It takes us less than two minutes to bike the final mile to the Canyon Oaks neighborhood. I don’t look back at the fire station, not when I have to pedal my lungs out just to keep up with Josiah. He’s hauling it, determination lining his face when he blasts past me on his Specialized bike.
“Please be alright,” Josiah shouts over the whir of our wheels. Maybe he’s talking to God, or just himself. We speed over black lines of tar sealing the cracks in the road, which is clear of both cars and bodies. I take that as a good sign, blinking before the harsh overhead sun begins to fade. Another cold front is moving in. I can feel the fall chill building and sinking into my bones.
There had been over a dozen cars lining the cul-de-sac the last time I’d been to Josiah’s house. The warm air from that night washes over my skin, and there’s the line of cyclists filing through the gates leading to the Knect house. It’s dusk. The smell of pasta and cracked garlic stings at my nose, and I blink hard and shake my numb hands out before the warmth recedes and the smells die off. But not before Mr. and Mrs. Knect’s smiling faces cross my mind.
Could Josiah’s family have fended off the Swarm and survived for this long? They must’ve heard the Army’s radio broadcasts about using static to fend them off, too. Of course they did.
The gate to Josiah’s house is open, no sign of forced entry. His mom’s white Toyota is parked in the driveway, parked just after the point at which it splits off in a “Y” shape. I raise my eyes up to the house itself. To the boarded-up windows and porch furniture that, somehow, is still relatively clean and in good shape. The stacked stone siding is as sturdy looking as I remembered. Hell, even the front flower beds still look watered and well kept.
Josiah is off his bike and sprinting up the steps of the wraparound porch in five seconds flat. I skid to a stop, breathing hard, and set my bike down next to his beside a cluster of Hibiscus. My lungs are thrumming with nervous energy. This is it: the moment we’ve been waiting two weeks for.
Once I’m up on the porch, I glance at the large round table in the corner nook of his house. There’s another flash across my mind’s eye: more hazy voices and emotions stir. My teammates and I stand around Josiah’s yard after dinner, mingling with cyclists from a dozen other colleges about our next race, classes, family, all that. Josiah’s face had been illuminated by the glow from a couple of tiki-torches.
I smack into Josiah’s back. He stands before the front door and stares out at the driveway to our left. Before I can catch myself, I stumble and smack my head against one of the support beams holding up the porch awning.
Then I raise my head and see them. There, frozen where the garage meets the southwest corner of the house, are his parents, younger brother and sister, and two guys I don’t recognize. They stand in two separate lines, no more than twenty yards down the stone path to our left. Their footprints are still clear as day in the wet soil of the flowerbed. Words catch in my throat. My heart skips a beat.
“Son?” His mom’s voice carries over to us first. The wrinkles lining her face vanish. Josiah!” A pair of gloves sails out of her hands and smacks against the first stone step.
Josiah’s dad lumbers forward and nearly smashes into one of the two ancient oaks standing watch over the house. His speed is unreal. My sense of hearing drops out until I feel like I’m in a tunnel, all the sounds I can make out now muffled and far off. “Josiah!” Mr. Knect’s voice rattles the frigid air cloaking me.
The hurried crunch of Josiah’s mom and dad footfalls before they leap onto the wraparound porch. Grace and Paul’s overlapping cries of joy and disbelief. Josiah panting and trying to catch his breath after his parents grab him in a bear hug. And their sobs...God, how they pull everything out of me and wring it, over and over again.
My tears aren’t for our dead teammates, or my dad, or my missing mom and sister. No, this time they’re for Josiah and his family alone.
“Oh, my son, my sweet boy.” Mrs. Knect won’t let go of Josiah, even as she falls into a chair at the corner table, tears streaming down her face. Josiah plants another kiss on his mom’s forehead and rocks back and forth in her thin arms. Thunder yaps and whines like he wants to be held, too. His leash falls from my hand, but Paul, Josiah’s younger brother, is there in a flash to pick it up. Mr. Knect, whose cheeks are already flushed and as red as his eyes, bends over and pats Thunder’s head. Then he raises his hand and slips his beanie off, exposing his graying tufts of hair. He looks so much like Josiah: the small smile, the wide cheeks and high forehead. They share almost all of it.
You’re with your family again, man. We did it.
Family, shelter, safety. All three come together before me and fuel the fire within us.
It doesn’t take long for the entire two-story house to feel like it has three fireplaces burning at full blast, rather than just the one that Mr. Knect finished stoking in the living room a minute ago. Josiah’s dad passes me with another grateful smile before he steps up to his son, who’s sitting at the far end of the dining room table. He holds a steaming cup of green tea in his hands. Josiah stares at the empty fruit bowl in the center of the dining room table. His awareness has to be in a thousand different places at the same time.
While the Knects tend to Josiah, I turn and study the first floor. The three windows in the living room are, of course, boarded up with sheets of plywood. Halfway between the living room and the dining room where we sit, there are several crosses and a couple of pictures of Jesus Christ hung up on the far wall. His anguished eyes look at nobody, only towards heaven – or whatever version of it can fit inside those little wooden frames. On the other side of the table, two built-in bookshelves stand at either end of the dining room, both stretching from floor to ceiling. Pillow cushions are lined up on the bench in between the bookshelves, and a couple of kids’ jackets lie scattered across them. I smile before turning back to face Josiah and his siblings. I’m sure asking Grace and Paul to pick up their jackets is the last thing on Mr. and Mrs. Knect’s minds right now.
