A voice Peter recognized: “Beats the hell out of me.” The second guard, Lang—Traitor, Simon hissed, tear out his throat, pop his eyes, eat ’em like grapes—yawned hugely, stretched. “He’s always going on like that.”

Now, those guards had to be fifty, sixty feet away, and yet Peter heard all this, loud and clear, and despite the bells. He’d become like this bat, see, picking up sounds: the sssss as the residual water on a fresh log hissed and evaporated, the CREE-cree of Lang’s leather belt as he walked, even the squeak of boots over snow outside the prison house. Sometimes, he thought he actually heard other, very tiny voices inside his head. Nothing distinct but more of a hubbub like being in a crowded train station with a very high ceiling.

“Well, Jesus, the way he talks to himself,” Jug Ears said, “it’s kind of spooky.”

Spooky. BWAHAHAHA. They didn’t know spooky. The bongbong-BONGs were spooky. Not sleeping, at all, was spooky. An old nightmare you saw while you were awake—orange blood in murky water and the boat and eyes that were holes in stone—that was spooky. Something growing electric red wings in your brain was spooky.

He watched as Lang’s hand crawled into an oily gray helmet of thinning hair and dug in for a good scritch-scritch. “Boss says they’re hallucinations,” Lang said as dandruff salted his shoulders. “They’re supposed to go away. He gets too loud, go ahead, give him a couple whacks. That’ll shut him up.”

“I’m not a hallucination,” Simon whispered. His voice always came from Peter’s blind spot on the right. Hoping to catch him out, Peter sometimes whipped around, but Simon danced away in a quicksilver sparkle. “I know that,” Peter said, although a very small, still sane part of his mind also whispered, Oh, riiiight.

“Where is the boss, anyway?” Jug Ears asked. “He’s been gone over a week.”

“You know I’m real,” Simon said.

“Shh,” Peter whispered. “Simon, please, be quiet. I need—”

“Last I heard, boss took a bunch of Chuckies. Wants to see how they do,” Lang said. “Said they learn faster when they go out in teams, especially once they got enough in them.”

“Uh-oh,” Simon said.

That got Peter’s attention. Enough in them? Of what? Lang and Jug Ears weren’t talking only about his fellow inmates. So who? Finn had different Changed? Different how? He thought about the bells. Thought about how well he heard things and the constant scrim of the old dream. Thought about the scudder in his skull. And Simon; I hear someone I know can’t be here. So what if—

“Well, Jesus, them and us together . . . that makes my skin crawl. And what happens with that stuff ? To their eyes? Like what’s going on with him?” Jug Ears hooked a thumb at Peter’s cell. “Scares the bejesus out of me. Like something out of a movie.”

Wait. What’s going on with me? His fingers traced the bone of his sockets and dragged over the soft hummocks of his closed lids. His eyes were so raw they might be weeping blood. Eyes, eyes in the dark, holes in stone. But I have real eyes. Unless I’m Changing, too, into something else. Unless Finn is—

“Yeah, but you’ll be glad when the time comes. Whole lot more of them. Better a Chucky eats a bullet than me,” Lang said.

“Maybe.” Jug Ears sounded doubtful. “But I’m telling you, the first time one of them looks at me crosswise? Blow its f**king head off. And what about these Chuckies here and the other holding areas? You got any idea what the boss wants with them?”

“Well, some he takes,” Lang said. “The ones he thinks are smarter, I guess. But what we’re going to do with all the rest . . . hell if I know.”

Finn has more Changed, and not just here. He’s divided them into groups: the ones he leaves alone, and then the ones he . . . drugs? Peter could see it. How stupid was it for him to believe Finn when the old bastard said they could handle only ten Changed at a time? It had been almost five months since things went to hell. Finn’s militia was in place long before. Finn was ready for things to fall apart. So he’s working with the Changed, on them somehow, not only taming a couple as pets. He wants only the smartest, the fastest, the best.

What Finn might want with these others, though, the ones in here with him, Peter couldn’t imagine. They weren’t food—well, not for the Changed, anyway, who killed but never fed on one another. So what was Finn up to with all these kids, a ton of whom were from Rule?

Another thought: He has me. He knows all about me. So did Finn know about Simon? About Penny? What if Finn was looking for them, too?

Relax, he won’t find them. No one knows where Penny—

“I don’t know,” Simon said. “Finn got you. What makes you think he can’t figure it out? You have to do something, Peter.”

“I’ve done what I can. I’ve kept you alive.” Peter’s overstressed brain felt as if someone had crammed it into a blender. “I’ve lost everything for you.”

“No,” Simon said—and damn if he didn’t sound like Finn. “You were lost when you decided the Zone was a good idea. You were lost the second you lied to the police, didn’t tell the truth about the accident and the boat and Penny.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” A shout boiled in his chest. Don’t, don’t, don’t, can’t scream. He bit the soft flesh of his cheek, really ground down. The pain was bright but not nearly enough, no sir.

Screaming doesn’t help. You scream, they hurt you, Lang kicks you, he beats you. But they won’t kill you. So this isn’t going to end until you— “Then do something, Peter,” Simon said. “Stop Finn. Make a move. Do something.”

“Shut up!” Snarling, Peter flung that left foot across his cell. “Shut up, Simon, just shut up!”

“Hey, hey!” Lang said.

“Please, God.” Groaning, Peter struggled upright, hooked his fingers around the iron bars snugged against the wall, and hung on, fists working the metal against another wave of pain. “No no no, Peter, don’t scream, Peter, don’t scream.”

Not for the first time, Peter wondered how long and hard he’d have to whack his head for his skull to crack and his brain to squish out like runny yolk. Or he could let himself drift close to the bars where the Changed waited. Thread his hands through and pull Kate close, let her sink her teeth into his throat, give her the first taste. It would be over before the guards could beat her and her cellmates back. But he was a coward; he couldn’t let himself die. He wasn’t ready, and there were Penny and Simon to think about. There was Chris.

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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