Joy was just pouring the steaming, dark coffee into a mug when I returned to the kitchen. “I meant what I said last night,” she said, encouraging me to sit. “You and Zoe are welcome here for as long as you like.”
I added creamer and sugar to my cup and swirled it around with a spoon. “I appreciate that. But don’t you think it’s dangerous to try to see this through in town? We just came from Fairview. We were inside the church with several other people. The sick were trying to tear it apart. I left with Zoe because it’s only a matter of time before they got in.”
“I couldn’t imagine leaving here. I don’t know where we’d go.”
“Do you know anyone with some land near here? Out of the way? That’s what I was hoping we would come across.”
Joy thought for a minute. Instead of answering, she took a sip of coffee. Her eyes were kind, the light blue in her irises even more pronounced bordered by her silver hair, but they also gave her away. She was holding something back. I didn’t know these people, but if I had a chance of learning whatever it was that she was keeping from me, it was in that moment, while I had Joy alone.
“I understand. You don’t know me or Zoe. I didn’t mean to pry.”
Joy frowned, clearly conflicted. “Oh, it’s not that, Nathan. I’m just not sure.”
“Sure of what?”
The basement door opened. “Your little girl is awake, Nathan. I tried talking to her, but I think she’s confused. You might get down there before she gets too upset,” Walter said. “Bring her up for some breakfast. We’ll try to keep her mind off things.”
I nodded with an appreciative smile, and then left the table, hoping that wasn’t my only chance.
The fridge had an entire case of bottled water inside. I took the first bottle, unscrewed the lid, and chugged it. Just two days before it would have taken an entire morning at work for me to finish that amount, but I felt like I hadn’t had anything to drink in weeks. I opened another, and sucked the water down until only a quarter was left in the bottle.
It had taken me most of the morning to dig one hole, I still had one more to dig, and a dozen other things to do before I could rest. It had been more than twenty-four hours since I’d slept. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.
I trudged back to the backyard, staring at the bodies of Dr. Hayes and his girlfriend, Leah, lying side by side. Dragging him up the stairs was almost the hardest thing I’d ever done, second only to giving birth. At the halfway point on the stairs, I paused to rest and nearly let him go. The only thing that kept me going was weighing the alternative: to dismember him and carry the smaller bits upstairs. Easier yes, but a whole hell of a lot messier.
I leaned against the tree, feeling lightheaded. My body was screaming for rest. Before I was passed out and vulnerable outside, my sense of self-preservation told me to retreat inside the house. With only one objective in mind, I stumbled into the laundry room, descended the stairs, and shut myself in the basement, pulling the old loveseat against the door with the last bit of my energy. My body collapsed onto the scratchy cushions, and before I could have another thought, I lost consciousness.
When I first peeled my eyes open, I saw tan, soiled carpet and the adjacent wall going in and out of focus. Everything was devoid of sound, even the air. My line of sight followed the carpet until the chunky remnants from the tussle with the doctor and Leah came into view.
It was then that my heart broke into a million pieces. I wasn’t sure what time it was, or what day it was, but I knew I was in hell. My children were somewhere else where I couldn’t protect them, and I was alone. It took longer that time to recover from mourning my situation, but I gave myself adequate time to cry, and then I went to the doctor’s gun safe. It was one of many, but it was the only one open. A rifle stood out to me, and fit well in my hands, so it accompanied me upstairs.
The position of the sun confused me at first. It was higher in the eastern sky than it was when I decided to rest. It’s not possible, I thought. But that I had slept the rest of my first day at the ranch and through the entire night was the only explanation.
The doctor’s bloody shirt was damp with dew. The thought of being out for so long was disturbing, and a flood of emotions came over me. What had the girls been doing the day before and all night? Irrational feelings like the fear that they wouldn’t survive if I hadn’t worried about them every minute of every hour crept into my mind.
Unable to process any more, I rolled Leah into her grave, and grabbed the shovel to fill the hole. As I covered her with dirt, my hands began to burn and complain from the digging the day before. Leah lay face down, slowly disappearing beneath the soil. Once I filled one hole, I began to dig another. Dr. Hayes’s hole I was sure to make a little wider, and a little deeper. I dug until the clay was too difficult, and then I rolled him into his hole, too. His leg managed to prop, so I had to bend it so he would lie right.
By noon, I had said a few words about my friends, made myself a sandwich, and found rope, twine, and Leah’s stash of recycled cans. The plan was to line the perimeter with the cans so if any shufflers crossed the cans, the noise would be a warning. Not foolproof, but it kept me busy.
Three days passed before I saw the first shuffler. He was only wearing a robe, stumbling down the road unaccompanied. The barrel of my gun followed him until he was out of sight. Shooting him crossed my mind, but because I’d seen the shufflers react to the car alarm in Shallot, I was afraid the noise would attract more. I let him pass, praying my cowardice wasn’t freeing him to attack someone else down the road.
Every day I watched the road for the girls. To pass the time I cleaned, rearranged, reorganized, and wrote down how the food and water should be rationed. The girls were coming, and I had to make sure there were plenty of supplies for them when they arrived, especially the mac and cheese for Halle, and the double butter popcorn for Jenna.
Day four was depressing. A part of me wanted to believe the girls would come straight to the ranch, but with each passing day it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t sure why they hadn’t come. Refusing to entertain the worst scenario, I told myself Andrew was taking his time to keep our children safe. Still, the waiting was agonizing. Before the outbreak, there was never enough time. Now, the days dragged on, and I felt more and more alone, wondering if I was the only person left alive. That led to more uneasy thoughts: if Christy leaving early had helped her and her daughter Kate find someplace safe, if David and his family were okay, if David had made it out of the hospital at all. If he was working Mrs. Sisney’s code and she was attacking people outside . . . I shuddered, shaking the likely scene from my mind, only to think of other, less settling things. My mother was home alone, and so was my neighbor, Mrs. Chebesky. I wanted to call them to see if they were all right. I’d tried the doctor’s landline the first evening and every day after, but an automated response turned into weird, incessant beeps, and then there was no dial tone at all.