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Excerpt

Excerpt

Ashes

Chapter 1

Four days later, Alex perched on a knuckle of bone-cold rock and whittled an alder branch to a toothpick as she waited for her coffee water to boil. A stiff wind gusted in from the northwest, wet and cold. Far below, the Moss River sparkled with sun dazzle, a glittering ribbon that wound through a deep valley of leafless hardwoods, silver-blue spruce, and the darker green of dense hemlock and feathery white pine. The chilly air smelled chilly—which is to say that for Alex, it really smelled like nothing at all. Which Alex was pretty used to, having not smelled anything for well over a year.

The cold was a surprise, but then she’d never hiked the Waucamaw in late September either. The Waucamaw Wilderness had always been a summer adventure with her parents when pesky no-see-ums, bloodsucking mosquitoes, and heat that could melt a person to a sweat puddle were her biggest problems. Now, she was crunching over brittle ice and skidding on frost-covered roots and bare rock every morning. The going was treacherous, each step an invitation to turn an ankle. The farther north and the closer to Lake Superior she got—still two days in the future and nothing but a hazy purple smear smudging the horizon—the greater the risk of bad weather. She could just make out, to the very far west, beneath a slate layer of clouds, the feathery, blue-gray swirls of rain blowing south. But for her, the way ahead was nothing but blue skies: a day that promised to be crisp and picture-perfect, and something she was pretty sure her parents would’ve loved.

If only she could remember who they were.

In the beginning, there’d been smoke.

She was fifteen and an orphan by then, which was kind of sucky, although she’d had a year to get over it already. When the smoky stink persisted and there was no fire, her aunt decided Alex was having one of those post-traumatic things and shipped her off to a shrink, a complete gestapo-wannabe who probably wore black stilettos and beat her husband: Ah zo, ze smoke, zis is a repetition of your parents’ crash, yah? Only the shrink was also pretty smart and promptly shipped Alex off to Barrett, a neurosurgeon, who found the monster.

Of course, the tumor was cancerous and inoperable. So she got chemo and radiation, and her hair and eyebrows fell out. The upside: her legs and pits never needed shaving. The downside was that the antinausea drugs didn’t work—so just her luck—and she puked about every five minutes, driving the bulimics at school a little nuts because she was, like, this total pro. In between treatments, she stopped puking and her hair, rich and red as blood, grew back. A chronic headache muttered in her temples, but like Barrett said, no one ever died from pain. True, but some days you didn’t much enjoy living either. Eventually, the smell of smoke went away—but so did the smell of everything else, because the monster didn’t shrivel up but continued silently growing and munching.

What no one warned her about was that when you had no sense of smell at all, a lot of memories fizzled. Like the way the smell of a pine tree conjured a quick brain-snapshot of tinsel and Christmas lights and a glittery angel, or the spice of nutmeg and buttery cinnamon made you flash to a bright kitchen and your mother humming as she pressed pie crust into a glass dish. With no sense of smell, your memories dropped like pennies out of a ripped pocket, until the past was ashes and your parents were blanks: nothing more than the holes in Swiss cheese.

A stuttering beat, something between a lawnmower and a semiautomatic rifle, broke the silence. A moment later, she spotted the plane—a white, single-prop job—buzzing over the valley, heading north and west. Her eyes dropped to her watch: ten minutes to eight. Sucker was right on time. After four days, she decided that it was the same plane that made a twice-daily run, a little before eight every morning and about twenty minutes after four every afternoon. She could pretty much set her watch by the guy.

The buzz of the plane faded and the quiet descended again like a bell jar over the forest. The hollow thock-thock-thock of a woodpecker drifted up from the valley far below. A trio of crows grated to one another in the pines, and a hawk carved a lazy spiral against the sky.

She sipped her coffee, heard herself swallow. The coffee smelled and tasted like nothing, just hot and brown. Then, something—a soft, tan blur—moved out of the corner of her eye, off to the right. She tossed a quick glance, not expecting anything more exciting than a squirrel or maybe a chipmunk.

So the dog was, well, kind of a surprise.

 

Chapter 2

She froze.

The dog was lean but muscular, with a broad chest, black mask, and sable markings. It looked like a German shepherd but was much smaller, so maybe not full grown? A bright blue pack was snapped around the dog’s middle, and a length of choke chain winked around its neck.

