Frozen Pandemic

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CHAPTER 12

Tina wakes up early but doesn’t rise. Her sleeping bag is stifling next to the fire, and eventually, she peels it down and rolls over. Jennifer sleeps soundly under the dining table. Jennifer, whose parents are still alive. Jennifer, who has no brother, no loved one dying in the storage shed. Jennifer doesn’t know what it’s like to suffer.

Tina rolls back over to stare at the ceiling instead. She doesn’t want to get up. She doesn’t want to go outside. She’s afraid to see Sean. It’s been two weeks. She fears the sight of blood on his lips, coughed up in a final sign of infection, eradicating all hope that his sickness is caused solely by his bite wounds. The thought of watching him die is too much to bear.

Another hour passes before she finally plucks up the courage to go outside. She owes her big brother that much, at least. But as she walks toward the storage shed, a strange feeling pools in her stomach, slowing her steps. She forces herself to open the door. Empty. The pool of fear in her gut ignites into a panic.

She staggers to Sean’s sleeping bag and her foot skids in something congealed and half-frozen. Blood coats the floor. Without a thought to the risk, Tina drops to her knees at the edges of the stains and screams.

Sharon wakes up with a start. It takes her a moment to understand … a girl is shrieking at the top of her lungs.

Tina.

Sharon launches herself out of bed and runs to the shed with a snatched coat dangling off one arm. Tina is on her knees by Sean’s sleeping bag, body racked with sobs. Sharon carefully steps closer to pull the girl to her feet and away from the virus-harboring bloodstains. She coaxes Tina to kick off her blood-smeared shoe and then grips the girl to her chest. Tina cries into Sharon’s shoulder.

They’re still standing like that when Fresler enters the shed, a shovel in hand. One look at Fresler’s face confirms what they already suspected: Sean’s gone.

Fresler puts his hand on Tina’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Tina.”

Tina raises her head, tears sparkling in her eyes. “Was it the virus?”

Fresler closes his eyes. “Yes.”

“When?” Tina demands.

“Two-thirty this morning,” Fresler says.

Tina is silent for a moment, throat contracting as she swallows. “Thank you for being with him,” she finally whispers. “I’m glad he wasn’t alone.”

Fresler inclines his head. He looks like he’s aged a decade overnight. His eyes are dark-circled, and his cheeks are hollow. Even his red hair looks duller. He makes eye contact with Sharon over Tina’s shoulder and mouths; we need to talk. Sharon nods.

As they head out into the snow, Larry exits the cabin and spies the group. One look at Tina and his face crumples. He crosses to Fresler and says, “Where is he?”

“Hundred yards up the hill,” Fresler says. “I buried him myself. I didn’t want…” He swallows. “Nobody else could touch the body safely.”

Larry watches his cousin crying in Sharon’s arms for a long moment. “I’d like to hold a service for him,” he says after a while.

Sharon nods. “Absolutely.”

An hour later, the group gathers at the burial site. Sharon keeps an arm around Tina’s waist. Tina has stopped crying, but her eyes are still red and puffy, her cheeks stained with salt tracks. Larry is stoic. He keeps a stony vigil at the foot of the burial site, staring at the mound of disturbed earth where Fresler spent the early morning hours shoveling.

Fresler stands across from Larry, looking down at the makeshift cross. He glances at Tina. “Would you like to say something?”

“Can you do it?” she croaks. “You were with him, at the end.”

He nods and draws a heavy breath. “Sean was an amazing young man…” Fresler is surprised at how much his voice quivers and his hands shake. He takes a moment to steady himself. “Sean’s strength and determination were surprising. I have never met anyone so brave. I guess you don’t expect it in such a young man. His love for his sister and cousin was…” Fresler looks at Tina, then Larry, and wipes away his tears. “… remarkable… rare. I’m lucky to have known him, even for only two weeks.”

After Fresler finishes, Larry steps forward. He kneels to rest a hand on the mound of earth that covers Sean’s body.

