Chapter Thirty-Eight

BLOOD-SOAKED AND PANTING HARD, Ellis sits in the diagonally opposite corner of the van and watches me. What has she become? Does she even remember who I am? She hasn't tried to kill me. She'd have attacked if she thought I was a threat.

"We have to go, Ellis. We have to get away from here. It's not safe. People are going to try to kill everyone here. Do you understand?"

No reaction. No time to wait for an answer. I take her rainbow-colored sweater out of my backpack and edge closer to her.

"Put this on. Keep you warm."

I reach up to put it over her head. She swipes it out of my hands. I pick it up and try again, but she's not having any of it, and I drop it. She hisses at me and pushes herself farther into the corner. Poor kid, it's hard seeing her like this. I'd naively expected her not to have changed much. Maybe I'd just been trying to convince myself she wouldn't be like the kids we found at her school. She'll be better now that we're together.

"Come on, we're going," I tell her, forcing myself to move. I grab the knife and flashlight in one hand and Ellis's wrist with the other and drag her out of the back of the van. We hit the ground, and she immediately tries to pull away from me, but I won't let go. I drop the flashlight, shove the knife into my belt, and lean back into the van again. With outstretched fingers I reach the long length of cord they'd used to tie her legs together. It's wet with Lizzie's blood. Ellis keeps pulling against me, her strength and persistence hard to control, but I manage to keep hold and pull her closer. I tie one end of the cord around my waist and the other around hers like a leash. Christ, there's hardly any meat on her at all. The chubby puppy fat I remember around her belly has gone. She's lean and sinewy now-just skin, muscle, and bone.

"In case we get separated, okay?"

Still no reaction.

"Ellis, can you hear me?"

She looks into my face but doesn't respond. Now that she's attached to me I let her go, and she immediately darts away, almost dragging me over when the cord pulls tight. I try to haul her back, but she's fighting against me constantly.

"Stop! Ellis, sweetheart, it's Daddy..."

I'm struggling to keep my footing. In the brief lightning flash of an explosion outside, I see that she's trying to undo the cord. I run toward her and scoop her up into my arms again. She kicks and squirms to get free.

"Calm down," I whisper, my mouth next to her ear. "Please, Ellis, just stop..."

My words have no effect. Got to get out of this garage. Maybe she'll respond better if she can see me clearly and if she can see what's happening around us. Disoriented, I head the wrong way and find myself trying to get through the rubble at the collapsed front of the building. I double back on myself, past the open van and Lizzie's body, trying to retrace my steps back out. Someone shines a light in my face. I can't cover my eyes, so I instinctively screw them shut. I almost drop Ellis but manage to tighten my grip before she falls.

"Let her go," an immediately familiar voice orders.

"Julia? How did you...?"

"I followed you. We knew you were looking for your kid, and Craven showed me what you found on the system."

"But what about the plan? The fighting?"

"What about it? Have you seen what's happening out there? The chain reaction's started, McCoyne. They're turning on each other."

"So you've got what you wanted. The city's falling apart and-"

"I can't let you take her. Kids like this are the future. We need them more than you can imagine-"

"She's staying with me."

"You don't understand. Sahota and Preston both-"

"No, you don't understand. Ellis is my daughter, and I'm responsible for-"

"Your only responsibility is to this war."

"But I'll take her back to the others. I promised Preston I'd-"

"Do you think I'm stupid? If I let you go you'd disappear and we'd never see either of you again. I can't take that risk. She's coming with me, and you should be proud to let her go. We'll take her, and she'll help us hunt more of them down until the last one's dead. Your kid's already more of a fighter than you'll ever be, and you should-"

"She's my little girl. I don't want her to fight."

"You dumb bastard, do you think you have a choice? Just let her go."

I don't answer. I run forward, trying to find a way past. Julia comes at me, and I drop Ellis to defend myself. Another flash of the light blinds me for an instant, and the sudden tightening of the cord as Ellis darts away pulls me off balance. Julia swings a punch and catches me on the side of the head. I'm knocked back and sent reeling by the unexpected angle of her attack. I trip over something hard and heavy in the dark behind me and find myself on my knees in some kind of oily inspection pit. I feel the cord tighten again, and I immediately grab it and try to pull Ellis back. It gets even tighter, then goes taut, then drops down loose as Julia cuts through it.

