Home > Shadows (Ashes Trilogy #2)

Shadows (Ashes Trilogy #2)
Author: Ilsa J. Bick

Prologue - For Those Who Fight

People ain’t the way they used to be.

—Shirley Jackson

FUBAR: that was Jed’s name for it. Once a Marine, always a Marine. He didn’t know what to call the kids. Some said zombies, but that wasn’t right. Zombies were the walking dead, and these kids were the furthest thing. Chucky got tossed around, probably started by a fellow vet who just couldn’t keep ’Nam from rattling around his head, but the name also rang true. These kids came at you out of nowhere just like the Viet Cong.

And the Chuckies were nightmares, too: monsters with a daughter’s face, or a son’s. Just like the old movies about that twisted little doll with a maniac’s soul.

That day in early October when the world went FUBAR, he was with Grace at the assisted-living facility in Michigan, outside of Watersmeet. One second, he was scraping Cream of Wheat from her lower lip. The next, he woke up God knows how much later sprawled in a puddle of soupy cereal—blood dribbling from his ears, a headache drilling his brain—and there was Grace, that muzzy look gone, and she said, “Jed, honey, I think I peed my pants.”

Technically, she’d pissed her Depends, but who cared? His sweet Grace was back. It was a miracle—

And it went bust the instant they staggered into the hall and saw the bodies: nurses and aides and doctors sprawled like picka-sticks.

And their granddaughter, Alice, placidly eating her mother’s eyes.

That was almost four months ago. Now, they were into the second week of January and in Wisconsin, not Michigan. This early in the morning, the sun’s light spilled watery and weak across a powderblue sky. The air was still and glassy with that kind of brittle, mindnumbing cold that hacked flesh and made Jed long for a strong fire as he hiked on snowshoes along the cliff trail and down into the dense thicket of evergreens edging the lake. Pausing at the sharp dogleg left that led deeper into the woods and toward shore, he did a one-eighty. Even without the telltale streamer of gray smoke, he picked out their cabin, a good quarter mile easy, perched on a forested sandstone bluff. This time of day, the cabin’s large picture window was no more than an inky rectangle, and their two horses no larger than specks of buckshot.

Vietnam had left its mark inside and out, as it had with every vet Jed knew. He’d taken a bullet through the left eye, which was bad enough, but then the round’s diagonal trajectory had cored down and out the back of his head. In an instant, his left eye was jelly and his right occipital lobe went from functional to oatmeal. Technically, his right eye still worked, but the brain damage meant that, after ’Nam, he couldn’t read or recognize words. Color was gone, too. His waking world had existed in ashy shades of gray, although his dreams and the flashbacks were always in Technicolor. Worse, his brain had conjured eerie shimmers the Navy shrinks said were hallucinations, like visual phantom limbs.

Like Grace, though . . . these days, he was different. Now he stood, looking up at that distant cabin. Oh, he was still blind in that left eye, the eyeball itself long gone and the socket filled with a plastic implant sheathed with flesh. He never had gotten around to getting fitted for an artificial eye, maybe because he didn’t mind making other people uncomfortable. Vietnam was wedged in his brain, good and tight, like a stringy piece of meat caught between his teeth that wouldn’t be dislodged for love or money. So why should everybody else forget if he couldn’t?

But his good right eye still worked, nowadays better than ever, and that was what he aimed at the dark wedge of window. He waited, and in a moment, the loose folds of a gauzy drapery swam into view. His vision sharpened on the leather couch and the fitful orange pulse of the fire. Further back, deep in the house, he spied Grace, who wore . . . He concentrated, the mental crosshairs aligning. Yeah, Grace had on that fuzzy pink sweater and was spooning coffee into an old pot, probably calculating the number of grounds per tablespoon, he bet.

Damnedest thing, her and numbers, like him going all hawkeye. Grace had been smart before, first in her nursing school class and a whiz when it came to math. He’d always thought that if she’d been born fifteen years later, she might have been a doctor or, maybe, right up there with those real-life rocket scientists. After Michael, though, she’d never been right. So when the Alzheimer’s hit . . . well, it was almost a blessing. But then the FUBAR had happened and unlocked some hidden vault where she’d stored every equation and calculation since the dawn of time.

She’d saved the boy. Thank forty-plus years of nursing and accumulated smarts coming back just when needed. Healing that boy mended her, at least as much as a broken heart could stitch itself together. She pretended the boy was Michael and the boy let her pretend, and Jed loved him for that with a ferocity that took his breath away.

Odd Lake lay southwest of Wisconsin’s Bad River Reservation and deep in the Nicolet. His ice-fishing house—a gutted camper tacked to a flatbed trailer—squatted a good half mile from shore. Go out onto the lake a little further and hang a left around the kink, though, and there the ice turned, becoming first rotten and then disappearing completely for a good fifty, sixty feet of blueblack water before picking up again. The reason was that the lake straddled a stray spur from the Douglas Fault, a rift that unzipped the earth from Minnesota to Ashland. The water bubbling through the fissure was warmer by a few degrees, so in winter that particular stretch never completely froze. And that made Odd Lake . . . odd. Venture out far enough onto that thin ice and you might as well bend over and kiss your ass good-bye.

The boathouse was solid weathered cedar with a north door and west-facing pine slider perched on a sandspit tongue now mantled with snow. Twenty-five years ago, when Michael was sixteen and wanted his own space, they’d worked on the interior together, mounting windows and stuffing in insulation before nailing up drywall and tacking on shelves. No pipes or wiring, and nothing fancy. All his son wanted was a rack and a little quiet. Three years later, Michael joined up and still got his rack, but there was no such thing as quiet for a Marine. Seventeen years after that, three somber men in dress blues knocked at their door, and two weeks later, Michael returned from Anbar Province in a flag-draped box. Michael had plenty of quiet now.

Jed’s extremely good eye caught the instant the north door opened, but my God, he bet they heard those hinges squalling all the way to the Upper Peninsula. A prancing golden retriever squirted out first. A moment later, the boy, his lanky frame a black silhouette against the white of the snow, followed. If Jed let his mind go just a little soft, he could almost make himself believe, the way that Grace did, that this was Michael. But then the dog spied him and barked, the boy tipped a wave, and that bittersweet moment passed.

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