Frozen Pandemic

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CHAPTER 26

Jackie watches the sun peek over the rooftops from the front door’s window. The street is empty. No Explorer. No John. Jackie hangs her head and cries, dripping tears onto the floor. Jennifer’s arms loop around Jackie’s middle from behind.

“Daddy will meet us at the CDC headquarters,” she says. “He promised. Remember?”

Jackie nods and wipes away her tears. “You’re right, sweetie. Your father is a man of his word.”

The gray dawn matches the group’s gray mood as they haul their scarce belongings outside. It is the first journey they will make without their leader, and the uncertainty is suffocating. Jackie and Jennifer hold hands. Charles takes the role of navigator, looking both ways down the street for SOD cars before beckoning the others onward. Everyone walks with hands idle at their sides or stuffed deep in their pockets, numb and expressionless. No one says a word as they carefully cross the street.

They enter the heavily wooded area north of the CDC building. A thick mist surrounds the trees. It creeps in around the rocks and between the branches. It slithers into their unmasked mouths. Only Tina filters it with the raspy inhale of her respirator.

They walk for three miles without seeing anyone. Fresler is in the lead with Charles, while the women flank the kids, enclosing them in the middle for safety.

“Only about a mile to go now,” Charles says to Fresler, between puffed breaths.

Fresler nods. He’s eager for this whole ordeal to be over. But when he looks at Charles, he sees the same bright, excited expression on the older man’s face as he saw yesterday, in the SUV. “I’m curious,” he says. “When we were trying to escape from the SOD car, you were smiling and laughing in the back seat. Was that just a nervous reaction?”

Charles laughs. “No, it wasn’t a nervous reaction. That was incredible!”

Fresler’s eyebrows raise. “Really?”

“Yeah, really. Before the pandemic, I guess you could call me an adrenaline junkie. I loved the rush. Rollercoasters, racecars—I’ve even been skydiving. I love how it makes me feel… so alive.”

“That’s not my thing at all,” says Fresler.

“What is your thing?”

Fresler thinks about his quiet cabin by the river. He can feel his chair beneath him, hear the water rushing by. “I guess I’m more of a thinker than a doer,” he says slowly. “I like solitude and space.”

Charles nods. “I can see that.”

“So, what did you do for a living before the pandemic? Were you a professional stunt driver?” asks Fresler.

Charles snickers and says, “You mean before my retirement… I have been doing nothing the last ten years.”

Fresler smiles. “Yes, before retirement.”

“I was a tax consultant for a CPA firm.”

“My dad was also an accountant,” says Fresler with a sideways glance. “Sounds exciting.”

Charles laughs out loud. “Yeah, right… I call bullshit.”

Fresler is taken aback. “I wasn’t poking fun,” Fresler says. “Accounting does sound exciting.”

“Okay, Fresler,” Charles says, still laughing. “Someday you and I will go over Form 600. I will show you how to prepare a Georgia corporate income tax return. Not that it matters anymore. And maybe… if you play your cards right… I can show you how to file a California water’s-edge return. You would love the partial inclusion and foreign offset calculations.”

Fresler chuckles. “All right, I get it… you win. It does sound boring.”

“You’re damn right it’s boring, but it was a living.”

Fresler looks back to make sure the rest of the group is keeping up, and then continues, “How did you become a tax consultant?”

“It’s amazing all the different paths we take in life,” Charles muses to the treetops. “I never intended to be a tax consultant when I graduated from college in 1974. I wanted to be a marketing executive but ended up working for my uncle preparing personal income tax returns, and from there…”

Charles smiles gently down at the underbrush crackling beneath his boots, lost in his memories. “Every day,” he finally goes on, “we are confronted with decisions. Some won’t have any meaningful impact on our lives at all, while others will change our lives profoundly. It could be a decision to accept a job offer or not, or it could be something as simple as reading a text message while changing lanes on a crowded freeway. You never know.”