"Ellis!" I shout as I scramble out of the pit. Julia drops her flashlight, and for a split second I catch a fleeting glimpse of her shape as she sprints through the office and back outside, barely managing to drag Ellis behind her. I chase after them, over the land at the back of the garage, through the wooden gate, then out along the cobbled passageway. It's packed with people, far more than before, all of them running to escape the carnage that is steadily consuming the center of town. Can't see Julia-she's just one among hundreds now.

I follow the stumbling crowd until we reach the end of the passageway. I look in all directions and shout for Ellis, but my calls go unanswered, most probably unheard. Too many people. I start to wade through them, unable to see anything through the waves of foul, barely human flesh that constantly crash into me. I grab the knife from my belt and start hacking into those nearest to me, not interested in killing, just wanting them out of the way. The sun's almost up now, but the light's still poor. Dirty smoke drifts everywhere like horror film fog.

Someone grabs me from behind. I spin around to defend myself, but they're not attacking, just trying to get through. I'm on my back in the gutter in a puddle of rancid rainwater before I know what's happening. My wrist cracks against a curb, and I drop the knife. I reach out for it, but it's kicked away by one of the stampeding crowd. Before I can get up someone plants a boot right in the center of my chest. Suddenly struggling to breathe, I roll over and manage to crawl away through the forest of legs. Other Unchanged trip and stumble over and around me, but I force myself to keep moving until I reach the side of the street where their numbers are fewer. I'm next to a badly decayed body in a deserted shop doorway when my hand rests on a length of metal tubing about a yard long. It looks like it was a fence post or part of a road sign, but it'll make a decent weapon. I use it to help me get up, then head back into the crowd again, swinging it around like a samurai sword. On a vicious, upward arc, the jagged end of the tube hits an Unchanged woman on the side of the head, tearing her flesh from below her ear up to the corner of her eye. I swing the tube again and more of them go down like I'm cutting down crops, scything a path through the chaos.

There's an overturned wreck of a car in the middle of the street. The crowd splits to go around either side of it, but I climb onto it. The burned-out skeleton of the car is precariously balanced on its roof, and it quivers and vibrates with my every move. Another helicopter flies overhead, and I instinctively duck and turn around to watch it disappear, looking back toward town.

Then I see her.

I'm surrounded by a sea of heads, but back in the direction from which I've just come, there's a break in the crowd-a small, unexpected bubble of space. I struggle to see through the smoky haze and constant, uncoordinated activity, but then I glimpse a flash of remarkably fast movement. It's Ellis. Finally free and unrestricted, she's killing at an incredible rate. I can see her leaping from victim to victim with ferocious speed and intent, using nothing but her hands and teeth to kill. She wraps herself around each one of them, does enough damage to fatally wound them, then gets up and attacks her next victim before the last one's dead. Even after everything I've seen, my daughter's ruthless, savage brutality is incredible. Awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure.

There's Julia. I steady myself as the overturned car rocks again, then watch as she chases after Ellis. Holding on to what's left of the cord with one hand, she chops at the Unchanged around her with what looks like a meat cleaver held in the other. She's struggling. Ellis is too strong and too fast for her.

I swing the metal pipe out over the side of the car like a golf club, taking out several more refugees and almost decapitating one of them. I jump down into the space where they were standing, then hold the tube out like a lance and run forward, shoulder dropped, toward where Julia and Ellis are fighting. I follow the trail of bodies, tripping over outstretched limbs and slipping in pools of blood and gore that Ellis has left in her wake. An unusually aggressive Unchanged comes at me with a machete. The downward sweep of the blade glances off my shoulder but does little damage, and I'm gone before he can take a second swipe.

Julia's dead ahead of me now, being virtually dragged along by Ellis as she's fighting. Yet another helicopter powers overhead, this one releasing a volley of screaming missiles into the crowd nearer to the center of town. I can feel the heat of the missiles as they scorch through the air above me, the shock wave from the explosions in the distance almost knocking me off my feet. Julia lifts her cleaver and chops it down into the pelvis of a slow-moving Unchanged man before the vibrations knock her off balance, too. She steadies herself and pulls back on Ellis's leash. The momentary delay is enough for me to catch her. I grab hold of her shoulder and spin her around.

