The next morning, Fresler tries to douse his overheated mind with the familiar sight of the freezing water rushing downstream. Though he sits in his favorite chair atop the boulder, he’s a thousand miles away, wondering if all this is really happening. The virus, his immunity. It seems so far-fetched. So impossible, that humanity could be relying on him.
Above all, he just hopes he’ll make it back to this spot someday.
Footsteps crunch behind him. He turns to see Sharon approaching. She kneels next to him and says, “This isn’t the last time you’ll see this place. I promise. We’ll be back, Fresler.”
He leans into the kiss she plants on his cheek and smiles. Somehow, she always knows exactly what he’s thinking. And just what to say in response. “I know.”
Behind her, Jackie and John are slowly heading their way, chatting in low voices. Further away, Fresler can see Jennifer, Tina, and Larry waiting under the cabin’s overhang, backpacks at their feet. The cabin’s windows are dark, and its chimney is cold. Fresler sighs and gets out of his folding chair. He’ll tuck it under the porch, so he can find it again—when they return.
John opens his mouth to speak, but Fresler cuts him off. This is his home. He’ll be the one to say goodbye. “I know,” he says. “It’s time.”
Five miles into their journey, Fresler spies a cabin in the distance. He’s relieved to see the roof come into view. This is the first of the landmarks he plotted on the map for John. They’re still hiking in the right direction.
“Anyone up for a break?” Fresler asks through chattering teeth, pointing to the dark structure.
“We should keep going,” John says, marching into the lead.
“We planned for rest stops,” Fresler argues. “None of us are in good enough shape to walk in this”—he motions at the knee-high snow all around them—“for eight hours straight.”
John looks back at the rest of the group to affirm what Fresler already knows. Sharon and Larry seem to be faring reasonably well, but Jackie is trying to hide her limp and the two teens have fallen far behind. “Fine,” he says. “We’ll break for a meal.”
Jackie shoots Fresler a grateful look as they wait for the girls to catch up. John leads the way and yanks open the cabin’s frozen hinges. The inside is gutted. Someone has even cleared out the furniture. They spread out on the floor and open the first round of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Jackie and Sharon put together yesterday.
As he chews, Fresler looks out the window to see the wind has picked up, blowing loose snow in hazy clouds. “What would you think about spending the night here?” Fresler scratches his chin. “There’s plenty of room.”
John scowls. “We’ve only been hiking for five miles. We need to get in at least twelve before we stop for the night, remember?”
Beside him, Larry nods in agreement. “There’s another cabin we can reach before dusk, if we don’t linger here too long.”
“Whatever you say, John,” Fresler says, giving a joking salute. He turns his attention to Larry, realizing that he barely knows anything about Sean’s cousin, due to spending two weeks exiled in the storage shed. “What did you do for a living, before the virus?” he asks. Considering Larry’s muscular arms, thick beard, and neck tattoos, Fresler guesses his job involved heavy lifting.
“What’s your best guess?” Larry says through a wry smile.
“Construction?” Fresler says carefully, hoping Larry doesn’t somehow find the guess insulting.
Luckily, Larry barks out a laugh. “I was an AI programmer for IBM. But don’t worry. I get that all the time.”
“Wow,” Fresler says. “Where did you go to college?”
“Carnegie Mellon University,” says Larry, sitting a little straighter.
“Very impressive.” Fresler grins and raises his sandwich in salute.
Larry looks at his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and shakes his head. “Man, I wish I could order pizza.”
“Yeah,” says Jennifer through a longing sigh, “how nice would it be to go to a restaurant and order sushi? No cooking or cleaning.”
“Sushi?” Tina says, rolling her eyes. “Seriously?”
Meanwhile, Jackie snickers. “When have you ever cooked anything?”
Jennifer waves off her mom’s comment and says, “I may not cook, but I clean up.”
“That’s because we all take turns. You have no choice.”
“Whatever,” Jennifer mutters, falling silent again.
The only sound is chewing and swallowing until John gets an idea. Fresler pictures a lightbulb flicking on above his head. “I tell you what… Let’s have a contest. Whoever wins, I’ll take their turn and do clean-up duty and waste disposal.”
“Great, it’s my turn for clean-up tonight, so I’m in,” says Larry, rubbing his hands together with a growing smile. “How do we win?”
John responds, “What do you miss the most? I’ll pick the best answer, since I will be doing the clean-up.” He points to Sharon. “You first.”
