Page 49


But which way to run?


Lena.


Lena had tried. Lena would know. Would have a rough idea anyway. Yeah, but Lena wasn’t stupid. If Alex started nosing around, asking questions, Lena would put it together. Lena would want in, and that was a recipe for disaster.


Once she ran, how long would they try to find her? Maybe only as long as they figured she was worth keeping … which brought her around to full disclosure about the monster, and that was no good.


Bringing her around to Door Number Three.


Just cut and run. Soon.


If she could lie low for a couple weeks, play along while she got stuff together, she might pull it off. No need to get herself put on patrol. In fact, it might be better if she hung around town, figured out its rhythms and who went where. Get people to trust her and see her as a familiar figure. The familiar was usually invisible; how many people really noticed everything they saw?


Plus, Rule needed supplies. For that, they would need Chris and Peter and a bunch of guys. A bunch of horses, a bunch of wagons, and men to ride as escort, like the old wagon trains. That might be the time to boogie: when a lot of the guys were out of town and everyone else was covering their butts.


Carefully, she eased out of bed, wincing at every squeak of the bedsprings, but Sarah was deep asleep and didn’t stir. Crossing to the window, she slid a finger between the curtains and peered out. She heard the soft patter of snow against glass but saw nothing. The night was deep and dark and vast. With no streetlights or bob of a flashlight or even a helpful cigarette, she could only guess where the guard kept himself, and he probably moved around, if only to stay warm. It occurred to her that she didn’t know if they had a kind of shelter or guard-box, which would make the most sense. Hanging out in a snowstorm couldn’t be good for any person, even a younger guy her age, and she couldn’t imagine some poor schnook hunkering down all night on the porch with a rifle in his lap. It was more likely that there were mounted patrols, like cops in New York City. She would have to find out.


And what about the dogs?


Crap.


If she happened to pass by—and she would, there was no help for that—they would give her away. She was every dog’s best friend. Taking Ghost with her was one thing, but having an entire pack … Yeah, but could she use that somehow? She flashed to an image of assembling an army of dogs: Go, fetch, play dead! Not bloody likely, as Aunt Hannah would say.


The cold seeped through the glass and broke over her face. She thought of herself out there, alone, struggling through drifts. Even with snowshoes and skis, it would be hard going. Her window of opportunity was closing, and fast. Winter would only get worse.


So, how to avoid getting caught—or, worse, being mistaken for a raider and shot? Maybe duck out the southwest corner, hightail it for the old mine, then loop back north and head … where?


Minnesota. The border. Canada. If Tom was still alive, that’s where he’d go. A lot of ground to cover and a big country besides, but if Tom was alive …


If Tom was alive …


“Tom.” She exhaled his name in a soft whisper, watching as her breath fogged the window and then slowly cleared, leaving only a memory that there’d been anything there at all.


Saying his name brought on that hollow ache again. If Tom wasn’t dead, where was he? What had happened to him? Was he looking for her? No, he’d have gotten here by now; he knew she was going to Rule. But if he was alive and he was thinking about her at the same moment she was thinking about him, maybe …


She closed her eyes. She forced herself to be very still, wrestled her thoughts to gray, and yet opened her memory to his smell, that strange and spicy scent that was Tom.


She saw and felt him in flashes: Tom in the light of the fire, Tom as he held her the night they found the radio, Tom as a silhouette keeping watch over her. Tom’s lips. Tom’s hand in her hair. His taste …


She didn’t know if the tightness in her throat or the fullness in her heart meant that he was there; that they were connected somehow. Maybe all that she saw and felt was the sensual fullness of memory: that which abided and was nothing but the ghost of a touch, the whisper of a word, the lingering of a scent.


But she felt him just the same, and thought that, maybe, this was why some people didn’t mind being haunted.


56


By morning, she’d decided that for the time being, she would follow the rules. Recon—that’s what Tom would’ve called it. Work with Kincaid at the hospice, which doubled as Rule’s hospital. Learn who went where. Get her bearings, gather supplies, and then, when the time was right, get herself gone.


School was a joke. She was way more advanced than her teachers could handle, and by lunchtime of the first day, the principal figured she might as well spend all her time with Kincaid.


