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Page 34

I’m lonely! I would cry softly. I didn’t want her to hear me. I wanted her to see me.

She would raise the remote in her hand and turn up the volume, a disgusted look on her face. Lost in Space might have been the one piece of happiness she had, between working three part-time jobs and raising me alone. My needing her attention appeared to have ruined her life.

You make me sick, Scarlet. You’re just like your father. One of the most selfish people I’ve ever met, she would say, nearly ruining mine.

The words were an afterthought, an outlet for her residual anger, but they burned through my clothes and charred my skin, leaving a brand so inexorable, it wore me even as I fought to survive the end of the world. Was I selfish for leaving Anderson? Should I have stayed and waited for them? Would that choice sentence me to a life without ever seeing their sweet faces again?

The Jeep’s headlights lit up dozens of shufflers. Like a herd of sheep, they meandered about in the middle of the road. I winced at the sight of children among them. Some with visible bites on their carotids. Some with mouthfuls of their skin and muscle missing; all covered in the blood of their former selves. Jenna’s and Halle’s faces flashed in my mind, and then were projected onto the faces of those children. Tears sizzled down my cheeks.

I slammed on the brake and gripped the steering wheel. If I chose to drive through them and was forced to stop, they could surround the Jeep. On one side was a grassy knoll. A rock with the town’s name, Shallot, carved into the stone sat at the crest of the small, gentle hill. The sun had begun to rise, so I could just barely see the shadows of more shufflers crossing the sign and making their way down to the road toward the noisy car. Noise attracted them.

The left side was field. Acres upon acres of wheat field, still saturated from the downpour that morning. If I wanted to make it to the ranch, I had two choices: drive through the herd, up that knoll and hope if I hit one of those things it didn’t crash through the windshield, or risk getting trapped in the muddy field.

Courage came slowly. Each beat of my heart felt like an explosion as my hand rested against the center of the steering wheel, preparing to press down. I took a breath, and then honked the horn once. Dozens of dead slowly craned their necks in my direction. The explosions in my chest turned into the cadence of a thousand tiny sprinters. Even sitting still, I began to pant with fear.. After a short pause, they began to hobble and limp toward the Jeep. Again, I honked and waited. Despite the shufflers being less than twenty yards away, I pressed the heel of my palm against the center of the steering wheel, holding it there, until every last one of those f**kers were moaning and reaching out for the meal seeming so eager to be had. My fear kept my hand down, waiting, hoping they would move faster so I could drive past them and in the opposite direction of their new path.

When the shufflers were just over an arm length away, I jerked the wheel to the left and headed toward the wheat field.

“Don’t get stuck. Don’t get stuck,” I repeated. My hands jerked the wheel right to make a large circle around the herd, and panicked when the Jeep struggled in the mud. “C’mon!” I yelled, my fingers digging into the padding of the steering wheel.

The Jeep weaved back and forth, fishtailing and threatening to lose control, but the mud tires clawed through the rain-swollen soil, and back onto the road. After turning into the skid more than once, the Jeep straightened out, and I was screaming in victory, barreling toward the white tower.

The sun had just peaked over the horizon when I saw the water tower looming above the trees. With Halle’s sweet singing in my mind, I turned the wheel, never so happy to hit dirt road. By the time I turned left at the cemetery, the night sky had cowered from the clear, bright blue sky. The storm clouds from the day before had moved on. If the world hadn’t gone to shit, it might have been considered a beautiful day. The Jeep took the right at the first mile section hard, but I couldn’t slow down. The closer I came to sanctuary, the more afraid I was. My foot was grinding the gas pedal to the floorboard, but the Jeep’s engine just growled louder instead of going faster. Maybe five minutes had passed since seeing the white tower, but it seemed to be taking an eternity.

Turning into the drive, my foot instinctively pulled away from the accelerator. Dr. Hayes’s truck was in the yard, and a silver Mercedes was parked next to it. He’d made it home.

I didn’t even bother to shut the Jeep door. The second my feet touched the ground, I broke into a sprint, only stopping until my hands hit the door.

“Dr. Hayes? It’s me! Scarlet!” The side of my fist pounded against the wooden frame of the screen door. “Dr. Hayes? It’s Scarlet! I’m not sick . . . please . . . please let me in.”

With every passing second, my relief and excitement turned to disappointment. He was a radiologist, for Christ’s sake, he had more than one beat-up pickup. Dr. Hayes and his girlfriend, Leah, only stayed there on his off week. The radiologists worked two weeks on, one week off, and they all had a farm or ranch they ran away to during those seven precious days. Leah was an attorney and lived two hours north. They usually had me clean the weekend before they met in the middle—the farmhouse. It was her Mercedes in the yard. They’d probably met here and then took the doctor’s car somewhere else. To get his daughters, maybe.

The light on the barn flickered and then turned off. I had nowhere else to go. I had to get inside.

I pulled open the door slowly, wincing at the loud creaking sound it made. The doorknob twisted and with caution, I pushed it open and listened. “Dr. Hayes?” I said softly, half hoping he wouldn’t hear me, and half hoping he would.

The house seemed untouched. When I’d checked every room and decided no one was home, I wandered to the back porch and hoisted myself onto the dryer, wondering what I needed to do to secure the house. Should I board up the windows? It wasn’t my house to alter, but even if Dr. Hayes made it back here with Miranda and Ashley, he might be glad some of the work had been done. My eyes drifted to the floor, and relief and fear hit almost simultaneously. There were muddy footprints in front of the door that led to the side patio. I hopped down off the dryer and looked out the Plexiglas that took up the top half of the door. Something was splattered on the concrete. Something sticky with chunks of something else—definitely vomit. The footprints led inside and to my right, down the stairs, and into the basement.

I’d cleaned the basement many times before. It was used for storage, was carpeted, painted, and not at all scary, but in that moment I was terrified to walk down those stairs.

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