Frozen Pandemic

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CHAPTER 20

Jackie tries to meet Sharon’s eyes as she passes her a mug of coffee John brewed, but Sharon sags as if carrying an enormous pack, her head lowered. John filled Jackie in on the gist of things, but Jackie can only guess at what Sharon is feeling. Thinking perhaps Sharon will come to her later, when they have more privacy, Jackie turns her attention to Tina and Jennifer, still sound asleep in the front room. The fire is almost out, so the house is chilly, but Jackie doesn’t want to rouse the girls by adding more firewood.

“We’ll have to wake the girls soon,” John finally says, over the rim of his mug. “I want to leave this house by seven-thirty a.m. We need to reach Springfield by three p.m.”

“Sure,” Sharon murmurs.

Jackie’s ire burns like a red-hot ember in the pit of her gut. It’s John’s matter-of-fact expression and casually authoritative tone that get to her the most, and the anger has been building for weeks. He expects to be obeyed. He assumes each choice he makes is superior to anything anyone else could concoct. Even if she protests, he’ll go full throttle in whatever direction he chooses, forcing her to chase after him because, for some godforsaken reason, she loves him more than life itself.

“Do you have something to say, Jackie?” he asks, voice infuriatingly calm.

“You wouldn’t care if I did.”

John makes a strangled noise of annoyance. “I care!”

“Of course you do,” Jackie says. “You care about Fresler.”

John storms out of the kitchen, shirking around Fresler, who watches him stalk into the front room with a fish out of water expression.

“What’s for breakfast?” Fresler asks.

In the next room, Jackie hears John waking the girls, but the kitchen rings with heavy silence. Sharon doesn’t even look up from her coffee, so Jackie offers Fresler an awkward smile and says, “We found some frozen waffles in the garage refrigerator. They’re chocolate chip.” She studies the counter, thinking of seven-year-old Jennifer wandering downstairs in her pajamas to eat a syrupy breakfast. “This family had kids.”

“I like chocolate chips.” Fresler’s voice is too cheery. He fixes Sharon with droopy sad eyes but says, “How are you doing this morning, Jackie?”

Jackie sighs. “I’m fine.”

“John seems upset,” Fresler goes on, pulling a face like he just stepped in a puddle with his sock feet.

A nasty retort hitches up in Jackie’s throat. Fresler’s at least partially to blame for her and John’s vicious snipping, and he’s certainly to blame for Sharon’s gloomy mood, and yet, Jackie can’t hate him. Pointing out his blame would be like kicking a puppy. Judging by his face, he’s already hyper aware of his role in all this mess.

“I was giving him a hard time,” Jackie says with a weak smile.

“Well,” Fresler says, sucking in a breath with the force of a vacuum, “I’m sure he’ll come around. Me, I’m just glad we don’t have to hike anymore.” He helps himself to a cup of coffee and pops a chocolate-chip waffle onto the hotplate. “It will be nice to actually drive the rest of the way.”

Jackie manages a real smile this time. “Amen to that. I never want to hike again.”

“How about you, Sharon?” Fresler tries. “Won’t it feel nice to drive for a while?”

Sharon swivels her head to Jackie, her eyes skipping over Fresler entirely. “I need to finish packing,” she says, already on her feet. She walks out of the kitchen with a flick of her ponytail.

Fresler rubs his eyes, leaning heavily on the counter, and says, “She’s pissed.”

Jackie nods. “Yeah, she is.” She gulps and adds slowly, “I can’t help but feel like I am partially to blame.”

“No… No, this is all my fault.”

“My father would have liked you,” Jackie says.

Fresler perks up a smidge. “What do you mean?”

“He would always tell me that mistakes are a part of life, but when you do make a mistake, there are two things that you should always do.”

His cocked eyebrow asks her to go on.

“First, you should own your mistakes. You can’t just blame others. You have to admit when you’ve made a mistake.”

“Okay… and what is the second thing?”

“You need to learn from your mistakes, so you don’t keep making them over and over.”

Fresler massages the bridge of his nose. “I won’t be making that mistake again.”

