“If we stay that way. Some of the younger kids, like Eli and Ellie and Connor—they still might turn. We all might.”

“Okay, yeah, I’m not wild about the idea of waking up one morning with a hankering for a people-burger, but I can’t live every day waiting for the other shoe to drop. Know what I think is really bugging you?” Jayden stretched across the table and gave the back of her left hand a tentative touch. “You’re freaked because you think you made a mistake.”

“Because I was obviously wrong, and I don’t like mistakes. Make a mistake, people die.” She screwed her gaze to his fingers, long but rougher now and calloused from long hours of swinging an ax and reining horses. “And I didn’t give Chris a choice.”

“He wouldn’t have taken the drug. You know that,” he said, gently. “Besides, how do you know that we didn’t save him? What if the decoction was exactly what he needed? Think about that. This could be something really big.” His hand closed over hers. “It might help us in the future.”

She had to be careful. They made a good team. Just because Jayden wanted more didn’t mean she should encourage him—especially now, with the appearance of this strange boy whose face revived a host of other memories, most of them very bad. “If we understood it. It’s not an experiment I can run again until . . .” Until one of us is injured so badly we’ll die anyway. After another moment, she eased her hand away, covering the move by picking up her mug. “What about the girl? The one Ellie saw?”

“I don’t know,” Jayden said, his tone as suddenly stony as his face. “Tomorrow, I’ll take Connor and we’ll fetch Isaac to take a look at this kid. While I’m there, I can check with the others, see if anyone turned and got away before they could be . . . you know . . . dealt with. Just be glad that girl was alone. I’m not sure Ellie would’ve made it past more than one.”

“But what was that girl doing there? We’ve been so careful. We’re in the middle of nowhere. The winter won’t break for another month or two. There’s no reason for any kid to be wandering back where there were no kids in the first place. And she was out during the day. Jayden, what if they’re adapting, or changing again?” Lord knew, they already had enough problems without having to worry about peopleeaters taking over their days, too.

“I don’t know, Hannah. If they are, there’s not much we can do about that. Let’s just chalk it up as one more big booga-booga supernatural mystery, all right?” Pushing back from the table, he gave her a tight smile. “Or a God-miracle, how about that?”

“Don’t.” Her eyes dodged to her books. “Don’t be angry with me.”

“Angry? Oh, Hannah.” There was a short silence and then the heavy tread of his boots as he headed for the door. “I wish I could be, because that would be so much easier.”

38

Two hours into this, and he was still doing all the talking, telling stories from after ’Nam: “. . . laid open my leg with a saw, and I’m thinking, no way I’m going to the emergency room. So I wander over to my neighbor, this lady doc, and show her—”

“S-someone . . . someone m-made them.” Story forgotten, Weller pulled from his slouch. Now we’re cooking. He’d settled Tom onto his cot, and Weller now saw that the boy’s eyes were glazed, a little unfocused. Setting his own mug on the floor, Weller slid a finger to one of Tom’s wrists, felt that slow, steady pulse. Tom was a tough nut, but not even he could fight two Xanax, their aluminum bite covered with strong coffee and sugar. Better living through chemistry. A grim thought but entirely appropriate.

“Made them.” When there was no response, Weller gave the boy a little shake. “Tom?”

“Uhm.” Rousing himself, Tom swallowed. “Well. More like . . .” Tom had squared his mug on his chest, but when he tried to drink, the mug nearly slipped from his slack fingers.

“Here, let me take that.” Weller gently extricated the mug and set it down beside his. “Tell me what you saw.”

“They’re different.”

They. “More than one?”

“Uh-huh.” Tom gave a lethargic nod. “Boy, in the . . . the trees.”

“A boy. Waiting?”

“No.” Tom’s head rolled left then right. “Watching.” He licked his lips. “He should’ve come . . . come after me. I was beat up. Hurt. Had the Bravo by then, probably could’ve taken him down, but if there’d been more . . . don’t know if I would’ve made it. Only the kid . . . didn’t. He was . . . learning? No, s’not right. Studying. Maybe even . . . connected somehow.”

“Connected?” That got his attention. Jesus Christ, don’t tell me he actually figured out how. “How do you know that, Tom? What do you mean, connected? To the girl?”

“Yeah. Jusss . . . a feeling. I think there were others, too.”

“More Chuckies? Back in the trees?”

Tom nodded again. His skin was paler than his bandages. “But I thought . . . I also saw men.”

Weller felt the spit wick off his tongue. “What?”

“Men. Old. At least two, maybe three. They were—”

“Watching,” Weller finished for him. His stomach went icy. “Maybe evaluating?”

“Or working together. I think so.” Withdrawing his right arm from beneath a thick blanket, Tom held it, unsteadily, in front of his face before turning it to show Weller the crisscross of cuts and scrapes. “It makes no sense. That girl could’ve come for me earlier. I was . . .” His eyes rolled, drifted away, then gradually tacked to true. His words got mushier. “I wassen . . . wasn’t paying attention. Sh-she only showed herself after . . .”

“After you cut your hands. When the wind changed and she got your scent.” Which meant something Tom was not saying: that the girl, the boy, those other Chuckies and men probably came from somewhere relatively close—and goddamn it.

“Her . . . her eyes. J-jacked u-up.” Tom rubbed a slow hand over his mouth. “D-drugged.”

Even though he’d steeled himself for this, the word knocked him back. “Drugged. You think she was fed something?”

Tom moved his head in a slow, deliberate nod. “When you’re outside the w-wire . . . d-don’t sleep. Can’t.”


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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