Josiah has been swamped by his younger brother and sister for the past few minutes. They take turns hanging on to Josiah’s broad shoulders, asking him all sorts of questions: how he and I made it past the Swarm, if I saved his life...and if anyone else came with us from Denton. With the last question, Josiah and I share a look before the same heavy darkness clouds our faces.
“No, no, guys,” he tells Paul and Grace, his lips evening out. “It’s just me and Rayland.”
“Don’t forget Thunder,” I say, beaming when he comes trotting up to the siblings. They all laugh and smile down at our furry little guardian angel. He grumbles and trots into the kitchen.
The two guys who trailed in behind Josiah’s parents now hang out by the back doors behind Josiah. They shift and keep their hands stuffed deep inside their jacket pockets. Bob and Evan. Those are the names they introduced themselves with. Mark Knect stands in between them and the rest of his family, his eyes turned to steel and his shoulders harder than cinder blocks. Behind him, the camping lantern resting near the edge of the table catches its second wind and glows brighter.
“Listen,” Bob says, taking off his camo cap, “we’ll get outta your hair. Evan and I just wanted to see if ya’ll needed any supplies.” He runs a hand through his messy hair before gesturing to the second guy, who looks closer to my age. Evan’s eyes are sharp at the edges, but they soften now. He glances my way, then looks back to Mr. Knect and clasps his gloved hands together. Vietnamese, or maybe South Korean, judging by the downward slant of Evan’s eyes and his round face.
“Bob and I can come back tomorrow,” Evan adds. “It’s really no trouble.” The way his eyebrow twitches tells me he’s not being truthful enough for my comfort. I glower at both strangers, aware of my bag resting at my feet. One quick swipe and I could have my revolver pointed at Evan and Bob.
On the opposite end of the kitchen table, Grace falls out of her older brother’s arms, pushes her glasses up her nose, and stares Evan and Bob down. It’s not just her, either; Mr. and Mrs. Knect have the same kind of sixth sense charging the air between them. They glance at each other from across the table before Mr. Knect speaks up. “Listen, we appreciate the offer to join you all,” he begins. “Your group sounds like they’re doing well out there. Let us talk as a family and decide what we want to do moving forward. How’s that sound?”
The question mark hangs in the air. Josiah and I lock eyes faster than two magnets coming together. He reads me and keeps his lips shut. Paul hops off his lap and bounds into the kitchen after Thunder. I glance down at the gloves in my hand, then curl one leg across my other knee. Across the table from me, Mrs. Knect lets out a slow exhale and clasps her hands together against the side of her head. I give thanks that Thunder stopped barking at Bob and Evan a while ago.
“Thing is, Reg can be a bit...insistent, at times,” Bob says with a lopsided grin, his stubble bristling. “He’s got a little, uh, obsession with authority sometimes.” Bob looks my way, but I stare at the camping lantern on the table between me and Josiah. Bob chuckles for no good reason. “But sure, Michael. I’ll talk with him and hold things off for now.”
Evan can’t keep the nervous look off his round face. Bob pushes off the chair at the head of the table before elbowing Evan, who’s a good half a foot taller than his buddy. “Looks like we missed our hospitality mark,” Bob quips. His quick smile reveals a couple of tobacco stains across his crooked teeth. I can tell Mrs. Knect notices the stains, too; from across the table, I catch her stifling a grimace before she folds her wrinkled hands in her lap.
My eyes follow Bob, tracing the odd angles at which he throws his elbows and chin out. He’s getting gray in his beard, but there’s a kind of sharpness in his deep-set eyes that gives me a bad ache in my gut. He unclips a rugged walkie-talkie from his belt and sets it on the table. “Ya’ll holler if you need anything. Evan and I should get back to our group, lie low before it gets dark out there.” His smile pulses. “We got our own plans to see to, but we won’t be too far off.”
Evan brushes past Bob, his signal that he’s ready to go. “If Reg wants to talk, he’ll radio you,” Evan says in his soft tone, then motions for Bob to follow him to the front door.
“Ya’ll have a safe night,” Bob says. He flashes me another one of his curved grins. “Glad you guys made it back here in one piece.”
All I can manage is a muffled grunt. Together with Josiah and his family, I turn and watch them trail out the front door. My hand falls to the two radios I’ve got fastened to my belt. No one seems to breathe, not until Bob swings the front door shut and the crunch of their boots in the crisp grass fades away.
Mr. and Mrs. Knect inhale and rise, both moving with intent. Paul comes strolling back out of the kitchen with a box of pita chips. He smiles, a single chip already hanging from the corner of his mouth. It’s enough to break the chill in me. I unball my fists and wince when the sharp pain shoots through my knuckles.
Bob and Evan don’t need to ever come back here. I don’t care what Josiah thinks. We can’t trust them. Or Reg, for that matter.
“Come on, guys,” Mr. Knect says before tousling Paul’s already messy hair, his laugh less hearty than before. “Let’s eat and talk. We have some things to tell you both about Reg’s group.”