Jackie pats Fresler’s forearm. “Still. Thank you. For trying, I mean. I know John stopped you from leaving this morning.”

“Part of me is glad he did.”

Jackie sighs. “I know.”

“This is… complicated. I don’t feel like there’s a right answer. There’s no correct path.”

Jackie nods at the ceiling. “Well, lucky for you, we won’t have many hard choices to make from here on out. John has set the plan, and it’s too late to change it. We have to see it through.”

“See what through?” asks Jennifer, entering the kitchen with Tina at her side.

“We need you and Tina to finish all of these waffles,” Fresler says, pushing the plate toward the girls. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

Jennifer snorts as she snatches a waffle. Tina yawns so big her eyes scrunch closed as she grabs one for herself. Jackie meets Fresler’s eyes and mouths, Thank you.

All three cars are packed, and the group is ready to walk out the door right at 7:30 a.m. John stands around with fists on his hips, watching them pile into the vehicles like a proud teacher who’s managed to wrangle a room full of five-year-olds. He and Jackie take the lead car, with Jennifer and Tina following them. Fresler and Sharon take the rear, and Fresler volunteers to drive first.

When they pass Rob and Barb’s house, Fresler tells Sharon, “I hope we can reach the CDC in time, for their sake.”

Sharon folds herself up tighter, crossing arms and legs as she stares out the passenger window. This is going to be a long car ride.

John leads the caravan through several side streets on their way to the 71 freeway. It is easy to forget that they don’t have to obey any stop signs or speed limits with no other cars on the road to worry about. Fresler’s grip on the wheel tightens instinctively each time John revs down a residential street and blows through a four-way stop sign.

By the time they exit the 71 and reach the 35 freeway, they still have not seen anyone else on the road. It’s a surreal feeling to be the only ones in motion. They only slow to maneuver around abandoned or overturned vehicles.

Fresler squints at the temperature display. It’s still well below freezing outside; no need for anyone to put their masks on yet. He looks over at Sharon. She’s turned as far from him as she can manage.

He takes a deep breath and says, “Let me know if you need to stop for a bathroom break.”

“Don’t worry,” she says, voice like the threat of gathering storm clouds, “I will.”

“Wish I could play some music…” he says softly, “but no radio stations.” He taps a thumb on the wheel in a nervous rhythm, then tries again. “I have to say, it’s nice being in a heated car.”

Sharon keeps her gaze glued to the passing landscape.

Things are just as frosty in John and Jackie’s car. Four hours into the drive, John looks over at Jackie and catches her resting her head on a pillow against the passenger window, eyes closed. He wonders if she is asleep or only pretending. He doesn’t bother her either way. He’s already attempted conversation several times, only to meet a brick wall again and again.

Jackie finally lifts her head and starts to slowly sit up. She stretches, rolling her shoulders.

John clears his throat and says, “We should take a break soon, don’t you think?”

She makes one eyebrow hop, snarling out at the road ahead. “You obviously make all the decisions in our family, so why are you asking me?”

“I’m asking you because—” John’s breath leaves him when he glances in the rear-view mirror. Fresler’s SUV isn’t there. His heart drops into his butt, and then Fresler’s car pulls up next to his window. Fresler waves and motions that they want to pull over.

“What the hell does he think he is doing?” John huffs, frustrated by his own moment of panic.

Jackie turns her snarl on him. “They probably want to take a break. You know, exactly like you just proposed to me?” Her usual sarcasm takes on a new, vicious bite as she adds, “Or does that interfere with your schedule?”

John doesn’t respond. He just follows Fresler off the freeway. A massive mall looms on their left, and Fresler pulls into the parking lot ahead of them.

All the spaces near the main entrance are empty. Fresler pulls between the lines out of habit, but John and Tina don’t bother. John gets out of his SUV and stretches his arms and legs, grateful for the reprieve despite his irritation with his fellow travelers.

“What made you decide to stop here?” asks John.

“Seemed like the perfect place,” says Fresler. “Plenty of stores. It called to me.”

John rolls his eyes and grabs his backpack out of the backseat in case he needs his gun. He grabs a crowbar from beside the spare tire for good measure. Sharon glances between John and the crowbar, a question in her eyes. “In case the front door is chained,” he explains.

