It’s noon, and everyone is in the cafeteria except for Benjamin, who is napping in Tina’s room.
From his vantage point at the end of the table, Fresler is the first one to see William walking toward them down the long hallway that leads to the main entrance. Beside Fresler, Jackie is sitting in silence, staring at her untouched spaghetti with glossy eyes. Fresler glances at her to see if she’s noticed William’s approach, and as he does, her head slowly turns, as if she sensed the CDC director’s presence. Her eyes widen at the solemn expression on William’s face. The hand holding her fork begins to shake, and she covers her mouth with her other hand.
“No,” she whispers, the tears already falling.
Fresler puts his hand over hers. He sees it, too, in William’s face. There are no words, so Fresler sits straight as a sentry beside her, hoping she knows she is not alone in her grief, hoping that fact brings some ounce of comfort.
Charles and Sharon are the next to look up. They’ve been discussing Fresler’s blood test, but now they fall silent. Tina and Jennifer’s whispered conversation, rife with giggles, cuts off the moment Jennifer’s eyes flick her mother’s way. Tina puts her arm around Jennifer’s shoulders. As William stops at the end of the table, the air leaves the room.
“Jackie, can I talk with you alone?” says William.
“Is it about John?” Jackie’s voice cracks on his name.
William lowers his head. “Yes.”
Jackie locks eyes with Fresler, then repeats his own words back to him. “Whatever it is, you can say it in front of the group. They’re family.”
Fresler’s throat closes, but he offers her the tiniest of smiles.
“All right, Jackie.” William takes a deep breath. “Our soldiers found… a body. It was about two miles from the perimeter. I need you to come with me to identify it.”
Jennifer lets out a strangled sob. Jackie slowly pushes to her feet. She and Jennifer run to each other, colliding in a desperate embrace, each of them burying their fingers in each other’s clothes, as if struggling to stay upright on their own.
“We’ll all come with you,” Sharon says, “if you want us to.” Jackie manages to nod, and everyone else stands.
The sight of them rising to her aid lifts a shred of weight off Jackie’s chest, and she is able to get one foot in front of the other. She holds Jennifer’s hand as William walks them to the main entrance. Jackie thinks to herself, This is the longest walk of my life.
William approaches one of the soldiers guarding the door to the sanitization area and asks him if they have finished preparing the body for viewing.
The soldier murmurs something Jackie can’t hear, but William turns back to her with a nod. “They’re ready for us.”
Jackie can’t catch her breath. Her whole-body aches with a pain beyond the physical, while her mind goes icy numb.
She can hear the others’ footsteps behind her and Jennifer, but they sound far away. She feels like a ghost drifting inside the sanitization room. A gurney waits in the middle of an otherwise empty, windowless space. The body is completely covered by a plastic body bag. The flickering fluorescent fixture overhead makes bits of the bag seem to move.
William walks over to the gurney and glances at Jackie. “Are you ready?”
No, she thinks. But with Jennifer by her side, squeezing her hand, she puts on her brave face. “Yes,” she manages to croak.
William unzips the body bag, and Jackie’s legs betray her. Her knees strike the ground, but she hardly feels the bolts of pain in her legs. That pain is nothing. She clutches her chest, expecting to feel the warm gush of blood, the solidity of bone. She’s been ripped open. Yet, only fabric rubs against her fingers. She tips over, her forehead kissing the cold tile floor.
“No!” Jennifer’s scream rips through the room and stabs into Jackie’s brain like a blade.
Jackie tries to rise, tries to hold her sobbing baby, but she can’t even lift her head. She turns it instead and sees Tina gathering Jennifer into her arms. Sharon bends down next to Jackie and wraps her in warmth.
Fresler staggers forward to stand alone right beside the gurney. He stares at John’s dead body, his bald scalp, and the heart-shaped birthmark that makes his identity undeniable. He cannot cry. He supposes this is shock, this hollowness. John risked his life for the group. He fought all their battles, saved them dozens of times. Now he’s gone.
The injustice brought upon this hero of men at the hands of crazed fanatics stirs something monstrous deep in Fresler’s guts. He wants to kill all of them. The rage burns, as if spewed from the mouth of a dragon that had lain dormant inside him. It leaves him shaking, his fists and teeth clenched tight enough to draw specks of blood from his gums and palms.
On the floor, the blood rushes back to Jackie’s head, and she regains the strength in her legs. With Sharon’s help, she pushes to her feet so she can look at John one last time.
“Can Jennifer and I be alone with him?” she asks William and the others.
“Of course,” William says with all the reverence of a funeral director. He ushers Charles, Tina, Sharon, and Fresler to the door. The guards and the sanitization technician follow.
Jackie pulls Jennifer to her side. Together, they step closer to John. “He loved you so much,” Jackie tells Jennifer. Her daughter is crying too hard to respond with words, but she nods.
