Frozen Pandemic

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CHAPTER 22

John drives through a residential area, looking for a place to spend the night. Finally, he finds the perfect home. It has a carport in the back where they can park their SUVs so they can’t be seen from the street.

He tells the others to sit tight while he checks the place out, then realizes none of them even undid their seatbelts. Is he really that predictable? he wonders with a small, internal chuckle.

The side door is locked, so John kicks it in. The moment he steps into the kitchen, he knows he’s not alone inside the house. Next to the kitchen sink sits an abandoned dish of steaming vegetables. To his right is a closed door. To his left, a saloon-style door that reveals a sliver of the dining room table. As he slinks toward the closed door with gun drawn, he hears heavy breathing on the other side. He course-corrects and uses the saloon door to circle through the dining room, toward whoever is waiting for him.

John tiptoes around the corner and sees an elderly man with a rifle pointed at the closed door, waiting for John to enter. Quiet and lithe as a cat, John sneaks up behind the man and aims his Glock at the back of his gray head.

“Drop your weapon,” John says the moment his gun muzzle touches the man’s scalp, right above the strap of his respirator mask.

The man tries to whip his rifle around, but John disarms him and forces him to his knees with the Glock to his forehead.

“What are you doing in my house?” The old man’s wrinkled neck trembles as he speaks, but he keeps his chin high.

Guilt twists John’s guts, but he ignores it in the name of caution. He has people to protect. “I’m with a group of people looking for a place to spend the night. What’s your name?”

“Charles. Are you going to kill me?” The old man’s breathing is unsteady, and he closes his eyes, as if expecting John to answer by pulling the trigger.

“No, Charles, I’m not going to kill you.”

“You’re not with the Soldiers of Destiny?”

John pulls the gun off Charles’ skin but keeps it aimed. “No. You know about this group?”

“They’re crazy! They think it’s God’s will that humans die for their sins. They believe this virus is part of His plan. They think they are soldiers of God, ensuring everyone falls as He wishes.”

“We ran into two of their members at the Walmart on Hazel Avenue.” John scowls as he lowers his weapon. “Religious fanatics really aren’t my type.” John grabs Charles’s arm and helps him to his feet. “Sorry for scaring you.”

With a heavy sigh of relief, Charles waves off the apology. “How did you escape the SOD?” he asks. He has to tip his head down to look at John, and his combed gray hair nearly brushes the ceiling of his old house.

“I had no choice but to kill one of their members. We’re on our way to the CDC. Someone in our group is immune to the virus. We’re hoping they can develop a vaccine from his blood.”

“That’s amazing! I heard that announcement a couple weeks ago, but I honestly didn’t think there was any hope. I can’t believe there is actually someone that’s immune.” Charles looks around the house, eyes flitting from one mounted picture frame to the next. “My beautiful wife, Mable, died from this horrible virus.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” John claps him on his shoulder with a stiff nod.

Charles offers a small smile and opens the door into the kitchen, waving John after him. “You will have to use the back roads if you want to get to the CDC. The SOD will be waiting for you on the main highways. I know this area better than anyone. I have lived here for over sixty years. I can help your group get there.”

“Thanks, Charles. That would be great. Let me introduce you to everyone.” John retrieves the others, and they file into the kitchen, huddling together around the stove.

Charles looks surprised to see so many of them.

“Charles, this is my wife, Jackie, and my daughter, Jennifer.” Jackie steps forward to shake hands and say hello. “These are my friends, Sharon, Tina, and our newest member, Benjamin. And this is the immune man I was telling you about, Fresler.”

Charles thrusts a hand at Fresler with gleeful gusto. He didn’t need to be told that Fresler was immune, since he’s the only person in the group not wearing a mask. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Fresler. You just might be humanity’s biggest hope right now.”

Fresler shakes his head. “It’s crazy, but let’s hope so. It’s nice to meet you too, Charles.”

“Charles is going to help us get to the CDC tomorrow.” John smiles.

“That’s great news. We really could use your help, Charles. Thank you,” says Fresler.

“I should thank you. It’s been quite a long time since I’ve done anything useful.”

Later in the evening, Charles spots John sitting alone on the couch and decides to join him. By now, he’s heard the full story about their confrontation in the Walmart, and he thinks he knows the reason behind John’s haunted stare. “John, are you worried about Jennifer?”

