by Mary Berman
Bugs swarmed over the patient’s body: thousands of fat shimmery dung-colored beetles, two inches long, ten-legged, with beady black eyes. They crowded so densely that the patient might have been coated in chocolate.
Ellie’s esophagus convulsed.
“Come on, Ellie,” said Jordan, sighing. Through his mask he sounded like a monster. He was standing beside her in his standard-issue lime-green bodysuit and oxygen tank, ready to lift the lid on the glass jar hooked up to his chest. “They’re just bugs. They can’t be that bad.”
Ellie wanted to slap him, but thought his mask would probably ruin the effect. She didn’t even want to look away from the patient, because if she did she would have to look at the rest of the emergency hospital, this collection of filthy white ragged tents clustered in what had once been West Potomac Park. Now the cherry trees were gone, the grass had been trampled into a brown-and-yellow mush, and the space was filled with rows and rows of yellow cots. Each cot bore a patient, and each patient bore a thousand alien bugs.
This patient was a youngish man who had, up until this point, been paralyzed by his horror of Jordan’s monster voice and green suit. Now he began to thrash and scramble, trying to get away. Ellie figured he was one of the many patients who insisted they only had an ordinary illness, not an alien-borne death sentence. He’d probably been forcibly committed to the hospital, hence his desperation to leave. After months of being made to do this job, Ellie could classify the patients to a T.
Nurse Priyansh, a deceptively powerful woman of about forty, pinned the patient down. She had tended to him up until this point, and she would continue to care for him post-extermination, once he was just regular-sick and not alien-infestation-sick. “Sshhh,” she murmured. “Sshhh, it’s okay, they’re here to help. Don’t look at him, look at me and Ellie. Just me and Ellie.”
The patient, still thrashing, looked doubtfully at Ellie. Ellie, so normal-seeming compared to Jordan. Ellie, with her jeans and rain boots and her rubber kitchen gloves. Ellie, probably making it obvious that she’d rather be anywhere else.
“Get a move on,” Jordan said. Nurse Priyansh looked at him reproachfully.
Ellie settled for punching him in the side of his thigh, right where she knew it would bruise. Then she swallowed hard, took the first of many deep breaths, and reached for a bug on the patient’s foot.
When the aliens came, they brought their own destruction.
No one realized it at first, of course. For a long time no one even knew the aliens were there. Not when the entire island of Manhattan flooded; not when the American west coast was ravaged by earthquakes; not when strange viruses cropped up in South Africa and Quebec and Brazil and France; not when the smog over Beijing and Shanghai and Hong Kong thickened and became so poisonous that millions died, and they finally had to evacuate the cities; not when Venice collapsed, and the Amazon rainforests disappeared entirely, and a nuclear accident rendered Honshu uninhabitable. Not when a million people died. Not when two million people died. Not when a billion people died.
Not, in fact, until shortly after the day when Ellie woke up to a swarm of fat brown beetles in her room and screamed bloody murder.
Her father dashed in nine seconds later with a crowbar. Ellie was still screaming, practically climbing up the wall, kicking off her blankets, cringing away from the floor and her pillows and the pile of clothes spilling out of her closet. Once she calmed down enough to speak, she began blubbering about the beetles. Roaches, she thought at first, and then she saw all the legs and she started freaking out all over again.
But her father looked in the closet and under the bed and all over the floor, and according to him, there were no beetles. To prove it, he summoned her mother, who also brought the family cat. Both of Ellie’s parents agreed that the room was bug-free, although the cat leapt from Mrs. Carnage’s arms and began pouncing around the room. But everyone knew that cats were always hunting things that weren’t there.
Ellie’s mother looked worried, but her father just looked irritated. The problem, he declared at top volume, was Ellie’s entomophobia, her near-crippling fear of bugs. It had plagued her since she was a child, but now she was taking it too far. The bugs did not exist, said Ellie’s father as the beetles skittered over his hands and poked their wriggly heads out of his buttonholes, as Ellie bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood. She was sixteen years old, too old for this crap. The bugs did not exist and she had better pull herself together, because this was getting ridiculous.
But if the problem was Ellie being ridiculous, she didn’t seem to be able to fix it. She eventually inched her way to the kitchen, and the bugs were there too, popping out of the egg carton, writhing as they tried to escape from the vegetable drawer. In the bathroom they tumbled out of the tub faucet with the water stream. Ellie didn’t shower for four days. When her mother finally locked her in the bathroom and refused to let her out until she bathed, she jumped in and out of the tub so fast she slipped and nearly cracked her head open.
