“Yeah?” Lang barked. When he whapped the bars again, the sound was much weaker and didn’t hurt Peter’s ears as much. Why was that? “Look at me when I’m talking!”

“Open your eyes, Peter,” Chris said. “Look at me. Let me help you.”

“No.” He was trembling and cold, so cold. “If I do . . . if I can see you, it means you’re dead, or Changed and . . .”

“See me,” Chris said. “Hear me.”

He couldn’t help himself. His lids crept open, and then he cried out. Chris’s face was chalk-white, his eyes not black but a stunning, glistering violet. He shouldn’t look. He ought to cover his eyes. Keep this up, he’d go blind. But he was also afraid that if he took his gaze elsewhere—if he looked for Simon or doe-eyed Kate or Lang or even Finn—the sight would destroy him completely. The dark was its own terrible light.

“I see you.” This was a hallucination, a vision conjured by a fevered mind because he had nothing else, no hope. I’ll never wake up from this, because I never sleep. “Chris . . . God . . . help me.”

“I’ll help you.” Lang whapped the bars again.

“I will.” Always the calm one, Chris’s voice was a cool cloth on a hot brow, water in the desert. “But you have to listen. You have to trust me and do what I say.”

Chris wasn’t here any more than Simon was real. They were hallucinations. They were symptoms of the past and his choices and eyes like holes in stone and black water as deep and still as the grave. This was a conscience divided against itself. Yet if Chris was the voice of sanity, a piece of real estate in Peter’s mind no larger than a dime trying to talk itself down and help him survive . . . Listen to this voice, listen hard. “What?” Peter said. “What do you want me to do?”

“Step away from the bars, Peter,” Chris said. “Don’t let them hurt you anymore. You’re not strong enough yet.”

“I’m not anything anymore.” A slow, hot trickle leaked down his cheeks. “I’m not strong. Simon’s right. I’m nothing.”

“Now you’re learning,” Lang said.

“You can be strong again,” Chris said. “You will. But you must be brave enough to let go of this fight for now.”

“But I’ll fall,” Peter said.

“Only to the floor,” Chris said. “Trust me, Peter.”

“Oooohhhh,” Peter moaned. He retreated four blundering steps before his joints completely unlimbered, and he sank to his knees.

“See?” Lang broke down his baton. “Can’t let the little shit get on top of you.”

They’re already on top of me. Bowing his head, Peter screwed his fists to his eyes like a weary child, and then he was choking, his pentup grief and guilt a terrible sound that still, somehow, seemed to quiet those damn bonging bells, just a little. Or maybe Lang was right, and whatever Finn had done would pass into something much worse, if that was even possible. He thought it might be, and he was afraid. Maybe it was good he couldn’t sleep, because when he woke, what would he be then? I’m sorry, Chris, I’m so sorry, I’m so—

“It’s okay,” Chris said, as if soothing a little kid who’d scraped a knee. “Shh, it’s fine. You did the best you could. You can’t give up.”

“But what I’ve done.” Peter covered his face with his hands. God, you’ll never forgive me.

“You have to forgive yourself first,” Chris said, and hallucination or not, this is what Peter needed to hear. Much later, in fact, Peter wondered just who had answered.

“Help me,” Peter whispered.

“Help yourself.” It was Chris’s voice, and it wasn’t. It was a little of Simon, and it was not. It was small, the calm at the center of the storm, the eye of a hurricane where the air is still as glass, a bubble out of time. “Control yourself. Find a space to hide.”

“Space to hide?”

“Yes, a special place only you know about. Put Peter there and I’ll find you again. Wait for the right moment.” A pause. “Now, eat, Peter. Forgive yourself, and live.”

“Okay.” The word was salty and his voice faraway. Knuckling away tears, he shuffled on hands and knees over dried urine and desiccated feces to the foot, which lay on its side like a forgotten shoe.

“Go on,” the small voice said. “Do what you have to.”

“Okay,” Peter said again. The stump above the ankle was edged with clot, scanty shreds of raw muscle, and ratty gray tendon. Clamping his front teeth on a flap of loose skin, Peter gave a careful, experimental tug. There were an initial, slight resistance. He used his hands to help, stripping foot meat like barbecue from a rib. The skin gave with a soft riiippp, a sound that reminded him of his mother tearing his old cotton underpants into dust rags—and then Peter began to chew.

The taste was indescribably vile, like rotting liver left to turn green. That taste was his life.

“Now that,” said Jug Ears, “is so f**king gross, I cannot tell you.”


“I have something to tell you, honey. About that phone call?” Her dad slowly retracts his line, the reel going click-click-click as he jerks the rod up and down, up and down. Crappies love a jumping jig. “The one last night?”

“Uh-huh?” Ellie’s not really listening. A light breeze, still chilly in early June, whispers through the down on her arms. The water’s so glassy there’s a whole other sky trapped underwater. She should be focused on her float, but her attention is on a male loon drifting along the far shore. When it tilts its head, she can see the red flash of its eyes. Lifting its neck, the loon wails, a spooky call—the sound of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and fishing with her dad—that always sends fingers creeping down Ellie’s spine.

“Cold?” Her dad slips an arm around her shoulders. “Want my sweatshirt?”

“No.” She snuggles. He smells of Dove soap and scorched sand, because Iraq never washes off. After his first deployment, he climbed into Grandpa Jack’s shower with all his clothes and gear on as she perched on the tub and Grandpa leaned, unsmiling, against the jamb. I washed everything before I left, her dad said, cranking the shower full blast. But watch this. The water gushed out clear and drained out muddy gray, which surprised her because Grandpa Jack did a newspaper story on the troops and her dad sent video of a sandstorm. The color of Iraq then was this really funky neon orange, not dead ash-gray. Two minutes after you take a shower, you’re dirty again, her daddy said, through spray. Stuff never comes out. (Grandpa Jack was pissed for days after, though: All that damn sand clogging my drains. But she caught him carefully scraping crusts of leftover sand into a small jar, like a souvenir.)

Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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