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Something thudded against her legs. Shrieking, she flinched away as a dying crow tumbled to the rock. One massive wing was bent all the way back, and its black beak had snapped clean off, like lead in a pencil. All around, dead and dying birds began to shower from the sky.

There came a loud, inhuman scream. Cringing, Alex darted a look over her shoulder just in time to see a trio of deer crashing up the hill. They hit the ridge and then reared, driving their hooves into the rock with a sound like jackhammers. One—a large doe—let out a harsh, wet, coughing bray, and then blood burst from its mouth in a crimson halo. The doe reared again, its front legs pedaling, and the other two answered, slicing the air with their hooves. Then the deer surged forward, as if pulled toward the edge by an unseen hand.

No, no, no. Alex’s thoughts came in jagged splinters. No, you’re not … you’re not seeing this. They’re not going to … they can’t …

But they did.

The deer catapulted off the ridge and over the cliff into empty space.

For an instant, they hung, suspended between the bird-choked sky and the darker maw of the valley, and Alex thought of flying reindeer …

But then the real world took over again. Gravity closed its fist.

The deer fell, their screams tailing after like spent comets, and they were gone.


A split second later something snapped in her head, an almost physical lurch as whatever had her by the scruff of the neck let go. The vise around her skull eased. Her stomach instantly rebelled and she vomited onto the rock. Even when she was sure there was nothing left to bring up, she hung there on all fours, exhausted, a sparkling sensation of pins and needles coursing through her veins and prickling her skin as if her entire body had fallen asleep and her brain had only now figured out how to reconnect. Her heart was hammering. The inside of her head felt slushy and bruised, like someone had stuck in a spoon and given a good stir. She was shaky, as if a good walloping dose of chemo had flooded through her veins. A slow ooze wormed down the right side of her neck, and when she swiped at her skin, her fingers came away bloody.

Oh my God. She closed her eyes against a lunge of sharp-nailed panic clawing its way out of her chest and into her throat. Take it easy, take it—


Ellie groveled on hands and knees at the forest’s verge. A slick of blood painted her upper lip. “Grandpaaa?” Her voice hitched and rose a notch. “Grandpaaaaaa?”

“Ellie.” Alex pushed to a sit, but too fast. The world went off-kilter in a woozy tilt, and she had to fight against another wave of nausea as her stomach crammed into the back of her throat.

“Where’s my—” Ellie’s gaze shifted to a point beyond Alex, and then the girl’s eyes went buggy, the whites showing around motes of silver-blue iris. “Grandpa?”

Alex followed the girl’s gaze. Jack was motionless, facedown on the rock, a lake of blood widening around his body in a red corona.

“Grandpa.” Ellie began to crawl. Her arm brushed against a dead bird and she pulled back with a yelp, a gluey frill of bloody feathers matted to the back of her hand. Shuddering, she batted at the mess, her words coming in gasps. “Do something, d-do something …”

Do something? Do what? Alex knew CPR; her doctor-mother had made sure of that. But Jack looked pretty dead, and besides, he was old and had a pacemaker, and doing CPR on a real person who’d vomited blood … Her stomach did another tidal heave. And what if she brought him back to life, or he had a pulse—what then? She couldn’t call for help, and she was days out from her car.

Come on, get a grip. Just check and get it over with.

Touching Jack made her skin crawl, and she winced at the squelching, sucking sound Jack’s body made as she rolled him onto his back. Blood painted his face in a slick mask still warm enough to steam. His front teeth, bottom and top, had snapped on impact against the rock into a scatter of smeary, squarish bits that looked like Chiclets. Steeling herself, she pressed her fingers to Jack’s neck to check for a pulse. His blood was sticky, and she clamped back on a whimper. Come on, you can do this. Don’t lose it….

“Do something,” Ellie said. Her hand hooked on to Alex’s arm. “Please.”

She caught a quick butterfly-flutter beneath her fingers and almost said something incredibly stupid before realizing that was her pulse, not Jack’s. She forced herself to give it another few moments to make sure, but she knew Jack was dead. She ought to be sad, but all she felt was relief for the excuse to take back her hand.

“I’m sorry, Ellie,” she said. Smears of drying gore and darker red crescents rimed her nails, and she was suddenly desperate for a shower, a bath—anything to wash away the creepy-crawly feel of Jack’s blood. And shouldn’t she look for something to cover him up? Maybe something in his pack. “I think your grandpa’s dead.”