The bugs were at school, too, and as time passed—as the school day shortened due to the cut-off train service and the administration’s inability to replace sick teachers, as the grocery store shelves emptied and then failed to fill back up—the swarms grew thicker. Ellie started finding excuses to leave class late so she would be alone in the hallway, so no one could see her shriek and jump around the invisible creatures that crawled into her path. She began carrying all her books in her backpack so she wouldn’t have to open her locker and find their little legs squirming in the dark damp corner behind her wadded-up gym clothes. In class she sat as still as possible, her eyes fixed on a single point near the corner of the blackboard, never raising her hand or drawing attention to herself if she could help it. She couldn’t focus on what the teachers were saying. Her grades began to drop, although by then no one was paying much attention to things like grades. She lost two pounds, then five, then ten.
And always, news coverage of people dying all over the country, all over the world. The news made it seem like the death toll was most disastrous in big cities, but Ellie could feel the effects even in her almost-rural Michigan hometown. Natural disasters, massacres, accidents, disease. And then, slowly, news of another sort.
Some people, maybe five percent of the population, were saying they could see strange creatures. Although the creatures were, roughly speaking, everywhere, they collected most densely on sick people and at disaster sites. The form of the creature was not consistent, though. Where one person would only see empty space, another might see a swarm of tiny red-eyed fanged animals, and another carnivorous vines.
Another might see bugs. Big roachlike things, but with too many legs.
Someone postulated that the swarms of invisible creatures were connected to the mounting death toll. A theory arose that it was an alien invasion, and that was the theory that stuck.
Other mutations cropped up, too. People developed toxic skin and grew extra arms and developed the ability to sniff out danger before it happened. The U.S. government, still housed in D.C. near the coast, had been ravaged by flooding and disease, but what was left of it pulled together a task force. They sent scouts all over the country to recruit people who could see the aliens. More importantly, people who could kill them.
“Oh my goodness,” said Ellie’s mother. The two of them were watching the evening news, one of the only channels left. Ellie’s mother was eating popcorn for dinner. She was sulking about it, but she hadn’t been able to do a good grocery shop for over a week; snack foods and frozen dinners were the only foodstuffs left in the house, and even the frozen dinners were iffy since the power kept flickering out. But Ellie still refused to touch the popcorn. Who knew what might be lurking in those kernels. “Look,” her mother went on. “It’s like what’s been happening to you!”
Panic rose in Ellie’s throat. “What are you talking about?”
“The bugs! Right? Last month, when you woke up screaming?”
“I was still asleep. I was dreaming,” Ellie insisted. Since that first week she’d stopped talking about the bugs. No one else could see them anyway. This whole month she had wished intensely that someone else could see them, and now that her wish had been granted she wished she were crazy after all.
“Are you sure? It’s exactly the same thing.”
“Yes, Mom, I’m sure. I can’t even see them anymore.” To prove she was all right she gritted her teeth and plucked a piece of popcorn out of the bowl. A beady-eyed head popped up to occupy the space.
Two months after the TV incident, and three months after the fateful morning with the bugs, Ellie was called to the school counselor’s office. Her heart sank, but she supposed it had only been a matter of time. If she could only deflect the counselor properly, maybe he would send her home and forget about her.
Except the counselor was not in his office. Instead, a small, thin, severe-looking woman in a dark green suit occupied Mr. Holman’s chair. She had a short, masculine haircut, a briefcase, and a cup of coffee. Real coffee. Ellie could smell it, heavy and intense, and it was that, not the woman’s serious odd suit or Mr. Holman’s absence, that set her immediately on edge. Her parents hadn’t been able to buy real coffee almost since the day that Ellie had seen the bugs.
A bug dangled from the ceiling right over the coffee cup, and it took Ellie a solid four seconds to tear her eyes from it.
She looked at the woman, who was regarding Ellie evenly. Her features were about as expressive as a cinderblock. “You’re Eleanor Carnage?”
“Uh,” said Ellie. “Where’s Mr. Holman?”
“Mr. Holman has kindly allowed me the use of his office,” the woman said. “The school has reported that you’ve been behaving oddly.”
Ellie bristled. “Who are you?”
“My name is Jessica Cox.” The woman didn’t stand, but she reached over the desk to shake Ellie’s hand. Suspiciously, Ellie shook it. Several fat bugs crawled out of Cox’s collar and into her hair. One wormed its way into her ear. Ellie stifled a scream.
