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“Then you’re killing us,” Tom said. He cinched up the tent’s carry bag. “You take everything—our food, our weapons, the truck—and you’re as good as shooting us right here and now.”


“You want, we can do that,” Iron Face said. “Better off without your kind around anyway.”


Tom ignored him. “Please, leave us a gun or the bow and one of our packs,” he said to the bald guy. “Man, you think I’m going to shoot out the tires with an arrow? You’re taking everything else. At least give us a fighting chance.”


Alex saw the indecision in the older guy’s face. Iron Face must’ve sensed this as well, because he said, “Hey, shut the fuck up. Don’t listen to him, Brett.”


“Please,” Tom said.


“I said for you to shut up.”


“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you,” Brett said. “I would if I could, but I can’t. There are three of us, and we got a long way to go to get us down south. I heard they got an army refugee camp there. If you’re smart, that’s where you’ll head, too.”


“With what? You’re taking everything,” said Tom.


“You hoof it then, same as we have,” Iron Face said. “Plenty of farms, plenty of dead people, thanks to you and your kind.”


Ellie’s cheeks were flushed. “We didn’t do anything. My grandpa died. You’re just bullies with guns!”


Alex saw the look of shame cross Brett’s face, which Tom must also have seen, because he said, “Brett, that little girl’s dad was a soldier. KIA in Iraq. He served his country, and you’re going to kill his kid?”


“Brett,” the woman warned.


“You can’t leave her here, Brett,” Tom said. “You’re not that kind of man.”


Brett’s face wavered. “We could take her. Might be a good thing. Didn’t those guys say the army got to let you in if you got a kid who hasn’t changed?”


“And there’s Rule,” said Iron Face. “Remember, we heard they’re taking people in, whether you got kids or not. Kids is better, though.”


“What?” Ellie cried.


“No,” said Tom, inching a step closer. “You know that’s not right, Brett. You want the truck, take it. But leave us some supplies. Other than the truck, we’ll be no better or worse off than you are right now. Everyone will run out sooner or later, anyway.”


Brett shook his head. “That’s not what I heard. I heard the government set up these camps. They’re bringing in supplies, like they done in New Orleans.”


“How? Brett, you’ve heard stuff, but so have we. There’s no government. The East Coast is gone, man. Nothing works.”


“Your truck runs.”


“Because it’s very old. I know the military might have hardened some of its equipment against this kind of attack, but that’s all untested, and if you want the honest truth, I don’t think it’ll stand up. Brett, things are not going back to normal anytime soon.”


“Don’t tell me what I already know.” Brett’s face darkened. “When that thing hit, Harlan’s wife dropped dead. A day later, I lost my Jenny to one of your kind.”


“I’m sorry for your loss,” Tom said. “But we haven’t changed.”


“Not yet you haven’t. Soon as you do, all this stuff you got won’t do you a damn bit of good.”


“But what if we don’t? It’s been weeks. If it’s true that they’re letting people with kids into camps and towns, then they know not every kid’s going to change.”


“See, Brett, this is what I’m telling you,” said the grandmotherly woman. “Army’s got to let you in if you got a kid. These older ones, they’re no good; they’ll just cause trouble, but the little girl …”


“No,” Alex said. Ellie was shrinking against her. Larry’s words came floating back: You might be worth your weight in gold. “You can’t have her.”


“Brett,” Tom said, “I’m Army, and I’m telling you that their first concern is going to be taking care of themselves, not kids and not anyone who isn’t one of them.”


Now Brett looked uncertain. “You a soldier? You been to Iraq?”


“Afghanistan.”


“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you over there?”


“I was on leave.”


“Yeah?” Iron Face—Harlan—said. “Well, your leave’s canceled, soldier. Isn’t it when things go to hell you’re supposed to be helping? There’s no army up north.” To Brett: “He’s running away is what he’s doing.”


“I’m trying to keep my people safe,” Tom said, but Alex heard a new note in his voice she couldn’t decipher, and then she picked up that stinging, sharply chemical scent and thought, Tom’s not just scared. He’s lying.


“Brett,” Tom said, “going due south or east isn’t safe. There’s only one base south of us, and it’s going to be overrun with refugees. I’ve seen when crowds get out of control. You don’t want to be in that, man.”


“He’s just scared,” said Harlan. “He’s a damn deserter is what he is.”


“No,” Tom said.


But Alex heard—she smelled—Yes.


“How do you know east isn’t safe?” asked Brett.


