Frozen Pandemic

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CHAPTER 3

“Forty-seven. Forty-eight, forty-nine… fifty.” With a groan, John lowers himself to the ground, arm muscles hot with exertion. He likes to get his push-ups in before he starts his day. Before the pandemic, he used to go to the gym and lift weights, sometimes with Jackie at his side. She was an amazing athlete in high school, and holds two Michigan High School Athletic Association track records, in the 100-meter and 400-meter sprints. An achievement now cruelly made moot. Michigan High School Athletic Association doesn’t even exist.

Without a gym, John makes do where he can. Today, that means squeezing his workout in between the pullout sofa and the pile of blankets that mark Jennifer’s now-empty nest.

But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Fifty push-ups finished, he heads into the kitchen to find Sharon and Jackie drinking coffee brewed over Fresler’s jerry-rigged gas stove.

He leans down and kisses Jackie on the forehead. “Good morning. Can I get a cup of that?”

She brightens the day with a smile and a “Good morning, sweetie” that takes him back to their airy, baby-blue-tiled kitchen. “Already poured you one.” She hands it over, and John thanks God his wife knows him too well.

“How’s the ankle today?” he asks.

Her smile wavers. “Sore. Swollen. I’ve been icing it this morning, and I took some ibuprofen, but…” Jackie fades off with a shrug.

“Hm,” John says around the lip of his mug. “Do you think you’ll be able to walk on it? I’d like to get out of here as soon as possible.” He glances over his shoulder and goes on without waiting for his wife’s answer. “I didn’t see Jennifer in the living room. Where is she?”

“I think she’s in the bathroom getting ready.”

“Getting ready… how? There’s not even running water.” He stops himself. He knows his daughter. “You know what, never mind. I want to leave here by seven-thirty a.m. sharp. Make sure she’s out by then.” With that, John strides out of the kitchen, leaving Jackie to roll her eyes in his wake.

With the sky brightening through the thin green curtains, John heads for the door to inspect the weather. He swings it wide, ready to breath in a long draught of fresh air, and is greeted by a thick flurry of snowflakes.

“Shit!” John curses at the sky as his plans fall around his ears. Mounds of snow have covered any trace of the trail they used to reach the cabin the night before.

“Looks like you’re going to have to stay with us for another day,” Fresler says on John’s right, crouched next to the stack of firewood against the house. John doesn’t startle, but he frowns at the younger man as he stands up and brushes bark from his hands with a sympathetic smile.

“You don’t want to get caught in the middle of this snowstorm. Probably better to give Jackie another day to rest up as well, don’t you think?”

“Do you mind?” asks John, glaring out into the swirling sea of white. “I really wanted to get on the road, but you’re right, we can’t risk hiking in this, especially if it gets worse.” A small voice inside tells him they couldn’t have gone today anyway with Jackie’s injury, but he ignores it. He refuses to acknowledge it as a serious obstacle. He’s gotten his family this far, and he’s not going to let a sprained ankle slow them down. The snow, however…

“Of course, we don’t mind,” Fresler says firmly. “Come on, help me gather more firewood.”

John spits another curse at the snow through his teeth. The farther north his family travels, the more the constant, bone-chilling cold eats away at his patience—and yet, the freezing temperatures are keeping them alive. This blizzard provides a safe zone from the pathogen’s deadly reach.

Sharon moves aside the kitchen curtains to watch two vibrant dots vanish into the snowstorm. Fresler and John are making their way down to the river in their red and orange jackets. Sharon scrubs the frying pan she used for this morning’s hash browns, then hands the dripping pan to Jackie to dry.

“I should’ve asked last night,” Sharon begins hesitantly. “What settlement are you guys planning to go to?”

“John thinks Prudhoe Bay is our best bet.”

Sharon stops scrubbing her next plate to look at Jackie. “Are you taking the train from Winnipeg?”

Jackie nods.

“I keep bugging Fresler about leaving,” Sharon says, biting her lip to battle the comingled guilt and worry the confession brings, “but he doesn’t want to move from this cabin. It belonged to his parents. I think he feels like if we leave, he’s saying goodbye to them, too. Not to mention this life we’ve built together.”

Jackie touches Sharon’s arm instead of taking the offered plate. “That makes sense,” she says in a soft tone, “but you have no choice. If you don’t leave, you’ll both die here. As comfortable as it is in this cabin, we’d already be packing up to move on, if it weren’t for me.” Jackie gestures at her ankle, wrinkling her nose. “I can’t believe I fell the way I did. John was really upset.”

