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“The fridge,” he grumbled.

“Oh, yeah,” I sulked.

Halle called to Dad from the bed, and we blew out the candles and walked upstairs together. He went to bed, and I stood at the window, waiting for gunshots that never happened.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that the group we had seen meant protection. I wanted to call out to them, be with them. Something about them felt safe.

I walked away from the window, wondering what was going on inside the neighbor’s house, and I crawled into bed next to Halle. I worried about waking up to company of the uninfected variety, but at the same time, I hoped we would.

In the morning, I scrambled from bed so quickly that Dad jumped up in a panic.

“What?” he said, blinking.

I stood at the window, looking for any signs of the group. If they had decided to move on from Shallot, I assumed they would start at first light, and I was right. The men and woman had already passed our house, and walked along our street toward the highway, fearlessly taking down any infected that came within ten feet. But this time, the neighbor was with them.

“They know each other,” Dad said from behind me. “Maybe he’s been waiting for them this whole time.”

“Or maybe they just met last night, and he’s leaving with them because they’re from someplace better?” I said.

“Maybe they’re leading him to his death?”

I wrinkled my nose. “That doesn’t make any sense. You’re paranoid.”

“Ya think?”

I turned to him. “When are we leaving?”

“I’m working on it,” Dad said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

Dad retreated to the bathroom, rubbing the back of his neck. He always did that when he and Mom fought, especially when she was making points he didn’t have a rebuttal to.

I breathed out in frustration, shaking my head. He couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever. I checked on Halle, and upon seeing her still sleeping deeply, I walked downstairs, lighting the candles in the kitchen and living room.

When Dad finally came down, I didn’t waste any time.

“Have you thought about it?”

“Jenna,” he said with a sigh, “don’t rush me.”

“Rush? We’ve been here for weeks. Are you at least going to go out today?”

“I’m going to check out the neighbor’s house and see if he left anything behind.”

“What does it matter if we’re leaving?”

“Just because the neighbor left doesn’t mean we have to.”

“I don’t want to leave because the neighbor did. I want to see my mom!”

Halle plodded down the stairs. “Why are you yelling?” she croaked.

“We’re not,” Dad said. “What do you want for breakfast? Pop-Tarts?”

“Sure,” Halle said, sitting at the table.

I stomped into the nearly empty pantry and then tossed the box onto the table. The last five silver packages spilled out, some falling to the floor.

“Jenna!” Dad leaned back and then forward to clean the mess. “What’s gotten into you?”

“My birthday is coming up. You promised.”

“I know, and I said, I’m working on it.”

“Working on what? You haven’t left the house in days! We’re running out of food!”

“Jenna,” Dad said, glancing at Halle, “I haven’t found a car. I’m…prolonging the inevitable.”

“Which is what?” I asked, crossing my arms.

“I can’t leave you alone. What if something happens while I’m gone?”

“Then, let’s go!” I insisted.

“I’ve been…” He trailed off, already regretting his next words. “I’ve been wandering out that way, going a little bit farther every day. A lot of infected are on the roads, Jenna, and not just that. They’re in the fields, and…”

“And what?”

“When I got to the white tower you girls have talked about, they’re everywhere. Dead. I mean, dead, dead. It got worse, the farther I walked. Something’s going on over there, and I don’t like it.”

I snorted. “You’re worried about dead infected? Isn’t that a good thing?”

“That group has me nervous.”

“That’s stupid. Why don’t we just start walking? The neighbor left with that group, and he’s been smart about things. What if they’re from Red Hill?”

“I have a bad feeling, Jenna! Something’s off! I’ve felt this way for the past two weeks, like something bad is getting ready to happen.”

“It’s because my birthday is coming up, and you know that’s your deadline. You’re comfortable. You’re complacent! But I’m not letting Mom think that we’re dead one more day because you have a bad feeling!”

“Okay! All right!” he said, holding up his hands. “We’ll leave in the morning.”

“Really?” I said, perking up.

“Really. But if anything happens, no matter how far we are, we’re coming straight back here. Do you understand?”

I agreed, and Halle did, too.

“And…we need to talk about…we need to talk about what to do and where to go if she’s not there.”

I sat back in my chair, feeling like I’d been gut-punched. “She’s there,” I said. “She’s waiting for us, and you’re going to feel like a huge jerk for even putting that awful thought in our heads.”

“I hope so,” Dad said, spooning soup into Halle’s bowl. “I’ve never wanted to feel like a jerk more in my entire life.”

Chapter Seventeen

THE SUN HAD JUST PEEKED OUT from the horizon when we stepped into the backyard. Halle and I had taken extra steps to look nice for Mom. I’d braided her hair, and she’d tucked in her shirt.

“Mom will get to see my new shoes!” she said with a wide grin and bright eyes.

It was the happiest I’d seen her in a long time.

“That’s right. For now, let’s stay focused and keep an eye out. Remember what Dad said about lots of weird stuff on the roads. Listen, and pay attention to your surroundings.”

Halle emphatically bobbed her head.

I had helped her slip on her backpack, and I had tied her jacket around her waist before we left the house. Her head seemed bare, and I realized her hat was still in my hand.