Cox frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Nnn,” Ellie said. She swallowed. “Nothing.”
“Is it the creatures?”
Ellie startled. Cox’s eyes gleamed. Ellie tried to relax her features, but it was too late. Cox asked, “Where are they?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Carnage,” said Cox. Ellie’s spine stiffened. There was something ugly about Cox’s voice, despite her lack of expression: a menacing low hard resonance, like the vibration of demolition equipment.
So Ellie said, “They’re in your hair and there’s one in your ear. It’s probably eating your brains right now.”
Cox went a little pale, though to Ellie’s disappointment she maintained her composure. “How many? How many are on me?”
“I don’t know, ten? Leave me alone. I want to go home.”
“Ten. That’s not too bad. They don’t seem to do real damage in groups smaller than two hundred.” Then: “Can you touch them?”
“Can you kill them?”
Relief hit Ellie like a tidal wave. “No.”
“What do you mean, no? Do you mean you can’t bring yourself to do it, or do you mean they won’t die?”
“I mean no. I did try, in the beginning.” On the second day she had pulled on her thick rubber rain boots and tried to crush the bugs under her feet. They made the same crunchy noise as cockroaches, but as soon as she removed her foot they popped up and scuttled away. Insecticide didn’t have any effect on them at all.
“We’ll have to find you a partner who can, then,” Cox said to herself. “All right, Carnage, you’re coming with me.”
“I am not.”
“Yes, you are, to D.C. I expect you’ve seen the news. I’m recruiting you for our task force. You’ll be part of an extermination team, and you’ll work to save humanity. It’s a great honor,” said Cox, with her characteristic enthusiasm. She pulled a manila folder from her briefcase and handed Ellie a contract. At the top of the contract was printed a government seal. Ellie’s lungs seemed to have emptied themselves of air. “Sign that, and then we’ll go to your house so you can pack. You may say goodbye to your family before we get on the road, but make it quick. It’s a long way from Michigan to D.C.”
“I’m not going.”
“Even though you could mean the difference between life and death for the human race?”
The bug fell from the ceiling and plopped into Cox’s coffee cup. Ellie yelped and hurled herself back so hard she banged into the wall and knocked down Mr. Holman’s inspirational corkboard. Cox furrowed her brow, glanced at her coffee, wiped a few drops from her hand as though nothing was wrong. As though Ellie were crazy.
“No,” Ellie said.
“Well,” said Cox, lifting the cup to her lips. Ellie watched, mesmerized, as Cox took a delicate sip of coffee, and then as the bug poked its head out of her mouth and crawled across her nostrils. “I’m not really asking, you know.”
“No,” Ellie repeated.
“I don’t mean that in the metaphorical sense, Carnage. I mean it’s not a voluntary sign-up. You’re being conscripted.”
“I’m—wait, what?” Ellie flipped frantically through the contract. “You’re doing a draft? That wasn’t in the news!”
“We thought it might cause unnecessary panic.”
“What’s the point of the contract, then?”
“Well, we are going to pay you,” Cox said generously. “And we thought it might be nice to present people with the illusion of choice.”
“Come along, then.”
Ellie took a deep breath. “No.”
Cox scraped her chair back and strode over to Ellie, moving so fast and so decisively that she shook off eight of the ten bugs still clinging to her body. Ellie shrank against the wall. Cox’s hand clamped down on her shoulder, vice-tight. Ellie gasped.
“Carnage,” said Cox, and suddenly her voice was no longer cold and vaguely menacing but downright nasty. She steered Ellie out of the office. Ellie braced her heels against the floor, but it was no use. “Get this through your thick skull. I am not asking. You will accompany me to D.C., and you do yourself no favors by making the process difficult. If you keep this up I will have you arrested, and I assure you there are aliens in the prisons too. And there, you will have no escape route.”
Ellie continued to resist, but Cox was stronger and unyielding, and soon Ellie was dragged bodily through the school. She glared at the student aide as she passed, but he looked down at his desk and did not say a word. She couldn’t glare at the secretary. The secretary’s chair had been empty for two weeks.
Her mother freaked out, but there was nothing she could do. She rambled angrily for ten minutes and then screamed at Ellie’s father to do something and then clung tightly to Ellie while Ellie’s father talked to Cox. But Ellie’s father, after his conversation with Cox, actually seemed pleased, in a gruff, uncomfortable sort of way. “She’ll be doing good work,” he said to Ellie’s mom. “She’ll be all right.”