Sharon abandons the plate in the soapy water and gestures toward the table as she asks, “What happened?”

“We were about an hour south of here,” says Jackie as Sharon helps her into a chair. “I missed a step and slid down a hill. My foot got caught in a tree root, and I felt everything in my ankle pull in the wrong direction.”

Sharon bares her teeth in an involuntary cringe. “That must’ve hurt.”

“Oh, it did.” Jackie laughs quietly, but Sharon can see the pain behind her eyes. “But I’m also so mad at myself, you know? John has these plans, these schedules—he’s figured everything out about our journey, and I had to go and get hurt.”

“It’s not your fault you fell,” says Sharon, waving away the notion. “Plus, you managed to hike for an hour after that, to get here. That makes you pretty tough, in my opinion.”

Jackie flashes a more open smile. “Thanks. I’d ask you two to come along, when we leave, but…”

“John’s master plan doesn’t include company?” Sharon guesses. Jackie nods, and Sharon pats her hand. “Don’t worry about it. If Fresler’s not ready to go, then I’m staying with him. We have enough supplies, and the temperatures won’t rise above freezing for a little while longer.”

“Good,” Jackie says. “I’m glad to hear that.”

The two women sip their coffee in comfortable silence, but Sharon’s curiosity eventually gets the better of her. “You mentioned that you owned a farm in Kentucky, near Louisville,” she says. “What was it like… you know… after the initial outbreak?”

Jackie looks down into the recesses of her empty cup with a taut half-smile. “Have you ever been to Louisville?”

Sharon shakes her head.

“The city itself is south of the Ohio River. Our farm was north of the river—lucky for us.”

“Why is that?”

“The National Guard had all of the bridges blocked. They weren’t letting people pass. If we had been living in the city, we wouldn’t have been able to travel north.”

Sharon hangs on to every word as the water in the sink grows cold.

“We traveled mostly on the back roads, but we had to pass through a few populated areas along the way. There was one city we drove through, that…” Jackie makes a harsh noise somewhere between a cough and a sob, then puts a hand over her mouth as if to hold in another. With a little shake of her head, she puts down her mug and scoots it way over the table.

“What did you see?” asks Sharon in a whisper, afraid to know but sure she’ll drive herself crazy wondering if she doesn’t ask. Not knowing what happened outside of her cabin fortress has been driving her mad with self-conjured visions of disaster movies.

“We passed by a medical clinic.” Jackie’s voice is thick, like she’s speaking past a lump in her throat. “There were so many dead bodies sprawled out on the street… in front of the clinic. I’ll never forget the image… of this older gentleman on his knees. He must have been in his seventies. He was on the sidewalk in front of the clinic. He was trying to lift his wife up… get her to her feet. He was just sobbing.”

Jackie wears a hollow, disconnected look, but she can’t erase the emotion from her voice. Sharon feels short of breath, regretting she asked. She thought she needed to know, but now she’s certain she doesn’t want to hear this.

Jackie continues, eyes shifting as if watching the scenes play out inside the table’s woodgrain. “We saw people fighting, looting.”

“Why were they fighting?” The question blurts out before she can stop it.

Jackie shrugs. “Probably over medical supplies or food, water… Who knows? When people are desperate, things can get out of control fast.”

Sharon struggles to swallow. She had imagined the crowded hospitals, the mourning cries of families, but not cruelty or violence. “We were so isolated here,” she murmurs, mostly to herself. “We didn’t see any of that.”

Jackie’s eyes flick to Sharon’s face. “You’re lucky. You didn’t have to make tough choices.”

“Tough choices?”

“We passed by families who were stranded on the side of the road. You want to stop and help all of them, but—” Jackie droops, gaze sinking back inside the table.

“That must have been hard to do… to drive by a family in need.”

This time when Jackie’s head shoots up, she’s scowling, and Sharon shrinks back an inch.

“You have no idea,” says Jackie, that horrible hollowness traveling from her eyes to her voice. “John warned us before we left our farm. He said there would be families who would die without our help. There would also be those who would kill us for our supplies. And that there is no way to tell the difference between the two. They could be young or old, traveling alone or with children, and there would be no way to be certain: who was good and who was bad, who was infected and who wasn’t.”

Jackie pauses to rub her shimmering eyes. When she speaks up next, her words are strained by suppressed sobs. “We came across a family who was stranded on the side of the road… The mother was holding her daughter, who was clearly infected.” Jackie’s voice cracks, forcing her to clear her throat. “She kept saying over and over, ‘Help my daughter, please take her with you, the freezing temperatures will cure her.’”

