“What do you see?”
“No bodies.” She looked down at Tom, his back propped against the woodpile. He’d looked worse this morning, feverish and ill, and she didn’t think the beads of moisture on his face were snowmelt. Harlan’s twenty-two really had been pretty pissant. The bullet hadn’t shattered bone, but it hadn’t exited either, and was still lodged deep in Tom’s right thigh. She saw with dismay that the strip of flannel shirt she’d used to bind his wound was dark. “You’re bleeding again.”
“Yeah.” Tom’s face was drawn and white, but his eyes were too bright. His tongue skimmed his upper lip. “Can we get inside?”
“I think so.” Her eyes skipped from the van to the building, a tired-looking combination gas station/convenience store/bait shop deal with a corrugated tin roof piled with snow and polarized windows so dark she couldn’t see inside. The front door was shut tight, though, and the windows were intact, which might mean there was someone home. The snow in the parking lot was unbroken except for animal tracks, probably deer. She took a tentative, experimental sniff, got nothing but the scent of motor oil and gasoline.
Her eyes flicked to her left wrist. Mickey said it was five minutes to four. “Going to be dark soon, and it feels empty,” she said. “I’m going to take a look around back.”
“Okay. Might want to have that Glock handy, though. We may not be the only people looking for a place to spend the night.”
He was right. She dug under her coat, pulled the gun from its holster, then unfolded to a stand. Even that small movement made her head swirl with vertigo, and she put a hand on the woodpile to steady herself.
“You all right?” Tom’s voice rose with concern.
“Fine,” she lied. Her hands were jittery, and she felt water-weak and nauseated. Her stomach was a raw, empty pit. A person could theoretically survive on nothing but water for a week or so, and while they’d found some food, Alex wasn’t sure how much longer she could manage on a theory. They had come across seven houses since losing Ellie, and each had already been picked almost completely clean—and that included the bodies. At the very last house, they’d been lucky, but only because they’d cut across a field and Tom had spotted a glint of glass far back in the woods. The glass turned out to be the only window left in an otherwise ramshackle hunting cabin. The door was so old that the boards had contracted, leaving wide gaps, and snow had blown in through the ruined windows. There wasn’t much in the way of furniture—just a tattered, mouse-eaten couch and two broken straight-back chairs—but Alex had dug out a ratty knapsack from one of the bedrooms.
They’d hit the mother lode in the kitchen: some twine; a stub of candle; an old, battered aluminum saucepan; a can of Sterno; a jug of bleach (nearly gone); three empty water bottles; four tins of sardines; a third of a jar of mixed nuts; a half jar of chicken-flavored bouillon cubes; and four pouches of beef jerky that had somehow escaped the mice.
That had been two days ago, and they were down to one tin of sardines, four bouillon cubes, and three pouches of jerky. She’d kept the empty nut jar for the bleach and used a drop whenever they needed to purify more drinking water. She’d supplemented their starvation rations with a handful of tiny minnows yesterday, using Tom’s undershirt as a net to fish them up from a small stream. Otherwise, Tom wasn’t eating much, mostly drinking chicken broth and water, and his face, already thin, was gaunt. Their only weapons were Alex’s boot knife and Glock, and neither wanted to waste bullets hunting game. Things might have been different if they’d stayed in one place, had a cozy cabin or tent, set up deadfalls, and, oh yes, had bait. But Tom was getting worse, and their progress was very slow, much worse than when she’d been with Ellie, because Tom could only hobble and needed to rest often as they moved southwest, going by memory and dead reckoning.
Tom hoped that Brett had listened and gone west. If so, they would have to go past Rule. If Harlan was right, maybe the people there had let them all in, so when Tom and Alex showed, Ellie would be there.
Maybe. The only thing Alex was interested in now was finding help for Tom.
She just hoped she found it in time.
She cautiously wound her way behind the shop. She spotted a corroded truck on blocks and an open Dumpster, piled with collapsed cardboard boxes, backed against a stand of hardwood. At the base of the Dumpster, a trio of rusty paint cans was arranged in a little pyramid alongside a quartet of snow-covered tires piled like discarded Tiddlywinks.
There was a back door, with an unsecured screen held open by snow that had filtered in through the mesh. The screen protested with a loud, grating squall that made Alex wince. When she tried the knob, it turned, and she nudged the door open with the toe of her boot. She tensed, waiting for the boom of a shotgun, but nothing happened.
She stepped into a small back hall. A pegboard with hooks was tacked to the wall from which a jacket still hung. The jacket was light blue, with darker blue stretchy cuffs and NED embroidered in black thread over the left breast pocket. A pair of boots rested on the floor.
Another door opened to a short, narrow hall. There was a stinking bathroom to the left; the toilet had been used since the power went out and had overflowed in a foul, reeking mess. Alex could see, farther on down the hall, the front door and one wing of a Krispy Kreme case.
