Within fifteen minutes, Dad turned north, confirming my suspicion. Another fifteen minutes later, we were in Anderson’s city limits. We passed the high school and the baseball fields, the fairgrounds, and then downtown.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
I glanced back at Halle. She still hadn’t said a word, which was completely abnormal. She usually barely took a breath when we were in the car and fighting for airtime.
“To the armory,” he answered.
“Still?” I asked. “I was kind of hoping we’d go home and watch the news.”
“Why do you think I’ve left the radio off?” he said. “It’s not a good idea.” He peeked at the rearview mirror and winked at Halle. “No need to scare your sister.”
“She’s already scared.”
He turned right at the northeast corner of town. Three blocks before the armory, the parking lots of the surrounding buildings were nearly full. The haphazard parking and packed lots looked like the fairgrounds would during fair week, but we were on the wrong side of town.
“There’s so many cars,” I said.
“A lot more than when I left,” Dad said.
“All these people have come to the armory because they think it’s safer to be near Governor Bellmon, don’t they?”
“He’s called in the National Guard just to be safe,” Dad said. “They should be here soon.”
“I’m not sure if that’s comforting or not.”
Dad patted my leg. “It’s just a precaution. I won’t let anything happen to you. Hear that, Halle? You’re with Daddy. Nothin’ to worry about.”
Halle didn’t answer.
Dad found a parking spot, and we each held one of Halle’s hands as we crossed the busy street. It seemed the whole county was driving toward the armory. Dad took us in through the armory’s back entrance, and we found a group of firefighters looking formal in their dress blues. Dad joined them, blending in.
“Hey, kiddo,” Jason Sneed said with a wink. He was blond, blue-eyed, young, and charming.
I’d had a crush on him since I was four. I’d even told him once that I was going to marry him one day, and I’d believed it until he’d gotten engaged two years later.
“Hey,” I replied.
“You doing okay?” he said quietly.
“So far. Heard anything new?” I asked.
“It’s spread along the East Coast. But we’re in the middle of nowhere. Nothing ever comes this far. The military is containing it. Governor Bellmon is in contact with some US senators, and they’re confident.”
“That’s what he’s saying anyway,” I grumbled.
Jason narrowed his eyes, but his small smile betrayed him. “So young yet so cynical.”
The governor was elevated above the crowd on a makeshift stage in the center of the room, speaking comforting words into a microphone, as people yelled questions and concerns.
“I hear what you’re saying. I’m not saying not to worry. With words like epidemic and now pandemic being thrown around…it’s a worrisome situation. But we’re safe here, and that’s what we need to focus on now. Panic won’t solve anything.”
“Is it the terrorists?” someone yelled.
“No,” the governor said, amused. “I’ve been told it’s a virus.”
“What kind of virus?” someone else asked.
“We’re not exactly sure yet,” Governor Bellmon said.
He was being honest. I’d give him that.
“There are reports in Mississippi!” a man said, holding up his phone.
The crowd erupted, and the governor leaned over to whisper something in a man’s ear. He was dressed in a suit, and he nodded before leaving the stage immediately. He walked over to Tom, the fire chief, just feet away from where we stood. Tom listened intently to the man in the suit and then waved to his men to come closer.
“The governor has ordered we gather water and supplies. We’re going into disaster mode, guys. I know most of you came in for the photo op, but you’re getting called in. Let’s get going.”
The men gave a nod and turned for the back door. Dad looked around and caught Tom as he was making his way toward the police chief and the mayor.
“Tom, I’ve got my little girls here,” Dad said.
Tom looked down at Halle and me and then nodded, giving Dad an unspoken pass, before he continued on.
“Now what?” I asked.
“We wait for the guys to get back and help as best as we can.” He leaned in, whispering in my ear, “Do me a favor, Jenna. Stay off your phone. I don’t want any of the stuff on the news to scare your sister.”
I felt a small hand grip mine. I knelt down beside Halle. Her stringy blonde hair was a ratty mess as it always was after school. Her clothes were mismatched, and her heather-gray hoodie jacket was tied around her waist. She pushed up her black-rimmed glasses, her ice-blue eyes glistening.
We couldn’t look more different—Halle with her light-blue eyes and tiny frame and me with my honey-brown irises and chestnut hair. I was always athletic, always pushing against boundaries, vying for independence, even when I was little. Halle just always seemed so fragile.
As if she could hear my thoughts and personify them, she squeaked her next words, “I want Mom.”
“I bet she’ll head this way as soon as she gets off work. She’ll want to be here with us,” I said.
Halle shook her head. “She won’t come here, Jenna. She’ll go to our place.”
“Red Hill? That’s just if something bad happens, silly.”
Halle looked around at the roomful of frightened people. “This is bad, Jenna.”
I stood and squeezed her to my side.
THE CONCRETE WALLS AND FLOOR OF THE ARMORY seemed so much smaller than when I had been here for the National Guard’s open house the year before. It was just one giant room, but even back then, when the huge military vehicles had been parked inside, the space had seemed bigger. Now, the vehicles were parked outside, but with so many people packed inside, it made me feel a little claustrophobic. Still, as the news reports worsened and the news that the governor was in Anderson, more people were finding their way to the aging brick building.
Dad was helping the other firefighters pass out water and blankets, and they were also plugging in fans to every outlet they could find. Governor Bellmon was standing on the stage, speaking words of comfort, while holding out his hands between moments of wiping the sweat dripping from his brow. He looked like a doomsday preacher during an outdoor revival, only we were crammed inside a run-down building that was older than my dad.