Sharon speaks around her fingers. “But the freezing temperatures don’t cure the infected… The cold can help prevent infection, but not cure it.”

Jackie nods. “I know, but there were those who believed traveling north was a cure. Like I said, when people are desperate, they do and believe desperate things.”

Sharon’s eyebrows draw together. “But you said you didn’t stop to help. How did you hear what the mother said?”

Jackie pauses so long that Sharon begins to think she was going to ignore the question. Her deep, shuddering breath startles Sharon.

“It was a two-lane highway and this family purposely blocked both lanes. We couldn’t pass,” she says at last.

Sharon is afraid to move, much less speak, but her brain screams at her to tell Jackie to stop. Jackie’s eyes glisten. “John…” She gulps. “I’m sorry, I can’t...” She wipes her eyes with the dishrag.

Sharon scoots her chair closer and puts her hand on Jackie’s shoulder. “I understand. You don’t have to answer.”

Throughout the day, the snow continues to pile higher. True to northern Minnesota winters, before long, the cabin windows are partially obscured by glittery white mounds. John and Fresler spend the afternoon tunneling out of the front door and around to the woodpile out back, then down to the riverbank to fish for supper.

Fresler instructs John to keep close to the red rope he and Sharon have tied to the doorknob of the cabin. The sky is a blur of white, and with the cabin buried in fresh powder, the string is the only way to ensure they find their way back with their catch.

John follows a second blue rope late in the day when he steps outside to gather more firewood. When he returns, he’s surprised to see Jackie on the snow-covered path. She’s testing her weight on her injured foot, oblivious to his presence.

John watches her limp back and forth, leaning on a borrowed walking stick, for several moments before he speaks. “If the weather clears up tomorrow, we should be able to reach the border. It’s only about a five-mile hike from here.”

Jackie startles and glances back. Her brow is wrinkled with worry. Of what he’ll think? He hopes not.

“What do you think about Fresler and Sharon?” she blurts out as he approaches.

“They’re nice enough, I guess.” John stares past Jackie at the cabin and shrugs one shoulder. “You can tell they’re liberals.”

Jackie puts her hands on her hips. “Really? Who cares anymore?”

John shrugs again. “Why’d you ask my opinion if you didn’t want to know?”

“Because, I was thinking…” Jackie takes a wobbly step closer. “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have them join us on our trip? They can’t stay here much longer anyway. And there’s safety in numbers.”

John shakes his head. “They’d slow us down.”

Jackie looks down at her sprained ankle with a heavy sigh. “I’m going to be the one to slow us down.”

John sets down his armful of firewood and holds out his hand. Jackie hobbles the final three steps between them, grimacing each time her right foot touches the ground. She falls into his arms, and he asks, “Tell me the truth. How bad is it?”

She avoids his eyes as she says, “Pretty painful.”

“Can you walk five miles tomorrow?”

“In this?” Jackie peers over his shoulder at the mounds of snow. “I honestly don’t know.”

John’s nod is curt, but he pats Jackie lovingly on the back. “We’ll talk about it in the morning. Let’s get you back inside and get that ankle elevated.”

He supports her weight as they turn toward the cabin. With the late afternoon sun setting behind it, it looks like a painting: pretty white trim on the windows, a lazy curl of smoke drifting from the chimney, and candles in each window, ready to be lit at sunset.

“By the way,” John says, when they reach the door. “What kind of a name is Fresler?”

Jackie roll her eyes, but a laugh slips out all the same.

After sunset, the whole group crowds around the cramped table once more. The flickering candles cast an inviting orange glow over what might otherwise be a bleak, colorless landscape outside the windows. Even the screeches and howls of the infected animals are muted by the whistling of the wind and the thick drifts of snow surrounding the cabin. If Jackie shoves down the memories of their journey, she can imagine this is just another cozy winter storm that they can admire from a safe, warm haven.

Jackie stops watching the snowflakes stick to the windowpanes and glances between her husband and Fresler. Finally, she clears her throat, having made up her mind. John is right about many things, but he isn’t right about this.

“When do you and Sharon plan to travel farther north, Fresler?” she asks.

Fresler looks up from his dinner, startled. With his narrow face and long nose, he resembles a deer caught in headlights. He looks at his girlfriend before stammering, “We’ve, uh… talked about doing that. Several times.”

“Why haven’t you left yet?”

