Abandoning the roads, the companions trek through the forest in a tight huddle. Charles proposes it will be best to enter the CDC headquarters from the north side, since it is a heavily wooded area which will provide great coverage. The homes there can also offer shelter for the night, if they cannot make it all the way before dark.
As they walk, John notices that Jennifer looks a little depressed.
“Everything okay, sweetie?” asks John.
“Yeah,” she mumbles.
“Do you want to talk about it? Whatever it is?”
Jennifer glances at him. “What just happened, hearing those gunshots, made me think about… the other day when we were in Walmart.”
“When I shot Nick?”
Jennifer nods, fixated on the dead foliage beneath her feet. “I’ve never seen anyone die like that before. It was scary.”
“I know how traumatic it must have been for you to see me shoot someone.” John flinches with the realization that perhaps Fresler feels a little traumatized too. He sometimes forgets not everyone is combat-trained. “You have to understand, Jennifer, if I hadn’t shot him, he would have killed all of us.”
“I know; you’re right,” Jennifer says in a rush. “You did what you had to, and I’m glad you did.” He hears her swallow as she stuffs her hands deep in her coat pockets. “But it was still scary to watch.”
John runs a hand over her braids. “I understand.”
“How many people have you killed?” she says, finally looking up at him. Her eyes are scrunched in a preemptive cringe, bracing herself for his answer.
He swallows hard, thinking for a moment. “I don’t know, exactly. It’s not something that I’ve kept track of.” He wonders, is not knowing a harsh answer?
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you that,” says Jennifer, stepping closer so that her arm brushes his.
“It’s okay. I’m sorry to have given you a reason to ask. But I’m not sorry—I’ll never be sorry—for protecting you and your mom.” John smiles. “Do you remember your freshman year, when you and I would go out in the backyard to work on your passing? We probably got in over five hundred passes in an hour. Do you know why that was so important for me?”
Jennifer shrugs. “It taught me a lesson about how hard work pays oﬀ,” she says.
“That is a valuable lesson,” John agrees, “but that’s not why I did it. Those sessions gave me the chance to spend an hour with my daughter. It had nothing to do with volleyball. I just loved spending that time with you. Just like when you would come downstairs and plop yourself on the kitchen counter and talk about the Avengers or your favorite anime. I didn’t care about anime, but I loved talking with you. Or when we would watch the Kings or the 49ers every Sunday because we loved watching Jimmy G. It was just an excuse to spend time with you.”
John stops Jennifer by gently taking her wrist. “I want you to know that you can talk to me about anything, Jennifer. Even the hard things. We’ll get through it together, okay?”
“I know.” She hugs him as she did in elementary school, with her arms flung around his neck and her cheek pressed to his shoulder. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, sweetie.”
Jackie catches John’s eye over Jennifer’s shoulder and warms the chilly woods with a smile.
Their planned arrival time comes and goes, with no glimpse of the CDC building. Sharon is still recovering from her brief period of infection, and Benjamin is definitely not used to walking long distances. Tina scooped the boy onto her back an hour ago, but now she, too, is trudging at half speed. According to the map, they’re still four miles away from the CDC when dusk begins to fall. The residential area Charles promised offers shelter, but they all know from experience that not every house is a haven.
“We’ll need to be careful,” John says, scanning the houses and cul-de-sacs. “The SOD will be looking for us, and they’ll probably search houses in the vicinity of the CDC.”
Sure enough, as John enters a home to search it for hidden dangers, he hears a dilapidated muffler in the distance. He rushes back out the door and motions for everyone to follow him. They hide behind a black Ford Explorer parked in the driveway. The car turns onto their street with a pop and a roar, and everyone ignores the burn in their thighs as they hunker together like hunted mice in a burrow. John peers through the under carriage of the Explorer to watch the car slowly pass.