Chris was waiting in the hall outside the principal’s office to escort her to the hospice. He and the principal exchanged greetings, and then the principal said, “Chris, think you can scare up a few more copies of Robinson Crusoe? Say, ten? Oh, also Island of the Blue Dolphins, anything by Cleary or Dahl …”


As they headed for the front door of the church, Alex said, “You can really find those?”


“Probably not.” Chris held the door, then followed her out into the cold. The sun was shining for a change. Squinting, he rooted around in a breast pocket, pulled out a pair of aviator sunglasses, and slid them on. Alex felt a quick sting of envy. The sun was bright enough to hurt, and she put up a hand to block the glare. He said, “You don’t have sunglasses?”


“I did,” she said, with faint annoyance. She wasn’t stupid. “They were in my pack.”


“Sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t criticizing.”


“No big deal.” Recon, she thought. “So where do you get books?”


“Some in town, but the closest library’s three, four days out, so that’s not really an option. Too many men and wagons tied up to make it worthwhile. Most of the houses for twenty miles around have been cleaned out already, if they haven’t gone up in flames.”


She unclipped Honey’s lead, then swung into the saddle. The snow came halfway to Honey’s knees. She would have to trade up for a larger horse soon. Either that or just ski to the hospice. Which might be a way of getting skis, come to think of it, and maybe a pair of snowshoes. “Yeah, I saw that. Burned-out houses. I don’t get it.”


Chris guided his blood bay, Night, and fell in alongside as they crossed the village green before taking a side street north toward the hospice. “Raiders, mostly. People who take what they can, then torch the rest. They’re not as organized or big as we are, or they’d have taken over Rule by now. But what they’re doing is kind of an interesting strategy.”


“Why?”


He regarded her from behind his dark glasses. “Burn out more people. They head here. Word gets around. The more people we take in, the farther out we’re forced to go to find things. The farther from Rule we have to go, the easier we are to pick off. That’s why we limit who we take in, but even so, we’re taking more risks now than before, traveling days sometimes to find what we need. Things might get easier once we can plant again, but until then we’re as dependent as everyone else on what we can scavenge.”


“Is that what happened last night? Raiders tried to get into town?”


He nodded. “We lost three men.”


“What about the raiders?”


“Got two, but two got away. Next time, I’m following them. I don’t care what Peter says. If we could follow them to their camp or town or wherever, we could finish them off and take what they’ve found. One less group to worry about, and more for us.”


“But they’re not Changed. They’re just people trying to survive, Chris.”


“Who are trying to take what we’ve got.”


“If you talked to them, maybe cooperated …”


“There’s no talking with these guys.”


“How do you know that? Have you tried?” When he didn’t reply, she pressed: “Chris, you can’t just go around killing people and taking what they have.”


“Why not?” He kept his shuttered eyes on the road. “They’d kill us if they got the chance.”


The hospice was small: four wings, sixty beds, and only twenty of those occupied by true hospice patients. Most were in the terminal stages of cancer or lung disease. “Miners, a lot of them,” Kincaid said as they stopped outside a dayroom. “We’re just trying to make them comfortable.”


She swept her eyes over the scatter of patients—old men, mostly, with portable green oxygen tanks—slumped in overstuffed chairs. Most were dozing, although some played checkers or chess. A few shuffled greasy cards for games of solitaire. The sight depressed her, and the smell of antiseptic soap brought back too many memories, all of them bad.


She turned to see Kincaid’s eyes on her. “You won’t be working here much,” he said. “We got dedicated hospice staff still around for this.”


“It’s okay,” she said, although she was relieved. She could too easily see herself here. Back when the only thing she’d had to worry about was, oh, imminent death, she’d visited a few hospices for people her age and thought that waiting around to die with strangers was even nuttier than waiting around to die at Aunt Hannah’s. “How are you getting your tanks?”


“The way we get everything.” He started off down the hall, motioning for her to follow. “Either the guys out foraging bring ’em back, or they don’t. Right now, mostly they don’t. If it’s a choice between our guys grabbing a wagonload of antibiotics and bandages versus a couple oxygen tanks … it’s not a contest.”


“What are you going to do when you run out of supplies?” Alex asked. Foraging was all well and good, but there had to be limits to what they could stockpile. Judging from the nightly rifle fire, Kincaid must see his share of wounded.


“Triage,” Kincaid said briefly, like that explained something. She knew the word; her mother had worked the emergency room. But sorting the wounded by category didn’t answer anything unless …

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