“Believe me, I will.” Accepting a mug of decaf, Alex sipped and sighed. “That tastes so good, I don’t even care that it doesn’t have bullets. Seriously, there’s no more?”

“Last packet until we get to Houghton. Unless we get lucky at some Kwik-Mart that hasn’t been picked over. Any Starbucks got hit a long time ago.” Cupping his own mug in his left hand, Tom propped himself against a large boulder. Laying an arm across her shoulders—but gently, mindful of her still-tender ribs—he pulled her a little closer. “If they even had Starbucks up here.”

“They did.” She let her head rest against his chest. “But I think only Marquette and . . . Mackinac Island? Yeah, I remember because a ton of the hotels on the island weren’t air-conditioned, and it was so hot when we went this one time, but there’s my dad chugging a venti with sweat pouring down his face.”

“My kind of guy. Had his priorities straight.” The fire had burnt down to hot orange coals. Directly across, chin on paws, Buck was in a half-doze, eyes slitted against the glow. This was the time of day Tom liked best: sitting and talking for hours, or sometimes the two of them only staring into the guttering flames as she nestled and he stroked her hair. Leaving her out here, with only Buck for company, wasn’t a highlight. Every night he hoped she would say, Hang on a sec. I’ll come with you.

“Chris said Hannah mentioned a coffee place not far from the university where all the college kids hung.” Blowing on his mug, he sucked back a steaming mouthful. A finger of heat drew a line down his chest to expand in his stomach, a warmth that matched the pulse of the fire against his face. “We might get lucky. I’d suck a used filter if I thought it would help.”

She gave a small laugh. “How far?” “Once we’re out of the Waucamaw? About eighty, ninety miles as the crow flies.”

“Long walk.”

He couldn’t quite decipher her tone. Maybe because, for him, long walk meant something very specific and so different. “Probably a good week.” He sipped coffee. “Not like we haven’t walked before. We’ve already mapped it out with Jayden. If something changes, we’ve worked out places along the way and easy landmarks where Jayden could leave messages. Like, in Houghton, the coffee place? And once you’re across the bridge, Jayden said there’s this old brownstone synagogue that—”

“It might be better,” she said, quietly, “if I didn’t.”

For a second, he couldn’t match the words to their meaning, and then he felt the coffee curdle in the pit of his gut. No, come on, God, not when we’re so close. He set his mug down with the kind of concentration and care he might give a breaching charge. “What are you saying?”

Another pause. She straightened until they were no longer touching and said, into the fire, “I’ve thought about this, I really have.”

Her voice had gone a little dead, a tone he knew well from her story of Daniel’s slow slide into the Change and, at the last, his suicide. Tom’s blood slushed. “You’re staying. Here. In the Waucamaw, by yourself.” Take a breath, Tom. Go easy, don’t push. Count to ten. He made it to three. “Alex, what the hell are you thinking?”

Even in firelight, her eyes were too dark. “I’m thinking it’s dangerous for you. Wolf ’s already found me once before. He can find me again.”

“If he’s still alive.”

“I think he might be. I can’t tell for sure, but this thing in my head . . . I’ve got control, but it’s . . . lonely, too. You know? I feel it, sometimes, searching.”

“I thought you said you were getting better at keeping it under wraps.” He heard the sharpness that was nearly an accusation. But he couldn’t help it. A spike of panic darted up his spine. No, she can’t do this, she can’t; I won’t let her. He said, more deliberately, “Even if it is, you haven’t smelled any Changed. Neither have the dogs.”

“Yet. Once we leave the Waucamaw, start to head to where the people were and maybe still are . . . I probably will.”

“So what? The Changed are a fact of life. They’re the enemy. Big deal.”

“It’s different for you. You don’t have something living in your head.”

“Oh bullshit. What the hell do you think a flashback is?” TOM . . . Folding his knees made that left leg yammer. For once, that nip of pain was good, because it crammed the rest back down his throat. Closing his eyes, he bowed his head and huffed out that quick jump of anger. Out with the bad. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair. I know it’s not the same.”

“It’s okay. Maybe it is the same, in a way. I think what I’m saying is that, yes, I smell the Changed. Yes, the monster’s pretty well-behaved . . . for a monster.”

“Don’t make a joke out of this.” Now he threw her a sharp look. “Don’t make a joke of how I feel.”

“I’m not.” Her eyes shimmered, but her voice was steady. “I’m trying to make you understand. Sometimes, I have dreams, and those are new. What I did with Finn . . . I think that opened up some kind of door in my head.”

“You dream about the Changed?” He felt his anger giving way to a blast of shock. “You see them?”

“Sometimes.” Her throat moved in a swallow. “I think it’s because I’m seeing through someone, like I did in Rule, at the end. I’m not sure who or what it is. But it’s when I’m asleep, Tom. I can’t control that. I can’t do anything about my dreams.”

“Alex.” He sat up straighter. “Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m telling you now. Tom, back in Rule, if you hadn’t tackled me on the landing, I’m not sure I wouldn’t still be in that”—she made a vague gesture with her cupped hand near her head—“frenzy. It was terrible and wonderful at the same time. I know that sounds crazy. But I understand what Peter must’ve felt, that rush, how powerful it is, when nothing else matters but killing. So I know I can get lost.”

“All the more reason why you should stay with us, stay anchored. Let us help.” Let me.

“But, Tom, think. If I can see through them, what are the chances that, eventually, it might go the other way? What if I draw or lead Changed to us? Nobody will be safe.”

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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