“Gross!” the mother said, chuckling. She took a sanitizer wipe from Tobin’s preschooler-sized backpack and rubbed his fingers and palms.
Halle waited a few seconds until his hand was dry, and then she took it. “Halle.”
The boy ripped off his backpack and sat on the floor before pulling out small cars and a few miniature trains. Halle sat down with him and watched for a moment before joining in. She was twice his age, but she still liked a good playdate.
“I’m Tavia,” the woman said, crossing her arms across her stomach, as she watched the little kids play.
“Jenna.” I was sure that my smile was awkward. It felt strange to have such an ordinary conversation when the armory was slowly being turned into an internment camp.
“You doing okay?” Tavia asked.
“Today is pretty messed up,” I said.
She laughed at my honesty. “Where are your parents?” She dabbed her brow with the heel of her hand.
“My dad’s over there,” I said, tossing my head in his direction. He was helping his shift partner organize medical supplies in the corner of the room. “My mom works in Bishop. She’s on her way here.”
“Oh,” she said, suddenly concerned. “My brother is on his way here, too. I haven’t heard from him in several hours though. I heard the interstate is gridlocked. Did you hear that?” she asked.
“I have a confession,” Tavia said, keeping her voice low. “I knew your dad was one of the firefighters. I figured you might have overheard something useful.”
“Just that I-35 is closed down, and the police want us all to stay here.”
Just as I uttered the words, several men in riot gear came through the large double doors we’d come through, holding semiautomatic rifles. A collective gasp traveled from the entrance to where we stood, and the crowd began to panic again.
Governor Bellmon stood on his perch. “Now, this is just a precaution. Emotions are running high. It’s going to get dark soon. We want to make sure all safeguards are in place before the sun goes down. That’s all. Everyone, try to remain calm.”
Tavia laughed once without humor. “Remain calm? That man’s done lost his damn mind.”
“It’s a stressful time. He’s just doing his best,” a man snapped.
Tavia turned around. “I’m not saying he’s not. He’s always taken care of our state. But he should let us do our best at home. Just sayin’.”
The corners of my mouth turned up. I liked her.
“The sun is going to set soon.” Halle pushed up her glasses as she looked up at me.
Tobin banged his train car into hers, pretending that the driver or passengers or whoever were screaming—quietly, of course.
“They brought back flashlights and candles,” I said.
Tavia leaned back to get a better look at the far wall. “I see some tall work lights over there, several of ’em. I’d say they’re prepared—at least for the night.”
“Are we staying here?” Halle asked, her voice going up an octave. “I don’t wanna stay here.”
Tavia leaned in. “Me either, but I bet it’s just for one night. They’ll get this mess figured out, and then we can all go home.”
I was glad Tavia had replied for me. Halle often asked a lot of questions I wouldn’t know the answers to. I wouldn’t feel too bad though. Neither Mom nor Dad would know all the answers either.
I looked over at my dad. In that moment, he happened to glance over to check on us, and our eyes connected. He was trying to hide it, but I could see that this was one of those times he didn’t know the answer. I wondered if anyone did.
IT HAD JUST BEGUN TO QUIET DOWN when someone began to beat on the entrance doors. A few police officers unfastened the chains they had wrapped around the door handles an hour earlier.
An older man in camo burst through. “They’ve…they’ve killed them! The stupid sons-a-bitches gunned them all down!”
People gasped, and the crying began again.
“Who?” the police chief said, standing between the man and the crowd.
“Those idiots guarding the overpass! They gunned down a truck and then an entire family trying to pass through—”
“What family?” someone asked.
The panicked chatter ignited.
“I don’t know. I tried to stop them. I tried to stop them!” the man said. He began to cry. “Then, the people stuck in traffic below…they got out of their cars and tried to run into Anderson. Those boys gunned everyone down! They’re all dead! Men…women…kids…the boys shot everyone who moved.”
The yelling and screaming got louder.
“What do we do?”
“Why would they do that?”
“Is the infection here?
“It’s here! The infection is here! They wouldn’t just shoot innocent people!”
“No! No!” the older man said. “They weren’t infected!”
“Now, you don’t know that,” Governor Bellmon said, his voice booming. “Let’s work on the assumption that they have successfully protected us. Please! Please calm down!”
“Protected us? What if the people out there were our families trying to get home?” a man yelled.
A woman cried out, and fists rose in the air as people demanded answers.
“We can’t leave!” the governor shouted. “We don’t know the whys of what happened, but we know people are being killed out there. If you want to live, you must stay in here!” He gathered himself and then spoke more softly, “We all know what this is. We must stay together.”
The panic and sobbing quieted to whimpers and humming conversations.
Dad walked over and knelt next to Halle. “Doing okay, Pop Can?”
He would only call her that when he was trying to lighten the mood. She hadn’t caught on to it yet, but I’d figured it out right after the divorce. Dad would get excessively weird when he was trying hard to play dad. It was more natural for him to play a skirt-chasing firefighter.
Dad noticed Tavia and Tobin when he stood.
“My son wanted to play with your girl. Hope that’s okay.”
“Yeah,” Dad said, dismissively waving her away. “Thank you. She needs the distraction, too.”