“Maybe we should try to go south then.”
He shook his head. “The military’s going to be way more interested in protecting itself than helping us. Trust me on this. They’ve got a lot of guns, and guys who aren’t afraid to use them.”
“You’re not making a great case for leaving.”
“I’m not saying that. I’m thinking we should go, but I think we should head”—he hesitated—“north.”
“North? Tom, it’s going to snow. It’s already freezing out there.”
“Yes, that’s the point. People will move south and west, not north. They’ll go where it’s warmer.”
“Tom, the only thing north of us is Superior.”
“Not if we head into Minnesota.”
For a second, she was speechless. “Minnesota? You want to go to Minnesota? Tom, that’s hundreds of miles.”
“According to the ranger maps, it’s about five hundred miles to the border.”
“The border. You mean, Canada? That’s nuts. You want to go farther north, into Canada, at the beginning of winter?”
“Lot fewer people. More territory for the people who are left to spread out. There’ll be fish in the lakes, plenty of game if we stay out of the mountains. Come spring, we can grow things.”
“Tom, you’re making a lot of assumptions about what we can and can’t do. I don’t know anything about farming, and I’ll bet you don’t either.”
“We’re not talking acres of wheat or corn. I’m saying we find ourselves a safe place and then grow enough to live on. We can do that. People do it all the time. My parents always had a garden. Alex, if things are really as bad as what we’ve heard, it’s not like anyone’s going to be driving to the local grocery store anymore. That means we learn to fend for ourselves. I’m not saying it’ll be easy. I think it will be more difficult than we can imagine. But not facing up to that won’t help us.”
“I know that,” she said, a little irritated now. “Okay, say you’re right. Even if this was a good idea—and I’m not sure that it is—we’ve got Ellie to think about. You and I might make it, but you can’t expect Ellie to hike that kind of distance, sleep out in the snow. The rangers only left two pairs of snowshoes and cross-country skis, and none fit Ellie. That means we’ll have to carry her or figure out some kind of sled. Best case scenario, we wouldn’t make it for almost two months—and that’s if it doesn’t snow. No way we won’t run out of food.”
“An awful lot of people are dead, Alex,” he said quietly. “They died weeks ago, in the first few minutes.”
“Assuming you can trust rumors.”
He pushed through her objection. “That means a lot of abandoned houses and plenty of supplies, provided no one’s gotten there first.”
“It’s still really far. Think of how long it took us to make it here.” She saw how his face had changed. “What?”
“We might have wheels.”
Her mouth unhinged. “What?”
“That truck in the garage. It’s pretty old. I think it might actually work. I just haven’t …” He punctuated with a shrug.
“Oh my God,” she said. “You mean, we could drive? Why didn’t you say anything?”
“A couple reasons. Once the snow flies and it gets more than eight inches, a foot, we’ll be dead in the water, even with chains, and there won’t be snowplows. There’s also fuel to worry about. We’ve got some here, but inground tanks work on electric pumps. No electricity, no way to get gas.”
“But there’ll be a lot of abandoned trucks and cars, right? We’ll siphon off what we need. Tom, in a truck, five hundred miles is almost nothing. We could be there in ten or twelve hours. We could go anywhere.”
“Under normal circumstances. But how much you want to bet that the roads are parking lots? Everything stopped moving, all at once. If what we heard on the radio is right, then a lot of people flat-out died, just like Stan. That means bodies, lots of them. Where there are bodies, there are going to be scavengers, and I’m not just talking wild dogs. There’ll be raccoons, opossums, foxes, wolves, maybe bears. All those cars mean we’ll be spending half our time just trying to clear the road. Eventually we’ll run into something too big to move and then we walk.”
“What if we stay away from major roads?”
“Yeah, but remember that Spielberg movie War of the Worlds? Remember what happens when they try driving past all those people without wheels? They nearly get killed, and then they lose the van and end up with nothing. That’s how the real world is, Alex; that’s what’ll happen if we take the truck. There is nothing near what you think of as civilized out there. Everything is different.”
She saw his point, she really did. She had, after all, seen the same movie. “If we’re too freaked out to leave, then this isn’t any better than a prison.”
