The next morning, the group gets up early to begin a lengthy quest for gas. Fresler finds a hose in the backyard to use as a siphon, and Jackie finds an empty container in the garage. Then the real grunt work begins. They comb the neighborhood on foot, looking for abandoned vehicles that might still have some gasoline inside.
It takes over an hour to fill the three SUV tanks, but they’re on the road again by 9:00 a.m.
Tina curses through her dozenth yawn as she pulls out of the driveway behind John. Jennifer is bouncing her knee in the passenger seat to stay alert. By the time they make it onto the freeway, Benjamin’s head is leaned over on his shoulder, the seatbelt making an indent on one cheek.
Tina looks over at Jennifer and bites her lip against words she’s been trying to get out ever since Jennifer told her she had no friends. Jennifer looks lost in thought, and Tina doesn’t want to disturb her.
Eventually, though, the curiosity and guilt get the better of her. “Can you tell me more about what happened to you in high school?” she asks in a rush.
Jennifer continues to stare out the passenger window. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“You don’t know that.”
Jennifer whips her head Tina’s way. “Did you transfer to a diﬀerent high school your junior year?” she snaps. “A school that was so completely different from the other one that you might as well have been on Mars?”
Jennifer’s brows draw together. “Then I don’t see how you would understand.”
“Well…” Tina sighs, thinking about how hard she was on Jennifer when they first met. “Help me to understand.”
Jennifer stares straight ahead, as if watching the memory play out across the windshield like a movie on the big screen. “You have to imagine yourself in my shoes. Imagine walking into a crowded cafeteria where you don’t know anyone at all. There are all these groups of kids hanging out, and none of them want you around.” She pulls a pained face. “I didn’t know anyone. I transferred in the middle of my junior year. A lot of these other kids had been together since elementary school. They did everything together, too. I played volleyball, but I couldn’t join the team at my new school mid-year. The kids were also wealthier than at my old school, so I walked in with the wrong clothes, the wrong hairstyle…” She clears her throat, looking sheepish. “I know it’s a silly thing to think about now that we’re in the middle of this pandemic, but back then… all of that mattered a lot. There was no easy way for me to fit in.”
“That must have been hard. Why did your parents do that to you? Did they move?”
“No. My dad grew up in a bad area, and he wanted me to go to a private school… somewhere nice. He thought it would be safer.”
“But why did he transfer you in the middle of the school year?”
“Someone threatened to bring a gun to school and he freaked out. He and Mom literally put me on the waiting list for the private school the next day.”
At the word “gun,” Tina looks back in the rear-view mirror to make sure Benjamin’s still sleeping. Luckily, he’s drooling all over his seatbelt. She hopes his dreams are happy.
“Did you tell your parents how you were feeling?” Tina asks Jennifer.
“Yes, on my first day at the new school… but they just kept telling me to give it a chance. After a while, I stopped talking about it. It’s not like anything I said was going to make a difference.” She folds her arms. “You may have noticed, but once my dad makes up his mind about something…”
Tina nods. “Yeah, I see that about him.” She heaves another sigh. “Well, you definitely would have been popular at my school. I mean that as a compliment, by the way.”
Jennifer smiles. “Thanks.”
“I may have been teased, but I at least had friends, and we had a great time… making fun of the popular girls.” Tina snorts.
Jennifer closes her eyes and leans back her head. “I hated my parents for doing that to me.”
“I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
Jennifer sighs. “Me too.”
Benjamin snores from the backseat, making the girls stifle laughs.
“I guess I have nothing to complain about,” Jennifer muses, watching the boy’s chest rise and fall. “He watched someone shoot his parents. At least mine are still alive.”
At a loss for words, Tina nods.
Up ahead, John’s arm sticks out of the driver window and signals for Tina to pull over. She flips on her blinker to signal Fresler. On the side of the road, John hangs out his window and shouts that the temperature display is at thirty degrees and they need to start wearing their masks. Tina crawls over the console to help Benjamin put on Fresler’s surgical mask. The thin cloth makes her frown. They need to get him a proper respirator mask … and soon.
When Tina returns to the driver’s seat, she sits stick straight and tightens her grip on the steering wheel. The mask warming the lower half of her face is a warning. They are leaving their freezing safe haven and driving into a viral minefield.
