“I don’t know. Why are you asking all these questions?”
“Ellie, could you check, please? I don’t think Mina will let me—”
“I don’t want to touch him,” Ellie blurted.
“Oh.” She understood that. “Well, can you hold Mina? I don’t want her to freak out, but I have to check something.” For a moment, she thought Ellie might refuse, but then the girl’s hand snaked around Mina’s collar.
Alex slid forward, one eye on the dog, the other on Jack’s watch. The Seiko’s hour hand was locked on nine. The minute hand said it was three minutes after the hour, and the second sweep hand was notched between twenty and a hash mark—and it wasn’t moving. Alex stared at that watch face so hard that if she’d been Cyclops, she could’ve burned a hole right through it. She stared so long, her eyes watered. But that second hand didn’t budge.
Her watch and Jack’s, the iPods, the radio, and her LEDs—all dead, and Jack … Her gaze drifted up to his face. Something he’d said was important: I’m a tough old bird, all except my ticker.
Of course. Jack had a pacer. That was the only explanation for why Jack was dead and they weren’t. She knew pacers had tiny computer chips that synchronized the heartbeat to what a body required at any given moment. Jack’s pacer had shorted out and that’s what killed him. But how? What could reach inside Jack’s chest, fry his pacer, kill all their electronics—and grab them? They’d all felt it: Ellie, with her nosebleed and headache; the dog, which had yowled in pain; and the birds and the deer, which had all gone insane.
And she could smell again—things like blood and the tang of resin from the evergreens and her sweat. She smelled the dog, too: not just its fur but something nameless steaming from somewhere deep inside the animal.
Yet Ellie was back to normal, which for her seemed to be somewhere between whiny and nasty. The dog … well, who knew? It wasn’t attacking her, at least. She threw a quick look into the sky, eyed a hawk floating by on an updraft and then, still higher, a trio of turkey vultures turning a slow, looping spiral. The birds seemed back to normal, too.
So, if her sense of smell didn’t evaporate, then only her brain had altered in some way. Out of all of them, only she had changed.
But how? And was she done changing? Was that the end of it?
Or was this just the beginning?
The good news was that Ellie cooperated just long enough to dig out a blue rain poncho that Alex used to cover up Jack. The bad news was that Ellie decided she was done being helpful and Mina wouldn’t let Alex anywhere near Jack’s pack. Every time she got close, the dog’s teeth showed, and finally, Alex gave it up. They’d just have to leave whatever food and water Jack had. That was okay. Ellie could have most of her food. If she could get the kid to lay down some distance, they wouldn’t be on the trail more than two days. Three, if they were really unlucky. She’d get by.
As she broke down her tent, she again flirted with the idea of going back to her car. With the electronics on the fritz, would her car start? She knew as much about cars as she did Chinese—like, nothing—but most cars had complex electronics, and a computer chip or two. So maybe not.
She buckled her lumbar pack around her waist. The pack was heavier than usual because, along with her emergency survival gear, she’d also wedged a black, soft-sided case she hadn’t unzipped for nearly three years, since the week after her parents died. The case was weighty, almost twelve pounds, and was sort of hers and sort of not. Aunt Hannah had never made the contents a secret; had told Alex she should feel free to look inside any time she wanted. It might do you some good was how her aunt put it, though she never explained what that good might be and Alex sure didn’t know.
There were memories in this case. At first, they’d been memories too painful to want to think about, much less remember. For the first year, she’d had no control over those memories at all. The triggers could be almost anything: a snatch of song, the sudden warble of a police cruiser, a stranger with hair so exactly like her mother’s that the sight stole her breath. Every memory brought pain that was sharp and sudden and so fierce it was like someone had slipped a knife between her ribs and given a good twist. Then, as the monster grew and her sense of smell died, the triggers seemed fewer and her memories harder to get at, as if she were trying to recover files from a corrupted hard drive. In a way, she’d been okay with that. What she never told Aunt Hannah was that, sometimes, having a monster squatting in her brain—eating away at her memories, crunching them to dust—had been, almost, a relief. Her brain wasn’t exactly hers anymore, but at least her thoughts weren’t out of control.
It also occurred to her now that she’d stolen the case from her aunt for nothing. No way she’d reach Mirror Point now. Her reasons for coming to the Waucamaw to begin with had just gone up in those proverbial flames.