As they walk toward the entrance, the only sound is their footsteps on the pavement. A couple of months ago, people would have streamed in and out in jovial packs, while cars whizzed by on the freeway. A plane might have even been spotted flying overhead, but now…

The main entrance is locked up, but the glass is broken, so they walk right in. The stores are stripped clean, shelves and racks bare. The glass jewelry counters are broken and wiped out.

The food court boasts a Cinnabon, Taco Bell, and Orange Julius. John looks behind the counter of the Orange Julius and spots some sodas and bags of chips under the counter.

They take a seat at one of the large, circular tables to eat the snacks they’ve found. Jennifer, Sharon, and Tina chat, while Fresler sits quietly to the side. John is vigilant, scanning the shops for potential dangers. Sure enough, he spots something moving in the sporting goods store across from the food court. A flutter of a jacket, a dark head of hair ducking behind a counter. One look tells him no one else noticed. He decides not to say anything, worried that they will alert whoever it is that they’ve been spotted.

John stealthily grabs his Glock 22 out of his backpack and tucks it into his jacket pocket He excuses himself, saying he’s going to the restroom.

John keeps his gate even, stealing glances at the store. As he reaches for the bathroom door, he glances over his shoulder. No one is watching. He veers off into the store in four sure strides, then crouches down to slink along the left wall, quiet as a stalking cat. All that remains of the inventory is labels and price tags. John passes by a shelf of shoeboxes with no sneakers inside, then loops around a display that once held tennis rackets and cans of tennis balls. He steps over a naked mannequin and ducks underneath a rack meant for fishing poles.

He reaches the rear of the store, where the cash register sits on an enclosed countertop. For a moment, he thinks his quarry must have slipped out the front, but then he hears the tiniest sniffle. John stands up, the tension leaving his shoulders, and looks behind the counter. His heart aches at the sight of a young boy sitting curled on a makeshift bed of brand-new shirts. The boy trembles as he looks up at John. His jeans and blue jacket are covered in stains, and his overgrown brown hair is oily and matted.

John moves around the counter, and the boy leaps to his feet. John grabs him by his jacket with two fingers. “I’m not going to hurt you. I promise.”

The boy doesn’t resist, but turns tearful eyes on John.

John bends down to the boy’s level and offers a soft smile. “What’s your name?”

“Benjamin,” the boy replies, so quietly John has to lean in to hear.

“Hi, Benjamin. My name is John. How old are you?”

“Five.”

“Where are your parents?”

Benjamin’s tears spill over, creating tracks on his dirty cheeks. “They’re gone.”

John releases his light grip on Benjamin’s jacket. “Did they die from the virus?”

The boy shakes his head no, and John wonders if an animal attacked them or if Benjamin is just too young to understand the virus and its ability to rob people of their loved ones.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Benjamin. Is there anyone else here with you?”

“No,” the boy says. “It’s just me.”

“How long have you been living in this mall?”

Benjamin shrugs. “I don’t know.”

John heart gives another pang. “Can I introduce you to my friends?”

The boy nods, and John leads him to the food court. Jackie spots them first and pops out of her chair. The rest of the group turns in their seats, murmuring together.

“Benjamin,” John says when they reach the table and Jackie squats in front of the boy, “this is my wife, Jackie and my daughter, Jennifer.”

Jennifer waves from behind Jackie, her smile sad.

“Hi, sweetie,” says Jackie, slowly offering a hand that she retracts immediately when Benjamin shrinks back.

“These are my friends Fresler, Sharon, and Tina,” John goes on. “Everyone, this is Benjamin.”

“Are you all alone, Benjamin?” asks Sharon.

He nods.

“We would love it if you would join us,” says Fresler, patting the chair beside him. He pushes a bag of chips across the table, but Benjamin shakes his head.

Tina tries next, drawing Benjamin’s gaze with a twiddle of her fingers and a bright smile. “I know how hard it is to be alone. My dad and brother died from the virus, and my cousin was attacked by an infected animal. These guys took me in,” she says, cocking her head at the table. “They’re like family.”

