Page 3


“They’re probably stale,” said Ellie.


3


The Krispy Kremes were stale—she still got texture—but dunked fine. To Alex, they tasted like wet paste.


“I used to take a French press, only this one time I forgot to grind the beans beforehand.” Jack dumped powdered creamer into his mug and stirred. “Ended up smashing the beans with my ax.”


Ellie broke off another bite of a chocolate-dipped with sprinkles, flipping the morsel expertly to the dog, who snapped it up in midair. “Isn’t that, like, being totally addicted?”


Jack colored. Alex felt sorry for the old guy and said, “I’d have done the same thing.”


Ellie gave her a withering look, but Jack only chuckled. “Well, I wouldn’t recommend it. That coffee was so strong, my teeth curled … Ellie, honey, that doughnut’s going to make Mina sick. Chocolate’s not good for dogs.”


“She’s fine,” Ellie said, and flipped more doughnut to the dog.


Alex changed the subject. “So where are you guys from?”


“Minneapolis,” Jack said. “I used to be a reporter—foreign correspondent for the Trib. Haven’t been able to write a lick since Danny died. My editor’s tearing his hair out. Seeing as how he’s already bald, that’s kind of a challenge, but he’s a good guy.”


Ellie snorted. “Is that why you call him a jerk every time you get off the phone?”


What was with this kid? “My English teacher said that a writer is the worst judge of his own work,” said Alex.


“Maybe. Mostly, I don’t much believe in my writing anymore. People don’t care. Most have the attention span of gnats and can’t be bothered. Like that baloney about combat operations in Iraq being over? What a crock. It’s political. What they don’t tell you is that for the guys still over there, the rules of engagement are the same, and there’s plenty of shooting—” Breaking off, Jack sighed, then ran a hand through a swirl of snowy-white cowlick. “Sorry. That makes me sound angry and bitter. I’m not. It’s just …”


“Well, you ought to be mad,” Ellie said, with sudden heat. “My dad’s dead, but no one’s going to jail. He gets blown up, and all I get is a stupid dog. How come that is?”


“Now, Ellie, we’ve talked about this. In a war—”


“A war? What kind of answer is that?” The girl hurled the rest of her doughnut at the dog. Surprised, the dog retreated a few steps and darted an anxious look at Jack.


Alex couldn’t help herself. “You ought to be nicer to your grandfather. He isn’t doing anything to you.”


“Who cares what you think? You’re not my mother. I don’t know you!” Ellie kicked at Alex’s WindPro. The tiny stove overturned and the coffee press tumbled to the rocks in a spray of glass and hot liquid. The dog danced out of the way with a startled yip. “No one asked you!”


“Ellie!” Jack made a grab for his granddaughter. “That’s enough!”


“I hate this.” Ellie slithered out of reach. “I hate this, I hate you, I hate these woods, I hate everybody! Just leave me alone!”


“Cool off!” Jack rapped, his patience finally snapping. “Go for a walk. Get control of yourself, you understand me?”


“Fine!” Ellie spat. She jammed in her earbuds and stalked in the direction of the trail Alex had traveled the day before. The dog began to trot after, but the girl hurled a command over her shoulder: “Stay!” The dog faltered, then took another uncertain step after the girl. Ellie fetched up a stick and cocked it like a baseball bat. “Stay, you dumb dog, stay!”


“Ellie!” Jack roared. “Don’t you dare hit that dog! Mina, come!” As the dog sprinted back, Jack said to the girl, “Sweetheart, honey, why do you have to be so hateful?”


“Why not?” Ellie said. “It’s not like being good ever got me anywhere.” Then she whirled on her heel and flung herself into the woods.


“It’s been a very hard year. With her mother gone God-knows-where and my Mary passed on, it’s just me,” Jack said. He cupped a handful of jagged glass. “Look, I’ll be happy to pay for this.”


“No, no, it’s okay. I understand,” Alex said, but she was pissed. Jack was nice enough, but she had her own problems and, now, no coffee press. Thank God she’d packed instant. She inspected her WindPro and almost groaned. Two of the struts were bent, and she didn’t like the way the fuel hose was kinked. With her luck, she’d have to take a rock to the metal, maybe bash it straight. “Careful you don’t cut yourself, Jack.”


“Oh, I’m pretty tough for an old bird. Well, all except my ticker. Got me this new pacer about six months ago.” Jack dumped glass into the empty Krispy Kreme bag. “It’s Ellie got me worried. She’s a little time bomb. I was hoping if I could get away with her awhile, maybe do some fishing … People mean well, but there’s just so much sympathy a little girl can take.”