“Did that happen to you?” Fresler says cautiously. “Were you in a texting-related car accident?”

“No, nothing like that. My life-changing moment happened in 1973. It was a rather innocuous decision really: whether to drive myself into town or take the bus. I decided to take the bus, and little did I know, I would be sitting next to my future bride. I remember it like it was yesterday. Never in my life has anyone taken my breath away, but when I walked on the bus that day and saw my Mable sitting there… it happened. My life would never be the same.”

Fresler smiles at Charles and says, “Sounds like true love. I’m so sorry she’s gone.”

Charles sobers, jaw flexing. “This damn virus. Losing her—that was the worst day of my life.”

Fresler hears the crunch of a booted footfall, but it’s too late.

“Put your hands up!” a voice booms.

Everyone whirls to face the barrel of an M4 assault weapon. Sharon squeaks, and Jackie jumps in front of Jennifer, arms out.

Fresler’s stomach drops, panic making his mind race. He takes in the man’s fatigues in a flash, then the stern eyes narrowed at them through the full respirator mask. He prays this man is not a member of the SOD. Tina pulls Benjamin to her side, and he hugs her leg, shaking.

“Hands up!” the man shouts. Then, as they comply, he asks, “What are you folks doing this close to the CDC perimeter?”

“Well … we’re hoping to get inside the building.”

“Why isn’t anyone wearing a mask, except her?” He jabs the gun toward Tina.

Jackie waves Fresler forward, and he moves to the front on jelly legs.

“Because of him,” Jackie says. “This man is immune to this virus.”

Sharon tries to tug Fresler back, whispering, “Don’t tell him about the immunity. What if he’s SOD?”

Fresler whispers back over his shoulder, “If he’s SOD, then it won’t really matter, will it? We’re as good as dead.”

Sharon drops her hand from his shirt.

“What about the rest of you?” the man barks. With the mask on, Fresler can’t tell if the claim of immunity even fazed him.

“My daughter contracted the virus,” Jackie explains. “We injected her with Fresler’s blood. Within four hours she stopped showing any symptoms. After that, the rest of us all injected ourselves too. It’s been a couple days, and none of us have gotten symptoms, despite not wearing our masks in this weather.”

The soldier blinks at them for a moment that seems to last an eternity. Slowly, his gun lowers. He takes a step toward Fresler, looking him up and down. He nods and says, “We need to get you inside right away. My name is Taylor. I’m with the third infantry assigned to protect the CDC perimeter. Follow me.”

Sharon lets out a sigh of relief that sounds more like a sob. Jackie squeezes Jennifer to her side, grinning. Tina lifts Benjamin onto her hip and croons to him that it’s all right. Taylor waits for them to recover themselves and then leads them to his Hummer.

“Have you had any issues with the SOD?” Jackie asks Taylor as the vehicle comes into view between the trees.

“Actually, we have. About a week ago, they tried to infiltrate the headquarters. But we have over two hundred and fifty well-armed soldiers protecting our perimeter.” He lets out a cynical chuckle. “Good luck to that crazy group, breaking through this front line.”

“How many SOD members are there?” asks Jackie.

“At one point, we estimated that they had about seventy-five members, but they’re probably down to thirty-five now.”

“Why have they lost so many?” asks Jackie, startled. “Did all of them die in the assault on the CDC building?”

“No. Some of those guys ran off as soon as they saw that they weren’t going to get in.” Taylor clears his throat. “The others died from the virus.”

“But, their masks…”

“Respirator masks are no guarantee against contracting the virus. This virus can reproduce outside a host. If you’re in an area where the virus is airborne and it attaches to your clothes or hair, then the second you take your mask off to eat or shower or sleep, even in a contained environment, you run the risk of being exposed. And the truth is that even the best-fitting masks are only ninety-five percent effective. It’s really just a matter of time before you become infected.”

