Frozen Pandemic

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CHAPTER 15

The next morning’s light is cool and dull, and it takes Fresler longer than usual to pull himself out of his sleeping bag. He kisses Sharon’s sleeping face before heading outside to assess the day’s promise. John has beaten him to it and stands at the bottom of the porch steps, gazing at the sky.

“What are you staring at?” Fresler inquires, expecting a snappy response but unable to help himself.

“We should wait an hour before we start hiking, just in case.” John squints harder as he runs a gloved hand over his bald head.

“In case of what?”

John points at some gathering clouds. “It looks like there’s a storm headed toward us. We can’t afford to get caught in the middle of a whiteout.”

Fresler has lived in Minnesota a long time, and he knows how changeable the weather can be. “Are you sure it’s headed this way?” The clouds, though heavy and gray, are a long way off. They could break up before crossing paths with the cabin.

“No,” John admits, “but it won’t hurt to wait another hour or so, just to be safe—don’t you think?”

Before Fresler can answer, all four women walk outside with their backpacks on.

“Is everyone ready?” asks Jackie.

“John thinks we should wait another hour before we start hiking, since it looks like there may be a storm headed our way,” says Fresler.

“Really? I don’t see anything.” Jackie follows his pointing finger but only shrugs at the sky.

John casts her a wry smile. “I’m not surprised.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” says Jackie’s, eyes narrowed in a threat.

Fresler grimaces at Sharon. It’s clear that the argument the Williamses had two nights ago is still simmering between them. Jackie wants to forge ahead—to leave Fresler, Sharon, and Tina behind to fend for themselves. John wants everyone to stick together.

Fresler balks at the idea of taking John’s side, but he agrees that they need to keep the group united. “John’s right,” he says. “We should wait and see about the weather.”

Everyone but John goes back inside while he looks for firewood. He’s piled two stacks by the door when the wind picks up and the thickening clouds begin a race toward the cabin. Soon, they’re joined by others.

A few hours later, John, Fresler, and Jackie head out for their fifth assessment of the sky. The clouds are still accumulating overhead, spreading for miles in every direction, and the chill is enough to make Jackie’s teeth chatter as soon as her boots hit the snow.

“We’ll need to gather more firewood,” John says. “We’ll want enough wood to last a couple days.”

“A few days!” Jackie exclaims, her stormy expression rivaling the elements. She rounds on Fresler, making him flinch back. “What do you think? You’re the one who lives here.”

Fresler gives her an apologetic shrug. “Looks like it could be a bad one,” he says.

He quickly makes his exit, heading in to tell the others they need help gathering wood.

Three hours of monotonous labor pass. By the time the first flake lands on Fresler’s nose, his thighs and shoulders are screaming at him. The sun is blotted out by dark clouds, and strands of Fresler’s hair are yanked from his bun. One look at John tells Fresler they’re both worried about the same thing: though the sun hasn’t set, the darkening sky might lure infected animals from their shelters.

“Time to head in,” John proclaims, and there’s a collective sigh of relief.

Back in the cabin, John does a head count. One short. He checks the kitchen and bedrooms. “Has anyone seen Tina?” he yells from bathroom. No response. John hurries back into the living room to find four pairs of owlish eyes looking to him in alarm. “Check the whole house again,” John orders. While everyone spreads out, John grabs his backpack and pulls out his gun.

“What do you think you’re doing?” demands Jackie.

“Tina is still outside.”

Jackie grabs his arm on his way to the door. “I’m sure she will show up any second.”

“And if she doesn’t? It’s almost dark.”

“Don’t—” Jackie begins urgently, but John shakes loose of her grip.

Before he opens the front door, he says, “I want everyone to stay inside and secure the door and windows. I’ll be right back.”

Fresler follows John to the front door. “Can I—”

“No.” John blocks the doorway. “You can’t help. Like it or not, you’re the most important member of this group. Lock the door.” He slips out and clicks the door shut behind him. His shoulders relax when he hears the bolt turn behind him.

John yells Tina’s name as he searches the perimeter of the cabin. He heads around back and finds small footprints. They make a solitary line toward the woods, making John pretty sure they’re Tina’s. He does his best to follow the tracks, despite the fresh snowfall. Soon, they’ll be entirely filled in with new powder. The trail leads him to a clearing where a form in a yellow jacket crouches over a log. Tina’s slumped form sparks panic in John’s chest and he rushes to her side, calling her name.