“Yes,” John admits. “I’m terrified. I know her mask was only off for a few seconds, but that’s long enough.”

“I understand. Let’s pray she’s okay. But I’m concerned about the rest of the group, too.”

John tenses. “What do you mean?”

“If it’s possible that Jennifer is infected, then shouldn’t she be isolated from the group?” Charles points at Sharon. “She doesn’t even have a proper respirator mask.”

“We’re all risking exposure, every time we take off our masks to eat or drink,” says John. “The virus is in the very air we breathe. I don’t see the point in isolating Jennifer further, as long as she’s not swapping blood with anyone.”

Charles tries to break through the wall John has thrown up against him and get a read on what he might be thinking, but it’s more like trying to bust open a safe. The full-face mask doesn’t help. “You look like a man who can make hard decisions,” he says. “Let’s hope you don’t have to make any more.”

John watches Charles rise and cross the room to where Tina and Benjamin are playing checkers. He wasn’t prepared for the spike of fear Charles’ words drove into his chest. He can’t isolate Jennifer. He can’t lose her. Not now. Not when they’re so close to curing this thing.

In the dining room, Sharon is struggling to keep up with Fresler’s wistful daydreams about his favorite soymilk ice cream brand and the sundaes they used to eat cuddled on the couch. Her eyes keep darting to Jackie, sitting alone on the sofa and staring intently at Jennifer. “Fresler, I’ll be right back,” Sharon finally says. She drifts Jackie’s way and sits beside her. “How are you holding up, Jackie?” she whispers, and Jackie jumps.

Jackie stops staring at Jennifer for only a brief moment to look at Sharon. “Worried sick.”

“Her mask was only off for a few seconds…”

Jackie nods. “I know, but… that’s long enough,” she says around the fingernail she’s chewing on, still watching Jennifer like she might spontaneously combust any second. “It goes against the natural order of things.”

Sharon tilts her head. “What does?”

“A parent should never have to bury their child.” Jackie’s next breath shakes. “My parents did. When I was twelve, I remember being woken up by flashing blue and red lights. They lit up my bedroom. It was one-thirty in the morning on a Saturday. I looked out the window and saw a police car parked out front. There were two officers walking to the front door. My little sister was sound asleep. We shared a room. I had decided to sneak down the hallway to see why they were at our house. I saw my parents sitting in the living room in the dark. There was a knock on the door and my mom got up to answer. She was wearing a pink robe. I couldn’t see the officers or hear what they were saying to my mom, but she collapsed to her knees. The officer knelt beside her and I ran to my mom and wrapped my arms around her. She was just sobbing. I will never forget looking over at my dad… sitting in the living room in the dark. He didn’t come over to comfort Mom. He just sat there.” Jackie shakes her head.

“What did the officer say?”

Jackie swallows hard. “My big brother was shot at a party. He was sixteen.”

“Oh, my God!”

Jackie sighs. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have…” She shakes her head. “You’ve already had an emotional day… watching John shoot that man.”

Sharon shakes her head. “Thank God John came in when he did. He saved all of our lives.”

“That’s John… Always willing to risk his life,” Jackie says without bitterness. She nods toward Sharon’s surgical mask. “He’s not the only one that saved a life today.”

Sharon shrugs off Jackie’s look of admiration. “Have you ever seen John… do anything like that?” she asks, not entirely sure she wants to know the answer.

“Kill anyone, you mean?” Jackie’s eyes are red-rimmed and weary when she turns them on Sharon. “Only one other time. Do you remember me telling you about our journey from Kentucky to your cabin… about that family that blocked the road, with the mother holding her infected child?”

Sharon nods.

“What I didn’t tell you… was that the father and a younger boy… maybe their son…” A tear splatters the goggle lens of her mask.

“Never mind, you don’t have to tell me, Jackie.”

“No, I want to. The father and this younger boy were lying on the pavement… blocking our path. John didn’t want to run them over, so he was going to get out of our SUV and talk with them. But he noticed an older man charging my side of the car with a crowbar. He instinctively hit the gas and ran over the man… and the boy.” She puts her head in her hands between her knees, crying in earnest now. Soon, she won’t be able to see, but she doesn’t risk removing the mask.

Sharon’s gut clenches at the thought of a car bumping over a boy’s body, but she pats Jackie’s back and says, “John had no choice. He had to protect you and Jennifer. Why would they do that… risk their lives by lying on the pavement like that? It makes no sense.”

