“But you couldn’t have known that then, and there have to be exceptions. Look at us.”
“We only prove the rule. As near as we can tell, the majority of normal people walking around are either really young or pushing sixty-five or seventy on up.”
“Oh.” She cast about for something to say. “Well, your father would want you to save yourself. He wouldn’t want you dead.”
The corner of his mouth lifted again. “You didn’t know my dad.”
She didn’t know what to say to that either. “How many of us are there?”
“In Rule? Well, we’ve got about five hundred people total. Out of those, sixty-three are Spared.”
“Sixty-three kids out of five hundred people?”
“That’s right. Only twenty-five kids are our age: twelve guys, thirteen girls.” He measured her with a look. “Fourteen, now.”
“Uh-huh. Peter’s the oldest Spared; he’s twenty-four.” He hesitated. “He’s actually a pretty good guy once you get to know him.”
She’d reserve judgment on that. “How does anyone know we won’t change? Maybe it’s just a matter of time, like Peter said.” She thought about Deidre. “Have any of the younger kids Changed since the Zap?”
“Never quite gotten that far.”
She didn’t understand. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, we don’t let things get that far.” In the moonlight, his face was nothing more than a glimmer. “Why do you think we have the dogs?”
An early warning system, she realized: like canaries in a mine, the dogs must sense the change before it happened. Still, she couldn’t believe it. “You decide about a kid on the basis of what a dog thinks?”
“They haven’t been wrong yet.”
Meaning these people had experience. My God, had they locked the kids up and watched them change? Like an experiment, just to make sure? They must have, or else they wouldn’t have such faith in the dogs.
A wave of unreality washed over her, leaving her shaky and ill. The dogs finger kids, and then these people … what do they do? Kick the kids out of town? Kill them? She thought back to those three kids, the girl with her club and those two boys. Until that moment, she hadn’t dwelled on them much. She’d been too busy trying to keep Tom alive and then fending off a mob, and there really was no point, to borrow a phrase. What she’d done had been self-defense. She’d had no choice.
“We do what we have to in order to survive,” Chris said quietly. “When you’ve been here awhile, you’ll understand.”
The hell of it was: in a way, she already did.
The bodies of the three kids still lay where they’d fallen—where she’d killed them—in the parking lot of the convenience store. Which begged another interesting question: why weren’t the Changed lunch for run-of-the-mill scavengers? Scavengers had clearly visited. Ned was still dead, but headless now, and something else had wandered away with Ned’s left hand. But the Changed hadn’t been touched.
And someone else had been there.
The back door of the convenience store had been forced from the outside. In the office, there was only a pile of car mats and the reek of bourbon and infection—and nothing more.
Tom was gone.
PART FOUR: RULE
The pop of distant gunfire jolted Alex from yet another fitful night’s sleep. She registered the slash of morning sun in an already too-bright and very cold room, the soft bed, and the comforting, oh-so-normal aromas of sausage and eggs and fried potatoes and … yes … coffee. Yet what she felt was not hunger or gratitude but a horrible sinking sensation, like when you go to sleep hoping the world will change only to wake up and find that it hasn’t. Yes, she was safe and warm and fed and clean for the first time since leaving the ranger station, but Tom was gone and she had failed.
More shots. Not many. After three days—almost Thanksgiving now—she was getting used to the gunfire, which was sometimes more, sometimes less.
She pulled the pillow over her head to blot out the noise and light. She had nothing to be thankful for. She had failed. Tom would never have failed her. She should never have left him. God, this was so unfair. First her parents, then the monster and her life and school and friends, then Aunt Hannah, then Ellie and Mina, and now Tom …
She had to get out of here; she had to find Tom, and then Ellie, too. Gather supplies; she could get a pack, a map, a gun. But then what?
There was a quick rap on the door, more a formality than anything else. The knob turned and Jess poked her head into the room. “I thought I heard you moving around,” she said. “Time for you to come downstairs. Matt’s here to take you to meet the Reverend.”
“Why?” Three days, and her body still felt like one big bruise; her back ached, her throat was raw, and her hands were a quilt of healing cuts and scrapes. “It’s not like it changes anything.”
