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Page 18

“Miranda,” Ashley said, her voice small. “They’re not all sick. We can help them.”

“Help them how, exactly? Give them a ride? We’re in a Bug, Ashley, we don’t have any room.”

“Ash,” Cooper said, trying his best soothing voice, “she’s right. Everyone is afraid. If we stop, someone might take our vehicle from us.”

“I’m taking this exit,” I warned, glancing over at Bryce.

“Stay on the interstate!” Bryce barked, a hint of desperation in his voice.

He wasn’t trying to be a jerk. I couldn’t blame him; leaving the interstate was choosing something unknown. Anything unknown in this mess was downright terrifying. Staying on the same road as thousands of others who had the same goal of survival was less daunting somehow. We weren’t alone in our terror, and passing all of these people with the only working car on the road was both scary and comforting. We had the advantage. We were the safest out here where no one was safe.

Against my better judgment, I passed the exit and continued on the shoulder, weaving between people, cars, and zombies, and hoping my tires would hold out for another twenty miles. I wasn’t normally a pushover; as a matter of fact, most who knew me thought I could be fairly difficult. But the one person I was always able to depend on was Bryce, and in that moment, I needed to believe I wasn’t the only one who could make a sensible decision.

Growing up, with my dad always working, and mom preoccupied with new ways to get his attention, I felt like the only grown-up in the house. Ashley leaned on Mom so much that there wasn’t really an opportunity for me to be coddled. Ashley was so delicate. She had inherited that trait from my mother. Every obstacle was a tragedy, every struggle a death sentence. I could never understand why they were so susceptible to stress, and I eventually decided that my dad had accepted long ago that it was just part of his wife’s personality. He thought it was better if we kept Mom and Ashley from getting even remotely overwhelmed. We let them believe that no matter what came along, together Dad and I had it under control. Dad would manage Mom. I would handle Ashley. Now that Mom was remarried, the endless reassurances and heroic displays of patience were Rick’s responsibility—keeping Ashley’s emotional meltdowns in check was still mine. I was better at it some days than others, but when our parents shocked us with the news of the divorce, it seemed right that Ashley had their attention. She was the one who needed them most.

When Bryce and I decided we were more than friends, it just felt natural—and a little bit of a relief—to rely on him. Most times I felt he was more my family than my parents, or even Ashley. But even so, it wasn’t that romantic sort of love that Ashley and Cooper had. Ours was a friendship, first. We almost treated our relationship like a duty, and I liked it that way. I guess Bryce did, too.

“We can exit at Anderson,” Bryce said, trying not to see the stranded people on the side of the road.

Chapter Seven

Scarlet

We walked carefully along the river once again, this time on the other side of the bridge, making our way to a large, familiar tree. Just as I had said, there was a rope hanging from a thick branch. The rope was tattered and looked frail. We wouldn’t know how frail until we were swinging above the cold river water. The streetlights on each side of the bridge fell just short of where we stood. Good for hiding from soldiers—bad for swimming. With just a half-moon above, the water wasn’t just dirty, it was black like the night had settled inside of it. As if that wasn’t frightening enough, shufflers didn’t need to breathe, I imagined. That was probably why the soldiers were shooting at floating corpses, just to make sure they didn’t reanimate and crawl onto the shore and into town.

I shivered.

“You’re freezing,” Tobin said, removing his jacket. “Take this.” He held it out. I just watched him for a moment until he shook it once. It was covered in mud, but it was lined with wool. It would still help to fend off the cold. “Take it.”

Tobin huffed, clearly annoyed with my hesitation, and then draped the jacket around my shoulders.

“Thank you,” I said, hoping it was loud enough for him to hear. I slipped my arms into the sleeves, and then rolled them up so they didn’t swallow my hands. I would need them for the trip across the night.

With Tobin’s help, I crawled up the bark. The initial climb was tougher than I remembered. Back then climbing a tree was nothing. I hadn’t climbed anything in years. Tobin’s breath skipped while he struggled to keep his balance underneath me. I made it to the first branch, and then used the rest as a ladder until I reached the one just under the branch with the rope.

Tobin was breathing a bit harder than he had a few minutes before.

“Really?” I said. “I’m not that heavy.”

“No, ma’am.” He put his hands on his hips while he caught his breath. “You’re not. I’m just out of shape, and it’s been a long-ass day.”

I nodded. “That it has. Have you ever done this before?”

Tobin shook his head. His short cornrows moved with the motion, making it a little easier to gauge his nonverbal responses in the dark.

“Just pull in the rope and get a good grip,” I said, showing him as I spoke. The next part I couldn’t act out. “Lean back, and then step off. Let your bodyweight take you across. When you see land below, let go. It’s fairly easy from what I remember, but if you hesitate you’ll end up swinging back, and either in the water or hanging above it. The point is not to end up in the water. At least not tonight.”

“Okay. But, uh . . . how am I going to see land if it’s dark?”

“It’s not that dark.”

“It’s pretty dark.”

“Listen for me. I’ll tell you when.”

Tobin nodded, and I leaned back. My heart began to pound as I silently prayed to whatever god might still be watching over us that the two dozen things that could go wrong didn’t. “I want to raise my babies,” I whispered. “Please help me get across.” As I leaned forward, I stepped off the branch and held on tightly. Within seconds I was almost above the opposite shore. The only problem was the rope was at the end of its pendulum and was beginning to start its return. I let go, and my feet hit hard against the ground at the edge of the short cliff above the water.

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