“People do crazy things when they’re desperate.”

“I understand… but lying on the pavement? That’s suicidal.”

“I know—this is something that will haunt me for the rest of my life, and I’m sure for Jennifer, too. I wish I could somehow erase all those memories for her.”

Charles turns his living room into a giant slumber party, whistling while he works. Sharon and Fresler will be taking the spare bedroom, but Charles brings everyone else piles of blankets, a thick comforter, and a mound of pillows. John is grateful but can’t muster a real smile when he thanks their host. He can’t shake the feverish worry for Jennifer.

He watches her climb into her sleeping bag and fuss her head around on the pillow, trying to find a comfortable position in her mask. He walks over and kneels by her side. “Goodnight, sweetie.”

Jennifer penetrates his mask with a piercing look and sighs. “Stop worrying about me, Dad. I’m fine.”

“I know,” he lies.

Sleeping in the masks is a pain, and Jackie tosses and turns beside John. When she finally drifts off, he finds a comfy position on his back and dozes. He drifts in dreamless dark for what seems like only a few minutes, when he is jerked awake by a cough.

He bolts upright and squints at his watch: 2:00 a.m. A second cough chills his blood. He turns slowly, dreading what he knows he’ll find. Jackie stares back at him with such despair that it steals his breath. She clutches Jennifer in her lap. Jennifer’s eyes are closed, but her face is pained and dripping with sweat. A sneeze makes her whole body convulse. John crawls over the sleeping bags and puts his hand on his daughter’s forehead. It’s burning up.

Instant nausea makes him feel weak. Despite his best efforts to keep his composure, tears sting his eyes. Jennifer has no wounds. Not like Sean. This infection can have only one explanation. His baby girl has contracted the virus.

Helplessness crushes him, making his limbs shake with the strain. He has always been able to find an answer or fight his way out of any situation, no matter how dangerous. But he can’t out-maneuver or shoot a virus.

Jackie rocks Jennifer like a baby. Jackie’s movements are slow, and her eyes are vacant, like a ghost repeating a familiar motion as it flickers in and out of existence. John checks that Tina and Benjamin are still sound asleep. He looks back in time to see tears dripping from Jackie’s chin. He wants to comfort her, but no words come. He knows if he tries to speak, he’ll just sob aloud.

Instead, he sits beside his girls, one arm around Jackie’s shoulders and the other hand stroking Jennifer’s braids. All through the night, his mind races with ideas. They need to get to the CDC headquarters as soon as possible. If they can somehow develop a vaccine…

John knows vaccines are given to people to prevent viral infections not cure them. But maybe with Fresler’s blood, the CDC can find some new treatment, a medicine to help his daughter before it’s too late. She has fourteen days before the virus starts to destroy her internal organs. Can the CDC develop a cure in such a short period? It will have to be enough time. Jennifer doesn’t have any more. He tells himself that, but deep down, John knows it could take months, even a year, to develop a cure. He might be too late, even if they do make it to headquarters. All he can do now is get her there … and pray.

At 6:00 a.m., Sharon and Fresler pad down the hall into the living room, stretching and yawning. Running on no sleep and a healthy dose of paranoia about Jennifer’s shrinking future, John suddenly gets a crazy idea. He leaves Jennifer’s side, only after squeezing her hand once, and crosses the room to intercept Fresler.

“What’s happened?” Fresler asks in a low voice, reading John’s face in one blink.

“Can I speak with you alone?”

Fresler nods and leads the way back into the bedroom.

“Jennifer has it,” says John, voice catching. He turns to shut the door and his right hand shakes against the wood. He grabs it with his left and pulls it down to his side in a futile attempt to steady it.

Nothing makes him more emotional than his baby girl. The stoicism ingrained in him from birth is shattering. His father taught him it was a sign of weakness for a man to show his feelings … to be like Fresler. But now John is the one overwhelmed, while Fresler stands firm.

“Oh, my God!” he cries. But to John’s surprise, he steps forward instead of jumping back. “I’m so sorry.” Fresler collects himself in an instant and claps John on the shoulder with a fierce look of determination. “We need to get Jennifer to the CDC as soon as possible. Maybe they can create a cure in time to save her.”

