“Those are a lot of ifs . . . no, be quiet. Let me finish,” he said when she opened her mouth. “In the last month, nothing’s happened. There have been no Changed. No one has followed us. We stayed with Isaac for weeks, near where Changed had been, and saw none. You’re right; I’m not you. But I do know a little about scary dreams and how they take over. I also don’t buy that your dreams are the only reason that you don’t want to come. Because so what if the monsters come, Alex?” He wanted to touch her, grab her arms, pull her close. In all this time and during these many weeks, he’d never rushed her, hadn’t kissed her, done nothing but try to help her come back. If she thought he was going to let her go without a fight . . . “Let them come, Alex. Let the monsters try to take you. They’ll have to get through me, and that will never happen.”

“That’s not a promise you can make, Tom.”

“I will kill them,” he said, very distinctly. “No one is taking you from me. That’s all there is to it.”

“And if you die because of me?”

“That will be my choice, Alex, but it won’t come to that.”

“Are you going to choose for Ellie, too? For Chris and Kincaid? For Jayden? For all the other children?”

Closing his eyes, he tipped his head back and spoke to the night sky. “I . . . will not . . . leave you here.” He lowered his gaze to hers. “I refuse. If you won’t come, I’m staying, too. I’m not leaving you, Alex, never again.”

“No.” The shock rippled across her face. “No, Tom, I won’t let you do that.”

“I’m not leaving you,” he repeated. “You’re not the only one who gets to choose. Now, you either walk out of here with us, tomorrow, or we wave good-bye to Ellie and Chris. Period.”

Her mouth turned into a thin gash over her chin. “Tom, why are you doing this? Why are you making this harder for me?”

“You don’t think this is hard on me?”

“Of course, I know it is. But don’t you see I’m trying to protect you?”

“And don’t you see that I love you?” he shouted. To hell with this. He gathered her in his arms. If she pulled away, he would let her go. You couldn’t hang on to someone bound and determined to get away. But she didn’t, although she was crying, wide-eyed and silent, her tears streaming over cheeks that looked pale even in firelight.

“Alex.” And then he did what he’d ached to do for weeks: skimmed hair from her face, the better to see and touch and memorize every inch, each feature, from the curve of her brow to the bow of her lips and the angle of that stubborn jaw. “Alex, I don’t care that you have cancer. I don’t care if all or part of that cancer is a monster. I care about you, and I have walked, alone, for a very long time. I did it in Afghanistan, and I did it in the Waucamaw. I might have walked until I couldn’t anymore if we hadn’t found each other. But we did, and I am so tired of walking alone. Please, Alex, please walk with me. Be brave enough to walk out of here with me. Leave this place. Only ghosts live here. Come with us. Come with me.”

“Tom.” She raised a trembling hand to her mouth. “I was dying when I got here.”

“Me, too,” he said. “Just in a different way.”

“But what if I’m really still dying and don’t know it? What if it gets stronger, and I get sick again? It’s already bad enough to have a monster. What if the cancer’s not all monster? What if it’s also cancer? I don’t know how much time we’ll have.”

“Join the rest of the human race,” he said, which made her give a watery laugh−and that loosened a terrible knot in his chest. Yes, God, yes, please do this for me. Just this once, please. “All I know, the only thing about which I am absolutely certain, is that I love you. Walk with me, Alex. Walk with me today”—he kissed one cheek and then the other, tasting her skin and wet salt—“and tomorrow”—and then he brushed her lips with his and felt them part and her sigh in his mouth.

“Walk with me, Alex,” he whispered. “Walk with me for as long as we have.”

What happened next was for them, and them alone.

The monster tugged her awake. For a second, she wondered if it had been a dream: a nice dream but still . . . wishful thinking. Then she inhaled musk and sweet smoke and spice and Tom—Tom, warm and solid and real—and heard his deep sleep-breathing. She eased her head until she could make him out in the dim light suffusing the tent. A hand on her stomach, he lay on his side, an arrow of light silvering his hair.

Her eyes drifted over his face. There’d been this science fiction show her dad loved, pretty old, not Star Trek but something about a space station, and there was a number in the title . . . six? No, five. Anyway, there were these funky aliens with their funky rituals. One was to watch a beloved as he slept, because that was when all the masks fell away and you saw a person for what he was. Sounded pretty silly. And yet . . . Tom, in sleep and maybe for once dreaming well, was as he always had been: steady and sure, brave and stubborn. Someone to walk with. Someone to love, and that was wonder enough. There was no difference, although—

Wait a second. She resisted the urge to bolt upright. She closed her eyes, opened them. Nothing changed. There was Tom, sleeping, and there was—

You watch. Easing a hand from her sleeping bag, she extended a single finger. It’s a crazy hallucination or something. I’m not really seeing this.

Heart pounding, she watched as the tip of her finger rolled out of the grainy darkness—and became visible. Jumped out from shadow to cross into that sliver of light seeping through a thin seam of a tent flap to glitter over Tom’s hair.

Oh my God. She pulled her hand back, gave it a good hard stare as if expecting a smudge of luminous paint to show itself. Of course, there was none. Still careful not to wake him—no sense being a ninny, especially if she was wrong—she tipped her head all the way back until she could see through that seam. The thing was, though, she couldn’t see through to the other side.

Because the glow through the seam was that bright.

She heard her breath leave in a sudden rush, taking a small oh with it. She lay still a moment longer, thinking it over before carefully oozing from the bag, feeling Tom’s hand slip from her skin. Thank God, she had the side with the zip. It took her another few seconds to work into her parka. Grimacing at the touch of cold nylon against her feet, she minced her way to the tent flaps, holding her breath against the slight sss as she worked the zipper. Then she ducked out of the tent—and stopped dead.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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