She spins toward his voice and latches tight to him, breathing fast and shaking hard. “I got lost,” she shouts over the wind. “I couldn’t find my way back to the cabin. I’m so sorry.”

“There is nothing to be sorry for. I’m just glad that I found you. Let’s get you inside.”

John’s watch claims it’s only 3:00 p.m., but it looks more like 4:30.Dark clouds loom overhead as they make their way back through John’s tracks. The snow is coming down in sheets. Focused on his fading footprints, John doesn’t see the two coyotes step from behind two ancient trees until Tina grips his arm. John stiffens, inching Tina behind him with one arm, and squints through the snow over the coyotes’ heads. The animals are blocking the final row of trees leading into the cabin’s clearing, and John can see the lights in the windows beckoning them home.

He slowly pulls out his Glock 22 as the coyotes lower into crouches, snarling and snapping feverishly. Foam sprays from their jowls, and in their crazed excitement, they nip at each other’s haunches. The infected are braving the day thanks to the cloud cover. Plenty more could be on the way. Thinking fast, he aims for the larger coyote. The barrel insights the beast, and it growls low in its chest, preparing to spring. He fires—a direct hit between the eyes—but as the larger foe crumples, the smaller lunges. Tina leaps back with a shriek as the gun goes off. The bullet thunks into the coyote’s chest. As it falls, John powers forward, firing twice more into its head. His relieved exhale is drowned by a howl. He turns to see a third coyote already mid-charge, flinging powder as it flies toward them. John grabs Tina’s hand and yells, “Run!”

John uses a firm a hand on Tina’s back to keep her moving at a full sprint, but judging by the coyote’s snarls, it’s gaining ground. John propels Tina up the cabin’s porch steps to the door, but the knob doesn’t budge in her hand. Locked.

John bangs on door. “Fresler! Open up!”

John faces the coyote, now leaping through the front yard twenty yards off. Even as he aims his weapon, his stomach sinks. The chances of hitting his target when it’s running full tilt are slim. He’ll have to wait until the last possible moment. Steadying his breathing, he tracks the coyote with the barrel. When the coyote reaches the steps, John moves his finger toward the trigger, but a hand snatches his coat collar and yanks him inside. The door slams shut behind him and John flips on the gun’s safety.

Jennifer pulls him into a fierce hug, and Jackie envelops them both in a brief squeeze.

“Are you okay?” Jackie says through a frown. “We heard the gunshots.”

“I’m fine.”

“But you…” Jackie sighs heavily but backs down. John’s no fool, though. He’s going to hear exactly what’s on her mind later.

Fresler helps Tina to her feet. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, thanks to John.” She turns mournful puppy dog eyes on John. “I’m so sorry.”

“Like I said before,” he says. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“We’re just glad that you’re safe,” Sharon says. “Both of you.”

By 4:00 p.m. the sky is a swirling, ominous black. Their lamps and candles illuminate snowdrifts that almost reach the windows. The temperature outside is ten below, but inside, their fire slowly heats the room to a whopping twelve degrees. The home’s only fireplace is in a tiny den off the main living room—a study of sorts with a few sunken easy chairs and a tiny desk that the group moved into the hall. It’s a tight squeeze for everyone to fit, but the extra body heat keeps them from shivering too hard in their blankets.

Jackie squeezes herself into one of the chairs with John. “I guess I owe you an apology for not believing you about the snow,” she says reluctantly under her breath.

“Forgiven,” John says.

Jackie gives him a pointed look. “Do you have anything you want to apologize to me for?”

“Not that I know of.” He knows he’s being surly, but she’s beginning to irk the hell out him.

Jackie lowers her voice to a thin whisper so that Tina, who is curled up beside their chair, can’t hear. “We just talked about you putting yourself at risk, and then you run out into the snow and almost get killed by infected coyotes.”

“I had to.”

Jackie’s sigh is more like a growl. “I know you think that’s the case, but—”

“Monopoly?” Fresler says loudly.

John and Jackie’s heads snap up, and Fresler shakes the board game’s box at them.

“No thanks,” John says lightly, ironing out his scowl.

Jackie stands. “I’ll play.” She, Jennifer, and Sharon join Fresler in a tight ring in front of the fire.

An hour later, it’s still anybody’s game, but Fresler calls a time out to heat up the last of the homemade vegetable soup for the group. They’ve been eating the stuff for a few days now, but when you’re starving, anything sounds good.

