For Valentine’s Day, Fresler gathers a small bouquet of Minnesota cactus flowers. He places the happy, bright-yellow blossoms in a vase, along with a handmade card, on the antique wooden side table by their bed, for Sharon to see when she wakes up.
Before the virus, Fresler would have planned a special day. Maybe a trip south to the nearest city, for a movie or a meal on the town. He’d have found the sweetest card at the local Walgreens, one sure to make Sharon tear up through a smile. But now he has to improvise, as with every aspect of their lives since reality turned upside-down.
The best surprise he can manage is breakfast in bed. Sharon is usually in charge of their meals for good reason, but Fresler does have a few tricks he can whip out for special occasions. He collects a few potatoes and carrots from the greenhouse and chops them up to serve with the leftover fish from last night’s dinner. He measures out the instant coffee to do a pour-over and gets two mugs. He’s working on getting the stove lit, which requires kerosene he rigged up to the stove and matches that are now running low, when Sharon sneaks up behind him to wrap her arms around his waist.
“Thank you for the flowers.” She kisses the nape of his neck.
He smiles over his shoulder. “Of course. I want you to always know how lucky I am to have you.”
She shakes her head and rises up on her tiptoes to kiss his lips. “I’m the lucky one,” she whispers. “You’re the sweetest, most giving man I’ve ever known.” A little half-smile tugs at her mouth. “Who knew when I asked out that skinny, awkward guy at church who was always staring at me, it’d be the best move I ever made?”
“I’m glad you had the courage to say something.” Fresler laughs. “I never would have. Though I was definitely checking you out,” he adds with a grin. He leans down to make the long trip to her mouth. As she stands on tip toe to loop her arms around his neck, fingers playing at the hair pulled up at the back of his neck, he forgets all about the stove and breakfast. The coffee isn’t going anywhere. They can eat later.
Several hours later, Fresler leans back in his comfortable foldout chair, perched on a large, flat boulder right by the river’s edge. He loves the view of the river’s rushing water, chasing itself over rocks as it tumbles downstream. Some people might prefer the sound of ocean waves on a shoreline, but Fresler has always been a riverman. The calming babble created by the steady, constant movement eases his soul. Amid all the death and chaos, the river flows onward, unbroken, untroubled. It is a reliable life source in a world gone mad.
He’s been spending more and more time in his foldout chair, packing on the layers to protect himself from the freezing air and the damp of the falling snow. He carries an umbrella when the weather turns to sleet or rain, and tucks sunglasses in his coat pocket for those rare days when the sun’s rays hit the water and the drifts of snow just right, turning the whole landscape blindingly bright. He’s lived through plenty of bitter winters, first growing up in Norway and now living in Minnesota. He knows how to take care of himself outdoors. Though he hates to leave Sharon alone in the cabin for too long, knowing she’s grieving not only for her family but also for the world they’ve lost, Fresler needs this time and this space. He needs to stare into the river, so he doesn’t lose himself to despair. What good would he be to Sharon then?
Across the river, a flash of dark brown against the white snow makes him jerk upright in his chair. It’s something big—a moose, maybe—but it’s lost behind the trees in an instant. It’s been a few days since Fresler has seen wildlife other than the fish he spends his days catching, and the hairs on his neck rise. The logical part of his brain knows that this animal isn’t infected. It can’t be; it’s out in broad daylight. That’s how he knows the fish he catches are safe, as well. If they don’t shrink away from the sunlight, they aren’t carriers.
But the muscle memory of his first encounter with an infected animal leaves his body spring-loaded. It was an owl, of all things. Fresler hiked to one of their neighbors’ cabins to deliver some of Sharon’s canned vegetables, and he didn’t quite make it home by sundown. He crossed onto his property as dusk turned to dark, and he heard a screech that set his teeth on edge. As he instinctively took off at a full sprint, he looked over his shoulder to see the bird swooping in with talons groping for his face, its shadow blocking out the moon. Fresler ducked into the cabin mere seconds before the owl slammed into the front door, leaving beak and claw divots deep in the wood. The next morning, he found its stiff, frozen corpse on his porch, its beak a crooked, bloody ruin and one eye dangling loose. He carefully wrapped the once beautiful bird in a tarp from his shed and dug a shallow grave at the tree line, hoping that burying the animal in the cold earth would be enough to keep the virus at bay.