“We’re actually on an epic journey,” Jennifer says, cupping a hand beside her mouth with a conspiratorial wink. “This man”— she points to Fresler—“is immune to the virus, and we’re on our way to Atlanta to see if the CDC can develop a vaccine. It would be great if you would join us. Please say yes.” She smiles at the boy.

Benjamin tucks his head into his shoulder with a bashful grin and nods.

“Awesome!” John booms in a cheerful voice that makes Jackie snort. “We should get going. Benjamin, is there anything you want to take with you?”

“I want to get my Spider-Man shirt,” Benjamin mumbles to his shoes. “It’s my favorite.”

They fetch Benjamin’s clothes and find a tiny backpack for him in one of the stores. They load up with non-perishable snacks from the food court and then head back to the parking lot. Benjamin jogs to Tina’s side and tugs her sleeve.

“Can I ride with you?”

“Of course, you can,” says Tina, taking his hand.

After buckling Benjamin into their SUV, Tina and Jennifer agree that its Tina’s turn to drive. She follows John back onto the freeway toward Springfield.

Jennifer turns to Benjamin in the back seat. “How long have you been on your own?” she asks.

He thinks hard and answers, “A couple of days, I think.”

Tina puts on her blinker as they shift into the left lane, and then snorts at herself for signaling.

“Were your parents infected with the virus?” Jennifer asks carefully.

Tina flicks her eyes to the rear-view mirror and sees Benjamin shake his head no. He must be mistaken, she thinks.

“Are you sure?” Jennifer asks.

“Yes,” he whispers around a trembling lip.

Jennifer casts Tina a puzzled look. “What happened to them?”

Benjamin curls in on himself, becoming as small as he can with the seatbelt still buckled. His tiny body shakes.

Tina scowls at Jennifer. “Now look what you’ve done! Clearly, he can’t talk about it.”

Jennifer looks stricken. “Hey,” she says to Benjamin, unbuckling her seatbelt and climbing awkwardly over the console into the back to sit beside him. She pulls him into a hug. “It’s okay. I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer.” She brushes his hair back from his tear-damp face. “Shh. It’s okay.”

John looks at the digital clock next to the temperature display and is surprised to see they have been driving for two hours. He pulls himself out of his daze and looks to his right. Jackie’s still pressed against the passenger door, perfectly silent.

“That poor kid, all alone like that,” he says, voice gruff with disuse. “It’s amazing he has survived on his own, don’t you think?”

“Yes, it is, John—but some people can actually survive without your help.”

John smacks the wheel, flexing his jaw. “I know you’re mad, but this really is the only way. Without a vaccine, there is no hope.”

Jackie turns on him like a rearing cobra. “How can you say that? We had a future in Canada, but now… we’re all at risk.”

“No! There was never a future in Canada!” The truth charges out, but the moment it’s loose, his gut clenches with regret. He stutters over his next words. “There is no place on this entire continent that will be safe during the summer months.”

Jackie lets out a winded grunt, like she’s been punched in the stomach. “What—are you talking about?”

“I was able to do some research before we lost the internet,” John tells her. “There is no place in Canada or Alaska that stays below freezing year-round. Temperatures will be well over thirty-two degrees during June and July… possibly as early as April or May.”

Jackie is slow and zombie-like as she swivels her head to gawk out the windshield. She looks straight ahead. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“I wanted you and Jennifer to have hope. I just couldn’t take that from you— It would have crushed me.”

John feels the tears pooling and tightens his whole body, willing them back down, but they defy him. Jackie’s face softens when she sees them on his cheeks.

“I don’t know what to say,” she says. “I now understand why it is so important for you to go with Fresler to Atlanta, but you should have told me. It makes me feel like you don’t trust me. You and I are in this together. We have to be.”

“You’re right, I should have told you.”

“So why did we bother heading for Canada, if there was no future there?”

John tightens his grip on the steering wheel and looks over at Jackie. “I thought it would buy us time. Maybe the CDC would develop a vaccine in time… We couldn’t just stay in Kentucky.”

“Why not? I thought we would be safe with our respirator masks.”