"Let her go, Julia."

Distracted, she almost lets the cord slip through her fingers. She drops her weapon, snatches back the plastic-covered line with both hands, then tries to wrap it around her wrist. Her face is bruised, her right eye swollen purple and almost completely shut. Did Ellis do that to her?

"Help me with her," she demands.

"Help you?" I yell back, using the metal pole to shove an unsteady Unchanged out of the way. "Are you serious? Let her go-"

"We have to get her out of here. Help me!"

More missiles explode, vast swollen bulges of intense orange flames rising up from the area around the Prince Hotel, far too close for comfort. What choice do I have? I drop the pole and grab the cord, taking the strain from Julia. Together we begin to reel Ellis in. I catch a glimpse of her through the swarming crowds. We're dragging her back, but she's still fighting, still grabbing as many Unchanged as she can, sinking her teeth and claws into their skin, slashing and tearing at their flesh. She's just a yard away now, still pulling against us but unable to overcome our combined strength. Julia runs around from behind me and grabs Ellis by the waist, lifting her clean off the ground. Ellis drops the body of a young Unchanged kid midkill, then manages to squirm around in Julia's grip. I try to force myself between them and take my daughter from Julia, but Ellis unintentionally elbows me in the face, her bone catching me full force between the eyes. Blood begins pouring from my nose.

Julia staggers away, trying to keep hold of Ellis and at the same time deflect the constant barrage of kicks and punches coming from her. My girl is like a child possessed, fighting with a savage strength and intensity beyond her years. They disappear into the crowd again for a few heart-stopping seconds until, as I spit out blood from my broken nose, I catch sight of the clothesline on the ground. I drop down and grab hold of it, reeling Ellis in again. I find her sitting on top of Julia, her thumbs sunk deep into the woman's bloody eye sockets, repeatedly lifting her head up and then smashing the back of her skull down onto the asphalt. Julia thrashes her arms wildly, but there's no strength left in her, only movement. Ellis squeezes again and Julia stops suddenly, limbs falling heavy. Ellis lifts Julia's head, then slams it back down once more, then looks up and springs away. The cord whips out of my hands, burning my skin.

"Ellis!"

She leaps up at another Unchanged woman who's running toward her. The woman catches her with surprise and is then slammed back down onto the road, overcome by the unexpected force of the attack. Ellis kills her, then stands up and drags another one down, then another and another, and I'm transfixed until an Unchanged man slams into me from one side. I grab his collar, flip him over, and smash the sole of my boot into his face. The exhilaration is incredible. Suddenly, now that I have Ellis with me, this is all that matters. Another one of them comes at me with a knife. I grab his hand, twist it around with such force that I hear his elbow pop and crack, then plunge the blade into his own chest. I pull the bloody weapon back out and then, without thinking, grab a handful of hair from the head of another, yank it back, and draw the knife quickly across its exposed neck, feeling it slice easily through flesh. Beside me Ellis launches herself at a kid just a little older than she is. The kid fights back, almost getting away, before Ellis forces it over to the side of the road and smashes its head through a low window.

And this, I realize as I kill again and again without resistance, is what I'd always said I'd wanted. I'm fighting freely, without restriction or fear, and Ellis is by my side, doing the same. Except she's not here. I've lost sight of her again. I shout her name, but the chaos around me now is all-consuming. The helicopter circles overhead again, and the panicking crowd pushes me back farther. I try to carve my way through them, but getting through these people is like trying to swim against the strongest current imaginable. Through a momentary gap I see Ellis racing away, moving diagonally across the street, jumping from body to body, from kill to kill, slithering through the crowd. She jumps up onto the back of one unsuspecting man, snaps his neck, then leaps over to her next victim before the first corpse has fallen. Then she's gone again. Lost in the midst of the madness.

What has she become? She's a savage, feral monster, a million miles removed from the Ellis I knew and remembered, but she's still my daughter. Seeing her like this is heartbreakingly sad, but, at the same time, there's a part of me that's incredibly proud of what she is now and how bravely and strongly she's fighting.