Alex could definitely relate. Everyone was always so sorry when, really, sorry was just a word you said because it was more polite than whoa, better you than me. “Where’s her mom?”


Jack grunted. “Hell if I know. She took off a year after Ellie was born. Said she needed time to get her head on straight, needed to find herself. Get herself lost is more like it. Haven’t seen her since. You know the world’s screwed up when they make you get a license if you want a dog but let any fool have a kid.” He sighed. “A lot of this is my fault.”


“How do you figure that?”


Jack waved a hand at the dog, which sprawled on its belly in a doze. “Mina was my idea. Once the dogs are retired—if they’re too banged up to work or just plain old—the military lets handlers’ families adopt, if they want. Mina was wounded in the same blast that killed Danny, so I thought having her would make Ellie feel better, like having a little bit of her father still around. He loved that dog, but Ellie hates it. She’s really not a bad kid. Most of the time she’s about as cooperative as you can expect a sad, really angry eight-year-old girl to be.”


“That doesn’t sound so great.”


“You get used to it. I thought it would do her good to unplug and get out in the fresh air, spend some time with Mina …” Jack waved away the rest. “Enough of that. So what’s your story?”


“Me?” Alex gave up trying to force the WindPro’s bent struts. “I’m just figuring things out.”


“Where you headed?”


“Mirror Point.”


“On Superior? That’s pretty damn far. I wouldn’t want my daughter out here alone. No telling what might happen.”


She knew Jack meant well, but one of the perks of being terminally ill was you got to break all kinds of rules. So she pushed back. “Jack, I don’t need your permission, and I didn’t ask for your opinion.”


“Doesn’t mean I’m not going to give it. You kids think you’re invulnerable, but there are wild dogs in these woods and all kinds of nuts.”


Not to mention old guys poking their noses in other people’s business. But that would be too snarky, and she had a feeling that Jack was hassling her because he couldn’t fix Ellie. So she focused on dismantling her WindPro and let the silence go. After a moment, Jack reached down to squeeze her shoulder. “Sorry. I know I’m just being an old fart.”


“Jack,” she said, exasperated both with her stove and the conversation. “I appreciate your concern, but it’s really none of your—”


All of a sudden, Jack’s hand clamped down hard enough to hurt. Surprised, she looked up and then whatever she’d been about to say evaporated on her tongue when she got a good look at his face.


“I …” Jack’s face twisted in a sudden spasm, and he pressed the heels of both hands to his temples. “I … wait, wait …”


“Jack!” Alarmed, she reached for him—and then she saw the dog. Mina was completely rigid, her muscles quivering, the hackles along her spine as stiff as a Mohawk. The dog’s black lips curled back to reveal two glistening rows of very sharp, very white teeth, and a growl began somewhere in the dog’s chest.


Alex felt a stab of fear. “Jack, Mina’s—”


Jack gagged, a deep, harshly liquid sound. An instant later, a sudden jet of bright red blood boiled from his mouth to splatter onto the icy rocks. Alex screamed just as Mina let out a sudden high yelp—


And a second later, the pain had Alex, too.


4


The pain was fire, a laser that scorched her brain. A sudden metallic chattering bubbled in her ears, and her vision sheeted first red and then glare-white, and then she was stumbling, her feet tangling, and she fell. Something wet and hot spurted from her throat and dribbled down her chin.


Jack was in just as much trouble, maybe worse. His skin was so chalky that his blood looked fake, like something for Halloween. His legs folded and he began to sag, one hand digging at his chest, and then he simply dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He hit hard, his head bouncing off the rock and his glasses jumping away, the lenses sparking in the sun.


Stunned, she could only sprawl there like a broken doll. Blood pooled in her throat and she began to cough as her vision spun like water swirling down a drain. That weird metallic screech was still very loud, splashing down from the sky. What was that? Dizzy, a drill-bit of pain coring into her brain, she dragged her head up, struggling to focus. At first, she thought she must be passing out, because the sky was getting blacker and blacker—but then she realized the blackness was moving.


Birds. There were birds. Not just a few or a flock, but hundreds and hundreds, thousands. All kinds, all shapes, all sizes. And the birds were everywhere, in the sky above and exploding up from the valley below in a spiraling, screaming funnel cloud. They weren’t organized, not following the way a flock does, but smashing into one another, either because there were so many or the pain that had her in its iron grip had them, too.

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