“Wow,” says Jackie, paling. “I had no idea. How are you and the other soldiers able to survive then?”

“The CDC headquarters were retrofitted with a negative air flow and ventilation system. The building has a separate power source, and there’s only one entrance. That entrance has a sanitization system capable of destroying the virus. If it does attach to your clothes or body, the sanitization system destroys the pathogen before you enter the building.”

“That’s amazing. Are there any other buildings like the CDC headquarters?” asks Fresler.

“Yes, the federal government spent billions retrofitting several buildings throughout the United States before the virus struck.”

“Before the virus struck?” Sharon repeats, looking dazed. “Are you saying… people knew this was coming?”

“I’m not cleared to discuss that with you, ma’am.”

Sharon’s dazed gawk morphs into a gape of horror as she turns to Fresler. He feels bile rise in the back of his throat. They knew? They knew and said nothing? The thought is so enormous and heinous it doesn’t fit properly in his skull. Fresler massages a headache and avoids Taylor’s eyes as the soldier opens the back door of his Hummer.

Everyone piles in, and Taylor drives them to the checkpoint a mile through the woods.

Soldiers flank the blockade. They clamber out of the vehicle while the soldiers search them. The handgun in Jackie’s backpack is discovered first, then the second in Charles’. The soldiers don’t look fazed as they confiscate the guns, and Fresler wonders how many citizens with firearms they have come across.

Taylor drives the group to the main entrance, where he explains they will have to be tested and sanitized before they can enter the building.

He parks in front of a one-story structure branching off the main building. Taylor bids them farewell at the door, and a new soldier escorts them through a sterile white hall to the first room, which serves as a nursing station.

“We’ll need to test your blood to make sure no one is infected,” the soldier says, urging them forward with a nod.

A technician wearing a hazmat suit steps forward to lead them to a counter where the nurse will draw their blood.

“Linda will be with you in a minute,” says the technician.

There aren’t enough seats in the tiny room, so Fresler and Charles stand while the others sit. Jennifer and Tina are practically drooling in their laps over the sight of sweet, sweet technology behind the counter. Even Fresler finds himself mesmerized by the bright computer screens and blinking, green, mini-LEDs.

The nurse enters in a green hazmat suit. “Hi, my name is Linda,” she says, in a warm but brisk voice. “I will be drawing your blood to test for the presence of the virus. Roll up your sleeves, please. We prefer a venous draw to a finger stick, when possible.”

“How accurate are these blood tests?” Tina asks.

“They’re foolproof,” says Linda as she readies a syringe. “We will know within fifteen minutes if you’re infected.” She startles when she looks Tina’s way and spies the respirator mask. “You can take that off now, if you’ll be more comfortable without it.”

“Oh,” Tina says quietly. “Thanks.” But she doesn’t unbuckle the straps. Instead, she glances down at her clothes, as if expecting to see the virus clinging to the fabric like dandelion spores.

Linda moves down the line, making Fresler and Charles sit down in Jackie and Sharon’s chairs as she takes their blood. When they all assure her they don’t feel faint, Linda leads them into an adjoining room that looks like the waiting room in a dentist’s office.

“You can stay here while we analyze the samples.”

There are plenty of seats here, and the cushions are blissfully padded. Sharon sinks into one with a soft sigh.

“Well,” she says to Fresler, “we’re about to find out if your blood is as potent as John believed.”

“Let’s hope it is,” Fresler says, sitting beside her and taking her hand.

Twenty minutes pass at an excruciating pace.

Jackie pops out of her chair with a huff and says, “I thought they said fifteen minutes.” She paces the line of chairs. “Why is it taking them so long? And where is John? He said he would meet us here. He had a car, and we were on foot. He should be here by now.” She talks around her thumbnail to no one in particular.

Linda walks into the waiting room, making all their heads swivel. “I have the results of your blood test. They were… strange, to say the least.”

Fresler stands up. “Strange how?”

