“The cities have been overrun, ma’am,” Corporal Davis said. “They’re torching everything. We’re picking up survivors farther out, though.”
I looked to Nathan, and then back to Corporal Davis. “Define everything? How far reaching is the outbreak?”
The corporal’s face fell. “Everywhere, ma’am. It’s everywhere.”
Nathan shifted. “Will they bomb outside the cities?”
“They’re leaving the countryside alone, don’t you worry,” the corporal said, tossing his gun onto his shoulder.
I blew out a sigh of relief, and looked back to the kitchen. The girls were peeking around the corner. I signaled to them that it was okay for them to join us. After a few moments of hesitation, one by one they scurried to my side.
The corporal glanced to the children. “We would have come for you days ago, but the ash clogs up the helos. I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have much time. Is this everyone in your camp? We’ve been instructed to collect all willing survivors and bring them to our compound.”
Nathan looked at me, and then back to the corporal. “Compound? Where?”
“About seventy klicks south of our position, sir. McKinney hospital.”
“That’s not a compound,” I said, my mind racing. We’d gone so long without seeing anyone; it was a lot to take in all at once.
The corporal smiled. “It is now. We’ve built walls and reinstated the running water. Working on electrical now.”
Ashley turned to Skeeter, a wide grin on her face at the prospect of those luxuries.
“How many survivors so far?” Nathan asked.
The corporal’s mouth pulled to the side. I could see he wanted to give us better news. “Not as many as we’d like, but new civilians come in every day. I’m sorry, sir, but we should get going. It’ll be dark soon, and we’re running low on fuel.”
Nathan and Skeeter traded glances, and then Nathan turned to me. “What do you think?”
I shook my head. It was too big of a decision to make in that moment. We didn’t know who these men were. We could get to McKinney and find it’s more like a prison camp, or it could be sanctuary.
I looked to the girls. “They want to take us to someplace safe.”
Jenna’s eyebrows pulled in. “We’re safe here.”
Zoe looked up to Jenna, and then mirrored her expression. “And they probably won’t let us take Butch.”
I smiled, kissed their foreheads, and then turned to Nathan. He nodded, and looked to Skeeter and Ashley.
“We’re staying?” Ashley asked. She searched everyone’s faces, and then took a deep breath, a resolved smile on her face. She turned to the corporal. “We’re staying.”
“Sir?” the corporal said to Skeeter.
Skeeter squeezed Ashley to his side. “Let April know we appreciate her sending you boys after us, but we’re doing just fine here.”
The corporal looked back to his men, who all seemed baffled, and then back to us. “If you change your mind, anchor something bright like a blanket to the roof. We’ll be making the rounds. Good luck to you, sir!”
The corporal held a small radio to his mouth. “Pedro to HQ, come in, over.”
A man on the other end of the radio confirmed through a scratchy connection.
“Yeah, we’re out here at Red Hill. The civilians have decided to sit tight, over.”
After a short pause, the radio scratched again. “Roger that.”
The corporal nodded to us, and the men returned to their helicopter. Within moments it was in the air and out of sight.
“There’s people!” Zoe said, grinning. She clapped her hands together once and intertwined her fingers.
The sky was nearly clear, finally empty of the fallout from the blast. I climbed up the ladder, and one by one, everybody followed. We stood, able to see for miles in each direction. Over the past months, fewer walking dead could be seen. Before the blast, it had been nearly a month since the last of them had wandered too close to the ranch. We couldn’t be sure why. Maybe they had all migrated to the city, or maybe others like us were eradicating more shufflers every day. Eventually, the earth would be rid of them. We wouldn’t live in fear forever.
Nathan reached out for my hand and sighed, sharing my unspoken relief that we had made the right decision. At Red Hill, we made our own destiny; raising our children in the safest way we could, and protecting each other in a world made of nightmares and uncertainty. The eight of us had carved a place there, and we were more than surviving. We were living.
Zoe and Halle clung to my legs, taking in the otherworldly scene. The ranch and its surroundings were entirely covered in ash, dreary and monochrome, except for a small stretch of red dirt road that had been uncovered by the blustering blades of the helicopter. It was exactly the way the end of the world should look. I smiled, and squeezed Nathan’s hand. If the last year had taught me anything, it was that the end only led to one thing—a beginning.