“Oh yeah. Haven’t you heard? The war’s been great training for those brain surgeons. The upside is you live. The downside is you won’t want to spend a lot of time around mirrors—assuming you’re not a vegetable. Why do you think he wanted me to kill him?”
“But he is alive. He might not think that way now, Tom.”
“Alex, he was our age.” Tom gave the stake a final, savage whack. “If Larry’s right, I’ll give you three guesses what Crowe’s like now.”
Ellie spent the evening not eating, and avoided them both. When Tom tried talking to her, the girl resolutely stared at the ground and hugged the dog until Tom gave up. Shortly thereafter, Ellie took Mina and ducked into the tent. For the next hour, Tom and
Alex huddled over a road atlas they’d found at the ranger station.
“Maybe we should double back,” Alex said.
“I hate doing that. It’s just a waste of gas and time. Look, the map says this levels out, and we already know this is farmland, right? So there will be other houses along the way, which means that the roads have to get better. We keep on this, eventually it’ll feed into that fire road, and that’ll take us northwest, up around Oren.”
“Yeah, and a lot of people.”
“Forty, fifty miles, give or take.”
“And the other choice?”
“We head southwest and then cut west. There’s an old mine there and a pretty small town about thirty miles north of the mine. Actually, it doesn’t look like more than a village.” He squinted close to read the name. “Rule.”
“So that might be better. Fewer people, anyway.”
“Maybe. I just wish I’d thought to stop at that farm. Might have been a truck or car and some gas.” He shook his head, his breath pluming. “Man, I’m not thinking straight.”
“You’re doing way better than I could. I couldn’t shoot anyone I know, and you cared about Jim.”
“No.” Staring into the fire, he sighed and let his hands dangle between his knees. “I mean, yeah, I did, but that’s not all of it. Remember I said that I tracked him? Well, I had Jim twice before. I could’ve taken him out and probably should’ve. But I didn’t. I was like Larry; it was like Crowe all over again. I kept thinking what if I was wrong; maybe he’d snap out of it and be Jim again. I just couldn’t do it, and then it was almost too late. If Ellie hadn’t screamed …”
“But she did, and then you saved us.”
Their eyes locked, and then he reached over and cupped her face with one hand. “Maybe we saved each other,” he said.
Alex took the first watch. “Go on. I’ll wake you up around one, I promise.”
“Mmm.” Tom glanced toward the tent into which Ellie had disappeared an hour or two before. “I’m thinking I’d just as soon not risk waking her up. I’ll put up the pup tent against the truck and sleep there.”
Midnight came. There were no stars and no moon, for which Alex was grateful. As she fed the fire, she wondered, dreamily, how long it would take for the moon to go back to the way it had been. Years? She yawned. The fire’s warmth toasted her face and hands. Her back was cold, but the cold helped keep her alert.
She thought about Tom, too. She wasn’t sure what was happening, or what all this meant. Her whole body hummed, hungry for his touch. It wasn’t lust; it was the desire to be close, to be held by him.
She’d never had a boyfriend, never been kissed. There’d been one guy, very hot, a moony sophomore with long eyelashes named Shane. They’d gone out as part of a pack and swapped shy glances, but never hooked up. Then her parents died, and it was like she became radioactive, as if her friends weren’t sure if having a good time was allowed, so they stayed away. Then she’d moved in with her aunt, changed schools, got to be the new kid in midstream. Then came the diagnosis, and her world became an endless round of therapy and hospitals and doctors.
She glanced over at Tom’s pup tent. Had he thought about her before he fell asleep? Actually, knowing Tom, he might still be awake. So … what would happen if she slipped into his tent?
Or what if nothing happened?
God, she could see it now. Tom trying to let her down easy, telling her that they’re under a lot of stress and this isn’t the best way to start a relationship …
Leave it, she decided. She didn’t want to know.
The hour mitten on Ellie’s Mickey Mouse watch hit one. Alex decided to let Tom sleep another hour, which became two, and slipped into three, and then—
A prod at her back. “Alex?”
“What?” She jammed awake, stiff and very cold. Fumbling with the Mossberg, trying to turn at the same time, she almost fell from her perch.
“Whoa, it’s just me,” Ellie said. Mina was by her side, grinning, her tail whisking in the chill air. The night was nearly over and dawn showed as a dull pewter smudge on the horizon. Snow sifted down in a fine salt.