“Maybe. Maybe they can develop a vaccine, but a cure? That will take time, testing. Time she doesn’t have. I want to do something now. I want to fix my baby girl.” John shoves his fists in his pockets.

“I’ll try anything to help her,” says Fresler, rubbing his nape. “But what exactly are we supposed to do, John?”

“Charles told me at dinner that he’s a diabetic, so he may have a syringe in the house. I checked the bathroom already, but I didn’t see any.”

Fresler scrunches one eye. “What exactly do you want to inject her with?”

“Your blood.”

Fresler’s mouth pops open. “John…” He clears his throat. “My blood unaltered is not going to save her life. It won’t do anything. It’s impossible. It doesn’t even make sense.”

“Nothing about this virus makes sense!” John shouts. He winces at the door, then lowers his voice. He doesn’t want to upset Jackie or Jennifer out in the main room. “It doesn’t make sense that the virus affects humans and animals so differently,” he continues, quiet but insistent. “It doesn’t make sense that you’re immune. It doesn’t make sense that the virus goes dormant at precisely thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit…” He shakes his head. “Why not just try this? Humor me, Fresler.”

“What on earth makes you think it will make any difference?” Fresler presses.

John grabs Fresler’s arm too tight. “Please, Fresler,” says John in a voice he doesn’t recognize. “We have nothing to lose by trying it.”

The desperation is cloying, like a damp cloth pressed over his mouth. He can’t catch his breath. He will try anything to save his little girl. He would take her to a faith healer, pay a witch to say spells over her, or a priest to exorcise her. John knew a family who flew halfway across the planet to bring their dying child to a supposed healing well in Germany. At the time, he thought the father had lost his mind, but now, he knew … no, felt … the truth. When you look your baby girl in the eyes, you see a lifetime of memories. Her first teetering steps into your arms, the birthday parties coated in icing and confetti, the walks through the neighborhood in Halloween princess costumes, sending her off to her first high school dance, and teaching her where to grip a steering wheel. You would do absolutely anything to keep those memories alive.

Fresler bites his lip with doubt in his narrowed eyes, but he grips John’s arm back just as hard. “You’re right, we have nothing to lose.”

“Let me ask Charles for a syringe.” John hurries back into the living room and freezes at the sight of Jackie and Jennifer without their masks on.

“Have you lost your mind?” he thunders as he stalks across the room. “Put your mask back on!”

He lifts it off the counter and thrusts it at her.

Jackie shoves it back, shaking her head. “I’m not going to hold my baby girl with this mask on any longer,” she says through a stream of tears. “I won’t have a mask be the last thing she sees of her mother. I’m not afraid to die.”

That cloying feeling is back. Every breath sets his chest on fire. Both of them, he thinks. If this doesn’t work, he loses both of them. He stumbles into the kitchen, where he finds Charles, Sharon, and Tina sitting at the kitchen table.

“I’m so sorry,” Charles says in a rush. Inside his mask, his eyes are droopy and red-rimmed like a hound’s. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Tina tries to muffle her crying by pressing her face into Sharon’s shoulder. John opens his mouth to tell Tina it will be all right, he’s going to save Jennifer, but he shuts it with a snap. Telling the others his plan will do no good without evidence that it works.

“Yes, actually,” he says quietly to Charles, leaning in so Sharon and Tina don’t hear. “Do you have a syringe?”

Charles nods. “Let me get it for you.”

Charles returns from his bedroom holding the syringe like a precious artifact, a question in his eyes. John explains nothing, just takes it and heads back to Fresler’s bedroom. With the door closed behind him, John grabs the chair perched under a beautiful double pedestal oak desk. He takes a seat on the chair next to the bed, where Fresler waits with his arm held out.

“Have you done this before?” Fresler asks.

“A few times,” John grunts. “In the army.”

John pulls the cap off the syringe with his teeth and hovers the needle over the vein. His damned hand shakes like a sober alcoholic’s.

“You want me to get Sharon to help, John?” Fresler asks gently.

“Sorry, no, I’m all right,” says John, rolling his shoulders. He’s unsure how long he’s been sitting there, but his back and neck are stiff. With a fairly steady hand, he plunges the needle. John watches the syringe fill with blood, wondering if this is his daughter’s only chance.

“John.” Fresler taps John’s hand when the syringe is brimming, and John startles yet again. He carefully pulls the needle out, and Fresler presses a towel to the injection site, which is already beginning to bruise.