“I hate to leave the cabin,” Fresler admits, eyes darting around the cozy space.

Jackie follows his gaze into the large living room where the pull-out sofa awaits her for the night. She can understand not wanting to leave home. She didn’t want to abandon their farm in Kentucky either. “But it’s not going to be safe here much longer,” she says. “The temperatures are warming up.”

“If the man wants to stay longer, he’d have another month,” John interrupts, giving Jackie a meaningful look. “Maybe two months, if they’re lucky and the winter holds.”

Jackie throws John’s look right back at him. “But they’ll have to go north, at some point. And it’s safer these days to travel in a larger group than alone.” She turns her focus back to Fresler. “Would you and Sharon like to join us?” Under the table, she feels John nudge her shin with his toe. She ignores him. This is the right thing to do.

Fresler looks at Sharon, who gives him a nod, making his eyes widen. “It does make sense to travel with a group…” says Fresler, eyes still glued to Sharon, who nods encouragingly again.

“We would love the company,” Jackie presses.

She can feel Jennifer watching her. She turns with a question in her eyes, hoping Jennifer is okay with this idea, and finds something like awe on her daughter’s face. Does she really so rarely oppose John’s wishes? she wonders.

“So, would we,” Sharon pipes up with an excited smile.

Fresler’s face scrunches up, still hesitant. “Would you be willing to wait a couple of days?”

John opens his mouth to respond, but Jackie jumps in before he can say a word. “Sure, no problem. That will give me time to heal up a little.” She can’t hide how relieved she is at the idea of a few more days of rest.

Across the table, John is glaring at her. She avoids his eyes but holds herself tall. Jackie knows John is obsessive about schedules, and that he prefers to keep his responsibilities to a minimum—to protect his family and avoid taking on any other potential deadweight. But Fresler and Sharon have been so kind to their family already, and besides, Sharon is a great cook, and Fresler knows his way around survivalist gear. They could be a helpful addition to the family group. It’s not as though she is only inviting them along to be polite.

Jackie smiles at Fresler and accepts another helping of fish, ignoring her husband’s disapproving stare.

Late that night, dinner still digesting in his stomach, Fresler stares at Sharon as she readies herself for bed.

“What do you think about traveling with John and Jackie to Canada?” he says, his book abandoned in his lap.

Sharon pauses halfway through tying her robe and glances over her shoulder. A blonde curl escapes her messy bun and frames her face like a question mark. “Like I said at dinner, I think it’s a great idea.”

Fresler sighs and stares at the closed wooden door between them and their houseguests.

Sharon tilts her head. “What is it? You still don’t want to leave the cabin? I know it’s home for you here, but you know we’ll have to go eventually.” She crawls onto the bed beside him and takes his hand.

“It’s not that,” Fresler admits.

She frowns. “What are you worried about then?”

“Well…” Fresler turns her hand over in his, lifting it to kiss her fingertips. “There is something about John… I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m not sure if I trust him.”

Sharon snorts with laughter. “You’re being silly. John is a former cop. They may have led different lives from ours, before, but that doesn’t mean you can’t trust him now.”

Fresler narrows his eyes at the doorway. “I guess.” Still uneasy, he rises from the bed and pokes his head out into the living room, where John, Jackie, and Jennifer are adjusting their covers and pillows. “Does anyone need anything before I turn in?”

“No, I think we’re good.” Jackie smiles at him, a too-big smile that makes him suspect she and John were just talking about him. “But thanks, Fresler.”

“Well, then, I’ll turn in—”

A scream rents the air, and Fresler goes cold.

John’s head snaps toward the window and Fresler rushes for the curtain. Sweeping his eyes over the monochromatic landscape, he searches for movement, or a distant figure, but the snow piled against the pane cuts his vantage point in half. “Did anyone hear which direction that came from?”

“North maybe?” John guesses.

“Toward the river,” Sharon says from the bedroom doorway, her knuckles white around the door jamb.

Another scream fills the cabin, closer this time.

Fresler grabs his LED flashlight from beside the main entrance. “I think that was a person.”

“Don’t you dare go outside!” Sharon yells as he reaches for the door. “You know how dangerous it is at night.”

“Someone needs our help,” Fresler says, voice stern. “Besides, I have the flashlight. That will scare any infected animals away. They’re light-sensitive.”

“Fresler…”

Sharon starts for him, but he can’t just abandon someone out there to die. He reaches for the knob.

“Don’t!” Sharon cries.