“Ellie.” She huffed out in relief, her breath coming in a cloud. “Don’t do that.”
“I’m sorry, but you wouldn’t wake up.” Ellie pointed. “The fire’s out. I would’ve started it, but I was afraid I’d burn you.”
“Oh.” Now she saw that the little girl was cradling a stack of kindling. She glanced at Ellie’s watch: seven o’clock. Beyond, she saw that Tom’s tent was still sealed up tight—unusual, for him. “I guess I was tired.”
“Can I go ahead and—”
“Sure.” She crouched alongside the dead fire as the girl slid her kindling onto the frosted grass. Mina came to press against Alex’s side and moaned as Alex ruffled the dog’s ears. “You want me to help?” Alex asked.
“No, I got it,” Ellie said. She worked in silence, sweeping away dead, cold ash and then mounding fuel.
Alex watched as Ellie touched a match to shredded wood and what looked like milkweed. “Where’d you find the fluff?”
“Over by the woods,” Ellie said, not looking up. She blew a slow, even breath, and a tiny, orange bloom flared as the tinder caught with a crackle. Ellie carefully fed thin twigs to the flames. “I didn’t go alone. I took Mina, and I’ve got the whistle.”
“I wasn’t criticizing. You’re doing great.”
“Oh.” Eyes still on the fire, Ellie chewed on her lower lip. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I shouldn’t have yelled.”
Ellie’s pigtails were crooked, hair corkscrewing out in unruly tufts. Reaching over, Alex hooked an errant blonde curl behind the girl’s left ear. “You were upset with Tom. Me, too.”
Ellie cut a quick, sidelong glance. “You were?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think what he did was right.”
“What about now?”
“I understand better. I think Tom’s doing the best he can. We all are.”
“I don’t want him to hate me.” Ellie’s eyes pooled. “I don’t want anything to happen to you guys.”
She wanted to promise that nothing would. Instead, she opened her arms. “Come here.”
Face knotted against a sob, the girl slid into her embrace, pressing her face to Alex’s neck as Alex gathered her up and held her tight. Whining, Mina danced back then came to lean against Alex. After a few moments, Alex felt the girl relax and her muscles soften, and then Ellie’s scent became fuller: nutmeg and warm vanilla. No one moved or said anything, except for the dog, which sighed and nosed Ellie’s hair.
Beyond the orange rose of the fire, Alex saw Tom’s tent shiver, heard the smooth zip as he opened the front flap, and then he was pushing his way out. His thick hair was mussed, and his face was still creased with sleep. “Alex, why—” He stopped when he spotted them and stood, uncertain.
Wordlessly, Ellie left Alex and made a beeline for Tom, who knelt as the girl flung herself against his chest. “I’m sorry,” Ellie said, her voice muffled by Tom’s shirt. “Please don’t hate me, Tom.”
“I could never hate you, honey,” Tom said. His arms hugged Ellie, but his eyes were on Alex. “I’m so sorry. I’ll try really hard never to hurt you again.”
“Me, too.” Arming away tears, Ellie gave him a shaky smile. “I made the fire.”
“All by herself.” Alex swallowed against a sudden tightness in her throat. “Why don’t you get cleaned up? I’ll get breakfast going.”
“Can I take Mina for a walk?” Ellie asked. When Tom hesitated, she continued, “I’ll be careful. I went out yesterday and it was fine. And I had to get stuff for the fire this morning.”
“Sure.” He chucked her under the chin. “Don’t go too far, okay?”
“Okay,” and then Ellie darted in and startled him with a swift, hard kiss on the cheek. “Come on, Mina,” she called, dancing away.
The dog took three steps, paused, and then, tail wagging, looked back at Alex. “Don’t look at me,” Alex said to the dog. “I have to make breakfast.”
“Mina!” Ellie stood in a thicket of brown meadow grass so high it brushed the girl’s waist. Snow billowed around her shoulders in a soft, fine curtain. “Come on!”
“Go on, girl,” Alex said, puzzled. She watched as the dog gave her a reproachful look before bounding after Ellie. She turned to look up at Tom as he came to stand alongside. “Well, that was weird. The dog, I mean.”
“Probably just hungry,” Tom said absently, staring after the pair, already partially obscured behind a veil of swirling snow.
“She really cares about you.”
“And I care about both of you,” he said, still staring after Ellie, although there was nothing to see now but snow. “I meant what I said, too. I would never hurt her, or you. I’d rather …” He shook his head.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com