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Page 35

I stared at the trail of mud and whatever else, and then finally took the first step. It complained under my foot, and I squeezed my eyes tight, hoping nothing jumped out at me as punishment for making a sound. When nothing happened, my eyes popped open, and I immediately searched for a weapon. The closest thing was a hammer sitting in a hand-held, red toolbox lying open on the floor. I quickly picked it up, making sure I had a good grip, and then descended the stairs, preparing myself for whatever might be down there.

If he’s alive, don’t hit him. Don’t just swing. Don’t just react. Those thoughts were on loop, getting louder with every step, which made it difficult to listen for anything that might signal I might actually need to swing in reaction.

The door opened, and I bent forward to look inside, immediately seeing a pair of legs lying flat on the floor. They were Leah’s, and even though I couldn’t see all of her, I could tell she was face down. After a quick glance to both sides, I stepped in, following the trail. Dr. Hayes was sitting back against the wall, a large wound in his neck, and a single gunshot hole in his temple. One of his many handguns was at his side, next to his open, lifeless hand. Leah also had a head wound, similar to Dr. Hayes’s, but her chin and chest were covered in blood, and the missing piece from Dr. Hayes’s neck was peeking from her mouth.

Blood was sprayed in several directions: on the open gun safe in the corner, the wall, and floor. From what I could tell, Dr. Hayes had come to the basement to get a gun for protection, but Leah had apparently caught him in the act, and attacked him. She must have turned quick. He must have been running from her. I imagined that he knew he was infected, so after shooting her, he’d killed himself. It made sense.

Suddenly I felt very alone. It hadn’t crossed my mind that the ranch would be devoid of anybody else. His daughters weren’t here. Leah was dead. Would the rest of his family try to make it to this safe haven? Miranda and Ashley were supposed to visit this weekend. Maybe they were already on their way. If not, maybe they would have the same idea I had and come here anyway with their mother. The ranch was obviously the best place to be, and even though they didn’t visit as often, Dr. Hayes, like every girl’s father, was their protector. It made sense for them to try to make it here. That was my hope, anyway.

Dr. Hayes was just smiling about his daughters visiting the morning before. I couldn’t believe he was sitting in a pool of his own blood just a few feet from me. It was so surreal, I couldn’t find an emotion to attach to the situation. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the gruesome scene until it finally dawned on me that if the girls did reach the ranch, they could see their father like this.

“Damnit,” I said. My mind went on an inexplicable memory search for every time I’d seen the doctor eat a donut. He was a stout man, and I had no idea how I was going to pull him up the stairs.

I walked over to the mess and picked up the pistol off the floor. The safety was off. With my foot, I nudged Leah’s hip, pointing the gun at the back of her head. A rather large exit wound was visible, but I didn’t want any surprises. She rocked forward, and then didn’t move again, prompting me to click on the gun’s safety feature.

Satisfied they weren’t going to attack me, I walked upstairs—gun in hand—through the house to the front porch. I stood on the wood deck, taking stock of my surroundings, trying to decide what I should do first.

A sudden wave of exhaustion came over me, and I sat on the steps so hard that I hurt my ass. I’d made it. We had said this was the place to come if an apocalypse happened. It happened, and I was here. Without my girls.

I shook off the thought, refusing to shed another tear. They were on their way here, and I had to get this place ready for them. There was definitely plenty of work to do, but I knew I would collapse soon, and certain precautions needed to be taken so I could fall asleep safely. There were old boards in the barn, but the bull was in there, too. Securing the windows and the perimeter and burying Leah and the doctor would have to be done before I could sleep. All of that would likely take all day. I stood up and took a deep breath, wondering how much more I could push my body before it just couldn’t go any longer.

I walked around the back to the shed and found a shovel, and then found a nice spot under the big maple tree on the south side of the house, and began to dig.


My eyes bulged and I blinked, trying to clear them so I could figure out where we were. I’d just had the mother of all nightmares, and Zoe was still in my arms asleep, but I could tell from the musty smell that we weren’t home.

When the room finally came into focus, feelings of both relief and dread came over me. The dread overpowered the relief without effort. We were running for our lives. Jill was either dead or would be soon, my wife was gone, and Zoe and I were on the run.

To my right were the old couple, Walter and Joy. Walter was asleep in his recliner, snoring. He would suck air in through his nose, and then blow it out from his mouth, the air building up until it escaped from his lips. Joy was awake, watching me with a smile.

“He’s always done that,” she said quietly. “Used to drive me nuts. Now it’s relaxing.”

I sat up, careful not to wake Zoe. The sun lit up the room from the small rectangular windows near the ceiling. The television was on, but muted.

“I don’t think the news is going to come back on, but at least we still have electricity.”

I nodded, folding my arms across my chest. “Wonder if you’ll get a bill?”

Joy laughed once. “I doubt it. I saw my postman walk by yesterday afternoon.”

That struck me as funny, even though it was morbid as hell, and I couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled to the service. Joy began to giggle, too. We were trying not to wake Walter and Zoe, so our laughter consisted of breathing and shuddering. Joy’s eyes began to water, and then she stood. “I’m going to make a cup of coffee. Want one?”

I nodded. “I better go with you.”

I made sure Zoe was still snugly tucked into the blanket, and then I followed Joy upstairs. She started a pot in silence, and I checked outside. There were no broken windows or open doors, and I didn’t see any of the sick, either. I stepped onto the porch. In the distance, I could barely make out the sound of the alarm from the highway. It was still going off. Skeeter, Jill, and even Aubrey crossed my mind: where they were, if they were safe, if they got any rest the night before. Other people from my life flooded my thoughts as well. My boss, who was a huge ass**le, but his wife and children were very sweet; my cousin Brandon and his six kids; our neighbors; Mrs. Grace, my second grade teacher. It was possible that almost everyone I’d ever known was dead. Or . . . a version of dead.

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