Frozen Pandemic

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CHAPTER 5

The morning after the coyote attack, Sharon wraps herself in a thick overcoat and prepares plates of breakfast to carry out to Fresler and Sean. Before she can step outside, the plates balanced on her palms, John grabs her shoulder.

“Wear a mask,” he warns. “Just in case.” He offers her one of his with a sympathetic grimace.

Sharon accepts the mask, allowing John to take the plates while she secures it, blinking away a sudden flood of tears. The weight of it on her face is another reminder of just how calamitous her world has become. She walks toward the storage shed and raps on the door.

“Come in,” Fresler calls.

Sharon is so relieved to hear his voice that she almost drops the plates of reheated fish and vegetables in the snow. She nudges open the shed door with a foot. Inside, Fresler and Sean are buried inside their sleeping bags, under layers of blankets. The air in the shed is so cold Sharon can see her breath.

She kneels beside Fresler first. “How are you feeling?” She holds her breath, afraid of his answer. Any flulike symptoms could be from sleeping out in the freezing cold all night—or, more likely, they could signal impending death.

Fresler squints up at her, bleary-eyed. “I’m fine, aside from the ache in my leg. Thanks for the food. Can you get me some more ibuprofen?”

“Absolutely. Same for you, Sean?”

The younger man gives Sharon a weak thumbs-up. He’s already digging into the food.

“I’ll be back soon.” Sharon stands and moves to the door. When she pushes it open, she’s surprised to see Tina walking toward her, also wearing a mask from John’s stash.

“How are they?” Tina asks.

“Still here, sis,” Sean calls from inside.

Sharon can’t see Tina’s mouth behind the mask, but she sees the younger girl’s eyes crinkle with joy at the sound of her brother’s voice. “Go on in,” Sharon says, “but keep your distance. Don’t touch Sean, whatever you do. Okay?”

Tina nods. “I won’t stay long.” She steps into the shed and crouches in the corner farthest from Fresler and Sean’s sleeping bags. In the tiny space, they’re still within touching distance, but Tina keeps her hands close to her body.

Sharon shoots Fresler a look over Tina’s shoulder. After a beat, he understands—she wants to give the siblings privacy.

“I’m feeling well enough to go for a short walk,” Fresler announces. He hoists himself up with his walking stick and carefully steps around the siblings. Sharon picks up Fresler’s plate to carry with them.

Once he’s out of the shed and on the shoveled path, Fresler doesn’t rely on the walking stick as much as Sharon expected him to. He’s still limping at a glacial pace, but the stick seems to be more for balance than necessity.

The two of them follow the swaying pine trees to the river. For a long moment, the only sound is the crunch of their boots in the fresh snow. Somewhere in the distance, a bird chirps, its cheerful greeting a pleasant change from the harsh cries of the infected night-birds. The thought of infection fills Sharon with more dread than ever now.

“I’m so worried,” she murmurs. Her eyes sting with unshed tears. She wants to offer Fresler comfort, not make him comfort her, but the thought of never feeling his touch again consumes all her waking moments. “What if this is it?”

His face twists with pain, his hand reaching for hers instinctively, then falling limp before ever closing the distance. He doesn’t dare touch her, and she doesn’t dare take off her mask. Instead, she does the only thing she can: she holds out the plate.

Fresler takes a bite, and Sharon smiles at his low murmur of satisfaction. When he’s done chewing, he says, “I feel fine except for my leg. I really don’t have a fever. I would tell you if I did.”

Sharon tramples the hope that flares in her chest. If she lets it blaze, she may be consumed by it in the end. “But you took that ibuprofen. It may be masking your fever.”

“I’m going to be fine, Sharon, I swear to you.”

“It’s just that… the fatality rate…” Her throat aches, the muscles strained from holding in sobs. “I don’t know what I would do without you.” Sharon wipes away the tears that escape down her cheeks.

Fresler closes his eyes and clenches his fists at his sides, as if willing himself not to reach for her. Finally, he forces a smile that she sees right through. “Sharon. You know me. I’ve never been sick a day in my life. What makes you think I’m going to start now?”

Her laugh scratches her tightened throat. She catches his eye and smiles back. “That’s true. I’ve always been jealous.” In the two years they’ve been together, he’s never even had a cold. She sighs and stares up at the clouds moving overhead. It looks so normal—the same clouds that always coat the sky in the deep winter months. But now, even they look different, gloomier and smothering. “This isn’t the same thing,” she whispers. “This virus isn’t a normal illness, and you know it.”

He’s quiet for a long moment. When she peers over at him, he’s contemplating the wound on his leg. Finally, he shakes his head. “I can’t explain how I know it. But I’m positive I haven’t contracted this virus.”

“Okay,” she finally relents, voice soft. They exchange a smile, while she yearns to bury her hands in his hair, to cling to his chest. Together, they turn and trudge back to the shed.

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