Skeeter looked over to me with a frown. “Am I the only one confused as hell?”
“Yes,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Maybe it wasn’t him,” Miranda sniffed. Her eyes brightened with hope.
“It was him,” Scarlet said. “I’m so sorry. This is my fault.”
Miranda’s face hardened, and she stood, pushing Ashley away. “You’re goddamn right this is your fault. Everyone here thinks I’m the selfish bitch, but you take the cake, Scarlet! You got him killed! And for what? Your dead kids?”
“Miranda, that’s enough!” I growled. My tone surprised even me.
Miranda sucked air in through her noise. Ashley reached for her again. “Get off me!” she cried, exhaling in tiny sobs. “Get off me.” She climbed the ladder to the roof, crying alone.
Scarlet swallowed and looked up at me from beneath her brow. “Is she right?”
“No,” I said simply, taking her into my arms. I kissed her hair, unsure of what else to say.
None of us were in the mood to eat, so I just made the girls a peanut butter sandwich and called it good. I sat on the couch, drinking water, trying to forget the way Joey looked before Skeeter put a bullet in his forehead.
He hadn’t told Miranda the whole truth. Joey did lead the teds away from the safe house, and he didn’t come back, but when we went looking for him at first light, I was the one who had found him. I just couldn’t pull the trigger. Joey was stumbling toward me, his neck and arms chewed in parts to the bone. I knew it was my fault that he was dead, and I couldn’t be the one responsible for his death a second time. Skeeter held me with one arm while he put Joey down.
I took another sip, and then went out to the porch to wait. I could hear Miranda on the roof. Even though I knew I was the last person she wanted to see, I decided to join her.
“Hey,” I said when I reached the top rung.
Miranda didn’t even bother to respond, she just laughed once, incredulous.
I sat down a few feet from her. We didn’t speak; I just wanted to wait where I could see farther down the road. After about ten minutes, the sky turned, marking the beginning of sunset.
“You’re doing this so I can see that you still think they’re alive. So Joey didn’t die for nothing.”
“No, I’m just waiting for my girls.”
“You have two inside.”
I sighed. “I have two more inside, yes.”
“You know what? It doesn’t matter whether you think they’re alive or not. Their lives are no more important than Joey’s, or Bryce’s, or Skeeter’s . . . or Nathan’s.”
“He will die if something happens to you. Do you see Ashley? Empty and hopeless? That will be Nathan one of these days after you get yourself killed.”
The thought made me sick to my stomach, but didn’t change my mind. “I take total responsibility for Joey. You’re right. It’s my fault. But I can’t apologize for doing whatever I can to help my little girls get to me safely, and I won’t turn down anyone that wants to help.”
Miranda craned her neck at me. “No one else will say it, Scarlet, but I will: You can go f**k yourself and your stupid idea to clear the way for your girls. There are more infected out there than humans. You’re never going to clear them all, and one of these days you’re going to hack into one of their heads with your hatchet, and you’re going to realize too late that it was Jenna or Halle. But it won’t matter, anyway, because they’re f**king dead!” With the last words, Miranda screamed, clenched her eyes shut, and shook her head, her hair sticking to the sweat on her face.
I closed my eyes, trying to stop her screams from forming pictures in my mind. “Miranda . . .”
“Will you admit it, then?” she said, her eyes both angry and desperate.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen to me if I have to admit they’re not coming.”
“They’re. Not. Coming.”
A tear escaped my eye, and I quickly wiped it away. “I don’t believe that.”
“Scarlet!” Nathan screamed from the porch. He climbed the ladder, his eyes wide. “Are you looking?”
“Look! Look at the hill!”
I narrowed my eyes to focus, seeing two small figures walking up the red hill. Skeeter was standing in the yard, yelling and waving his arms. The figures began to run, and it was then that I realized it was Halle and Jenna.
A sob exploded from my throat. “Oh my God!” I cried. “It’s them! It’s my babies!”
They were alone. I could barely process what that might mean, or what they’d gone through, but in that moment, the only thing I could do was scramble for the ladder.
Nathan climbed down a few rungs, and then jumped the rest of the way down, knowing I was in a hurry.
“Scarlet? Scarlet!” Miranda screamed.
I looked to her, and then to the field where she was pointing, seeing a herd of about two dozen infected limping and stumbling toward my daughters. “Oh, Jesus! No! No!” I began climbing down the ladder, but Nathan stopped me. “Stay on the roof! You’re the best shot! I’ll go get them!”
Reluctantly, I nodded and climbed back up to my perch on the roof. I knew he was right, and the best thing I could do for my daughters was to pick off the infected from high ground. Nathan, Skeeter, and Bryce, with various weapons in hand, ran off to reach my girls before anything else did.
Jenna and Halle were still running toward the house, but they would be cut off by the herd that was walking through the field toward them. They had no idea what was hiding behind the wheat, but they didn’t stop running, even when I began to shoot into the field.
“Jesus! Jesus, Scarlet!” Miranda said. She scrambled to the ladder and then climbed down, sprinting at full speed toward the road, screaming for the girls to hurry.
Ashley chased after her a few steps before Miranda pointed back at her. “Stay with the kids, Ashley! Stay with the kids!”
Ashley tossed her sister a handgun, and then looked up at me. I pressed my cheek against the rifle, looking through the scope. I pulled the bolt handle, aimed, and pulled the trigger, taking out the first infected. I leaned my face away. “Run, Jenna! Run to the house! They’re in the field! In the field!”