“Before dark, if we’re lucky.”
I took the first step, and Halle followed.
We held hands, the summer sun merciless, the road sending sizzling heat up our legs. My pants were an inch shorter than they had been in the spring, and Halle’s were, too. The cicadas hissed in the grass as we passed by.
Every fifteen minutes or so, I would initiate a jog but only for as long as Halle could go.
“It’s too hot to run,” Halle said.
“But if we don’t once in a while, we won’t make it before dark.”
“I’m thirsty,” she said.
I pulled the canteen strap from around my neck and handed it to her. She took a big sip.
“Easy, Pop Can. That has to last us all day.”
“Sorry,” she said, handing it back. “Jenna?”
“Please don’t call me that. It makes me miss Dad.”
“Sorry,” I said.
I could see a small group of infected ahead, and I quietly alerted Halle. It wasn’t safe to travel too far into the wheat field, but I decided it was better than trying to run around them.
“Listen to the wheat,” I said. “You can hear them coming.”
Halle nodded, and we ducked into the tall stalks. Leaning down, we tiptoed past the half-dozen infected. There were a few children with them, and it made me feel nauseous.
That wasn’t going to happen to us, not before we saw our mom.
After we were several blocks ahead of the group, we leaped out of the stalks and kept a quick pace until they were so far behind that we couldn’t see them.
“Look,” Halle said, pointing to the pillar of smoke in the air. “That’s our house.”
“No going back now even if we wanted to.”
“I don’t want to anyway,” Halle said.
“If something happens to me, you keep going,” I said.
“I’m serious, Halle. Keep being sneaky until you get there. You know the way. Just keep walking, keep listening, and pay attention to your surroundings. You’ll get there.”
Halle screamed, and we stumbled back. A large infected stumbled out from the wheat field in front of us and then another.
“Stay away!” I called to Halle. “Keep an eye out!”
She had the bat, so I used the stock of my gun to wipe out the infected’s knees. Then, I took out the large knife tucked in the back of my pants and thrust downward into its eye. His arms and legs went limp. Then, I swung the rifle high before hitting the second one in the head with a thwack. She toppled backward, and then I hit her a second time. She didn’t move, but I was only holding the barrel of the rifle in my hand. It had broken in half when I hit her.
“No!” I said, looking at the useless metal in my hand. I tossed it to the ground and kicked at it. “Crap!” I yelled.
Halle shushed me. “You can’t fix it?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Let’s go.” I took her hand, and we continued on the asphalt.
It was miserably hot and sticky, and after a while, we quit holding hands because the sweat made them slip away anyway.
Every five minutes or so, I had to encourage Halle to keep up. Every mile we gained, the more decomposed bodies were piled on each side of the road. I could tell they’d been dragged, and I knew it was Mom clearing the way for us, telling us to keep going.
“Halle,” I said, breathless and exhausted, “look.”
“THE WHITE TOWER!” Halle said, squinting one eye as she looked upward.
A tall white tube loomed above us, standing as a beacon for Red Hill. We left the highway for red dirt, and our pace naturally quickened.
“It’s not far now!” I said, encouraging my sister. “Just a few more miles to the cemetery, and then we’re practically there!”
We passed a large feedlot. I remembered hundreds, if not thousands, of cows milling about before, but now, there weren’t any. We came across a large pile of dead infected and gave them a wide berth just in case.
After another hour of walking, I stopped and handed Halle the canteen. She took a large gulp and handed it to me. I did the same and then I reached back for the beef jerky. It wasn’t there. I turned around in a circle, as if it would appear if I could just see it.
“It must have fallen out when I scuffled with the infected.”
Halle’s shoulders sagged. “It’s okay. Let’s keep going.”
“I’m so proud of you,” I said to Halle.
“We’re almost there, right? And Mom’s there, right?” she said.
I could hear the exhaustion in her voice.
“Yes, and yes. I don’t know how much farther, but I know we’re going to get there before dark.”
I hoped I was right. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and we had been walking for hours. We had to be close.
“Look!” Halle said, pointing ahead. “The cemetery!”
I grabbed her hand, and we ran toward it before turning left.
“Just a couple of more miles, Halle! We’re almost there!”
“She is going to be so happy! Do you think she’ll cry?”
“Yes. And I will, too.”
Halle teared up, and so did I. Our hair was soaked in sweat, our lips were dry and chapped, our noses and foreheads were both bright pink from the sun, and I’d lost track of how many days it had been since we’d had a real shower. We weren’t as pretty as we had wanted to be, but Mom wouldn’t care.
“My side is hurting,” Halle said.
“Want to get on my back?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, it’ll slow us down.”
I smiled at her. She was so smart.
After another mile, we hit an intersection. To the right, about a hundred yards away, was a hill, and on the other side of that hill was the ranch. My stomach fluttered, and my heart began to pound. We were almost there.
“There’s the hill,” I said to Halle, pulling her to the west, toward the setting sun.
She dropped the bat as if she were letting go of all the bad things that had happened to us up to that point. “Good thing, too,” she said. “It’ll be dark soon.”
I wanted to run, but I was just too tired, and I knew Halle was, too. So, we held hands as we approached the hill and climbed over. I looked at the farmhouse hoping to see Mom outside. Two people were sitting on the roof.