Tom must’ve sensed something. He was really good at that. Without her even asking, he bent and picked her up so she could wrap her legs around his middle and thread her arms around his neck and let him carry her to the edge, just the way her daddy used to when she was only a little kid.

Please, God. Gripping her cloth sack by the neck, Ellie buried her face in Tom’s shoulder. Please make it all right. Please make it better so we can be us again.

Chris went first. His cloth sack was heavier, and more than enough for each of them. Holding his fist over the water, Chris said, “I’m not sure what’s the right thing to say. It’s weird that I lived in Rule, but I don’t know the Bible much. Maybe because we were always reading the wrong parts, I don’t know. But I keep having this dream about . . .” Pausing, Chris cleared his throat. When he started up again, his voice quavered and Ellie saw the first tears rolling down his cheeks. “I keep dreaming about this mountain and a valley, and it’s beautiful, the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. But I think it’s beautiful in my dream only because you’re there, Peter. You did a lot . . . a lot that was wrong, really wrong, but I think you . . . you did it out of love. That doesn’t make it right . . . but I understand, a little better, about . . . about love. Because you did save me. You c-cared what happened to m-me. Nobody . . . nobody ever d-did that before. So I wish I could’ve s-saved you. Because I n-never got a ch-chance to tell you, I never s-said it . . .” Chris stopped again and used his arm to wipe his eyes. “I love you, Peter,” he said, lips trembling and the tears still coming—and his weren’t the only ones. “And I forgive you . . . and I hope you let me find you again, because I miss you . . . I m-miss . . .”

And then Chris couldn’t talk anymore. He was crying that hard. His fist relaxed and he let part of Peter go in a rain of gray dust and ashes that the breeze snatched and whirled and spun down to golden water. Then they all released Peter to the wind and the lake until he was gone.

For a little while, maybe just a few moments, Chris stood alone, with only an empty sack. It was Alex who went to Chris first, and all of a sudden, he was crying into her shoulder. For a second, it was just the two of them, swaying together, until Alex looked to her and Tom. Alex’s face was wet. In the sunset, her hair was red as the rocks. When Alex held out her hand, Ellie’s heart flopped in her chest.

This is good. She clung to Tom’s neck as he carried her over, limping a bit because his leg was still on the mend. The dogs bounced after, not only because they didn’t want to be left out, but whenever Alex went, they followed unless you made them mind. When they were close, Alex pulled Tom and her into the hug, too.

And this—Ellie slipped an arm around Chris’s neck, so she held them all—is better. This is Meg Murry, in the garden.

They stood in that embrace for a long time. No one pulled back until Chris was ready. So it took a while and that was fine. What was the rush? Even crying with Chris, Ellie never felt so warm, not even with a really good parka. Eventually, though, she did have to take her turn. Her sack wasn’t half so large, but that was all right. There was still plenty for everyone.

A week ago, the same night she asked Tom about Grandpa Jack, Ellie had said, “I don’t know what to say. It doesn’t have to be about God or anything, does it?”

“It can be whatever you want. You don’t have to say anything, honey, if you don’t want to.” Crouching, Tom chaffed her arms with his hands as if trying to help her get warm. Which was when she noticed she was shivering, and what was with that? “There are no rules. If there are words, say them. If not, if your heart’s too full, that’s okay, too.”

Now, with her right fist suspended over the water, and Tom’s hand in her left, she stood on her own two feet. Alex was to her right, very close, and she felt Chris move behind her, which was the perfect spot.

You can do this. This is for Eli and Roc, too. This is for everybody.

“I didn’t want you.” Her teeth snuck out to grab her lower lip, which had started to quake, but she couldn’t both chew her lip and talk, so she let go. Her eyes were blurry again, and she figured, crap, she was going to cry through this whole thing. “You weren’t my idea . . . and I . . . I was really m-mean to you for a l-long t-time. I was m-mean to ev-everybody, es-especially Grandpa J-Jack.” Her voice thinned and went squeaky high, and she kept having to snuffle. Behind, she heard Ghost whine and then felt his nose bump her butt. “And I’m really s-sorry about that. You turned out to be the b-best friend I ever . . . I ever h-had . . . and he was a good grandpa and you pro-protected me and made me feel better. M-mostly . . .”

She stopped. Her throat was all clogged up and she could barely see. It was like she was underwater. Oh boy, she just knew this was going to happen.

Just say it, Ellie. It was the closet-voice, the one that helped her save Chris; the one that might be made up of every person she had ever loved, and wasn’t it good that some of those people were still here? Say it fast, honey, and let this go.

“Ellie?” It was Tom, his voice very low, so gentle, and he said the exact right thing. Not you don’t have to go on, like she was a stupid little kid, but, “Whatever you say and however you say it will be the right thing.”

Listen to Tom, the closet-voice said. Smart guy.

She sucked in a fast breath. “Mostly, I was mad at my daddy.” Ellie said it quick, pushed it right out, and all of a sudden she wasn’t crying anymore. For a split second, it felt the same as emerging from the trail to this space of open sky and gold lava-water: like she’d stepped out of her own way to find the right path to what was true. “He went back when I didn’t want him to, and then he was dead, and I thought that meant he must not love me very much. But you were his, and you loved me. So that must mean he did, too.”

She was crying again. “Good-bye, Mina,” Ellie said, and let her dog go. “I love you, girl. Good-bye, Grandpa Jack.” And then she managed the rest: “I l-love you, Daddy.”

She tried to watch Mina go, see exactly where her dog ended up, but couldn’t tell. Everything was wavery from the water below and in her eyes, and there were so many colors that it seemed Mina and her daddy and Grandpa Jack could be anywhere.

But that was, maybe, because heaven was, too.

“This is it.” Stirring hot water into a enameled camp mug, Tom watched the dark granules dissolve, then sprinkled a white snow of creamer. “Enjoy every last drop.”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror