So what if Finn was doing that? “Like an out-of-body thing. A signal leapfrogging from mind to mind. Only it can’t be a straight line. Too inefficient.” And wouldn’t the signal decay? She thought that was right; depending on the frequency, a radio signal could peter out fast, and hadn’t cell towers worked the same way? Unless you boost the signals somehow. So how did Finn work around that? She thought about how the push-push go-go got stronger when Finn was closer. Like roaming, or Wi-Fi. The monster got part of it, like a cell phone getting only a bar or two instead of four or five. And then what had happened? The monster tried looping her in, on its own?

“Or maybe the monster couldn’t help it.” She said this slowly, testing each word. “Unless you disabled a computer’s Wi-Fi, it would automatically search for a connection, a network, something to grab.” With the exception of Wolf, for whom the monster seemed to have a special affinity, every time she’d leapfrogged into a Changed’s mind was on the basis of both proximity and the strength of an emotion: lust, hunger. Rage. “But the monster can’t always be receptive, because it doesn’t happen all the time. I never really know what’s going on; it’s like being in a French class when all you speak is Russian. You hear sounds, but that’s not the same as knowing what they mean—and I don’t hear anything anyway. Whatever I figure out is from the scent.”

Because it’s not the right kind of signal, nothing to snag the monster’s interest? Like lunch in the cafeteria . . . there’s always the buzz of conversation, but unless you make an effort you don’t pay attention, because you’re either not interested or you’re focused on something else: finding your friends, for example, or someone’s called your name from across the room. The rest of the time, you don’t hear anything, really, even though you register the noise.

So, a regular conversation between Changed wasn’t strong or interesting enough to goose the monster? Even when she did hop— that time she’d dropped behind Spider’s eyes, for example, way back at the lake house after Spider had killed poor little Jack—it wasn’t like eavesdropping. She was never pulled into a wider conversation. Because I really don’t understand the language? Or maybe . . .

“There’s some other piece I’m not seeing.” She also had this really crummy feeling that she had to experience the mind-jump a couple more times before she figured it out. If she followed Finn, she’d be asking for trouble, because if she was right about proximity and the monster was receptive, getting closer to Finn and his weird, altered Changed would increase the chances of her being detected or pulled in, or losing herself in the red storm.

“And Finn sensed the monster. He felt my edges.” Which was also different. Wolf and Spider, Leopard, Acne . . . none showed any awareness of her or the monster at all. But Finn had. How could he do that?

“Hell if I know, and I’m not going to figure it out tonight.” Her head ached, and she needed sleep. Clicking off the headlamp, she settled down next to the wolfdog, which groaned and put its chin on her belly. “I like you, too. If we ever see my dog again, you can’t eat him, okay?” She stroked the animal’s ears. “Should give you a name.”

A name. She thought about that. Finn wanted my name. He asked twice. Why?

“Something important about a name . . .” She scrubbed the wolfdog’s chin. “So how do you feel about Buck? Great book, and you fit. Me, too. We’re both halfwild now, aren’t we, boy?” That made her think of Peter’s paperbacks. She should take a few. Long walk ahead, but that was all right. She needed time to think about what to do.

Still fidgety, she rolled onto her side and heard the crinkle of that Almond Joy wrapper in the pocket where she’d stowed the candy. So tempting to eat the other half. But she should hold off, maybe wait for a real celebration.

She let go of a very long sigh. “Because, sometimes,” she said to Buck, “you just feel like a nut.”




“Tom!” Weller, far behind on his grullo and barely audible over the thunder of hooves. “Wait, Tom, wait up!” No, he couldn’t wait, wouldn’t stop, not just yet, maybe not ever. Go go go. His head was the size of the sky, the panic in his chest a claw. Get out, get out, cut the wire, go! Tom kicked his horse again. Felt the mare dig even deeper. The world streamed: snow and choking red funnel clouds from rotor wash; evergreens and the thump-thumpthump of helos; fingers of oaks scratching blue sky; body parts falling to earth in a ghastly rain; and that dead dog, careful, careful, they put bombs in everything, in dogs, in trash, in dead kids, and go go go.

If he’d stayed one more second, he might’ve put a bullet through Mellie’s head. That he imagined what her head would look and sound like if he did frightened him even more.

Can’t let it get me. He swept past a stack of burning tires; bloated dogs bobbing in sewage; a pile of rubbish, and that bottle that might not hold water at all; rubble where, five seconds ago, there’d been a house with children and laundry snapping on a line. Can’t let it take over. Past a phalanx of screeching, wailing women, shut up, shut up, shut up—and Jim: Jim, in the Waucamaw; Jim, bellowing, charging . . .

“Tom!” Weller bawled. “Hold up before you lame or kill that poor horse, goddamn it!”

Of course, Weller was right. This was a bad move, stupid. A single, powerful jab through the diminished hard pack into a tangle of branches or rocks would cripple the mare. He’d have to put it down—shoot it like Jim—over something he could’ve prevented.

“Ho, girl, ease down, ease down.” Hearing his own voice helped. He pulled left, enough to turn the mare’s head and break that gallop. Beneath him, he felt the horse’s chest strain for breath. Gobs of thick foam lathered its face to the poll. “Sorry, girl,” he said, patting the animal’s shuddering neck, feeling the thrum of blood under his own, still-healing flesh. He was panting, too, and couldn’t tell if that was only sweat on his cheeks. To his right, a Humvee wallowed at a near-ninety-degree angle, the driver’s arm only just visible in yellow canal water because body armor was that heavy. He looked away. “Ease up, girl. We’ll be okay.”

But only if you get control of yourself. Turning the mare, he watched as Weller slowed his own horse to a trot. Get it together, Tom, or you won’t be able to help anyone.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror