Page 9


“Well, so what?” Ellie shouted. She stamped her foot. Her eyes blazed. “It was no big deal! It’s just a Bible and a couple of baggies. Why are you carrying around crap like that anyway?”


“It’s not crap.” Aunt Hannah’s Bible lay on the ground. The Bible wasn’t strictly part of the game plan but was sturdy enough to cushion the two, heavy-gauge plastic bags.


Ellie had teased out the letter as well. Alexandra Bethany was scrolled in funky purple ink across the envelope, and the paper smelled, very faintly, of lavender and spice. Alex had slid the letter into the Bible at random, not really with any particular passage in mind. She’d never been sold on the Bible as Ouija board, but somehow, the letter had found its way to Job: Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.


“Is that you?” Ellie asked.


Alex didn’t reply. Turning the envelope over in her hand, she saw that the back flap was intact. She slid the letter back to its place in Job and squared the Bible into the bottom of the case. Then she gingerly cupped the larger of the plastic bags in both hands. The bag was heavy, maybe eight pounds, and might easily split, but her careful eyes spotted no rips or tears. The contents were lumpy and gray and sifted in her hands like sand, and she almost allowed herself to think that it was only dust.


“Why,” asked Ellie, “are you carrying around dirt?”


13


“Are we going to stop soon?” When Alex didn’t reply, Ellie tried again. “It’s getting dark. Are we going to stop—”


“Yes,” Alex said. She did not turn around. They’d been walking steadily for what Alex judged had been about two hours, and in virtual silence. The sun was just skimming the trees immediately behind, and the light was fading as the afternoon began slipping into night. It had gotten even colder, the canopy of high, dense pines trapping the chill. A thick carpet of pine needles muffled their steps as effectively as heavy snow.


Ahead, she picked out a dilapidated trailmarker tacked to an oak, the sign listing to the left on a single rusted nail head:


MOSS KNOB 9.7 MI


FIRE MOUNTAIN 13.7 MI


LUNA LAKE 32 MI


Alex’s stomach cramped. Over thirty miles to the lake? That was farther than she’d estimated. If only she had her gear—and especially her maps—she might be able to figure out a shorter route.


Yeah, but you don’t, so stop driving yourself crazy. Just stay calm; you can deal with this.


Another arrow, canted at a forty-five-degree angle and pointing northwest, helpfully noted that in a little less than a quarter mile they could put up at the Spruce Valley campsite. Okay, that was good.


“Another fifteen minutes or so and we’ll hit the campsite,” Alex said. “We’ll stay there overnight.”


“Outside?”


“There might be a shelter.”


“But there’s no water; there’s, like, nothing.”


“There’ll be water. The map said there was a stream.”


“A stream? But … how will I go to the bathroom? We haven’t even got a tent. I don’t want to stay in the woods. It’s spooky in the woods.”


Had she ever been such a major pain in the ass when she was a kid? “Look, Ellie, this is the way it is. We sleep in the woods. We drink what we can purify. We share the food.” She paused a little—yeah, she was rubbing it in—and then went on. “If we’re very lucky, we’ll get to the rangers in a couple of days. Now this isn’t exactly my idea of fun either, but it’s what we’ve got. Whine all you want, but it won’t change anything, all right?”


“No, it’s not all right.” Again with the footstomping, only this time it was more like a thud because of the pine needles. If the kid had felt bad about, oh, stealing food, that had sure worn off fast. “I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to sleep in the woods. I don’t even have my sleeping bag.”


“I’ll show you how to make—”


“I want a bath. I want a shower. I want to wash my hair.”


“Ellie.” She had to clench her fists to keep from screaming. “You’re in the middle of the woods. You wouldn’t have had a shower anyway. If I had my gear, we could’ve washed—”


“But I smell him!” Ellie grabbed her hair in both hands. “I’ve got Grandpa all over me! I’ve got his bl-blood under my nails and in my h-hair …” She began to sob.


Alex’s anger evaporated. At that moment, she saw Ellie for what she was: bloodspattered, rumpled, exhausted. And very, very young. Of course Ellie was scared. In less than twelve hours, she’d lost her grandfather, left behind her dead father’s dog, nearly fallen off a mountain, and now was stuck with some stranger who was just about as scared as she was. Who’d gone ballistic over, yeah, a bunch of dirt and a letter from a dead woman.


“Hey, I’m really sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” Alex reached for the girl’s shoulder, meaning to give a reassuring squeeze. “We’ll figure out some way to—”


“No!” Ellie ducked away. “Don’t touch me! I hate you! Just leave me alone!”


