“Yeah.” Burying her face in Mina’s shoulder, she slid her arms around the dog’s neck. Then she blew out and turned her eyes back to the pallet. The purple star was still. So was the burlap bag. No big, bad boogeyman. Just a dead person in there, a people-sicle.

The little voice was suddenly back: Yes, but what about the birds, and Mina—

“Oh, be quiet.” It had been a shadow. Her imagination. For a second, she felt an absurd disappointment, as if her panic had been just a beginning emotion, something you had to get out of the way first before getting down to the real feelings. Like when your Grandpa Jack took you home and didn’t tell you about your daddy, who you

mo ns ters thought was in Iraq and not due back for two months. But then you opened the door and there was your dad, and Grandpa’s yelling, Surprise! But you, you’re so stunned that you have to reach to touch your daddy’s cheek—

“To make sure you’re not dreaming. To make sure he’s real.” Her voice was thick. She was crying again, and how stupid was that? Why can’t anything good ever happen? Still weeping and without understanding why, she laid her hand over the star and the tiny bulge of the spell bag just beneath. The body was still, but . . .

No. Blinking, her tears suddenly drying up, she took her hand back and turned it over to inspect her palm like a fortune-teller studying a lifeline. No, that can’t be right.

Well, the little mind-voice said, you could check one of the others. Then compare, right?

“This is dumb.” But her right knee crick-crackled in the hush as she rose and sidestepped to another body in the row just above: Travis, dead—well, put out of his misery, as Hannah liked to say—only a month ago. Ellie feathered her palm over that tent of burlap and the spell bag beneath. The hex star’s purple paint was riddled with thin fissures, like a dried-up creek bed. Travis was still. But Travis was also very, very cold. Cold as the stone, as the snow. As ice. So was Rudy, one body over, and Mrs. Rehymeyer two rows up.

They’re all cold. Returning to the last and freshest body, she eased her hand over the star. They’re ice cubes. But this one is—

“Warm.” A lance of shock stabbed her chest. “You’re warm.” Not blazing hot or feverish, or even normal-warm like her. But the difference between this body and the others . . . This is real. She watched her fingers walk the hills and ridges of ribs, reading the chest like a blind person. Lower down, just below that last rib, she traced the bit of wound wood—a piece of an ash tree prepared in some weird Amish magic way—that Hannah had placed over the rip where that killing spike had driven through. I really feel this.

Her hand drifted back to the star. Now that she was allowing herself to linger, to concentrate, she detected a very light but very distinct flutter, like the flip of a goldfish in a too-large bowl. Hannah said that when you took a pulse, you had to be careful not to mistake your heartbeat for the other person’s. So Ellie pressed her hand just a little more firmly against the body’s chest. The fish-flutter nudged her palm again, but stronger now, as if the spell bag was a heart struggling to fill with blood.

“Oh!” Gasping, Ellie jerked away again and saw that it was . . . the star was . . . “Moving,” she whispered. “You’re really moving.” The words came out sounding too ordinary, but there was no mistake. The hex sign heaved and rolled: not the up-and-down, in-with-thegood, out-with-the-bad of a breath but the slow roll of a wave, like there was something eeling along under there. Animal. She could feel her mind snatch at the idea. A mouse or even a snake, and no, don’t bother her with little details like snakes didn’t come out when it was freezing. There had to be an animal in there. It was the only explanation that made sense.

But the body’s warm, Ellie, the little voice said. It’s not frozen or ice-cold, it’s—

Ellie lost track of what the closet-voice said next.

Because from that burlap shroud came a low moan.

26

It wasn’t Alex. A boy stared up at Tom. Stared through him and beyond, into the red socket of that dying sky. If a look had a sound, this boy’s was silence. The kid’s eyes were vacant, their color as flat and murky as stones in deep water, and so still. Nearly bleached of color, the boy’s face was frozen in a death mask, a bloodless, gaping scream. Or maybe he’d only been choking to death on that ball of ice, jammed in his mouth like an apple in a roast pig, or suffocating because of the snow plugging both nostrils.

“Nooooo,” Tom groaned. A weird palsy shook him to the bone. In a saner moment, he might have been glad it wasn’t Alex. Every second he didn’t find her—entombed in ice, torn apart under the snow, broken to bits among the rocks—was one more moment when she still might be alive. Those Chuckies had had the time. They’d reached her, stolen her from him, spirited her away. But for him, this was the rise all over again, the feeling of the earth swelling and heaving and breaking, and then he was gasping, shuddering, staring down through streaming eyes at that dead boy, the bright flare in his chest exploding in a scream: “God, why? What are you doing, what are you doing, what are you doing?”

His vision purpled. He didn’t remember picking up the rock, which, he saw later, was jagged and long as an ax head, completely right for the job. But time shrieked to a halt, stuttered . . .

And when he came back, it was to sounds, raw and crisp and glassy: the boy’s frozen flesh breaking, the face and skull shattering and splintering to bits. Or maybe that was only Tom’s mind finally blasting apart; the black thing inside cracking him wide, wide open to be birthed on a bellow of agony and grief.

“No, God, no, no, no!” On his knees, rearing up, his arms hurtling down, the rock-hatchet cleaving air with a whistle, as he smashed and hit and hit and destroyed: “Fuck you, f**k you, f**k you!”

Why did he stop? Hell if he knew. But that burst of manic energy suddenly drained away; all his muscles went wobbly and weak, and he couldn’t hold on anymore. The rock tumbled from his fingers, and then he was falling back, his lungs working, the sweat running in rivers down his face and neck and over his chest. God, he was burning up. Pawing at his parka, he finally managed to drag down the zipper and flop his way free of that tangled embrace.

Of course it wasn’t Alex. You knew it was a boy’s boot; look at the ankle, look at the size, you idiot—how could you miss that? “Because,” he choked, pulling in icy air that slashed his lungs, “you want it to be her, Tom; you don’t want it to be her, but you want it, you need it, you need her, and oh God, oh God . . .”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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