By the time they reach the outskirts of Atlanta, Fresler’s legs are cramping, even with the seat shifted back as far as it’ll go. Before venturing into the city proper, John signals for everyone to pull over at a Walmart to rest and stock up on supplies.
The front doors are open, so they don’t need to worry about breaking in. But once again, they find rows and rows of bare shelves. Still, boxes of stale crackers and scattered canned goods are dotted throughout the store, and Fresler is the first to grab a shopping cart. John races for the restroom at the back of the store with a promise to search for respirator masks after he’s done.
Fresler stoops to nab a Twinkie that’s peeking from beneath a shelf—probably kicked under there in a frenzy during the initial outbreak, when dooms-dayers and regular Joes alike swarmed grocery stores for emergency supplies. He pops up smiling at the confection, but the sight of a car pulling into the lot makes his face droop. Moving to the end of the aisle for a better look, he watches two masked strangers get out of the car. The men are decked out in matching fatigue pants and boots. The shorter man’s sweat-stained, confederate flag T-shirt doesn’t quite cover his large belly. His thinner buddy is more inclusively patriotic, with a poorly done bald eagle soaring across his forearm.
Fresler smells trouble but scolds himself not to judge so quickly. He tries to signal Sharon and Jackie, but they’ve vanished into the aisles. Instead, he approaches the men alone as they walk through the front doors “Hi there, I’m Fresler,” he says loudly, holding up his hands to show that he isn’t a threat. “What are your names?”
“This is Nick, and my name is Thomas,” says the taller man, re-rolling the sleeve of his flannel shirt. “What are y’all doing this far south?”
“We’re headed into Atlanta,” Fresler says, doing his best to sound friendly. “Are you two from around here? Maybe you can help us out with some directions.”
“Why aren’t you wearing a mask, Fresler?” Thomas says over him. “You got a death wish or something?”
“I’m immune to the virus.” He cringes the second it leaves his mouth, certain John wouldn’t be happy with him for spilling the beans to these two.
Thomas and Nick look at each other and start laughing. “Immune! You hear that, Nick?” Thomas chortles. “Now I’ve heard everything.”
Fresler tries for a neutral expression, but something about the sound of mocking laughter from behind a respirator mask is somehow alarming. Perhaps it’s because he can only see their eyes, which bear little warmth. He thinks to himself, what a strange new world I live in.
“You’re headed to the CDC, then?” asks Thomas. “Good luck getting in. It’s a fortress.”
“They’ll let me in,” Fresler says, with confidence. “They’re looking for people with virus immunity to help them create a vaccine.”
“You think you can trust the CDC? You should know better, boy.”
“Yeah, you should,” says Nick, thumbs through his belt loops.
Jackie materializes at Fresler’s side. Fresler tries to meet her eye and get a read on what she thinks of these two good ol’ boys. Instead, he catches her glancing over her shoulder toward the bathroom, which tells him all he needs to know.
Fresler spies what looks like a ham radio hanging from Thomas’s belt. “Is that a radio?” he asks. “Could I borrow it for a minute?”
“No, it only receives calls!” Thomas bellows, making Jackie flinch. Then he turns away abruptly. “I need to use the restroom.”
Thomas walks to the back of the store, leaving Nick behind, standing like a sentry. Nick’s eyes suddenly scrunch in an unsettling, invisible smile.
“Is that your daughter?” Nick cranes his neck to peer over Jackie’s shoulder.“Yes,” she responds, her voice tight with fear.
Fresler turns to see Jennifer freeze behind her mother, just as Jackie maneuvers to better block Nick’s view. Sharon catches Fresler’s eye and hangs back with Tina. They hold Benjamin by the hands between them.
“What’s your name, little lady?” Nick asks, scratching at the hair on his belly.
“Jennifer,” she breathes.
The quiver in her voice makes Fresler’s hands curl into fists at his sides. He learned long ago not to question a woman’s intuition, and he can feel all four of his female companions silently begging him to clue in.
“You pretty, Jennifer?” says Nick, leaning to one side. “Can’t see your face through that butt-ugly mask you’re wearing.”