“Now, none of that self-pity, girl.” Jess had the look of a spinster librarian: dry and efficient, with steel-gray hair pinned in a bun. All she needed was a pencil behind one ear and cat’s-eye glasses on a keep chain. “Corinthians says, God is faithful, and with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
“Yeah. It means stop feeling sorry for yourself. God is testing you.”
“How do you figure that?” Alex said, feeling very sorry for herself.
“How do you think?” Jess counted off on her fingers. “Let me see. You survive the attack. You don’t change. You rescue a child. You nearly get eaten by wild dogs. You nearly get eaten by the Changed. And you’re almost lynched. Oh, and the dogs like you. Did I miss something?”
Yeah, I failed the one person who would’ve died rather than hurt me.
“I don’t see how those are tests. They just happened.”
“Then you are very blind, and it’s high time you woke up. You’re not the only one with problems. Every single person here in Rule has lost someone they cared about, and some of us more than one. I watched my girls drop dead in front of my eyes, but I thank God my grandson was spared. Our lives are a ruin, but you don’t see us all dragging around with long faces, feeling sorry for ourselves. Everyone works, and that includes you, young lady. Now get your little butt out of bed before I drag it out.”
“You’re not my mother,” Alex said, and then thought, Oh boy, did that sound like Ellie or what?
“And thank our Lord for that,” Jess retorted. “I am not a bully, Alex, but neither you nor I, nor anyone else here, has time for a pity party. There’s a puppy downstairs going crazy because he wants to see you and there is work to be done.”
“I don’t have to listen to you.”
“Under my roof, you do.” When Alex didn’t reply, Jess lowered herself to the bed with a sigh. “Look. I don’t enjoy this. I’d much rather we just get along.”
Alex thought that was probably true, but Jess was hard to read. As straightforward as she appeared to be, her scent was … well, what Alex imagined white smelled like. Not mist; nothing shadowy like Chris. Jess’s scent was a blank. “You can start by leaving me alone,” Alex said.
“I can’t do that. I know this sounds trite, but if Tom meant this much to you, then he wouldn’t want to see you like this. He sounds like he was a very fine, very brave young man, and he saw something in you worth saving—not once but several times over. You can try telling yourself that it was a reflex, that he would’ve done it for anyone, that he didn’t have a choice, but remember one thing: in the end, dear, he chose you over his friend. He chose you.” Jess brushed a hank of hair from Alex’s forehead. “Scripture says, By faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.”
“What does that mean?” she asked miserably.
“It means you must honor Tom’s sacrifice. You must honor him. He would want you to live.”
“Living feels like a punishment.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Everyone I care about is gone.”
“As long as you’re alive, there is hope,” Jess said. “Hope is saying that I will live one more day, and that is a blessing, too.”
“Where’s that from?”
“The Book of Jess,” she said. “Now get up. Don’t make Tom’s suffering all for nothing.”
In the kitchen, Jess was puttering over a skillet as Alex’s house-mates—a plump, cheery sixteen-year-old named Tori, and Lena, an arrogant-looking brunette Alex’s age—washed and dried. A much older man, weather-beaten and craggy as a cowboy, slouched at a white, farm-style kitchen table. Chewing, he looked up from a mug of coffee and half-eaten muffin, then swallowed and said, “Well, good morning, sunshine. How’d you sleep?”
“Fine, thank you, Doc,” Alex said. Kincaid had told her the very first day that it was either Matt or Doc, and Alex just couldn’t wrap her head around being on a first-name basis with a guy pushing seventy-five. After her icy room, the kitchen—warmed by an old-fashioned cast-iron stove and filled with the intoxicating aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, and apples—was a relief. Alex’s mouth watered, and her stomach growled.
The kitchen’s side door opened, and Ghost crowded in. Spying Alex, the puppy let out a happy yawp, scampered over, and, in general, made a fuss. Grinning, Alex bent to give the squirming puppy a tummy rub. “How you doing, big boy?”
“More like fat boy,” said a third girl, who’d come in with the dog. Sarah was tiny, with very dark eyes and bones as delicate as a porcelain doll. Dragging off a rose-pink knit cap, she shook out a tumble of blonde ringlets. “He practically rolls down the steps.”
Lena said to Alex, “Yeah, now that you’re done sulking, you can go out in the cold for a change.”
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com