Frozen Pandemic

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As soon as the sun rises, John and Fresler slip out of the cabin and walk to the red oak tree to look for Larry’s body so they can hold a memorial for him. The deranged mountain lion did not have the sense to drag the body away for later feeding, and to Fresler’s relief, the remains are not as scattered as he anticipated. Still, his stomach swishes back and forth like a washing machine at the sight. With no shovel or pick, they have to bury his body with a few stones they find near the cabin. John does most of the digging, while Fresler—immune to the virus in Larry’s blood—handles the remains.

When the job is done, Fresler rummages through Larry’s slashed backpack.

“What are you looking for?” asks John.

“Larry’s respirator mask. Sharon still needs one.”

John walks over to the tree and uses a stick to poke at what looks like a strap. “I think this is all that’s left of it.”

“Damn!” Fresler picks it up and buries it beside Larry’s body. Then he stands, looking at his filthy hands and clothes. “Let’s get cleaned up and get the others.”

Half an hour later, the group gathers around the burial site. John opens with a few words, recognizing Larry’s heroism in giving his life to save Fresler.

Tina cries through the speech, feeling drunk with the unreality of it all. Her whole-body sags while her mind runs laps. When John opens the floor to the others, one clear thought sprints ahead of the others in Tina’s head. She thinks of how proud she was of Larry for gathering the strength to say a few words at Sean’s service when she couldn’t. She needs to do the same for him. She takes a deep breath.

“Larry, you were always there for me and Sean. You practically lived at our house. I’ll never forget the time our families were vacationing together in Refugio and I wandered off to use the bathroom and got lost. I must have been seven, and you were about eighteen. I was scared to death, and you were the one who found me and walked me back to our campsite. You were my hero that day. You still are. You were always there for me. I’ll never forget you. I’m going to miss you, Larry. I hope you are…” Tina pauses to swallow the grief temporarily, determined to finish. “Peaceful, without pain. When someone dies, you always hear the same thing, ‘They’re in a better place now,’ but no one really knows for sure. I wish I had that kind of faith, to feel certain. If anyone deserved to be in a better place, it’s you.”

Sharon’s arm loops around Tina’s waist, and Tina leans into the hug. They walk back to the cabin to gather their backpacks and start their second day of hiking. It feels wrong, pressing on so soon and leaving Larry behind, but Tina doesn’t have the strength to fight John’s logic. They must stick to their schedule. They need to take advantage of the weather. It could turn on them at any time, leaving them stranded and without food. They must push on.

John looks over at Jackie and notes her dragging feet. Each step is taking considerable effort, and her lids are heavy with exhaustion. He looks at his watch and realizes with a jolt that four hours have passed since their last break. There is a group of birch trees by some fallen logs which will make the perfect place to take shelter from the howling winds.

The moment John gives the signal, everyone collapses onto the logs or leans all their weight against the trees. John shifts from foot to foot, needing to relieve himself. He walks about fifty yards away from the group and ducks behind a tree.

As John unzips his pants, he is startled by two eyes watching him from across a frozen pond. He stares back at the creature, mesmerized by the beauty of its oval-shaped brown eyes and elegant, long legs. The white-tailed doe pricks one ear forward while the other swivels left. John doesn’t dare make a noise, drinking in the animal’s simple majesty. He forcefully turns off his defensive brain, which urges him to run through strategies for warding off an infected deer’s hooves. He tries to focus on the positive, for once.

A branch snaps from the weight of the snow, and the doe darts off. John quickly finishes his business, his mind still on the doe. He can learn from its caution. They need to start looking for shelter.

When John returns to the group and proposes they stop at the first cabin they come across, even if it’s not the one John and Fresler pinpointed, the consent is unanimous. They’ve learned from their mistake the day before, pushing themselves too far.

Fresler and his long legs take the lead when they begin their hike again. From the back of the line, John keeps an eye on Fresler’s red head when it suddenly vanishes into the snow. His heart stops for a beat and then gallops as he runs to the spot, Sharon calling Fresler’s name at his heels. Fresler waves sheepishly at John and Sharon from a five-foot hole in the ground. John breaks off a large branch from a nearby tree and extends it down into the earth. Fresler grips the wood with his gloved hands and slowly pulls himself out.

“Thanks,” Fresler gasps, once he’s back on level ground.

“Are you all right?” John asks as Sharon dusts snow off Fresler’s shoulders and head.

“Fine. Got the wind knocked out of me. Maybe some bruises. But nothing’s broken.”

“You need to be more careful. Why don’t I take the lead from now on?” His voice is stern and sober, but inside, his heart is still pounding. What would he have done if Fresler had fallen and broken his neck? How far is he willing to go for this man—for this vaccine?

It’s not long before the wind starts to gust at speeds of up to forty miles per hour. John tucks his head and leans forward, taking the brunt of the force while the others huddle in a tight line behind him, following in his tracks.

He is exhausted in minutes, and he’s sure the others are ready to fall over by the time he next checks his watch. 3:00 p.m. Pure adrenaline presses him onward. If they don’t pick up the pace, they may not reach shelter in time.

After hiking for another thirty minutes, John looks back at the group and startles. Fresler leads the single file line fifty steps behind. Instead of waiting for them to catch up, John decides to hurry up a small ridge for a better look at their surroundings.

At the top, he spies a small structure in the distance, tucked behind a cluster of pine trees. Relief washes over him—the group should be safely indoors before nightfall. He pauses to wave for the others to follow high up the slope and then jogs down the other side. As he nears the structure, he can see a chimney and a front door.

