We caught up to a short line of cars, one after another slowing as we approached and passed Kellyville. Not a single person could be seen. I didn’t dare hope for the same in Fairview. As we approached the outskirts of town, it seemed quiet. At first, I thought maybe we were faster than the sickness, but then the car in front slammed on its brakes as a woman ran across the road screaming, followed by a man covered in blood, mostly concentrated around his mouth. The woman had the most beautiful brunette hair I’d ever seen flowing behind her. She was running so fast, her hair was waving behind her head like a flag. Tires squealed against the asphalt, and a car in front led a frantic escape through town. The other vehicles chased it. I wasn’t sure if any of them had meant to come here, but they definitely weren’t going to stay.
I glanced over at Zoe. “There are sick people here, Zoe. When I say so, I want you to unbuckle your seat belt and I’m going to carry you inside.”
Zoe nodded. She blinked a few times. I could tell she was nervous, but not because she was afraid to die. She wanted to make sure she did what I asked of her, and did it correctly. Zoe was always particular about procedures, especially when they were spoken and not just implied. Rules were formed very carefully in our house. They were something we couldn’t take back. If there was an exception, we didn’t enlighten Zoe, because she didn’t understand the concept of an exception to the rule, and if we tried to explain it to her, she would get upset.
“It’s time to unbuckle your seatbelt.”
Zoe did as she was told as I made the first right and then pulled into Skeeter’s driveway. Once the car came to a stop, I shoved the gear into park and pulled Zoe over to my side, and we ran quickly but quietly to Skeeter’s back door. No one ever came to their front door, and if they did, Skeeter knew they were either a salesman or a cop, and Skeeter answered the door for neither.
I pounded on the storm door with the side of my fist, still holding Zoe by the waist with my other arm. The barrel of Jill’s .22 became visible, as it pulled the curtain away just enough for her to get a good look at my face.
“It’s us,” I said, glancing behind me.
The lock clicked open and the doorknob turned, and then Jill opened the door wide, waving quickly for us to come in.
I set Zoe down. Her glitter sneakers slapped against the green-and-yellow diamond-patterned linoleum of the kitchen. I took a deep breath, trying to blow out all of the anxiety I’d just built up while attempting to get Zoe out of the car and inside the house alive, while Jill locked the door behind us and set her rifle down.
Jill slammed into me, wrapping her arms around my torso and squeezing so tight I was glad I’d taken a good breath beforehand.
“Oh my God, Nate! I’m so glad you came!” She let go of me and then bent down to hug Zoe. “Hi, sweet pea! Are you okay?” Zoe dipped her chin once, and Jill looked up to me, fear in her eyes. “Where’s Aubrey?” When I didn’t answer, she stood up and peeked out the window. She turned back to me. “Nate! Where is she?”
“She left me.”
I shrugged, unsure of what expression matched the conversation. “Today.” Any other time I would have felt justified telling my sister-in-law the news, but at that moment I just felt stupid. With everything else going on, the end of my marriage seemed trivial.
Jill’s almond-shaped eyes bounced between Zoe and me. Aubrey leaving wasn’t exactly a surprise. She’d been depressed and unhappy for a long time. No matter what I tried or how many times I asked her to go to counseling—together or just her alone—Aubrey was no longer the woman I married, and we were all waiting for the woman who took her place to finally say she didn’t belong in that life. We all pretended it would get better, but the unspoken truth is always louder than the stories we tell.
Still, for Jill any expression but a smile seemed out of place. She was a beautiful woman. Watching her clean a buck or a catfish with that porcelain skin and those long, delicate fingers had always been surreal to me. The fact that she could shoot a gun and bait a hook made her perfect for Skeeter, and he loved her as much as any man could love a woman. They’d been dating since high school, and neither seemed to mind that they’d never experienced anyone or anything else. Anywhere but Fairview, Jill would have never ended up with Skeeter, but here, in the middle of the middle, even with his blossoming beer gut and unkempt beard, Skeeter McGee only needed country-boy charm, working man’s muscles, and a decent job to score the magnificence that was Jill.
Speaking of Skeeter . . . “Where is he?” I asked.
Jill put her hand up to the side of her face. “He left about half an hour ago. He went down the street to Barb’s and Ms. Kay’s to see if they needed help. They’re getting old and their husbands have been gone for years. He shovels their driveways every winter, and fixes things when they need fixin’. He worries about them. With hell breaking loose outside, he wanted to try to bring them back here where he could take care of them.” Jill unconsciously reached for Zoe’s hand, the thought of the monsters outside reflecting in her eyes.
“Did he take a gun?”
Jill nodded. “His thirty aught six.”
“He’ll come back.”
Before the sickness came, waiting was an irritation. Now that the dead were walking amid the living, waiting felt like the violation of being robbed, the helplessness when you’ve lost something valuable like your keys or your wedding ring, and the unbearable dread that comes over you when your child falls just out of sight at the shopping mall all rolled into one sickening ball of emotion.
Jill paced in the kitchen, her fingers in her mouth while she chewed off every last bit of fingernail her teeth could find. I checked the windows and the front door, making sure everything was secure. Zoe sat in the doorway connecting the kitchen to the living room, quietly picking at the hem of her long-sleeved T-shirt.
A familiar whistle sounded just outside the kitchen window, and then a shot rang out. Without looking, Jill scrambled to unlock the door, and Skeeter stumbled inside, out of breath and sweaty. He sat his rifle beside Jill’s while she locked the door, and then they hugged and kissed like they hadn’t seen each other in years.
Jill whimpered, and Skeeter held her face in his hands. “Don’t cry, Jillybean. I told you I’d come back.” He kissed her forehead, and then held his arms out wide to Zoe, crouching as much as his six-foot-three frame and 220 pounds would allow.