John thanks Fresler hastily and retreats to the living room. When Jackie sees him stalking toward her with a syringe full of blood, she tenses. “What do you think you’re doing with that?” she asks, pulling Jennifer farther into her lap.

“I’m going to save our daughter’s life. Move aside, Jackie.”

“That’s not going to work, John,” says Jackie, holding up a hand and speaking slow, like a nurse trying to talk down a psychotic patient. “We need to get her to the CDC as soon as possible.”

“We have nothing to lose by trying this. She’s already infected. This won’t make it any worse.”

Jennifer coughs and looks up at him with bleary eyes that struggle to focus.

“How do you know it won’t make things worse?” says Jackie. “What if Fresler’s blood type isn’t the same as Jennifer’s?”

“This isn’t an intravenous blood transfusion. Besides, this is such a small amount of blood.” John waves the syringe in the air like a belligerent drunk with a gun.

“You’re crazy,” Jackie mumbles, but to his relief, she lays Jennifer gently on the sleeping back and stands up. She paces nervously behind John as he injects Jennifer with the syringe. He picks her up and carries her into the bedroom with Jackie hot on his heels. Together, they watch over Jennifer until she falls into a fitful sleep.

Two hours pass, and the group is packed and ready to go. John and Jackie check in on Jennifer, but she is still sleeping. Nobody wants to wake her, and they all agree to let her get up on her own before heading out. Still, their unspoken urgency is felt in glances at the clock above the mantle, bouncing knees, and fidgeting fingers. They need to get to the CDC as soon as possible.

On the couch beside John, Jackie zips and unzips her backpack, counting and recounting her supplies. After an hour of silence, Jackie springs to her feet, desperate for a change of scenery. She heads outside, hoping to outpace the building terror. She can’t look at the floor in front of the fireplace without picturing her daughter sneezing and shivering and coughing up blood. Everything in the house already reminds her of Jennifer’s impending fate.

Jackie walks down the street, looking up at the sky. She feels as though God has betrayed her. How could he let this happen to my baby girl?

She circles the neighborhood for an hour, trying to appreciate the sun on her mask-free face. The cold in her bones overwhelms all else. Aching for her child, she returns to the house. John is no longer in the living room, so Jackie goes straight to the bedroom. She opens the door carefully, in case Jennifer is still sleeping, but she freezes with it only half open. Inside, John sits on a chair beside the bed, holding Jennifer’s hand. His mask lies abandoned on the carpet. He bends to press his forehead to the back of Jennifer’s hand and frees a sob that pierces Jackie’s very soul. His back is trembling as he sobs. She has never seen him this upset before. He has always been her rock.

She walks over to John and gently rests her hand on his back. He looks up at her with bloodshot eyes and says, “I love you.”

She rubs his back as her eyes start to well up. She bends to kiss the one heart he allows the world to see—the birthmark above temple. “I love you, too.”

John dozes in the chair while Jackie climbs into bed with Jennifer. His eyes burn from the tears, but he can breathe again. Leaning his upper body on the bed, he takes Jackie’s hand where it drapes over Jennifer’s waste. Hours tick by as he slips in and out of consciousness, but all the while, he keeps both his girls’ hands in his.

John startles awake to the sound of Jackie sucking in a sharp breath. He blinks to find Jennifer looking at him. When she sits up, Jackie smothers her in a hug.

“How are you feeling, sweetie?” asks Jackie.

“Okay,” Jennifer says. “Actually, pretty good.”

John’s pulse pounds. He moves onto the bed next to Jennifer and puts his hand on her forehead. He rests it there for several seconds, unable to believe it. “Her fever is gone!”

Jackie shrieks with joy and then clamps her hands over her mouth, making Jennifer laugh.

“I’m not congested anymore either,” Jennifer says, wonder in her voice. “I feel great.”

John throws his arms around both of them, and the tears and laughter come next. It is another memory John will see each time he looks in Jennifer’s eyes.

When the three of them are able to walk into the kitchen, Tina is the first to leap up in surprise.

“Are you feeling all right?” Tina asks.

“I feel fine,” says Jennifer with a big smile.

“She no longer has a fever. It worked!” John smiles at Fresler, letting a tear fall without wiping it away. “Thanks to you…”

“What worked?” Sharon asks, looking between the two men. “What did you do?”

