Hormonal changes. Puberty? Alex stared down at the unconscious girl. Her periods had completely stopped over a year ago. A side effect of her many rounds of chemo, or the monster itself—Barrett didn’t know which.
And how did hormones or puberty explain Tom? He was her age, way past puberty. And what about boys in general? Since boys and girls were different, hormones couldn’t be the only reason—could they?
“Larry,” Tom said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t take her with us.” He wasn’t brutal about it, just factual. “Even if this might turn itself around, we don’t know that.”
“I know. I wasn’t going to ask. Everyone who comes through takes one look and then it’s”—Larry wiped the air with one
“You could come with us,” Alex said.
“I’m not leaving my daughter. The hell of it is she might not die if I let her go, but that would mean she’d go after—” Larry swallowed. “I can’t do that either.”
Tom asked, “What do you want, Larry?”
“I can’t …” Larry took a weak swipe at the air with the bat. “I can’t do that. But you have guns. I’m not asking you to, you understand, but I only need two.”
“Two what?” asked Alex.
“Larry,” said Tom, “there’s no need for you to do this. I could—”
“Two what?” Alex repeated, and then she got it. “No, Tom, you can’t give him—”
“No.” Larry put a hand on Tom’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “You seem like a fine young man, and I appreciate it, I do. But there are some things you’re still too young for. She’s my daughter. If anyone does this, it should be me.” After a brief silence, Larry added, “Please don’t make me beg.”
Tom studied Larry a moment longer, then reached around for the Sig and withdrew it from its holster.
“Tom,” Alex said.
Tom did not reply. Instead, he quickly jacked out the magazine, popped out every bullet except one, then reseated the clip.
“What are you doing?” Alex asked.
Tom checked the safety and then proffered the pistol, grip first. “Careful. There’s already one in the chamber.”
“Thank you.” Larry wrapped his hand around the butt. “I’ll take it from here.”
Tom didn’t let go of the pistol. “You don’t have to do this. All it would take would be the one.”
“But I’d always remember. No parent should have to live with that.” Larry gave a slow, sad smile. “A word of advice. You two and the little girl? There’s a lot of anger out there, and fear. People’ll either shoot you, or decide you’re worth your weight in gold.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’re an endangered species. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but we had eight kids in our group when we started and not one survived. So you be very careful.” Larry clapped Tom on the shoulder again. “Go on now. I’ll wait until you’re gone.”
“That took a long time,” Ellie said as they piled into the truck. “Isn’t he coming with us?”
“No, honey.” Tom cranked the truck’s starter, and the engine caught with a roar. “He decided to stay behind.”
“Why?” Then her eyes fell to Tom’s waist and narrowed in suspicion. “Where’s your gun?”
“We better go,” Alex said.
Ellie looked from Tom to Alex and then back to Tom, and Alex saw the moment the lightbulb went off. A look of betrayal replaced the confusion, and Ellie’s lower lip began to tremble. “My daddy would never have done that.”
Alex put a hand on the girl’s arm. “Ellie, that’s not fair.”
The little girl shook her off. “Don’t stick up for him just because he’s your boyfriend.”
Alex’s cheeks flamed. “He’s not—”
“You’re supposed to help,” the little girl said to Tom. “You’re supposed to save people. That’s your job.”
“I did help him, Ellie,” said Tom, with an effort. “It’s just not as simple as you think. Everything’s different. Nothing’s simple anymore.”
“That’s not true. Good guys don’t help people die. My daddy would never—”
Tom rounded on her. “Well, I’m not your dad, all right? Your dad is dead, and I’m doing the best I can. Now I’m sorry if that’s not good enough for you, but give me a break already! I didn’t ask for this, and I didn’t ask for you—” He clamped his mouth shut, but the damage was done.
Ellie’s face went as still as polished marble. “Okay.” She didn’t cry or shout, and every word cut the air as cleanly as a razor. “Fine.”
Tom was gray. “Ellie, honey, I’m sor—”
“Don’t call me that,” Ellie said in her new, deadly voice. “Don’t ever call me honey again. Only my daddy called me that, and like you said, you’re not my daddy.”
Alex was almost afraid to breathe. Ellie turned away and stared straight ahead.
Without another word, Tom butted the truck into first, and they left.