“No.” Ellie snuffled blood. Her teeth were orange, and the crotch of her jeans was splotchy and dark. “No, no, you’re lying!”

“No, I’m not.” God, all she wanted was to get off this crazy mountain and back to her car. What had happened anyway? Or—a clutch of fear grabbed her chest—what if it happened again?

I’ve got to get out, she thought. The stink of Jack’s blood, wet and coppery, bloomed in her nose, and she could smell Ellie now, too—the harsh bite of ammonia—and knew the little girl had peed herself. There was a ranker odor frothing from the girl’s skin, too, like she’d forgotten to brush her teeth. Get out, get to my car, and maybe the ranger at the entrance will—

And then Alex thought, suddenly, Wait … what?


She went absolutely still.


She was wrong. She had to be.

She couldn’t smell. The tumor had gobbled that up.


But there was blood. She smelled Jack’s blood. Ellie had peed herself, and she smelled that. Just now, just this very second.

That couldn’t be. It must be her imagination, the pain or the shock or … or something.

But what if it wasn’t?

She was almost afraid to try again. But she did; she had to know. As awful as the moment was, she leaned over Jack and pulled in a long, slow, deliberate breath, still thinking, You watch; it’s a hallucination—just one of those phantom brain-things.

But it wasn’t nothing. There it was again, the scent so nearly physical she felt it feathering her nose. She smelled something and it was … she groped after the comparison … yes, it was the scent of wet pennies.

A split second later, a tiny flashbulb popped in the meat of her brain, and she suddenly saw her little red wagon, the one she’d left out in the rain, as clear as day. She was so startled, she actually flinched. That wagon … how old had she been? Six? No, no, seven, because now there came a series of quicksilver bursts, like the twinkle of fireworks: a brick patio, white roses climbing a trellis, the lazy drone of bees, and then there was her mother, her mother, her own beautiful mother, standing next to her dad and her dad was saying, I guess we thought you being seven was old enough for you to know how to take care of your things.

Dad. Alex pulled in a quick gasp. Air rushed into her mouth and over her tongue, and then she registered sour … and sharp char and … and sweet. Coffee—that was the taste of coffee and … and the doughnut. She’d vomited it all back, and now she tasted; she could smell.

And Alex thought, Oh. My. God.

Barrett had talked about The End: the loss of this function, the death of that ability, and, maybe, the need for pain management, which was doctor-speak for doping you up until you quietly slept to death.

But Barrett wasn’t sure even about that, because The End might be very quick. The tumor would keep getting bigger and bigger, and there was only so much room up there. Build up enough pressure in that contained space and then her brain would squirt from the base of her skull like toothpaste out of the tube. Then it would be lights-out as everything that kept her ticking—heart, lungs—simply stopped.

Mind you, Barrett wasn’t positive about anything, because everyone was different. He couldn’t tell her what to expect because, well, he’d never died. Fair enough. But she was absolutely positive: Barrett had never, ever said anything about how, at The End, she might actually get back what she’d lost.

Like her sense of smell.

Like taste.

Like her dad. Her mom.

Now, she smelled Jack’s blood. There had been those forgotten memories of her wagon and white roses and her mother. She’d heard her father’s voice. She could taste the raw edge of vomit in her mouth, and she was awake; she wasn’t dreaming.

Maybe this was what people meant when they said your life passed before your eyes when you died. She didn’t know. She’d never specifically asked Barrett about that. To be honest, she hadn’t been sure she wanted to know. She’d heard of near-death experiences, of course. She’d seen Ghost, and she knew the stories: how all your loved ones who’d passed on before hung out waiting for you to walk into the light. But that was dumb. It was what people hoped would happen, not what really did. She knew enough science and had plenty of her own experiences. The brain was one funky organ. Kill your sense of smell, chew up your ability to taste, and a lot of your memories got swallowed, too. So, cut off the brain’s blood supply, starve the cells of oxygen—and maybe white light was what you saw when you croaked. Who knew? She sure didn’t. She had no idea what to expect at The End.

Unless this was it.

Unless this was her end, and she was living it.


The dog groaned.

“Look.” Ellie’s voice was stuffy and clogged. A smear of bloody snot glistened above her upper lip. “By your tent.”

No, no, go away, just leave me alone. A needle of fear pierced her heart. If she didn’t pay attention, would everything—the smells and memories—slip away? All she wanted was to hunker down alone somewhere quiet, focus on what was happening to her.


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