I put a hat on Halle’s head. Dad hugged Tavia and Tobin, and Jud and Nora, and then he shook Connor’s hand. He kissed April, who wiped a tear that had escaped down her cheek.
Despite the fact that we’d become enemies fighting over my dad since we arrived, I hugged Tavia and April, too. They’d been our family for a time, and Tavia was a big reason we’d survived the first day.
I knelt down in front of Tobin and gave him a hug.
He squeezed me back. “Bye-bye, Jenna,” he said, wiping his nose with the top of his wrist.
He still had his train in his pudgy palm. His hair had grown out to a cute puffball. I wasn’t sure if I’d just tried not to think about it or if I had just been too focused on leaving, but it was the first time I realized that Tobin wasn’t coming with us. It was devastating.
That was why Dad had taken so long to make his decision. He’d known it would feel like this. He’d known what it would mean for us to leave them behind. I had been too focused on Mom to even think about it. Now that it was here and I understood, I needed to say my good-byes and leave. It was an awful, horrible situation, but it was always going to end this way.
I hugged him again and kissed his cheek, and then I hugged Nora and Jud. Connor, always stoic, barely seemed to notice that we were saying good-bye, but I hugged him anyway even though he didn’t hug me back.
“I’ll miss you,” I said, wiping my cheeks.
Dad opened the door, looked out, and then turned back one last time. “Take care.”
Halle and I followed him out the door, and we walked in a line—Dad first, Halle in the middle, and I brought up the rear, just like we’d discussed. In my right hand, I held the aluminum bat Jud had given me as a going-away present. Dad’s rifle was hanging from a strap on my shoulder. I had gotten a lot of practice over the past forty-eight hours, and I was a decent shot, but Dad had said the hardest part was knowing what to do under pressure. I hoped that I would make him proud.
The sky looked like a watercolor painting. Blues, purples, pinks, and yellows were bursting from the horizon as the sun erupted and lit up the sky. The crickets and cicadas chirped and buzzed in the background as the grass hissed under our feet with each step.
We reached Kellyville just inside of two hours. Rotting bodies were lying flat in the grass and in the streets and hanging over porch railings. Vacant cars were everywhere, and Dad checked each one for keys. He even searched a few of the bodies nearby for keys. The infected had moved on, so I took special care in looking for any signs of life in the houses, but I found nothing—no curious eyes peeking out from covered windows, no women trying to flag us down.
“It’s completely empty,” I said.
“Looks that way. Let’s keep moving,” Dad said.
Just twenty minutes after we left the city limits of Kellyville and turned north onto Highway 123, Halle made the first comment. I was surprised she’d lasted that long.
“My feet hurt,” she said. “My toes are rubbing.”
“Your feet are growing,” Dad said. “We’ll have to find you some bigger shoes.”
We tried to keep her mind off the hike, but another twenty minutes later, she whined again, “I’m hungry.”
“Already?” Dad asked.
“Yes. Can we get a snack?” she said.
“Not yet,” Dad said. “We have to walk for five-and-a-half hours today, remember? Another hour, and we’ll be more than halfway done for the day. That’ll be lunchtime.”
“That’s going to take forever,” she grumbled.
“We’re more than halfway to lunch, if you can think about it that way,” I said.
“Really?” she asked.
“Really,” I said.
At lunchtime, we found a shaded spot that had a little bit of elevation, so we could see if anything was coming. Dad unfolded the paper towels and handed us our sandwiches, and I divvied out the water.
“Look at that,” Halle said, pointing to the sky.
The pillar of smoke was still billowing from something, but now, it was white instead of black.
“Is that Shallot?” I asked.
Dad looked up. “No, it’s too close. Shallot is farther away.”
I stared up at it, squinting against the sun. “It’s been burning for a long time.”
Dad shrugged. “It’s not burning. The smoke is white. It’s smoldering. Debris from an explosion can smolder for months.”
“What do you think exploded?” I asked.
“Most likely, something made of metal. I guess we’ll find out when we pass it by,” he said.
Halle was surprisingly upbeat. “When we see Mom, I’m going to hug her first, okay, Jenna? I got dropped off at school first, so it’s been longer since I’ve seen her.”
“Good point,” I said. “Okay, you can hug her first.”
Dad winked at me.
“And I’m going to sleep with her the first night,” Halle proclaimed.
“Where am I going to sleep?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember the farmhouse that well. I bet the doctor has a couch.”
“What if I want to sleep with her, too?” I asked.
Halle made a face. “Where are you going to sleep, Daddy? Will you and Mom get married again?”
Dad nearly spit out his water. “Your mom and I are friends. I think we get along better that way, don’t you? We can still all live together at the farmhouse.”
“Do you think anyone else is there?” I took a bite of my sandwich.
“What do you mean?” Dad asked.
“Like, maybe the doctor. It is his house, and it’s a good place to go. Maybe his family is there. He has two daughters, but they have boyfriends,” I said, feeling inclined to warn him.
He chuckled. “I think I’ll live.”
“What if someone else came along whom Mom liked? What if she’s there with him? Kind of like you and April?” I asked, not really expecting an answer.
Halle giggled, and Dad began to pack up.
“All right, girls. Lunch break is over. We have another few hours to walk, and we need to find a good place to set up camp unless we come across a house. Keep your eyes open.”
“What?” Halle asked, frozen.
Dad stood, looking down at her. “We need to find a safe place to set up the tent.