“Because without power, there’s no way to cool any of the remaining reactors, or the rods in the facilities that weren’t hit—”
“Alex, calm down.”
“Which means they blow up, too: every plant and every storage facility in the country, around the world, everywhere.”
“Hey. Stop.” He was out of his chair now. “This isn’t doing any good.”
“I don’t care! The moon is green, Tom. It’s green!” She thought she was shouting—the words cut like knives in her throat—but all that came out of her mouth was a tortured, watery wheeze. “The world’s over! There’s crap and dust and debris in the air and people are dead; they just dropped dead when the e-bombs went off, and the ones who didn’t will die. They’ll starve or get radiation sickness or kill each other—and what about those kids? And Jim? We still don’t know what happened to them, or if other people have changed, or when we will—”
“But we haven’t. We’re not dead, we haven’t changed, and we’re not going to.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do.” Kneeling, he captured her hands. “Look at me, listen to me. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in fate.”
“What does that—”
“Shut up and listen. I’ve lived through firefights you wouldn’t believe. You don’t know how often I thought I was toast; that I thought, This is it, I’m going to die. But I made it home. I made it here.” He reached up to cup the back of her neck. “I made it in time to save you and Ellie.”
“That was luck.”
“It was fate. I was exactly where I needed to be at exactly the right moment. I refuse to believe that we’ve gone through all this just to die,” he said fiercely. “Now we are alive. We are safe. I am not going to let anything happen to you or Ellie, and that’s a promise.”
Fate or not, that’s not the kind of promise you can keep. I’ve got a monster in my head that might have other ideas. Oh, but she wanted to believe him. She was shaking all over, a deep and visceral shudder so strong she was afraid she would blow apart. “B-but where are we going to g-go? W-we can’t go back. Wh-where?”
“We don’t have to go anywhere right now. We’ll think of something. Come on, I’ve got you, ease down.” Somehow he’d pulled her from her chair and they were on the floor, and she was clinging to him, every muscle tight as a coiled spring, and then he had clasped her to his chest the way he had Ellie, and they were rocking back and forth. “It’s okay, I’ve got you,” he said, holding her tight. “Ease down. I’ve got you, Alex, I’ve got you.”
She wept then: for Jack and Ellie and poor loyal Mina and her own dead parents, lost forever; for her aunt, whom she would never see again. She cried for Tom and especially his little sisters who lived near D.C., which really was nowhere good. She even wept for the astronauts riding a doomed orbit beneath an alien moon.
And Alex wept for fear, too. As bad as things were, she thought things were going to get a lot worse.
Because where there was one Jim, one Ponytail Blonde, one Basketball Boy, there might be others—and no telling if one of them might be next.
A week passed, then two, and then three. They rested, inventoried their supplies, and ate well—even the dog. They passed the time reading from the rangers’ considerable selection of books, taking short hikes around the station, and throwing a Frisbee for Mina, whose bum leg was clearly on the mend. They didn’t power up the generator at all; the noise made them nervous, and the rangers had left hurricane lamps and a lot of candles. After that first night, they’d told Ellie what they knew, and Alex was surprised at how calmly the little girl took in the information. Maybe not having any family to go back to made the world going up in flames a little easier to take. Or, maybe, Ellie figured they were a family now, which wasn’t far from the truth.
They slept before the fireplace in the front room, with Ellie sandwiched between Alex and Tom, who took turns keeping watch at night. Tom didn’t sleep much, though, either because he couldn’t or wouldn’t. More often than not, Alex would awaken hours into her shift, look over, and see Tom propped on cushions by the front window, still awake, with the dog by his side. Every now and again, the dark silhouette of his head would turn as he looked over at them, his scent steady and sure, and she knew he would keep them safe, no matter what. Yet he sat up often and that made her think of stories she’d heard about guys who went to war and came back with their minds choked by nightmares. She didn’t pry. She liked to think that she was only respecting his privacy.
But that was a lie. Once, when Tom and Ellie were outside, she opened her soft-sided black case to stare at the plastic baggies, the Bible, that unopened letter. She had no idea what she was going to do now with all that stuff. At this rate, she might be lugging that case around for the rest of her life, which might not be a whole lot longer. She could tell Tom about the tumor, and probably should. She trusted him, and they depended on each other. She thought that a guy who’d been to war—who’d defused bombs—would understand about nightmares and monsters. Yet every time she considered telling him, she felt that familiar prick of fear. Once people knew about the tumor, they changed. They were awkward, their eyes darted away, and she could feel their relief when they escaped. Worse, she knew exactly what they thought: Better her than me.