“Only one of you is infected, and it’s the person who is wearing the respirator mask.” She glances at Tina with an apology in her eyes. “That makes no sense at all.”

“There is a reason for that,” says Sharon breathlessly. “Everyone in our group, except Tina was injected with Fresler’s blood.”

“Injected? What did you use for the injection?” asks Linda.

Jackie responds before Sharon can answer. “A syringe. This man”—she points at Charles—“has diabetes. We used some of his supplies.”

“You didn’t use an intravenous line? You used a syringe?” Linda’s voice goes up an octave on the last word.

Jackie nods.

“Then you didn’t do an actual blood transfusion?” Linda asks, narrowing her eyes at them all and speaking slowly, like she might be missing something.

“No, just an injection,” says Sharon, displaying the puncture site on her arm.

Linda’s jaw drops like a cartoon character. “That’s astonishing.” She bounces from foot to foot and then spins toward the door. “I need to talk with the director and see what he wants to do,” she says as she trots off. “I’ll be right back.”

The second the door shuts behind Linda, Tina starts to cry.

Jennifer gives her a one-armed hug and says, “You’re going to be all right. Don’t forget, I was also infected. So was Sharon. Fresler’s blood will cure you.”

“Why didn’t I listen to your dad?” Tina wails.

“You had a good reason to be suspicious,” Sharon says, sitting on Tina’s other side. “There are so many things that could have gone wrong with what we did. It’s a miracle everything worked out. And like Jennifer said, you’ll be fine. The proof is in our blood.”

Tina unlatches her mask and lets it drop to the floor. “I’m going to be fine,” she says, like she’s trying to convince herself. She sniffles as she wipes her face clean of tears.

“You are,” says Jennifer, squeezing her tighter.

Sharon looks over her shoulder and sees Fresler standing by himself, looking vaguely shell-shocked. She walks to his side and puts her hand on his. “Are you okay?”

He nods. “It’s just hard to believe that all of this is real.”

“It’s real,” Sharon says. “Your blood not only cures the infected, it also prevents infection. That’s amazing. You’re amazing.”

An hour passes before Linda returns. Fresler’s feet drop from the back of the chair in front of him with a crash. Everyone else sits upright out of their various bored, lounging positions.

“I talked with the director,” says Linda, “and he wants to see all of you… except you, Tina. Sorry, you’ll have to wait here.”

“I’ll stay with Tina,” says Jennifer, looping an arm around her friend.

Tina shakes her head. “No, you go on… I’ll be fine.”

“I’m staying with you.”

Tina rests her head on Jennifer’s shoulder. “Thanks.”

“Fresler, may I draw another vial of blood from you, for our technicians to examine? It may be necessary for Tina’s treatment.” At his nod, Linda steps forward, syringe at the ready. She puts a gloved hand on his cheek. “You look a little pale from all the blood draws. You should get some orange juice, once you’re inside. That should help you recuperate.”

Orange juice! Fresler thinks giddily, as Linda’s needle goes in. He hasn’t had fruit since the outbreak. He can already taste the bright citrus tang on his tongue.

When Linda has what she needs, she leads the group into the sanitization area. “Galen will take care of you from here.”

Galen, a bulky technician whose hazmat suit looks ill-fitted, hands everyone surgical gowns and shows them where to change. When everyone has discarded their contaminated, travel-worn clothes in a hazmat bin by the door, he leads them into the glass sanitization chamber. The room has a single table with a box of protective eye gear and surgical masks.

Galen speaks to the group through an intercom system and tells them to put on one of each . “Keep the masks in place until the light above the door turns green,” he finishes. “Give me a thumbs-up when you’re ready.”

Sharon makes sure that Benjamin’s eye gear and mask are on properly. Then, everyone, including Benjamin, gives Galen a thumbs-up. The door locks, and the bulbous light on top turns red. The ceiling vents open and something that looks like steam starts pouring out of them.

