Well, that was interesting. Before the monster, when her parents were still alive, she’d been the same way. Staying awake in morning classes was an act of will. Everyone her age was chronically sleep-deprived, downing Red Bulls and Mountain Dews and coffee to stay alert.
The monster had taken that away. When she really stopped to think, smelling that phantom smoke hadn’t been the first monster-sign but the second. The first sign had been the change in her sleeping patterns: frequent awakenings in the middle of the night, bizarre and fractured dreams, a feeling of restlessness as if she’d drunk two pots of coffee. The monster in her head had made her very different from her friends. Maybe very different from other kids her age. Before stealing her sense of smell and eating her memories, it had taken her sleep. And of course, there’d been her parents and that recurring nightmare, a trauma she relived over and over that blasted her sleep.
And Tom hadn’t slept much either. When he did, he always seemed to pop awake just a few hours later, and he kept that up all night. From bio, she knew most people slipped into REM sleep—dream sleep—a couple hours after falling asleep, and normal people went through three or four REM cycles every night. Other than that one night—before he’d come close to telling her what weighed on him so much—Tom never slept for long stretches, maybe because he couldn’t help it. Maybe Afghanistan had changed Tom and altered his brain somehow. She thought again of post-traumatic stress and nightmares that stormed in Technicolor across the black screen of Tom’s mind: horrors from the past Tom could not outrun.
Horrors—nightmares—that might have saved him.
Messed-up hormones might not be the only things that had saved her from changing so far. Maybe, as with Tom, altered sleep and nightmares were important, too. More to the point, maybe it was her whole screwed-up brain.
Maybe the monster had saved her life.
At dusk, she caught their scent: faded and musty. Most old people smelled like used underwear, and she could tell from the rich clog of odors that there were a lot of them, all bunched together. She was downwind, and she thought they were still fairly distant, but she sensed their exhaustion and the sharp sting of their panic. That made sense. These old people must know that the brain-zapped kids woke up just as it got dark, and they’d want to be off the road and somewhere safe. She could envision the road ahead: a solid whip of humanity stretching from Rule for miles.
She felt a prick of anxiety. It was one thing to find Rule; it was another to try battling her way through a crush of fellow refugees to get help for one person, even if he was young. And how would these old people react to her?
Judging from the frowsy reek, there were also dogs and—she closed her eyes, concentrated, caught the aroma of sunshine and warm hay—horses.
Something more, too. She inhaled again and then her nose twitched with the bite of gun oil and singed metal.
Guns. A lot of those, too.
When she first picked up the puppy, she’d taken the Glock from its holster and slipped it into the right-hand pocket of her jacket. She debated simply taking out the weapon, more as a deterrent than because she wanted to pick a fight, then thought better of it. If someone started shooting, it would be over fast, and there was only one of her. So she left the gun where it was.
On her right, a small green sign flashed out of the darkness:
Beyond, there was another billboard for the hospice and a sign urging visitors to stop in at Harvest Church: TRUST IN THE HEALING HAND OF GOD.
A few more hours, Tom, she thought. Hang on. Just a few more.
Two hours later, she heard them: a muted, confused gabble. Then she spotted the yellow bob of flashlights and silver-edged silhouettes. Not a throng, but easily several hundred bathed in the sickly green light of that surreal moon. She smelled them much better now: a great stinking ball of old men and women at the end of their tethers, and not a few dogs. People and animals were streaming and bunching around her, but either they hadn’t noticed her in the dark, or didn’t care. The puppy was awake, too, and she could feel it begin to shiver with fear.
“It’s okay,” she murmured, hugging it close, praying that it wouldn’t start to bark. The last thing she needed was attention. She’d already done up her hair in a long braid and shoved it beneath her watch cap, but she still felt exposed. One good look at her face, and these oldsters would know she was a teenager. She jammed on a John Deere ball cap she’d found on the road, pulling the bill as far down as she could. She turned up the collar on her coat, too, hoping that would mask her silhouette.
No one was moving forward; that was the thing. Instead, the crowd milled uncertainly before a huge eighteen-wheeler, lying on its side like a beached orca. The forest hugged the road on either side, but no one made a move toward the woods to go around the roadblock and then she saw why. Among the trees, ranging on either side of the overturned semi, and perched on top of the truck, were other people and many, many dogs. She heard a hollow clop coming from behind the trailer, the jingle of traces, and knew she’d been right about horses.
