Sharon wakes for the dozenth time from a restless, blurred dream of racing fruitlessly through endless white. Her head pivots on the pillow to check the battery-operated clock on her nightstand. 6:00 a.m.
Sharon then looks to her right and stares at Fresler’s cold, empty pillow. Tears collect on her lashes as her hand caresses the empty space. After two years of lying by his side, the night brings dread and the morning feels hollow without him.
His lack of symptoms brings relief from her worst thoughts, but the worry never entirely leaves. He’s not out of the woods yet.
If he takes a turn, if he does contract the virus… she’ll wake to an empty bed for the rest of her life.
After lying alone with her thoughts for several more minutes, Sharon lights her lantern. The orange glow illuminates her steaming breath in the freezing room. It’s much warmer in the living room, but she would rather sleep in her bedroom while she still can.
Sharon coaxes herself out of her cocoon of blankets, mentally preparing herself for the three-hour hike with John. He made it clear he wants to start hiking as soon as the sun rises, and according to Jackie, he’s a little obsessive about his schedules.
Sharon immerges into the main living space to find John and Jackie at the kitchen table, drinking cups of coﬀee.
“Good morning, Sharon. Are you ready for our hike?” John tilts his mug in her direction like a salute.
She nods. “Are you?” It’s a rhetorical question. John is fully dressed and already halfway out of his chair. This is a man accustomed to action. His excitement is palpable.
“As Jackie likes to say, I was born ready,” says John through a smile.
“When have I ever said that?” Jackie rolls her eyes, a playful smirk on her lips, and John wiggles his eyebrows at her. Sharon’s gut drops as she crosses the kitchen. How many more of these few, fleeting moments of normalcy—a husband and wife joking around—will the world bear witness to before the pandemic wipes the earth clean of humanity?
Sharon adjusts the straps on her backpack while John hugs Jennifer and Jackie in the frigid morning air, intoning how much he loves them in a low voice. He assures them he doesn’t plan to be gone for more than seven hours total. Sharon notices the worry in his eyes as he releases them. She knows it well—the worry that this may be the last time you see your loved ones.
Fresler stands awkwardly at the edge of the cabin’s overhang, gazing at Sharon with familiar longing. Sharon wants to hug him, but she knows he won’t allow it. He still has four days to potentially exhibit symptoms. They stand a foot apart, trying to communicate their love with their eyes alone. Fresler is the first to look away.
“Be safe,” he says.
“You too.” With a heavy sigh, Sharon follows John away from the cabin.
When she reaches his side, he ushers her into the lead, so she can act as navigator. With over a foot of fresh snow on the ground, there is no distinguishable hiking-trail . The area is heavily forested, with a steep incline. Visibility isn’t great, but Sharon recognizes a pair of distinctive boulders in the distance, which gives her a sense of comfort. She knows they are headed in the right direction.
As they walk under a large pine tree, snow falls from the branches onto John’s shoulder. Instead of cursing as he shakes it off, he smiles up at the pines. The wind howls back in a low, vibrating pitch.
“Fresler knows how to pick a homestead location; I’ll give him that,” he says to Sharon with a chuckle. “This landscape is beautiful.”
Sharon nods, but though she once shared the sentiment, the white, quiet terrain now feels like a wasteland.
They reach the top of the hill, meeting up with the one-lane road that they’ll follow to the Rasmussen’s’ cabin. Sheila Rasmussen was ill for a while last year, and Sharon took the couple some meals while the older woman healed. Sharon and John are starting there, on the off-chance Sheila didn’t finish some of her prescriptions.
“What do you think the odds are that we’ll actually find antibiotics that work on Sean’s infection?” asks Sharon between sips from her water bottle.
“Even with what you said about that woman taking medicine last year… slim to none,” John admits. “But I feel like we have to try.”
“Do you really believe that the coyote that bit Fresler and Sean wasn’t infected with the virus?” Sharon furrows her brow, begging him with her eyes not to sugarcoat his reply.
“It’s more likely than Fresler being somehow immune.” John is stubborn on this point. “No one is immune. The virus kills everyone who catches it.”
“But what about that CDC broadcast asking if anyone has met or seen any immune people?” Sharon reminds him. “It’s possible that others have survived, but we just don’t know about it yet.”
“I guess that’s true, but I still feel like the authorities are probably grasping at straws. If anyone was immune to the virus, we’d have heard about it by now. It’s been two months since those first cases were reported.” John looks at his watch. “We better pick up the pace.”
They hike through the snow for another two hours before finally reaching the Rasmussen’s’ cabin. It’s about the same size as Fresler’s, but it’s a newer construction. Leonard and Sheila Rasmussen built it as their retirement home, where he could practice his woodworking and she could quilt, surrounded by nature’s majesty. The elder couple were among the first of Fresler and Sharon’s neighbors to leave for Canada, while the roads were still relatively clear and their car still had a full tank. Sharon hopes they’ve resettled somewhere safe and cold.
