The dream, again: the one where she saw the chopper, the one carrying her mother and father, take off in that snowstorm. The helicopter rose like a helium-filled balloon, higher and higher, until at the very limit of the sky and the edge of night, it exploded in a fireball.
Alex hadn’t been there. She’d waited at home, alone, as the storm raged, while her mom did her doctor thing, accompanying a patient on an emergency evac. The only reason her dad was even aboard was that the med tech, freaked by the storm, chickened out and her dad, trained in ACLS because all cops are first responders, took his place.
The chopper had not bloomed into a fireball either. After delivering the patient safe and sound, the helicopter took off for home—and simply crashed into a hillside. No drama, no Fourth of July, although the fire had been so intense that they’d identified the pilot and her parents by their teeth.
She was fourteen. She’d felt nothing when her parents died: no premonition, no seismic shudder, no chasm opening beneath her feet. She had been awake, watching the snow swirl in a golden nimbus around the streetlight at the end of the block, waiting for her father’s patrol car to turn the corner. She’d even pictured how that would look: first his lights and then the cruiser itself pulling together out of the snow like something from a dream.
And then a cruiser had appeared, although she’d known, immediately, that it wasn’t her father’s. His was a newer model white-and-black. The one that pulled into the driveway was older, all black. Still, she didn’t think anything of it; even when she saw the officers unfold and flounder toward the front porch—even when she recognized her father’s old partner—she still didn’t understand what was happening. Leaving her seat by the window, padding to the front door in her slippers, she didn’t get it. Throwing open the deadbolt, opening the door, feeling the gust of cold air push in … she didn’t get it. She never got it; it just never dawned on her that anything horrible had happened—until she recognized the minister from their church.
Then she got it.
A month later, the nightmare started. A year later, when the smoke smell started and Aunt Hannah sent her to that shrink, she’d spun some crap about Alex being Dorothy and her parents flying away to Oz, blah, blah, blah. For the shrink, the dream was all about Alex’s fantasy that her parents were still alive somewhere.
Alex thought the shrink was full of shit. Her parents were dead. She knew that. The dream was all about her life jumping the rails, blowing up in her face, leaving her with nothing but ashes.
Which was happening now, with Tom, all over again.
When she awoke, Tom’s skin was clammy. His fever raged and his heart was rabbiting in his chest, and she knew she couldn’t wait any longer. She had to bring help, or Tom would die. He might die before she returned, but she couldn’t just sit and wait either.
Tom wanted her to take the gun. “You might need it.” His skin was whiter than salt, so translucent she saw the faint blue worm of tiny veins under his eyes. At least the shakes had vanished, if only temporarily. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about. If anyone gets in here, the gun’s all you’ll have.”
“If someone breaks in—if it’s a couple of those things … a few bullets won’t make any difference. Besides, I don’t think they’re smart enough to do that. They’re too one dimensional.”
She wasn’t so sure the brain-zapped kids were as dumb as all that—they knew enough to stay warm—but she saw what he meant. While the kids could easily have overwhelmed them both if they’d planned their attack and acted together, they hadn’t. The girl had a club, and that kid I stabbed figured out the knife pretty quick, but they worked separately. What if that changes?
Tom lifted a hand to touch her face. His fingers were ice. “Please, take it. If something happens to you, then it won’t matter about me.”
Privately, she thought she stood a much better chance of being shot if she advertised the gun. Given her age, she might be shot on sight anyway.
“All right,” she said. Then she surprised herself, and leaned down and kissed him. She meant to pull back, but his other hand snaked into her hair to cup the back of her head, and the kiss turned into something she didn’t want to end, that she worried might never happen again. Her heart filled and her blood warmed, and Tom’s scent—spicy and strange—bloomed, nearly overpowering the choke of sickness and decay. Whatever Tom’s secrets, this was no lie.
When she finally broke away, he said, weakly, “At last. Something to live for.”
His face splintered into shimmery prisms, and she knew she would never leave if she started crying. “Don’t you dare die on me.”
“I’m not gone yet.” But then that twist of emotion, furtive and fleet, chased through his face again. “Alex, what happened before we lost Ellie … I need to tell you—”
“No.” She put a hand to his lips. If he told her, would he die? Isn’t that what happened when people made confessions in books and movies? “Don’t. It doesn’t matter now. Tell me when I see you again.”