He pauses to check on the others again. Jackie stands at the top of the ridge and nudges Jennifer when she spies the brown structure. Fresler, Sharon, and Tina are already half-sliding down the hill, holding hands for balance

John’s boots make the porch steps groan and splinter. When he turns the knob and finds the front door unlocked, he doesn’t have much hope left for the interior. So, the L-shaped, reclining sofa and clean kitchen bring a surprised laugh bubbling up from his belly. He walks inside, calling, “Hello?” The house is in such good condition, he wonders if someone is still living here, but he finds no food in the cabinets and the closets in the two bedrooms are mostly bare of clothes. As he walks back into the living room, the rest of the group arrives.

Sharon smiles at John and asks, “How did you know this would be here?”

“I didn’t,” he says softly.

John gathers firewood while Fresler conducts a closer inspection of the bedrooms for supplies. When John returns, Fresler has gathered a pile of blankets on the living room floor and Sharon is heating up some homemade vegetable soup on the portable gas burner while John spreads the map out over the dining-room table to try and determine their exact location. They are only five miles away from the city of Littlefork, so it shouldn’t take more than four hours to reach it tomorrow, if he can chart an efficient path. There is a paved road nearby that they can use the rest of the journey, which will make hiking much easier.

While John works, Fresler sets the table around him. When dinner is steaming in bowls and everyone has taken their seats, Fresler stands up and asks them to raise their cups. “To Sean and Larry. You are both heroes to us, and you will never be forgotten.” Tina offers a small smile of appreciation, and Fresler nods to her as he sits back down.

After dinner, Fresler decides to show Tina a guitar he found in the closet when he was collecting blankets, remembering what Sean said about her musical talents.

The moment he pulls it out, Tina gasps, and her hands fly to her mouth. “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.” She hugs Fresler quickly, bouncing up and down. “How did you know?”

“Sean told me that you’re an amazing musician.”

Her smile fades. “Thanks, Fresler. I want you to know how much I appreciate what you did for Sean his last two weeks. I’m so grateful that he was with you… and not alone at the end. I know you didn’t have to spend those last few days in the shed… you could have slept in your own bed.” She hugs him again, longer and tighter this time.

“I’m so glad I got the chance to spend that time with your brother,” Fresler says through a soft smile. “He was such an amazing person. It’s funny… I felt more connected with Sean than I did with my own roommate in college, and I lived with him for four years.” Fresler pauses, lost in memory for a moment. He continues, “I wish I were as brave as Sean.”

“What are you talking about? That day Sean was bitten, you rushed outside to help us. You risked your life for us.”

“Thanks, but… had I known there was an infected coyote outside…” Fresler shakes his head. “I’m not so sure I would have had the courage to help.”

“You underestimate yourself.”

Fresler shrugs. “Maybe… I want you to know how incredibly proud Sean was of you. He told me about the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.”

She blinks away tears with a smile. “Thanks… I was supposed to attend next fall. He was the one that convinced me to apply.”

Fresler watches Tina caress the guitar, her fingertips gliding over the strings without plucking them—a flirtation. “I didn’t think I’d see one of these again for a long, long time,” she murmurs.

“Would you…” Fresler tilts his head toward the living room.

“Play for you all?” Tina beams, and Fresler realizes it’s the first time he’s seen the full wattage of her smile. Her round face is lit from the inside, betraying her youth in a vibrant flush. “Absolutely.”

Tina walks back into the living room holding the guitar like a long-lost friend. “Look what Fresler found!” she announces, holding it up.

“Where was that?” Sharon asks.

“In the bedroom closet.” Fresler sits down next to his girlfriend.

“I didn’t know you played,” Jackie says, as Tina sits on the arm of the couch, guitar resting gently in her lap.

“It was the first instrument I ever picked up,” Tina says. She strums the strings together and then individually, concentrating on the pitch as she turns the tuning pegs. The group goes quiet, waiting. When she’s satisfied with her tuning, Tina continues, “I would like to play a song that I wrote when I was a freshman in high school.” She swallows hard, and says, “The day I found out—my mom—” She studies the grain in the hardwoods, blinking too fast. She puts her fingers to the frets, and the first clear note banishes the sorrow from her face. As the melody takes shape, goosebumps rise on Fresler’s arms.

Then Tina starts to sing in harmony with the instrument, the two of them weaving sound into emotion that quickens the breath of everyone watching. The lyrics tell the story of a lost child who can’t find her way home. Her mom is the home in this story, her touchstone. The person who taught her how to read and tie her shoes, who stayed with her through the night when she was sick. The one who took her shopping for a homecoming dress only days before she would pass away.

By the time Tina reaches the bridge, displaying her incredible range, Sharon and Jackie are weeping. Jennifer sways from side to side, eyes closed. John gawks with shimmering eyes, blown away, his expectations obliterated. Fresler is transported to his boulder on the rock in summer.

For the first time in months, every mind is freed of the words “virus” and “infection.” The cold doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter. The animals of the night are drowned out by the song. Through her music, Tina has taken everyone on journey back in time.

As Tina finishes her last chord, the room erupts in a tearful standing ovation. Jackie stands up and walks over to Tina, who looks demurely down at the guitar.

Voice cracking, Jackie says, “Tina, that’s exactly what I was talking about. You did it.”

“Did what?” Tina asks in a low voice, running a hand along the guitar’s curving figure.

“The answer… to the question of what I miss most. I miss being moved to tears by perfection. Your song… it’s perfection.”

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