Jennifer pales, and Fresler steps forward.
“Nick, can you show me where the batteries are?” he asks, consciously lifting the corners of his mouth.
“Do I look like I work here?” he snaps without peeling his predatory gaze from Jennifer.
John exits the bathroom and stiffens at the crackle of a ham radio. He creeps toward the sound of a man talking in muffled tones.
“Yeah, we’re at the Walmart on Hazel Avenue,” the man says with a hillbilly twang, as John gets his first glimpse of flannel. “This group is on their way to the CDC. They think that someone in their group is immune.”
The radio crackles. “Keep them there as long as possible, Brother Thomas. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes. We can take care of them when we get there,” says another man’s voice through the static.
“Roger,” replies Thomas. He hangs up and pulls a pistol from his waistband.
John steps out of the aisle, his Glock 22 trained at the back of Thomas’s head. “Put your hands up nice and slow.”
Thomas jerks to a stop and slowly raises his hands, keeping the pistol between his thumb and index finger.
When he turns around, John takes aim at his forehead. “Who were you talking to?”
“A SOD brother,” says Thomas around a sneer.
John frowns, alarm bells clanging in his head. “What the hell is a SOD brother?”
“Soldiers of Destiny,” Thomas barks, puffing his chest. “We’re fulfilling God’s destiny! Humanity must be cleansed by this virus.”
John’s mouth goes dry, but he keeps his face stern as he inches two steps closer. “Yeah, well, it’s not God you should be worried about right now.” He nods at Thomas’s gun. “Drop it.”
The second Thomas’s gun hits the floor, John clocks him across the temple with the butt of his Glock. Thomas smacks the tiled floor hard and goes limp. John snatches the fallen gun and puts it in his back pocket, then makes a beeline for his family.
Jackie swallows her fear and keeps her spine rigid as she once again shifts to block Nick’s view of Jennifer. Every hair on her arm is standing on end, urging her to flee instead of fight, but something tells her that Nick is like a stalking bear. Run, and he’ll charge.
“Let me see your face, Jennifer,” Nick urges, his smile curdling the bile rising in Jackie’s throat. “You can take that mask oﬀ for a few seconds and nothing will happen to you. You can trust me, I swear.”
Snarling, Jackie shoves Nick backward. “Not going to happen!”
“Don’t you put your hands on me, bitch!” Nick swings his arm and knocks Jackie into a shelf. As cans bounce and roll over the floor, he lunges at Jennifer, ripping her mask off her face. Jennifer screams and claps her hand over her mouth and nose—as if that will be enough to protect her from the virus.
“You’re pretty, aren’t you?” Nick tosses the mask and takes a step closer. “You need to keep your mask oﬀ so I can see your pretty face.”
Fresler yanks Nick back by the arm, bellowing, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Sharon goes rigid when Nick whirls on Fresler. Jennifer snatches her mask and puts it back on. As soon as the buckles are fastened, she bends to help Jackie up.
Nick whips out a pistol and presses it against Fresler’s forehead. “Calm down, Nick,” says Fresler, raising his hands and shifting his weight to the left to better shield Tina and Benjamin, who are shaking behind him.
Tina tucks Benjamin’s face against her leg to shield his eyes, and Jackie inches toward the children, her arm wrapped around Jennifer’s waist. She tries to signal Sharon that they need to back the kids up, but Sharon looks on the verge of shrieking like a damsel in a black-and-white horror flick. Her eyes are enormous and glued on Fresler.
One aisle over, Jennifer’s scream urges John into a full sprint. Following the sounds of a confrontation, he tucks and rolls between shelves. When he stands, he sees several heads rising above the shelves two aisles over.
He sneaks a few more feet until he can assess the situation. Fresler is sinking to his knees with a gun pressed to his head. His assailant and the rest of the group have their backs to John. Jackie and Jennifer are pressed against the shelves on the right, while Sharon, Benjamin, and Tina huddle together on the left, all watching helplessly.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” the man yells.
John stands up and shifts into the aisle so Fresler can see him. Just as he hoped, Fresler’s eyes flick to John, and the surprise in them makes the assailant whirl.
