John paces in front of the gas tanks at Mel’s Corner services. He anxiously looks down the street, then back at his watch. “Where are they? It’s three o’clock.”
Jackie looks up from her seat on the curb and says, voice weary, “Be patient.”
Jennifer and Tina are cross-legged on the curb, too, making sure to keep distance between themselves. John shakes his head. It’s strange to see two teenage girls staring oﬀ into the distance instead of looking at their cell phones. He follows Jennifer’s gaze to a line of cars parked on the side of the road in front of shops and boutiques. A place once bustling on Saturday afternoons now stands desolate. The only sound is the creaking of a loose street sign swaying in the wind.
John folds his arms and sighs. “What do you think the odds are that Fresler found a way to communicate with the CDC?”
“Have a little faith,” says Jackie. “After all, we found somewhere to stay without too much trouble.” The vacant home they chose is small, but fully furnished, and there’s firewood in the backyard.
Before they came back to Mel’s, John secured the doors and windows, Jackie scoured the pantry, and Jennifer and Tina collected some wood to start warming the place. By the time they return, it should feel like home sweet home—as much as anywhere does, these days.
“Look.” Jackie points. “See? They came through.”
John grunts at the black Ford Explorer, the chains on its tires slapping the road. Fresler waves through the open window, but John keeps his arms across his chest.
“What do you think?” Fresler asks as he rolls to a stop.
John walks to Fresler’s window and frowns at the back seats. “This is going to be a tight fit for all of us. Can we get another SUV?”
Fresler’s smile stiffens at the implied criticism, but he says, “We can drive back over to the lot and see what’s there. Hop in.”
The group piles in. Jennifer and Tina have to brace themselves against the walls of the rear cargo space, but they don’t complain. Instead, they sigh with relief at the rare warmth provided by the heater.
After filling the others in on their encounters with Gerald, Rob, and Barb, Sharon asks, “Did you find a place for us to spend the night?”
Jackie nods. “Not far from the convenience store.”
“That’s great,” says Fresler.
“Did you find a way to communicate with the CDC?” asks John.
Fresler looks at John in the rearview. “Not yet. But Rob said he was going to ask around.”
“Ask around,” John says, cutting his eyes toward Jackie. “So that’s a no, then.”
Jackie doesn’t even bother turning John’s way. “Who is there to ask?”
“Apparently, there are seven people still living in Littlefork,” says Sharon. “Rob and Barb don’t have what we need, so he is going to check if anyone has a communication device, or a respirator mask for me. We told him we’d check back around three-thirty to see if he had any luck.”
“Sounds good,” says John. “By the way, I’m thinking we should get three SUVs instead of two.”
Fresler’s tightens his jaw to hold in a grumbled protest. Why didn’t John think of this sooner? He usually thinks of everything. Was he setting Fresler up to fail at his task? “Why three?” is all he asks aloud.
“In case one of the SUVs breaks down. On our trip from Kentucky, we saw people stranded on the side of the road with no transportation. We can’t call a tow truck.”
Fresler nods. “True. If I take one and you take another, who’s our third driver?”
“Not me.” Sharon shakes her head. “I hate driving in bad weather and on icy roads.”
“I can do it.” Everyone looks to Tina’s hand raised over the backseat. “I love driving. I’ve missed it.” She glances at Jennifer. “The two of us can take the third SUV.”
John mulls it over. Fresler imagines he’s reluctant to let his daughter, or either of the girls for that matter, out of his immediate reach. “I guess that’s fine,” he finally says. “Jennifer and Tina will go together, and Fresler and Sharon, and Jackie and me.”
Fresler nods again, like a good little soldier. “Sounds like a plan.”
By the time they locate to more working vehicles up to John’s standards, it’s already almost 3:30 p.m. Fresler drops the others off at the prepared house and then drives directly over to Rob’s. He’s not even out of the car before Rob’s in the driveway wearing a frown. This time he remembered to wear his jacket.
Rob doesn’t beat around the bush. “Sorry, I talked to the others in town, but no one has a communication device or a spare respirator mask. I wish I could have been more help.”
“Thanks for trying, Rob. Why don’t you and Barb come with us?” asks Fresler.
“I appreciate your oﬀer. Barb and I talked about leaving our home to go farther north, but we agreed that we are just too old to move. I have some health problems that make it harder to travel. Plus, we love this home. I built it myself.” He smiles at Fresler. “Besides, if you travel to the CDC and develop a vaccine, then we won’t need to go anywhere.”
Fresler’s stomach drops, but he manages a grin. “I’ll do my best to hurry.”
Rob rubs his hands together and looks down the street. “Did you find a place to spend the night?”