“I injected Jennifer with a syringe of Fresler’s immune blood,” says John, unable to tame his grin.

Jaws drop around the room, and Tina’s nose wrinkles.

“I can’t explain it.” Jennifer shakes her head in amazement while hugging Tina tight. “It’s like the illness is totally gone. I don’t feel any of the effects anymore.”

“Fresler’s blood cured you?” Sharon says quietly. “That’s incredible.”

“Quickly now,” John says. “Let’s all inject ourselves with a dose.”

Tina pulls away from Jennifer and rounds on John with fists on her hips. “Wait just a second. I’m glad Jennifer is feeling better, but I’m not sure I want someone else’s blood injected into me. We can’t be certain what will happen long-term.”

John rolls his eyes, thinking, Teenagers. “This worked, Tina. Jennifer isn’t showing any symptoms.”

“But how do we know she won’t exhibit other symptoms later?” says Tina, talking wildly with her hands. “There is no way this should have worked. It makes no sense. Am I the only one that is concerned about this?”

“Look,” John barks, “if you don’t want me to inject you, then I won’t. But we don’t have time to argue about it now. Charles, how many more syringes do you have?”

“I’ll check,” he says, already heading for his bathroom medicine cabinet.

“This is a bad idea,” Tina says again, turning in a circle to catch everyone’s eyes.

Charles returns with a handful of syringes, and John immediately begins drawing more of Fresler’s blood. He injects himself and Jackie, ignoring Tina’s stony stare, then looks Sharon’s way.

“Sharon… you ready?”

Sharon sneezes in response, and everyone’s eyes pop.

“Sharon, are you…” Fresler presses a palm to his girlfriend’s flushed cheeks, rubbing his thumb gently beneath her dark-circled eyes. Her next sniff is thick and congested, her surgical mask hiding a red, runny nose. “When did you start feeling the symptoms?” he asks. Then quieter, he asks, “How did I not notice?”

“This morning. I woke up feeling a little under the weather, and…” She shrugs. “It’s gotten worse, I guess.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Fresler wraps her in his arms and kisses the top of her head.

“We were all so worried about Jennifer,” Sharon says, “and then Jackie and John took their masks off, too—and anyway, we’ll make it to the CDC today, right?” She looks at Tina and Benjamin in their respirator masks. “I’m glad you two are safe.”

John taps Fresler’s arm and holds up a syringe. “Are you ready?” He’s all but tapping his toe with impatience.

“Sharon, this isn’t right,” Tina pleads. “Remember what I told you about my mom?”

“I’m already infected,” Sharon says, resignedly holding out her arm for John to inject when Fresler steps aside. “But yes, I remember what you told me. And I understand why this scares you so much.”

“My mom had leukemia,” Tina says for all to hear. “She died from complications related to a bad blood transfusion.” She points at John’s syringe. “This could kill us faster than the disease. And we don’t even know if it works!”

“It works,” Jackie says, holding Jennifer close.

“For now,” Tina says darkly. “What if the effects wear off? And for those of you who aren’t infected yet, who says Fresler’s blood will prevent infection?”

“Honestly, I’ll take my chances,” Charles says, holding out his arm the moment John pulls the needle from Sharon’s vein.

Tina falls silent with her arms crossed; her scowl apparent even through her respirator mask.

“Where is Benjamin?” John asks when he’s finished with Charles.

“You’re not going to inject him,” Tina snaps, jabbing an accusatory finger at John’s chest.

“Of course I am.”

Tina shakes her head. “He’s too young to make that decision for himself, and I don’t think it’s safe.”

“You’re not his guardian, Tina,” John says, voice stern.

“Neither are you,” she snaps back.

“He could die without it. It’s one thing for you to decide this for yourself, but you’re not going to decide this for him—”

“We’re wasting time arguing,” Jackie says, stepping between them. “Let’s put it to a vote.”

John is the first to raise his hand. “I vote yes. How about you, Jackie?”

“It saved Jennifer’s life,” she says softly, eyes on Tina. “I’m a yes.”

“I’m a yes too,” Fresler says. “I’m sorry, Tina.”

Tina whirls on Sharon. “Well?” There is a plea poorly concealed beneath her harsh squawk.

