were just . . .

“There!” Jayden cried as the little girl’s head ruptured through the

surface not six feet from the Changed. “Take it, Chris, take it!” “Ellie!” Chris shouted, hoping she heard and understood. “Don’t

move!”

The crack of the shot. The kick against his shoulder. A sudden red

mist ballooned above the Changed’s shoulders, and then the headless

body listed left and floated, buoyed by a bubble of air trapped under

the dead kid’s parka.

“Ellie!” Jayden was clutching a coil of rope he’d knotted to his

packhorse’s saddle. “Swim this way! Can you swim?”

“I don’t think she can do it,” Chris said. At the sound of her name, Ellie had turned an almost listless circle. She wore the shocked expression of the lone survivor of a car crash. Ten feet beyond her was Mina, who looked just as spent. She won’t make it. Stripping out of Jayden’s parka, he sucked air against a slap of cold on his bare chest, then dropped to the ice and began working the laces of his

boots. “I’m going after her.”

“Are you crazy?” Jayden clutched his shoulder. “You’ll drown, too.” “No, I won’t,” he said, stripping off his boots. But people his age

did die; he’d read about a fifteen-year-old kid who’d fallen through

ice and had a heart attack from the shock. “Even in freezing water, it

takes a little while, and I won’t be in that long. You’ve got the rope,

you’ve got the horse.” Peeling off his socks, he scooped up the rope

and threw in a quick bowline knot. Ellie would be too frightened and

probably too weak to hold on, but if he could get the rope under her

arms . . . He stood, screwing up his face against the sting on his bare

feet. “All I have to do is get to her. Then you pull her in.” He would

try to grab the dog, too, or at least coax it to follow.

“All right.” Jayden’s jaw set. “Go. Hurry, Chris. Go go go!” Blowing out two quick breaths, Chris inhaled deep and long, then

plunged off the ice. The cold was much worse than he’d expected,

but he kept focused, kept moving. Surfacing, he blew out, sucked in

another breath, and started pulling for the girl.

“Ellie,” he panted. He was trying not to hyperventilate, reminding

himself that he would use up less energy if he stayed calm, took slow

breaths. But, oh my God, the burn . . . His bare chest was already numb.

Lightning shocks of pain lanced from his feet to his hips. “Ellie, I’m

right here,” he said. Those fifty feet never seemed so long, and he suddenly wondered just how much rope they had. God, we never checked.

Too late to think about that now. He watched water slop around her

chin and then her nose; saw how she didn’t flinch. Losing it. “Listen to me, Ellie,” he called. “Are you listening? Put your head

all the way back. Look at the sky, Ellie, look at the sky.”

il sa j . bick Her staring eyes rolled. They were glazed, and he wasn’t sure she knew who he was. Then her head lolled back, but in slow motion, as if she were truly at the end of her strength.

Almost there. “Good, good.” Turning to face the way he’d come, he paid out rope, praying that he didn’t run out. Jayden, he saw, had guided his horse a little closer. Can’t drop the rope either. The rope would sink, and once it was gone, it was gone. He could probably swim with her, but the cold was starting to get to him, too. To his left, the dog was paddling toward him now. Get the rope around Ellie, grab the dog, and then we all—

Then, suddenly, he was out of rope, and still short.

Shit. “Ellie.” Grabbing the loop with one hand, he swam until the rope was taut and actually out of the water, then stretched his dripping, freezing free hand. Six lousy inches . . . “Ellie, you have to come toward me. E-Ellie, honey, take my hand. C-come on, you can do it!”

He watched her arms move but only feebly. One limp hand broke the surface, flopping like a fish. “E-Ellie, t-try again,” he said, his teeth stuttering, his breath starting to come up short, the cold like iron cinching down around his ribs. So close. Thinking he really was going to have to let go of the rope, grab her, then swim for it. Do something and do it now.

Her hand came up in that same dreamy slow motion. This time, he lunged, hoping the sudden lurch wouldn’t send the packhorse into a panic. He felt the slap of her hand, icy and wooden. His own fingers, numbing fast, cramped around her wrist and reeled her in.

“Okay, good, you’re doing great,” he said. She was shivering so hard the water danced. He worked the rope over her head and under her shoulders. The dog was there now, too, nudging at his shoulder with its snout. “I see you, girl, hang on, hang on,” he said, unsure which girl he was talking to now. “Ellie,” he said, getting his face in hers, grabbing her hands and trying to bend her fingers to curve around the rope. “You have to hang on. I’ll help you, but I’ve got to help Mina, too. . . .”

That did something. He saw a tremor shiver over Ellie’s face, her head slowly turn, her shock-trauma eyes crawling past him. “Muhmuh-muh,” she stuttered.

“Right, it’s Mina. You have to help Mina.” Puffing now, treading more from memory, his feet numb and legs leaden. How long had he been in the water? Five minutes? He could only imagine how well her brain probably wasn’t working right now. But she recognizes the dog. Still holding her hands around the rope, he got his free arm under the dog’s chest. Please, Mina, don’t panic, don’t bite me. Chuffing, the dog let out a piteous whine and then stretched for Ellie, its tongue flicking out to try and lick her face.

“Muh-huh-huh,” Ellie gasped. He could see the white crescents as her eyes began to roll back into her skull. Her fingers were chalk. “Cuh-Cuh-Chrisss . . .”

“I’m h-here,” he stammered. Won’t let you go. He sucked in a breath and pushed it out in a shout: “Juh-Jayden, pull! Pull!”

87

“It should be me,” Ellie said, cradling Bella’s head in her lap. Despite the dance of orange light from a fire Jayden and Connor had started two hours ago, her face was drawn and ashen. Her eyes crawled from Jayden, who looked uncertain, to a tight-lipped Hannah, who only looked more furious by the second. “She’s my horse.”

“But there’s no need. Jayden can do this, or Connor,” Hannah said, and Chris thought she really was trying to keep a lid on it. Jayden had refused to go anywhere without warming Ellie first. Chilled to his marrow, Chris hadn’t argued. Stripping the girl out of her sodden clothes, they wrapped her in a saddle blanket and Jayden’s parka. Chris had accepted Jayden’s sweater and then waited, next to the fire, with Ellie cradled in his arms and the dog practically in his lap, too, while Jayden rode for help. He’d returned with clothing, thermoses of hot soup and tea—and a fuming Hannah.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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