I couldn’t imagine how hard it was to be responsible for keeping so many people calm in such a frightening situation. I was glad it was him and not me.
“I can’t breathe,” Halle said.
Her moist skin made her glasses slip down her nose so often that she’d resorted to pushing them atop her head like Mom would do with her sunglasses. When she tried to focus, her left eye would turn in.
I patted her nose with the bottom of my blouse and lowered her glasses in place. “Your crazy eye isn’t behaving,” I said with a wink.
Being premature, Halle had been sick a lot as a child. Mom had said that Halle coming early explained why she was the only one with glasses in our immediate family and why she was so much smaller than everyone in her class. Mom would also insist that Halle was as strong as any of us and to definitely never, ever give Halle a complex about her lazy eye. Mom would say all of this while babying Halle, of course. But when her glasses or lazy eye were mentioned, we would rarely make a big deal about it, and if we did, it was to proclaim how weird it was that one of her classmates had even noticed. We’d call it her crazy eye instead.
Halle pulled her mouth to the side. “I’m hungry.”
I led her over to a table with laundry baskets full of snack food. I picked out four small bags of potato chips and put four bottles of water in Halle’s backpack. We walked together through a rickety wooden door to a grassy yard surrounded by a tall fence, the ominous kind with curly barbed wire on top. A few rusted Humvees and military trucks were parked there. I even noticed a tank that I was sure was just for show.
Some of the other townspeople were grouped together, discussing theories on the origin of the virus and making phone calls. Halle picked out a spot in the corner of the yard, and we sat down in the grass, already green from the overabundance of spring rain.
Just as I thought about texting Chloe, Halle hopped up. “My pants are wet!”
I jumped up, too, checking my backside for the inevitable damp spot. I sighed. “Sorry. I’ll find something for us to sit on.”
I walked back into the armory and found several packages of plastic table covers. I took a package and opened it with my teeth while rejoining Halle outside.
“Here,” I said, spreading the plastic on the ground. “Our own little picnic.”
“I’m cold,” Halle whined.
“It’s cooling off,” I agreed. “And you were sweating inside. That’ll make you colder faster.”
She untied the sleeves of her jacket wrapped around her waist and put it on. “Sweat will?” she asked, confused.
I shrugged and zipped up her jacket. “That’s kind of the point.”
Halle munched on her chips as we watched more vehicles drive down Sixth Street. The drivers seemed to be searching for places to park.
“Why are so many people coming here?”
“Probably because the governor is here, and they think it must be safe.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The cops and firefighters are here, and the National Guard is coming. I’d say we’re safer than most.”
That brought Halle a moment of comfort, but it only lasted a few seconds before she frowned again. “I want Mom.”
I pressed my lips together. “Me, too.”
Several young men in hunter’s camouflage came through the wooden door and out to the yard, yelling at people to get back inside the armory. I grabbed Halle and pulled her out of the way before wadding up our tablecloth and stuffing it into her backpack.
Dad’s voice called our names from inside, and then he appeared, rushing over to us. “Where have you been?” he said, angry.
“Halle was hungry,” I said.
His attention was already on the men. Some of them were starting up the Humvees, and others were opening the oversized gate at the end of the yard.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
Dad turned away from Halle and spoke softly, “There are reports of the virus in our state. The National Guard isn’t coming. The governor gave those guys permission to take the military vehicles to the roads running in and out of town to make sure no one who’s infected gets in.”
Women and children began to cry. Voices got much louder as the Humvees pulled out of the gate, and the young men chained it shut again. Other men rushed to their own trucks, heading to the highways leading out of town.
“Have you called Mom yet?” I asked. “What about Mom? Did you tell them to let her in?”
Dad was in a deep conversation with Tom.
“Not now, Jenna.”
“Have you talked to Mom?” I said, unrelenting.
He stopped his conversation, breathed out a controlled but frustrated sigh, and shook his head. “Your grandma said she talked to your mom earlier. She was still in surgery. She’s busy.”
I pulled out my phone. It was almost time for her to get off work. Chloe had been out of school for over an hour, and she hadn’t texted me yet.
“I’m calling her.”
“I’m calling her!”
Halle lifted her glasses and wiped her eyes before watching me. I touched the screen and then held the phone to my ear. A series of beeps came through the speaker. I tried again.
“Can’t get through?” Dad asked, unable to hide the alarm in his voice.
Once the beeps started again, I hit End. “You should have let me try earlier!”
“Jenna, calm down,” Dad said.
I tried texting Chloe. A minute passed, and then a little red icon popped up next to my message showing that it hadn’t gone through. After a brief moment of panic, I noticed the worried look on Halle’s face, so I swallowed back my fear.
Dad put his hand on my shoulder. “She’ll be here, Jenna. This is the first place she’ll come when she leaves the hospital.”
I held Halle against my side. “Hear that? We’ll see her in an hour or two.”
Halle touched her forehead to my stomach and shook her head.
I knelt down, waiting until Halle’s eyes met mine. “She will, and she won’t let anything stop her.”
Halle hugged me, and Dad hugged us both before coaxing us back into the building. Instantly, the air was hot and stale. The tension was thicker, and Halle felt it, too. Something twinged in my chest as she squeezed my hand tight.