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Page 52

“Where’s the Bug?” the young man asked, confused by the sight of me.

I jerked my head back to the house. “I’ll explain later. There are rifles on the sofa. Grab one and get your ass back out here. They’re going to be knocking on the front door in a minute.” I peeked through the sights and continued to shoot. Soon, there were two more sources of gunfire, one on each side of me.

By the time they hit the fishing line, the herd looked more like a small group. The loud booming of our rifles seemed to fall into a rhythm. Later I would consider us fortunate that both men at least knew how to shoot a gun. It wasn’t something I’d thought to ask in the moment.

We kept shooting until they’d all fallen. I watched the shufflers for a moment, making sure all of them were downed. After a full minute with no movement, I met the eyes of the bewildered men on each side of me. I backed up to the door and pointed my gun in their general direction, just in case they realized I was alone and could rob me—or worse.

“My name is Stanley Cooper. I’m Ashley’s boyfriend. Have you seen her? Have they been here?” Before I could answer, the kid began to panic, rubbing the back of his neck and looking around. “They’re not here, Nate. They didn’t make it.”

Recognizing the situation, Nate glanced at my gun for a fraction of a second before staring down the road. His eyes narrowed, focusing on the crest of the red dirt with the same desperate, hopeful expression on his face that I’d had for the last six days.

“Okay, so we head down the road and look for them,” Nate said.

“Wait,” I said, letting the end of the rifle drop a bit. “Ashley Hayes?”

“Yes!” Stanley said. “Have you seen her?”

“No.”

His face fell as the last bit of hope I’d given him disappeared. “They should be here by now!”

“It’s almost dark,” I said. “You shouldn’t leave. They’re out more at night. Getting snuck up on is a good way to get killed.”

Stanley interlocked his fingers on top of his head, and after a short moment of deliberation, looked to Nate. “I’m goin’.”

Nate nodded, and then looked at me. “Do you have any flashlights we could borrow?”

I nodded, went inside to the kitchen, grabbed a flashlight from under the sink, and then got another from the bedroom, returning to the porch. They both snapped the flashlights from my hands.

Nate took a deep breath. He was exhausted, but for whatever reason, he was just as anxious to find Ashley. “We’ll bring back the guns.”

I didn’t answer, knowing I shouldn’t say what I truly believed: They wouldn’t make it back. Wandering around in the dark was a death wish. I narrowed my eyes, glancing down the road to where they were headed. Barely visible in the dim light, a cloud of red dust puffed just above the road. “Wait. Wait! Look!” I said, pointing to the road.

Nate and Stanley had just left the porch to start their run when they eyed a white Bug catch air over the hill. It jerked into the drive as if it were being chased, bouncing over every pothole before sliding to a stop.

Stanley ran over to one side of the car, Nate on the other. The driver was Miranda, Ashley’s sister, and her boyfriend, Bryce, stepped out from the passenger side. I’d only seen him once before. I’d never met Stanley, and as I watched him pull Ashley from the backseat, I wondered if he was a new boyfriend. I remembered Dr. Hayes calling Ashley’s boyfriend by a different name.

Ashley was nearly hysterical, wailing and clawing at Stanley’s shirt. Her eyes were swollen and red, long soaked from the tears she’d wept while they were apart. Nate leaned down and pulled a tiny girl from the backseat. She wrapped her arms and legs around him as best she could as he held her, silently weeping, clearly emotionally exhausted. My chest burned at the sight of her. She was about Halle’s size, and I knew immediately that she belonged to Nate. Seeing them reunite made the need to see my daughters unbearable.

Another man, a head taller than everyone but Bryce, climbed from the backseat. He scanned the house with wary eyes, making me feel on edge. He was different than the others. He moved differently, and his eyes took in everything.

“Where’ve you been?” Stanley said.

Miranda’s face turned instantly annoyed. “She made us wait at the corner by the water tower. I finally got her to agree to let us leave at dark.”

Stanley’s head jerked to look at Ashley. “I told you I would meet you here,” he scolded. “It made more sense for us to cut across. Why would you wait at the road? Are you nuts?”

More tears spilled down Ashley’s red cheeks.

Miranda raised an eyebrow. “That’s what I told her. We could have been here with Dad and not listening to Zoe freak out for the last four hours!”

Nate hugged his daughter tighter.

The man with no name smirked. He towered over most of the others. Just the sight of him made my fingers grasp my rifle tighter. His chest bulged from his white T-shirt, which was speckled with blood. The red stains were spattered down his jeans, too, varying from specks to large splotches. “Are you just getting here?” He clearly wasn’t impressed with their time.

Stanley nodded to the top of the hill and the mess of bodies in the yard. “It’s not a straight shot, and we had company. We ran into hills, and a creek. It was rough going. We tried leading the ones that caught up to us away from the house, but then ran into more. And, Nathan had to rest a few times.”

Oh. His name was Nathan. That fit him better, anyway.

“Where are you guys coming from?” I asked.

Nathan paused from whispering things into his daughter’s ear. “Shallot. It’s about ten miles straight across.”

I glanced around, grabbed the flashlight from Nathan, and jogged out to the fishing line. The shufflers had pulled it loose and a few sections were lying on the ground. I pulled the line from the some of the shufflers’ decaying ankles and then rewrapped it around the stakes, pulling them taut.

Pulling the downed shufflers into the field and burning them crossed my mind, but it was nearly dark. Resigned to leave it until the next day, I joined the others inside the house.

Miranda met me at the door. “Where is my dad?”

I glanced at Ashley. The sisters had already been through hell, and I hated to make it worse. I just shook my head a little, unable to say the words.

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