Oh, screw it. Wolf, not-wolf, who cares? She smeared an angry tear from the corner of her right eye. Crying wouldn’t help either. Only thing to do was move the snare to a different game trail and start over.

And look on the bright side, Alex. Here you were so worried about what to use for fish bait. Mounding the half-frozen guts into a rough snow bowl, she gave the mess a grim stir with her forefinger and fished out a small, roughly triangular squib of flesh. Oooh, and what do we have here?

“Darth, want to see another trick my dad taught me?” Popping the rabbit’s heart into her mouth, she swallowed it back and licked her lips. “Yum, yum,” Alex said. “Deelish.”

Maybe an hour later, she eyed Ellie’s watch. (Habit. Mickey was still dead. But wearing the watch made her feel better.) Whenever now was, it was as good a time as any to search the boathouse before all those great bunny guts went to waste.

The day was brilliant, the snow dazzle bright enough to scorch purple afterimages, the sun a gold coin that made her shadow puddle at her feet. She shut her eyes against the glare, tried to imagine her cells wringing energy out of sunlight. She had to find something more to eat than bark and twigs and the occasional ant or bunny heart. The boathouse was the only place left where she might find something useful. After scrounging around the main lake house, basement, and garage, she’d come up with some nice stuff: the snare wire, a camp stove, bottles of propane fuel, a Coleman lantern, even a decent one-man tent. The stove seemed like a taunt. The wire she was using for snares was too stiff for fishing, though. Unless she decided to start pulling out her hair and braiding it together for fishing line, that left the boathouse. Because lakes had fish, right? Hack through the ice somehow, drop in a line. Offer a sacrifice to the gods, or something.

Earlier, when Alex was stewing up her oh-so-wonderful pot of white pine, she’d happened to glance over at Penny, stretched on a frayed leather couch squared before the great room’s picture window. Plenty of light to see by—and damn if Alex hadn’t spotted this brief but very distinct little ripple. Not a punch or a kick. More like something rolling over in its sleep.

She knew more about quantum physics than she did about pregnancy, and since Alex knew as much about quantum physics as she did Outer Mongolia . . . she was virtually clueless. None of the very few kids she’d hung with in high school got pregnant or knew anyone who had. All she remembered from those informational drool-fests from high school health was that how much you showed and when depended on how tiny you were. And you could feel the baby move on the inside . . . at four months? And from the outside at five to six months? Something like that.

So Penny’s at least five months, and maybe more like six or seven. Alex had folded a drippy strip of boiled pine into her mouth. The stuff smelled like Christmas and tasted like stale Dentyne peeled from the underside of a school desk, right next door to a booger. Meaning she was pregnant before the Zap.

Which was something to think about.

So had Peter brought Penny here before or after things fell apart? Peter had to be involved, somehow. Peter and the Council set up the Zone, Peter was head of security, Peter made sure the Changed were fed. Unless Penny was already here before the Zap, Alex couldn’t see how Peter managed to move her without Penny ripping off his face. Knocked her out somehow?

Or what if she knows Peter the way Wolf knows me?

Neither scenario accounted for Wolf, who’d been with Spider and the rest of his high school buddies when Alex had bumbled into the Zone. Unless she had it the wrong way around. From the lake house photograph at the Yeager place, she’d seen that Simon and Peter were tight. So maybe Simon knew about this place, and Wolf had wanted to take Penny someplace he thought was safe, a place he could visit every now and then to resupply and check up on her?

This begged an obvious question, too. Alex had assumed Wolf was the father. Now, she wasn’t sure. Oh, Wolf cared about Penny plenty. He was always watching out for her, carrying things that were too heavy, making sure she—and then his guys—ate before he took a single morsel for himself.

But Wolf never touched Penny. They didn’t snuggle. He didn’t hug her. Never put a hand on her stomach. (Although maybe guys only did that in chick flicks; she didn’t know.) There was nothing intense between Penny and Wolf, no spark. In high school, you always knew who the couples were, no matter how übercool and below-the-radar they were about it. Their heat was in their eyes, the glances they shared, the way the air thickened. Like how the very first time she got close to Tom, inhaled his smoky musk, the tug of her attraction had been immediate. When they had kissed, that one moment deepened to something vital, as elemental as air.

The only time anything like that happened with Wolf, when his scent shifted and became an aroma that was safety and family and desire, was around her. The only person to whom Wolf seemed truly attached and attracted, and for whom he would risk his life, was . . . her.

Which was just so frigging great.

The boathouse was an A-framed one-room cabin on stilts, but with no boats or canoes or even kayaks slotted underneath. As soon as she forced the door, she realized she was looking at a man cave: a place where a guy and his buds crashed to get away from the main house. The décor screamed boy, too. Two single beds, one still rumpled; a tiny four-drawer bureau; two straight-backed chairs; a bookcase crammed with puzzles, a cribbage board, two decks of cards, board games, and stacks of smeary magazines she knew better than to leaf through. A curling Star Wars poster, Luke battling Vader, thumbtacked over the bookshelf. A ring of keys and an old windup alarm clock rested on a plank shelf on the left wall beside the bed, along with road atlases of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan. Several jackets hung from nails just inside the door. Even through the deep cold and Darth’s baseline sunscorched opossum stink plugging her nose, the boathouse had just the right boy-smell, too: sharp deodorant, foot powder, Irish Spring.

Yet there were two other nose-crinkling odors. One was a campfire odor, or like chemistry class, when they’d ignited magnesium. The other was . . . Her mind flashed to chemo, and an oncology nurse feeling for a vein before hooking Alex up to a brown IV bag of cisplatin. Hospital smell, that was it. Alex hauled in more air, worrying the smells—and then forgot all about sulfur and flammable metals. Because this time . . .

Oh God. Her stomach tightened against a whiff of sweet summer. She got a memory-pop, a flashbulb moment of her dad: Relax, honey, she’s wash and wear.


Tags: Ilsa J. Bick Ashes Trilogy Horror
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