Ashes Page 2

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.


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 fullgrown? 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 earbuds was 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.”

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