“She’s a baby!”
“You’re welcome to visit at any time,” Cox said politely, but like she wasn’t really listening. “Go and pack, Carnage.”
Ellie packed. She buried her face in the cat. She looked for a moment at the second-floor window in the back of the house, but where would she go? She said a tearful goodbye to her mother and a slightly less tearful one to her father. She promised to call. Then she climbed into the back of Cox’s black Suburban. They couldn’t fly to D.C.; the airports had shut down three weeks ago. A temporary measure, they said.
They paused only at rest stops. They entered no cities. There were no trains, no buses, nothing but endless stretches of concrete highway bordered by trees and occasionally by large piles of still-smoking ash. Eventually they reached the ravaged remains of D.C., and despite herself Ellie was astonished to see how horrific the city looked. The trees were dead or dying from flooding, the windows were smashed, the buildings’ brickwork crumbled, the roads cracked from earthquakes with dozens of cars piled up on shoulders and at instersections. Some people, an astonishing amount, were still dressed almost normally, walking about like ordinary pedestrians. But more were huddled, sick-looking and ragged, on street corners. There were more bugs here than Ellie had ever seen, than she had ever imagined, and roughly two thirds of the sick-looking people were positively covered with them. Ellie had to bury her face in her knees so she couldn’t see them anymore, so she wouldn’t throw up.
At last they reached their destination, a squat white-sided building across the basin from West Potomac Park. Ellie was given a room in what Cox called a “dormitory,” which was really a cement bunker about thirty stories underground. She was put on a team with another new recruit named Jordan Brown, a gangling eighteen-year-old from North Carolina, whose toxic skin killed the aliens but also anything else in a twenty-foot radius. They were assigned to hospital duty, and Ellie’s new life began.
Now Ellie crouched next to the patient’s body, paralyzed. No matter how many calm breaths she took, her heart still raced and her fingers still shook. Her hand was frozen six inches from the patient’s body, and she couldn’t make it move.
“It’s all right, Ellie,” Nurse Priyansh said softly. “Take your time.”
“It is not all right,” said Jordan. “Ugh, Ellie, honestly, get over yourse—”
Ellie’s hand flashed out and snatched one of the bugs. Jordan whipped the jar’s lid off and Ellie thrust the bug into the jar, squealing. A bright green tendril of gas wisped out, and the alien writhed as it died. Since the government hadn’t figured out how to bottle or synthesize the substance people like Jordan secreted, and since nothing else seemed to kill the aliens, they’d simply attached a container to his suit. When filled with Jordan’s toxin, the container served as a sort of extermination chamber.
The patient, who had stopped struggling in order to watch the procedure, whispered to Nurse Priyansh, “Did she really pick anything up?”
Ellie hated them all. The worst part, she thought, was not that nobody could see the bugs, but that no one else could sense them in any way, not even when they scuttled into a person’s bedsheets or slithered between someone’s teeth. She could hear them humming, their wing-cases clicking, their innumerable feet going tap-tap-tap on the hard shells of each other’s bodies. She could smell their weird faint odor, like rotted crysanthemums and dung.
One down. A hundred thousand to go.
“Well,” said Jordan when they were done the north wing. His jar was now jam-packed with bug corpses, which of course he couldn’t feel or see. Ellie always made him empty the jar into the incinerator, which he said was stupid, and when she wasn’t around he wouldn’t do it, and he would come back for the next shift with his jar still full to bursting. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“Get out of my face,” Ellie snarled. She collapsed on the empty cot at the end of the row. Her body felt like a washcloth that had been wrung out and left to soak in its own filth.
Jordan stuck his tongue out at her. The red tip of it bumped up against the inside of his mask, and he made a face. “Are you doing lunch?”
Lunch? Lunch was for people who hadn’t twisted themselves numb from the inside out. Ellie flapped a hand. “I’ll get to it.”
“Well, some of us are hungry now,” Jordan said. He had to return to the bunker for lunch because he couldn’t eat in public. “Stay and whine if you want, but I’m leaving. Remember, we’re doing the south wing in an hour.”
“Don’t make me hunt you down again like last week.”
“I’ll keep an eye on her, Mr. Brown,” Nurse Priyansh said. “Don’t worry. You enjoy your lunch.”
Jordan left. Ellie didn’t move. Nurse Priyansh, on her way out of the wing with a tub of used syringes, clicked her tongue sympathetically. “You don’t look well.”
