“Ellie.” He rolled his head to look down. “She was frantic. It finally dawned on me that Weller told so many lies, what he said about you might be just one more.”

A brief smile flickered over Chris’s lips. “Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt.”

“You’re welcome.” Despite the weeks nurturing the monstrous blight in his soul, Tom liked this boy. In another time and place, they might be good friends. He felt a brush of sadness that, now, the chances were nil. He had so many questions, and no time. He wanted to ask about Alex: each memory, how she looked, what she said. He even thought he could take it if Chris and Alex . . . but did that matter now? Nothing could change how he felt about Alex, nothing, and he still had the miracle of Ellie, too: so sweet, a final gift.

Hang on to that. Everything that happened next would hinge on Chris, a boy he’d dreamt about so often and barely knew. Hold on to Ellie and Alex until the very last second.

“Kids are about ready,” Chris said. “We should go.”

“Yeah.” Showing the other boy a tight smile, Tom tore off a few strips of electrical tape and began strapping the alarm clock to the gray-white block he’d fashioned. Not a bad looker, if he did say so himself. Ought to kick-start a couple hearts. “Few more seconds.” “Okay.” Chris was quiet a moment. “You ever wonder who did it?”

“Did what? The EMPs?” He shook his head. “If this was a book or movie, there’d be some guy who’d explain it, give you all the answers. Tidy everything up, wrap it with a bow. We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter. This is like war, Chris. When the soldiers come marching in, all you care about is protecting your family. When you’re boots on the ground, all you think about is the mission and your buddies, your brothers. It’s not political. There’s no big picture. You don’t agonize over the morality. Everything narrows down to the essentials. Yeah, some days—the impossible days when no matter how careful you are, someone will die—you wonder what it’s all for. But in the end, there are your brothers, your people, and only that. You’re not looking to die, but you’ll sacrifice it all for them. I lost that for a while, too. When I went on leave, got stateside?” He paused, wondering if he really wanted to admit this, out loud, and then thought that, hell, in a few more hours, nothing he said now would matter. “I was on the fence, maybe a step away from never going back. Deserting. Had it all mapped out, too, how I would lay tracks in Michigan but then work my way over on the sly into Minnesota and then Canada. Big country, easy to get lost. But my best friend, Jim—we were on the same EOD team—I bet he knew something was up when I mentioned the Waucamaw. My family was in Maryland; there are plenty of nice places to camp there. So why was I going to the U.P.? I think that’s why Jim invited himself along: to remind me of my brothers, my people. But then . . . the world died and it just wasn’t an issue anymore.”

“Would you have gone back if nothing had happened?”

“I’ll never know, will I? I’d like to think that I would have. But then I found”—he swallowed back the lump—“found my people anyway. Found Alex and Ellie. For a little while, I got back what I’d lost. So, to hell with the rest, Chris. How this happened, who did it . . . all I care about, all that matters, is that Alex and Ellie helped me find myself again.”

Chris was silent a long moment. “It was the whistle, Tom,” he said, quietly.

“What?” For just a second, he’d been back in the Waucamaw: striding in with an armload of wood as Alex looked up with a smile that found its way into his chest. “What are you talking about?”

“Alex,” Chris said, shaking out the dregs before carefully twisting the cup back onto the thermos. “She ran because of the whistle.”

He remembered the high, impossible note that pierced his heart. “How do you know?”

Screwing on that cup seemed to take all Chris’s concentration. “Ellie told me. She gave the whistle to a boy we brought back from Oren. I think her idea was that if Alex and you were in Rule, Alex would put it together that Ellie was somewhere up there, and you guys would go get her. So if Alex had a whistle at the mine, she must’ve found hers on that boy. Too much of a coincidence otherwise, isn’t it? Alex left to go after Ellie. I got here too late, and the rest was just”—Chris tightened the cap—“lousy timing. Or good timing for Jess, I guess. If I’d gotten back sooner, I might’ve saved Alex. Knowing Jess, though, probably not. One way or the other, Jess was bound and determined that Alex should go, and then me, too.”

He didn’t know how he was supposed to feel. “Why are you telling me this?”

Chris’s violent red eyes met his. “It’s the end of the world, Tom. Rule is done. I don’t know if we have a tomorrow. So there’s one thing you need to get clear in your head. You found your people, and you never lost them. Alex left because she wasn’t sure she could count on me to help her. Knowing how I was back then, she’d have been right. But I don’t think she would’ve felt the same way about you, Tom,” Chris said. “Not then—or ever.”

Dawn was an hour away, more or less, as Chris walked the now empty hospice halls. All the terminal patients with whom he’d spent time were long dead. Illuminated only by moonlight, the halls were sultry with shadows. He slowed as he approached the only occupied room left. Through the open door came a light floral perfume, but the rest was silence. Hesitating a moment, he quietly rounded the corner and saw first the woman on the bed and then, belatedly, a figure huddled in a large bedside chair.

“Oh. I’m sorry,” he said, already beginning to back out. “I didn’t know—”

“No, no.” Between the soft upholstery and a blanket, his grandfather looked gnomish. His bald scalp gleamed in a splash of silver-green moonlight that cut his face into deep black wedges and taut skin over stark ridges of bone. “You’re not disturbing me. Leaving soon?”

“Yes. Sarah and Jayden are still settling the kids, but . . . soon,” Chris said.

“What about you?”

“I’m staying a while longer with Tom. We’ll leave together.” Although Chris had a very bad premonition he couldn’t put into words or quite shake: leaving wouldn’t be quite so simple.

“Well, come in,” Yeager said, beckoning. “You don’t need my permission.”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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