These people had survived only to be robbed and then killed by their own kind: the Harlans, the Bretts, the Marjories.
And that’s when she finally understood that Larry had been right.
Those brain-zapped kids weren’t the only—or maybe even the worst—enemy.
As she passed by a panel truck—doors open, two ravaged and nearly skeletonized bodies dragging from shoulder harnesses—she heard something that was not the harsh caw of a bird. The sound was pathetic, a whimper, almost like the cry of a baby. She looked down and saw an old man and an even older woman, sprawled facedown near the truck in a scatter of pilfered duffels. They’d been shot in the back of the head, and not too long ago, judging from the lack of snow cover. The woman’s coat was bunched up, so Alex could see the spread of her fleshy thighs, ropy with bulging, green varicose veins, above her support stockings. The woman was flat on her face, her arms flung out in a reverse snow angel. Alex spotted a loop of leather around the woman’s right wrist and more leather snaking beneath the truck.
Then she caught the scent, something very familiar.
“Oh my God,” she said out loud. Dropping to her knees, Alex searched the shadows under the truck.
Cowering next to the right front tire was a shivering gray puppy.
She had no idea what the puppy was, though it looked like a cross between some kind of hound and a Labrador. When it saw her, it whined, then scooted toward her, just an inch, on its belly. The stub of its tail moved in a hopeful wag.
All of a sudden, rescuing the dog felt important. If she could save the dog, it would be a good sign, like an omen. If she saved the dog, she’d save Tom, too. Later, she’d think about how illogical this was, but that didn’t make the feeling any less strong at the time.
She tore open a packet of beef jerky and offered a piece to the pup. At the smell, the puppy inched forward again, its nose brushing her fingers, and then it wolfed down the meaty bit, only to spit it out a few seconds later. Whimpering, the pup pushed the jerky with its nose, and she understood that the meat was too tough for the dog to chew. She shoved another piece into her mouth, working it into mush. The rich flavor of spicy, smoked beef was so good her stomach cramped, and it took all her self-control not to swallow. When she spat out the meat, she heard herself groan.
This time, though, the dog snapped the food up right away, then scooched forward for more. Three more pieces of jerky and the puppy squirted out from beneath the truck, grunting like a little pig and squiggling and wagging the cropped, gray pencil stub of its tail.
Unclipping the leash from its collar, she gathered the dog in her arms. “So what’s your name?”
The puppy let go of a little yap. The dog’s coat was short and silvery-gray, and it—he—had very blue eyes and big paws, and must weigh a good ten pounds. She fed the puppy the rest of the jerky, then scrounged in the discarded duffels and came up with three cans of puppy food, a foil packet of puppy kibbles, and a small aluminum water bowl into which she poured a scant two inches from her bottle.
Afterward, she buttoned the dog up in her jacket, cinching the belt around her waist so the puppy couldn’t slip out. When she was done, she looked either a little bit pregnant or in need of a very large bra. The puppy was very warm. When it poked its head out to watch the sights, she started laughing.
“I got you,” she said as the puppy waggled all over and kissed her fingers. “I got you. Don’t you wor—”
That was when she smelled the wolves.
No mistake. The wolves were behind her. That she didn’t need to see them to know what they were freaked her out even more. She didn’t know how many might be there, but their scent was indescribable—not like dog at all. Some primitive part of her brain set off a complete total-body alarm that dried her mouth and made her muscles seize. Her heart was a fist pounding the wall of her chest.
The puppy sensed them now, too. She felt it go rigid, and then the puppy was hunkering down and shivering all over, trying to make itself very, very small. She kept her left hand under the puppy but let her right drift to her hip. Her fingers curled around the butt of her father’s Glock.
Then she pivoted—slowly, carefully—to face them.
There were three.
She didn’t know anything about wolves, other than what every hiker knew: you didn’t want to run into them, despite the fact that wolves were supposed to be as freaked out by people as people were by them. She’d heard wolves off and on throughout her time in the Waucamaw. Back when things were normal, their plaintive cries were eerily soothing. Of course, that was then and this was the end of the world.
These wolves were big and charcoal gray, like something out of National Geographic, and clustered on a small rise at the edge of the woods, perhaps a hundred feet away. The alpha male—she knew it by its smell, which was more acrid and quite strong—was very tall with rangy legs, a broad chest, and golden-yellow eyes: alien eyes for an alien world. It wouldn’t have surprised her at all if that rogue moon had risen.
A stationary target, at this distance, was no problem. But wolves were very fast. She could never outrun them, and if they charged, she would probably empty her magazine and not hit one.
