“Hey.” Close up, she saw that his cheeks were hectic with color; his smell was warm and lush. She wished she could be like Ellie and simply go to him, no questions asked. “I feel the same way.”
He looked down at her, the snow clinging in delicate, perfect flakes to his hair. “You mean that?”
They were close enough that she saw the throb of his pulse in his neck. “Yes,” she said. “I mean it.”
“Then I want you to promise me something,” he said.
She heard the wild, hard drum of her heart. “What?”
“Promise me that if I change,” Tom said, “you’ll kill me.”
“What?” She stared, openmouthed. “Are you crazy? I’m not going to promise anything like that!”
“Alex, you have to.” His eyes blazed. “This isn’t a game. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I could change; I could hurt you or Ellie. I might not be able to help myself. So you can’t hesitate. If I start to change, you have to do it.”
“Why are we talking about this?” She stumbled back a half step. “I’m not having this conversation.”
His hand flashed and hooked onto her arm. “Running away won’t help. We have to talk about this now, while we still can.”
“Tom, it’s been weeks.”
“We don’t know if that means we’re safe.”
She knew that. “Why are you assuming it might be you? It could be all of us. It could be me or Ellie.”
He was shaking his head. “Not Ellie; I think she’s too young. You said it yourself; Larry’s kid got her period. Her hormones …”
“I know what I said.” She wrenched her arm free. “Hormones can’t be all of it. Girls and boys aren’t the same that way, and then there’s Jim. He changed, but only after a couple days, while the kids I saw changed the very first day, after six or seven hours. Larry said some kids in their group changed right away. So it’s got to be way more complicated than just hormones or age.” When his face set, she said, “Tom, if I changed, would you shoot me? Without knowing if the change is permanent?”
An arrow of indecision flicked through his eyes, there and then gone in a second, but a sharp nip she’d first caught from Larry, the mingled scent of cleaning solvent and gun oil, leaked from his skin. He pulled himself straighter. “Yes, I would. I’m not saying it would be easy, but—”
Even without the scent to give him away, she knew the truth. “You’re a liar. Your friend begged you, and you couldn’t do it. I know you’re a soldier, Tom, but you’re not a killer, and neither am I.”
“But I did kill Jim.”
“That was different.”
“No, it wasn’t. It came down to deciding who should die.” His tone was steely, almost angry. “Don’t ever tell me I can’t do what needs to be done.”
“I’m not saying that,” she said, with less heat than before. “But aren’t you the one who said this was fate? That you refused to give up?”
“I’m not giving up. I’m trying to think ahead. Look, if you changed—if there was the slightest chance that you’d hurt me or Ellie—would you want me to do nothing? Just … let it happen?”
“No.” All the fight dribbled out of her, and she felt her shoulders slump. “I don’t want to hurt anybody.” You, least of all.
“Well, me neither. So we have to promise each other.” Stepping closer, he reached for her hands, cradling them in his. “Please, Alex, I need to know you’ll do whatever it takes to keep you and Ellie safe.”
She wanted to promise; she really did. But there was something he’d said last night that made her pause: Maybe we saved each other. Why would Tom need saving? From what? Whom? She thought of all those endless nights when Tom, brave and now so ready to sacrifice himself, had not slept. Last night, though, he had, and straight through. So what had changed?
Maybe we saved each other.
Was that it? What could she save Tom from? Going back to war? Maybe. He’d thought of Canada, knew how far away the border was. Was that it? Or had he come here looking for some sign? For his fate?
Had he been saved from himself ?
“Tom,” she said, “why did you come here? You don’t live here; you don’t belong here. You said finding Ellie and me, being there at the moment you were needed most, was fate. Is fate what you came here to find? Or are you looking for something else?” She reached a hand to his cheek. Her fingers were icy, but his skin was hot. “Tom … did you come here to die?”
They were questions she could’ve asked herself. His scent altered, and then she heard his sharp intake of breath, felt his shock beneath her hand—and knew her words had found their mark. His face twisted with some strong emotion, and then he was pressing her hand against his cheek.
“Alex,” he said hoarsely, “you can’t imagine what I … what I’ve don—”
A shrill note, sharp and clear, pierced the air. Alex gasped, her breath balling in her throat. She knew that sound. It was the whistle she’d given Ellie: You blow on that, they’ll hear it in the next state.