Fresler yanks open the door, and John’s shadow looms over his shoulder. John nods at Fresler, aiming a Glock 22 at the ground.

With a pointed look, John nods for Fresler to go first.

Outside, Fresler raises his light to shine across the yard. At first all he sees is the path they tunneled through the snow down to the riverbank, and the pine trees swaying on the far side of the bank.

Then a shape resolves through the snow—a young sandy-haired man crawling through the powder, trailing blood behind his mutilated leg. Fresler’s flashlight jumps from the bloody man to the two other people beside him—a large burly man with visible neck tattoos and a full beard, and a short, chubby girl with a pretty face twisted in fear.

“Look out!” yells the young man lying in the snow.

Fresler whips the light toward a blur in his peripheral vision, but it’s too late. Something hairy and snarling slams into his right side hard enough to pop his knee. He stumbles and tries to dodge the animal, but he can’t twist out of the way in time. A sharp stabbing pain shoots up his right calf.

The flashlight flies out of his hand as he falls into a pile of the snow. Flinging his arms over his face instinctively, Fresler rolls to avoid the black coyote’s next lunge. Its bloody fangs snap the air hard enough to slice its own gums. POP! The gunshot reverberates in Fresler’s skull, triggering a high ring in both ears.

The coyote slumps in the snow beside him, spewing blood from its neck in a fast-growing pool. John looms over it, gun barrel smoking faintly in the freezing air, and fires two more shots.

Wiggling a finger in his aching ear, Fresler sits up and takes a deep breath. “Thanks, John.”

“Were you bitten?” John asks, and Fresler doesn’t like the flash in his eyes or the depth of his baritone.

Swallowing hard, Fresler moves his leg and groans in pain. He looks down and grimaces at the deep, bloody tear in his jeans. A semi-circle of punctures is visible through the fabric. There’s sure to be a matching set on the other side.

“Yes,” he replies through gritted teeth.

John curses loudly. “If that thing was infected…”

They both startle at another scream. But this one comes from Sharon as she bolts out of the cabin to see Fresler in the snow, covered in blood. Before she can reach him, John bars her path with a muscular arm.

“Don’t,” John barks. “You can’t touch him. He might be infected.”

“Fresler.” Sharon’s voice is small, her eyes enormous with fright.

“John is right.” Fresler keeps his voice as firm as he can make it, through the pain. “We can’t take any chances. We were both bitten, so we should stay isolated from the group, out in the storage shed.”

“We?”

Fresler nods to the left, and Sharon finally notices the baby-faced man bleeding in the snow and his two haggard companions.

Sharon’s hysteria quiets, as she surveys them. “Was he the only one bitten?” Sharon asks, with a nod toward the injured man.

The other two nod back. The girl is trembling, her lip quivering hardest of all. “Come on,” Sharon says, extending her arm. “Both of you, inside the cabin. My boyfriend will help your friend.” Sharon squeezes the girl’s hand in her best attempt to offer what comfort she can for now.

The girl and her burlier companion both follow Sharon up to the narrow porch. But despite Sharon’s invitation, John stands in the doorway of the cabin, arms crossed and flexed. “Names,” he barks.

“I’m Larry, and this is my cousin Tina,” says the older man.

“And you weren’t bitten by the coyote?” John squints at their limbs.

“No, we’re fine. Sean jumped in front of the thing when it attacked, so—”

“When he was bitten, how close was he to you?” John interrupts. “Is there any chance you had contact with his blood, maybe if it sprayed from the wound—”

“John.” Jackie is in the doorway now, leaning on Jennifer’s shoulder.

“I’m not letting them in here if they’ve been exposed to the virus,” John answers, resolute.

Larry raises his hands in a surrender position. “No blood. You can check us both over. And we didn’t touch Sean after the attack; you all came right outside when it happened.”

Jackie pokes John in the side and jerks her head toward the girl. John looks over at Tina. She’s white-faced and shaking, with fat tears rolling down her cheeks. Guilt crosses his face for a beat, and then his jaw softens. “Hi, Tina,” he says, gentler. “My name is John. Let’s get you inside the cabin before we see another coyote.” As John steps aside and allows them both to pass, he notices Fresler struggling to get to his feet. He grabs the walking stick Jackie used earlier and passes it to Fresler.

Leaning on it like a limb, Fresler gets himself upright, then nods at John. “You go back in,” he says. “I don’t want you contracting this. Jackie would never forgive me.”

John manages a small smile. After a moment, he nods, and passes Fresler the flashlight, careful not to touch his skin, before he heads into the cabin behind all the others. Sharon closes the door after him, eyes welling as she blows Fresler a kiss.