“Yes, we have a place two blocks from here. We’ll leave in the morning.”
Rob pats Fresler on the back. “Good luck, Fresler. It was a pleasure meeting you.”
Fresler dreads John’s reaction the whole drive back. He knows John will look at him like he didn’t try hard enough, like he should have risked having his head blown off and checked every single residence in a ten-mile radius. As if he could have done better.
At the house, Fresler quickly gathers everyone in the living room.
“I have some bad news,” he says, focusing on Sharon. “Rob wasn’t able to locate a ham radio.”
To Fresler’s surprise, it’s Jackie who looks the most disappointed.
John recovers first. “Well I guess it’s decided then: we drive to Atlanta.”
Jackie immediately stands up and grabs John by the elbow. “I need to speak to you alone.” She doesn’t wait for his response. She marches into a bedroom and shuts the door the moment he lumbers inside with that stubborn frown already locked onto his face.
Before Jackie can say a word, John says, “I already know what you’re going to say.”
“And I already know you won’t listen to me,” she shoots back.
“So why are we fighting?” John asks.
“Because I won’t be able to forgive myself if I don’t try.” Jackie sits on the bed and pulls John’s down beside her. “John, this is too risky. Hiking here instead of going straight to Canada was bad enough. Driving to an area where the virus is active, where temperatures will be above freezing… It’s suicide.” She lets all of her fear trickle into her plea, hoping to appeal to his protective side. “It’s time, John. We need to go to Canada. We now have an SUV. We’ll travel fast. Jennifer will be safe.”
John slowly shakes his head. “Fresler needs us.”
Jackie stands up and makes stiff fists at her sides. “I don’t understand you at all! You’ll risk your daughter’s life for that man? You don’t even like him.”
John stands up and gently holds Jackie’s arms. “My feelings about Fresler are irrelevant. He is the key to developing a vaccine that can provide us—all of us—with a future!”
“There is no guarantee that a vaccine can be developed from his blood. And besides, he can drive to the CDC on his own. He doesn’t need our help!”
“He would never make it there alive,” John says, like it’s a proven fact.
Jackie fumes, letting out a low “oooh” like steam escaping a boiling kettle. “You think you’re the only one capable of driving to the CDC?”
John lowers his head and rubs his bald scalp. “It has nothing to do with driving skills. I know what people are like when they’re desperate. I’ve seen it first-hand.”
She gestures to the window. “This isn’t Iraq… We’re not at war.”
“Have you already forgotten what happened to us on our way to Minnesota? That family that was blocking the road? We are living in an apocalypse. There is no law enforcement… People will do anything to survive.”
In the adjoining bedroom, Sharon shakes her head and says, “I feel like we’re always eavesdropping on them.”
Fresler chuckles, but there’s a worried wrinkle in his forehead. “It’s not our fault that they argue loud enough for everyone in the house to hear.”
Sharon crawls across the bed to his side, propping herself up against the pillows. “Don’t pay any attention to them, Fresler.”
Fresler groans at the ceiling. “It’s hard not to. Clearly John hates me, and Jackie wants me to drive alone.”
“If they don’t want to go with us, that’s fine. We’ll go alone.”
He nods, expression growing thoughtful. “You’re right… We could go without them. But I’m worried about you.” He holds her hand, leaning over to kiss the top of her head.
“Why are you worried about me?”
Sharon watches tears attempt to form in his eyes, but he blinks them back.
“You don’t have a respirator mask, and we’ll be driving into warmer temperatures.”
She smiles and pulls him into her arms. He tucks his head into her chest. “Don’t worry about me. I have a mask,” she whispers in his ear.
“It’s not a respirator mask. I don’t know what I would do if you contracted this thing.” The image of Sean spitting up blood and convulsing sends shivers down his spine.
She buries one hand in his hair and strokes his face with the other. “I’ll be fine as long as I’m with you.”
John and Fresler double check that the house’s doors and windows are secure as night falls. The backdoor’s lock is a little loose and the flimsy door is a bit too small for the frame, so the men scoot a dresser in front of it just to be safe. The crackling fire’s warmth slowly spreads from room to room during a meager dinner of canned soup.
Discussions over the food turn to traveling arrangements. They decide to try to make it to Springfield, Illinois tomorrow. It’s about five hundred miles away, and it’s the halfway point between Littlefork and Atlanta. A long look at the map determines that the 35 and 94 freeways will be the best route.
After the bowls are cleared, Jackie immediately retreats to her and John’s bedroom alone, shutting the door hard behind her. Everyone else gathers quietly by the fire. All eyes shift awkwardly to John as he frowns at the bedroom door. When he feels their gazes, he clears his throat.