Got to get to her.

I'm struggling to keep going. I'm panting with effort, legs heavy and lungs empty, barely able to keep moving, and yet the tide of Unchanged refugees coming toward me is endless. I try to force my way between them, but every time I take a step forward I'm pushed several steps back. Got to keep moving. Can't stop now...

The roar of another missile fills the air. It hits the side of a building less than a hundred yards ahead, puncturing a hole in the wall, then exploding outward, showering the entire street with debris. When the explosion fades, everything becomes silent and still. I stand motionless as the last few refugees to have escaped the blast continue to push past me. I slowly move closer to the blast zone as the sound gradually begins to return-the screams and moans of the injured and dying, a single car alarm that's somehow still working, the crackle and pop of flames, the hiss of fractured pipes...

Can't see Ellis.

I stand alone at the edge of a massive expanse of rubble and fallen bodies. Around me, a few people begin to move again, crawling through the debris, slowly picking themselves up and staggering on. I walk deeper into the madness, slowly at first, then starting to run. I trip and slide over the remains of people under my feet.

Where is she?

I run faster, barely managing to stay upright in the midst of the carnage. The closer I get to the epicenter, the fewer complete bodies there are. I look down and all I can see now is dismembered limbs and other, less recognizable chunks of bloody meat. I can't move, can't think straight, the stench of smoke and burning flesh filling my bleeding nostrils. Can't focus. I can hardly breathe. Have I lost her? Against all the odds, Lizzie kept Ellis safe for weeks on end. Just minutes with me and she's gone.

Can't give up.

There are more people moving all around me now, some of them disentangling themselves from the bloody wreckage, others continuing to flood forward from the center of town, picking their way through the gruesome ruins, the explosion just delaying their escape temporarily. I slowly cross what's left of the street, trying to see through the smoke and haze and line myself up with the buildings close to where I last thought I saw her. As I get nearer I drop to my knees and start to crawl through the bloody mire, pushing away the grabbing hands that reach up at me, desperate for help. My knee sinks down into the open chest cavity of a young Unchanged man, physically forcing his last breath from his lungs. Another one of them catches hold of my coat, and I pry its surprisingly strong fingers away when I see a small, child-sized hand sticking out from under two heavy cadavers. I drag the corpses out of the way, desperate to dig Ellis out from beneath them. She's facedown on the asphalt, a pool of deep red, almost black blood spilling out around her head. I put my hands under her shoulders, pull her out, and turn her over, but it's not her. Thank God. I drop the body and keep moving.

There are Unchanged moving all around me again now. Most are injured; all are terrified. I increase my speed, determined to find Ellis, literally throwing wet chunks of human remains over my shoulder as I look for any sign of her. Then I see it-the severed end of the plastic clothesline. As more munitions explode around me, showering me with dust and dirt, I pick up the end of the cord and follow it back, terrified at the thought of what I might find at the other end. I catch sight of a bare ankle that's smaller and thinner than the rest. I haul another blood-soaked body out of the way and shove it to one side, jumping with surprise when it opens its eyes and screams in pain and grabs hold of me. Underneath another corpse I see Ellis's shock of untidy brown hair. I push and pull more bodies away until she lies there in front of me, completely uncovered. Her tiny, emaciated body doesn't move. I shake her shoulder, but there's still no response. I lean down until my ear's just a fraction of an inch from her mouth, but it's impossible to hear or feel anything. I grip her wrist in my hand and check for a pulse, but there's nothing. I turn her over and pull her up and hold her in my arms. She looks like she's sleeping, and for the first time since I found her she looks like my Ellis again, like the precious little kid I used to tuck into bed at night and fetch breakfast for in the morning, the noisy little brat who made my life hell but who I loved more than anything else in the world. Bruised, blood-soaked, and beautiful.

I check her neck for a pulse again, not even sure if I'm doing it right. Did I just feel something? I pry her eyelids open. Her pupils are wide, fully dilated, but she doesn't react to the light. I hold her close, her head next to mine, and for a second I think I hear something. I concentrate on Ellis, shutting out everything else, and then I hear it again. The faintest whisper of a shallow, rasping breath. She's alive. Got to get her out of here.

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