She nods at her lap, and Fresler knows the first answer that popped into her head: her family. But she doesn’t say it, and Fresler imagines he knows why. Everyone here has people they miss, and bringing up the dead will cast a melancholy cloud over the game. “That’s easy,” she says as she lifts her gaze. “Electricity.”
John shakes his head. “No, you can’t be that general. You have to be more specific.”
“All right…” She thinks for a moment. “Heating. I miss having a heated room.”
Fresler puts his hand on Sharon’s forearm and whispers, “Good answer.”
John turns to Tina. “Tina?”
“Warm showers,” the girl says quietly.
John smiles at Tina. “I agree. Larry?”
Larry rubs his beard and looks up at the ceiling. “I got it,” he says with a snap. “My Detroit Lions. Super Bowl champs—baby.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Tina groans.
Larry puts his hands up in the air. “What? I miss the NFL.”
John chuckles. “I can’t believe they finally won a Super Bowl… But that’s not a winning answer, sorry.” He points to his daughter.
Jennifer looks sideways at her mom and then shrugs. “I miss my cell phone.”
The group breaks out in laughter. Jackie chokes down her cackles long enough to say, “You’re so predictable.”
Jennifer glares back. “It’s not what you think. I don’t miss it because of social media. I miss my pictures… of friends and family.” She says the last part fast and low, tucking her chin so her braids swing forward to obscure her face.
Fresler pats Jennifer’s shoulder and says, “That’s a great answer, Jennifer.”
“Thanks, Fresler.” She gives her mom a dirty look before smiling at him.
“Okay, Fresler, your turn,” says John.
Fresler smells his underarm. “No question, clean clothes. Especially clean underwear.”
Everyone’s heads bob in ardent agreement.
“Not bad, Fresler,” says John. “Okay, I saved the best for last. Jackie?”
“Aww, thanks, sweetie.” She squeezes his knee and looks around at everyone with a soft smile.
“When was the last time you were moved emotionally, by someone’s creation?” she says, looking wistful. “Where the hair on the back of your neck stood up or you had goose bumps on your arms? Where you were moved to tears? That feeling that takes over your body when you have just witnessed perfection. A painting, sculpture, novel, Broadway play, or opera… For me it’s sitting in a comfortable recliner with a bucket of popcorn listening to thirty-six thousand watts of audio power fed to fifty diﬀerent speakers, staring at a fifty-foot-wide screen and watching that perfect movie. A movie I have never seen before that moves me to tears.” Her mouth tilts, pulled in two different direction by nostalgia and melancholy. “I can’t believe I will never see another movie in a theater or listen to an amazing song for the first time on the radio. That’s what I will miss.”
For a long moment, there is no sound, only white puffs of breath rising toward the ceiling.
“Well…,” John says at last. “I didn’t expect that answer. I was thinking you’d say flushing toilets or running the dishwasher.”
Jackie stares daggers at John in a look that, to Fresler’s amusement, is an exact replica of Jennifer’s earlier glare.
“I mean, that was great, Jackie,” John says in a rush.
“So… who wins?” Larry asks.
“It’s a tough decision, but I have to go with… Jackie.”
Larry laughs and says, “What? Her answer was no diﬀerent than my Detroit Lions answer. I smell nepotism.”
“She put more thought into her answer. More care.”
Jackie gives Larry a mischievous smile. “Have fun with clean-up duty tonight.”
“Dude, that’s low,” says Larry.
While everyone finishes eating, Sharon walks to the window. Fresler notes her thoughtful frown and rises to join her.
“Where is the next cabin we’re aiming for?” she asks him.
“Do you remember where the Parsons used to live? Over by Whitman’s Lodge?”
“The bed and breakfast? Of course, I remember,” Sharon says, looking at him with lashes lowered. Fresler wraps an arm around her, recalling their first Valentine’s Day together. He surprised her with a room for the entire weekend, complete with passes for the on-site spa. “Isn’t that pretty far away?”
“There’s a cabin between here and the Parsons’ old place. Should be less than six miles.”
Sharon nods, but that frown returns. “A lot of hills to climb, though. Won’t that slow us down?” She doesn’t wait for an answer from Fresler, instead turning to John. “Maybe we should spend the night here, just in case. The animals—”
“We’ll make it, if we pack up now,” John says firmly. “Let’s go, everybody. Each minute we delay, more people are going to die.”
