By seven the next morning, Fresler and John are outside wearing matching smiles. The sun is already melting the top layer of snow, thanks to clear skies and the absence of freezing winds. They should be able to reach Littlefork with time to spare. John estimates they should make it to town by 1:00 p.m. thanks to the paved roads between the cabin and their destination.
When everyone is packed and ready, Tina asks John to help her strap the guitar to her backpack.
“Do you want me to carry it for you?” he asks. What he really wants to say is that they don’t need it. The extra weight could slow her down. But after seeing what comfort the instrument brought her—brought everyone, really—he can’t bear to tell her no. Tina has suffered so much in the short time he’s known her, to rob her of yet another thing she loves dearly is a cruelty he can’t abide.
“Thanks,” she says, “but I’d like to do it myself.”
Three hours later, John has to admit that he was wrong. Tina manages just fine with the guitar on her back, keeping pace with Jennifer, though her stride is shorter. When they take a break, Tina strips off her gloves to play a quick tune with her numb fingers, and John is grateful for the music.
The snowdrifts on the side of the road come up to Tina’s chin, encasing the group in a glittery tunnel. As he sits, munching on a bag of snack mix from Fresler and Sharon’s stash, John spies a patch of black beneath a particularly lumpy mound of snow. The others look up as he rises to investigate, but no one follows.
John scrapes off armfuls of snow from the large shape, his grin growing. He brushes the last of the powder off the SUVs hood and turns with hands on hips to beam at the others. Jennifer and Tina let out whoops of excitement, and Jackie gives him a short round of applause, but Fresler and Sharon look skeptical. John’s smile wavers a bit, remembering Fresler saying with certainty that there were no SUVs in working condition outside of Littlefork. John plans to prove him wrong. He opens the driver side door and beams at the keys still dangling in the ignition. He tries to turn it over, but nothing. It doesn’t even crank. He pulls the lever to release the hood and catches Fresler watching him. He shakes his red head with a crooked grin.
John grumbles as he fiddles with the battery. He gets back in and tries again. Nothing but a clicking sound. He slams the dashboard in disgust.
Fresler walks over and leans against the open door. “Any luck?”
John only glares. He gets out of the SUV and skirts past him.
Jennifer fidgets with her nails, gathering courage to trudge over the icy road to Tina. She’s sick of feeling the heat come off her mother’s scowl. Sick of her parents’ fighting. Jackie watches John mess around under the SUVs hood like he’s somehow betraying her by breathing, and her dad’s inability to apologize is only going to drag the nonsense on longer. Tina looks even more alone than Jennifer feels. Tina is alone. Jennifer rises to her full height and approaches with a tiny wave that Tina ignores.
Jennifer sits next to her, knees pulled into her chest. “I’m so sorry about Sean and Larry. I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
“You’re right, you can’t imagine,” mutters Tina.
Jennifer sucks in a breath through her teeth. She’s had it with the cold shoulder. “What’s your problem? I mean, I know I should have said something about your brother and your cousin earlier, but—do you hate me or something?” To Jennifer’s horror, tears well in her eyes. Why does she care what Tina thinks, if she won’t give her the time of day? Not knowing the answer doesn’t keep the tears from coming.
Tina glares sideways at Jennifer, but her face softens a fraction as Jennifer wipes her lashes dry before they crystalize. “I don’t hate you. I guess I just hate girls like you.”
Jennifer folds her arms and scowls at Tina. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Jennifer… I knew girls like you in high school. You’re tall, beautiful, popular, and perfect. I was this short, overweight band geek in high school and… Forget it.”
“You don’t know me at all.” Jennifer stands up and rejoins Jackie in sullen silence.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” Jackie asks, running a hand through Jennifer’s braids.
“It’s nothing,” she says quickly, but her mother has always been able to read her.
“Did Tina say something?”
“Forget it, you wouldn’t understand.” Jennifer stands up and walks well out of earshot, dying to be alone.
