Not good.

“Yeah, it was all right,” he said to Jasper, who was dancing from foot to foot like he had to pee. “But unless you can slow it way down”—he wanted to add, without blowing your head off, but thought that would be lost on a nut like Jasper—“what do we need it for?”

“This is already fifteen seconds slower than the last batch.” Jasper sounded offended. “I ground the aluminum coarser and that slows the reaction. But I saw a TV show where this arsonist used stuff from fire extinguishers to slow down the reaction, and so I was thinking, you know, why not? Tom kind of said something about that, and I know he was working on it, only he did it in secret and he won’t show me what he did. But I think he figured out how to use . . . uhm . . .” Jasper screwed his lips to a rosebud in thought. “Ammonium phosphate. I think.”

“Great,” Luke said, with no enthusiasm at all. He pulled the bucket of sand from the concrete cistern cap. In the center was a large, gray, cow patty-like splotch of molten iron and aluminum slag still shimmering with heat. “Gas us all with ammonia. That’ll be just swell.”

“No, just phosphoric acid when the phosphorus combines with water. It won’t kill you, not right away. Anyway, it could work,” Jasper said. “It did on the show.”

What had his parents let this kid watch? “This is reality, Jasper,” Luke said, and turned to trudge toward the equipment shed. The going was much easier these days, what with the snowpack diminished, no more than six inches now, and a good foot less than it had been when they blew the mine. Now that they were into the middle of March, the first hints of spring sometimes came in sudden whiffs of sun-warmed air. The roofs of the buildings were showing. Breaking the ice over the horse troughs took only a hard kick.

After the demonstration, Mellie had stayed to enthuse before shooing the other kids back to their various chores: taking care of the horses, gathering wood for fires, slopping MREs into a pot for a communal supper. He looked for her now, sweeping his gaze left from the equipment shed, which sat at the base of the north slope and was the furthest of the outbuildings, to the cow barn where Mellie and Weller had set up their command post. They stockpiled their weapons there, too, Mellie or Weller doling out rifles from a locker to those kids on lookout or guard duty. Beyond the red rectangle of the barn was a hog shed where half the kids bunked. A little further on was a horse barn with a staved-in roof, though half the space was still serviceable. He could see people moving around, the fire flaring up in the center of the cow corral as kids fed it. A handful of yapping dogs raced and rolled on a near fan of land rising east to a knoll and then to pasture. As far as he could tell, Mellie wasn’t down with the kids.

Probably at the house. Up to me to talk to her, I guess. After Tom, he was the oldest. Just work up the nerve, that was all. Tell Mellie what a crummy idea this all was and how they ought to be thinking about spring coming, finding a home. What was the worst she could say?

At the shed, he set the bucket of sand down next to the roller door, then ducked in via the side door, with Jasper on his heels. Emptied of farm equipment, the shed instead was divided into workstations, long planks supported by sawhorses. Tom’s area was completely clear, all his equipment squirreled away somewhere only he knew. Jasper’s work area was littered with rolls of magnesium ribbon, bottles of aluminum powder, sulfur, potassium nitrate, glycerin, a large plastic tub of plaster of Paris. Nearby, another of Jasper’s buddies was experimenting with chunks of Styrofoam, gasoline, various soaps, sugar, and lighter fluid, trying to figure a way to make a suitably sticky version of napalm. Still another team was scoring old soda bottles with glass cutters for Molotov cocktails. The air smelled of chemical welds, gasoline, and old eggs.

What are we doing? They were developing weapons just to do it, Mellie setting them to various tasks like a guidance counselor slotting them into career paths. In a couple months, it would be spring. Would they still be living out of tents? Broken-down barns? How long did disasters go on?

“We need to find a home,” he said.

“Huh?” Jasper glanced up from his perusal of a slender red fire extinguisher. “What?”

“Nothing.” Tasting home hurt his mouth. His vision wavered, and he stood up suddenly, barking a knee against a sawhorse.

“You okay?” Jasper asked.

“Yeah.” Knee throbbing, he gimped to the door. “Don’t crack any of those fire extinguishers until I get back, okay?”

“I wouldn’t,” Jasper said, with the injured dignity of a kid eyeing a cookie jar. “What about potassium chloride? You know, Super-K extinguishers?”

“Wouldn’t the chloride turn into chlorine gas? Won’t that kill you pretty fast?”

He watched Jasper think about it. “Oh. Maybe.” Jasper made a face. “Shoot.”

“Yeah,” Luke said, turning to go. “Reality blows.”

He took his time slogging to the farmhouse, rehearsing what to say. Giving out grief had been his older sister’s specialty. By the time his parents got around to him, either she’d worn them out, or they didn’t much care. His mom once said that getting all worked up about kids was like worrying about dropped pacifiers: the first kid, you sterilized that sucker; the second kid, you wiped the Binky on your jeans. And by the third, you let the dog lick it.

That brought a grin. His mom always cracked him up. He should tell Cindi. She’d appreciate it. One thing Cindi was good at was telling stories, most of them about her mom. He liked listening, too, because she made it sound like a once-upon-a-time.

That’s what we should be doing . We should be swapping stories and toasting marshmallows. Like home. The thought pushed a lump into his throat. At the farmhouse steps, he tipped a look back. Three of the dogs were still roughhousing, although a fourth was pointed east, nosing the knoll, and yark-yark-yarking. Now that he was up higher, Luke could easily eyeball the fields beyond the horse barn and the lookouts, black specks on a distant knoll.

We need a home. He studied their tent city and the kids at their chores, the orange candle of that bonfire. A place to call our own. * * *

The farmhouse, a two-story with dormers, was quiet. The kitchen was empty, although a mug with the black and red tag of a teabag draped over the lip sat on the table, and a chair was pushed back. The air smelled of warm oranges. Maybe Mellie was sleeping? Uncertain now, he stood a moment, eyes on the ceiling, listening for footsteps. Nothing moved overhead. He knew that Weller slept on the ground level, but he had no idea if Mellie used the other back bedrooms.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror