“Problem here?” The boy, about Jayden’s age, had dark curly hair, kind of like Tom’s, which was wavy and thick. Ellie thought he even looked a bit like Tom, and then saw why in this boy’s eyes, which were smudged with purple and . . . sad. Like Tom’s, even when he said he was happy to see her. Ellie knew why, too: Tom hurt, all the time, because of Alex. Ellie only wished she knew how to make that better. Maybe if I love him enough, hug him enough . . .

“We’re fine, Greg,” Lucian said, his tone like a boy with one eye on the playground monitor and the other on the kid whose butt he wanted to kick.

“Yeah, I guess that’s why the wagon’s stopped,” Greg said in an unimpressed uh-huh way that made Ellie bite her cheek to keep back the snicker. He cut the girl a look. “Sarah?”

“I said we got this.” Heaving to his feet, Lucian stepped onto the flatbed, brushing past feathery branches to wade through dogs and kids. Towering over Ellie like a giant-killer, Lucian jabbed a finger into Greg’s chest. “This is my wagon. This kid’s got a gun, I want it, and you’re not in charge here, Greg-guh.”

“Calm down, Lucian.” Sarah looked like a whipped puppy. “Guys, look, let’s just settle this and get going, okay?”

“But it’s safetied, right? So what’s the harm?” Greg said.

“Yeah,” Ellie said. This Greg kid was okay. “If we get into trouble, we’ll need every gun we’ve got.”

“Oh, bullshit.” Lucian snorted. “We get into trouble, ain’t no little girl .22 gonna save our butts.”

“Fine,” Ellie shot back. “So if I’m not going to save your butt, you mind if I save mine?” That got everyone nudging elbows and whispering again. I don’t care; you’re not my friends. She glowered up at Lucian. “What’s your problem?”

“A very good question,” Greg said.

“Greg,” Lucian growled. “Don’t push me, man.”

“Or what? You going to kill me now? You had your shot,” Greg said.

“She should give it,” the white-haired girl suddenly piped in that lisping singsong every kid knew: Okay, but don’t blame me. She had to be, what, six? The girl clutched a Lalaloopsy doll with a spray of fuchsia curls. “My mommy said guns kill people.”

About half the kids gave solemn nods, but a trio of boys shrugged and one elfish, older kid with big ears said, “I don’t see what’s the big deal. I wish I had a gun.”

“Greg,” Sarah said, still with that nervous, whipped-puppy look. “This isn’t going to change what’s happened.”

“You weren’t locked in a cell, Sarah,” Greg said, but he was looking at Lucian. “You weren’t spit on and punched. You didn’t clean chunks of dead kid from a church floor, or shovel horse shit with your bare hands.”

Whoa. No wonder Chris left Rule. The way Greg and Lucian were eyeing each other, she had a terrible feeling that neither needed much of an excuse.

Her closet-voice: Don’t make trouble, Ellie.

“Fine. Look, I’m giving it.” Fuming, she watched Lucian shuck the round in the chamber, then work the bolt and empty the Savage’s magazine.

“There you go.” Lucian had this big nasty smirk all over his stupid face. Slipping her bullets into a pocket, he handed back the rifle. “We get where we’re going, you can have the bullets back. And Greg?” Lucian stomped for the driver’s box. “Thanks for your concern, man. Now f**k off.”

“Lucian,” Sarah said.

We are so not living on the same farm. Probably wouldn’t give back her bullets either. Turning, she reached out to touch Greg’s leg. “He’s kind of a jerk, huh?”

“Fucking heard that,” Lucian said.

“Yeah. Like . . . seriously,” Greg said, with a perfectly straight face.

She almost cracked up. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”

“You didn’t. Don’t worry about it,” Greg said, but didn’t smile. As Sarah snapped the reins and their wagon started up, he let them pull ahead. “See you later.”

Okay, so Greg seemed all right. But I still wish Tom was here, and Chris. I want to go home. Dragging an arm across her eyes, she slouched into her parka, digging her chin under the zipper until the collar was up around her nose, and glared down at her boots. I want my daddy and Grandpa Jack and Tom and Alex. The dogs had settled down, although Mina kept dropping her chin on Ellie’s lap. “Quit it,” she said, shoving the animal away. “I’m fine.”

“It’s really safer,” the white-haired girl said. “My mommy—”

“Yeah, well, your mom’s dead, and so is mine, so shut up.” As soon as the words dropped out, she cringed, and her closet-voice shouted, ELLIE!

“That wasn’t nice,” said the elfish boy.

“I know.” Pulling in a deep breath, she turned to the little girl. “Sorry. That was really mean.”

“Mmm-hmm.” The girl’s eyes were moist blue pools. Her lips, delicate as rose petals, quivered as she dropped her face into her doll’s crazy, silly hair.

Would she ever learn to keep her big mouth shut? Laying down the Savage, Ellie put an arm around the little kid’s heaving shoulders. To her astonishment, the tears she’d held back streamed over her cheeks, too. “Don’t cry. I just get mad sometimes.”

“I get mad all the time,” the elfish boy said.

“I miss my mommy.” The white-haired girl used her doll’s hair to wipe her eyes. “I keep waiting for things to get better, only they never do.”

“They will,” Ellie said, trying to jam in a whole bunch of ohwow she really didn’t feel. Grandpa Jack always said to look on the bright side, only everywhere Ellie turned, it was still dark, even in the middle of the day. Engage brain before tongue, her dad always said. “Remember how awful it was in the beginning, when everything went crazy?”

“It’s still bad now,” said one of the elbow-jab boys. His buddies nodded.

“Not where we’re going. We have cows and sheep, and there are lakes. Hannah knows about plants, and I catch lots of fish.”

“You fish?” The elfish boy looked impressed. “Can I come?”

Too late, she remembered Eli and Roc, still down there somewhere. Never fishing there again. But she said, “Sure.” All the kids were looking now, and smiling, like she’d brought in this great show-andtell. She gave the little girl a squeeze. “Really, things will be great—”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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