Day five, I saw another shuffler. Part of me wanted to use her for target practice, but again I was afraid the noise would attract others. I hid inside the house and she passed, across the neighboring field, without event.
A sense of pride swelled inside of me that my theory had been right. The doctor’s ranch was the perfect place to survive the end of the world. But it wasn’t surviving unless my girls were there with me. So I watched the road, sometimes looking so hard I could almost see them.
But on Thursday morning, it wasn’t on the road that I saw someone. It was over the hill.
“Daddy!” Zoe said, half afraid, half angry. She was using her scolding voice, the one she used to parent Aubrey and me when we were breaking a rule. “You left me!” she said, her eyes already puffy and wet from tears. “You left me!”
“I didn’t leave,” I said, rushing to my knees in front of her on the couch. I kept my voice calm and soothing. “I was just upstairs talking to Miss Joy.”
It was irresponsible of me to let Zoe wake up alone in a strange place. My daughter was sensitive to many things—fabric, noise, situations—and our routine had kept her calm for the most part. A year had almost passed since Zoe’s last “episode,” as her school counselor called them, but I could always tell when she was working up to one.
Knowing we needed to be quiet to survive, Zoe couldn’t release an overstimulation like she used to. I refused to make it a rule, though. Not before she found another outlet. “Zoe,” I said, letting my voice slide over the back of my tongue. Aubrey didn’t have the patience for this, but she also didn’t have a butter voice, as she called it. Zoe responded much better to the silky smooth tone I used for these moments.
Zoe balled up her fist and hit my shoulder. It didn’t hurt. She didn’t mean for it to, she was just releasing the overwhelming emotions she couldn’t process any other way. “Never leave me!”
“I wouldn’t. I would never leave you. I’m sorry you were afraid when you woke up. That’s my fault.”
She used her other hand to hit my chest. “I was! I was afraid!”
“That’s it,” I said, encouraging her. “Use your words.”
Zoe took a deep breath, always a good sign. “I was having a bad dream! I didn’t know where I was! I thought you were dead!”
I nodded. Her eyes were wild and her body trembled, a signal that she wasn’t quite on the down slope, but she was peaking.
“You know I can’t make promises, Zoe.”
“No, you promise!” she screamed.
I nodded. “What I can promise is to never leave without telling you again. You’ll always know where I am. Deal?”
Zoe took in a staggering breath, and then breathed out. She blinked a few times, and then her eyes relaxed. I held out my arms for her to hug me. She wouldn’t have allowed me to before she was ready, anyway. I’d learned over the years to just offer and wait.
When her tiny body was nuzzled up against mine, I wrapped my arms around her. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m here. You’re safe and loved. Safe and loved.”
Zoe melted against me and whimpered. It was exhausting and frightening for her when she lost control, and if she hadn’t just woke up, she probably would have lied down for a nap. I wiped her eyes and took her hand.
“Miss Joy made breakfast.”
I led her up the stairs, unable to ignore the looks from Walter and Joy. I had become accustomed to them. People who happened to be around during an episode were usually either annoyed or sympathetic with no in-between. A woman at the mall once approached Aubrey to advise us that Zoe just needed a good spanking. It seemed like everyone who didn’t understand always knew how to parent Zoe better than we did. Even if they didn’t say it, they let us know with their expressions. Zoe never seemed to notice. I hoped she never would.
“Here you go, Zoe. I hope you like cinnamon rolls.”
“Oh, I do,” Zoe said, her eyes big and her smile wide. She followed the plate until it was in front of her, and didn’t hesitate to pick one up with both hands and shove it into her mouth.
Joy smiled. “I didn’t figure she’d want a fork.”
“Nope,” I said. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“Daddy? Where’s Mommy?” Zoe asked through a mouthful of bread.
“She’s uh . . .” I stuttered, looking to Joy. “She went on a trip.”
“Is she coming back? How will she find us?”
My mouth pulled to the side. “I don’t know, baby.”
Zoe looked down at her cinnamon roll, clearly trying to process the news.
A small dog began to yap. Just a few times at first, and then consistently. Joy smiled. “That’s Princess. She belongs to the Carsons next door. I’ve been feeding her and letting her out in the backyard. Would you like to help me feed Princess, Zoe?”
Zoe nodded emphatically, shoving the rest of the cinnamon roll in her mouth as she pushed her chair away from the table. The chair screeched against the floor as she did so, and I closed one eye tight, recoiling from the noise.
Walter smiled. “This floor has survived three grandchildren, two of ’em boys. I think it can stand up to Zoe.”
We spent the rest of the day talking and watching the road. After she and Zoe returned from feeding Princess, Joy found a few board games and some cards, and played Go Fish with Zoe. It was quiet, but once in a while, someone from Shallot would shuffle by, their eyes milky white, and always with a wound. I wondered if people that had been bitten were slowly turning and making their way out to the road.
Walter and I returned to the porch to sit in twin wooden rockers after the last dead person wandered by. Joy brought us sandwiches and apple slices. I thanked her, wondering when my next chance would come to ask her about what she didn’t say that morning.
“That was Jesse Biggins,” Walter said, biting off a piece of apple. He shook his head. “He’s a big hunter. Has quite a few guns at his place. Maybe we should visit?”
“Does he have any family?”
Walter shook his head. “His wife died several years back. His kids moved to the city. It’d be a worth a try.”
I nodded. “Maybe we should hit a couple of places for supplies?”
“We just have the one general store. Not much a store, really, but it’s all we got. I don’t know who else isn’t sick. Maybe everything is already gone.”