“Daddy!” Zoe said, leaning away from Joey.
“I’ll see you soon, honey. It’s okay. Daddy will see you soon.”
Cooper touched my shoulder. “I know the way, Zoe. I promise I’ll get him there, okay? Don’t worry.”
“We have to go!” Bryce said. “For any of us to have a chance, we have to go right now, Miranda!”
Miranda’s face crumpled, distorted from guilt. “Run fast, Coop.”
Cooper nodded and winked at Ashley. “I can make ten miles in an hour, baby. No problem.”
“Don’t leave him, Miranda, please!” Ashley begged, reaching out for him. “No, please! Please! No!” her screams trailed as they pulled away.
Cooper raised his gun and shot behind me. I turned, seeing an infected fall to the ground.
“I was all-state four years in high school. I was the man to beat in college. I hope you can run, Nathan, because I made Zoe a promise.”
I nodded. “So did I.”
The moths and lightning bugs were bouncing and gliding over the top of the prairie grass not far from me. I sat on the top step of the wooden deck that doubled as a front porch, waving away the mosquitos buzzing in my ears. The crest of the red dirt road that Jenna and Halle might be walking toward was bright, lit by the setting sun. There were so many variables for them to make it to the safety of Red Hill. What if Andrew hadn’t made it back to the house to see my spray-painted message on the wall? What if the girls were too upset to know what it meant? What if they had forgotten Halle’s song? Carrying those questions with me all day and night weighed down on me and made it too easy for exhaustion to set in, but I kept busy with getting the house cleaned and ready for the girls’ arrival.
With wooden stakes and fishing line that I’d found in the barn, I’d strung a primitive alarm system around the perimeter. The dirt was still soft enough from the previous night’s rain that it was fairly easy to shove the stakes into the ground. In just half a day, I’d bounced along the ground, winding the string around the stakes, poking holes in the cans, and stringing them on the line before moving a few feet down to start the process all over again. The line was far enough from the house that if I was awoken in the night, I would have time to get a weapon and defend myself. Stringing the line was easy; it was trying not to lie awake, waiting for something to rattle the cans, that was hard.
Six days after the world ended, the lines hadn’t jingled once. The few shufflers that had come close always stayed to the road for whatever reason. Maybe they’d already come upon other houses and had learned that a building didn’t necessarily mean a meal. If I stayed quiet, most didn’t bother me.
I sat on the porch, aware that a beautiful sunset was visible from the backside of the house, but when I wasn’t checking the wooden slats I’d nailed to the windows, eating, sleeping, or practicing with Dr. Hayes’s guns, I was watching that red dirt road, waiting for Andrew’s white Tahoe to fly over in a hurry to reach their destination, or for my babies’ heads to rise above the hill, higher with each step. I imagined that moment a hundred times a day: They would be worn and filthy, but very much alive. I didn’t even mind that their arrival would mean living with Andrew again. If it meant having my babies, I welcomed it.
Every night my hopes were dashed and my heart was broken. I never gave up until it was too dark for safe travel. But about this time was when the tears came. I picked at the small stick in my hand, fighting the desperation and helplessness that overwhelmed me.
Earlier that day, I thought I’d heard thunder, but the sound echoed from the east, and the storm clouds were off to the west. At first I thought I’d imagined the noise, but then a tall pillar of smoke rose slowly, high above the tree line. I prayed to God that whatever it was, it had nothing to do with Jenna and Halle.
When I heard the noise coming from beyond the hill directly in front of the house, I trusted my ears. A voice yelled intermittently. Then, another began to answer back. My eyes narrowed, and then my heart leapt seeing two heads bobbing just above the tall prairie grass. When two men became visible, I stood. When the herd of shufflers following behind them appeared just as they cleared the hill, I cursed under my breath and retreated inside the house.
“Help us!” one of the men yelled. I grabbed Dr. Hayes’s hunting rifle, and peered through the scope. The first of the men was younger, maybe late teens or early twenties. The other was a head taller, but older, maybe in his midthirties like me, his shaggy dark-blond hair bouncing as he ran. He was wearing a suit and loosened tie, the younger was in a T-shirt and jeans with boots on. The boots didn’t slow him down. He had probably been running for miles and still managed to keep an exhausting pace. The older man wasn’t far behind him, puffing and drenched in sweat.
I cocked the rifle and aimed at the closest shuffler. “Goddamn it,” I said, knowing the noise would carry, and might attract shufflers from the next two towns. I pulled the trigger, and took the damn thing out. The men—without slowing—covered their heads and ducked. The shufflers’ pace was between a walk and a jog. The older man was at least fifteen feet ahead of the fastest shufflers, but they were leading them directly to the ranch.
“Don’t shoot us! It’s me!” the young man said, waving his arms in the air.
What the hell is he talking about? I assumed he was just scared and talking nonsense. I reloaded and then shot at the next shuffler in line. I’d missed my target. My heart began to hammer against my rib cage. I had brought a box of ammo to the porch with me, but at least thirty shufflers had followed those men over the crest of the hill. Six days of practice didn’t exactly make me a marksman.
The younger man tripped over the fishing line, but as he worked to get it off, he just became more tangled. The other man checked behind him to get a glimpse of the shufflers before stooping down and trying to help.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I said, steadying the rifle against my shoulder and looking through the scope. I tried not to rush, but half a dozen shufflers would be on top of them in five seconds. I pulled the trigger and felt the gun recoil against my bone. The first went down, I missed the second but hit him with a third shot, and the next two seemed to walk right into my sights. Before I needed to shoot a sixth time, the kid was free and they were sprinting toward the house.