Far ahead, one of the men at the roadblock was shouting into an old-fashioned bullhorn: “We will get to everyone. We know you’re tired, but you’ll just have to wait your turn. You’ll be safe here. The Changed don’t come this way, so everyone just calm down.”
The Changed. So that’s what people were calling them now? How could they be sure those brain-zapped kids wouldn’t come? She slowed, hanging back, teetering on the very edge of the crowd, trying to decide what she should do. She was afraid to slip into the woods, and those guys on the truck had rifles. Duck and weave through the crowd? Man, that was a big risk. If she bumped anyone, if someone got a good look …
Just ahead, a trio—one man and two women—bunched with a Labrador tagging behind. Its tail drooped, and it smelled of dog and salt—and another smell that made her flash to a bowl of slimy cold oatmeal her aunt tried to make her eat the day after the helicopter exploded. Sad, she thought. The dog’s sad.
But then the lab’s ears pricked. She scented its sudden surprise as the pop of an electrical outlet, a burnt fizz sizzling in the air, and then it was pivoting, straining at the end of its leash, its tail whisking back and forth. And it started to bark.
Shut up, she thought. Her knees began to shake, and she felt her legs go rubbery as the dog continued to bark. Shut up, shut up, shut up.
“Watson.” A gangly elderly man in a fur-trimmed parka sounded both exasperated and exhausted. “Come on, what are you—” He turned, his flashlight scything through the dark, cutting across her body before continuing on. As soon as the light passed, she ducked, tried turning away, but then the torch swept back like the beam of a lighthouse and caught her. She heard him gasp: “Oh, Jesus.”
“What?” said one of the women. Alex thought her scent was very sour, the combination of days without washing and annoyance rolling off in a cloying fug. Turning, the woman got a good look at Alex, pinned in the light like a bug to cardboard. “Holy shit,” she said, and then Alex heard the metallic ga-thunk-chunk of a shotgun pump.
“Wait,” Alex said. The puppy was whimpering now. Hugging the dog with one hand, she held up the other, palm out. “I’m not one of them.”
“Not yet you aren’t,” said the woman. To her left, another, much older woman with a beaky nose had drawn an ancient-looking Luger. “Or maybe you’re just moving up the fucking evolutionary ladder.”
“Please.” Alex sidled back a step. “I’m just trying to make it to—”
“Not with us, girlie, no way.” The older, hawkish woman with the Luger tugged the toggle joint and then let it snap forward.
“Hold up, Em,” the elderly man said. “She seems okay. Look, she’s got a dog. Let’s just take a second here.”
“Look at your dog,” Alex said. The lab was still barking, but its tail whisked the air in a frantic semaphore and now she could hear more dogs beginning to bark. Beyond, heads were turning, flashlights stabbing through the dark. The pool of light around her body widened and got brighter as more and more people shone their torches her way. “Your dog’s not afraid.”
“Because you haven’t turned yet,” said the woman with the shotgun.
“I say we shoot her now.” The beaky woman squinted down the Luger’s barrel. Her bony hands had tightened to claws. “Get it over with. Better yet, hang the little bitch.”
“Wait a minute,” the man said. “We need her. We have her, they’ll let us in.”
“I got no use for one of them,” the Luger Lady spat. “Remember the last one we run across? Went to sleep a little angel, woke up an animal.”
“But the dogs know, don’t they?” Alex said. The lab, Watson, was straining at its leash, and beyond, Alex could hear other dogs whining and a general murmur rippling down the line as more and more people became aware of her presence. There was the sound of handguns being drawn and the rack of rifle bolts and shotgun pumps. “Isn’t that why you have them?”
“She’s right,” the man said. “We didn’t have Watson then.”
“It’s just a damn dog,” Luger Lady said. “What the hell does it know? Did it know that little bitch that got my Cody? I told him to kill her, but she was just a kid, just a sweet little innocent monster killer.”
“Hell, you don’t want her, I’ll take her.” This from another man dressed in hunter’s camouflage. He held what looked like a stubby machine gun, maybe an Uzi, in one hand, and two ammunition belts crisscrossed his chest. He had very white, very square teeth that were too perfect and probably false, but his grin was wide and maniacal and menacing. “I’d like to see one of them try to come after me; I’d just dare them to try.”
“No one’s taking me,” Alex said, working to keep her voice steady, but her heart was trying to punch its way from her chest. The puppy had gone silent and was trying to melt into her body. She saw Uzi pushing past the others, and she took a step back, then another. “Please, I just want to—”
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