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“What about the Change?”


“Based on what we’ve seen, I think it’s got to do with brain development and hormones.”


“Tom and I wondered the same thing.” She told Kincaid about meeting Larry and Deidre.


Kincaid bobbed his head in a nod. “That fits. Hormones would also explain why kids are still Changing as they get older.”


Her thoughts darted to Ellie. “You mean, every little kid is going to Change?”


“Maybe. So far, that looks to be true. On the other hand, it’s only been a couple of months, and so maybe whatever changed in their brains will repair itself. The really young ones—babies and toddlers, kindergartners—they might have a chance. But maybe not.”


A whole generation of kids Changing? The thought sent a shiver down her spine. “But then why have some of us Changed and not others?”


“The Spared? I don’t know what’s going on with you all; why you and people like Chris and Peter and this Tom of yours didn’t change. Your brains are probably different somehow, but I’ll be damned if I know.”


She hesitated a moment. “You said that old people’s sleep and dreams are different. I think something bad happened to Tom in Afghanistan—enough so he … he didn’t sleep much and never for very long.”


Kincaid’s eyebrows arched. “Post-traumatic stress? Hmm. I never thought of that. Could be, though.”


“Why?”


“Because the brains of people with PTSD show permanent changes, and the symptoms reinforce the damage, and then the damage means more symptoms. That’s why PTSD is so hard to treat. People can learn to function, but it’s an injury the brain just never recovers from.” Kincaid huffed out a silent laugh, like a dog. “If I wasn’t just a country doctor and got a big enough sample of kids and had a fancy laboratory and could do all kinds of tests, maybe I’d figure it out, but that’s not ever happening. One thing I do know, though: all of us Awakened, we got some kind of brain damage, by definition, and now I’m thinking that some of the older kids who should’ve changed didn’t because their brains and hormones were somehow different.” He paused. “You see where I’m going with this, right?”


Her stomach tightened in a sudden twist of fear. “Not really.”


“Alex, I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I am a doctor and I can put two and two together. The Rev had bad brain damage, and he’s got a super-sense. We got another Awakened with super-hearing. But you are the only kid I know who’s both Spared and got a super-sense. So, Alex, I got to know,” Kincaid said, with his best one-eyed squint, “what exactly is living in that head of yours?”


54


“Are you okay?” Sarah said. She halted as Ghost snuffled around a tree. “You’ve been really quiet all night.”


“Just tired.” Alex hunched her shoulders as the wind forked up a fistful of icy snow and sent it whirling in a sparkling arabesque in the light of their torch. She could see the bulky silhouette of their guard a few steps ahead and the flash of snow splintering the harsh white light of his lantern.


“I’m really sorry about what happened,” Sarah said.


“Happened?”


“Yes. At the courthouse? That’s all over town—about how you recognized that man, Harlan? Peter told me that Harlan left that little girl alone out there.”


“Ellie. Yeah,” Alex said, a little ashamed now, because she’d not been thinking about Ellie but Kincaid. He might call himself a country doctor, but he was sharp enough to guess about the monster. She supposed she could’ve lied; there was no way Kincaid could look inside her brain, after all. But telling him had been kind of a relief.


What he’d said about the monster was interesting, too: You don’t know that the tumor’s gone or dead or dormant. Maybe the Zap shorted it out. Or maybe all those EMPs organized it somehow, made it functional instead of destructive, like another lobe of your brain.


Or maybe both. She recalled how sick—chemo-sick—she’d felt right after the attacks. She’d assumed the Zap caused that, but her brain was chock-full of PEBBLES loaded with a new and experimental drug. Barrett hadn’t been able to get the PEBBLES to dump their payload; the light probes hadn’t worked. But light was just a visible form of electromagnetic radiation—a different kind of EMP. So maybe the Zap—from all those EMPs—was strong enough to trigger the PEBBLES. The monster had either died or altered in some way, and so had she.


She could share none of this with Sarah. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not. I understand why Chris didn’t want to go after Ellie, but …” She let out a breath that the wind stole. “Doesn’t make it feel any better.”


Sarah was quiet as they waited for Ghost to finish. “I think they’re doing the best they can,” she said finally. “You know, to give us homes and stuff.”


“That’s not the same as being happy or free.”