Sharon looks between Jennifer and Tina. She doesn’t take the decision lightly. Tina is right in a way. This is not normal. As much as she tries to ignore it, the whole situation makes her wonder who Fresler really is, and how his blood can perform miracles. The feeling that she has slept beside a stranger, an anomaly she never really knew, tightens her chest worse than the worsening congestion. She also knows how personal this is for Tina. And yet, Benjamin is just a little boy. If Fresler’s blood really is a cure … “We have evidence that it works,” she says aloud, averting her face from Tina’s furious glare. “but we have no evidence it’s harmful. I vote yes.”

Tina shakes her head. “I can’t believe I’m the only one concerned about this. What if Fresler’s blood type isn’t compatible with Benjamin’s? He could have a hemolytic reaction and die!” She storms out of the room without a backward glance and slams the dining room door.

“She doesn’t know what she is talking about,” says John. “This isn’t an intravenous transfusion. None of you will have a hemolytic reaction. Trust me.”

What he doesn’t says is that Tina has planted the tiniest seed of doubt deep inside him. Though he believes this is their only hope… Tina isn’t wrong to say that they are taking a risk. They don’t know much of anything about how Fresler’s blood works. All John knows for sure is that his daughter has been healed. He doesn’t need a scientist to confirm it for him. He feels it in his soul.

“Benjamin, come here,” he says, holding out his hand. The boy shuffles forward, looking toward the door where Tina disappeared. “There,” John says, patting Benjamin on the head. “You’re safe now.”

It’s a promise he hopes he can keep.

Fresler leans back in Charles’ recliner, wishing he could head out into the yard with the others, but losing several syringes-worth of blood has left him queasy. He finds he’s missed his companions’ faces the past few days. He imagines them all wearing smiles, with heads leaned back to appreciate the sunshine on their faces. Well … all except Tina, who still has her mask firmly in place, as far as Fresler knows.

The front door opens, and Fresler sits up as John comes waltzing in. Fresler pushes to his feet, grabbing for his pack, but John motions for him to sit again. “Wait a minute. I want to talk to you.”

Fresler drops back into the chair. “Everything okay?”

John nods but says gloomily, “Yeah, except Tina’s sulking in the car.” He lets out a long breath and hangs his head, struggling to look Fresler in the eyes. “Fresler, I’m not very good at this… I don’t know how to say this.”

“You don’t have to say anything, John.”

John shakes his head and slowly looks up until their eyes meet. “But I do. I haven’t treated you very well these past few days… weeks. I owe you an apology for that, and a debt a gratitude for saving my daughter’s life.”

Fresler smiles. “Thanks, but I didn’t do anything. Other than let you use me as a pincushion, that is.”

“When I first met you… I saw this long-haired, hippie liberal.” John chuckles quietly. “The opposite of everything I valued in life. You’re nothing like the guys I fought beside overseas or worked with on the force. I thought you were… weak because you were sensitive… emotional. The truth is…” John’s hesitates and clears his throat. “You’re not weak at all. My dad was wrong; it takes strength to be vulnerable.”

John looks up at the ceiling, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “When I was in the army, I escaped death more times than I can remember. But the single scariest moment of my life was sitting on that chair.” John nods toward the bedroom. His next words are stilted. “Next to Jennifer as she lay on that bed… dying from this virus. That… was the single most difficult moment of my life.” John rubs at his nose, regaining his composure, and Fresler waits in silence, not daring to disrupt the comradery of the moment.

“My dad spent his entire life avoiding pain,” John says at last. “The problem is, you can’t have it both ways. If you shut yourself off, then you’ll never experience the true happiness that comes from loving someone. When you love someone as much as I love Jackie and Jennifer… you’re vulnerable…”

Fresler smiles gently, knowing how difficult it is for John to say these words.

John continues, “It doesn’t take strength to shut down emotionally. He was the weak one.”

Fresler nods slowly and says, “It’s true what they say about life.”

John snorts. “What do they say about life, Fresler?”

“Life has a way of bringing you to your knees.”

“It does…,” John says around a smile. “I guess the true test is how we respond. Can we get back up on our feet and face the world?” John puts his hand on Fresler’s shoulder. “If it wasn’t for you, Fresler…” John stops himself and wipes away his tears. He extends a hand to pull Fresler to his feet, and Fresler in turn pulls him into a hug. To Fresler’s small surprise, John returns it … in fierce, manly, back-slapping fashion. It’s a start.

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