Jackie knows the look on John’s face, and it makes her heart beat a nervous rhythm. She takes his hand and leads him into the bedroom, ignoring his protests that there’s no time for this. She shuts the door and presses her back to it, rubbing at her arms.
“What’s up?” asks John.
“Let’s spend the night here. It’s safe, and we just don’t know if we can reach a cabin before dark.”
John rubs his eye with a frustrated sigh. “We already agreed as a group that we need to push on if we are to get in twelve miles of hiking. You heard Larry. It’s the only way we can stay on schedule, and besides, he recognizes where we are.”
Jackie stomps her foot. “You and your damn schedules! Who cares if we get to Littlefork in three or four days? What does it matter?”
John’s eyes widen. “I can’t believe you’re reacting like this.” He presses his lips together like he’s holding back profanity. “Each day we delay, more people are going to die.”
“It won’t matter if we all die in the process.”
“Where is this coming from?” John shakes his head and storms out of the room. Jackie hides her tears in the bathroom as John proclaims to the living room, “Pack your things, we need to get going!”
Fresler shrugs his shoulders at Larry in the following silence. The group packs up and follows John out of the cabin.
Larry and John take the lead through the freshly laid snow, providing tracks for the rest of the group to follow.
“Do you recognize where we’re at?” asks John.
“Yes, it looks familiar,” says Larry. There should be a cabin straight ahead.”
“Great.” He pats Larry’s back.
Larry appraises John’s frown and notices he keep tossing glances over his shoulder at Jackie. “Everything okay?” Larry asks. “You seemed pretty upset when we left the cabin.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Jackie just doesn’t understand how important it is that we keep hiking. The sooner we get to the CDC, the more lives we can save.”
The idea that this long trek through a winter wasteland may make Sean’s death mean something drives Larry onward. Still, as the hours slip by and the sky grows dull with the arrival of dusk, he begins to wonder if John should have listened to his wife. So, when he stumbles down a slippery slope beneath the oranges of sunset and finally spots a cabin in the distance, he whoops with joy and relief. John hisses at him to shush, eyes on the last sliver of sun peeking above the horizon.
“Pick up the pace,” John calls to the group, and Larry is infected by the anxiety in his voice. Flashes of that terrible night return to him—the coyote’s wild yips chasing them down, Tina’s scream splitting the night, and the scent of Sean’s blood on the snow.
As Larry spins in a circle, scanning the scarce trees for signs of slinking predators, Fresler takes the lead, jogging toward the cabin. His breathing is ragged and exhausted, and he is favoring his still-healing leg, but he spurs the group onward, for which Larry is grateful.
John falls to the back of the group to act as a guard when the sun vanishes, leaving only a ring of half-light behind. The cabin is still just a dark shape in the distance when the first animal calls welcome the night. Coyotes howl, and behind a snowy hill, something lets out a hellish scream—it sounds as if someone is being murdered.
“Red fox,” Fresler gasps out as he runs, but identifying the screaming animal doesn’t make anyone feel less on edge.
It is hard to know for certain where the sounds are coming from. The infected animals could be anywhere in the rapidly deepening dark. High in the branches. Burrowing beneath the snow. Hiding in fallen logs and lurking behind boulders. Soaring through the darkening sky.
“Go! Go!” John shouts, as an avian shriek echoes on their right.
No one has to be told twice. Running at a full sprint, the group charges toward the cabin. Larry can now make out its front door and a rocking chair on the small porch. Fifty yards from the cabin’s inviting front, a large red oak reaches toward them with branches like hands. Movement on a fat lower limb catches Larry’s eye. Shimmying its shoulders among the branches is a mountain lion, poised to spring with its yellow eyes on Fresler. Larry shouts in warning that he knows is futile. The cat has already spotted its prey. It’s meal of choice: humanity’s last hope.
In the split second it takes for the mountain lion to spring into the air, Larry makes a decision. He throws himself forward, slamming his shoulder into Fresler’s back.
The sudden force sends Fresler flying forward, tripping over his feet until he crashes face first into the snow. A demonic yowl quickens his already pounding heart, and he rolls over to see a mass of yellow fur and rippling muscle on top of Larry.
“Get in the cabin!” Larry yells, breaking Fresler from his shock. Larry has the mountain lion’s paws in his hands, the veins in his neck popping with the strain of holding the creature’s paws. But Fresler can see deep claw-marks in Larry’s arms, and the snow around him is melting beneath streaks of hot blood.