There haven’t been too many infected animals this far north, but more are bound to be migrating with every passing day. Now, Fresler stares as the moose’s wide antlers clear it a path through the trees. It moves without any urgency, scraping a hoof through the snow to check for sprouts beneath. Fresler’s white-knuckled grip on his chair wanes, but still he wonders if the next time he sees the creature, it will have its antlers lowered as it charges through the trees with the crushing power of an SUV, hell-bent on spilling human blood.
Fresler forcibly pulls his mind back from wandering down more dismal paths as the moose vanishes into the woods. Instead, he turns his thoughts to his father, who has always loved the majestic beasts. Despite his best intentions for cheerier inner dialogues, he wonders if his parents have seen any infected animals. He hopes not. He hopes that wherever they are, they’re protected and safe.
Footsteps crunch along the snowy path behind him. Fresler turns to greet Sharon with a smile.
“Any luck?” she asks, nodding toward the series of fishing poles he’s propped up in the riverbank beside his chair, where he can easily catch them if any line bows with a bite. “I was hoping we could have fresh fish for dinner to celebrate Valentine’s Day.”
Fresler gestures farther upstream to the icebox he brought out with him, filled with snow and now packed with his catches of the day. “As it turns out, I caught two channel catfish. They look like they’re around four pounds each; should make a good dinner, if we’ve got anything from the greenhouse we can toss in.”
“That’s great!” Sharon’s eyes gleam with now-rare excitement. “I can cook up some collard greens, and we should really use the last of those beans you got from the Normans when you visited last week…” She fades off when Fresler can’t summon a matching grin. She crouches next to his chair and rubs a gloved hand over his arm. “Everything okay?”
“Just thinking about my parents. I wish there were a way to communicate with them.” Fresler shuts out the river for a moment. With his eyes closed, the sharp scent of snow in the air, and the whisper of the rustling pine branches reaching him over the chatter of the river, he can almost imagine he’s halfway around the world. He visualizes himself on his parents’ home property in Oslo, waiting for his mother to stick her head out of the house and yell for him to come inside and eat.
“Oslo is well above the temperate zone, Fresler,” Sharon says, her gentle voice pulling him back to the riverbank. “It won’t warm up to over freezing there for weeks yet. I’m sure they’re doing just fine. Besides, you know your dad. He’s even more of a crazy survivalist than you are. Where do you think you get it from?”
Fresler barks out a laugh, picturing his dad’s basement stock of canned goods. Sharon’s right; his parents are prepared for situations like these, just like he and Sharon were. There was a stockpile of non-perishable foods at this cabin before Fresler even moved in full-time. He nods, reassured for now.
But he can still remember the day they received the call from Sharon’s aunt in Sacramento, back when the thought of losing phone service hadn’t even crossed their minds.
“I am so sorry. There was nothing we could do to save them,” was all she managed to say, but those few words brought Sharon to her knees.
Her parents were among the first wave of people to die from the disease. Fresler feels guilty for worrying about his own family now. At least he has hope. At least there’s a possibility his parents are all right. Sharon’s are gone. And she never had the chance to say goodbye to them in person either. It was too dangerous to visit.
If she’d been home in Sacramento during the first wave, she’d be dead now too.
Fresler pulls Sharon into his lap for a tight hug. “I’ll give it another hour, if you don’t mind,” he says, motioning toward the fishing rods. “Maybe I can catch a couple more before dark.” It’s not a lie—they can always use more food. But he’s also craving a little more time alone with his thoughts.
Sharon pats his back, scoops up the icebox, and trudges back toward the cabin to start preparing dinner.
The hour passes slowly. Even with his big red winter parka on, the cold has started to seep into Fresler’s bones. He stands and stomps a few times, rubbing his hands together and rolling his shoulders to get his blood flowing.
Before he can turn toward the cabin, the snap of a fallen branch across the river makes him bend at the knees, like a mouse hunkering lower in the grass beneath the gaze of a cat.
His first thought is that the moose has returned. He squints through the trees, but sees no signs of the moose’s telltale dark coat. Could there be another animal out there, one with better winter camouflage? It’s late afternoon—has he entered the danger zone, where an infected, abnormally violent animal might venture out to hunt?
