John jumps in the Explorer, feeling the cold rush of impending combat trickle through his veins from head to toe, numbing his fears and heightening his focus. He drops the ham radio in the passenger seat, starts up the engine, and pulls out of the driveway. A few houses down, he cuts his headlights and pulls over. The fuel gauge claims the tank is half full. Good. He spreads the map of Atlanta across his dashboard and tries to memorize the main streets. He won’t be able to drive and navigate at the same time with the SOD hot on his bumper. He looks at his watch and sees that fifteen minutes have passed. They should be driving down the street any minute.
Three minutes crawl by. John recites street names and intersections under his breath until two cars turn the corner. He flicks on his headlights and hits the gas. The SOD cars shrink as the Explorer accelerates down the street, then grow again, giving chase.
“That’s right,” John murmurs, “come and get me.”
The radio spits at him. “We found them. They’re driving a black Ford Explorer, heading down Mason Mills Road. Now turning left on Houston Mills Road!” the man barks when John veers hard to the left.
“We will try to block them oﬀ where La Vista Road intersects with Houston Mills!” another voice shouts back.
John runs through the map in his head. La Vista is a few blocks ahead. He makes a left on Adelia Pine instead, then cuts another quick left on Biltmore Drive. The two cars are shrinking again in his rearview, slow to follow his movements. They have to back up before readjusting their course onto Biltmore.
“Damn,” one says through the radio. “They’re getting away. I think they’re headed to Briarcliﬀ Road.”
“We will try to intercept them at Briarcliﬀ and La Vista.”
John makes a left on Briarcliﬀ, heading in the opposite direction from La Vista. He accelerates, racing at close to 100 mph on the residential streets, slowing only to make one more turn. The cars vanish from his rearview, and he cuts the lights to look for a place to hide. He spots the parking lot of an outdoor mall with hundreds of abandoned cars. John makes a quick assessment—plenty of hiding space, multiple escape routes—and pulls in, parking where he will have the best vantage point.
This time, he smiles when the ham radio crackles.
“We lost them,” a dejected disembodied voice says.
“If you haven’t seen them by now, they must have made a left on Briarcliﬀ. We’ll go back down the road and look for them.”
A minute later, John sees the SOD cars speed by. His plan worked perfectly. For now.
Jackie’s leg bounces a random rhythm beneath the bedsheets. With each passing hour, her nausea grows. It’s after four, and John has still not returned. Her brain tortures her with flashing images of him bound and bleeding, dead behind the wheel, or screaming in a dark basement with shadowy silhouettes looming over him.
Around 4:15, Jennifer comes to sit beside Jackie on the couch. “I can’t sleep,” she says, snuggling against Jackie’s side.
“Me neither.” Jackie wraps both arms around Jennifer and kisses the top of her head.
“Why does he always have to do this?” asks Jennifer.
“Be the hero. He’s always risking his life for others.” Jennifer pouts like a child, but Jackie hears the adult terror in her voice.
“That he is.” Jackie sighs. “We first met in high school, before your father enlisted in the army. He was much diﬀerent then.”
“I’m not sure how to explain it.” Jackie presses her cheek against Jennifer’s braids. “The army changed your father. He would never have risked his life before his deployment. Now, it’s almost as if he doesn’t worry about dying, or he thinks he is invincible. But one thing I know for certain: he will always risk his life for you. He loves you more than you will ever know.”
Jennifer picks at the sheets. “I know. I wish he was here.”
Across the hall, Sharon and Fresler lie on their backs in bed, staring at the ceiling. Sharon is restless, having woken from a sound, six-hour sleep to recover from their hike. Fresler folds his hands behind his head and looks over at her. He frowns at the worry lines between her eyes.
“How are you holding up?” he asks. “Do you still feel sick?”
“No. I think I’m through the worst of it. Thank goodness.” Sharon’s chest rises with a deep breath. “But I’m worried about John,” she says, the words riding on her exhale.
Fresler rolls over to face her. “I’m sure he is fine. He seems to always find a way.”
“Are you still upset?” asks Fresler. “We never finished talking about it. I never finished apologizing.”
Sharon rolls to clasp his hands. “I understand why you felt you had to go off on your own, but it still hurts my feelings… knowing you would be okay, just leaving me without saying goodbye.”
Fresler cringes, shutting his eyes to close off the pain of seeing the sorrow on her face. “If I had said goodbye, I would never have been able to leave you. I don’t know how I could live with myself, knowing I caused your death.” He takes a ragged breath. “If John hadn’t had the crazy idea to inject Jennifer with my blood, I would have lost you today regardless.”
