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Page 31

I gripped the straps of the pack at my shoulders and rushed out of the house, stupidly letting the screen door slam behind me. I paused, slowly turning to see a few of the shufflers to the west automatically turn toward the noise. I ran east toward my grandparents’ house, maybe even faster than before, knowing that before long, the sun would rise, and there would be no more shadows to hide behind.

Nathan

“Zoe, try to slow your breathing,” I said. Zoe was nearly panting, struggling to wrap her head around everything she’d seen, including telling her aunt Jill good-bye for the last time. I reached over and held her small hand in mine. “We’re going to be okay, honey. We’ll find someplace safe.”

“I thought the church was safe,” she said softly.

“Not safe enough. We need a place to stay for a long time. In the country, away from all the sick people.”

“Where is that?”

I paused, careful not to lie to her. “I’ll find it. Don’t worry.”

Zoe sat up tall and lifted her chin, seeing the green pickup truck idling in the road the same time I did. I let go of Zoe’s hand and raised mine to shield her eyes just as the man raised his gun to a woman lying in the road, in a puddle of vomit and blood. A pool of dark red was spilling from her beneath her soiled dress, too, almost like she was having a miscarriage, but I knew that wasn’t where the blood was coming from. She was emaciated, her skin a grayish tone except for the lines of red that drained from her eyes, ears, and nose.

A shot was fired to her head, but the woman didn’t move. As we passed, the man was blank-faced, scooping her up tenderly into his arms. He carried her into the cab of his truck, shutting the door behind him.

I lowered my hand, and placed it back on the wheel. Ten and two. “You have your seatbelt on?”

“Yes, Daddy.” Zoe was struggling to keep it together.

I wanted to pull over and hold her, to allow her time to transition to our new life or running for our lives and surviving, but we would never have enough time. If it was anything like the movies, life would be lived between near-death experiences.

“Good girl.”

Shades of pinks and purples bruised the sky, signaling the beginnings of a sunset. Without any houses in sight, or even a barn, I wasn’t sure if I should worry about shelter, or be comforted that we weren’t likely to run into a large group of those things—at least for a while.

Zoe was playing with the hem of her lavender dress, humming so softly I could barely make out what it was. Something by Justin Bieber, by the sounds of it. The corners of my mouth turned up. The radio had been silent since we started our journey. I wondered if we would ever hear music again.

Chapter Twelve

Nathan

Less than a half hour down the road, I noticed a small sign that read Highway 123. Another small two-lane, it ran all the way to Kansas. It was less than an hour away, and if I remembered correctly from my and Skeeter’s last hunting trip, there was only one small town between where we were and the state line. Beyond that was nothing but farm- and ranch land for miles. Maybe we could find an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of nowhere where we could set up camp. Maybe we would get lucky and it wouldn’t be abandoned, and the occupants, old or new, would let us stay.

My mind was drifting when I turned onto the highway, so it must have been instinct, or at least a choice on a subconscious level. Either way, Zoe and I were headed north.

“We’re not going back to get my papers, are we?” Zoe said. She didn’t try to hide her disappointment.

“I’m sorry, honey. I don’t think it’s safe.”

“So I’m not going to school tomorrow?”

“No.”

“Won’t you get arrested if you don’t take me to school?”

“Not if everyone else stays home from school, too.”

That answer seemed to appease Zoe for the moment, but I knew she would only form a list of more questions to ask at a later time. The end of everything was hard for everyone. Especially children. Even more so for children like Zoe that didn’t handle change well. My daughter had required a routine since birth. Rules and boundaries were her safe haven. I wasn’t sure how I could provide that for her now.

I watched Zoe’s head bounce subtly with the tune in her head. Once in a while the splash of freckles across her nose would move when she scrunched her nose to sniff.

“You’re not getting a cold, are you?”

Zoe shook her head, willing to let me make small talk. “I don’t think so. I wash my hands a lot.”

I nodded. “That’s good . . . ,” I trailed off, noticing something ahead. At first, I thought it might have been a car stalled in the road, but then I saw movement. A lot of movement, fluid and slow. When we came closer, I saw a herd of those things surrounding a vehicle. The car alarm was bleating, and the dead seemed to be agitated by the noise. They were wildly trying to get inside the vehicle. I couldn’t see whether anyone was trapped within. I didn’t want to.

“Daddy?”

“Hang on, Zoe,” I said, turning the wheel off the highway and into the town. The first houses were within a block of the highway. I drove faster than I should have, but I was hoping to get around the herd and make it back onto 123 without losing much time. The sun would set soon, and I didn’t want us to be near those things in the dark. Every road I turned down led me either down another road that was too close to the herd, or to another group walking toward the herd.

After the third U-turn, a yellow light on the dashboard, accompanied by a chime, nearly sent me into a panic. We were low on fuel, the sun was going down, and I wasn’t familiar enough with this town to find a safe place for me and Zoe for the night. For the first time since I’d left the church, I was afraid that I’d made the wrong decision.

We came up on a dead end, and I pressed on the brakes, seeing a gas can on the front porch of the only house on that end of the road. The last two blocks had been a gravel road, and I didn’t see much around. Most of the townspeople were congregated in the middle of the highway.

“Zoe, I’m going to get that gas can over there, and then put some in the car so we can drive the rest of the way.”

“The rest of the way to where?”

“I’ll be right back, honey. Don’t get out of the car, okay?”

Zoe nodded, and I took a quick glance around before getting out. I walked to the porch quickly, hoping with every step there was actual gasoline inside that red plastic container. I climbed the steps and bent over, but when I placed my hand on the handle, the door opened, and the distinct sound of a shotgun being cocked made me freeze in place.

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