The front door of the once-serene sanctuary hangs wide open. John and Sharon walk right in to find a disaster area. The pantry is empty. The pictures on the walls are smashed, leaving the hardwood floor littered with glass fragments. One of Sheila’s beautiful quilts is in the fireplace, half-charred to ash. In the bedroom, the sheets and blankets are shredded and the stuﬃng from the pillows covers the carpet.
John’s eyes narrow as he takes in the destroyed room. “Let’s start with the medicine cabinet,” he says, voice grim and pessimistic.
When the bathroom yields no medicine, John and Sharon split up. They spend the next hour searching every square inch of the cabin but turn up no antibiotics. There isn’t even anything to salvage for their own upcoming trip. Looters have picked the Rasmussen’s’ cabin clean.
“It’s after one p.m.,” Sharon says, glancing at the clock on the kitchen wall. It’s still ticking, although the face is shattered.
“We need to head back before it gets dark,” says John. “We can try the other cabin tomorrow. How long will it take to get there?”
“It’s about the same distance as this, but in the opposite direction.” Sharon takes one last look around her neighbors’ former home. She hopes the Lewis’s’ place fared better than this.
Sharon and John arrive home just before dusk. Everyone is eagerly waiting for them as they round the bend toward the cabin. Jackie hugs John the moment he reaches her side. “Any luck?”
John shakes his head. Tina’s face crumples with disappointment, and she turns away from the others, rubbing at her eye.
“We’ll try the other cabin tomorrow,” says John, with a reassuring, fatherly touch on Tina’s shoulder.
The next morning, John and Sharon head out for the Lewis’s’ home. Sharon always liked Paul and Pam, a couple about her and Fresler’s age who had three young children. Pam made the best banana bread Sharon ever tasted, and their youngest child, Tessa, had just learned to tell terrible knock-knock jokes when the outbreak hit. No one laughed very much during those harrowing first few weeks, but Tessa managed to prompt some rare smiles and good-natured eye rolls.
The hike isn’t quite as far as Sharon feared—a relief, given how sore she is from yesterday’s exertions. She and John make it in less than three hours. The front door is shut, but one test of the knob reveals it’s not locked. John opens the door with nervous creases around his eyes, but Sharon sees right away that the home is in decent condition. Nobody appears to have ransacked this one yet.
They start searching. John goes straight to the bathroom to check the medicine cabinet. Sharon digs through the nightstands but finds nothing. The dresser drawers are a bust, and there’s nothing in the closets but clothes and shoes that must have been too heavy to pack. Sharon sighs and makes her way toward the kitchen cabinets. Maybe they can at least scrounge up some food, even if their primary mission is a failure.
That’s when she spots what looks like a prescription bottle shoved into a chaotic “everything drawer” that was left half open. Her heart leaps as she snatches it up. She yells out to John, who is in the other room. “What’s amoxicillin?”
John lets out a whoop of excitement. “That’s it!”
He runs into the kitchen and grabs the bottle from her hand. “These are antibiotics. We need to get these to Sean!”
They exchange a look of pure glee and disbelief. They’ve done the impossible! Together, they rush from the cabin.
Twenty minutes into their hike home, fat snowflakes break the canopy of pines. John stops and looks up. “We need to go back,” he says, voice heavy with reluctance. “We can’t aﬀord to get caught in the middle of a snowstorm.”
As they hike back to the Lewis’s’ cabin, the snowfall speeds up, soaking Sharon’s hair at the base of her sweaty neck. The trail markers are blurred out by the dancing snow, and Sharon grows nervous. Their visibility is no more than twenty yards out.
As they walk past a cluster of trees, John spots the rooftop of the cabin. Relieved, they race to it.
Safe inside, they secure the doors and windows. John grabs the firewood that was stacked against the cabin. He starts a fire, and they prepare to spend the night. Not for the first time since the virus began, Sharon wishes they could use their cell phones to call Jackie and Fresler to let them know that they are safe. But the cell towers no longer have power, and even if they did, they would need to find a way to charge their phones. For now, they’ll just have to hope the storm lets up.
By 4:30 p.m., the anxiety in the cabin is felt in the tense stares and silent pacing by the windows. Everyone takes turns squinting into the snow for a sign of John and Sharon’s return. Jennifer plops herself by the largest window and stares out, biting her nails.
Jackie puts her arms around Jennifer’s shoulders. “You know your dad. He always finds a way to keep himself safe. The storm probably started before he and Sharon left to come back here. They’re probably spending the night in that cabin. We’ll see them in the morning.”
Jennifer looks up at her mom. “I know,” she says, yet the worry doesn’t quite leave her voice.
Jackie understands. She married a military man turned police officer. Worry is second nature to her. But she’s always tried to hide her distress from Jennifer. Even on this long trek to Canada, with dangers closing in from all sides, her motherly instincts keep her standing tall and steady.