers. I’m almost positive.” She saw the guy raise a tentative hand. “Do we stop?”
Before Tom could answer, Ellie said, “Of course we do. He’s stranded.” When Tom and Alex exchanged looks, Ellie continued, “We have to help him.”
“No, we don’t,” said Tom. “We already went through this, Ellie. We’re bound to see a lot of people who will want what we’ve got. We can’t share with everybody.”
“Still,” said Ellie.
Tom thought about it another second, then braked, threw the truck into neutral, and said to Ellie, “You wait here.” When she opened her mouth to argue, he added, “One word, and I’m driving away.”
“Fine,” Ellie said grudgingly, then clapped a hand over her mouth with exaggerated drama. “Oops.”
Tom tried to keep a straight face but failed. Then his gaze shifted to Alex, his eyes clicking down to her waist. She read his meaning and thumbed away the Glock’s retention strap.
It wasn’t until she popped the car door that she caught that unmistakable stink of dead meat. The small hairs bristled on the back of her neck. From the flatbed, she heard Mina’s anxious whine. “Tom, hold up,” she said.
Tom was already half out of the car, his Winchester in one hand. “What?”
“Mina smells something. There’s …” She sniffed the air again, not caring how she must look. The roadkill stink was definitely there—not strong, but she thought it was close. “Don’t you smell that?”
“I’ll be damned.” A man’s voice. She turned to see the teacher hurrying over, his long white hair drifting behind like an Old Testament prophet’s. A pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched precariously on the bridge of his nose, the right lens riding higher than the left, and gave the old man the look of an absentminded professor. He said, “Jesus, you’re … you’re kids. Oh my God, I don’t believe it. When I heard the truck, I thought I was hallucinating.” He stuck out a grimy hand. His knuckles, swollen and gnarled, were scraped raw, and crescents of black rimmed his nails. There was ash on his neck, and to Alex, he smelled of smoke and desperation and something she couldn’t quite place. The roadkill stink wasn’t coming from him, but she smelled the man’s fear, no question, and something else, a sharp solvent nip.
He’s hiding something. The thought simply popped into her head. He’s worried about something.
Why would she think that?
“Larry Mathis.” The old man’s eyes drifted to Tom’s Winchester and her Glock before fluttering back to their faces. “You don’t know how happy I am to see you. Got yourselves a dog, I see. Smart, real smart. I knew it couldn’t be every kid, I tried telling Marlene, but she …”
“Whoa, whoa,” said Tom. “Slow down. What are you talking about, every kid? What do you mean, having a dog is smart?”
“Listen to me.” Larry clamped his mouth shut, rubbed a horny palm over his cracked lips. “Sorry. It’s just I’ve been alone, except for people passing through. I haven’t seen another soul for, God, maybe two weeks?”
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