“We’ll be traveling into areas where millions of people have died from the virus,” John warns. “Although most of the infected died in hospitals and makeshift medical clinics, we may still come across dead bodies. We’ll have to be especially careful when we are looking for a place to spend the night, so as not to come into contact with any infected remains.”
Everyone nods their understanding, faces somber.
By 10:00 p.m., everyone is yawning and ready for bed. John joins Jackie in the master bedroom, while Sharon and Fresler retreat down the hall to the spare.
Jennifer and Tina curl up in their sleeping bags in the living room by the fireplace. Tina shuts her eyes tight and tries not to let her mind wander to dark places where Sean and Larry’s faces lurk, battered, bleeding, and screaming for help.
“Do you always judge people before you get to know them?” asks Jennifer.
Tina opens one eye. Jennifer’s flawless skin is illuminated on one side by the flickering fire. She’s propped on one elbow, staring hard at Tina with no sign of backing down.
“I’m sure you do the same,” says Tina, opening both eyes to roll them.
Jennifer’s mouth pops open in an outraged ‘o’. “No, I don’t.”
Tina rolls over on her back and stares at the ceiling. “Well… aren’t you perfect?”
“You’re just as bad as the people you hate.”
Tina’s throat tightens and she struggles to get out a scoff. “What are you talking about?”
“Obviously, these popular girls must have really hurt you, or you wouldn’t be so quick to judge me. They did this to you without taking the time to get to know you. Now you’re doing the same thing to me. You don’t know me at all.”
Tina bites her lip, thinking for a moment, and then rolls onto her side to look at Jennifer. “Okay, Jennifer. What was high school like for you?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“I promise to keep an open mind.”
Jennifer toys with a braid. “I transferred to this private school my junior year. I didn’t know anyone there. Meanwhile, my friends from my old school dumped me. They said I thought I was too good for them. So, I spent lunch breaks sitting alone pretending to text friends that didn’t exist.” Her voice grows thick. “I’m sure you had friends. They probably made fun of girls like me.” Jennifer turns her back on Tina and rests her head on a hand.
“Jennifer …” says Tina, but Jennifer doesn’t answer. Tina isn’t sure what she’d say if she did.
At 4:00 a.m., Fresler turns back his side of the covers. Paying close attention to Sharon’s deep breathing, he slides out one leg, then the other. He studies her sleeping face, the curve of her mouth, the way her hair falls over her cheek, while he gets dressed in the dark. Once his socks are on, he pulls a note out of his backpack. It will explain everything. She’ll be angry … but she’ll understand, he thinks. He resists the urge to brush her hair back and kiss her cheek. When tears well in his eyes, he steps back to prevent them from spilling onto her face. Boots in hand, he backs out of the room and closes the door slowly. He treads carefully down the hall on sock feet.
Fresler scans the living room, half expecting John to be standing in his doorway at the far end with arms crossed in disapproval. Tina and Jennifer are sleeping soundly next to the fire, which is now a pile of red embers. He turns and walks out the front door, putting his boots on as soon as he shuts it. He gets in the SUV parked closest to the street, throwing his backpack in the back seat. Fresler reaches for the keys that he left in the ignition, but he grabs air. He checks between the seats and in the floorboard, thinking perhaps they fell out.
Fresler checks the glove compartment and then beneath his seat again. The passenger-side door to the SUV opens, making Fresler’s heart skip a beat. He looks up too fast and cracks his head on the wheel. He sighs at the sight of John casually climbing into the passenger seat.
“Looking for these?” John jingles the keys.
Fresler clutches his racing heart and groans at the car’s ceiling. “Don’t you ever sleep?”
“Where do you think you’re going?” says John, stuffing the keys in his pocket.
“I’m not going to put anyone else’s life at risk. Jackie was right. I can do this alone.”
John’s laugh drips with cynicism. “No, you can’t. You would never make it there alive.”
Fresler pounds the dashboard. “I’m immune to the virus.”
John grits his teeth. “An infected animal can still tear you to shreds—and that’s not to mention what would happen if you ran into someone who sees you as a threat.”
Fresler stares out the windshield, gripping the wheel too hard. “Not everyone is a killer like you, John.”
“You’re so naïve!” says John, lunging over the middle console to jab a finger inches from Fresler’s cheek. “You live in your own little world… writing those escapist books in that little cabin of yours in the middle of nowhere. You have no idea what people are like when they’re desperate. Look around you. We’re living in an apocalypse.”
“I know you see the worst in people,” Fresler says, keeping his voice deliberately calm. “I’m sure most cops do.”
John forms a claw with his outstretched hand, as if longing to squeeze Fresler’s throat, but he withdraws and grabs the door handle instead. “I served three tours in a war zone. I know what people are like when their lives are threatened. You take away certainty… basic human needs… and we are no diﬀerent than those wild animals.” He flicks his head toward the window and the snowy night outside.