“People did try to kill you,” Sarah pointed out. “I’ll bet a bunch of them would kill all of us if they could.”


Larry: You’re an endangered species. “Yeah, but then who’d be left? Lena’s right. They need us. I mean, have you seen some of these guys? They’re really old. Eventually, they’re going to, you know, break down. They need us to take care of them.”


“Well,” said Sarah, “I don’t know if that’s the only—”


There came the sudden distant stutter of gunfire. The shots were very quick, nearly overlapping. Rifles, Alex thought. Ghost flinched, tried to scurry between Alex’s legs, and only succeeded in winding his leash around her calves. At the end of the block, she saw their guard hurrying back to them.


“You girls about done?” he asked. His own dog—a long-haired mutt—swished around Alex and then stood patiently as the puppy nipped at the other dog’s neck and did the I’m-so-thrilled-to-see-you squiggle.


“Who are they shooting at?” asked Alex.


The guard simultaneously shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “Could be some Changed, but they don’t bother us much anymore. Ten to one, it’s raiders. Night’s when they try to come in through the woods. Stupid, you ask me.”


“Why?” asked Alex.


“Because they come out at night, too,” Sarah said.


“Double the risk, double your fun,” said the guard, doing the cold man’s two-step. “We got our perimeter, which means they got to make it through the Zone, avoid the Changed, and slip in through the perimeter without us catching them. Only way to do that is come out by day, hunker down in the Zone, and wait. Ones we don’t get at night, we get come daylight.”


Well, that answered the question of the shots Alex had heard that morning. The image of Rule’s guards combing the woods to pick off strays bothered her. She bet Peter wouldn’t have a problem with it. Would Chris? Was he out there now?


So what if he is? She felt a nip of impatience. Who cares what Chris thinks or where he is?


Still, the thought nagged at her, and what made her even angrier was what she felt when she pictured Chris taking risks out there in the dark.


Worried.


Back at the house, Jess was sewing by candlelight, and seemed unconcerned. Alex figured she was probably used to the nightly gunfight at the O.K. Corral. She and Sarah said good night to Jess and the guard, who seemed happy enough to thaw out by the woodstove.


“That dog stays downstairs,” Jess said when Ghost tried following Alex. She handed Alex and Sarah red rubber hot-water bottles and a lit candle, then bent to scoop up the puppy. “Oh, aren’t you a brute?” she scolded, and then laughed as the puppy’s tongue darted for her chin. “He’ll be fine in his bed down here. If you girls want to double up, though, you might be warmer.”


“Uh,” said Alex, and glanced at Sarah, who shrugged. “It’s okay with me,” said Sarah.


“Good. You should both stay in Alex’s room then. It’s right over the kitchen,” said Jess.


Pushing through the anvil of cold air solidly wedged on the stairs was an act of will. It was so cold, their breath steamed in the light of the single candle Jess had given them. Tori’s bedroom door was closed. A towel-covered tray of food was still squared before Lena’s door. When she’d come back after her job at the laundry—Alex didn’t envy Lena one bit—Lena had gone straight upstairs and refused to come down.


Crouching, Sarah peeked under the towel. “She hasn’t touched it,” she whispered.


“She’ll just bite your head off. Come on, she’ll eat when she’s hungry,” Alex hissed back, thinking only of diving beneath the covers. Even with the hot water bottle tucked around her feet, there was no way she was sleeping without socks and long johns.


Sarah lingered a moment longer, then followed. After they’d washed—the icy water gave Alex brain freeze when she brushed her teeth—then swiftly changed and crawled under a double feather quilt, Sarah whispered, “She’s really not so bad, you know.”


“What?” Being in bed with Sarah had dredged up thoughts of Ellie, and Alex had to think a second. “Who, Lena? Only if you don’t mind permanent PMS.”


“She had it really rough before. She doesn’t talk about it much.”


“Did she really run away from here?”


“Yeah, about three weeks after she got here. She was trying to go back up north. I think she’s still got family up near Oren.”


Amish country, she thought, remembering the sign she’d seen months ago at that Quik-Mart. “Wow. Like, how old?”


“Old enough to be dead, young enough to be Changed. Her mom’s dead, for sure. I think her dad died years ago. She said that she, her mom, and a couple brothers were living with her grandparents. They might be alive.”


“Then how’d she end up here if she still had family?”

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