He picked up the pace, and we did the same, desperately wanting to create distance between us and the mess of bodies we’d left behind.
In the distance was a field full of scrap metal, old cars, and a few rusted tractors.
“Daddy! Cars!” Halle said.
“We won’t be going anywhere in any of those, Pop Can. They’re just there for parts.”
“Oh,” she said, deflated.
“Cars, Mama!” Tobin said, pointing.
Tavia touched her fingers to his dark hair. “That’s right! You are so smart!”
He hugged his train.
If we had to travel with a toddler, I’d pick Tobin any day. He was quiet, and he minded his mother. Tavia could keep him calm when necessary. We had been so lucky so far. I wondered how long that would hold out.
“Cars, Mama!” Tobin said again.
An engine sounded in the distance, and Dad herded us off the road. The sun hit the vehicle just right, so it took a minute for me to see that it was a silver minivan. They were going so fast that I wondered if someone was chasing them, but the moment they saw us, the tires slowed.
A man about Dad’s age rolled down the window. A dark beard surrounded his hesitant but polite smile. “Going to the next town?”
His wife sat in the passenger seat, looking behind her and whispering, comforting whoever was in the backseat.
“For now,” Dad said. “We ran out of gas a ways back.”
The man looked to his wife, and she gave her permission.
“Listen,” he said, looking to Dad, “it’s too dangerous to walk. We’re headed to Shallot. My in-laws live there. We’ve been driving all night from Midland.”
“You made it here all the way from Midland?” Dad asked.
“It wasn’t easy,” the man said, holding up a pistol.
His wife held up one, too, looking sheepish.
Dad glanced down the road. “We would appreciate you taking us as far as you can. I have some money—”
The man held up his hand and shook his head. “It’ll be a tight fit with the kids back there, but you’re welcome to ride along.”
Dad turned to Tavia, and she let out a breath of relief.
“Thank you, Jesus,” she said. “C’mon, Tobin. You found us a car!”
The man hit a button on the ceiling, and the side door slid open, revealing a girl a little older than Halle, maybe ten or eleven, and a boy Tobin’s age.
“Well, hello there!” Tavia made her way to the third row, past the two captain’s chairs the children were seated in.
She sat next to the wall and situated Tobin on her lap, leaving plenty of room for Halle and me, but I wondered where Dad would fit.
“Just, uh…your littlest can fit nicely on the floor between our kids, if you don’t mind,” the man said.
Dad climbed in and sat near the other wall, and I sat in the middle. Halle sat on the floor in front of my feet, scooting back against my legs.
The door glided closed, and then the man pressed on the gas. A wave of relief washed over me.
“I’m Brad,” he said, looking into the rearview mirror for a moment. “My wife, Darla,” he said.
She turned around and flashed a sweet smile.
“Our daughter is Madelyn, and our son is Logan.”
Dad pointed to himself. “Andrew.” He pointed to the rest of us. “Tavia, Tobin, Jenna. And Halle is on the floor.”
Everyone traded the customary nice-to-meet-yous.
For the first time in hours, I felt my body slowly relaxing from being on alert since I’d opened my eyes that morning. It didn’t take long to realize that none of us smelled very good.
“Dad,” I whispered, “we are stinking up their car.”
“Sorry,” Dad said to the adults in front. “We’ve been walking all day. We don’t mean to offend.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’re not at our best either,” Brad said. “Her parents were supposed to head down to visit later today, but when we heard the reports, we knew they wouldn’t chance it, and Shallot is tiny. We’ll have a better chance there than in Midland Her parents would worry if we didn’t come.”
“I’m taking the girls to their mom. She’s not far from there.”
“If we can, maybe we could run you up there in the morning? Depending on the gas situation, of course. We just used our last can an hour ago.”
“That would be …” Dad laughed once, his shoulders relaxing as relief washed over him. “That would be extremely kind of you.” He hooked his arm around my neck and pulled my temple to his lips. “We’re going to be okay, kiddo. You’ll be with your mom this time tomorrow.”
“Don’t jinx it,” I said. “We’re not there yet.”
“WHAT THE HELL?” Brad said, stomping on the brakes.
Just as I reached for and missed Halle, Darla whipped around and caught her before she hit face-first into the console.
“Whoa!” Darla smiled at Halle when she looked up. “You okay, sweetie?”
Halle nodded, and then Darla looked expectantly at her own kids. They bobbed their heads at the same time.
Dad leaned forward. “What is it?”
Brad was watching the north side of the road, and we all—with hesitation—moved our lines of sight in the same direction.
An old two-story church was crawling with those things, as if it had been infected itself. They wriggled in and out of the broken stained-glass windows, like maggots squirming in the open wounds of a dead animal. Large shards of partial picturesque art hung from the tops of the window panes, and the jagged edges of wooden planks stuck out from the walls from which they were still nailed.
“Do you think people are stuck in there?” I asked.
“Lord, I hope not,” Tavia said, her big eyes looking up toward the second floor.
Brad drove past slowly, and he pointed up. “Look there! An open window! They got out!”
“But look at all the blood on the side of the building,” I said, noting the dark red smear leading from the AC unit to the roof.
“Mommy?” Madelyn said, her voice trembling.
“It’s okay, honey. We’re going.”
The infected noticed the van, and one by one, they began filtering out of the church.
“Go, Brad,” Darla warned. “Hurry!”