“Sean, I can’t believe I’ll never get the chance to talk with you again. I miss you so much… I was closer to you than anyone else in my life, including my parents. We grew up together. I probably spent more time at your house than my own. I remember dressing up with you at Halloween… Buzz and Woody.” A faint smile flickers across his face. “We had more fun on the bus rides to the football games than on the field. Getting pumped up, blasting Eminem. We were an amazing team, you and I.” Larry stares at the earth, clenching his jaw. “And I had to drive you to school every single day, and you always made me late. I got more detentions because of you…” He chokes on a sound, half-laugh and half-sob. “But I wouldn’t change a thing. What am I going to do without you?” Larry cries in earnest at last. Tina unhooks her arm from Sharon’s waist and walks over to hug him. Jackie, John, and Jennifer all offer their condolences, but Tina and Larry hardly seem to notice.

After a long pause, John clears his throat. “Sean was a solid young man. If I’d had a son… Well, I’d have wanted one like him.” With a sharp nod, he steps back to his wife’s side.

Finally, it’s Tina’s turn. She steps forward and crouches beside the grave. She rests both hands on the bare earth and closes her eyes. She opens her mouth, but the only thing that comes out is another choked sob. No one interrupts her moment of solace. The only sounds are the wind in the trees, the rushing of the river, and the quiet sniffs and sighs of grieving friends and family.

When Tina finally stands, the group walks back to the cabin. Sharon offers up her and Fresler’s bedroom to Tina, so she can be alone. Fresler senses Tina needs it, and after all, it’s the least they can do.

Later that evening, Sharon leans against the kitchen counter, waiting for the skillet to heat and the water to boil, while Jackie prepares one of their last servings of sweet tea.

“Should we see if Tina is hungry? She’s been in that bedroom all day,” says Jackie.

“I’ll check on her.” Leaving her pots and pans behind, Sharon pushes open the door to her bedroom, where Tina sits atop the comforter.

“Hi sweetie,” says Sharon softly. “Do you want something to eat? We’re heating up some ravioli, with spinach from the greenhouse. I could bring you some.” She clears her throat. “Unless you’d prefer to join us. Whatever you’d rather do.”

“Thanks, but I’m not hungry.” Tina stares off into space, as if in a trance. Her voice is calm—too calm. It unnerves Sharon. She resolves to keep a close eye on Tina in the days ahead.

“You can go,” Tina says, without turning her head from the partially opened bathroom door. “I’m fine.”

Sharon hesitates, hand on the knob. “Okay. But I’m here if you need me. We all are. For anything.”

Tina says nothing, and Sharon gently shuts the door.

Sharon waits until she’s at Jackie’s side to whisper, “She says she isn’t hungry. I’m worried about her, to be honest.”

Jackie tuts and shakes her head. “That poor thing. Losing her entire family like that. I can’t even imagine…”

“I can.” The words are out before Sharon even realizes she’s spoken.

Jackie shoots her a curious look.

“My family was in Sacramento,” Sharon explains. “Fresler’s all I have left.”

“And Tina has Larry,” Jackie says, peering over her shoulder at Sean and Tina’s cousin, who sits by the window with his forehead leaned against the cold glass.

“So many people have no one at all,” Sharon muses, wrapping her arms around her midsection. She feels lucky, and a little guilty, that she still has Fresler with her.

The water at last boils on the stove, and the two women finish preparing the meal in a contemplative silence. When Jackie tells everyone that dinner is ready, they each get a plate of food and sit by the fireplace to eat.

Fresler watches John frown through the whole meal, deep in thought. Suddenly, as everyone starts scraping sauce from the bottoms of their plates, John says, “Well, I was wrong.”

“Those are words you don’t hear from this one very often,” says Jackie, letting out a soft laugh.

John snorts.

Larry glares at both of them and their mirth. “Wrong about what?” he snaps.

John flinches, offering a sympathetic grimace. No doubt Larry can’t even think of laughing when they buried Sean only a few hours ago. “I didn’t think it was possible that Fresler was immune. But based on what happened to Sean…” John trails off. Heads bow for a moment, in respect. Finally, John coughs and swallows hard, all business once more. “We need to contact the CDC as soon as possible.” He glances at Fresler. “We can get to Littlefork in three days, you said?”

Fresler nods. “But I can guess what you’re thinking, John, and no, I won’t let you risk your life for me. Sharon and I will make that trip alone.”

John’s expression turns thunderous. “We have to make this journey together. As a group. It’s much too risky for you and Sharon to go alone.”