“No one looks well. We’re in a hospital.” Nurse Priyansh herself had under-eye circles the size of craters.
“You aren’t infested, are you?”
Instinctively Ellie tensed, visualizing the bugs swarming on her skin, but out loud she only said, “I think I, of all people, would know.”
“How long have you been doing this?” Nurse Priyansh asked.
Ellie sighed. She liked Nurse Priyansh well enough, but she wished she would just go away. Things were too easy for her. Nurses got paid almost as much as the task force did, except they didn’t have to spend their lives surrounded by the objects of their nightmares. They didn’t even have to deprive themselves of all human touch like Jordan. “Eight months.”
“You need a break, Miss Carnage.”
“Can’t. The world needs me, or whatever.”
“There are other people who can see the aliens. Not many, but a few. You couldn’t get away for just a week? I’m sure Ms. Cox would understand.” Ellie snorted, and Nurse Priyansh relented. “Well, maybe not. But still. You’re no good to anyone if you burn yourself out.”
“There is no getting away.” Ellie’s voice cracked. “They’re everywhere.”
Nurse Priyansh was quiet for a moment. Then she remarked, “At least if you took some time off, you wouldn’t have to touch them for a while.”
Ellie didn’t reply. Soon Nurse Priyansh left. But Ellie stayed on the cot with her eyes closed. For another few hours this room would be devoid of aliens, and Ellie intended to soak that up for as long as she could. She lay there, clenching her jaw against the steel-cable tension in her neck, and thought reluctantly about what Nurse Priyansh had said.
When she’d first arrived in D.C., she had tried a couple of times to nab a ride and go back to Michigan. Cox had thwarted her every time. But Ellie had not attempted an escape for months. Maybe Cox had grown complacent. Besides, Ellie would come back. There was no point in staying away, not if the bugs were everywhere anyway. But just a week. Just a week to herself. One week.
She thought she could pull it off, and what were the consequences of trying? What was Cox going to do? Fire her?
In the end she almost couldn’t believe how easy it was.The next day, after Jordan left for lunch, she walked out of the hospital and started moving north until she reached the pile of abandoned cars on the freeway, the ones whose owners had bailed during the exodus that came after the second big flood. When the cars thinned out she found a Honda Civic with the keys in and half a tank of gas, and she started to drive.
She drove through the rest of the day, periodically filling the tank with scavenged gas, until she reached what was left of Connecticut. There she found a little town that still had some people in it. She bought a road map, about ten pounds of jerky and canned tuna and dried fruit and trail mix, and a pair of rubber gloves, plus two cans of Raid and a Citronella candle to deal with the ordinary bugs that she knew she’d find ather destination. Then she drove another five hours, most of it through unpopulated mountain territory, to her grandparents’ old log cabin in New Hampshire.
The cabin was perched on the mountainside, bordered on three sides by heavy forest and on the fourth by an unnamed lake. As a child, Ellie had called it the Lake of Shining Waters after the lake in the Anne of Green Gables books, but now she had to admit that it did not shine so much as sit stagnant and dull. Still, the water was clear, and the air was crisp and smelled of pine. The cabin itself was so comfortingly familiar that Ellie’s heart ached as she drove up to it. And there was another feeling, too, a sense of triumph and relief. She had escaped Cox. She was going to have her vacation.
First, though, she had to remove the aliens from the cabin. She’d promised herself she would, no matter how badly she wanted to avoid them. She refused to spend her vacation cowering in a corner waiting for bugs to crawl into her mouth.
She took a deep breath, tightened her rubber gloves, and flung the door open.
Something was wrong.
Ellie frowned. Gingerly she opened the cabinets, checked outside where the generator was, examined the empty fireplace. As she grew bolder she shook out the blankets and shone a flashlight into the cabin’s nooks and crannies.
There were no aliens here.
Ellie couldn’t believe it. The cabin was rife with spiders and ants and mosquitoes, but Ellie had come armed. Two hours later the cabin was bug-free, or at least as bug-free as Ellie could make a log cabin inthe middle of the woods. Her heart rate began to slow. Exhausted and wary, she collapsed into bed.
She slept like a corpse.
She woke like a jack-in-the-box the next day, but a quick search proved that there were still no aliens. Still incredulous, she went to the lake to pump water for her bath, but beneath the disbelief, unfamiliar feelings were bubbling in her chest. Elation. Relief. And the excitement of discovery, because this could change the tide of the extermination movement. The aliens were not on everything. Something here had killed them. Or they’d never reached this spot in the first place.
