When everything around them went silent; and when the terrified screams of her family and the shrill of the eight balls diminished – Zoe wiped the tears from her eyes. Streaks of dirt left its mark on her face; and she gently released her death grip on the trembling form of Jasper at her side. She pushed him slightly away from her personal space; and resolved herself to move.
She stood stiffly to her feet and peered over the downed tree limb where thy hid, and looked out toward the highway. Jasper grabbed her arm and pulled her back, “Grandpa George said to say here”, he cried and hiccuped after every other word.
Zoe gazed down at his frightened face; his pupils blown wide like saucers and stepped tentatively from their safe haven. Jasper reached for the back of her shirt; held on, and followed her out onto the road.
What she saw there, in that moment, would stay with her for the rest of her life. She felt the scene before her burn itself into her consciousness and not let go. From now on, this would be who she was – a survivor.
She walked slowly among the bodies with Jasper at her side. They were all dead – bloody pools of organs and limbs. This was all that was left of her community – her family.
She steeled herself and pulled Jasper along with her – the eerily quiet landscape setting her nerves on edge. She scanned the road and saw no eight balls about and wondered briefly what she would do if one came at them now.
When they reached the sight of Jasper’s mother on the side of the road – she felt his arms tighten around her waist. He buried his face at her back and wept – his tears soaked her shirt; as his shoulders shook deep and hard.
They stood together before her body for several moments until finally Jasper ceased his sobbing and peered out from behind her. He bravely let go of her waist, fell to his knees and touched his mother’s hand – the only part of her unmarred with blood.
Zoe reached down past him, and tentatively removed the pouch of food she carried across her shoulders – along with her skin of water. When she moved away, Jasper scrambled to his feet and resumed his place at her back – clutching her shirt as if it were a life line. She let him – glad to have him close and at her back.
They passed the other members of their party – lifted food from their packs – their water skins and trudged forward. Zoe knew that soon, she would see her mother among these bodies and was afraid.
She felt herself on the edge of something dangerous; did not want to see her mother dead and lose her mind. She did not want to leave Jasper out here alone on the road to Vega.
When they reached her mother’s body, Zoe lowered herself to sit near her. Jasper fell unceremoniously to the ground with her – dust rising around them and swirling with the breeze. She stared up at the sun, and remembered her mom reminding her about the heat, and placed her hat firmly down on her head.
When she gazed back down at her mom, she noticed that unlike Jasper’s mother – Miriam looked whole to her. There was blood at her side, at her neck and down her arm, but her arms and legs were still attached to her body.
Zoe swiped angrily at tears that streamed down her face without her permission; and willed herself not to make a sound. Jasper let go of her and she could sense him crying again, unable to stop himself from wailing.
“Quiet Jasper!” she turned and snapped at him; then watched in fascination as her mom opened her eyes and groaned.
Jasper gripped his mouth shut so tight his cheeks turned red; and forced the sobs to stop as Miriam blinked slowly and stared up at them – her face scrunched up in confusion and pain.
Zoe reached down; grabbed her mother’s shirt collar, shook her hard and screamed, “Mom! Mom!”
Miriam weakly grabbed her daughter’s wrists, held on and murmured, “Shh”. When Zoe continued to scream out to her, she held on as tight as she could and whispered up to her, “Shhh…” afraid that any moment the eight balls would return and finish them off.
Zoe swallowed down her hysteria and held onto her mother for dear life – Jasper still as stone, gripping his mouth with both hands at her side.
“Give me a minute Zoe”, Miriam gasped out – pain ratcheting up in her body, threatening to pull her under. “Give me minute”, she repeated, working to control the unbearable pain, and focus.
Zoe let her mother go, and grabbed the water skin at her waist, lifted her mother’s head to drink and watched as Miriam took a sip and swirled the blessed wetness around her tongue, and gratefully swallowed down the dryness in her throat.
When Zoe attempted to give her more, she pushed the skin away, and knew that water would do her no good, the children would need it.
Zoe lay her mom’s head down gently in the dirt and waited. Mom would know what to do. Mom would get them to safety. Mom was alive and would take care of them.
Miriam studied her daughter’s face and watched the emotions flicker from desperate fear to now calm relief.
But she knew the relief was false. Her father had given his life for her to live not much longer than he. She would be following him soon; and would see her husband again. The eight balls had done a number on her – chunks of her flesh gone – she could feel her life leaving her body along with her blood.
However, looking at the faces of these children – she knew she had to live long enough to get them to Vega. The promised city was less than two miles away – two miles.
She stared up at Zoe and knew she had to tell her. Tell her that she and Jasper were all that was left of Indian Springs. Tell her, she had to be strong, and live for them all. They had to survive; otherwise it had all been for nothing.
But first, she had to get to her feet. Get them on their way – then she would find the words.
But for now, she clenched her teeth to the pain, swallowed her nausea and ordered, “Help me up, we need to go.”