Fresler reaches for the hunting knife he carries on his belt whenever he leaves the house. He draws it slowly, poised to run first but fight if he must.
A shape moves into view, and the swatch of bright orange drives thoughts of animals from his mind. Long legs encased in jeans part the snow; a gloved hand moves a sticky branch aside…
A person! No—three people! He hasn’t seen anyone else in days—not since the last of their neighbors headed north almost a week ago. Fresler relaxes, tucking his hunting knife away and then lifting a hand in a welcoming wave.
One of them, a tall black man, waves in return. “We need some help!” he shouts, and Fresler jumps into action. As he jogs closer, he can see the woman he thought was holding the man’s hand is actually leaning her full weight against him, her face ashen and marred by a grimace of pain. Though her pronounced limp tilts her to the left and her head only reaches her partner’s clavicle, she’s still rather tall for a woman. Behind them trudges a teenaged girl with willowy legs. Their daughter, judging by the family resemblance. The girl has her father’s long legs, but her mother’s large, dark eyes and bowed mouth, the bottom lip fuller than the top to create a modelesque pout.
“Hey there,” Fresler says when he’s close enough to speak without yelling. “What happened?”
“She fell down a hill about half an hour ago. I think her ankle’s broken.” The man tucks his shoulder farther under the woman’s armpit. “You’re the first person we came across.” He squints past Fresler at the cabin. “We need to find a place to spend the night before it gets dark.”
“You’re more than welcome to stay with us,” he says cheerily, thrilled by the idea of company. He’s sure Sharon will feel the same. There are so few people left these days; new voices around the table are a welcome treat.
He approaches the woman’s other side, arm extended as he says, “May I?”
The woman nods, and Fresler wraps an arm around her waist to lighten the load on her ankle and her husband’s back.
“Where are you headed?” he asks as they shuffle toward the house, the teenager taking the lead.
The father, who looks to be in his mid-forties, or at least a few good years older than Fresler, answers for them all. “We’re headed to Canada.”
“At least, we were,” the woman murmurs around a grimace of pain. “Before I had to go and get myself hurt.”
“Hey,” the man rubs his hand over his wife’s shoulder, “this isn’t your fault. We’ll still get to Canada. I promise.” His baritone has a soothing quality that even Fresler feels, and the woman cracks a soft smile.
“My name is John Williams,” the man says, looking over the woman’s head at Fresler. “This is my wife, Jackie, and our daughter, Jennifer.”
“Pleasure to meet you.” Fresler nods at both John and Jackie, but Jennifer doesn’t look his way. She stares at her feet as she walks, arms wrapped tight around herself. He figures she must be shy. “I’m Fresler. Let me take you up to the cabin so I can introduce you to my girlfriend, Sharon. We’ll take a look at that ankle and get you settled in for the night.”
“Thanks, Fresler,” John says.
“Thanks,” Jackie echoes, hissing through her teeth as she puts too much weight on her foot.
The thin trail of smoke coming from the cabin’s chimney acts as a cheery beacon, and when they reach the top of the hill, Fresler detects the scent of fresh fish cooking in herbs and spices. Fresler hopes Sharon made enough for guests. He caught enough fish for five, but Sharon may have only harvested a meal for two from the greenhouse. Then again, Sharon usually plans for her meals to yield containers of leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.
Fresler kicks his boots oﬀ outside, and John and Jennifer follow suit. Fresler opens the door and sticks his head in. “Sharon, I’ve found some company.”
Sharon turns around from the stove, blinking with surprise. He watches the uncertainty flash across her face: What if they’re infected? But after taking a second to collect herself, she smiles and hurries out of the kitchen. “Oh, how great to meet you,” she says earnestly as Fresler introduces her to each family member in turn. “I hope Fresler invited you to stay with us tonight. It’s getting late, and you don’t want to be hiking after dark.”
“Yes, Fresler was kind enough to invite us to spend the night,” says Jackie. Her smile is grateful, but the strain around the eyes reflects her discomfort. “Can I do anything to help?”
“Before we do anything else, we need to get your ankle wrapped,” John says.
“Oh!” Sharon exclaims, taking in Jackie’s injured foot hovering an inch off the wood floor. “Well, we have a first-aid kit in the bathroom. There should be a bandage in there, but if you need a splint…?” She looks to Fresler.