Ellie thought about the news reports. The news always covered densely populated areas, but there were no people here. The closest settlement was at the base of the mountain, and it consisted almost entirely of a general store and a church.
“They only want people,” Ellie said to the trees. A grin spread across her face until she was smiling so hard her cheeks hurt. “They only go where there’s people.”
She spent the week in a state of profound relaxation. To her surprise, the mosquitoes and spiders hardly bothered her. They were nothing compared to the swarms of fat unearthly beetles that had filled the last year. She still yelped when she glanced down and spotted a spider on her ankle, but after she had lashed out and flicked it away, it was gone. There were not a thousand after it, threatening to kill a human child unless she picked them up one by one with her fingers.
She ate the food she’d brought with her. She read the old crime novels and fairy tales that had been left here years ago. She swam in the lake. The most tedious part was gathering her own water and going to the bathroom in the woods, but even that was better than staring down a room full of shiny clicking squirming decapods and tugging on a pair of kitchen gloves while Jordan scoffed at her.
After five days she left the cabin and drove down to the settlement at the base of the mountain. She felt so light. Her veins thrummed and her limbs vibrated with joy. She couldn’t wait to call Cox.
“I can’t believe you!” Cox bellowed.
“But listen,” Ellie said impatiently. “They’re not here. I’m in the middle of nowhere—”
At the flint in Cox’s voice Ellie’s brain hesitated, and before it could catch up her mouth said, “Colorado.”
“Oh, so that’s where you went, is it? I sent scouts all the way to Michigan for you. Your parents are worried sick. You’d better be back here by midnight or so help me—”
“Cox! There are no aliens here!” Ellie jangled her pocketful of coins nervously. The old man who ran the general store had promised a recording would warn her when she needed to feed more money into the phone, but Ellie wasn’t convinced. “I knew they sort of preferred urban areas, but they’re not here at all!”
“Of course they’re not there,” Cox snarled. “Why would they be? They’re only interested in people.”
Ellie’s next sentence stuck in her throat. “Y-you already knew that? I didn’t know that.”
“That’s because we didn’t tell you. There was no need for you to know.”
“But . . .”
“Carnage,” Cox gritted out. “You have one job. That job is to help sick people who’ve been infested by the aliens. Okay? Not to examine alien habits, not to do original research, and not to go running off in the middle of your shift! The hospital has been a mess since you left! Get your sad insubordinate ass back here!”
“But this solves the problem!” Ellie’s words tripped over each other. “If we spread people out, the aliens won’t target them. It fixes everything! We can launch relocation initiatives. We can send people to Canada, or, or . . .”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We can’t just pick people up and put them down somewhere else. Move everyone out to the middle of nowhere? Tear them from their families, their homes, their livelihoods, their friends? Are you stupid?”
“It’s what you did to me!”
“You’re different. I’m not having this conversation with you. Get yourself back to D.C. before I come and drag you back by your hair.”
You’d never find me, Ellie thought, but that wasn’t the point. “But if staying in one place is what’s wiping out the human race—”
“Sedentariness isn’t killing us, Carnage. Aliens are.”
Ellie’s heart sank. “But I don’t . . .”
“You don’t what?”
“. . . Nothing.”
There was a sinister pause. Cox repeated, “Midnight.”
Ellie gulped. In a small voice she answered, “Yes.”
“Good,” Cox snapped. Then she hung up.
Ellie hung up, too. Sadly, she transferred the coins in her pocket back to her wallet’s zipper pouch. She drove to Massachusetts. To Connecticut. To the little store in the little town where she’d bought her trail mix and her Raid.
She parked outside of the store and sat in the car for a long time, staring at the blinking clock on the dashboard. A pair of fat brown ten-legged beetles fell onto her windshield. Ellie flinched.
After a minute, when it became clear that the bugs were not going to get off her windshield, she hopped out of the car and went inside. She bought four bags of food, a new sweatshirt, a pen and a notebook, a five-gallon can of gasoline, a box of envelopes and a book of stamps, and a copy of every paperback the store sold. She put it all in her trunk. She sat in the car for one final, still minute, then drove back to the Connecticut border. Back to New Hampshire. Back up the mountain, bypassing the settlement at the base of the hill.
She pulled up next to the cabin at twilight, just as pale rays of pink and lavender were beginning to filter through the trees. For a moment she remained in the driver’s seat with the window down, breathing in the scents of pine and fresh water, listening to the birds and waiting for guilt to strike her. It never did