John shakes his head. “Every time we take them off to eat or drink, we run the risk of infection. Eventually, we would have contracted the virus.”

John watches the fear blossom on Jackie’s face, lifting her brows and her voice. “Yesterday, you told me that we would be fine going south because we have respirator masks. Now you’re telling me they won’t help. Which is it, John?”

“We only need the masks for a day or two. They will protect us in the short term. We should make it to the CDC tomorrow.”

Jackie gives him a sideways glare, crossing her arms. “I hope you’re right.”

“I love you, Jackie.” John puts his hand on her elbow, and to his surprise, she unwinds herself to let him intertwine his fingers with hers.

“I love you too,” she says. “And I understand why you did what you did.”

“But you’re still upset?” John asks, already knowing the answer.

“I’m still upset.”

John limits bathroom breaks to make it to the halfway point of Springfield an hour before dark. He prays its enough time to find decent shelter … and some gas, or they’ll need to find new cars.

They pull into three separate convenience stores to pack up their cars with the scattered remnants of food and water left on the shelves. No gas, though.

Next, John pulls into the driveway of a promising looking cottage-style home. He goes in first and is smacked in the face by a smell that he recognizes from his days with the Louisville Metro Police Department: decay.

He orders the others to stay put and searches for the body. The elderly homeowner lies on the kitchen linoleum with her mouth wide open. A dried trail of blood snakes away from her lips—a sure sign that she died from the virus. John waves the others back as he exits, in true policeman fashion. “Dead body, definitely the virus” he says curtly, eyes flicking to the kids still in the car. “We don’t know what she touched as she died. We can’t stay here.”

“Not that we would want to,” Sharon murmurs.

The next vacant home they check is a large two-story house. They’d all be comfortable there, but John decides that it’s just too big. Too many rooms and closets to search, and too many doors and windows to secure. Not to mention, difficult to heat.

They walk a half mile down the street and find a smaller home that appears to be about twelve hundred square feet—the perfect size. John walks in alone and searches the bedroom and closet first. The kitchen is bare but clean. A second scan, however, reveals a small, gnawed hole in the base of the sink’s cabinet door.

He bends down for a closer look. The wood is scarred by toothmarks, not the smooth spirals of a drill. Bracing himself, he inches a finger around the cabinet door and swings it open. He hops back from the loud screeching inside the dark recesses of the storage space. The light from the windows penetrates only halfway, and the flailing, thrashing squirrel inside presses itself against the very back wall to stay in the shadows.

Time to find another house.

“Any luck, John?” asks Sharon as he closes the front door behind him.

“No, there was an infected animal under the sink.”

Another quick walk down the street brings them to another home similar in size and upkeep. John searches the entire house and finds nothing that would pose a threat. With a sigh of relief, he ushers the others inside.

The group secures the doors and windows, and then they start a fire in the fireplace. It’s become something of a ritual at this point, with everyone gathering to watch the first sparks catch. They sit down to eat dinner together and discuss their plan for tomorrow.

“Somewhere between here and Atlanta, the temperatures will rise above thirty-two degrees,” John says. “We’ll need to wear our masks.” John looks across the table at Sharon. “We still need to find you a respirator mask. Hopefully, we will see a Walmart or Home Depot before we reach Atlanta.”

“Benjamin, do you have a mask in your backpack?” asks Jackie.

“I don’t know,” the boy says quietly.

“He doesn’t,” says John, who helped him pack his meager belongings back at the mall.

“He can wear mine,” says Fresler. Surgical masks don’t provide the same protection as a respirator mask, but it’s still better than nothing.

Around 8:00 p.m., the howling begins. A peek through the boards nailed to the windows reveals a pack of infected dogs roaming the neighborhood, snapping at each other in a crazed frenzy as they weave between yards. Everyone is on edge, but Benjamin is absolutely terrified. Tina pulls out her guitar, hoping a soothing melody can ease his pitiful trembling. She asks Benjamin to sit next to her on the couch.

“I have a special song that I want to play just for you,” she says. “Guess what it’s called?”

Benjamin just blinks at her as she pulls him onto the lumpy cushion.