The moment the man’s arm drops and Fresler is out of the line of fire, John fires. The bullet hits the man’s left temple and bursts out his right in a spray of brain matter that splatters Fresler’s coat. As the assailant drops with a hefty thud, John stalks down the aisle past his companions and fires a second, precautionary shot into his forehead.
John turns to find the others gawking at him, horrified. Their eyes shift between him and the corpse on the ground, and the fear in their eyes twists his guts with guilt. But he assures himself it had to be done. He shoves the ugly images and regrets down deep, where he keeps all his memories of combat, and locks them inside.
“These guys are members of a fanatical group called the Soldiers of Destiny,” John says, searching the shelves for a sign of Thomas. “They’re planning to kill all of us in order to make sure we don’t reach the CDC headquarters. The other SODs will be here in five minutes, so we need to get out of here.” When no one springs into action, he shouts, “Now!”
They jump and then race after him in a chaotic flock, leaving behind their filled shopping carts. But four steps from the door, Fresler wheels around. He sprints back to Nick’s still-bleeding body and wrenches the respirator mask from his head. John keeps looking over his shoulder to make sure Fresler gets outside all right. John reaches his SUV and yanks open the door. Fresler is wiping down the mask as he races across the parking lock, and John breaths a little easier.
“Jennifer! Benjamin! Tina!” John waves them inside his car. He doesn’t want the girls to be by themselves in case one of the SOD cars manages to follow them. Losing the third car makes him grind his teeth, but he’ll take that over losing one of the kids any day. Besides, he is trained to handle all sorts of situations behind the wheel, thanks to his time in the military and on the police force. The second the girls and Benjamin clamber inside, John slams the door.
“Fresler!” Sharon screeches, rattling the door handle of the second SUV. She can’t get in without the keys in his pocket.
She searches the lot for him, her heart hammering, thinking the worst. His waving arm catches her eye. He’s waving a respirator mask, a look of triumph on his face. A swell of relief and gratitude loosen her taut muscles and ease her panic.
Then she glances at the other SUV to make sure John isn’t peeling out without them. Benjamin watches her through the back windshield, wedged between the two girls, wearing only a surgical mask.
Sharon sighs. When Fresler arrives, she accepts the respirator mask with a stiff smile, knowing he’s not going to be happy. While he unlocks the car and starts the engine, she rushes over to bang on John’s window.
He rolls it down. “What?”
“For Benjamin,” Sharon says, and tosses the mask inside. She’s in the other vehicle with Fresler before John can even say thank you.
Fresler follows John out of the parking lot. His eyes keep darting to the rearview, as if checking for pursuers. He doesn’t even look Sharon’s way until the Walmart is a speck in the distance. When he does, his whole face drops, the skin turning green. “Where’s the mask?”
“I gave it to Benjamin,” Sharon says in a quiet voice.
“I got it for you,” Fresler says, just as quietly.
“I know.” Sharon adjusts her surgical mask and reaches across the console to take Fresler’s hand.
John traces a winding path for the next few hours, avoiding the main highways. When John at last feels safe enough to pull over, Fresler parks beside him so they can talk.
“No one was following us, so I think we’re safe for now. We need to find a place to spend the night and figure out what our next step is,” says John.
“I agree.” Fresler gestures at the road. “We’ll follow your lead.” He pauses, shoving a strand of his long hair out of his face. “Thanks for what you did back there.”
“Jackie told me what you did, too. Thanks for watching out for my Jennifer,” John answers gruffly, sour about his debt of gratitude despite knowing full well the feeling is childish.
John rolls up his window. In his rear-view mirror, he catches Jennifer’s hands shaking as she fiddles with her braids.
“You all right, sweetie?”
“I’m all right.” Her shattered voice says otherwise.
John takes Jackie’s hand and feels its trembling grow in his warm palm. “How are you holding up?” he asks her.
“I’ll be okay. Those crazy bastards took oﬀ her mask, John.” Jackie’s lips quiver.
John winces, then tries to play it off. “You feeling all right, Jennifer?”
She rolls her eyes, but her heart isn’t in it. “Yes, Dad.”
“You’ll let us know the moment that changes?”
“Yes, Dad!” This time, there’s no eye-roll.