She left the Glock in its holster. Instead, she held her right hand, palm out, hoping that the wolves would know empty when they saw it. Locking eyes with any animal was a very bad idea, but the alpha male’s gold eyes grabbed hers, and she couldn’t look away.
The wolves stared. She remembered to breathe.
The alpha male moved first. It settled onto its haunches and then sank to its belly, like a dog settling down for a nap, and began to pant. The sense she got was that the wolf was not necessarily comfortable, but it was ready to wait until something changed. As if by silent command, the other two sank down as well. The smallest squirmed on its belly to lick the alpha male’s jaw. The alpha’s scent—all their scents—had changed, too: still wolf, but now mingled with something a little less sour. Another one of those weird flashbulb moments flared in her mind: Mina, lying by the fire, pressing against her thigh. This was not exactly the same, but the scent was calmer somehow, like … friend? The tense spring of her guts uncoiled just a smidge. Well, perhaps not friend so much as no threat.
“I’m leaving,” she said. Maybe she should say something else? She couldn’t think of anything else. What did you say to a wolf? She eased back a single step and waited. The alpha male was a sphinx. She took another small sliding step back, felt the heel of her boot butt against the dead woman’s leg, and realized she would have to turn around.
She didn’t want to do that. But she had no choice. All the tiny hairs on her arms and neck spiked with fear, and her skin was so jumpy she thought it might just tear itself from her bones and go screaming down the road.
Heart pounding, she turned on her heel and began to walk, not too fast, not too slow. Every jangling nerve told her to bolt like a bunny rabbit, but she thought that would make the wolves chase her, maybe change her smell from no-threat to dinner.
After thirty feet, she was still alive. The wolves’ scent remained unchanged; no one was storming after her, and she decided to chance it. She craned her head over her shoulder for a look back.
The wolves were standing now, watching her go, their breaths wreathing them in smoke. After a moment, the smallest wolf turned and glided back into the woods. A second later, the third followed, leaving the alpha alone on the rise.
For reasons she didn’t understand, she stopped and turned to face him. She was too far away to make out its face, but she felt its eyes. Nothing wordless passed between them, no deeper understanding; no telepathic, paranormal stuff. But when the alpha male reared onto its back legs like a playful shepherd before pivoting and melting back into the forest … when that happened, she thought maybe there’d been yet another change.
By mid-afternoon, when a sign told her she was twenty miles from
Rule, she’d noticed three things.
The closer she got to the village, the fewer dead bodies she saw.
She had yet to run into anyone who wasn’t dead.
And she smelled smoke.
The smoke was very strange and very familiar, and it made her heart thump a little harder. She’d smelled this kind of smoke before, only then it had been a phantom, the first sign of the monster in her head.
God, no, not now. Don’t let me die here. Please, just a little longer. Get me through to Rule so they can save Tom, and then if I’ve got to die—
The puppy sneezed, pawed at its nose, then sneezed again.
Her relief was like splashing into a pool on a very hot day. If the puppy could smell the smoke, she wasn’t hallucinating. This wasn’t a symptom. It was real.
She got a good snootful, trying to sort out the components: wood char mixed with a chemical sting, like the fluid her father used to spritz over charcoal briquettes, and something almost sweet and juicy like the pork roast her mother made on Sundays. But there was something sooty and unsettling about the odor, nothing that made her mouth water.
Shielding her eyes against the sun’s glare, she aimed a squint at the sky. At first, she saw nothing—just an impression of white from the sun burning her retinas—but then she spotted just the faintest wispy tail, a thin dreadlock of very dark smoke. Not leaves, she knew, which burned white or gray—and not wood. A chemical fire?
Dropping her gaze to the snow, she eyed the by-now familiar scuff of boots and shoes and flip-flops and bare feet—and then spotted deep, straight cuts and the stamp of horses’ hooves: wagons.
Interesting. North, up by Oren, was Amish country. With its proximity to the mine, she didn’t think Rule was, but maybe even the Amish had decided to come south. Or …
Of course. They’d come out with wagons to gather up all those bodies. The people in Rule must’ve decided to establish some kind of perimeter. That made perfect sense. No one would want heaps of rotting corpses piled outside town.
But why no people on the road? Where was everyone? Hiding? Waiting until dark, hoping to avoid those brain-zapped kids? No, that didn’t make sense. All her run-ins with those kids had been either in the early morning or at dusk. Come to think of it, she had never seen one in broad daylight. Something Larry said popped into her head: In some ways, she’s still kind of a typical teenager. Like always waking up just when I’m ready to sleep.
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