Fresler’s shock roots him to the spot until Sharon yanks him up by his coat collar. Fresler tugs against her frantic hands, but it’s too late. The mountain lion sinks its teeth into Larry’s shoulder, and the screaming mingling with the puma’s bloodthirsty roar, makes Fresler feel faint.
Larry is infected, just like the cat. Still, Fresler’s addled brain insists he should be able to do something. Anything.
“Run! I can’t hold it much longer!” screams Larry.
Sharon nearly yanks Fresler off his feet, dragging him by the arm to the cabin’s front door. Jackie and Jennifer are right behind them, but Tina only screams. On the porch, Fresler turns to see her raking her nails over own cheeks, eyes ghostly and enormous as she watches the cat rip apart her cousin’s left arm. John lifts Tina off her feet and throws her over his shoulder. He runs with her toward the cabin, her arms limp and head bobbing. Behind him, Larry lets out a final roar of effort before the mountain lion rips open his jugular.
Larry’s arms drop to his sides as a fountain of blood sprays the lion’s coat.
The beast doesn’t pause to feed. Instead, it turns toward Tina’s high, insane screams, stepping on Larry’s torso with its enormous paws. It snarls, red-tinted saliva dripping from its teeth. It takes one step in their direction. Two steps. Three.
Fresler grabs the doorknob. He is relieved when it turns easily, but when he pushes on the door, it won’t budge. He looks over his shoulder to see that the lion is twenty yards from John, who’s slowed down Tina’s hysterics. She flails her arms, shrieking something unintelligible.
“Kick the door in,” yells Sharon, breaking through his shock.
Fresler throws his body at the door, shoulder first, and it crashes open. Fresler and Sharon tumble over the threshold. Jackie and Jennifer race in behind them.
Jackie grips the doorjamb and looks back at John, now only a few yards away. The mountain lion is gaining ground. As Jackie waves her husband forward, Fresler waits with doorknob in hand, ready to slam it shut the moment John crosses the threshold.
John reaches the porch, bounds over both steps, and narrowly avoids the lion’s swiping paw by leaping forward through the door. Fresler swings it shut, and he and Jackie brace for impact. The beast thuds against the wood, popping the door open an inch. Bending their knees, Jackie and Fresler, push back. The click of the slamming door is muffled by the creaking wood and the lion’s snarls. Fresler slides the deadbolt and then moves aside as Sharon and Jennifer shove a nearby bookshelf against the door as a precaution.
John lays on the floor, chest heaving with the effort to catch his breath. Jackie walks over and helps him to his feet. He pulls her into a tight embrace.
Tina is curled in the fetal position, shaking with sobs. Sharon crouches beside her, rubbing the girl’s back. Tina mutters senselessly, her eyes vacant, pupils dilated. Her cheeks are inflamed from the abrasions she carved into her own face.
“I’m so sorry, Tina,” Sharon whispers. “Your cousin died saving us. He was a brave man.”
Tina only mutters faster, the syllables jumbled by her wails.
Jackie starts a fire with some wood that was left in the cabin, and the group huddles in front of the fireplace, lost in their own heads as their bodies reel from the shock. Fresler swipes his hands over his face hard enough to make him see red spots behind his lids, feeling guilty that Larry gave his life to save him. John cuts his eyes toward Sharon and Jackie, gut-punched by the realization that they were right: they should have stayed put for the night. They played a dangerous game and lost one of their own. It could have been Jackie, John thinks. It could have been Jennifer.
Jennifer studies Tina, frightened by her trembling and her haunted eyes. She’s not sure she wants to know what Tina’s going through. The devastation of losing her entire family has broken her, and Jennifer imagines she wouldn’t fare any better in the same situation. Jennifer has never lost anyone close to her, not like Tina, and the thought of ending up quivering on the floor, her parents gone forever, scares her to her core.
No one in the group feels like eating dinner, but Sharon hands out foil-wrapped packets of smoked fish and steamed vegetables anyway.
“We need to keep our strength up,” John says, taking a bite to encourage the others. The food, expertly prepared as it is, tastes like ashes in John’s mouth.
His stomach sinks even further when Jackie approaches him after dinner and hisses, “We need to talk.”
John sways on his feet, exhausted. “What is it?”