Jackie stares at John’s left temple. The heart-shaped birthmark that she kissed so many times before sparks a flood of memories. Her mouth meeting his for the first time on the dance floor created in their high school gymnasium. The agony of watching him walk through the flight gate, leaving for his for his first tour of duty, and the pure joy when he returned with a ring in his hand and love that could end wars in his eyes. The day they walked hand-in-hand in the neighborhood park, and she told him they were pregnant. And each day thereafter… raising their beautiful daughter together. Twenty-five wonderful years of falling asleep and waking up next to the love of her life, not knowing what adventure awaited. It has all come to an end.
All Jackie can do is say goodbye in her own way… her special way. She closes her eyes and slowly bends to kiss his birthmark gently, one last time.
Later that evening, Jackie asks William if the group can hold a service for John.
“Absolutely,” says William without even taking a breath. “We have a prayer room that you can use.”
“Thank you. I would like to hold the service as soon as possible.”
William inclines his head. “Don’t worry about a thing. I will make the arrangements.”
Within the hour, the group is gathered in the prayer room. There is an altar at the front, facing several rows of foldout chairs. It’s a small space, but it is big enough for their modest group of mourners. There’s no casket or urn. John’s body will be buried on the premises without ever entering the main building.
Jackie and Jennifer sit together in the front row, with the others directly behind them. In the back of the room, William is speaking quietly with the minister who will be giving the eulogy. The man is also a researcher employed by the CDC and is taking a break from his regular shift in the lab to lead the service.
As they are waiting for the minister to walk up to the altar, Jackie explains the ceremony in a whisper to Sharon. “After the service, there will be a traditional military ceremony at the burial site. The third infantry arranged everything in honor of John’s service in the army.” Jackie is dry-eyed, her tone strangely calm.
Sharon does her best to follow Jackie’s lead and keep her own composure. “That’s great, Jackie,” she says, squeezing her friend’s shoulder.
Jackie almost manages to smile. Almost. “John would have been proud.”
The minister makes his way to the altar. He turns to the group and begins his speech. He talks about how important it is to celebrate John’s life and how he is in a better place now.
Fresler hears a watery hiccup and turns to find Tina crying beside him. He pats his pockets for something to offer as a tissue and comes up empty. He can’t help but think of Sean and Larry and how much he misses them. With heart-stopping suddenness, he realizes that both Larry and John sacrificed their lives for him. It’s my fault they’re both dead. He digs his fingers into his thighs to hold back the cry of anguish that rises to the tip of his tongue. The guilt is horrendous and nauseating. Fresler has left so much death in his wake, these past few months. He buries his head in his hands.
After the minister finishes the eulogy, he asks if anyone would like to say a few words. For a moment, no one moves or speaks. Then Tina raises her hand. After glancing at Jackie and Jennifer to make sure it’s all right that she goes first, Tina walks up to the altar. Her shoes feel like they’re made of lead, but she forces each one in front of the other for John.
“I keep thinking of the day I got lost looking for firewood,” Tina says. “I thought that I was going to die alone. The snow was so thick, I didn’t think anyone would ever find me. Then something amazing happened. This… hero came to my rescue. He wasn’t mad at me for getting lost and putting his life at risk. Instead, he comforted me. He told me that everything would be okay.” Tina bites the inside of her trembling lower lip. “That wasn’t the only time he saved me. He carried me away from the claws of a mountain lion. He saved us all from lunatics.” She sucks in her cheeks and wipes a tear. “But that’s what John did. He saved people. He sacrificed himself for all of us to make it here. He’s my hero, and I’m going to miss him.” She walks back to her chair, feeling as though she’s just spoken for Sean and Larry as well.
Fresler stands up and makes his way to the front. He studies a back corner of the room and takes a deep breath. “When I first met John, I didn’t know what to think of him. I knew we would never have been friends if it weren’t for this pandemic, but I guess there was one good thing that came from all this… my friendship with John, and with all of you.” Fresler blinks the tears from his blurry eyes. “I’m so grateful that John was a part of my life, even if it was only for a few weeks. I learned some valuable lessons from him. He taught me that sometimes we have to sacrifice ourselves, because there are some things more important than just our own lives. At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant by that, but now I do. I think there are things that John did, that… he struggled with emotionally. That went against his true nature. But he felt like he had no other choice. He gave everything he had for Jackie and Jennifer… and for this vaccine. He is the ultimate hero. I’m going to miss my friend.”
Before Fresler can reach his seat, Jackie catches him in a tight hug at the end of the aisle.
“Would the family like to say a few words?” the minister asks. Jackie shakes her head no with a tissue pressed hard against her trembling mouth, but Jennifer makes her way to the altar.
“My dad wasn’t perfect,” she begins, voice strained with the effort to steady her breathing. “But I never doubted that he loved me. I spent a lot of this past year really angry with him. I didn’t think he understood me or cared about my feelings, but I was wrong.” The tears cascade toward her neck, but she rubs them away fiercely and powers on. “He recently told me that… all the hours he spent with me in the backyard to help me become a better volleyball player… wasn’t because he was desperate to see me improve… it was because he…” She stops to regain her composure. “He just wanted to spend time with me.” Jennifer puts her hand over her face and starts to sob. Jackie flies to her side to lead her back to their seats, offering a shoulder for Jennifer to cry on.