“The soup is ready. We can finish the game after dinner,” announces Fresler.

They eat around the dining room table, now that the fire’s heat has trickled into the adjoining room. Fresler flips on his radio in hopes of a new CDC broadcast.

“Let’s hope this storm doesn’t last much longer,” says Sharon. “We don’t really have enough food to last us more than a couple of days.” She stirs her soup aimlessly, glancing at the backpacks she and Jackie filled with food three days ago.

Jackie peers over her shoulder at the fireplace. “We also don’t have enough firewood.”

“We’ll be fine,” says John, sounding more confident than he feels.

After dinner, Fresler, Sharon, Jackie, and Jennifer decide to finish up their game of Monopoly. John looks at the books on the shelf and notices a Stephen King novel. The gas-powered lantern provides enough light to read by, but he knows he cannot waste gas. They only have four containers left. He compromises by putting it on a low setting.

As John sits in the armchair reading his book, he is comforted by the sounds of Tina’s guitar and the laughter of the monopoly players. He looks up over his book and smiles, relishing a rare moment of tranquility.

Jennifer does a triumphant little jig when Fresler declares her the Monopoly queen, bringing a smile to Sharon’s lips. She looks over at Tina, who is packing up the guitar. She scoots over to sit next to the girl as she flips the clasp on the carrying case.

“Jackie was right, you know,” Sharon says. “Your song—it moved me.” She looks around the room with gleaming eyes. “It moved all of us. When we had that contest about what we miss most… I remember being a little jealous of Jackie’s answer. And Larry’s, for that matter. The rest of us thought about our day-to-day survival, but Jackie and Larry went deeper.” She looks around the room. “Before this pandemic, we lived for those moments. I’m sure that when Larry’s Lions won the Super Bowl for the first time ever, it moved him to tears. I think about the time I brought home straight A’s my freshman year. It moved my mom to tears. When I had a triple-double and scored the winning basket in my last league game, it brought my dad to tears. It’s different for everyone. For my uncle, my mom’s brother, it was all about making money, so he could afford nice things. Before this pandemic, we lived for those moments, and now we’re happy if we have a running toilet or clean underwear.”

Tina nods. “You’re right.”

“But your song did that for all of us. The melody… the lyrics.” Sharon dabs at her wet eyes. “Your song… it allowed us to forget about all of this.” She gestures at the bolted door, barred windows, flickering candles, and the bucket of melted snow they brought inside to boil for drinking water. “We had an escape for a few moments. I don’t think you understand how important that was… for all of us. Your song moved us all, and I wanted to thank you for that.”

Tina eyes glisten back at Sharon. “You’re welcome.”

Sharon rubs Tina’s arm. “Those lyrics were so heart-felt. Sounds like you and your mom were really close.”

Tina nods. “My dad was always working, but my mom… she was there for me.”

A question jumps to the tip of Sharon’s tongue, but she holds it in for a moment, mulling it over and shaping it into a more sensitive form. “Do you mind me asking you what happened to your mom?” she says cautiously.

“She had Leukemia, but she didn’t die from it,” Tina says softly. “She actually died after a blood transfusion. The blood was tainted with Escherichia coli.”

Sharon hugs Tina. “I’m so sorry.”

“Thanks, Sharon. I—”

Something scratches the front door, making Tina and Sharon jump in each other’s embrace. Everyone goes silent and still, listening. Scratch, scratch. The animal is incessant. John sets down his book and runs to the front door and tests the locks. He readjusts the bookshelf blocking it and gives the others a reassuring nod.

“There’s a few of them out there,” says John, pressing his ear to the door.

Sharon listens hard, and here’s low whimpers near the east wall. Something scratches at the wood siding on the other side of the den window. Something larger is running back and forth, yipping, and a howl reverberates somewhere out back. A bird’s shriek from above startles Sharon again, and she moves to Fresler’s side.

Tina and Jennifer have their hands over their ears. Jackie puts an arm around her daughter, mute and wide-eyed on the couch. Sharon takes his hand, thinking, if they find a way into this cabin, they will tear us apart. We will all die!

“Let’s get ready for bed, everyone,” John says, breaking the silence.

They follow his lead and unroll their sleeping bags, arraying themselves around the fire. They snuff a few candles and lie down. John positions himself closest to the door. Even with the ex-soldier curled up by the entrance, his eyes trained on the bookshelf, Sharon doubts she’ll be able to get any sleep.

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