Frozen Pandemic

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Jennifer wakes early to a clear sky. She springs out of her nest of blankets with renewed hope, half expecting to see her father’s silhouette through the front window. To her surprise, her mother is already up and tapping nervously on a coffee mug. Jennifer wonders if she slept at all. Jackie catches her staring and bids her good morning through a smile that looks too cheery. Jennifer grabs a book from the shelf beside Fresler’s desk and sits with it on the couch. She rereads the first two lines a dozen times before giving up. Instead, she watches her mom pace back and forth, floorboards creaking with every step she takes. Jackie is barely limping anymore, although she winces when she shifts her weight too quickly.

“Mom,” Jennifer says, after Jackie hisses in a sharp breath as she pivots for another lap across the room. “Sit.”

“I’ll sit out on the porch.” Jackie grabs her winter gear and begins putting it on over her pajamas.

Jennifer bends her head over her book, but Tina and Larry begin to stir, distracting her yet again. They rummage through the kitchen, reheating some leftovers for breakfast. As Jennifer flips the book’s first page, she feels Tina watching her. She flicks her eyes to the kitchen, only for Tina to avert her gaze. Jennifer sighs to herself. Tina definitely doesn’t like her, and she still doesn’t know why.

“You know what?” she says to her mom as she opens the front door. “I’ll wait outside with you.”

Jennifer pulls on her own thermal clothes and follows Jackie onto the porch. The temperature has only risen to fifteen degrees, so despite all their layers, they wrap themselves in a heavy wool blanket. They wait in silence, huddled together with backs against the house. In the distance, Fresler is a splotch of red on the snow by the riverbed. Jennifer frowns with sympathy. He has to hold his vigil on his own.

About an hour into their vigil, Jennifer groans. “Shouldn’t they be here by now?”

“They said it was a three-hour hike. If they left at sunrise, they won’t be here until around ten-thirty a.m.”

Jennifer jerks forward, heart pounding at the sight of a familiar figure rounding the distant bend. “Dad.”

Sharon appears just behind John. They both trudge toward the cabin. Jackie throws the blanket to the side and leaps to her feet. Jennifer offers an arm to help her mom race across the snowy ground to get to John. He drops his backpack and embraces his wife. Jennifer throws her arms around both of them. She hugs her father extra tight as tears freeze on her cheeks.

Jackie takes John’s head in her hands and tilts his face down to softly kiss the heart-shaped birthmark on his left temple. He smiles back at her. “I’m glad to see you,” he says softly.

“I’m glad to see you too.”

John wraps his arms around his girls and squeezes them to his sides with a sigh of relief. “I’m so sorry,” he murmurs into his wife’s hair. “We had to spend the night in that cabin. I wish I could have called you to let you know we were safe.”

“I understand. We were just so worried,” says Jackie.

Behind John, Sharon clears her throat, like she’s reluctant to interrupt the happy reunion. “Do you know where Fresler is?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Jackie says as John wraps his arms around her and Jennifer’s shoulders for the trek back to the cabin. “He’s down by the river.”

Sharon leaves the family to their private happiness and sets off for the river. Sure enough, Fresler is sitting in his favorite chair on top of the boulder. At the sound of her boots crunching the snow, he looks back over his shoulder when she’s still several yards off. Their eyes meet, and he leaps out of his chair. He jogs to her as fast as his injured leg allows but skids to a stop just before they touch.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hi,” Sharon says around a lump in her throat. Unable to stand it a second longer, she bounds the distance and throws her arms around her boyfriend. All thoughts of coyotes, infections, and the fourteen-day mark vanish as the stray strands of his red hair at the nape of his neck tickle her face. He stiffens against her, but the solidity of his chest only makes her squeeze tighter. With a soft sigh, he hugs her back, letting her melt into his form with her face pressed between his neck and collarbone.

“I was so worried when you and John didn’t return last night,” Fresler murmurs against her cheek. “I’m so happy you’re all right.”

Sharon smiles as she turns to kiss his cheek. “We found antibiotics.”

His eyes widen. “That’s great news! We can start giving them to Sean.” He turns to hike back toward the cabin and the shed. “I can take the medicine to Sean, if you want to get warmed up inside.”

Sharon sighs. “I guess you still can’t come into the cabin, huh?”

“I shouldn’t. Not that John would let me, if I wanted to.” He shrugs. “Two more days, and then I’ll be in the clear.”

“Two more days,” Sharon echoes.

When Fresler and Sharon reach the cabin, Tina and Larry are already outside. Tina gazes at the pill bottle in Larry’s fist like it’s a bag of diamonds.

“If Sean hasn’t caught the virus, this medicine could save his life,” Tina murmurs, her smile so big it’s painful. This is the first piece of genuinely good news she’s received since the coyote attack. “This will work, won’t it?” she asks Larry.

“It will,” Larry says, his confidence leeching into her heart and steadying its frantic pace.

Tina looks across the yard to see Sharon and Fresler approaching. She runs to wrap Sharon in a hug. “Thank you so much.”

“You’re so welcome,” says Sharon, returning the hug. “I hope it helps.”

Fresler steps forward. “Do you want me to give the antibiotics to Sean?”

“No,” Larry says, holding up the bottle of pills in one hand and two masks in the other. “Tina and I want to be the ones to do it.”

Sharon nods. “We understand, don’t we Fresler?”

He nods, too. But when he turns back to his chair by the river, he looks to Tina a bit like a wandering ghost, adrift in a familiar place but unable to interact.

Larry knocks on the door to the shed, and when Sean grunts, “Come in,” he and Tina strap on their masks and step inside. Larry rattles the bottle of pills.

“Good news, cousin.”

Sean sits up against the wall of the storage shed and smiles through gritted teeth. Sweat drips from his forehead, and a puff of smoky breath escapes him in a harsh cough. “They found antibiotics? I can’t believe it. I need to thank John and Sharon,” he says weakly.

“John will be in soon to see you.” Larry tosses the pill bottle into Sean’s lap, making sure to keep his distance.

Sean opens the antibiotics and pops three pills into his mouth. He grabs his water bottle and takes a swig. “Here goes nothing,” he says, after he swallows. He raises his bottle in a salute. “Cheers!”

Larry and Tina smile back at him. For this brief moment, they all allow themselves to think that everything might be okay.

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