“We’re sleeping outside?” she asked, her eyes wide. She actually began to tremble at the thought. “I don’t want to, Daddy. I want to sleep with Mom tonight.”
Dad offered an apologetic half smile. “We’re not going to make it to Red Hill tonight, Pop Can. We’ll make it most of the way to Shallot before dark. We’ll set up camp, and then we’ll walk again tomorrow. It’ll be okay. Jenna and I are going to take turns keeping watch, and it’s a full moon, so we’ll be able to see before anything gets too close.”
She shook her head. “No. No, Daddy.”
Dad hugged her. “I won’t let anything happen to you, Halle. I promise.”
He helped her put on her backpack, and then we set out again, walking down the hill. We returned to the road, heading north on Highway 123. The tune began to play in my head, Halle’s high-pitched voice singing her made-up song, as it did every time I thought about the directions Mom had taught us.
We crossed the paths of just a few infected and one small group of four or five, and we had no trouble either sneaking past them or waiting while Dad took them out. The sun bore down on us, and every part of my exposed skin was turning pink and feeling raw. We had less than half a bottle of sunscreen, and Dad and I had agreed that Halle’s pale skin would need it more than either of us, who tended to tan instead of peel.
By late afternoon, we still hadn’t found a good place to camp, so we continued on. I was beginning to wonder if Dad was hoping to come across a house, but I didn’t remember anything but pasture and cattle being between Fairview and Shallot.
I ended up putting on Dad’s pack and carrying mine, so Dad could give Halle a piggyback ride for a few miles. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and I was getting nervous.
“Dad?” I said finally.
“It’s getting late.”
We walked another two miles, and I wrinkled my nose. “What is that?”
Halle held her wrist to her face. “Ugh! What is that smell?”
Dad stopped abruptly. “I don’t believe it.”
Halle peeked over his shoulder. “What is that?”
I caught up to him and stood there with my mouth hanging open. On the top of a hill was a rock that said Shallot.
“We made it. We’re here,” Dad said.
“Look,” Halle said, pointing to the sky. “The white smoke is from here.”
Dad’s expression changed from surprise to relief to intenseness. “The hill is obscuring what could be on the other side. I don’t know what the smoke is about. If Shallot has a lot of infected, we might have to run or act quickly. Jenna, don’t shoot unless it’s absolutely necessary. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. You have to do what I say, when I say. Understood?”
Halle and I agreed, and I set her back on her feet.
I gripped Halle’s hand. “Don’t let go, no matter what.”
Halle nodded, worry beginning to shadow her face. We had no clue what we were walking into. Shallot was about the same size as Fairview. A stalled car was on the highway, and there was no way to know how many people had stopped here on their way to wherever.
I hoped that we would run into Brad and Darla right off the bat, and then they could take us to where they were staying.
Dad walked along the road into town. We had barely reached the other side of the hill with the rock before Dad hissed at us to hide. We retreated behind a tree, standing behind Dad, and he peeked out from behind it.
“Damn it,” he whispered. “It’s overrun.”
“Why does it smell like that?” I asked, my face twisting into disgust. It was the worst thing that had ever hit my nose. It was like charred dirty feet, skunk, and musk all rolled into one.
Dad’s eyes danced around, taking everything in. “Smells like a bloater.”
“A decomposed body after it catches fire. They are full of bacteria and built-up gases. When they catch fire, it releases that into the air. I think some of the infected must have either been caught in the explosion or walked into the fire.”
“Let’s go,” Halle whispered. “I don’t want to stay here.”
“We can’t make it to Red Hill before dark,” I said.
“Agreed,” Dad said. “We’ll just walk down this road and try to get into the first house we see. We’ll be sure to sneak in undetected, so that means quickly and quietly.”
“Okay, Dad,” Halle said in her small voice.
“Let’s go,” he said softly.
We stuck to the trees and then went down the back alley of a line of houses.
Dad hopped the chain-link fence of a two-story house that already had wooden slats on the windows. He tried to open the back door, but it was locked.
A familiar low moan sent a shiver up my spine, and I pulled Halle closer, looking all around. I couldn’t see it, but it had seen us—or maybe he could smell us.
Dad went to the next house, also a two-story. The outside slats had been painted dark green, and the windows had hideous brown shutters. The back door opened immediately. He disappeared inside for a bit and then came back out, waving at us. I helped Halle over the fence, and then I hopped over myself. We began to run to the back door.
A moan sounded from the fence, and I turned. An infected, a man in overalls, was reaching for us over the chain-link. I looked to Dad, who was signaling frantically for me to come inside, but I knew if we left that thing at the back fence, it would alert others to food, and we would be in real danger, real fast.
I held the bat low in both hands, twisting my palms on the grip, as I walked over to the infected.
“Jenna!” Dad hissed.
I took the first swing, stunning the creature. A month’s worth of decay had made him squishier, his skin and muscles not protecting his bones. I hit him again, and he fell.
“What are you doing? Get your ass in here!”
I jumped over the fence and hit him two more times until he stopped reaching out for me. I nudged him with my foot and then hopped back over the fence. I ran at full speed to the door as if something were after me. I closed the door behind me, my heart trying to beat out of my chest.
“What were you doing?” Dad growled. “Trying to get yourself killed?”
“They call to each other,” I said. “If I had left him out there, he would have drawn others here, and if enough came, they could knock over the fence and get inside the house.”