“Yeah, better safe than sorry. So, come on.” Ellie gave her dog a pat. “Let’s make it quick.”
The walk wasn’t terrible, although this wasn’t Ellie’s favorite trail or place in the universe. Within ten minutes, the chattering swelled and consolidated into caws and squawks. The racket was enormous, like on the mountain in the Waucamaw when Grandpa Jack died and her head seemed to explode. This time, though, instead of blackening the sky, glossy crows seethed and roiled in the trees.
Wow, something’s got their attention. A cold finger ticked down the knobs of her spine. Something told her that this had to be more than birds waiting for something to die. But what could it be? She dropped her eyes to the snow. The last time she, Jayden, Hannah, and Eli had been down this trail was a week ago. In between, there’d been snow, and she saw where their tracks had filled.
And she also saw fresh tracks. People tracks. Oh boy. One set was small. Not much bigger than hers, actually. A kid? Her hands tightened around her rifle. A kid, a hurt kid?
Or this might be the kind of kid she really didn’t want to meet. No, it can’t be a people-eater. Mina would know; she always knows. She checked the dog, who was still on alert but keeping pace. Again, not alarmed but definitely telling her that something wasn’t quite right. The dog’s attention was fixed straight ahead, and now Ellie looked that way, too—and heard herself pull in a hard gasp.
The clearing was small and dominated by a gray limestone building with a slate roof. Two windows were set on other side of a wood slider. A ramp ran down from the slider in a broad tongue.
The hex signs painted on the stone were kind of weird. Just below the eaves were five-pointed, bone-white stars that ran around the entire building, and that Hannah said were supposed to represent heaven. Above the double slider was a single high arch, outlined in black paint and filled in with purple. Within the arch were three evenly spaced blue triangles. The arch was supposed to be a false door—a Devil’s door, Hannah said—designed to trick Satan into bumping his head.
There were other hexes, too: painted half-arches, done in the same design, above and below each window so if a witch tried to climb in, it would trip over what Isaac called a witch’s foot.
With all those hex signs, at first glance you’d think barn. But that made no sense, because this building was all stone and really far out, way off by its lonesome in the woods and well away from fields and pasture. Neither Jayden nor Hannah had a clue as to the building’s original purpose. When they first came across it, the structure had been totally empty.
To Ellie, though, those windows always looked like empty sockets with funky purple and blue eyelids. If she let her own eyes defocus a little, she could see the skull.
Which was kind of apt, considering what was inside.
Something, it seemed, had reached out and grabbed those crows, too, because there were hundreds. Birds lined the slate roof, clung to shingles, clutched the eaves. More crows swarmed over the snow or strutted up the ramp like soldiers. They oiled over the building in a heaving mass of bright eyes, gleaming feathers, and black beaks.
Crows knew where death lived, all right.
Because that gray skull building was where the bodies were.
Eight days after the mine went, at the very beginning of March, the crows came in big black thunderclouds. Tom knew what they meant. Hang around a war zone and you learned. Want to figure out where the bodies are? Look up.
A fact: the colder it is, the slower things decompose. But it’s also true that a mine’s deepest levels are very warm, even so hot that they’re impossible to work without fans and ventilation. Evidently, the old Rule mine was just warm enough for people to start rotting, fill with gas, and bob to the surface of that new lake like so many human-skinned balloons.
The question was when to go. Cindi came every morning, so that was out. Afternoons were safest, but there were the lookouts to consider. He didn’t want anyone, especially Cindi or Luke, to figure out what he was doing. They would try to stop him or insist on coming along, and he needed to be alone for this. So that left late afternoons. Time it just right, and he could ski it pretty fast, skirting the path that would put him in the lookouts’ sights, and still have daylight to spare, although it would be well past dark when he got back.
When. Really, wasn’t it more a question of if he came back? Ever? Or never? Because, in some ways, Tom was already gone, finished, used up. He had never been like this before either—not after Afghanistan, not after Jim. Not after he’d been shot and Harlan had taken Ellie. Not after Jed and Grace, when he’d thought, Yes, kill all the enemy; no sweat. Despite what he’d said to Luke, choosing life with no hope of seeing Alex again was only going through the motions. Putting one foot in front of the other until you couldn’t walk anymore.
Regardless, one thing was crystal-clear. It stood to reason that she was up there, at that lake, with all the other dead.
And there was absolutely no way in hell Tom would let the crows have her.
He had taken the Long Walk before. In Afghanistan, the bomb suit was always a last resort, when robots wouldn’t work or, as in his case, there were choices to be made in no-win scenarios. So he had walked, alone, toward death many times. Yet, somehow, this was even worse, the longest and loneliest walk of his life.
The lake was surreal: a logjam of partially decomposed bodies mired in ice and black with crows. From the looks of it, the Chuckies had believed in stocking up on rations for a rainy day. Or maybe it was just that there had been a lot of hungry little Chuckies in that chow line, and it was easier to take a quick trip down to the corral whenever you needed to rustle up a little grub. There were plenty of dead Chuckies, too, which were easy to distinguish from the other dead. Not only were the Chuckies all young, nothing—not even a crow—touched them.
Through binoculars, he glassed the lake, skipping his careful gaze from face to face. Paying him no mind, the birds jabbed at empty sockets, jackhammered bone, jumped from one hideously distended body to the next, as if playing a complicated game of hopscotch. One crow skidded to a landing on the icy bloat of a man’s belly before working its way to a safer perch on the nub of the old guy’s nose. The bird stabbed down and pried loose a flap of cheek with its beak. The frozen, greenish flesh came away with a tinkle that reminded Tom of crinkly cellophane.
Tom watched the crow work the meat into its mouth and down its gullet. If that had been Alex, he’d have drawn down so fast with Jed’s Bravo, that crow would’ve been a cloud of blasted feathers and red mist and in hell before it knew it was dead. Or maybe I only wound the thing. Then grab it, rip it apart. He could see that, too. As detailed as any flashback, the movie spun out in his mind: the bird struggling as Tom squeezed harder and harder until he felt the thready kick of its heart against his palms and now the crunch of bone. . . .