“I can cut some wood for a splint and crutch,” he says.
John nods curtly and helps Jackie to the bathroom to remove her boot. “Jennifer,” he says over his shoulder. “Help Sharon with dinner.”
The teenager sighs deeply, but follows Sharon into the kitchen. She tosses back her hood and removes her earmuffs to reveal a high ponytail made of hundreds of tiny, pristine braids. Sharon sets her up at the sink with a strainer to rinse collard greens.
Fresler follows John and Jackie to the bathroom. John has Jackie’s leg propped on his knee; his hand braced on the heel of the boot. Fresler rushes forward to support her leg while John gently removes her boot and sock. Her ankle is puffy and bruised, but when John palpates it and tests the range of motion, he seems relieved. “I don’t think it’s broken after all. Just a bad sprain.”
“Thank goodness. Now we won’t lose too much time getting to Canada.” Jackie turns to Fresler. “It’s safe there, you know.”
Fresler nods, although he wonders whether they are aware that eventually, the temperatures will rise in Canada, too. He doesn’t bring it up. Not while Jackie is gasping in fresh pain as John lowers her sprained ankle.
“I’ll go get a splint together,” he says, and heads outside.
When he returns with the wood, Jackie sits at the dining table, right foot wrapped in a bandage and propped up on a chair. Sharon has set her up with a cutting board and some vegetables for a salad. Jennifer has finished washing the greens and now sits at the table across from her mom, eyes glued to the table.
“So where are you from?” Sharon asks, turning the fish in the frying pan.
“We’re from Kentucky originally. We own… owned a home near Louisville.” Jackie’s voice catches in her throat as she corrects herself.
Sharon frowns in sympathy. “How did you survive the initial outbreak? Aren’t the temperatures in Kentucky well above freezing?”
“Yes, but John was taking time oﬀ from work to paint the house. We were all at home when the virus struck. Luckily for us, the size of our farm kept us somewhat isolated. Enough to where we were able to avoid contact with anyone else in those first few horrible weeks. We were also able to get our hands on some survival gear—respirator masks, travel supplies…” Jackie pauses her chopping and stares at the veggies without seeing them, lost in memory. Shaking herself out of it, she clears her throat. “What about you and Fresler?”
“We’ve been living together in this cabin for the last two years, so we weren’t in much danger. It’s so cold here, not to mention this is a sparsely populated area to begin with.” Sharon shrugs one shoulder. “Lucky break. All twenty of us in the area survived. But everyone except us has already trekked north to Canada, like you all are doing.”
“So, you were living here in 2021?” Jackie asks. “During all the solar flares and CMEs?”
Almost two years before the virus struck, a series of solar storms had caused worldwide power outages and communication disruptions. At the time, most people had thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe. They were wrong.
“Yeah,” Sharon answers. “We were without power for six months. But it isn’t that diﬃcult to survive here without power. We have a good setup for emergencies. Back then, we had generators ready to go, a well for water, and plenty of food and supplies. Fresler was able to equip the greenhouse with solar panels, too, so we could keep the garden growing while the electrical grid was repaired after the flares. Those solar panels have been invaluable in the past six weeks.”
“I can imagine,” Jackie says, looking at the fresh cucumbers and tomatoes on her cutting board with amazement. “So, few people were prepared. Not for the CMEs, and definitely not for this. It’s been absolutely devastating.”
Sharon nods at her frying pan as the mood in the kitchen turns somber. “Billions have died. We’re the lucky ones.”
After splinting Jackie’s ankle, John and Fresler head outside to chop extra firewood before nightfall. Fresler retrieves his axe from the storage shed and heads to his chopping stump. John studies Fresler as he sets his feet and bends his knees. With a firm grip, Fresler swings his axe at the twenty-inch log balanced upright in the middle of the chopping block.
A direct hit splits it in two halves that tumble into the snow.
“Nice,” says John, bending to gather the pieces into a pile out of the way. “Don’t you have a maul?”
Fresler shakes his head as he places a new piece of wood. “No, just this splitting axe.”
“How many times does your axe get stuck in the log?”
Fresler shrugs. “Not too often, since the wood is basically frozen. It makes splitting much easier.”