From somewhere down the trail came the faint scuffle of leaves. The dog’s ears swiveled, though its dark eyes never left Alex. Then a man’s voice drifted over the rise: “Mina? You got something, girl?”

The dog let out a low whine but didn’t budge.

“Hello?” Her throat was very dry, and the word came out more like a croak. She slicked her lips, tried swallowing past a tongue suddenly as rough as sandpaper. “Um . . . could you call your dog?”

The man’s voice came again. “Oh my God, I’m sorry. Don’t worry, she won’t hurt you. . . . Mina, down, girl.”

The dog—Mina—instantly obeyed, sinking to its belly. That was encouraging. The dog didn’t look half as ferocious lying down.

 “She down?” the man called.

And if she wasn’t? Then what? “Uh-huh.”

“Excellent. Hang on, we’re almost . . .” A moment later, a weedy man with a thatch of white hair labored over the rise, a walking stick in his right hand. He was dressed like a lumberjack, right down to the black turtleneck beneath a red flannel shirt. A sheathed hatchet dangled from a carry loop attached to the frame of his pack.

The girl—a kid with blonde pigtails—was a step or two behind. A pink Hello Kitty daypack was strapped to her back, and she wore both a matching pink parka and a scowl. A pair of white earbudswas screwed into her ears, the volume so loud that Alex caught the faintest thump of bass.

“Hey there,” the old guy said. He nodded at Alex’s coffee press. “Smelled that halfway down the trail and decided to follow my nose, only Mina beat me to it.” He stuck out a hand. “Jack Cranford. This is my granddaughter, Ellie. Ellie, say hello.”

“Hi,” said the girl, colorlessly. Alex thought she was maybe eight or nine and already had way too much ’tude. The kid’s head bobbed the tiniest bit with the throb of her music.

“Hey,” Alex said. She didn’t make a move to take the old guy’s hand, not only because this guy, with his hatchet and dog and sullen granddaughter, was a complete stranger, but because the way the dog stared made her think that it would be just as happy to take her hand first.

The old guy waited, his smile wobbling a bit and a question growing in his eyes. When Alex didn’t volunteer anything else, he shrugged, took his hand back, and said, genially, “That’s okay. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t trust me either. And I’m sorry about Mina. I keep forgetting there are a couple packs of wild dogs in the Waucamaw. Must’ve scared the bejesus out of you.”

“That’s okay,” she lied, and thought, Wild dogs?

The silence stretched. The kid bobbed and looked bored. The dog began to pant, its tongue unfurling in a moist pink streamer. Alex saw the old guy’s eyes flick from her to her tent and back. He said, “You always talk so much?”

“Oh. Well . . .” How come adults got away with saying things that would sound rude coming out of her mouth? She groped for something neutral. “I don’t know you.”

“Fair enough. Like I said, I’m Jack. That’s Ellie and that’s Mina. And you are . . . ?”

“Alex.” Pause. “Adair.” She wanted to kick herself. Answering had been a reflex, the way you didn’t ignore a teacher.

“Pleased to meet you, Alex. Should’ve known you had a wee bit of the Irish with those leprechaun eyes and that red mane. Don’t run into many Irish in these parts.”

“I live in Evanston.” Like that answered something. “Uh . . . but my dad was from New York.” What was she doing?

The old guy’s left eyebrow arched. “I see. So, you by yourself up here?”

She decided not to answer that one. “I didn’t hear your dog.”

“Oh, well, I’m not surprised. That’s her training kicking in, I’m afraid. Actually, she’s not mine. Technically, she belongs to Ellie here.”

 “Grandpaaaaa . . .” The kid did the eye-roll.

“Now, Ellie, you should be proud,” Jack said. To Alex: “Mina’s a Malinois, actually . . . Belgian shepherd. She’s a WMD, working military dog. Used to work bomb-detection, but she’s retired now.” He tried on a regretful smile that didn’t quite make it to his eyes. “She belonged to my son, Danny . . . Ellie’s dad. KIA. Iraq, about a year ago.”

The girl’s lips drew down and an edge of color flirted with the angle of her jaw, but she said nothing. Alex felt a little ping of sympathy for the kid. “Oh. Well, she’s a really nice dog.” Which, as soon as she heard the words leaving her mouth, made her cringe. She knew how awkward people got when they found out you’d lost a parent. Even the word made it feel like, somehow, it was your fault.

The girl’s eyes, pallid and silver, slid from Alex’s face to the ground. “She’s just a stupid dog.”