Fresler shakes his head, settling deeper into his seat with no intentions of moving. “I disagree with you about human nature. I happen to think that deep down we are all good.”
John’s chuckle is ragged. “I know what you believe. I knew it the moment I laid eyes on you sitting on that stupid chair in your little red outfit. You didn’t hesitate to invite us into your cabin even though you had no idea if we were infected or possibly a threat.”
Fresler rolls back his shoulders . “Look, I appreciate you wanting to help me, but I don’t need your help.”
“Let’s get something straight. I don’t give a shit about you! I only care about that blood running through your veins.” He points down at Fresler’s arm. “You’re nothing more than a tool… A means to an end.”
They sit in a charged silence for a few seconds before John asks, “What was your big plan with Sharon?”
Fresler gives him a wary sideways look. “What do you mean?”
“You were just going to leave her here to die? I thought you cared about her.”
Fresler scowls at him. How dare he bring Sharon into this, much less question his feelings for her. “More than anything. She will be safe with you and Jackie.”
John takes his ski cap oﬀ and rests it in his lap like a man in church. “If she stays here… if any of us stay here… we are all going to die. Eventually the temperatures will be above freezing.”
“Then you go farther north.”
“Until we run out of real estate.”
Fresler opens his mouth to argue, then shuts it again as understanding washes over him. “There’s no safe place,” he says softly. “In the summer, even in the farthest reaches of Canada and Alaska, the temperatures will rise above freezing.”
“Bingo,” John says grimly. “Antarctica is the only place that is safe year-round—and you can’t travel to Antarctica through Canada. It is south of Argentina. We have no way of getting there.”
Fresler releases the wheel to turn toward John. “Then why were you traveling north to Canada?”
“I was buying time… Hoping that a vaccine could be developed before it was too late.”
“Does Jackie know?”
John eases back in his seat. “No, she thought… thinks we have a future in Canada,” he says, voice softening. “I wanted her and Jennifer to have hope.” He puts his hat back on and lifts stern eyes to meet Fresler’s. “But let me be very clear now, since it’s just you and me in here: there is no future in Canada. You’re the key to a future. Possibly the only key we’ll get. Look, Fresler, if I have to, I will tie you up, but one way or the other we are making this journey together. Do you understand?”
Fresler curls his mouth in disgust and anger but snarls, “I do.” He hates giving John the satisfaction of being right, but what else can he do?
John gets out and slams the door shut behind him before walking back up to the house. The pompous ass is certain Fresler will follow. After all, he still needs the keys. Fresler contemplates taking a walk around the block to make John sweat, but ultimately, it’s the thought of the note he left by Sharon’s nightstand that gets him moving in a hurry. He flies through the living room, not worrying about tiptoeing until he’s a few feet from the bedroom door.
He slowly turns the silver knob, praying she’s still asleep, but when he cracks the door open, a streak of light escapes into the hallway.
Sharon is sitting on the bed, reading the note by the light of the bedside lantern. She looks up at Fresler with bloodshot eyes. A single tear falls from her chin. She holds up the note and shakes the object of her pain at him in an accusation.
“What’s this?” She crumples up the note and throws it onto the ground.
Fresler shuts the door and crosses the room in two strides. He crawls toward her on the bed, but she recoils from him and pulls up her knees in a shield, still fighting sniffles.
“I’m scared to death you’re going to contract this virus,” he says. “You don’t have a respirator mask. I don’t know what I would do—”
“How could you do this to me?” she cuts over him. “I spent two weeks agonizing… scared to death that you were going to die from this thing—and you were just going to leave me in the middle of the night?” Her voice rises an octave.
“Every day, we are at risk. Not just from the virus. You and I were looking down the barrel of a shotgun less than twenty-four hours ago, remember? But no matter the danger, I would rather die than spend one day without you. Apparently, you don’t feel the same way.”
Fresler hangs his head, pressing his fists into the mattress. “I don’t want to spend a single day apart from you, either, but I also don’t want to be the reason you die. I couldn’t live with that.”
Sharon stands up in a huff. He expects her to storm out, but she says, “Fresler, look at me.” He turns to hang his legs off the bed and looks up at her with tears in his eyes. “Promise me you will never do that again.”
Fresler bows forward. “I promise,” he says, voice cracking.
He stands, wanting to wrap her in his arms, but she is already slipping out of the bedroom slamming the door on her way out.
Fresler sits back down, mind reeling. He spies the note Sharon threw on the floor. He crumples it in his fist and tosses it in the trash, cursing himself all the while.