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“That what you were doing? Felt like you were ripping the boy a new one.”


“Watch your language, Matt.” She shot Alex a warning glare. “He is not the only young person who has ceded his free will.”


“Wait a minute,” Alex said. “Why are you getting on my case? I want to be free.”


“Freedom has a price, too, girl. For all your bravery, you do not—” She broke off as the kitchen door opened again and Sarah appeared, shaking a salting of snow from her hair.


“What’s wrong with Chris?” Sarah asked. “Is he all right?”


“Never you mind,” said Jess, and then she turned to Alex: “You are an ungrateful and very foolish young woman. While you are here, you will be quiet and follow the rules.”


What, what? Follow the rules? Alex’s shock flashed to anger. “Five seconds ago, you said the rules—”


“Don’t presume to correct me!” Jess cut her off with a vicious swipe of her hand. “You will be quiet, young woman. Stop spouting about things you know nothing about. Is that understood?”


Sarah’s eyes were round as pie plates. Alex was mortified. If the floor had opened up to swallow her, that would’ve been fine. “Yes, ma’am.”


“Excellent.” Jess favored Alex with a frosty glare. “I’m so glad we cleared that up. Now, I’m sure there’s something useful needs doing somewhere.” She swept from the room.


“Wow,” Kincaid said after a moment. “Bet you really could hear a pin drop.”


52


Kincaid waved off Sarah’s offer of more tea. “Thank you, no. I got to get back. Alex, walk with me a second, okay?”


Alex said nothing until they were outside and heading for the front walk. Then she looked up at Kincaid. “What was that all—”


“Hush.” Kincaid put up a warning hand, and then she saw their house guard straightening from his slouch. Kincaid hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “I got her, Greg. You want, there’s hot tea inside. Jess or Sarah’ll give you a cup.”


“How about Tori?” Greg’s breath chugged like a steam engine. He was younger than Alex, maybe fourteen, with a halo of muddy brown curls fringing a watch cap. His cheeks were red as beets from windburn. “She inside?”


“No, but she should be back soon. Sure she’d love to see you.” Kincaid clapped the boy on the shoulder. “Bet she could scrounge up a sandwich or two.”


“Yeah, that’d be good. If you think it’s okay. If you don’t think Chris’ll be back. He looked mad enough to spit nails.”


“Oh, I think Chris is done for the day.”


“Okay.” Greg gestured toward his golden, whose bushy tail and fluffy ruff were chunky with ice and snow. “Daisy needs a little time to defrost, anyway.”


“Then go on in before you catch your death,” Kincaid said. They’d already taken Alex’s horse, Honey, to a three-car garage down the block that had been converted into a stable. Kincaid’s horse was tethered to a tree at the curb, and as he unclipped the lead, he glanced over his shoulder, saw Greg and Daisy disappear into the house, and said to Alex, “You okay?”


“Yeah,” she said. “But that was so embarrassing.”


“That’s what happens when you behave like an ass.”


“Thanks.”


“You’ll get over it.”


“But what was that all about? One second Jess is chewing Chris out for not breaking rules and then she’s yelling at me to follow them.”


He flicked another look over his shoulder. “Look, it’s too much to explain right now, but I would watch what I say around the house.”


“What for?”


“Let’s just say that there are … factions. People taking sides. Not everybody’s happy with the way things are going, and you don’t want the wrong people talking to the other wrong people.”


Factions? Wrong people? “What is this place? Are you a cult or, you know, one of those really religious …” She groped for the right word. “You said you’re not Mormons or something, but like the Amish? Some kind of weird sect? Things seem so decided.” That wasn’t exactly the word she was looking for either, and then, too late, she realized that if Kincaid was a believer, she’d probably just managed to insult him. She thought about apologizing, but figured it wouldn’t do any good.


Kincaid studied her for a long few seconds. “Considering some of my best friends are Amish, I might take offense. They’re not weird, or a cult. They’re gentle, good people.”


“You know what I mean.”


