“Daddy!” I screamed.
He ran up behind me. “What? What is it?” he asked, breathing hard.
I buried my face into his torso, pointing with a trembling hand at the door. “They…they have a baby! It’s—”
“In there?” Dad ran up the steps. After a few quiet moments, his footsteps could be heard on the steps, and then he pulled me against him again. “Christ almighty, Jenna. Think about something else. Think about your mom. Think about school. Anything else.”
I shook my head, wiping my wet face on his T-shirt, while he comforted me. “They—”
He held my chin in his hand and lifted it. “No, they didn’t. Remember what Tavia said—about how they’re not the same as they were before?”
“The baby didn’t know that.”
Dad clenched his jaw and then turned toward the SUV. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. There’s a station down the road.”
“Can we make it?”
“Yeah. I just didn’t want to chance it. Jenna?”
“Don’t tell Halle. Don’t tell any of them. Let’s pretend that we didn’t see it.”
I nodded, wiping my eyes.
“Any luck?” Tavia asked when we got back into the vehicle.
Halle and Tobin were coloring.
Dad shook his head.
Tavia’s eyebrows pulled together. “Jenna? You all right, honey?”
“I’ll be okay.”
“Andrew, what’s wrong with her?”
Halle turned around in her seat, her elbows perched on the console. “What did you see?”
Dad turned, too. “Don’t answer, Jenna.” He looked to Tavia. “You don’t want to know. Some things you can’t unsee.”
Tavia covered her mouth as Dad backed out of the driveway, and then she reached up to grab my hand, squeezing tightly. We both knew that was just one of the first of many awful things I would see, that we would all see. Even when we wanted to look away, we would have to stare ugly things in the face just to stay alive.
Halle turned around, and I closed my eyes. It was only a matter of time before she would have that last bit of innocence taken from her, too. I couldn’t cover her eyes forever.
Dad pulled out onto the road, turning west.
West on Highway 11.
On our way to heaven…
Right after we get through hell.
The gas station was in the next town, but no one was manning the store inside. Dad used his credit card, whispering prayers I couldn’t quite make out. Then, he punched the air, the vein in his forehead bulging. He crossed his arms on the back corner of the Tahoe and rested his head.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I think something has to be tripped in there. I hope,” he said, narrowing his eyes at the store.
It was smaller than small. Dad reached inside, his feet coming off the ground, as he leaned over his seat toward the passenger side and grabbed his rifle.
“What are you doing?”
He cocked the gun. “I’m going to see if I can get the juice flowing. Can you try to run the card out here? Just do this.” He showed me how to insert the card into the slit and then pull it out. “Choose the grade by pressing the eighty-seven button,” he instructed, pressing it. “Then, take the pump off the holder and pull up the lever. The nozzle fits into the gas tank, like this, and squeeze the trigger,” he said as I watched him act it all out. “You got it?”
“I can do it.”
Tavia leaned out of her open window. “You didn’t have to go through all that. I can do it.”
“She needs to learn. She needs to learn everything,” Dad said, keeping his eyes on the store. He held the rifle in front of him with both hands and took his first step.
“Be careful,” I said. “They can sneak up on you.”
Dad didn’t turn around. When he reached the double doors, he banged on the glass with the stock of his gun. After nothing happened, he went inside.
I dipped the card into the slot, chose the grade, and then lifted the nozzle before placing it into the mouth of the SUV’s tank. The gas pump beeped again, but again, nothing happened, and the digital display returned to scrolling words.
Dad popped his head out of the door. “Try it one more time. I think I figured it out.”
I ran the card, but this time it was denied. “What? No,” I said, trying it again. The word Denied came up again.
Dad pushed through the doors and held up his hands, frustrated and confused.
“It says the card is denied!” I yelled.
He jogged over to me.
“She’s right,” Tavia said. “I was watching.”
“Damn it. Damn it!” Dad yelled to the sky. He palms against the driver’s side door, his fingertips turning white, his jaw muscles working beneath the skin. “We have to go back to Anderson.”
“What? No. We’ll go as far as we can, and then we’ll walk the rest of the way,” I said.
Dad glared at me. “With a toddler and a seven-year-old? Jenna, that’s not realistic.”
“We have a tent. We have everything we need. We’ll keep watch. We can find an empty house. We can make it.”
“It’s too dangerous. Those things are everywhere! We’re going back.”
“Mom isn’t in Anderson.”
“Jenna, something bad could happen. Are you willing to risk your sister’s life? Your mom wouldn’t want that.”
“She didn’t stay in Anderson because she knew we couldn’t survive there. We’ve talked about it. We—”
“I said no,” Dad said, his tone final.
“You weren’t there! You don’t get to make this decision! This is something Halle and I promised to Mom!”
“If she were that worried about riding this out with you, she wouldn’t have left. She was right there, Jenna, and she left!”
“Andrew!” Tavia scolded.
Tears filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks.
Dad’s shoulders fell. “Damn it. Jenna, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I’m just frustrated.”
“She didn’t leave us. She is meeting us at Red Hill. That’s the plan. It’s always been the plan,” I said, sniffing.