“Makes sense. Still… you have to be fairly accurate. Splitting wood is a little like swinging a golf club, don’t you think?”
Fresler chuckles. He’s not much of a golfer. “How’s that?”
“You swing too hard and you lose accuracy… you shank your shot. If you don’t swing hard enough, then you don’t get the yardage you need. Same thing applies to splitting wood. Swing too hard and you won’t hit your target, and if you don’t swing hard enough, you won’t split the wood. Your axe will get stuck.”
“True, I guess.” Fresler can hear the stunted hesitation in his words. He hasn’t had to practice small talk or carry a conversation with a new personality in too long. John’s steady chatter is slowly starting up gears in his head that have begun to rust from disuse.
“My dad always preached balance,” John goes on. “The key to a successful life… is balance.”
Fresler raises his eyebrows. “Balance?”
“You don’t want to swing too hard or too soft: balance. It applies to just about everything in life. Striking that perfect balance in your life is so important. You don’t want to work too hard or play too hard.” John watches Fresler as he takes a sip from his water bottle. He points to it and says, “It can even apply to drinking water.”
Fresler smiles, leaning his weight on his axe. “How does it apply to drinking water?”
“If you don’t drink enough water… you die. If you drink too much water… you die. You need to strike that perfect balance.”
Fresler tilts his head. “How exactly do you die from drinking too much water?”
“Water intoxication. If you drink too much water, your body’s normal balance of electrolytes is pushed outside safe limits. It’s rare, but it can happen.”
Fresler raises a finger off his axe handle. “I do remember hearing about a woman who died from water intoxication. She was competing in a radio station’s on-air water-drinking contest.” With a second skillful swing, he slices the next piece of wood in perfect halves.
As John bends to gather it, Fresler asks, “So, Canada. What settlement are you headed to?”
“You taking the train from Winnipeg?”
“We were hoping to cross the Rainy River around Baudette, and from there take the bus to Winnipeg.”
Fresler lets out a low whistle. “Baudette is around fifty miles from here. That’s a long hike, especially with Jackie injured. I wish we could oﬀer transportation, but we’ve been without a car for over a week now. Ours died when I was helping some elderly neighbors gather supplies to head north. I had to leave it and hike home.”
“I understand,” John says, although he looks disappointed. “Hopefully we’ll find an abandoned car along Route 11. Otherwise it will take us about a week to hike there. If not longer, with Jackie’s ankle.”
John finally falls silent. Though he thought his overly taxed mind would welcome the quiet, Fresler finds the whoosh and plunk of the ax disconcerting. John’s worry is palpable, and it sets Fresler on edge.
When John speaks again, his voice is lower and harder. “I don’t know how much you know about what’s been happening in the rest of the country, since you’ve been holed up here in your little fairy-tale cabin, but everything shut down right after the initial outbreak. Airports, train stations, and even bus stations. Those of us that survived were on our own. Every gas station you found was already tapped out. On our way here, we saw quite a few people stranded on the side of the road. You run out of gas or your car breaks down… you’re screwed.” His dry chuckle stands Fresler’s hair on end. “It’s not like you can call for a tow.”
“That’s about what we figured, from listening to the radio.” Fresler swivels his tongue around to lubricate is dry mouth, avoiding eye contact with John. “But in Canada, they still have emergency train and bus service—thank God. Otherwise, there would be no way to get to Prudhoe Bay. It’s over three thousand miles from here.”
“We’ve already come a long way,” John says, and Fresler feels the distance in the other man’s weary sigh. “What’s another three thousand miles?”
With the firewood collected and the afternoon light fading fast, Fresler and John come inside. They don’t want to take any chances with the sun about to set. The infected animals will already be stirring in their hiding places. “Did you see any animal attacks on your way here?” Fresler asks John.
“Some,” John grunts, but doesn’t elaborate. He removes his ski cap, revealing a clean-shaven scalp, to Fresler’s surprise. He can barely keep his own beard under control, and he hasn’t been hiking through the wilderness. As John takes off his jacket and gloves by the fireplace and warms his hands, Fresler also notices a birthmark just above John’s left temple. Fresler squints to make out the shape. It’s an almost perfect heart—an overtly adorable symbol that seems absurd and cartoonish in the same room that the radio and its stream of endless bad news resides.