Benjamin shrinks away from the foggy shower, and Sharon .

After a minute, the vents shut down and the steam evaporates. The moment the light above the door turns green, they all peel off their eye gear and masks. The door opens with a hiss of decompressed air. Galen tells the group to follow him into another waiting room, where he points them toward a shelf of CDC t-shirts, sweatshirts, and sweatpants in various sizes.

“Help yourselves. We have to sanitize the rest of the stuff you brought before you can have it back.”

The clothes, plain as they are, are comfortable and clean. Fresler sniffs the fabric deeply, remembering the conversation the group had the night before Larry died, when they discussed what they missed most. He’d said clean clothes, and he’d meant it.

Fresler still has his nose buries in the sleeve of his shirt while Galen leads them down the hallway into the main facility. Beside him, Sharon drinks in the bright light and comfortable temperature of the fully powered building. If she didn’t know better, she’d never believe a catastrophe had happened at all. It’s awe-inspiring… and a little unnerving.

“How many people work here?” she asks Galen.

“Over four hundred—and we don’t just work here. We live here too.” Galen directs them into yet another waiting room. This one is nicer, more of an executive anteroom than a dentist’s office. There’s a minifridge with drinks and a cabinet of snacks that make Sharon’s mouth water.

“Can we…?” she points at the food. “It’s been a while since breakfast.”

“Of course. Whatever you need.” Galen hesitates in the doorway. “You’re really immune?” he asks Fresler. At Fresler’s confused look, he adds, “Word travels fast in here.”

“I am.”

“Well. That’s…” Galen beams, waving a hand as he searches for words, “… really fantastic. Thank you for getting here.”

“I suppose it is… fantastic,” Fresler says when Galen lingers, seemingly expecting an answer. He takes the bottle of orange juice Sharon holds out to him and lifts it up to Galen, like a toast. “But you don’t have to thank me. There are so many others you should thank.”

Everyone’s low, excited chatter cuts off, replaced by reverent thoughts of Sean and Larry, dead and buried. Of John, still missing.

Galen grows somber, as if sensing the shift in the air, and backs into the hallway. “The director will be with you shortly.”

Fresler sighs, takes a swig of his juice, and licks his lips with a smile full of child-like glee.

He studies the label and says, “Hmm ... from concentrate.” He winks at Sharon. “Still delicious.”

In a matter of minutes, the coffee table is covered in snack wrappers and empty bottles. As the gang starts to clear their mess, an iron-haired man in a rumpled suit walks through the door. Despite his disheveled attire, he holds himself with an air of authority. He greets them with a warm smile, but the corners of his mouth tilt off balance. Sharon guesses that this is a man who hasn’t had much occasion to smile over the past few months. He’s out of practice.

“Hello,” he says. “My name is William Frieden. I’m the director of the CDC. I was told that one of you is responsible for your immunity.”

Fresler steps forward. “That would be me. My name is Fresler. And this is Sharon, Jackie, Benjamin, and Charles.”

William nods at each person in turn. “I never thought I would actually get the chance to meet one of you,” he says, turning back to Fresler. “How did you discover you were immune?”

“One of us?” Fresler asks. “Are there more immune people that you know of?”

William waves off the question. “We don’t know much at this time. But tell me about your experience.”

“I was bitten by a coyote a few weeks ago. The same coyote bit Tina’s brother, Sean.” When William’s brow furrows, he clarifies, “Tina is the member of our group who tested positive for the virus. She’s being treated by your people now.” At William’s nod, he goes on, “Sean contracted the virus from the coyote and died two weeks later. He and I were in quarantine together, and I never showed a single symptom. He died in my arms.”

Jackie clears her throat. “My daughter, Jennifer—she’s with Tina right now, keeping her company—contracted the virus recently. We—well, my husband—injected Fresler’s blood into her, and within four hours she was symptom-free.”