Fear held her back, but there was something else. True, Tom had been in the right place at the right time, but his family was in Maryland. He had said that he was due to deploy again in December. So why come all the way to Michigan for a camping trip with his team leader? Because Tom hadn’t seen him enough in Afghanistan? It didn’t make sense. Wouldn’t someone heading off to combat again want to spend time with his family?
And why couldn’t Tom sleep? Was it because of what he saw when he closed his eyes? She didn’t ask, but she sensed from the way he looked at her, how he sometimes took her hand or touched her arm, or how he treated Ellie with such care and patience, that Tom was afraid. Of losing them? Maybe. Or maybe the fear went much deeper, to something he’d already lost. As strong and capable and brave as he was, Tom had his secrets, too.
Still, there were other times: when their eyes met and his scent deepened to a complex spice and then her heart gave this little jump. Sometimes, she let herself think about how his lips might feel against hers. Sometimes, she thought about more—what it might be like to really let herself go—and wondered if he had the same thoughts.
But she did nothing about that. Said nothing. Didn’t ask. There was a monster in her head. Not telling wasn’t fair or right, but then no guy would want her if he knew, not even Tom.
So she zipped up the case and stowed it away again in her fanny pack and decided not to think about it.
By the end of the first week of November—six weeks after the Zap—they still had not changed, but the weather had. Tom stomped in with an armload of firewood to break the news, which Alex confirmed by simply stepping outside and looking north. The day was gray and the wind was up, so she got a good whiff—that edge of chilled aluminum—and eyed the dense blanket of clouds, potbellied and slate gray.
No need for her special spidey-sense this time. “Snow.”
“Uh-huh. And probably sooner rather than later,” Tom said. “We need to decide.”
“Go or stay.” Beyond the kitchen, she could hear Ellie folding laundry and talking to Mina in the front room. “Tom, I don’t know. What if we stayed? No one’s bothered us, and we know it’s not safe to go to a city yet.”
Every night, she and Tom clustered around the ancient radio atop the lookout tower, trying to glean as much information as they could. More often than not, all they got was static, but from the few broadcasts they’d picked up, they knew that both coasts were virtual dead zones, either burning or radioactive or both. Everywhere else was chaos, and there didn’t seem to be much of a government, at least in the U.S. They’d heard enough to understand that Stan hadn’t been the only one to drop; a lot of people—tens of millions—had died in those first few moments. They knew something more was going on, too, from the garbled stories of cannibals and crazed zombies and kids going suddenly insane. In fact, kids came up a lot.
“There’s plenty of wood,” she said now. “We’ve got water and food.”
“Yeah, but that’s now. We’ll need more food come spring.”
“We could hunt. There are a lot of bullets down in the cellar. We’ve got more guns, and there’s the bow.”
“But we’ll run out of other supplies eventually. Then we either learn to make candles and soap and toothpaste and clothes, or we leave the station and the park and go find supplies. That could take a very, very long time, and then we have the not-so-little problem of gathering enough and getting it back up here. And what if one
of us gets really sick?”
“What about all your battlefield medicine stuff?”
“That’s not the same as being a doctor and you know it. Even if I were, I’d need supplies. So we have to leave. It’s just a question of when. Either we hunker down until spring, or leave now while we still can and before other people start showing up to take what we’ve got.”
“No one’s come yet.”
“But they might. People are desperate. They might come walking out of those woods just like we did, and then what do we do? Fight them off? Let them in?”
“Tom, once we leave, there’s no telling what might happen. There’s no government, no one in charge other than maybe the military—and who knows what they’re doing?” She had another thought. “Wait a minute, you’re in the army. Where’s the nearest base?”
“South. Wisconsin. There’s Sawyer Air Force Base here in the Yooper, but that closed a while ago and got turned into a tiny airport and a pretty dinky museum. Couple planes on static display, mainly. Most of the original buildings are still standing, but there won’t be any soldiers based there now.”
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