“Ellie,” Alex called, but the girl had turned and was thudding down the trail. Sighing, Alex trudged after. Ellie was headed in the right direction and wouldn’t go far. Just like a little kid who runs away and ends up sitting on the basement steps. Despite everything, her mouth moved in a grin. Hadn’t she once—


She pulled up suddenly, her nose wrinkling. Weird. That strange, charred smell was back, and stronger now, and strangely sweet. Perhaps it had been stronger for some time, but she’d been too preoccupied to notice, or had simply gotten used to the stink. Only now she sensed—smelled—something else. She dragged in a deep, full breath and then flinched at the slap of some horrible, almost alien odor.


Oh my God, what is that?


The stink was gutchurning: dead, stagnant, and gassy, like days-old roadkill stewing beneath an insanely hot sun. The reek was so strong it pillowed and balled in her mouth. She spat, but the taste clung, furring her tongue.


Just ahead, she spotted Ellie’s pink parka crouching behind a very thick snarl of underbrush. She very nearly called out, but one look at Ellie and the words jammed behind her teeth at the same moment she realized something else.


She could smell Ellie again, and over a distance of, what, twenty yards? Thirty? The smell was strong, too—not enough to overpower that roadkill stink, but it was the same complex aroma she’d smelled once before, on the mountain: a reek of curdled milk and sour breath.


Fear. Ellie was scared. No, Ellie was terrified. The air was a welter of odors: Ellie’s fear, that charry, sweet stench; her own peculiar perfume of sweat and anxiety; and that dead-meat stink that billowed through the woods like ashy, gray smoke.


Ellie did not look around. She’d clapped her hands over her mouth, and her eyes bulged as she stared at something beyond a dense veil of branches.


What was Ellie looking at? Something told Alex she really didn’t want to know. The lizard part of her brain was screaming for her to run, run, run! But she couldn’t leave Ellie behind, not like this; that wouldn’t be right.


Slowly, carefully, Alex dropped to her knees, the cold earth biting through her hiking pants. Ellie didn’t move a muscle. Wordlessly, Alex followed the girl’s horrified gaze—and then her blood turned to slush.


No, she thought. No, please, God, I’m not seeing this.


14


The tent had burned and melted at the same time. What was left clung in cold, hard, black ash clots to scorched aluminum poles, like petrified meat on the fossilized ribs of a prehistoric dinosaur. An overturned cookpot vomited a coagulated brown spew that had slopped over the stones ringing the fire pit and seeped into the dirt. A murder of crows hopped around a scatter of their fallen kind, and as Alex watched, one leaned over, stabbed with a very black beak at a dead woodpecker, and came up with something blue and stringy that it tossed back into its maw with a snap.


Next to the cold fire pit were two people: a girl and a boy. The girl was blonde and wore a powder-blue sweatshirt with the words SOMERVILLE HIGH and a tennis racket stenciled in white.


Oh my God. She knew this girl. Where? Yes, when she’d stopped to gas up and call Aunt Hannah.


The girl was Ponytail Blonde.


She didn’t recognize the boy, although he’d probably been on the same bus. He was reedy, mostly legs with a platform for a head. His sweatshirt, also light blue with the same lettering, featured a basketball.


In another life, they might have been a couple, having a picnic.


Except these kids weren’t munching sandwiches.


There was also a woman, a grandmotherly sort who lay flat on the ground, head thrown back, mouth unhinged. A pair of eyeglasses on a keeper chain dragged in the dirt. Judging from the dried rills of blood on her right cheek, that eye was gone.


So was her throat.


The skin was ripped, the knobby tube of her windpipe slopping out like a fleshy tapeworm. The blood—and there had been a lot of it—had dried to rust in a wide bib over the woman’s chest. From the way her hands were clawed, Alex thought she’d been clutching her belly when she died. Hadn’t done the woman any good either, judging from the way her guts boiled out in a dusky, desiccated tangle, like limp spaghetti.


The boy and girl were eating. Stuffing their faces, actually. Splashes of blood smeared their mouths and dripped over their chins like runny clown’s makeup. With a grunt, the boy plunged his fist into the woman’s abdomen and rooted around before coming back up with a drippy fistful of something liverish and soft enough that Alex could hear the squelch as the meaty thing oozed between his fists.


Oh. My. God. Alex felt the low moan begin in her chest and clapped a hand to her mouth to stopper it back up. Her vision bloomed with black roses, and she felt her head going a little swimmy.


Squealing, Ponytail Blonde made a grab for her companion’s tasty treat, but Basketball Boy let out a warning grunt and batted her hands away. Pouting—yes, Alex thought crazily, she’s pissed—Ponytail Blonde tossed her head hard enough to make her filthy hair dance. Then, turning away from the boy, the girl jabbed with two stiff fingers and gouged out the woman’s left eye. She gave the slick, bloody globe a triumphant wave, as if taunting her basketball-playing boyfriend, but he paid no attention and kept chowing down on whatever it was he’d pulled out. With another toss of her head, Ponytail Blonde popped the eye into her mouth like a grape.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***