To Fresler’s surprise, Larry sets down his plate and says vehemently, “I agree. Millions of lives are at stake here, Fresler. I won’t let my cousin’s death be in vain. It’s because of him that we know you’re immune. We have to get you to the CDC in one piece, and it has to happen as soon as possible.”

Fresler’s throat tightens. “I don’t know what to say—”

“It’s settled.” John surveys the table. “We do this together.”

Jackie clears her throat. “Is Littlefork on the way to Canada?”

“No, but it’s close enough to the route I’d planned,” John tells her. “We’ll get Fresler there, and then plan our next move.”

Jackie nods, but she wears a wary frown. “But we’re still aiming for Canada, right?”

“Yes,” he tells her, distracted. “We’re still aiming for Canada.”

“We have maps in the storage shed,” says Fresler. “We can get them in the morning and figure out the best route to hike to Littlefork.”

“Maybe we’ll find a car on the way,” John says.

“Not sure a car will help,” Fresler says, “unless it’s a truck or an SUV. The roads have too much snow on them.”

“We’ll also have to find a place to spend the night before it gets dark. We can’t take any chances,” adds Larry. “Not after what happened to Sean.”

“True,” says Sharon, two creases between her brows. “But hopefully once we make it to Littlefork, there will be someone in town who can help us either radio the CDC or drive to their headquarters.”

Fresler looks around the room. It hits him, abruptly, that this is really happening: he’s about to leave the home he loves. He’s known this day would come, but that doesn’t make the impending departure hurt any less. After sleeping in the shed for two weeks, entering the house had soothed his very soul, and now his sanctuary was going to be ripped from him again … maybe for good this time. “If you all don’t mind,” he says, “I’m going to bed. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

John’s eyes meet his with a rare glimmer of mutual understanding. “Rest well,” he says. “Big day tomorrow. Lots to prep.”

Fresler rises too quickly and has to steady his chair. “Goodnight, everyone.”

Sharon smiles at him and touches his hand. “I’ll be there soon.”

The following day is spent in frantic preparation, with John acting as drill sergeant. Fresler gets the maps from the storage shed. He and John clear off the dining room table and spread the maps out. Littlefork is thirty-one miles away. Fresler’s three-day estimate involves traveling off-road, as the crow flies, so they have to plot landmarks to help them stay on track.

Sharon and Jackie devote the morning to harvesting all the remaining vegetables from the greenhouse, and then chopping, cooking, and wrapping everything for travel. Jennifer helps them divvy up the non-perishable goods, then brings them to. Larry, who supervises the packing of everyone’s backpacks. Tina sits on the couch, looking out over the room without seeing, until eventually Larry puts the radio in her hands.

“See if you can get a signal,” he says, and leaves her to fiddle with the dial. It’s a futile task, he knows, but she needs something unimportant to occupy her.

When the roasting zucchini chips provide a lull in the kitchen action, Jackie goes to John and pats his shoulder. He looks up from the maps and says, “Everything okay?”

“I’m a little nervous about our journey tomorrow,” she says, slowly.

“Me too,” Larry grunts. “We still have to figure out where we’ll be staying along our route. I know we’re aiming in the general direction of other cabins, but there’s no guarantee we’ll find shelter at night when we need it.”

“Right, and the weather has to cooperate, and, well…”

“What’s on your mind, Jackie?” John presses.

“It’s March, John,” she says, bending to speak quietly into his ear. “When we set out from Kentucky, you said we needed to be at least to Winnipeg by March. I know I sprained my ankle, and that messed with our timeline, but this detour—are you sure it’s the right move?”

John’s eyes flick to Fresler. “I’m sure.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jackie goes on. “I want to make sure Fresler and Sharon get where they need to go, but not at the expense of—”

“Enough already.” John shakes his head. He turns to Fresler and Sharon, dismissing Jackie without another word. “Sharon, do you have a respirator mask?”

“No, we just have those surgical masks the CDC handed out after the virus first struck.”

“Fresler doesn’t need a mask,” says John as Jackie retreats a step with a scowl. “But you do. We should try to find one when we reach Littlefork. If we have to travel to Atlanta, it will be your only protection.”

“Atlanta?” Jackie pipes up, alarmed. “But—”

John stands and puts a hand on her cheek. “Trust me, Jackie. I know what I’m doing.”

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