John spends an extra fifteen minutes on the useless SUV than he normally would have, dreading the look on Fresler’s face. Finally, he slams the door, avoiding granola boy’s smug, poorly concealed grin by waving the others onward with a noncommittal shrug at the car. He takes the lead, directing Fresler to the back, and they renew their monotonous hike down County Road 22.
Within three hours, John sees signs of civilization. Charcoal rooftops appear on the horizon, blurring together against the blue-white background of the sky. When he points them out to the others, whoops of excitement bounce off the snowdrifts, and everyone picks up the pace.
As they approach the city limits, a sea of residential homes materializes. They pass empty house after empty house, and John tries to curb his disappointment. They need to find a grocery store or convenience store to stock up on supplies, but he fears they might have to settle for searching through the property people left behind when they fled north. They’re already two days behind schedule, and scavenging neighborhoods will slow them down even more.
Halfway down Aspen Street, Fresler says, “Turn here. Ninth Avenue runs into Main Street. There are some stores we can check out.”
John grunts his thanks and crosses Ninth Avenue. He keeps forgetting that this is Fresler’s territory. Back when they had access to cars and electricity, he and Sharon probably came into Littlefork all the time.
The first shop they come to is completely cleaned out. The neighboring gas station convenience store is a husk. Even its sign, reading “Mel’s Corner Services,” lies busted on the pavement.
“We’ll have to split up,” John decides. “Fresler and Sharon, you look for transportation and a communication device. The rest of us will hunt for shelter. Meet back here at Mel’s in two hours.”
Fresler and Sharon twist through residential streets, cutting across lawns whenever they catch a glimpse of shining metal. Most of the homes are small Victorians with wrap-around porches and large lots. It’s easy to spot the vacant shells. It’s not only the piles of untouched snow in their front yards, the darkened windows, or the cold chimneys. The abandoned homes have a sadness to them, Fresler thinks. They seem to lean under the weight of loss. Without even looking inside, he can sense they’re hollow. He wonders if his cabin now carries the same air of loneliness.
“There’s a car in that driveway over there,” Sharon says, pointing to one of the empty homes. She and Fresler march faster, leaving deep boot-prints in the unused road. They circle the vehicle, inspecting. It’s a small sedan, which isn’t ideal for their needs, but would do in a pinch. “Do you think it will—?”
A shot rings out, and Fresler and Sharon duck behind the car. “Did that come from—” Fresler begins.
Another shot cracks through the chilly air and strikes a pile of snow near the mailbox, obliterating it in a puff of powder. Fresler counts to five and then peeks over the sedan. A dark double barrel pokes out of one of the windows, like a giant nose sniffing out prey. The shooter is using the snowdrift piled on the porch as extra cover. Fresler sees only a wrinkled hand. “Someone’s inside,” he says to Sharon. “We’re not here to steal your car!” he shouts, hoping the person can hear him. “We’re just going to walk away now—”
Bang! The next shot hits the tree at the edge of the property.
“What do we do?” Sharon hisses.
“We’ll have to make a run for it.” Fresler crab walks to the back of the car, tugging Sharon with him. “Hopefully, when whoever-it-is sees us leaving, they won’t shoot us in the back.”
“Ha-ha,” Sharon says, voice shaky. “Very funny.”
Fresler meets her eyes. “I wasn’t joking.”
The two of them army crawl through the snow, trying to remain in the shadow of the car as long as they can. When their shelter is gone, they have no choice but to run. The knee-high snowdrifts make forward motion hard, but they get to the street. Fresler anticipates a shot, but it doesn’t come. His heart still beats just as fast.
“There!” Sharon points at a large oak in a yard across the street. The shot comes as they leap over the covered sidewalk into the grass, ricocheting off the pavement and catching in the drift. They leap behind the tree and lean against its bark, gasping for air.
“Was Littlefork always this friendly?” Fresler asks, wheezing. Sharon doesn’t respond, not even when Fresler nudges her and says, “That was a joke.”