The driver is leaning out his window to scan the street. His full respirator mask makes him look like a horror out of a WWII film. His head swivels left, then right, and dark eyes find the Explorer. John stiffens, unsure if the man has locked eyes with him beneath the car. His hand inches to his holster and he draws his gun, but the car rolls by without ever-changing speed.
Beside John, Jackie feels Tina and Jennifer shaking against her back. She turns to find their eyes locked on John’s gun and Benjamin is sitting between them with his eyes closed.
John stands up as soon as the car is out of sight, leaving them all squatting in the driveway for ten minutes or more. He finally pops his head out the door and gives the all clear, then retrieves the ham radio he took from Thomas’s vehicle. So far, it’s silent.
The conversation turns light and casual as Sharon, Fresler, Charles, and the kids scurry around the house looking for spare pillows and checking out the accoutrements. But Jackie paces outside the kitchen, watching John rifle through drawers and cabinets. “What are you looking for?” she asks.
“Keys to that Explorer in the driveway,” says John.
“Why? I thought we couldn’t drive to the CDC.”
John snaps his fingers, not listening, and grins at the keys hanging on the side of the refrigerator.
“We can’t be certain that the person who drove down the street didn’t see one of us,” he says as he pockets them.
“He would have stopped if he did.”
“Not necessarily. He may have decided to drive oﬀ and circle back our way with reinforcements.”
“Okay, that may be true, but why do you need the keys to the Explorer?” Jackie says, chewing on a nail. A familiar anxious lump has started in her throat and now drops into her stomach.
The ham radio crackles, and John puts a finger to his lips, shushing her. She grinds her teeth but stays quiet with her hands on her hips.
“Did you find Thomas and Lance?” asks a male voice.
“No sign of their car,” another voice answers, “but I think I saw something on Mason Mill Road. I’m not positive, because it was getting dark. But I think I saw someone hiding behind an SUV parked in the driveway. I didn’t want to check it out on my own. I’ll circle back with Vartan and Tannin in ten.”
“I have to go,” says John, kissing Jackie’s forehead as he brushes past her.
He freezes, his way blocked by the rest of the group in the kitchen entryway.
“Go where?” demands Jackie, her voice rising with panic.
“I need to lead those guys away from this house. If I don’t, they’re going to find us.”
“We can look for another house,” says Jackie. The effort to hold in a sob softens her voice to a whisper.
“It’s too late for that,” says John. “It’s dark outside. Infected animals will be out there.”
“We’re all immune now,” says Jackie as she starts to tear up. “We can go with you. Bites won’t kill us.”
John’s eyes flick to Tina’s respirator mask. “Not all of us are immune. And a crazed animal could still kill you, without the virus’s help.” John’s hug is warm but brief, despite her efforts to hold onto him. He kisses her cheek as he extracts his arms from her grip. “Please, trust me. This is something I need to do alone. I’ll lead them away, buy you all time.”
He unzips his backpack and takes out the two guns he confiscated from Thomas. He drops one in Jackie’s hand, then turns to Fresler with the other but hesitates, shifting to hand the weapon to Charles. Fresler looks relieved.
John hugs Jennifer tight, lifting her onto her tiptoes. “If I’m not back by sunrise, you need to start hiking without me. I’ll meet you at the CDC headquarters.”
He strides into the front hall, but Jackie rounds the corner and grabs his wrist to stop him halfway to the door. “Promise me,” she whispers. “Promise me you’ll meet us there.”
She falls into his arms, and the look in his eyes as he gazes down at her, though it swells her chest with love, only worsens her dread. He looks at her as though it might be the last time, those deep eyes tracing every line of her face.
He cups Jackie’s cheek and kisses her lips, taking his time. “I promise,” he whispers, and though the words loosen the knot in her gut, she fears he may only be telling her what she wants to hear. She kisses his left temple, that spot that only she is allowed to kiss.
“I love you,” he says, through that smile that’s always melted her.
And then in a blink, he is out the door.