“That’s fallout, ain’t it?” Skeeter asked.
Nathan leaned down to get a better look through the largest crack. “Fallout isn’t radioactive in itself. It could just be dust and debris from the blast that was shot into the air.”
Everyone brought blankets and pillows to the basement that night, hoping that putting one more level between us and the ash covering the grass outside would provide a little more protection By nightfall, enough of it had accumulated on the ground to look like a blanket of dirty wool.
After the children fell asleep, Skeeter and Nathan discussed what the fallout—radioactive or not—might do to our water supply, and other frightening things until Ashley asked them to stop. It was too late, though; even after we settled in and tried to get some sleep, I found myself staring at the ceiling, worrying.
Nathan kissed my temple. “I think it’s going to be okay, Scarlet. I really do.”
“But what if it’s not? How can I save our kids from this?”
Nathan didn’t answer, which scared me even more.
My eyes were just getting heavy enough to stay closed when Skeeter scrambled over to one of the small windows that ran along the top of the east wall. He stood up on the tips of his toes, and could barely get a glimpse.
“I’ll be damned,” he said softly.
“What?” Nathan said. He wasn’t as tall as Skeeter, so he jumped once. They traded glances.
“What do you see?” I said, sitting up on my elbows.
The men rushed to the stairs. Their footsteps only got faster when they crossed the kitchen and living room. I scrambled from my pallet and followed them, gasping when I caught sight of what had them so amazed. The ash was still falling from the sky, gray like a cloudy winter day.
“Is it going to storm?” I said.
“No,” Nathan said, his eyes bouncing between the falling and accumulating ash. “The debris is in the atmosphere.”
“How long will it stay this way?” I asked.
Nathan shook his head. “I don’t know, honey.” He looked to me, for the first time real worry in his voice. “I don’t know.”
Six days after the blast, we were all feeling the effects of being stuck inside. The kids were arguing, and the adults were quick to anger. Without being able to hunt, we were forced to make a significant dent in the precious few canned goods in the pantry.
I stood in the basement, holding three cans of black-eyed peas, and let the tears flow. Ashley took the cans from my arms and leaned her cheek against mine.
“It’s going to be okay, right? You’re just frustrated, but it’s going to be okay.”
I nodded and wiped my eyes, taking back the cans. “Yes. We’re going to be fine.”
“Good,” Ashley said, breathing a sigh of relief. I wasn’t exactly convincing, but she wanted to believe me, so she was easy to fool.
We walked upstairs together, greeting the kids who were already seated at the dining room table. Nathan took a second look at me, knowing right away I’d been upset. I pulled the can opener from a drawer and began spooning out the beans into everyone’s bowls, noting the absence of our usual cheerful dinnertime discussion—or any discussion at all. The girls were staring down into their bowls, looking lost, but Skeeter and Nathan didn’t have any more comforting words to offer.
“When it’s clear outside, we’re going to have finish Jenna’s birthday party,” I said, joining everyone at the table. “She’s been working really hard to beat you, Skeeter.”
Skeeter forced a small smile. “Oh yeah, Jenna?”
Jenna didn’t look up from her bowl. She didn’t speak. The hopelessness on her face broke my heart.
“Baby?” I said quietly. Her doe eyes rose to meet mine. “This won’t last forever. I promise.”
Jenna slowly turned to the living room to look out the window. Her eyes widened, and she stood up. “Mom!”
For the first time in nearly a week, ashes weren’t falling from the sky. I looked to Jenna, and then to Nathan. Everybody stood up at the same time and rushed to the window, and then sighs of relief and laughter filled the house.
Elleny put her hand on the door, but Nathan stopped her. “Not yet.”
“What do you mean? Why not?” Jenna asked, her eyes instantly filling with tears.
Nathan began to answer her, but stopped. The pause that followed was filled with a distant, repetitive beat.
“What is that?” Ashley asked. She listened again. “Is that what I think it is?”
A black helicopter passed over, and then made a wide turn. We watched in awe as it returned, hovered over the road for a moment, and then lowered, landing just beyond the mouth of the drive. Four men with guns filed out, and suddenly I was more terrified of them than I was of the ash. They jogged across the lawn to the porch, and we all jerked at a banging on the door.
“Elleny, take the girls to the basement,” I said, keeping my eyes on the door.
“But,” she began.
The door opened, and Nathan stepped in front of me protectively.
The men weren’t military. They looked more like SWAT, black from head to toe and helmets with large, clear facemasks. The man in front glanced back to his cronies, just as surprised to see us as we were to see them.
The helicopter’s blades were still whirring, so the man in front spoke loudly. “My name is Corporal Riley Davis, sir! I’m looking for a Skeeter McGee!”
Ashley grabbed Skeeter’s arm, her eyes wide.
“That’s me,” Skeeter said.
“I have a Ms. April Keeling in the helo. We picked her up from Fairview. She said there might be survivors here, including you, sir!” the corporal said. The corners of his mouth turned up. “Glad to see she was right!”
Skeeter turned to Ashley. “April! From the church!” He turned to the corporal. “Her kids?”
“All well, sir.”
“The ash,” Nathan said. “The blast. You know anything about it?”
“Yes, sir. The air force has been ordered to target the largest concentrations of infected, sir.”
“But is it radioactive?” I asked.
“No, ma’am,” the corporal said. “The fallout is just debris from the initial blast. They’ve been targeting all the major cities.”
“So there’s nothing left? Of anything?” I asked.