She leans her head on his shoulder, still wide-eyed. They wait several more minutes before venturing out from the cover of the tree and scurrying through backyards to get away from the sedan and its trigger-happy owner. Fresler does look back once, but all he sees is a silhouette in the now-open doorway.
A block over, they find a house with a clear walkway and a smoking chimney.
As they approach slowly with hands raised in surrender, a man in his early seventies peers out his front window. Fresler glances at Sharon, and then raises his voice. “We’re not here to steal from you! We’re hoping you can help us—”
Before he can even finish his greeting, the man flings open the door and rushes toward them. Fresler’s first instinct is to jump in front of Sharon, but the man’s hands are empty of weapons. His broad smile register’s in Fresler’s frightened brain a second later. He’s clearly excited to see them—so excited, in fact, that he’s forgotten to put on his jacket. “Hello, strangers,” he says, stopping just short of shaking their hands. His smile wavers only a second as he draws it back reluctantly, scanning them for signs of infection. “I’m Rob. What can I do for you?”
“We’re hoping someone in town has a communication device. Maybe a ham radio. We need to talk with someone at the CDC,” explains Sharon.
“Why on earth would you need to communicate with the CDC?” asks Rob.
Fresler clears his throat awkwardly. “Because I’m immune to the virus, and apparently the CDC can develop a vaccine from my blood.”
“You think you’re immune?” Rob chuckles.
Rob turns when his front door opens. A woman shuffles toward him, holding out his jacket. Her gray bun is rife with flyaway strands, and judging by her untied hiking boots and the pink robe beneath her puffy coat, she chased after her wayward hubby in a hurry. As she hands the jacket to him, she asks, “Who are you talking to?”
“Barb, this young man thinks he’s immune to the virus,” says Rob. His wide smile turns mocking as he wiggles his bushy brows.
Barb rolls her eyes at Rob. “Did you even bother asking him why he thinks that?” She turns to Fresler. “Why do you?”
“I was bitten by the same coyote that infected and killed one of our friends. We were quarantined together. He died from the virus. I… didn’t.”
Rob’s smile vanishes when his jaw goes slack. “If that’s true, then…”
“As I said before, we need to find a way to communicate with the CDC—immediately,” says Fresler, more to Barb than to Rob. She seems less likely to talk his ear off and more likely to get things done.
Barb purses her lips. “I’m not aware of any communication devices in town, but I can certainly ask the others. There are only seven of us left. Six, if you count out Gerald West. He’s not likely to share anything.”
“I think we met him already,” Fresler says, casting a glance at Sharon.
“Shotgun?” Rob asks, and Fresler nods. “That’s him. Went a bit insane after the outbreak, if you ask me. But he’s not your biggest problem. Far from it.”
“What’s our biggest problem?” Sharon asks, taking Fresler’s hand. He can hear the dread in her voice.
“Atlanta is twelve hundred miles away,” Rob says matter-of-factly. “A ham radio has an eight-hundred-mile range, at best.”
“I wasn’t aware of that,” Fresler stammers. “We’re with four others. They’re looking for a place to stay now. We’re supposed to meet up with them in an hour. Can you help us locate transportation? Preferably SUVs.”
“Sure, there’s a car lot not far from here. I’ll drive you over to it,” says Rob.
“Also, Sharon needs a respirator mask,” says Fresler.
“I’ll ask around,” Rob says, and goes back inside to get his keys.
Rob chatters away the whole drive, but Fresler doesn’t mind as much as he thought he might. He mostly tunes Rob out and appreciates the white noise of another person’s animated voice. Rob is certainly the cheeriest person they’ve come across since the outbreak.
Miraculously, the car lot has an SUV with a full tank of gas. Fresler gets into the driver’s seat and starts adjusting the mirrors. “Can we come back to your place around 3:30?” he asks Rob. “Will that give you enough time to ask the others in town about a communication device and a respirator mask?”
Rob nods slowly. “I think so.” He gets in his own car and calls out the window, “Stay safe.”