“Yes.” Mellie’s eyes were as testy as her voice. “And?”

“Do I need to spell this out? For God’s sake, Mellie, napalm? These are children. They can’t fight, and they certainly shouldn’t march off to war. There’s no reason to go to Rule.”

“Oh? I know you said to leave Alex out of this, but tell me, Tom, would you have had this sudden change of heart if Alex hadn’t been in the mine?”

“Yes. Wait . . . let me finish.” He was honest enough to know this would come, but it still sent a knife through his heart. “Of course, I’d go to Rule. Nothing would stop me.”

“So now that there’s nothing you stand to gain . . .”

“I said I would go. Getting Alex out would be my fight.”

“Really. You were happy enough for Luke to go with you, and Weller.”

Tom opened his mouth, then closed it. Happy was the wrong word. But she was right.

“Uh-huh.” Mellie nodded when he remained silent. “Don’t pretend you’re more noble or any better. Think about how you used Luke, risked his life for your gain—and then tell me I’m so much worse. There is only one person you truly care about, Tom, and she’s dead. So get over it, Tom, or get out.”

“Mellie!” Weller said. “Let’s all just calm down, all right?”

“Oh, shut up, Weller.” She rounded on him. “I’m tired of you taking his side. Look at him. He’s unpredictable and dangerous. He’s not fit to be around these children.”

“I . . . I know I’ve had a few . . .” Tom stopped again. What was he going to say?

“Yes, a fe w. Go.” She made a shooing motion. “Get out of here. Take your little ride to the church, escort Chad and Cindi, go play soldier, do something useful, but both of you, get out of my sight. Oh, and Tom? I’ll thank you to return my explosives.”

That was the moment his forefinger twitched and he imagined his bullet drilling her eye and fragging her skull—red mist, pink brain— and for him, how sweet the sound.

“Under the horse trough,” he heard himself say. “Take it all. I never want to see or make another bomb as long as I live.”

Then he got out of there, fast, afraid that he might just prove how dangerous he could be.

“She’s right.” Tom gave Weller a weary look. “Who am I to tell these kids anything?” “You’re human. But she did rip you a new one. Don’t understand what got into her.” Weller shook his head. “Stressed out like the rest of us, I guess. So what’d you have in mind?”

“I’ve said it: forget about Rule.” To his left, the Lutheran church’s bell tower rose from a far knoll hemmed by evergreens. Through gaps in the trees, Tom thought he saw Chad and Cindi’s horses tethered to a bicycle rack. But were they lying down? He wished he hadn’t left his binos back at camp. In another few feet, the trees closed in again. He looked at Weller. “This isn’t a novel or movie where they can move from town to town and scavenge. Eventually, everything will run out. Take Jasper: he’s smart enough to make thermite, but he’s got no idea how to farm, hunt, keep himself warm, build a house that won’t fall down. We have to help these kids create a life.”

Wouldn’t that also mean giving up on Alex? If he meant what he said, he would have to let go of the idea of searching for her. He didn’t want to. Caring for these kids didn’t come close to easing the ache. But Luke had come to him. Cindi had skied out to this church every day to be with him. He couldn’t let them down. And, yes, he was still afraid of going to Rule. Of what he might do if he ever met Chris Prentiss face-to-face.

“Can’t argue that,” Weller said. “You have an idea where?” “Yes.” Jed’s cabin, a stone’s throw from Michipicoten Island, was a place Tom always imagined taking Alex. Thirty kids made that a nonstarter. Forget an island’s limited resources; simply getting them all there would be a feat. He liked the idea of a large island, though. “We go west or north, and stay far away from Rule.”

“Not much north, except the Waucamaw,” Weller said, still staring straight ahead.

“There’s Oren and an Amish settlement west of that. They’re farmers, right? Arable land is exactly what we need.”

“Finding seed will be tough,” Weller said. “Trying to grow enough to feed all those kids, figuring out how to preserve it for winter—”

“Will be hard,” Tom said. “I understand that. But we have to do it sometime, and that might as well be now. The growing season up here is short. The longer we wait, the more difficult this will become, and before we know it, it’ll be winter again. For all we know, there’s still livestock to be found, and horses. We have to get to those animals before they die, too, or get so wild we’ll never chase them down.”

Weller’s hand snuck to his mouth, a gesture Tom always associated with a man mentally rehearsing what to say next. “Maybe,” Weller said. “But Amish . . . if there are any left alive, they tend to keep to themselves. Don’t want outsiders—” Frowning, the old man abruptly straightened in his saddle and craned. “Tom . . . you get a good look at that horse? Up there by the church?”

Tom switched his gaze from Weller to the near bend in the road and the church, on its bald knob, just now coming into view. They were still a quarter mile away, but from this approach he could see a wedge of snow to the rear beneath which must lie a parking lot. In front, the snow was broken from horses, skis, and boots. The bike rack, where he’d seen the horses, was to the right of stone steps, and only just visible.

As was the single horse, on its side, in a bowl of shadow. Even then, it was on the tip of his tongue to observe that horses could lie so still it was easy to think they were dead.

But then, Tom saw the blood.


“So what’d you think?” Already a total spaz, Jasper was practically vibrating. Jiggling free an aluminum bowl from clamps suspended above a bucket of sand, he put the bowl to his eye. “Pretty cool, huh?”

“Mmm.” Luke spared a glance at the blue button of Jasper’s eye peering through the bottom. Never having seen thermite in action, he was startled at how high that shower of sparks leapt, a good five feet. The pillar of fire was even higher and so bright he’d shielded his eyes.

But where was Tom? Earlier, there’d been no mistaking Tom’s dark look, or his anger. What surprised Luke was when, instead of staying and stopping this craziness, Tom wheeled away, really fast, then streaked off on his horse in the general direction of the church, with Weller a few minutes behind. Now, an hour later, still no Tom, no Weller.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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