“The radio on the flatbed.” Tom gave a hurried summary, then said, “Going east would be the worst thing to do. Brett, the moon is blue. It’s green. That can only happen when there’s crap in the air.”


“When was the last time you heard anything?”


“About two weeks ago.”


“Well, hell,” said Harlan, “a lot can happen in two weeks. You said you heard people from Europe? Well, how would anyone way the hell in France know what’s going on over here? Remember what those bastards did when it come to Iraq. Saved their own sorry butts.”


“Harlan’s got a point,” said the woman.


“Brett.” Tom took another step toward the older man. “Come on, man, you’re not a kill—”


The crack of the rifle sent a bolt of fear racing up Alex’s throat. Ellie let out a little yip. Tom stopped dead in his tracks. From his place on the flatbed, Harlan said, “Next time I tell you to shut up, Tom, you’ll shut up, or I won’t be wasting a bullet.”


For a moment, Alex thought Tom might defy him, but then Tom shook his head, and her heart fell. If Tom couldn’t save them …


“Now that’s settled,” Harlan said, “bring me the damn tent.” When Tom tossed the tent onto the flatbed, Harlan grinned through a jostle of stained teeth that Alex could smell from twenty feet away: years of chewing tobacco and Jim Beam. “Keys.”


They’re really going to leave us here. With a kind of detached disbelief, Alex watched as Tom let the truck’s keys fall with a muted, metallic tinkle to the thin snow. They’re going to strand us in the snow, in the middle of nowhere. We’ve got to do something.


“Whose dog is that?” When Alex didn’t answer, the old woman nudged her head back with the rifle. “I’m not going to ask again. It yours?”


“No, she’s mine,” said Ellie. “She was my dad’s and then my grandpa’s, but she’s really mine.”


“All right then,” the woman said. She smiled up at Harlan. “Twofers.”


Harlan was nodding. “Yeah. Taking ’em both’s the best thing.”


“What?” Alex cried.


“I don’t know, Marjorie,” Brett said.


“Brett, if we take the dog, there won’t be as many questions, right? Everyone’s got dogs,” Marjorie said. “Dogs and kids is good.”


“Why?” asked Tom. “What are you talking about?”


Brett hunched a shoulder. “Couple guys we run into said dogs can tell who’s going to change.”


“Did you rob them, too?” Ellie spat.


Brett flushed, and Alex thought maybe Ellie nailed it. “We don’t know that’s true,” he said to Tom. “Just what we heard. There’s all kind of talk.”


“A dog and a kid,” Marjorie pressed. “We got them, they’ll have to take us in, too.”


“No.” Tom started toward Alex and Ellie, who was cringing against Alex’s hip. “You can’t have either of them.”


“Hold up, Tom,” said Harlan.


“I won’t help you,” Ellie said to Marjorie. “I’ll tell Mina to kill you.”


“Fine,” said Marjorie, sighting along her rifle. “Then I’ll just kill the dog now and we still got—”


“No!” Tom and Alex cried at the same moment, and then Tom lunged. Marjorie saw him coming, tried bringing the gun around, but Tom ducked under and crowded in, got his hands out, got his hand around the barrel. He gave the rifle a vicious jerk. Gasping, Alex tumbled into Ellie, pushing her into the snow as Marjorie squeezed the trigger. The rifle cracked, the bullet whizzing over their heads, and then Marjorie was backpedaling, off-balance, and Tom had the rifle and he was slotting it against his shoulder, already swinging, bringing the rifle up just as Alex saw Harlan, on the flatbed, pivot—


“Tom!” she screamed.


34


Three days later, Alex eased up until her eyes just cleared the ridge of freshly fallen snow mantled over a high stack of firewood. A gust of wind flung snow into her face, and her eyes watered with the sting. Blinking away tears, she peered across an expanse of asphalt parking lot and past a trio of gas pumps. Slotted next to one pump was some flavor of Toyota sedan, abandoned when the power to the gas pump had died and the sedan refused to start. The driver’s-side door was open, as were, inexplicably, both the driver and passenger side windows in the front. A drift of snow feathered the front seat and dashboard. Another vehicle—a Dodge Caravan—had cut out as the driver was making a turn into the station, both front doors standing open like giant ears. From her vantage point, Alex could see that the panel doors had been slid back on their tracks. There was an empty child’s safety seat, and Alex saw the limp, furry red leg of an Elmo doll dragging from the footwell. Her chest hurt at the sight, and she thought, again, of Ellie.

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