Which was pretty ironic, considering what was in the case.
“I’m leaving now,” Alex said. “I think you better come with me.”
“No. I hate you.”
Yeah, yeah. “Okay, listen: I’m taking the shorter trail, the one I showed you on the map that goes straight down into the valley. When you decide to come—”
“I’m never coming.”
“Don’t forget your pack, and don’t forget to strap on Mina’s pack …”
Ellie stoppered her ears. “I’m not listening to you.”
“… because I don’t have dog food. If you could go through your grandpa’s pack and bring along some—”
“La-la-la-la,” Ellie sang. “La-la-la-la.”
“—some more food and water for us, that would be good, too.” Honestly, she didn’t want the kid or her dog to come along, but Ellie was only eight. Alex didn’t even remember what it was like to be that young.
Slipping her father’s Glock from her pack, she slotted in a full magazine, pulled back on the slide, and jacked a round into the chamber. A standard Glock didn’t have an external safety. It was one of the reasons her cop dad had liked the weapon. Just point and shoot. When she’d inherited the gun, though, she’d installed a cross-trigger safety. No really good reason—this was well before the monster sent up smoke signals—but maybe her subconscious was on the ball even then. Considering how often she and the Glock had gotten cozy in her aunt’s basement, the time it took to jab that little button and release the keeper bar probably accounted for why she was still ticking. A millisecond was just long enough for a person to change her mind.
Now, after double-checking the safety, she reseated the gun, then clipped the paddle holster to her right hip.
Ellie had stopped singing. “Why are you wearing that?”
Because Jack’s dead and our electronics are toast and I smell you, Ellie. I smell blood. I smell the dog. “You can never be too careful.”
“Whose is it?”
“My dad’s. Mine, now.”
“My grandpa says guns kill people.”
She wasn’t going there. “Don’t wait too long. It gets dark fast.”
“So go.” Ellie screwed in her earbuds. “I don’t care.”
She wanted to point out that the iPod was dead but thought that was mean. “You will if you’re caught on the mountain in the dark.”
“I’m not coming.”
“I’ll see you later.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Okay then.” She set off and didn’t look back. But she felt Ellie’s eyes for a long time just the same.
The trail was much worse than she’d imagined. The drop was steep, slippery with dead birds, scaly rock, and soft, splintery gray limestone. Centuries of erosion from rain and snowmelt had left the mountain scored with steep chutes and funnels where debris—loose rock, fallen trees—emptied before being swept down into the valley. After an hour, her thighs and knees were screaming; her face was oily with sweat, her mouth gummy, and her shirt glued to her shoulder blades. Stopping for a water break, she stripped down to her sweatshirt, tying her parka to her pack, then dragged off her cap to let the air’s cold fingers glide over her scalp. Tugging free one of two Nalgene bottles from her fanny pack, she splashed water onto her face, sucking in a breath against the chill. The water was a luxury. Normally, she’d conserve, but there was a stream where she planned to camp overnight, and she had a good filter with a seventy-ounce capacity, so she could afford to splurge. She’d need the extra water, too. After the stream, there wouldn’t be any more opportunities to replenish her supply until she intersected the river fifteen miles on, and then nothing until she hit the station.
From habit, she held her water bottle in her right hand, the one that didn’t shake. Now she paused, and then—before she could chicken out—she shifted the bottle, grabbing it with her left with all the force she could muster.
Her left hand was rocksteady. No shakes. She’d built up muscle mass the last few months with all that lifting, but that had done nothing for her shakes. Now, though, the shakes were gone, and she felt stronger. Powerful. Like she could grab hold and really hang on.
This is so crazy. She was still freaked out, but her getting better didn’t jibe with her idea of what happened when a person died. Or—wait—did it? Weren’t there stories about how people came out of comas just long enough to say good-bye? Like the brain was on its last legs and kind of let go all at once, all the juices flowing so that everything clicked one last time? Well, maybe she ought to enjoy this for as long as she could.
She brought the bottle to her nose. She still didn’t trust her sense of smell; kept expecting it to vanish. But the water had a scent that was clean and very cold, and she had another of those flashbulb moments: her dad hoisting her onto his shoulders, his strong hands wrapped around her ankles as he waded into Lake Superior, singing, Old Dan and I, with throats burned dry, and souls that cry for water … cool, clear water.
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