“Follow me.” She leads him into one of the bedrooms and shuts the door. “We need to get back to our original plan. We need to go straight to Canada, with no detour through Littlefork. Fresler and Sharon don’t need our help. They can reach the CDC on their own.”
“You were the one who wanted to bring them with us in the first place,” says John, already weary of this argument.
“That was when I thought they’d be joining us on your route—the fastest route.”
“We’re only adding a couple days,” John says, avoiding her eyes. “The weather will hold.”
“This isn’t like you, John. You make plans and schedules, and you stick to them. You put your family before everything else. What’s changed?”
“You know exactly what’s changed,” John shoots back, mounting frustration making him grind his teeth. “Fresler has immunity to the virus. Millions of lives are at stake. We have no choice but to help.”
“What about your daughter, John? That lion could have just as easily landed on her instead of Larry. You’re putting her life at risk!” Jackie’s hands shake as she tries and fails to keep her voice low.
Her trembling gives John pause. He takes a second look at her eyes and sees the depth of her fear and sorrow. His voice softens. “I will make sure nothing happens to her… or to you.”
“You can’t guarantee our safety. You can’t even guarantee your own safety. What would you have done if you were in Larry’s position—if you’d seen the mountain lion first? Would you have jumped in front of it, and sacrificed yourself?”
John swallows hard, knowing even his silence will tell Jackie everything she needs to know.
Jackie gulps. “I get that you have this fascination with life-threatening missions. One tour of duty wasn’t enough for you… No, you had to sign up for three. And it didn’t end with the army. On the force, you always volunteered for the most dangerous assignments. There always has to be a mission with you. This is just another mission, but this time you’re putting your daughter’s life at risk!” Her voice grows deadlier with each word, until she’s shouting for everyone to hear.
John hardens his expression. “That man”— he points to the living room—“is our only chance for survival. I know you understand that.”
Jackie’s hands go to her hips, and John braces himself for the outburst that’s sure to follow. “You’re going to risk our lives for Fresler’s safety. Is his safety more important than ours?”
“Of course not,” sputters John, not as prepared as he thought. “How can you say that? I’m doing this for you. I’m doing this for Jennifer.”
“Fresler doesn’t need our help,” says Jackie, arching a brow in a threat he knows well.
John holds his ground but softens his shoulders and jaw. “I disagree. This is the way it has to be.”
Jackie’s lower lip quivers, and John sees her chew on the inside of it to keep it steady. “I would take Jennifer and leave, if I thought we could make it on our own. But I know we can’t. We need you.”
John reaches for Jackie’s shoulders, but she steps back . “I will make sure nothing happens to her. I promise,” says John, begging her to believe him with his eyes.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep!” Jackie storms out, slamming the door behind her.
On the musty living room couch, Sharon and Fresler’s heads follow Jackie as she stalks by and locks herself in the hall bathroom.
“Wow, these walls are paper thin,” Fresler whispers to Sharon.
Sharon gently turns Fresler’s head to face her with a soft hand on his cheek. Despite the joke in his tone, she can feel the nervous heat coming off him, see the greenish tint to his skin.
“Don’t pay any attention to Jackie,” she says. “She didn’t mean it.”
Fresler blows out a low scoff. “She meant it, and she has a point. That lion landed on Larry, but it could have just as easily been Jennifer. It could have been any of you.”
“Larry knew the risks. We all know the risks. John is right; this is too important. Millions of lives can be saved.” She kisses Fresler’s scruffy cheek. “Jackie is scared for her family, but she’s not unreasonable or cruel. She’ll come around.”
Fresler stares into the fire. “I don’t know.”
“If there is any chance at all that the CDC can create a vaccine from your blood, we have to try.”
Fresler sighs. “I’m sure there are others who are immune that could help. It doesn’t have to be me.”
Sharon pulls his hand onto her lap and draws circles below his knuckles with her fingertip. “You’re right, there may be others that are immune… but they may never realize they’re immune. We know you’re immune. You have to do this, Fresler.”
He nods, but he still looks conflicted.
Before long, the group starts to get ready for bed, unable to stand the tense silence. There are no games played by the fire tonight. No one takes the bedroom, though the open-door beckons with promises of a mattress. Though no one says it outright, they don’t want to be alone. Tucking their sleeping bags together in close groupings, they close their eyes against the sounds of the wind-rattled windows. Eventually, one by one, they slip into something resembling sleep.