“Ellie,” Jack began, then bit back whatever else he’d been about to say. “Please take out your earplugs now. You’re being rude. Besides, it’s too loud. You’re going to ruin your hearing.”

Again with the eye-roll, but the kid uncorked her ears and let the buds dangle around her neck. Another awkward silence and then Alex said, impulsively, “Look, I just made coffee. Would you guys like some?”

The girl gave her a duh, hello, I’m a kid look, but Jack said, “I’d love a cup, Alex. We can even make a contribution.” Jack winked. “You won’t believe this, but I packed in some Krispy Kremes.”

Grandpaaaaa,” the girl said. “We were saving them.”

“That’s okay,” Alex put in quickly. “I just had break—”

“We are having doughnuts.” Jack’s tone took on an edge, and Alex heard the ghosts of a lot of old arguments.

“Sure, that would be great,” Alex chirped, so cheerily she sounded like Alvin on speed. “I love doughnuts.”

“They’re probably stale,” said Ellie.

 

Chapter 3

The Krispy Kremes were stale—she still got texture—but dunked fine. To Alex, they tasted like wet paste.

“I used to take a French press, only this one time I forgot to grind the beans beforehand.” Jack dumped powdered creamer into his mug and stirred. “Ended up smashing the beans with my ax.”

Ellie broke off another bite of a chocolate-dipped with sprinkles, flipping the morsel expertly to the dog, who snapped it up in midair. “Isn’t that, like, being totally addicted?”

Jack colored. Alex felt sorry for the old guy and said, “I’d have done the same thing.”

Ellie gave her a withering look, but Jack only chuckled. “Well, I wouldn’t recommend it. That coffee was so strong, my teeth curled . . . Ellie, honey, that doughnut’s going to make Mina sick. Chocolate’s not good for dogs.”

“She’s fine,” Ellie said, and flipped more doughnut to the dog.

Alex changed the subject. “So where are you guys from?”

“Minneapolis,” Jack said. “I used to be a reporter—foreign correspondent for the Trib. Haven’t been able to write a lick since Danny died. My editor’s tearing his hair out. Seeing as how he’s already bald, that’s kind of a challenge, but he’s a good guy.”

Ellie snorted. “Is that why you call him a jerk every time you get off the phone?”

What was with this kid? “My English teacher said that a writer is the worst judge of his own work,” said Alex.

“Maybe. Mostly, I don’t much believe in my writing anymore. People don’t care. Most have the attention span of gnats and can’t be bothered. Like that baloney about combat operations in Iraq being over? What a crock. It’s political. What they don’t tell you is that for the guys still over there, the rules of engagement are the same, and there’s plenty of shooting—” Breaking off, Jack sighed, then ran a hand through a swirl of snowy-white cowlick. “Sorry. That makes me sound angry and bitter. I’m not. It’s just . . .”

“Well, you ought to be mad,” Ellie said, with sudden heat. “My dad’s dead, but no one’s going to jail. He gets blown up, and all I get is a stupid dog. How come that is?”

“Now, Ellie, we’ve talked about this. In a war—”

“A war? What kind of answer is that?” The girl hurled the rest of her doughnut at the dog. Surprised, the dog retreated a few steps and darted an anxious look at Jack.

Alex couldn’t help herself. “You ought to be nicer to your grandfather. He isn’t doing anything to you.”

“Who cares what you think? You’re not my mother. I don’t know you!” Ellie kicked at Alex’s WindPro. The tiny stove overturned and the coffee press tumbled to the rocks in a spray of glass and hot liquid. The dog danced out of the way with a startled yip. “No one asked you!”

“Ellie!” Jack made a grab for his granddaughter. “That’s enough!”

“I hate this.” Ellie slithered out of reach. “I hate this, I hate you, I hate these woods, I hate everybody! Just leave me alone!”

“Cool off!” Jack rapped, his patience finally snapping. “Go for a walk. Get control of yourself, you understand me?” “Fine!” Ellie spat. She jammed in her earbuds and stalked in the direction of the trail Alex had traveled the day before. The dog began to trot after, but the girl hurled a command over her shoulder: “Stay!” The dog faltered, then took another uncertain step after the girl. Ellie fetched up a stick and cocked it like a baseball bat. “Stay, you dumb dog, stay!”