He captured her hand. “But it does matter. I need you to know. Please, just listen.” He paused, shutting his eyes against some other, hidden pain.
“I’m here,” she said. “I’m listening.”
“You were right.” A single tear trickled from the corner of one eye to disappear into his hair. “About me looking for my fate. I won’t … can’t tell you everything now. It’s not the right time. But I want you to know.” He opened his eyes, his feverish gaze holding her fast. “I found it. I found my fate.”
“Me, too,” she said, and meant it. For the first time in what felt like forever, she wanted a future, and she wanted Tom in it. She kissed him again, memorizing the feel and the taste and his scent.
Then she shut the door and locked it and left him there.
She wasn’t an idiot. If she kept to main roads, kept moving west and south, she would run into people way before she got to Rule. This might be good and bad: bad because the survivors were much more likely to shoot first and ask questions later, but maybe good because all the brain-zapped kids she’d seen hung close to the woods. If she paid attention, maybe she’d smell them coming, too.
She slogged steadily southwest through a good two feet of snow, keeping to the road, her eyes always scanning, searching: for movement, for brain-zapped kids, for grandmothers with rifles who thought she might be a meal ticket. There were billboards, too, advertising gas stations and mine tours and gift shops. She spotted a sign for Northern Light—god’s light in dark times—and a few others suggested that people stop in at Martha’s Diner: breakfast 24/7.
The day was fine, sunny and very bright, and not as cold. If the way had been level and the road clear, cross-country skis or snowshoes would’ve been nice. Sunglasses, too. As welcome as the sun was, her eyes streamed against the wink and dazzle of glare bouncing off snow.
The road was clogged with cars and vans and trucks hunkering beneath a mantle of snow. Most were wrecks, with smashed windows or doors that yawned like mouths. She kept her eyes peeled for their truck, half-hoping she wouldn’t find it because she was afraid to know what that really meant. Clouds of birds circled in the sky, while crows lined the trees and perched on icy wires and studied her passage in absolute silence. She felt as if she’d stumbled onto a movie set, the kind where the camera pans back to reveal destruction and devastation all the way to the horizon, with no end in sight, and then her—the only thing moving other than the birds.
Away from the woods, the air was sullen with smells: engine oil, gasoline, rubber—and death. The stink was so thick and cloying that she gagged, and she wished she had something to tie around her mouth and nose.
There were a lot of bodies, all in various stages of decomposition. Many had died in their cars. Others—men and women who’d stumbled from their cars only to collapse on the road that first day—wore shrouds of snow. Even with the cold to slow down the rot, the corpses were hideous, as bloated as those dead cows she, Tom, and Ellie had seen. There were many animals, too: fat raccoons with paws full of meat, mangy foxes, and opossums, their white snouts clogged with gore, braving the daylight for the feast. And of course, there were always the birds, jabbing and pecking and stripping away frozen niblets of flesh right down to the bone. One pair of very large crows squabbled over something in the snow. At her approach, they fluttered off, and she spotted what she thought was a fat drop of blood—only to realize that she was staring down at a woman’s disarticulated big toe, the nail still painted a bright, cheery, fire-engine red.
All the dead were adults. Most looked old enough to be parents but not grandparents. There were empty car seats and discarded lunch pails and book bags, but no kids. No bodies of anyone close to her age, or Tom’s.
Then she saw something that made her blood ice. The farther down the road she went, the more prints she found from the people who’d survived: boots, sneakers, everyday shoes. Even some flip-flops.
That gave her pause.
Deer laid down trails, taking the same path to and from streams and meadows. Ducks and geese flew routes they’d taken before. All a hunter had to do was either hunker down and wait or follow his prey.
People took roads. Honestly, they might as well have been wearing cowbells, because it looked to her like those brain-zapped kids weren’t simply sticking to the woods now. They might live there, but they’d figured out that if they wanted to eat, they had to go where the food was.
Then she noticed something else.
Some of the dead people were very old. They had died because they’d been shot: in the back, some in the chest, and many in the back of the head. Their clothing had not been tattered or ripped by animals, but, it seemed, simply taken. These bodies were fresher, too, and lay in bunches in a scatter of discarded, empty knapsacks and duffel bags and suitcases.
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