Then the smell, more powerful than the shit stink from the toilet, hit her: gassy as a sewer and bad enough to make her stomach crawl into her throat. She knew what she’d find.
The store was a mess: bare shelves, empty boxes, burst juice boxes, a squashed doughnut that had tumbled from an otherwise empty Krispy Kreme display case. Someone had dropped a carton of eggs in front of the dead coolers. Smashed shells and exploded yolk mingled with a lake of milk desiccated to a snot-colored crust. The coolers were empty. To the right of the front door were shelves of fan belts, quarts of oil, and jugs of antifreeze and windshield wiper fluid that looked relatively untouched.
The same, however, could not be said of the dead guy.
The corpse lay in a pool of dried blood near the front of the store. Most of his face was gone. Without lips or most of his gums, his teeth—stained yellow from cigarettes, with some half-rotted—tilted like tent pegs about to blow over in a storm. The back of his shirt and his jeans were chewed to ruins, the muscles and skin of his limbs stripped off the bone neatly, as if he were fried chicken.
Three weeks ago, a month, six weeks … Alex probably would’ve thrown up. Or run screaming. Or both. Now, she studied the floor. There had been a few animals—wolves, she thought, or maybe a couple dogs—and several people. The floor was a stencil of rusty shoe prints. The prints were all old, the outlines not even tacky, but then as her eyes swept across the tracks, she paused.
Someone had been barefoot.
They’d read Robinson Crusoe in fourth grade. As she remembered it, when Crusoe finds Friday’s footprint, he’s terrified, believing that the Devil might be on the island. But then what surprises Crusoe more is the discovery that after being alone for so long, the idea of other people scares the hell out of him.
Looking down at those footprints, she thought of Crusoe. They had not seen any brain-zapped kids, or even signs that they’d been anywhere around the houses or farms. Frankly, she hoped they were all dead. She hoped that with only half a brain, a cannibal kid was too stupid to come in out of the cold.
She butted open the front door and then moved the body, dragging the dead man by his feet, hoping they wouldn’t come off. It wasn’t as bad as she thought it might be, or maybe she was getting numb to the whole thing. Anyway, it had to be done, because there was no way she was spending the night under the same roof as a corpse. After the relative respite offered by the store, the cold was a shock. The wind had picked up, and icy snow needled her face, but she was relieved to breathe air that didn’t smell like decaying Ned. She thought about getting the work shirt from the back room before dark to cover the dead man’s face, and then decided that they had more use for it. She felt an urge to apologize to Ned, but didn’t.
Tom was shuddering with cold by the time she went back for him. She half-supported, half-dragged him inside, eased him to the floor, and then combed the entire store. There was no food, although Alex discovered an unopened water bottle that had rolled under the Krispy Kreme case. Near the front door, she unearthed a package of AA batteries behind an overturned magazine rack. Whoever had ransacked the place hadn’t cared if he caught a cold and had left fistfuls of aspirin and Tylenol and cold remedies in those little foil packets, as well as packages of Kleenex and tins of throat lozenges.
Behind the checkout counter, the register’s cash drawer was open and empty. Not surprisingly, there were no cigarettes or tins of chewing tobacco, but what did amaze Alex was that the plastic lottery-ticket dispensers were also empty. Like there would ever be another multi-gazillion dollar Powerball jackpot in the very near future.
There was a back office behind the counter. The door was locked, but the keys still hung on a nail next to the cash register. Inside the office was a plain metal desk and a swivel chair on squeaky casters. In the desk, she found a few pens, two pencils, three paper clips, rubber bands, and—in a bottom drawer—a bottle of Maker’s Mark, half-full.
She left the jugs of windshield-wiper fluid and antifreeze, but crammed the rest into their knapsack. She lingered over the cans of WD-40 and deicer, the quarts of oil; thought that of them all, the oil might be good. Soak some rags in the oil and throw them in a plastic bag, in case they couldn’t find tinder for a fire.
Then she tore open a packet of Tylenol, made Tom swallow back the medicine and then the rest of the water. It was very cold inside the store, but Tom’s face glistened with perspiration. His hair was damp, but when she put her hand against his forehead, his skin was very hot. “You’ve got a fever,” she said.
“In-in-infection.” He was shaking so badly she heard the click of his teeth. “I c-can sm-smell it.”
So could she, even without her spidey-sense. When she took down the bandage, she had to clamp back on a moan. The wound was very bad. The bullet had gone in a little left of center, about six inches below Tom’s hip. His thigh was swollen and tight, the skin flushed, shiny, and hot to the touch. The edges of the wound were black, and when he moved, a thick worm of blood-streaked green pus bubbled up and ran down the side of his leg. The bandages were oozy and sopping with a mixture of blood and more pus.
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