He stared down at the dead girl. He’d seen plenty of corpses. There was dead, something you knew just by looking, because death steals, especially from the eyes. Something evaporates. The eyes of the dead are the empty windows in a deserted house. But then there was battlefield juju, those few moments when a prickly spider walked the back of your neck; when the dread ate its way into your throat, crowding out fear. At those moments, you just couldn’t believe that the dead wouldn’t rise.

This Chucky was like that . Even in death, the Chucky’s vermillion stare, still so crazy and manic, was what stayed with you after a nightmare.

And I’ve seen your kind before. But where? What are you? A violent shiver made him gasp. Grabbing his arms, he hugged himself tight, now truly afraid. Where did you come from?

Then, jumping to the front of his mind in an involuntary tic: Who made you?

“You’re losing it, Tom.” His voice sounded strange but felt good. He needed to hear himself. “That’s crazy. Who could make Chuckies worse than they are? Why would anyone do that?” That made him laugh, a hacking sound harsh and far back in his throat, like the distant saw of those crows. “Jesus, listen to yourself. You were in the Army. Who doesn’t want a better killing machine, a soldier who doesn’t even know how to quit?”

And who, he wondered, wouldn’t train it?

The woods. That black blur. That glint. He dragged his binoculars from his parka, thankful that he hadn’t hung them around his neck. Good way to end up strangled.

“You don’t have time for this,” he said, glassing the trees. “You got ten seconds, Tom, and then you really need to get—”

But it didn’t take him ten seconds, or even seven.

All it took were three.

35

This was so bad. Cindi had known Tom was up to no good. Her gut taking in what her mom would’ve said: this really queasy sense that Tom would try something dumb.

Since that second day after the mine, Cindi went to see Tom early mornings before hoofing to her lookout post. (Which had been borrring before it turned terrible. Nothing to look at now but a gouged-out hill and that big blue-white eye of the lake for the longest time until the crows showed up, and then . . . well . . . she was twelve, but she wasn’t stupid.) Sometimes, Luke came with, but he was fourteen, the next oldest after Tom, and didn’t have tons of time. So, mostly, she went alone and brought food because Tom wasn’t eating enough to keep a tick alive. His eyes had dropped so far back into his skull it was like staring into deep, dark caves. You could get lost down there. She never pushed him and they didn’t talk much, but she wasn’t sure that was even important. Just be with him. That’s what her mom would’ve said. Remind him you’re still there, waiting for him to come back.

On the fourth day, tired of let’s give Tom space—Mellie’s go-to for the whole awful mess—Mellie decided, Hey, mind if I tag along? What could Cindi say? No, butt out, you old witch? Boy, if it was freezing in that tower before, the temperature went waaay below zero the second Tom’s eyes clicked to Mellie corkscrewing through that trapdoor. Everything human in Tom shriveled until there was only a husk that just happened to wear Tom’s face.

To Mellie’s credit, she did try. She did nice; she tried you can tell me; she touched on a tough buck up, soldier (but only Weller was any good at that). In desperation, Mellie even trotted out a whiny but we need you.

To which Tom said about four syllables, all of them chipped from ice: Leave me alone.

Twenty minutes later, Mellie clumped back down the way she’d come. But when Tom turned Cindi a look, she could tell: for the first time in days, the veil was gone, and he was seeing her, recognizing who she was.

“It wasn’t my idea,” she said. “She invited herself.”

“I know that.” Tom paused. “You don’t have to go, Cindi. I’d like it if you didn’t.”

“Sure.” A lump pushed into her throat. Tom hadn’t smiled. There wasn’t this choir of angels or anything. There was only Tom and his monster, the black fist around his heart that, sometimes, she worried might squeeze so hard it would crush him altogether. But hearing him say that he’d like her to stay, that was a beginning. It was a place to start.

But now . . . this.

“And you’re absolutely sure he never mentioned going to the mine?” Mellie gave her and then Luke, seated beside Cindi at a rough-hewn kitchen table, the stink-eye. They’d made their camp in a long-abandoned farmstead: a motley collection that included an old two-story farmhouse, hog barn, cow barn, silo, and a clutch of tumbledown outbuildings hemmed on all sides by wide pastures and distant knolls where they mounted a few lookouts. Only Weller and Mellie slept in the house, along with anyone who was ill or hurt. At the moment—bad news, bad, bad, bad—that was Tom, tucked in Weller’s first-floor back bedroom. “No warning at all?”

“No,” Cindi fibbed, her right leg jumping and jiggling and making the table rock, a really bad habit that used to drive her mom crazy: Cindi, you make coffee nervous. Considering that her mom had been a child psychiatrist, that was saying something. “Is he going to be all right?”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine and . . . please.” Mellie laid a hand on Cindi’s wrist. The other was wrapped around a steaming mug. “Coffee’s not so easy to come by these days that I want to waste a drop.”

“Sorry.” Cindi clamped her hands between her thighs. “There was a whole lot of blood. He was pretty cut up.”

“Not all the blood’s Tom’s. It probably looks worse than it is.”

“Well, I hope so.” Luke was so pale his eyes looked smudged on with blue finger paint. “Because any worse and he should be dead. Did Tom say how many he saw? Are we going after them? Or maybe we ought to, you know, move?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, all right?” Mellie was very good at sliding around questions. “I think the most important thing we can do now to help Tom is—” She looked around at the sound of heavy footsteps. “Well?”

“We’re doing okay,” Weller said, but his tone was brusque, preoccupied. Always a little grumpy, the thick grizzle of gray stubble over Weller’s cheeks and chin only made him look meaner, like an old bear with a toothache. Cindi thought Weller would be a lot nicer once the mine was gone, but the longer Tom hung out in the tower, the blacker Weller looked. On the other hand, considering the rustylooking bandage plastered over the right side of Weller’s neck and that shoulder . . . well, she’d be an übergrouch, too, if some Chucky snacked on her.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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