“Ellie!” Jack roared. “Don’t you dare hit that dog! Mina, come!” As the dog sprinted back, Jack said to the girl, “Sweetheart, honey, why do you have to be so hateful?”

“Why not?” Ellie said. “It’s not like being good ever got me anywhere.” Then she whirled on her heel and flung herself into the woods.

“It’s been a very hard year. With her mother gone God-knowswhere and my Mary passed on, it’s just me,” Jack said. He cupped a handful of jagged glass. “Look, I’ll be happy to pay for this.”

“No, no, it’s okay. I understand,” Alex said, but she was pissed. Jack was nice enough, but she had her own problems and, now, no coffee press. Thank God she’d packed instant. She inspected her WindPro and almost groaned. Two of the struts were bent, and she didn’t like the way the fuel hose was kinked. With her luck, she’d have to take a rock to the metal, maybe bash it straight.

“Careful you don’t cut yourself, Jack.”

“Oh, I’m pretty tough for an old bird. Well, all except my ticker. Got me this new pacer about six months ago.” Jack dumped glass into the empty Krispy Kreme bag. “It’s Ellie got me worried. She’s a little time bomb. I was hoping if I could get away with her awhile, maybe do some fishing . . People mean well, but there’s just so much sympathy a little girl can take.”

Alex could definitely relate. Everyone was always so sorry when, really, sorry was just a word you said because it was more polite than whoa, better you than me. “Where’s her mom?”

Jack grunted. “Hell if I know. She took off a year after Ellie was born. Said she needed time to get her head on straight, needed to find herself. Get herself lost is more like it. Haven’t seen her since. You know the world’s screwed up when they make you get a license if you want a dog but let any fool have a kid.” He sighed.

“A lot of this is my fault.”

“How do you figure that?”

Jack waved a hand at the dog, which sprawled on its belly in a doze. “Mina was my idea. Once the dogs are retired—if they’re too banged up to work or just plain old—the military lets handlers’ families adopt, if they want. Mina was wounded in the same blast that killed Danny, so I thought having her would make Ellie feel better, like having a little bit of her father still around. He lovedthat dog, but Ellie hates it. She’s really not a bad kid. Most of the time she’s about as cooperative as you can expect a sad, really angry eight-year-old girl to be.”

“That doesn’t sound so great.”

“You get used to it. I thought it would do her good to unplug and get out in the fresh air, spend some time with Mina . . .” Jack waved away the rest. “Enough of that. So what’s your story?”

“Me?” Alex gave up trying to force the WindPro’s bent struts. “I’m just figuring things out.”

“Where you headed?”

“Mirror Point.”

“On Superior? That’s pretty damn far. I wouldn’t want my daughter out here alone. No telling what might happen.”

She knew Jack meant well, but one of the perks of being terminally ill was you got to break all kinds of rules. So she pushed back. “Jack, I don’t need your permission, and I didn’t ask for your opinion.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m not going to give it. You kids think you’re invulnerable, but there are wild dogs in these woods and all kinds of nuts.”

Not to mention old guys poking their noses in other people’s business. But that would be too snarky, and she had a feeling that Jack washassling her because he couldn’t fix Ellie. So she focused on dismantlingher WindPro and let the silence go. After a moment, Jackreached down to squeeze her shoulder. “Sorry. I know I’m just being an old fart.”

“Jack,” she said, exasperated both with her stove and the conversation.“I appreciate your concern, but it’s really none of your—”

All of a sudden, Jack’s hand clamped down hard enough to hurt. Surprised, she looked up and then whatever she’d been about to say evaporated on her tongue when she got a good look at his face.

“I . . .” Jack’s face twisted in a sudden spasm, and he pressed the heels of both hands to his temples. “I . . . wait, wait . . .”

“Jack!” Alarmed, she reached for him—and then she saw the dog. Mina was completely rigid, her muscles quivering, the hackles along her spine as stiff as a Mohawk. The dog’s black lips curled back to reveal two glistening rows of very sharp, very white teeth, and a growl began somewhere in the dog’s chest.

Alex felt a stab of fear. “Jack, Mina’s—”

Jack gagged, a deep, harshly liquid sound. An instant later, a sudden jet of bright red blood boiled from his mouth to splatter onto the icy rocks. Alex screamed just as Mina let out a sudden high yelp—

And a second later, the pain had Alex, too.

Ashes
(The Ashes Trilogy #1)
by by Ilsa J. Bick