“And I was showing early symptoms, which also cleared up after an injection of Fresler’s blood,” Sharon chimes in.

“That’s remarkable,” says William with a look of starstruck adulation toward Fresler.

“How is this even possible?” asks Jackie.

“I’ve learned that with this thing, anything is possible,” says William.

“Thing?” says Sharon. “You mean virus?”

“Well, no,” William says. “This isn’t technically a virus. The people that put this thing in the probe call it a morphon.”

“Who put what in a probe?” Charles demands. “What the hell is a morphon?”

William shrugs. “Morphon is not a term that epidemiologists use. We’re not sure where it came from.”

“What did you mean by anything is possible?” Sharon frowns at William.

William pulls over a chair to sit, and the group forms a semi-circle around him. “Let me explain everything from the beginning. In July of 2017, an iceberg broke off from Antarctica’s fourth largest ice shelf, Larsen C. One week later, NASA’s Aqua satellite identified an object imbedded deep in the crack. It was pulled from the ice shelf and studied at the United States Amundsen Scott South Pole research station in Antarctica. That is when we discovered that the object was carrying this deadly morphon. We thought that we had at least eight years before the morphon would reach its first human host… but we were wrong. In the intervening years, we also learned that the object was not only carrying a deadly morphon, but also contained a message.”

“A message?” Fresler interrupts. “From who? What did it say?”

“And how did they get it deep inside an iceberg?” Sharon adds.

“The object the NASA satellite found was a probe,” replies William. “It was purposely placed in the ice shelf.”

“You mean someone created this virus?” says Sharon, voice going squeaky. “They wanted to kill billions of people?”

“Yes,” replies William without hesitation.

“Who would do such a thing?” Sharon turns to her friends, who look every bit as dumbfounded. Charles, however, has already started to move past shock into anger, judging by his scowl.

“We don’t know who they are. But whoever it was left a message, which told us there would be three individuals who are immune from the virus. The message said a vaccine could be developed from their blood. But it didn’t say who they were or how to locate them.”

“Why three?” barks Charles. “Why not a hundred or a thousand?”

“We have been wondering the same thing. We have no idea.”

“How could they possibly know I would be immune to their virus?” says Fresler, cringing. Sharon recognizes the expression; he’s fighting a headache. She’s starting to feel one herself.

“They must be somehow connected to you,” says William. “Think hard. Are there any people in your life who work in a field like immunology or viral studies?”

Fresler leans back in his chair and rubs his hands down his face. “No, nobody…” He wrinkles his nose. “I don’t understand. I’ve never met anyone like that, anyone so… so… evil.”

“Well.” William clears his throat. “We can figure out motives later.” He looks over at Fresler. “We’re testing your blood for anomalies. Hopefully, it will provide answers.”

Fresler sags in his chair. Sharon rubs his back, holding in a yawn. Her hold body aches for sleep.

“When will we have the results?” asks Sharon.

William stands up. “A couple of hours. Follow me to the cafeteria. I’m sure you’re all famished and need more than snack food.”

Charles smiles and says, “Cafeteria? Now you’re talking.”

William takes the lead down a carpeted hallway, and Sharon hurries to fall into step with the CDC director. “What’s going on with Tina?”

“We will inject her with Fresler’s blood, since that’s what worked on the rest of you. We’ll then monitor her closely, to see if we can determine a timeline for recovery. I’m sure she will be fine.”

“That’s great,” says Sharon. She licks her dry lips, gathering courage. “I did have one more question. How long did you say you’ve known—?”

Just then, Jackie catches William by the elbow. “Excuse me, sir. I know this is probably below your pay grade, but my husband… I believe he was captured by the Soldiers of Destiny. He left us last night, to draw the SODs away from the house where we were staying. He was going to meet us here, and he hasn’t. Is there anything you can do?”

William offers a close-lipped smile. “Yes, we will send out a couple of helicopters and Hummers to search the area. I’ll confirm with our head of security.”