“It’s called ‘Ben,’ and it was made famous by Michael Jackson. Have you heard of him?”

Benjamin shakes his head, and the adults chuckle. “That’s okay.” Tina smiles.

As soon as Tina starts to play, Benjamin’s eyes light up. He forgets his fear as Tina croons his name. Everyone else in the group stops what they are doing to listen in a spellbound semicircle.

When Tina finishes, Benjamin claps, an enormous smile transforming his face.

“What did you think?” asks Tina.

“That was great!” He bounces his butt on the couch cushion for emphasis, making Tina giggle.

John’s grin accentuates his eyes, drawing attention away from his stern jaw. He nudges Jackie. “Wasn’t that a song about a rat?”

She shushes him.

“What song do you want me to play next, Benjamin?” asks Tina.

“Rocket Man!” he shouts with unbridled excitement.

“Really?” says Tina with a surprised laugh. “The song by Elton John?”

“He knows Elton John but not Michael Jackson?” John mutters to Jackie, and she shushes him again.

“This was my dad’s favorite song,” Benjamin says, snuggling into Tina’s side as she plays the opening notes.

The howling dies down outside as the infected dogs move on to explore new trashcans. The only sound is Tina’s singing and strumming, and Benjamin’s little voice humming along.

At 10:00 p.m., Tina calls it a night at the behest of her callused fingers. The adults take both bedrooms, as usual, leaving the teens and Benjamin beside the fireplace.

Benjamin sits cross-legged atop of his sleeping bag, watching the girls get ready for bed.

“Tina, can you tuck me in?” Benjamin says, his timid tone returned.

With a gentle smile, she scoots him off the bag and unzips the top. She holds it open as he shimmies inside.

“You know, Benjamin,” Jennifer says, “I don’t even know your last name.”

“It’s Claiborne.”

“That’s a great name,” says Jennifer with a wink.

“It was the same last name as my dad and mom,” Benjamin informs her solemnly.

“You must really miss them,” Jennifer says, her voice as gentle as she can make it.

“I miss them a lot.” Benjamin’s eyes glisten instantly.

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” asks Tina.

He pauses, his sorrow dissipating a bit as he considers the question. “No, but I have a cousin. My aunt is my mom’s sister. My uncle has another brother, but that’s not my dad.”

“Do they live close to here?” asks Jennifer.

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Do you have any grandparents?” asks Tina.

Benjamin nods. “Yes, but they live far away in California.”

The girls look at each other, knowing exactly what that means.

“I wish I could have met your mom and dad,” says Tina. “I’m sure they were nice.”

“It’s my fault,” Benjamin cries. Without warning, he dissolves into hysteric sobs.

Tina puts her arms around Benjamin and pulls him close, where he cries into her shirt. “There is no way it is your fault they’re gone.” She pats his back and combs his hair with her fingers. “Don’t blame yourself.”

“I had to go to the bathroom,” he says through the tears.

Jennifer and Tina exchange a bewildered look.

“You had to go to the bathroom?” repeats Tina.

“My dad was driving our car…,” Benjamin chokes out through heaving sobs. “I had to go so we stopped at the mall… so I could go. When I was in the bathroom, a man had a gun.”

Tina’s stomach drops. Jennifer twitches, like a clawed little critter ran up her spine.

“Did the man with the gun shoot your dad?” Tina asks carefully.

Benjamin wipes his nose with his forearm as he nods. His shirt collar is soaked in tears. “He yelled at my dad. He wanted the keys to our car. He shot him and my mom.”

Tina can’t speak. A knot in her throat jams up her airways.

“You saw the man shoot them?” asks Jennifer quietly.

“Yes,” he says, the word shaky on his tongue. “I was scared and was hiding so they couldn’t see me. I heard the man ask my dad for the keys and my dad tried to fight him. My mom and dad were waiting for me to go. If we didn’t stop—” Benjamin’s cries begin anew, and Tina holds him tighter.

Jennifer scoots closer to look into Benjamin’s eyes. “It was not your fault, Benjamin. There are just bad people in this world, and sometimes it’s no one’s fault when bad things happen.”

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