Page 7

She let the water roll over her tongue and moaned, savoring the taste of every molecule, every wonderful atom, every precious particle of memory.

She thought, Well, at least it’s wet.

And that made her cry a little bit more, because her dad always said that, too.

She looked back up the way she’d come, swept her eyes first left and then, slowly, right. A wink of sun dazzle caught her attention. Was that Ellie? Had she been wearing a frame? No, Ellie’s Hello Kitty pack had been very small. Probably just room enough for some clothes, her toothbrush. Maybe a book, though, honestly, Ellie didn’t strike her as the bookish sort. With Ellie, they were talking Nintendo DS, and it would be a brick just like the kid’s iPod. A moment later, Alex saw that the dazzle had resolved to glare bouncing off rock. No Ellie.

She sighed. What had happened? She’d turned the morning over in her mind a dozen times. She ought to be able to figure this out. God knows, she had the time. Physics wasn’t her thing, but she’d gotten an A in bio and she knew that the brain—most of the body, for that matter—effectively ran on electricity.

So, this morning, her brain had gone haywire. The electronics—anything that was solid-state—got toasted, as had the deer, the birds, the dog. The birds were really important, too—something about the way they navigated … Magnetic?

Now, her hand didn’t shake. She was stronger. After that bolt of white-hot pain, her headache—always a low growl—was gone. Her memories were starting to pop to life again because her sense of smell had returned, and, with it, her sense of taste.

Only it wasn’t just regular smell, was it? She’d had time to think about this, rewinding to that moment she’d approached Mina and how Mina had looked: teeth bared, ears flat. Going by looks alone, you’d think that Mina had been angry.

But then there’d been that weirdly feral stink, and the word that popped to the front of her brain now was fear. She’d smelled the dog—and how the dog felt. Mina had been scared to death.

And what about Ellie? There’d been the ammonia reek of urine and the coppery stink of blood—and another sourer scent, riding just beneath. That cross between morning breath and curdled milk—was that the odor of Ellie’s fear?

So what did all that have to do with anything? How did it fit?

After another few seconds, she gave it up. All she had were a bunch of facts, a few theories, and much bigger problems—like getting the hell off this mountain and down to water before dusk.

How much daylight did she have left anyway? She threw a critical eye at the sun. There was a way you could tell time if you knew true north, but damned if she remembered how at the moment. Something else about time was important, too. What? She nudged the feeling the way she used to worry a loose tooth when she was a little kid, hoping to make the tooth pop out of its socket. Something really important about time …

The faint scent of char whisked up from the valley. A fire? No, something was wrong with that smell. Not wood being burned, but something artificial, almost sweet. She knew that smell. What was it?

There was a flicker of movement out of the corner of her left eye. Something above her. She flicked a quick peek back up the mountain, and then her gaze sharpened on a flash of pink.


The best thing was to slow down, take another water break soon, let the kid close the gap without tipping her to the fact that Alex was actually waiting. Better Ellie should think this was her idea.

After another half hour, give or take, Alex had slowed to a baby crawl, but Ellie was close. Alex could hear the slip and slide of the kid’s boots on all that scree. From the sound, she thought the kid was going a little too fast. A slithery stream of tiny rocks trickled down the slope to her left with a sound like the chatter of seashells sucked and dragged by a retreating wave. Veering into the chute, the rocks picked up speed and sluiced in a rush down the mountain. That was bad. If the kid made a misstep and slipped, she’d pick up speed pretty fast, get herself banged up for sure.

Time for a water break. With a casual, practiced shrug, Alex unseated her pack, then slung it to the ground in front of her boots. Tugging a water bottle from her fanny pack, she uncapped it, tipped the bottle to her mouth, and let her eyes crawl back up the mountain.

Still a good fifty yards above Alex, Ellie was coming down fast. The space between them was clotted with brush and gnarly pines jutting at weird angles. Alex could see much more clearly now where debris from higher up the slope funneled toward the chute which was now on her right as she faced into the mountain. This part of the trail wound in a rough, looping curlicue back and forth and well away from the chute, so safe enough. But Ellie was taking shortcuts, shaving off corners and sending down a continual shower of debris.

And the kid was alone.

Unbelievable. It was one thing for Alex to back off—she liked all her fingers, thanks—but what kind of kid left her dog? “Hey, take it easy,” she called, annoyed. “I’ll wait.”

She was too far away to see Ellie’s face, but Alex heard the scowl. “I’m fine,” Ellie shot back. “I’m not tired.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about. You’re kicking up a lot of rocks, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m below you. I’d like to avoid getting brained, thanks.”