After Larry’s warning, they decided to stick to forested country roads. This also meant that they couldn’t go very quickly either; the roads weren’t in great shape and tended to swerve and curl, so they weren’t able to lay down many miles. The only saving grace was that the snow held off. Alex drove while Tom literally rode shotgun, ready to blast anyone who might come roaring out of the woods to steal the truck or kill them or both. But no one came, and they saw no brain-zapped kids either. Alex kept her window cracked—for air, she said—but she didn’t catch a scent that raised any alarms. They passed by a few mailboxes at the end of narrow dirt roads. Presumably there were houses back there, but they saw no one.
They did come to a single farm, but the house was dark and looked deserted, and in the air, big black birds wheeled. The sight set off a fluttery feeling in Alex’s chest, and then she got a big noseful of rot—but it was real rot this time. She spotted lumps of soggy wool in a muddy, enclosed paddock—sheep that had died of starvation—and as they rolled past a fenced-in field, the chug of the truck made the crows whirl up in a cloud. In another moment, they’d settled back to feed on the cows, most so bloated they looked like balloons about to burst. Vultures quarreled over the bodies, and Alex spotted two sleek gray foxes playing tug-of-war with a tangle of guts. The only animal still standing in the field was a tired-looking, old dray horse calmly munching on a clump of weeds. The horse’s head lifted as they passed.
“Hold up.” Hopping from the truck, Tom unlatched the fence’s gate, then climbed back in. “For when it runs out of grass. It’ll be okay.”
“Why didn’t you just shoot it?” Ellie muttered, but Tom didn’t answer.
When night fell, they’d managed a little under ninety miles, the last twenty on a snaky scratch of earth no wider than the truck. The ranger map was useless; the thin red squiggle marking the fire road had changed over to hyphens, a polite topographical symbol for an unimproved road. If the tall switches of dead grass sprouting in a Mohawk down the very center were to be believed, no one had been on this road—really, nothing more than a cut in the dirt—in years. The truck bounced and jounced in a squall of worn shocks as their speed dropped from thirty to twenty to ten and night leaked into the dense clouds, inking them black.
“We need to stop,” Alex said. “Even with headlights, this is impossible.”
“I know. Over there.” Tom gestured to the right. “Looks like part of an old fence.”
In the dimming light, Alex spotted a jagged post listing like the Tower of Pisa. Beyond, the ground was level, open, and overgrown, probably part of an old pasture gone to seed. She braked, jockeyed the stick into neutral, then killed the engine. “I think this takes being off the beaten path to a whole new level.”
“Yeah.” Tom popped his door and swung out. “Come on, let’s set up the tent. Ellie, Mina needs to be let out.”
Ellie said nothing, but when Alex slid from the cab, the girl scooted out, waited until Tom had dropped the tailgate, and clambered onto the flatbed.
“Careful where you step,” Tom said. He held out a flashlight. “They might have used barbed wire for the fence.”
“I’m not talking to you,” said Ellie, digging into her Hello Kitty backpack. “And I have my own flashlight.”
“Best thing is to leave her alone.” Alex watched the bob of Ellie’s torch and saw the dog weaving in and out of the light, its nose to the ground.
“Yeah.” Tom stood, arms akimbo, looking after Ellie as she waded through the field. “I really screwed up.”
“Hey, you’re always talking about cutting myself a break. What about you? She’s just a kid. Come on, let’s set up the tents and get a fire going. We’ll all feel better after we eat something.”
As they pitched the tent, she said, “I know you don’t want to hear this and I know I wasn’t much help back there, but now I think you did the right thing for Larry.”
Tom was pounding in a stake, so his face was hidden. “I’m having a hard time believing that.”
“Did you ever … I mean, over in Afghanistan, did you …?”
“Kill someone because he asked me to? A mercy killing?” Now Tom looked up. “No. I know this will sound stupid, but there’s killing the enemy and then there’s flat-out murder. There was this one guy in my squad, name was Crowe. He was all torn up. This EFP—explosively formed penetrator—blasted right through the Humvee and his helmet. Took out most of his face and half his skull. Didn’t kill him, and when I got to him, he was conscious. So I was holding his hand, you know, telling him to hang on, and Crowe looked right at me—well, with the one eye that was left—and he said, clear as a bell, ‘Kill me.’ I heard him okay, but I pretended I didn’t, so Crowe said it again and kept on until he passed out. One of his buddies went to see him later, and Crowe said, ‘You tell that son of a bitch Eden he fucked up.’”
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