“Yeah, I do.” But he didn’t smile. “I don’t pretend to understand everything. As a doc, though, I’ve seen what happens when people are under a lot of stress. Doesn’t always bring out their best. When people are scared, they get angry. They’ll do things they never thought they would. They’ll bargain and compromise in order to survive; they’ll chase after miracle cures and believe just about anything so long as it gives them hope. When hope fails, then watch out. Some people get brutal. They’ll turn on each other; they’ll become their own worst enemies.”


He could’ve been talking about her life. How many specialists had Aunt Hannah insisted on? What were the PEBBLES, those little rocks in her brain, but a last-ditch effort? When her parents had died, Alex refused to believe it until she saw their bodies. Her aunt hadn’t wanted her to, which was understandable; between the impact and the fireball, her parents were reduced to a charred jumble of blackened limbs and too-white teeth. Her grief—such a small word for such a monstrous feeling—was almost too much to bear, and Alex had lashed out at everyone with a sort of desperate fury.


It was, she thought now, exactly what Jess had just said: anger was easier to bear than grief. Rage tricked her into thinking she might still change something. That acceptance was defeat.


“So when it’s the end of the world,” Kincaid was saying, “people who didn’t give a darn before suddenly become believers. If there was a core of believers to begin with, then they take control. This village has always been … well, conservative’s a good word, and then some. The Council’s only the tip of the iceberg.”


“Are you? A believer, I mean?”


“I believe in living, and I’m old enough to take the bad with the good. Maybe I’m only rationalizing things, but I like to think I’m doing some good here. And to be honest, living here beats the alternative.”


“What about Jess?”


“She would”—Kincaid chose his words with care—“change a few things. Like she said, the price for us being left alone is a bit steep. People are scared, though. No one wants to make waves, especially not now. You live long enough, comes a time when it’s easier to just go along to get along. I agree with her in principle, but I’m not sure we can afford the alternative.”


Meaning … what? That these old people were tired out? That they were looking to people like Chris? Her? Maybe. If Rule was owned by the Council but a Yeager was always the final arbiter, then Jess would press Chris, hoping that Chris would command the respect that his grandfather did. But to change what? “Why can’t Jess say something? Or get together a committee or … whatever?”


Kincaid looked like he’d sucked on a lemon. “No power. Majority rules, and the majority’s with the Council and the Rev.”


Yeah, meaning majority men. “Are you with Reverend Yeager?”


“I’m not against him on principle. I see the logic of it. If we’re going to survive this, we need to maintain order. I disagree with the execution.”


And adults say we’re evasive. “So change it.”


“Not as simple as you think, kiddo. Besides, it’s one thing to criticize. It’s another to have a better idea. I don’t know that I do. Even if I did, I’m not the man for that.”


“But Chris is?” She shook her head. “Lena was right. Why are you waiting around for us to clean up your mess? You guys are cowards.”


“Yeah,” said Kincaid. “That’s fair.”


“One thing I gotta know,” said Kincaid. He threw the Appaloosa’s reins over its head. “What happened between you and the Rev? After he threw me out, that is.”


She remembered Ernst’s admonition: Some secrets are best kept behind closed doors. “Why?”


“Alex, I’ve seen a lot of Spared with the Rev, and this is the first time I ever saw a Spared nail it. You knew what was going on with him.”


“I just guessed.”


“Bull. How did you know? Only me and the Council and a couple others know about him and that … touch thing he’s got going.”


“Um … well, I guess it was the only thing that made sense.”


“Don’t give me that crap. Look, I’m not the enemy here. I just want to understand what’s going on.”


“Weren’t you the one who just told me to watch my mouth around the wrong people?”


“Yes, but in case you haven’t noticed, I’m one of those right people.” Kincaid’s eyes shifted toward the house. Alex followed his gaze and saw Jess staring from a window. When she saw them looking, the older woman inclined her head in a small nod, then twitched the curtains closed. Kincaid said, “You trust me?”


Despite what Ernst had said, she trusted Kincaid about as much as she trusted anyone in this place, maybe because his scent reminded her so much of her father. During their conversation, that smell had not changed; there was none of the bite she associated with a lie. And he seemed to be going out of his way to help her. So she said, “I guess.”


“Then trust me now. How did you know about his … well, I call it a super-sense. His is touch. And yours?”


She licked her lips. “I smelled him.”

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