“That’s depressing,” Ashley said. “But not as depressing as chocolate.”
Cooper made a face. “Just wait until we run out of toilet paper.”
We all traded glances.
“This sucks,” Ashley said, and we all agreed.
Joey and I sat in the middle of the floor, a few feet away from one another. The house we’d been staying in might have been the first one built in Shallot. It was older than the rest, and creaked and moaned like a grandmother complaining about her aging joints. The former occupants were definitely grandparents, easily deduced from nearly every surface and wall space covered in mismatched frames. Protected behind a slate of glass were their loved ones, frozen at each age, still alive and smiling. Some of the photos were decades old, some new. They surrounded us, a bright and cheerful wall holding out the hell outside.
The gold sofa’s arms were worn, matching the rest of the house. The seat cushions were sunk in from years of visits from friends and family. I sat on the floor because it felt wrong to sit on their furniture. The house didn’t belong to me, even if the owners were lumbering aimlessly on the highway, forgetting all about anything that mattered to them before.
I wasn’t sure which old couple in the pictures were the owners of the home, but I liked them. The home they left behind made me feel safe, the love they left behind hopeful. The strangers in the pictures were fighting their own battle to survive like we were, and probably making their way to each other, too. At least that was what I wanted to believe.
The wind picked up, moving the house just enough for the moaning to begin again. It was eerie, like the groans of the dead ones when they noticed prey and got excited about the prospect of feeding. Other than that, the night was quiet. Even Joey’s movements seemed to be absent of sound.
Bryce had fallen asleep downstairs several hours before. I’d tried to relax beside him, but my eyes were wide in the dark as I listened and assessed every sound the old house made. I finally peeled the covers away and climbed the stairs of the basement, joining Joey in the living room.
He had stood dutifully beside his favorite crack in the boards, his eyes straining to see in the dark. I bumped into a side table and gasped, prompting him to ask if I was okay and a subsequent offering of shared light in the middle of the room.
“Sorry,” he said, sitting across from me. “I’m not sure yet if they’re attracted to light.”
I shrugged, even though it was pointless. He probably couldn’t see the gesture. I still didn’t feel the need to voice my answer, possibly from spending so much time with Bryce, who already knew my next thought.
We sat there for some time without speaking, neither one of us uncomfortable with the silence. I was listening for any sounds that might mean trouble, and I assumed he was doing the same.
His hair was just starting to grow out from that weird military buzz cut. The dim light gave me an excuse to study his face; his prominent chin with a faint indentation in the middle, and his upper lip that was a little on the thin side. His eyes were deep set and a little buggy, but it didn’t make him unattractive. I wasn’t sure there was anything about him that was unattractive. It all sort of fit him and made him that much better, kind of the way imperfections give a house character.
The wind hissed through the trees, and a low rumble sounded in the distance.
“Shit. Is that thunder?”
Joey nodded, pointing a few times with his handgun. “It’s going to go south of us, I think.”
I opened a can of cashews and popped one into my mouth. “I can’t stop wondering where my mom is. If she’s okay. I wonder if she’ll ever get back here.”
“Where is she?”
“She and my stepdad went to Belize.”
“Do you wonder about your parents?”
“Your high school friends?”
“I’ve been away a long time. I joined the air force right out of high school. You lose touch.”
Talking to him was so frustrating. He didn’t offer any extra information at all. “Aren’t you worried about them? Your parents?”
“My mom is the daughter of a war widow, and then became one. If anyone can survive this, she can.”
“You really think she made it?”
“We’re from North Carolina, and the coasts were the first to get hit. I talked to her while Dana was in surgery. She was reporting all kinds of crazy shit going down, but she was at her neighbor’s house, and he’s a hardass former marine. I believe he’s keeping her safe. I have to.”
“Is everyone you know military?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Not everyone. I lived in Jacksonville. Right next to Camp Lejeune, which happens to be the largest marine base on the East Coast. I’d say Mom has a good chance.”
I smiled. “I’d say you’re right. So you’re a marine, then? I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re not air force.”
He smiled. “What makes you say that?”
“I don’t know. When I think air force, I think lanky pilot with glasses. You look like a jarhead to me.”
“If you don’t want to answer, just say so.”
“I’m just enjoying the commentary. I am air force, actually. I’m a PJ.”
“PJ. I’m assuming you don’t mean of the pajama variety.”
He chuckled quietly. “No. Of the Pararescue variety.”
“ ‘Oh.’ You say that like you know what it is.”
“I have an idea,” I said, maybe a little more defensive than I would have liked.
“Okay,” Joey said, holding up his hands. “Most people don’t. Well, some people don’t.”
“Some people. Like females, you mean.”
“Yes, that’s what I mean.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh. You’re one of those guys.”
He shook his head. “I’m not. Don’t peg me like that. I have a lot of respect for—”
“The girl that was in your truck?” I said, watching for his reaction.
“Dana.” His eyebrows pulled together and he picked at his boots. “I’d just got back, and our friends threw a welcome-home party. It was stupid. I should have just . . . I should have just stayed home with her. Enjoyed her. She was the only one I wanted to see, anyway.”