“Tom,” she said urgently. “Ellie—”
“I know.” Tom was already moving, darting toward his tent, reaching in and coming up with the Winchester. The whistle came again, its call as crisp and distinct as a bolt of bright light in an otherwise darkened room—and now she could hear the dog barking, faint but unmistakable. Tom started for the weedy field. “Come on!”
Grabbing the Mossberg, she held it over her head as she thrashed through the overgrowth after Tom, who was taller, with longer legs, and would’ve outdistanced her on level ground. Running on asphalt or a track was much different than wading through high grass, and her boots felt heavy and clumsy in weeds that seemed to have grown long, sinewy fingers to wrap and tug at her ankles. Farther ahead, Tom was at the edge of the woods, but he paused to look back.
“Go!” Alex waved him on. She could hear the dog barking again. “I’ll be right there!”
Tom nodded, turned, disappeared into the trees. A minute later, Alex struggled out of the field, but Tom was already out of sight. The line of demarcation between field and forest was abrupt, the grass immediately giving way to a tangle of brush edging the trees and then, farther in, a deadening carpet of pine needles already dusted with snow. Somewhere ahead, she heard the dog.
“Ellie?” She began to run again. The woods were duller than the field, the light not penetrating well this early in the morning, and the air smelled dank and cold. There were too many contrasting odors; she couldn’t pull Ellie’s, Tom’s, or even Mina’s out of the mix. The whistle came again, and the dog’s barks had grown frantic, high-pitched, almost continuous.
Something wrong. Her boots thudded on frozen earth. Something’s wrong, something’s not right.
Straight ahead, through the trees, she caught a glimpse of broken sky—a clearing—and then, just a little farther on, a flash of rust-red that was Tom’s parka. The dog was a sable blur, dancing around Tom’s legs before bolting away again. She opened her mouth to call out, but something about Tom’s posture made her voice die in her chest. She heard Tom call Mina and then make a grab for the dog’s collar. Why? She slowed—
And then her nose wrinkled against a sudden, musty mélange: fried onions, dirty socks, and rotten teeth.
With a muffled gasp, she pivoted, her thumb already pushing against the safety—
The woman was sallow and pinched with a frizz of gray hair. Maybe in another life and before this nightmare, she’d baked chocolate chip cookies for the grandkids, but not now.
She sighted her rifle on Alex’s chest. “Don’t.”
“Is she dead?” asked Ellie.
“I can’t tell.” They’d backed Alex and Ellie away from the truck, and Alex had to crane her head to peer into the high grass. She could just make out the dog sprawled on the snow-dusted ground and wished she’d known the command for shut up. Unfortunately, she hadn’t, and when the dog wouldn’t stop barking, one of the two men—who were both pretty old, about Larry’s age, Alex thought—had decided his rifle made for a great baseball bat, too. Maybe that was good. A wallop to the head, the dog stood a chance. A bullet, and it would’ve been over. Alex saw the dog’s chest struggle to rise and then fall, and then rise again. “No, she’s breathing. They just knocked her out.”
“They made me blow the whistle.” Ellie glared up at the woman. “She said they’d shoot Mina if I didn’t.”
From behind her rifle, the woman said, “I still might, you don’t shut up.”
“It’s okay, Ellie.” Alex turned her attention to Tom, who was breaking down the big tent. The older of the two men kept a rifle trained on Tom’s back as he worked. The one who’d clocked Mina had already packed up the pup tent and was now rooting around the flatbed. They’d found all the weapons, except the boot knife and her Glock still snugged in its paddle holster at her waist beneath the sheepskin jacket she’d taken from the ranger station. She prayed that no one thought to make her unbutton the jacket. Most of their ammo was in a separate soft pack they’d taken from the gun safe, and she watched now as the younger old guy dug out the ammo pack.
“Found it.” The guy had a face that looked as if someone had taken an iron to it when he was a baby. “Gotchyer forty-five cal, gotchyer nine mils, gotchyer twenty-twos for the Buck Mark.”
“What about for the rifle and shotgun?” the woman called over her shoulder.
“It’s all here.” Iron Face zipped up the soft pack. “I get the Winchester. I’m sick of this pissant twenty-two. Like to pitch the thing.”
“We’re not pitching anything,” the older guy rumbled. He was bald, round, and florid, his jowls covered with thick gray stubble and a road map of angry capillaries. “Never can tell when something’s gonna come in handy. We take it all, what we carried in and what they got.”
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