Sharon is in the kitchen, smiling at Jackie. Fresler stares openly at the beauty of that grin. She hasn’t smiled much lately, not like this, and he has missed it. He’s glad she and Jackie seem to have hit it off right away. Sharon has always gotten lonely here during the winters, but it’s far worse now, since their neighbors left.
Sharon laughs at something Jackie says, and nudges Jennifer. The teenaged girl barely smirks, but that reaction doesn’t dim Sharon’s joy in the slightest. Fresler fixates on her brown eyes. When she’s truly happy, they expand, catching light in their dark centers like little treasure troves of joy that she beams back into the world. Fresler’s father always told him eyes are the window to a woman’s soul. If that’s true, Fresler thinks, there’s nobody as compassionate and loving as his Sharon.
Jackie says something to Jennifer, who stands and grabs a pile of plates. She passes in front of Fresler on her way to the dining table, but his greeting garners only a sullen, sideways glance.
Teenagers, Fresler thinks. Then again, he doesn’t know what she’s been through to get here. She could have seen a lot more than anyone her age deserves to have seen.
The group squeezes around the narrow dining room table, which is really only built for four. John says a quick prayer before they eat.
As they dig in, Jackie looks over at Fresler. “We really appreciate you taking us in. Most people are so afraid to let anyone in their home, especially these days.”
“It’s our pleasure. Never mind that you needed help and first-aid—the truth is, we love the company.”
Fresler feels Sharon’s look before he turns to catch it. The smile is gone, replaced by that wary, haunted expression she often wears now. He knows what Jackie’s reminder has stirred within her. The same fears live within him, too, unspoken and only internally acknowledged when forced into the forefront of his mind: What if they were infected? What would he have done if they had been infected? Would he have barricaded the door? Would he have left them outside to die?
No, he doesn’t think he is capable of that. He’s glad he hasn’t yet had to find out.
“Have you been listening to the CDC broadcasts?” John asks through a mouthful of fish.
Fresler savors the bite he’s chewing before answering. As usual, Sharon has done an excellent job. The fish is melt-in-your-mouth fresh, leaving the taste of herbs and oil lingering on his tongue. Sharon knows how to make the best of the ever-more-limited supplies they have on hand.
“We listen to the radio every night,” he finally says to John, taking a sip of water. “Did you hear the most recent broadcast, about the fatality rate?”
John’s eyes widen. “No, what did they say?”
“They announced that the fatality rate is one hundred percent. No known survivors.”
Everyone goes still, forks hovering over plates and hands paused halfway to glasses.
“Wow,” John says first, scratching his clean-shaven chin. “There has never been a virus that was one hundred percent fatal. If someone were immune, then maybe a vaccine could be developed from their blood, but that would require isolating the antibodies responsible for fighting the virus. That could take years. But that won’t be possible if the fatality rate is one hundred percent.”
“Did you work in medicine before the outbreak?” Fresler asks. “How do you know so much about it?”
John shakes his head. “I decided to read up on infectious diseases and viruses before the internet went out. Hopefully, they’ll find a cure before the temperatures start to warm up, but even if that’s not possible, I wanted to learn everything I could about what we’d be up against.”
“John’s planned our entire route to Canada,” Jackie chimes in. “He knows exactly where we need to go to be safe.” Her confidence in John radiates across the table, her head high and eyes shining as she smiles at him.
“I’m surprised we haven’t seen more travelers like you,” says Fresler. “Right after the initial outbreak, we had an influx of people moving through the area, but the rush only lasted a few days. Then, the rest of our neighbors migrated away last week. I thought by now we’d be seeing more people heading north to Canada through these parts.”
Jennifer sets aside her fork and pushes away her plate like she’s lost her appetite. John and Jackie exchange a long look over their daughter’s bent head.
“The truth is,” Jackie begins, but her breath shakes on her next word.
“We watched the news reports right up until they stopped broadcasting,” John explains as Jackie wrestles her emotion back under control. “The hospitals and medical clinics were overwhelmed with the infected. The federal government set up makeshift clinics across the country. They used high school gyms and empty warehouses… And still less than one percent of the people living in warmer climates survived. That’s why you haven’t seen a lot of people passing through: there simply aren’t many left.” He pauses to take a bite, swallowing harder than necessary before he goes on, “Those of us who made it out didn’t survive because we were immune. We survived because we had access to respiratory masks and lived in isolated areas, like farms or cabins in the middle of nowhere.”