“Thank you!” gushes Jackie, hand to her heart.

William flings open the double doors at the end of the hall, and the cafeteria welcomes them with an overwhelming selection of food. The long counters hold sandwiches, salads, baked goods, pizza, and pasta. There’s real coffee with real cream, and an assortment of sodas and juices. It takes a moment for the companions to regain their voices—all they can do is share goofy grins.

When the others finally regain their senses and split up to make their choices, Sharon hangs back, feeling queasy. She glances over at William, and then at the various CDC employees milling around the cafeteria. Everyone looks healthy, clean, well-fed, and well-rested. Not happy, necessarily, but comfortable. Safe.

Not like the rest of the country.

“It’s something, isn’t it,” Charles says, and Sharon startles. She hadn’t realized he was still beside her. “I’m going to go talk to him.” Charles points to William’s retreating back.

“Let me know what you find out?” Sharon asks.

Charles nods curtly. He catches up to William at the cafeteria door. “William, do you mind if I ask you a question?”

William stops walking and faces Charles. “What is it?”

“You mentioned that the probe with the… morphon was discovered back in 2017. Did our government know back then that the virus was dormant in freezing temperatures?”

William’s shoulders drop, and he rubs a hand across his mouth.

“Have a seat, Charles.” They sit together at the closest empty table. “Yes, we knew in July of 2017 how this whole scenario was likely to play out.”

Charles presses his face into his tented hands and shuts his eyes. After collecting himself, he looks up at William with a steely glare. “And our government did nothing? No warnings… nothing. My beautiful Mable died from this virus!”

After a false start, William clears his throat and says, “I’m so sorry, Charles.” He taps the table, avoiding Charles’ eyes. “But let me ask you something. If you had known back then that a pathogen with a one hundred percent fatality rate would be released on mankind in a few years, what would you have done?”

“I would have saved my wife. We would have gone to Antarctica.”

William sits back in his chair and nods. “Before you left for Antarctica, would you have wanted to stock up on supplies?”

“Of course. Food, water, medicine… the necessities.”

William sits up and leans in. “You wouldn’t have been alone. If the federal government had made an announcement about the deadly virus, millions of people would have panicked. They would have made efforts to stock up on supplies. And the millions of people that weren’t able to stock up would have been left with nothing. Those people would have had no way to feed their family. No medical supplies. There would have been riots. Society would have broken down immediately.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“We are not simply guessing at what would have happened. We have been studying human behavior for centuries.” William lays his elbows on the table, and combs his fingers through his hair. “There were over eight billion humans on this planet before the pandemic. Do you think you’re alone in wanting to travel somewhere safe, like Antarctica? How many billions would have tried to migrate to a continent with few resources and little infrastructure?”

“I see your point about traveling to Antarctica, but…” Charles slams the table with his right hand. “What about this building?” He knots his left hand into a fist, digging his nails into his palm to distract himself from the agony inside his chest. Over and over, a voice inside hisses, “They could have saved her.”

William has the grace to look slightly ashamed as he replies, “What about it?”

“Why couldn’t our federal government have built more like it? It would have saved millions… maybe my Mable. They had over five years. They should have built more facilities like this.” He gestures wildly at the stocked cafeteria, the working electricity and technology, the people walking around healthy and respirator-free.

“It’s true,” William admits. “The government could have built more safe-houses like ours, and that would have saved lives. Possibly a million lives could have been saved. But there was no way to build enough facilities to save everyone in this country, and how do you decide who lives and who dies?”

Charles shrugs without really thinking, his mind feverish. “A lottery?” he says, choking down the bitter taste in his mouth.

“Imagine holding a lottery… a life or death lottery. There were approximately three hundred and twenty-six million people living in this country before the pandemic, and you would want to hold a lottery to save… maybe a million. How do you think the three hundred and twenty-five million who were not selected would react?”