Sharon kisses Fresler’s fingers, intertwined with hers. “We are all living on borrowed time. I want to spend my borrowed time by your side.”
Fresler unravels one hand to caress her face. “I love you, Sharon.”
She scoots into his arms, burying her fingers in his hair. “I love you too.”
Headlights shine through John’s windshield, but he is already hunched low in the reclined seat, concealing the top of his head from the passing SOD car. The driver makes a slow sweep of the street and then turns right at the dark stoplight.
John relaxes as the taillights recede into the darkness, but a loud bang on his passenger door jumpstarts his heartrate once more. He peeks out the window. An infected dog. They’ve been prowling the parking lot all night, howling and barking, and John suspects they can smell him in here. He double-checks the door locks and tries to ignore the whines and growls now emanating from the undercarriage and the back bumper.
John folds his hands across his chest, hoping to relax for just five minutes. The pop of his hood indenting makes him spring off the backrest like a Jack-in-the-Box. A snarling, slobbering Labrador Retriever fixes him with red-rimmed, wild eyes. Its collar tag jingles as it smashes its muzzle against the windshield, trying fruitlessly to bite the smooth glass. Blood explodes from its gums, but it hardly notices, lunging twice more.
The dog paces the hood with teeth bared, then comes back for a calmer, more calculated look inside, fogging the glass with its panting. It takes a step back, rear claws scraping the tops of the headlights, and then throws itself against the windshield, shoulder first. The impact sends it rolling off the hood, but it jumps back up in a blink, shaking its head and sneezing.
John checks his watch. It’s 5:30 a.m. The sun will rise soon.
“They’re parked somewhere,” a voice barks over the ham radio. “Search the lots around Briarcliff again.”
This is what John has been waiting for, and why he’s been grateful for the infected animals that have kept him vigilant. He cannot get caught before the sun rises. If the SOD finds out that he’s alone, they’ll go back to search the house where they first spotted his car.
This will all have been for nothing.
John turns on the engine, which sends the infected dog running with its tail between its legs. He keeps his headlights oﬀ and waits with hands on the wheel.
Another SOD car approaches his position, driving along Briarcliﬀ. As the car slows down right before the parking lot entrance, John’s muscles tingle with a flood of adrenaline. The SOD car turns into the parking lot and heads in John’s direction. It’s time to make his move. He can’t aﬀord to be boxed in.
He inches out of his parking space, then floors it toward the exit.
The ham radio erupts with a burst of static. “We see them! Their SUV is exiting the Kroger parking lot on Briarcliﬀ!”
“Okay, we will block them oﬀ at Lively Ridge.”
John turns on his headlights and accelerates up Briarcliﬀ. He turns right on Stephens Drive, then makes a right on Biltmore.
“They made a right on Biltmore,” reports the car tailing him.
“Great, we’ve got them trapped. Blockades on every street; they have no way out of there. Close in, people!”
John pulls over to squint at his map in the dim, pre-dawn light. The SOD thug is right. No escape route. They have him trapped.
Three cars are bumping along the road in a straight line at his back. Ahead, every side street has a dark car waiting like vultures beside makeshift roadblocks of wood, barbed wire, and cones. The cars behind him slow, like wolves waiting to see which direction their prey will sprint next.
John grabs his trusty Glock 22 and smiles at the rising sun.
Mission accomplished. His friends and family will be walking into the woods right now, safe and unhampered, with a straight shot for the CDC headquarters. Jackie and Jennifer will reach safety, together. That’s all John really needs to know.
The SOD members have yet to exit their vehicles. John expects they’re waiting for more reinforcements. He’s killed three of their own. They don’t know what else he’s capable of, and they don’t know he’s alone. As more cars converge on Biltmore, he calculates his odds. If each car holds only two people, he’s outnumbered twenty to one.
Part of him hopes there are more men in those cars. He hopes every SOD in the Atlanta area is out there in his line of fire, where they’ll never cross paths with his family and the others. He’ll put a bullet in as many as he can for them.
The cold calm of combat washes over him, taking his mind back to his army days. With all of the dangerous missions he was a part of, he somehow found a way to survive. Has his luck finally run out? No. Jackie and Jennifer are alive and safe from the virus. Whatever happens now, he still wins.
The faces of his life’s two loves fill his head, blocking and brightening the grim scene out his windshield. He wipes away the tears that form in the corner of his eyes, cocks his gun, and steps out onto the street to make what he suspects is his final stand.