“We’d have died too,” says Jennifer in a flat voice that sounds too old. It’s the first thing she’s said, aside from a begrudging “Nice to meet you” to Fresler and Sharon, since they arrived. “If not for Dad’s respirator mask stockpile in our basement.”
Fresler studies John. “Why did you have a stockpile of respirator masks in your basement?”
Jackie snorts. “Don’t ask.”
John shoots Jackie a good-natured smile and a wink. “My days in the army. I wanted to be prepared in case there were ever a biological attack on US soil.”
“Well,” Fresler says, after a beat. “I suppose you had the right idea.”
He catches Jennifer rolling her eyes skyward at her dad’s expense, and while part of him agrees with her—what kind of person stockpiles respirator masks?—the part of him that’s lived in this new world for the past six weeks knows better. Some people would probably roll their eyes about Fresler and Sharon’s off-the-grid life, too. Yet, the five people sitting at this dining table are alive because of their unusual habits and dispositions.
“I’m just lucky I was on duty in the city when…” John begins.
“On duty?” Sharon asks.
“I was a detective for the Louisville Metro Police Department.”
Fresler’s eyes widen. “Wow, really?”
Jackie leans over to add, with a proud grin, “Before that, he was in the Seventy-fifth Ranger Regiment, special forces unit.” She pats her husband’s shoulder and laughs when he ducks his head, feigning modesty.
“Now I’m truly impressed!” Fresler says, thinking that it explains a lot about the tightly wound, highly prepared man across the dining table.
“What did you do before the pandemic?” Jackie asks Fresler.
“I was a writer… slash consultant.” Fresler shrugs. Now it’s his turn to be modest. He’s proud of his books, but like many writers, he’s always had to have another source of income. “In my consulting job, I worked for—”
Jackie interrupts him, her eyes alight with interest. “Really? A writer? Anything I would have read?”
“Doubtful.” Fresler chuckles. “Most of my novels are about the destruction of our environment due to corporate greed.” He flashes Sharon—his inspiration in writing about environmental issues—a broad grin.
“Oh… yes, that’s not the kind of book I’d usually pick up, to be honest.” Jackie maintains a polite smile, though Fresler can see it’s a little strained around the edges. “What did you do for work, Sharon?”
“I worked for the Sierra Club.” At John’s and Jackie’s blank expressions, Sharon elaborates. “The environmental nonprofit founded by John Muir.” Still no glimmers of recognition, so she asks Jackie, “How about you?”
“I was a stay-at-home mom to Jennifer here.” Jackie turns a loving look on her daughter. “I was planning to get licensed in real estate.”
One thing is quickly becoming clear: Jackie and her ex-military husband are not the type of people who’d usually have gotten along with Fresler and Sharon.
But that was before. Now, things are diﬀerent. Now, the few people who remain all need one another, Fresler believes, if they want to get through this alive.
Outside the window, a few fat snowflakes fall against the night sky. Jennifer and Sharon clear the plates, while Jackie wipes down the table from the comfort of her seat. John and Fresler set up the creaky foldout sofa, then fetch a pile of extra blankets from the hall closet for Jennifer. Fresler drops them by the fireplace in a messy nest that Jennifer can customize to her liking.
“It might not be the comfiest setup,” Fresler admits when Jennifer comes over to check out her bed, “but you’ll have the warmest spot in the house.”
“Thanks,” she murmurs, crouching beside her backpack.
There’s something cozy about having a full cabin. When Fresler wraps his arm around Sharon to bid their guests goodnight, the sight of sleepy faces in the glow of the fireplace warms him deeper than any roaring hearth.
But as he and Sharon nestle under the covers, a chill creeps back into his bones, crawling up his spine. It’s not just the distant howling and growling intermittently penetrating the cabin’s thick walls. No infected animal has ever gotten inside. The dread comes from the inevitable movement of time. The day they’ll have to leave the cabin’s safety and nostalgic memories is fast approaching. Soon—sooner than he wants to admit—he’ll have to turn his back on yet another monument of his old life. He wonders, if this pandemic ever does come to an end, how much of himself will be left to pick up the pieces?