I leaned back and looked up at the ceiling.
“I was so worried about protecting you that I forgot to teach you how to survive without me.”
“You did good, Dad. We’re going to be okay.”
I stood and took the bowl to the toilet. I emptied it and then rinsed it out in the sink before returning quickly to Dad’s side. He was so hot that I could feel the fever radiating off his skin. His eyes were bloodshot, and his veins kept getting darker as the virus took hold of his body.
“You will because you’re tough like your mom. You can do this.”
“Halle,” I said, “get another cold rag for his head.”
She obeyed without question.
After an hour, he seemed to stop fighting, and his body relaxed. He was exhausted. He could barely move. Halle was sitting in the recliner across the room, staring at him. I was trying my best to keep him comfortable—changing out the rags for his head, putting ice on his arm, and giving him water even though it would come right back up.
I wanted to beg him not to do this, not to make me do this, but he had no choice, and neither did I. We both had to be strong for Halle until the end, and I had to be strong after. I tried not to let my mind wander to thoughts of what it would be like to survive alone with my sister. We had to survive his death first.
“Jenna,” he drawled.
A thick mucus had formed in the corners of his mouth. His veins had branched out under his graying skin, dark and frightening—like the monster he would become. I’d seen those things so many times, but none of them looked like someone I knew. None of them looked like anyone I loved.
“I love you. I love Halle. Get ready.”
He sucked in a few more shallow breaths and then paused for a moment. Then, he exhaled it all, never taking in another breath. His head fell to the side, and his eyes stared past me, vacant.
I choked back a cry. “Dad?” I swallowed. “Daddy?”
His words about not waiting repeated in my mind, and I nudged him.
I put my hand over his eyes to close them, and then I stood. “Halle, go into the other room and cover your ears.”
I pulled the thick black strap from my shoulder and held the rifle in both hands, steadying my feet.
“Daddy!” Halle cried, reaching for him.
I stopped her with one hand, holding her away. “Go into the other room, so I can do this before he turns.”
“Jenna, don’t!” she yelled.
“I don’t want to! I have to!” I said, twin waterfalls spilling down my cheeks. I checked the rifle’s chamber and then took off the safety.
Dad’s fingers twitched.
“Jenna, look! He’s still alive!” Halle cried. “Don’t do it!”
His lids opened to reveal two milky eyes, and then he blinked. He looked over at me, and his lips began to form a snarl.
My chest lurched as I held back a sob. “Please look away, Halle.” I raised the rifle, and through the tears streaming from my eyes, I aimed and pulled the trigger.
HALLE PLAYED WITH A PORCELAIN CAT and a coffee mug in the shape of a chicken next to the kitchen table as I tried to keep busy. We’d eaten the last of the rice for dinner the night before, and Halle had become nearly hysterical at the thought of me leaving her to find food.
She played with her toys while her stomach growled.
“We have to get food somehow,” I said.
“Then let me go with you,” she said.
She stood up and walked the edge of the living room to get to the bathroom for a drink of water. She wouldn’t go all the way into the living room anymore. I didn’t really like to either. I couldn’t get the bloodstains off the couch, so I’d covered it with a bedsheet, which wasn’t much better.
Halle stopped wanting to go outside, not that it was safe anyway. I wasn’t sure if it was because the neighbor had stopped drawing the infected to the other side of town with his gunshots, but there seemed to be more of them roaming the streets and yards. Though, many of them were wandering out of town toward the highway.
I felt bad for Halle, not being able to play under the shade trees in the yard, especially since it was so hot inside. We’d open the windows upstairs in the evenings just to keep it comfortable enough to sleep. Every day that went by, the sadder she became, and the less she ate. She wouldn’t even look out the back door to the yard, not wanting to see the shallow grave where we had buried our dad.
I’d hold her at night while she cried herself to sleep, wishing I had the luxury of doing that, too. I pretended to be the adult though because that was what my sister needed.
I wondered if Halle and I should just stay or if we should chance the road to Red Hill ranch. Now that there were so many infected, it seemed impossible even if we wanted to.
We had done the opposite of what Dad had always taught us to do—pay attention to our surroundings. We had been lulled into a false sense of safety in the shade of trees and off the road. That one mistake had led to Dad’s death. I was trying to decide if it was more important to keep Halle alive here in Shallot—at least until she was old enough to travel—or attempt the daylong walk to the ranch without making a single mistake, so we could be with our mom.
Dad had been faced with that same choice, and I’d rushed him even though he asked me not to. Knowing the result of that hasty decision made it easier to ignore my emotions urging me to leave for Red Hill and to spend more time thinking about a strategy. There were only two of us now, and Halle wasn’t strong enough to fight off the infected. I couldn’t take on more than one, maybe two, and we had come across more groups than we had loners.
Unless it rained soon, I wasn’t sure how much longer the water would last even if we stopped using it for anything but drinking. Leaving Halle alone to go scavenging was the most terrifying thing. If something happened to me, she would have no one. It wasn’t impossible, but the odds of her surviving alone were low, and I had promised Dad to take care of her. I couldn’t take care of her if I were dead.
It had been at least a week since we lost Dad. The days were blurring together. My birthday was coming up, give or take a few days. It had been months since the first day of the outbreak. Mom probably thought we were dead, and I wanted so much to prove to her that she was wrong. But I couldn’t think about that anymore. I had to concentrate on Halle.