Charles sighs. He looks over his shoulder and sees Sharon watching him. He knows these answers aren’t what Sharon wants to hear, but he concedes to William, “I see your point.”

“Charles, it’s possible that more lives could have been saved had I disobeyed orders and warned the public of the coming pandemic threat. I have agonized over my decision, but this is the conclusion I have had to reach: there is nothing I can do now but move forward.”

Fresler sits at a free table, staring at his food. He can’t seem to muster up an appetite, despite how amazing everything looks and smells. Beside him, Jackie is pulling apart a sandwich and Sharon nurses a cup of coffee without ever bringing it to her lips.

“What is it?” Sharon asks Fresler softly, glancing down at his stacked plate. “Is it the test results?” He nods, and she squeezes his hand. “It will be okay. No matter what the results say, I will always love you.”

Fresler manages a small smile. “I love you too.”

“And I know that however you’re connected to whoever unleashed this virus,” Sharon goes on, “it’s not your fault.” She nudges Fresler’s plate closer. “So, eat something, okay?”

He takes a bite, and she smiles. She loves feeding people. It’s yet another trait she inherited from her grandma.

Charles joins their table, sitting next to Jackie. Sharon meets his eyes, and he gives her a subtle shake of his head. She understands. They’ll talk later, in private.

“What were you asking William about?” asks Jackie.

Why they didn’t let us know sooner, Charles thinks. If this whole apocalypse could have been avoided. If more people could have been saved. But he doesn’t say any of that out loud. Jackie has bigger concerns right now, with John missing. So does Fresler, with his mysterious link to the global pandemic.

“Nothing important,” Charles says. When Jackie raises an eyebrow, he adds, “I wanted to know if they have any movies here. I’m in the mood for a classic. Something like Sound of Music.”

Jackie rolls her eyes, but doesn’t question him, because Jennifer has just walked through the cafeteria door. She thanks the technician who’s escorting her, and then comes over to the group’s table.

“How’s Tina?” Fresler asks.

“She’s good. She’s had the injection. Her doctors asked me to come back later, so she can rest. I was starving, so I said okay.” She looks around the room, wide-eyed. “Can we really have anything we want from in here?” She doesn’t wait for the answer, running off to fill a plate.

Jackie manages to finish her food, but unlike Jennifer and Charles, she can’t bring herself to go back for seconds. Her stomach is in knots. The minutes tick by, but Jackie is under the distinct impression the second hand is slow, like it’s moving through water behind the glass. Two hours later, and still no news about John. Jackie starts to doze, using her folded arms as a pillow on the table, but she can’t fall asleep. She watches Fresler and Jennifer reading books they found on a shelf in the corner of the room—a mystery for him and a love story for her. Benjamin is snoozing in Sharon’s lap. Jackie’s eyes flicker open and closed. Her heart is beating too fast to relax.

“Jackie, can I talk with you alone?” says a man’s voice behind her, making her bolt upright.

Jackie whirls to find William waiting with a stoic expression, and her heart drops into her gut. She asks Jennifer to stay with the others and stands up to follow William into the hallway.

When they reach the front entrance, William turns to Jackie with hands folded in front of his hips. “We haven’t been able to locate your husband, but one of our soldiers did find this, near the residential area you were telling us about.” He reaches behind the counter and pulls out a backpack. John’s backpack.

Jackie covers her mouth. He would never have gone off without it. Those images return, pummeling her heart from every angle. John bound and bleeding. John dead in a ditch, his limbs spread-eagled.

“We’re going to keep looking for John,” says William, ducking his head to meet her wandering eye. “He helped bring Fresler to us. We’ll do our best to help him in return.”

Jackie bobs her head, fighting against the grief prematurely coiling around her organs. “Thanks,” she croaks.

As Jackie heads back to the cafeteria, she decides not to tell Jennifer or the group about the backpack. Not until she gets more information. She isn’t giving up hope until she’s sure.

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