Trying his best to ignore the stabbing pain in his leg, Fresler staggers over to the young man in the snow, with the help of the walking stick. He offers a hand, and together, they manage to struggle upright.

“Easy there, Sean,” Fresler says as the boy leans against him with an agonized grunt, and together they hobble toward the storage shed.

Sean can’t put weight on his right leg at all. One look tells Fresler the boy has it worse than him. His thigh and calf are soaked in seeping blood. The visible skin is torn in jagged lines, as if the coyote shook the limb like a pounced rabbit. The shed is only a fifty-yard walk from the cabin, but right now, it feels like a hundred. Every step sends a sharp, stabbing pain through Fresler’s right leg.

“What’s your name?” Sean gasps.

“Fresler.”

“Thanks for coming to help, Fresler. You probably saved my cousin’s and sister’s lives.”

Propping Sean upright with one arm, Fresler opens the door to the storage shed after a long grapple with the knob. A crunch in the snow signals Sharon’s approach. As Fresler and Sean sink to the ground inside, she tosses them sleeping bags from a safe distance, along with extra blankets, a first-aid kit, and a small lantern. Fresler does his best to set up the space, and then he and Sean settle in to treat their wounds with antiseptic ointment and bandages from the kit.

Fresler busies himself with cleaning his wound. “What were you three doing outside after dark?” he asks Sean to distract himself from the horrendous sting of the antibiotic ointment.

“We’ve been hiking for the last week,” Sean says, trying to stanch the bleeding in his leg with gauze and his surgical wrappings. Fresler can see the deep bite just below Sean’s calf, along with two deeper puncture wounds from the coyote’s canines just above the knee. Sean also has defensive wounds on his right wrist, which Fresler didn’t notice until now. The wrist injury hampers his attempts to wrap his bandage.

“Let me help you,” Fresler says, holding out his hands for the materials.

The boy shoots him a grateful smile. “This was the first time we weren’t able to find shelter before dark. The snowfall didn’t help. We got turned around, off track… I saw the lights from your cabin and thought we could make it, but before we could reach the front door, the coyote attacked me from behind.” He inhales sharply through his teeth as Fresler knots the bandage tight enough to stop his bleeding. Then he sinks back against his sleeping bag with a groan. “I’m just glad it didn’t attack Tina. I don’t know what I’d do if it was her out here…”

Fresler nods in understanding. Finished with Sean’s wound, he leans back against his own sleeping bag and stares at the low metal ceiling of the storage shed. It’s a small space, and with two bodies warming it, the lack of insulation might not matter so much. With luck, they won’t freeze to death. Of course, the weather isn’t their only enemy right now.

“You know we’ll need to stay isolated for at least two weeks,” Fresler says. “To make sure neither one of us contracted the virus from that coyote.”

“I know.” Sean swallows audibly.

Fresler knows the kid’s thinking the same thing he is. Coyotes are cautious animals. For it to attack with such ferocity without cause… it had to be infected.

Larry and Tina crouch before the fireplace, hands raised before the open flames to attempt to banish the cold from their weary bones. Tina wiggles her toes and vigorously rubs her hands together. Sharon fetches them both blankets and some warm tea.

“You can stay with us until Sean is better,” says Sharon as she passes Tina her mug.

“Thank you.” Tina clutches the warm ceramic and stares into the corner of the room with a desperate, glossy eyed expression. Sharon wonders if the girl is in shock. She turns away before Tina can see the worry she knows is scrawled across her own face. Tina doesn’t need any more reasons to panic.

Sharon is fighting to swallow her own fear. Her brain refuses to quiet, whispering, “They’re infected. They’re infected, you know it.” The way that coyote behaved … Fresler is already as good as dead. The horrific finality of the thought sends Sharon fleeing into her bedroom.

She leaves Tina and Larry huddled around the fireplace on their bed of blankets, rushes past Jackie and John in their pull-out sofa bed, and barely registers that Jennifer has pulled a sleeping bag under the dining room table.

Sharon shuts the door in time to muffle the first sob. Alone at last in a room where Fresler’s presence is still palpable, she collapses onto the bed and allows the tears to come. First her parents. Now Fresler. She imagines his things vanishing from the room, imagines sleeping alone next to a cold pillow, imagines his toothbrush gone from the bathroom and his books gone from the nightstand, and she nearly vomits.

This damn virus seems determined to take everyone she loves.

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