“Okay, as in . . . ?” Mellie prompted.

“As in we’ll see.” Heading for a counter where a Coleman hissed, Weller rooted through a cardboard box. “You kids, go back to your racks. Best thing for Tom is we let him rest.”

From the look on his face, Cindi thought Luke would argue, but he only nodded and scraped back his chair. “Just tell him we were here, okay?” he said to Weller.

“Can we come tomorrow morning?” Cindi asked.

“Let’s see what tomorrow looks like,” Mellie said, and gave Cindi’s arm a little pat-pat the way you’d pet a puppy to encourage it to make wee-wee. “All right?”

“Does that feel all right to you?” Cindi glanced at Luke, but his expression was lost in the dark. She turned her attention back to following the yellow cone of their flashlight as they crunched over snow. The moon wouldn’t rise for hours yet, which suited her just fine. Every time she looked, she couldn’t help but think of some bug-eyed green cyclops and the night sky as an eyelid taking a whole month to slowly open and close.

“No,” Luke said. “But I can’t figure what freaks me out more— that there are Chuckies close by and they haven’t found us yet, or Tom almost got killed.”

“And why we aren’t doing something about them.” “Beyond posting a couple more kids who can’t hold rifles as guards? Yeah. It’s almost like . . .”

Cindi waited, then said, “Like Mellie’s not worried enough.”

“Uh-huh.” Pause. “Maybe she doesn’t want us to panic. My dad was like that. He always worried we couldn’t hack it, so he’d say things were fine, or think of something to distract us stupid little kids.”

“Is that the only thing bothering you?”

“No,” Luke said, and sighed. “They’re not saying it, but Tom just got lucky. He really should be dead.”

A screw of fear. “But he’s not. He made it back.”

“Believe me, Cindi, I’m just as happy about that. I don’t think I could stand it if . . . But if Tom got killed, then what? It’d be just you and me and Chad, with thirty other kids, all of them younger.”

“Weller would still be here. So would Mellie.” She wasn’t thrilled with either, but they were better than nothing.

“Come on. Weller joined up with us when Tom did. Before the mine went, Mellie would disappear.”

“To get other kids. She was never gone for long.”

“But long enough.” He stopped walking and looked down at her. “You may not have wondered what would happen if she didn’t show up again, but I did. I worried the whole time. Like, what would we eat? Where would we go? And this whole Rule thing? It’s crazy to think that we’re going to go marching anywhere. I mean, think about it. There’s me and Tom, Weller and Mellie, about two, three other guys I can think of who are decent enough shots, but that’s all we got. Tom never came right out with it, but I could tell he thought us going against Rule was a bad idea. The only reason he helped us at all was because of her. Because of Alex.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.” Her teeth made a grab for her lower lip in time to stifle the sob. She gave her stinging eyes an impatient scrub with a fist. Only babies cried. “Are you saying he won’t help us now?”

“No. If he comes back to stay, he will. He’ll put the brakes on kids like Jasper. Like, what Jasper did to that bucket the other day? I mean, yeah, there are manuals and that old chemistry book we dug up— which, you know, I only sort of understand—but there really wasn’t anything in what we read that said thermite might make plastic catch on fire.”

“Thermite?” Jasper was a spazzy, twitchy-smart ten-year-old, and a complete pyro with a fixation on pipe bombs, water impulse charges, and anything that made a bang.

“Take a while to explain.” Luke blew out in a white plume. “The thing is, Mellie’s encouraging Jasper to just go on ahead. She’s got other kids experimenting with napalm and Molotov cocktails.”

“But won’t we need to learn how to do that anyway? To protect ourselves?”

“Do we? Don’t you think there’s something just a little crazy about us maybe blowing our heads off ? That stuff Mellie’s so hot for . . . it’s dangerous. That’s why Tom never let us watch him work, much less taught us what to do. Mellie doesn’t seem to care.”

“But . . .” Cindi slicked her lips. “She’s a grown-up.”

“So? Remember what Tom said, about the monster inside and killing because it feels good? I watched Weller do that, kill this one Chucky really slow. Suffocated him in the snow and smiled. It was spooky. It wasn’t only killing. What Weller did was murder. And now Mellie wants thermite, flamethrowers, claymores. But how does that help us? We blow up a bunch of people, rescue those other kids—and then what?”

“Well,” she began, and stopped. “I don’t know. I never stopped to think.”

“Right. The adults do all the thinking. But what if we want something different?”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m wondering,” Luke said, “if the Chuckies and Rule are our only enemies.”

36

“So?” Mellie glowered. “ Is he as bad as he looks?”

“Worse.” Reaching for two enameled mugs, Weller winced against

the sudden grab in his right shoulder. Damn thing got stiff if he didn’t

remember to keep moving the joint.

“I thought you said you could handle the cuts.”

“Oh yeah.” Weller wasn’t anywhere close to a medic, but any

soldier, even an old, broken-down wreck like him, knew battlefield

medicine. “Tom’s strong, he’s young. He ought to heal. Damn lucky

they weren’t bites.”

“He’s lucky he’s alive.” Mellie wasn’t a tall woman or even especially beefy, but solid as a brick and pugnacious, with a fondness for

big guns like that chromed .44 Mag cannon riding high in a crossdraw on her left hip. “What the hell was he thinking? Was he trying to

get himself killed?”

“I don’t think he understands what he was after, Mellie.” One look

at Tom in those blood-soaked camo over-whites—one good long gander at those wicked slashes—and his first impulse had been to knock

some sense into the boy’s skull. “We just need to give Tom time and


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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