Ellie said nothing. If anything, she went faster. Alex turned aside with a snort. Man oh man. Still clutching her water bottle in her left hand, she fished up her pack in a one-handed grab and hefted it onto her right shoulder. This kid was really cruising for a bruis—

The shots were sharp, sudden, and utterly unmistakable: pop-pop-pop-pop-pop!

Gunshots? Someone was shooting? Her mind blanked and then she was crouching down fast, her frantic eyes scouring the valley. More shots—different, crisper, bigger—and she thought, Rifle. What the hell?

Ellie was so close, she heard the girl’s airy gasp of alarm and then the slither-crunch of Ellie’s boots sliding over rock. Alex saw the girl sway, arms windmilling, her boots stuttering back on the mountain. Alex ducked as a spray of rocks rained down around her head and shoulders. “Ellie,” she called, “don’t fight it. Sit down, sit—”

Too late. Ellie’s center of gravity, already precarious, shifted.

“No!” Without thinking, Alex straightened—exactly the wrong move. Her water bottle flew from her hand, the water spraying in a wide corona, and then the bottle ricocheted off stone and out of sight. Balanced only on the hump of her shoulder, her unsecured pack caromed down her right arm like a luger on sheer ice and shot off her wrist. No, no! She made a wild snatching grab—another wrong move that pulled her out of the fall line and did no good anyway. Hurtling down the slope, the pack tumbled end over end, following the natural lie of the funnel before sliding into the chute. There it picked up speed, dragging an avalanche of loose stones in its wake before bouncing out of sight.


She just had time to think, Oh shit. But that was all because she was off-balance, too, shifting on the mountain, swaying as her boots skidded and slipped on loose rock. With a wild shriek, she threw herself into the slope, her scrabbling fingers sliding over rock. Sharp stone sliced her fingers, cut into her palms. She thumped heavily to her butt, left leg crimped, nearly horizontal, like the blade of a jackknife she couldn’t quite close. Her knee bellowed with sudden pain, but she stopped falling.

A scream. Alex’s eyes jerked up in time to see Ellie’s left boot kick up and away from the mountain, an exaggerated slapstick version of slipping on a banana peel. Still screaming, Ellie tumbled onto her side, sliding directly for the chute.

“Ellie!” Alex shouted. “Roll over, Ellie! Roll onto your stomach, roll over!” She thought the girl tried; saw the girl’s parka bunched in pink pillows as friction drove the material up the girl’s chest. Ellie slowed, but she did not stop.

Move, move, move! Alex’s boots slid over loose rock as she sidestepped to her right. The chute was forty, fifty feet farther on, but there was a scrub pine corkscrewing out of the mountain only twenty feet away; she could grab that. Ellie would have to slide past before she reached the chute, and if Alex got there in time …

A slurry of dirt and scree skittered down the slope, breaking over Alex’s head. She heard the rattle of more rocks as they slalomed into the funnel; saw a spray of them slam and then pinball against bigger rocks and into thin air. Ellie was turtled on her back now, arms nearly vertical as the pack rode up the girl’s shoulders.

Kicking the toes of her boots into the mountain, Alex dug in with her knees, then hooked on to the pine with her left hand. Her hand screamed as the bark’s scales knifed into her already bloodied palm. “Ellie!” she shouted. “Over here! Give me your hand, give me your hand!”

She surged for the girl, and then Ellie’s hand clamped around her wrist. There was a mighty jerk that nearly tore Alex’s shoulder out of its socket, and would’ve pulled her off and sent them both crashing toward the chute if the slope had been any steeper.

Ellie slid, slowed … and stopped falling.

Gulping, Alex closed her eyes. Over the boom of her heart, she heard Ellie crying and shouting: “I told you this was a stupid idea!”

In a little under two minutes, she’d saved a kid who hated her guts and, in the process, lost her pack, her gear, her parka, her food.

And, oh, yes, some maniac was shooting out there.

They were so completely screwed.


Four power bars.

Five packets of instant Jell-O: two lime, one orange, one lemon, one cherry.

A space blanket.

A small brown bottle of ancient iodine tablets.

One bottle of water. Her car keys with a working mini-flashlight. A spare magazine of 9mm bullets for the Glock.

An airline travel pack that contained a sliver of soap, a folding toothbrush, and a teeny, tiny tube of toothpaste she must’ve squirreled away after a flight somewhere.

In the Altoids tin she always carried in her fanny pack, she hit real pay dirt: fishing line and weights, a cable saw, waterproof matches, a couple Band-Aids, two small X-Acto blades, a couple safety pins, a tiny baggy of cotton balls, a mini-tube of Vaseline, and four foil packets of alcohol wipes. A miniature compass.


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