Home > Ashes (Ashes Trilogy #1)(2)

Ashes (Ashes Trilogy #1)(2)
Author: Ilsa J. Bick

“You have to give it time, Alexandra.”

That’s so easy for you to say. You’ve got time. “Aunt Hannah, it’s been two years since they found the thing. Nothing’s worked.”

“Granted, but the tumor’s growing relatively slowly. Dr. Barrett said you could go several more years, and by then, there will be new drugs.”

“Or there might not be. I just can’t do this anymore.” She expected an explosion on the other end, but there was only dead air. The silence spun out so long Alex thought their connection had dropped. “Aunt Hannah?”

“I’m here.” Pause. “When did you decide?”

“After my appointment with Barrett last week.”

“Why now?”

Because my left hand shakes, Alex thought. Because I can’t smell anything. Because I’ve got a headful of teeny, tiny little rocks that aren’t working and that means more regular chemo and radiotherapy and I am so sick of losing my hair and puking my guts out for nothing and doing schoolwork in bed, and I’m not going into some hospice. Because, for once, I’m calling the shots.

But what she said was, “I don’t think there will be a better time. I need to do this while I still can.”

More silence. “I imagine the school will ask after you. Dr. Barrett will have a stroke.”

Privately, she thought Barrett might be relieved. No more having to look on the bright side. “What are you going to say?”

“I’ll think of something inventive. Will you call?”

“When I make it back,” she said, unsure if this was a promise she would keep. “To the car, I mean. Once I’m in the Waucamaw, there’s no cell coverage.”

“And what am I supposed to do? Hang a lantern from a tower? Twiddle my thumbs? Take up knitting?” When Alex didn’t reply, her aunt continued, “I’ve half a mind to call the police and have you dragged back.”

“What’s the other half say?”

“That you’re stubborn. That once you’ve made up your mind, there’s no talking to you.” Her aunt paused. “And that I’m not sure I blame you. That is not the same as saying that what you’re doing is right, but I understand.”


“Don’t mention it.” Her aunt sighed. “Oh, Alex, do be careful, all right? Try to come back in one piece?”

“I’ll be okay. It’s not like I’ve never backpacked before.”

“It’s not your competence I question. Make a fire, live off the land, build a house out of twigs and chewing gum … so like your father. If the bloody zombies attack, you’re set.”

“Thanks,” she said against the prick of tears. Crying was not the way she wanted this to end. “I should probably go. I love you, Aunt Hannah.”

“Oh, you bloody little fool,” her aunt said. “Don’t you think I know that?”

They never spoke to each other again.


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.

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