This also translated into no real possibility of predictable resupply for her either. She sometimes ate when they ate, depending on whether the person they hunted down had a pack. If that poor soul did, she might score jerky or a granola bar or sardines. Once, she even gagged down a tiny foil packet of cat treats that promised to maintain good gum health and scrub away all that nasty tartar: Crunchy outside! Soft inside! Whatever worked.

More often than not, however, she got zip because Wolf came up empty. Then she was reduced to pebbly, desiccated rose hips, withered cattail tubers, dried-up platters of oyster mushrooms. And forget those wildly popular novels where the heroine muses on how raw pine would do in a pinch. Hah. HAH. Drinking turpentine would have been easier. Boiling the mess worked, but she wasn’t prepared for what happened to the water, which turned a bright blood-red. Just oh so appropriate. On the other hand, since rose hips and pine had loads of vitamin C, she wouldn’t die of scurvy.

Oh. Yay. Something was tracking them, too, and had been for the last week. An animal, although she wasn’t quite sure what. The scent was familiar and yet indescribable, one that made her think both of Ghost, her blue-eyed Weimaraner, and the road to Rule, where she’d seen the wolves and that yellow-eyed alpha male. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a wolf, not quite. She hadn’t spotted it yet, but kept a nervous eye peeled and her nose up. Any animal hungry and desperate enough would look for a chance to take down a person. Or maybe it was only after scraps? Shit out of luck, if true; Wolf ’s crew even cracked bones to suck out all the yummy marrow. If anything, one whiff of Wolf ’s cowl ought to send this animal running for the hills.

And that was odd, too. Because Wolf did have that wolf skin, yet neither he nor the others showed any awareness of this animal at all. Maybe they were too hungry to care.

Still. Freaked her out. Just one more thing to worry about. She didn’t know where they were going, or even why. But there was something stuck in Wolf ’s craw. It was in his smell, one that said family; that breathed safe in a sweet perfume of lilacs and honeysuckle; that was the scent of her father, ghosting from the haunted attic of her mind: Jump, sweetheart.

So she knew. Wherever they were headed, Wolf had been there already: hiding, healing, biding his time. Waiting for the perfect moment to come back and snatch her.

She supposed she ought to be grateful that she was off the Changed’s takeout menu, and that Wolf let her forage. Given how well they were doing—like, not—his new crew could’ve mutinied, killed him, and then eaten her. The fact that the other kids stuck with Wolf was a mystery, although in tough times, desperate people gravitated to a leader who at least held out hope. From the sparse pickings, she doubted other Changed were doing any better. Tom once said Napoleon figured out that armies marched on their stomachs, and the best leaders were those who not only got right down in the trenches with their men but took care of them first.

Wolf seemed to understand that. Whenever his crew bagged a nice, juicy someone, Wolf always hung back and made sure the others ate first before helping himself to whatever scanty leavings remained. So Wolf must have known just how precarious the situation was.

Which probably explained why, as they slept, Wolf always wedged himself between her and the others, spooning against her back: a proximity that made her throat flutter and her pulse quicken when her skin wasn’t trying to tear itself from her bones.

Now, ten days after pulling a Lady Lazarus, her luck had finally run out. She only had herself to blame. At the time, she was boiling a mess of white pine, daydreaming about food, and plotting murder— and so just wasn’t on her game.

Their current accommodations were miserable: a sad, two-room pile of aging logs and a couple busted windows. The walls were so warped, thin drifts of snow had silted in through the chinks. From the lingering aroma of aluminum and that small mountain of crushed empties in one corner, she suspected the original owner was some guy who came out to get away from it all. A little shooting, a lot of boozing—what’s not to like?

Judging from the rose light spraying an intact west window, it was late afternoon. Out of habit, Alex’s eyes automatically fell to Ellie’s Mickey Mouse watch, still on her wrist: 7:13. Of course, that wasn’t the correct time. For Mickey, it was always thirteen past seven, the moment when the watch finally threw in the towel after all that water. Another minute or so under the snow and she figured she would have, too.

Anyway, call it . . . five o’clock? Wolf and the others should be back soon, oh goody.

God, I hope he’s got something. An awful thought, but it wasn’t as if getting all broody about it would help whoever Wolf hunted down. Carefully easing Leopard’s knife into a dented camp pot seated over coals in the cabin’s fireplace, she gave her bloodred pine bark stew a stir. She couldn’t live on this stuff. It was famine food, like acorns. Of course, since she was starving, it was better than nothing. Hadn’t she read somewhere that you could fry the bark with olive oil, add a dash of salt? Yeah, the backwoods equivalent of potato chips. At the thought, a ghostly aroma of crunchy fried potatoes, of grease and salt, made her mouth water.

Come on, cut it out. This was the problem with hunger: all you thought about was food. She had to get a grip. Having been here before, she knew she was heading into dangerous territory as her body crept ever closer, day by day, to a very desperate place. Every time she pushed to a stand now, she got dizzy. The pit of her stomach was a continual sharp, beaky gnaw. Sometimes, she thought her monster had migrated down and was trying to eat its way out of her guts.

We’re all starving. She poked at the pine, moving very slowly, all too aware of Acne’s glittery stare and the urgent, raw fog of his hunger and just how closely his Mossberg tracked her. The last thing she needed was for Acne to mistake a sudden move and splatter her brains over a lousy piece of boiled bark. Given how famished he was, he might do it anyway, then beg Wolf ’s forgiveness later: Yeah, Boss, I know, bad call. Acne’s hunger had a real reek, too, the gassy aroma of fermenting fruit. Wonder if I smell the same way. She’d never stopped to think much about that. Probably, to Acne and the others, she smelled like raw steak. Nice southwest rub, juicy and done rare so the fat melts when you take a bite . . .

“Oh God, what I wouldn’t give for a steak,” she said. (To her left, Acne’s response was a fresh fume of rot and starvation. No surprise.) If only Acne hadn’t been in such a rush to get back indoors. Outside, she’d spotted all that chicken wire and thought, Garden? Somehow those crushed cans argued against it, but it was worth checking out. Man, she would kill for a wrinkly old potato or wizened carrot.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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