she’d already hooked one. But Eli needed a fire lit under his butt. “If

you want to waaait and help me with the taaackle . . .”

“God!” Eli’s lips, bright as cherries and almost too delicate for a

boy, corkscrewed. “I hate it when you do that.”

“Nom, nom.” Plucking out another waxworm, Ellie smacked her

lips. “Taastee—”

“Gah.” Eli did a mock heave, but he was also grinning. Sunny was

what Grandpa Jack would’ve said. “Fine, you win. Just stop.” Eli reeled

up a steel chain stringer and eight dripping black-spotted crappies,

attached via snap hooks through their gills, from an ice hole. “Gah,”

he said again, holding the flapping fish at arm’s length as Roc, a gray

bullet of a mutt, bounded up with Mina on his heels. “My gloves

always smell like fish,” Eli complained as the dogs pranced excited

circles. “Roc always smells like fish. My saddle smells like sardines.” She bit back a snark about killer farts, although even she was tired

of smoked crappie and bluegill. But a hot dog . . . “At least everyone’s

eating.”

“And you always smell like fish, too.” Eli dragged up the second

stringer. “How much longer are you going to be, so I know when it’s

time to get worried that you’ve been eaten?”

“Oh, ha-ha. Maybe another hour, hour and a half.” It was just

something to say. Since Alex had Mickey Mouse, Ellie hadn’t the foggiest what time it was. “Not too long. It’s still plenty light.” “You’re sure you’re okay with the tackle?”

“Of course I’m okay. I’m always okay,” she muttered under her

breath, but she called Mina to heel and tipped a cheery wave. The

crows perked up as Eli neared shore, but when he passed to his horse

without stopping, they lifted in a black cloud to scold him on his way.

Only two tip-ups had anything: seven-inchers that she released. With Mina trotting alongside, she hooked a handle of an old plastic primer bucket she used for her tackle and headed over the ice to holes she’d drilled this morning waaay out there.

This lake, which was very deep, was fed by a spring located somewhere off the western shore. That meant the water nearest the spring was much warmer and the lake never entirely froze. Instead, the ice sheet petered out in a ragged scallop of slushy ice from which she always kept a healthy distance. As she neared the far tip-up, she saw the orange flag standing upright and felt a burst of elation.

“All right,” she said to the dog. “We got something.” Jogging the last little way, she dropped to her knees and worked at unhooking her line. As soon as she felt it—how light the line was—her excitement died. “Well, shoot.” Something had grabbed the bait and split. But then she saw how the monofilament line curled and realized there was no sinker at the end, no weight at all. The dripping line had snapped in two. She’d used monofilament on purpose; it had a lot more give and cushioned the set of the hook so the fish’s mouth wouldn’t tear.

“Wow, that was one strong fish.” And big. Walleye liked deep water. So did pike. Lots of meat on those fish. “So maybe I should use braided line,” she said to Mina, who only licked water from her fingers. “And auger the holes a little wider if we’re going for the big boys.”

Unclipping her knife, a stainless steel Leek, from a pants pocket, she deployed the blade with a practiced flick of her thumb. In a very small, dark closet of her mind, she wished she could show Tom and Alex what she knew how to do now. But she always wished that.

You have to stop this. She used the Leek’s sharp point to pick out the knot of ruined line, then dumped the tip-up into her primer pail. For the past week, ever since Chris, she’d been thinking way too often about Tom and Alex, much more than was good for her.

This is your home now, so just deal. She should think about things she could actually do something about, like how to catch more and bigger fish dreaming their slow winter dreams in deeper water under the thinner, weaker ice of the shelf. More holes meant more time keeping them clear with her axe, though. Crunching back toward shore, she worried the problem. Grandpa Jack used rubber mats from his old pick up for fish-hole covers. But finding a car might be tough. Isaac and Hannah and a bunch of other kids were once Amish and still kind of big into God. All the places they stayed were Amish, and Amish didn’t use cars. But maybe regular carpet or cut-up rug?

“I should ask Jayden,” she said to Mina. “He’s like Tom. You know . . . a fixer-upperer? Like, remember that old truck Tom and I . . .”

Stop. Clamping down on that memory, she thumbed away a fast, stinging tear. She had to cut it out, this dumb looping back to Tom and Alex, or her dad and Grandpa Jack. Her hand snuck to her neck and found a length of leather cord from which dangled a small wooden pendant. Hannah said the charm, some weird Amish or German magic thing, would protect her from evil or sad thoughts. Ha. It was just an upside-down peace sign. Dumb. Like it did any good for all the memories that kept slipping out of that dark closet. The ones of Tom always led to Alex and vice versa. Each came to the same end: with Tom, his face twisted in agony as the snow bloomed a violent rose-red under his leg; and Alex, her hands painted with his blood, screaming, You bastards, you bastards!

Good-luck charms? Ha. Her fingers fell from the leather cord. She was total bad-luck juju. It was her fault Tom got shot. Tom said he was only trying to take care of his people and Alex saved me from the mountain and now look, because of me, probably they’re both—

“Nooo.” She caught the moan with a cupped hand. Another fast tear chased down her cheek. Now she wished she’d kept Alex’s whistle. Dumb to give that away. A whistle was actually something you could use, not a stupid piece of wood with a dumb German doohickey. The whistle was Alex, too. Just like the letter from her mom. Placing a palm over her heart, Ellie felt the envelope crinkle in its Ziploc, folded in an inner pocket. She hadn’t been able to stop Harlan from stealing Alex’s parents. But I got your mom’s letter, Alex. I saved her for you.

As, perhaps, Alex and Tom might save her? Not that Hannah or Jayden or Eli were so horrible, but Ellie just couldn’t shake the idea that things would never be right again until they were all back together. Which had led to the whistle. Giving Alex’s whistle to Tobe had been partly impulse, partly design. Tobe was so sick and scared about being left behind. She’d hoped the whistle—that Alex, she guessed—would cheer him up, make him strong the same way it made her feel both better and really sad at the same time. You’ll give it back when you get well, she’d said.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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