He was quiet a few moments. “What if we run into more of them?”
She knew what he meant. “Maybe they’re all dead by now. It’s cold. They’ve probably frozen to death.” Then she thought, Yeah, but if a brain-zapped ranger did set that booby trap, they might be a lot smarter than they look. This assumed there were more brain-zapped kids out there. Panicky radio broadcasts, fueled by rumors, weren’t facts. Although they believed everything else. So why not that?
“Jim,” he reminded her, “gave me the slip for more than two days. If there are more of those zapped kids or adults, I wouldn’t count them all out.”
“Well,” she said, “maybe we shouldn’t count us out either.”
“Maybe not,” he said, “but those radio guys made it sound like the people who survived are scared of kids, of us. That means we’re the enemy. We’re the threat. We’ll be lucky they don’t shoot us on sight.”
Ellie was not as unhappy as Alex had expected her to be, even when Tom sat the girl down and explained how things might be very different once they ran into other people. To Ellie, Tom was a soldier, as her father had been. Tom had saved them once before and would save them again.
Over the next two days, Alex re-inventoried their supplies, decided what they should bring, and, if it came down to it—if they lost the truck or got bogged down in snow—who would carry what. Tom worked on the truck, and Ellie stuck close, shadowing Tom, handing over tools. When Tom cranked the starter, they were rewarded with a series of heavy metallic clatters and coughs before the truck settled down to a throaty rattle. Tom and Ellie gave each other high fives, and Ellie crowed to Alex, “And now we got wheels!”
That night, after grilled steaks and baked potatoes, Tom asked, “What do you know about hunting, setting traps, that kind of thing?”
She handed him a plate to dry. “Well, I know how to shoot. I’ve done skeet. I know how to make a deadfall.”
He made a face. “That’s okay if you don’t mind hamburger. How about bow-hunting?” When she shook her head, he said, “Tomorrow, we go out with the bow. You know how to change a tire? Or drive a stick?”
“Why are we talking about this?”
“Because.” Opening the cupboard, he replaced the dried plates. “If something happens to me, or we get separated somehow, you need to know these things.”
She stared at him for a long moment. “Nothing’s going to happen to you.” It was, in fact, much more likely that something would happen to her. She wondered again when she would tell him.
“Believe me, I’d just as soon not go anywhere either, but I want you guys to have the best shot at making it.”
“With that logic, you ought to be teaching Ellie how to handle a gun. If something can happen to you, it can happen to both of us. Then she’d be all alone.” She could tell he wasn’t thrilled with the idea, and added, “She doesn’t have to carry one, but she should know.”
“Okay. There’s a Browning Buck Mark. That’d be good to start with. So.” He carefully folded his dish towel. “Leave in two days?”
She nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
“But I’ve already got a knife,” Alex said. It was early morning, two days later. The sky was still very dark, almost cobalt blue to the north where the snow must be falling. They were in the front room, their gear and provisions already packed onto the Ford’s flatbed. Alex looked down at the top of Tom’s head as he fiddled with her boot. “I’ll never remember it.”
“The beauty of a boot knife is that no one thinks to look for it unless you blouse your pants or tuck the cuffs into your boots, which you don’t.” Tom gave the right leg of her hiking pants a stiff tug. “How’s it feel?”
“Like I’ve got something clipped onto my boot. Tom, I’ve got the Mossberg, and there’s the Beretta from the safe. You’ve got your Winchester and a Sig, and there’s the Browning, and we’ve got the bow.”
“Which you did very well with, by the way.”
“Like Uryū,” said Ellie, appearing at the door. Her arms were full of green wool: blankets for the dog.
“What?” asked Tom.
“Who,” said Alex. “It’s a Quincy. Anime?”
“And manga,” Ellie added.
“Oh. Well, I know Hellsing,” said Tom.
“You would,” said Ellie. “They all use guns. Except for Alucard. He likes guns and rips people’s heads off.”
“What can I say? My kind of guy.”
“Great.” Alex rolled her eyes. “Tom, I don’t know how to fight with a knife.”
“And with any luck, you won’t have to. In fact, you’ll probably just end up getting yourself killed, so I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“So what good is it?”
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