“Don’t you judge us.” Her gray eyes went flinty. “Don’t you dare. I don’t owe you answers, Chris. You think you’re so superior, so right? You know nothing about us.”

“You don’t know me either. You’re not even interested in my point of view. You’ve already judged me.” His voice was shaky. The low simmer in his gut was near a boil. “So, fine. Let’s do a little math, Hannah, because math is clean, it’s pristine, it’s so scientific that Jayden would approve. You can’t massage numbers. There’s no arguing with two plus two.”

“This is pointless—”

He rode over her. “Not counting me and Nathan, there are eleven bodies in that death house. Assuming your group started with twenty people, give or take, that means you’ve lost seventy percent of your original population in five months.”

“Some of those people were old.”

“But the majority weren’t, isn’t that right? Some kids Changed after and either you killed them before they could Change all the way or once they had. But there were others, Hannah—others who were sick and you couldn’t help. So they died.”

“You can’t always cheat death, Chris.”

Yeah, but there’s a time for everything, even death. Then he thought, Get out of my head, Jess. Aloud, he said, “Let’s exclude the kids who Changed, okay? What about the others, the ones who were just plain sick? Why not accept help? Hannah, do the math. At this rate, by the end of the year, there won’t be any of you left.”

“Is that why you came, Chris?” Her voice was cold. “To convince us to go back with you?”

“Maybe. In the beginning.”

“What about now?”

“Beats me.” He threw up his hands. “I don’t know. I think there’s a better way than simply giving up and accepting, all right?”

“You want to fight.”

“Of course I want to fight. Life may not be great, but it beats dying. I just don’t know how to change things in Rule, or if I even can.”

“Is that where you want to go? Back to Rule?”

“I don’t know.” If his grandfather had anything to say about it, he’d be dead or in the prison house before he had a chance to do anything. “This whole thing about Isaac? It was a setup. I was supposed to find out about Jess and Simon and Yeager. I was supposed to figure out about the Zone.” And Peter. “I see it’s wrong. But I also understand.”

“You understand?”

“Yes, I really do see both sides,” he said, and thought, Chris on the right, Chris on the left. Eeny-meeny . . . “Not everything about Rule is bad. Like, take Ellie: You seriously believe an eight-year-old girl isn’t better off someplace where she can be protected? Or that she even has the ability to make that choice? What if she was seven? Or four? How young is too young to know better?”

“You’ve got a point?”

“Yes. You have a cutoff where it’s no longer a kid’s choice. But how did you get there, Hannah? What makes you think you’re right?”

Hannah threw up her hands. “Fine. We’ll never agree. You are so like Peter, wanting to reduce all of life and death to cutoffs and percentages, when to step in, when not to.”

Of all the things she could’ve said, this wasn’t it. “Wait a minute,” he said as she stood. “What do you mean? How well did you know Peter?”

“Well enough.” She was already turning away. “I really don’t want to talk about this right now, Chris.”

“But what if I do? What if I need to? Hannah.” He had to snatch back the impulse to grab her wrist. “Please. Please don’t go. Please . . . what are you talking about?”

He saw the warring emotions chase over her face, and the moment she made her decision. “I’m talking about the accident,” she said.

“Accident?” he said. “What accident?”

“You’re not going to like it, Chris. You think you’ve found out all there is to discover about Peter? About Simon?” She showed a brittle smile. “Believe me, those waters run deep.”

“What accident?” he said again.

“The accident two years ago,” she said. “When Penny killed a girl.”

59

“Wait. Just . . . just hold on.” Gulping air, Alex eyed a splashy tangle of guts and one tiny paw with its broken nib of bone. Squashed bunny didn’t bother her. What ticked her off was that in the last two days since arriving at the lake house, this was the only rabbit she’d snared.

As the trammeled and bloody snow wavered, Alex propped her hands on her thighs and hung her head, praying both that the dizziness would pass and Darth—the nickname she’d given to her guard—wouldn’t feel inspired to use the butt of his rifle, or a fist. A chronic mouth-breather, Darth was the kind of sinus-challenged kid with adenoids the size of baseballs that always had the seat behind yours for a major test. If anyone ever felt the need to make another Star Wars, though . . . When Wolf wasn’t around, Darth enjoyed the random punch, a swift swat. She even understood. She got grumpy, too, when she was starving. Except Darth had the Mossberg.

“Just give me a minute, Darth,” she said. “Okay?” While this was only her second day at the lake house, she was fast coming to know Darth’s scents and moods. From his impatient fizz, she knew it wasn’t okay at all, but screw it. The kid was a brute and as noisy as a locomotive. She wouldn’t put it past Darth to let her faint and then either quietly slide back into the house until she froze or put a boot on her throat. By the time Wolf got back from his hunting expedition with Ernie and Marley, she’d be bones: Gee, Boss, I dunno; she was just here. After the fiasco in the cabin, she doubted Wolf would’ve left her alone if there hadn’t been enough in that bear bag to tide over the natives until his return. But she was finding it very tough to relax while Darth toyed with guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner.

Just when I thought things might finally break my way. That coil of wire she’d discovered in a cardboard box with other camping paraphernalia four days ago was the first piece of good luck she’d had. With Darth tagging after, she’d tramped far back into the woods and around the house, scoping out game trails. Plenty of tracks, lots of juicy little bunnies running around. Lay out sixteen snares and pray like hell.

Well—she studied the mess in the snow—she’d caught something, all right, only to have the rabbit snatched by an animal just as hungry as she. Got to be whatever’s following us. Probably a wolf, too. Those tracks were right. So was the smell, although there was still that queer something that was a little off and . . .


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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