“What’s the plan for tomorrow?” I whispered. “You’re not serious about going on without us?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
His question took me off guard. I wasn’t used to him asking for my opinion on anything.
“Uh…let’s weigh the pros and cons.”
I thought for a moment. “You could travel faster without Halle. You could maybe get there and back if Mom has her car and, by some miracle, still has gas.”
“Let’s not bet on that. We’re talking about you and Halle being here alone for at least one full night, and that’s if everything went perfectly.”
“That’s a scary thought. We could do it though, especially if we found something to cover the windows.”
“How important is it to you that we leave tomorrow?” he asked. “If we take the time to prepare, I could fortify the windows downstairs. I might even be able to find a car with gas. We could drive out of here and be at the ranch in fifteen minutes.”
I sighed. I was frustrated with the choice, but that was only because the smart thing to do meant not seeing Mom the next day. She was only about fifteen miles away. Knowing we were so close was maddening.
“We have to at least find something to reinforce the windows,” I said, defeated.
“Your birthday is in five weeks,” Dad said.
“Yeah? That means we missed the Fourth of July, not that we had fireworks,” I said without emotion.
Birthdays and holidays didn’t mean what they used to. From now on, it would just signify another year of survival.
“My daughter will be fourteen. Hard to believe,” he said before taking in a slow, deep breath.
“Harder to believe than a zombie apocalypse?” I said with a smirk he couldn’t see.
I could hear him scratching at his beard. “I promise that you’ll spend your birthday with your mom, Jenna. How about that?”
A smile crept across my face. “That would be the best present you could give me. That, and you shaving.”
“Done,” he said. “Now, get some rest. We have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”
I nodded and closed my eyes.
DAD HAD BEEN GONE FOR HOURS when I saw him. A dirty large man was walking down the road, but he wasn’t shuffling. He was alive. Part of me wanted to yell out from the second-story window, to pound on the glass until he looked up, but I didn’t know who he was.
This far into a worldwide disaster, people who had once been civil became desperate to survive. That meant stealing and robbing and doing other things that I didn’t want to think about. The man below could be helpful, or he could take all our food—or worse.
I let him walk by, and then I searched the streets again for my dad, letting my eyes skip over all ages of infected ambling about.
“I’m hungry,” Halle said, tugging on my shirt. “And I’m mad.”
“Why?” I asked, turning to see the sour look on her face.
“We were supposed to see Mom today,” she said, trying to keep the whine from her voice and the tears from her eyes.
“I know. I wanted to see her today, too. But we were surprised to see this many of those things in Shallot, and it made us wonder how many might be between here and the ranch. We have to have a plan, Halle. We’re almost there. We don’t want to make a mistake when we’ve come this far, right?”
She pulled her mouth to the side. “I guess.”
“I’m disappointed, too. It’s hard being this close and not just going to see her. But she is going to be so happy to see us. We have to concentrate on that.”
Halle could no longer keep the tears from her eyes. “I’m going to be happy to see her, too!” She threw her arms around me, and I hugged her. “I miss her so much, Jenna! I want Mom!”
“Me, too,” I said, feeling my own lip quivering. “We just have a few more things to do, and then we can go. But for now, let’s scrape up some lunch. Dad will be really hungry when he gets home.”
Halle lifted her glasses and wiped her eyes. I looked out the window again, and I saw the man walking back by. He had a bag with several gun barrels sticking out of the top. He wasn’t searching. He knew exactly where he was going. I watched him until he disappeared under the awning of the house on the next block. It was the last house on the road. I swallowed and then let Halle pull me down the stairs.
As I put a pot of ravioli on the cooktop, the back door opened and closed. I scrambled for Dad’s rifle and stood in front of Halle, cocking it at the same time.
“Good girl,” Dad said. “Don’t waste time asking who it is.”
I blew out a breath of relief. “You scared the crap out of me.”
Dad raised an eyebrow, putting down all the plastic sacks in his hands. “The undead are walking around outside, and I scared you?”
“A guy was walking around outside,” I said.
“Lots of guys are walking around outside,” he said, absently digging through his sacks.
“No, like a real guy, an alive guy. He walked down to that brick house we couldn’t get in, and then he walked back down the street to the house on the end of the road by the pasture.”
Dad froze. “What did you do?”
I shrugged. “I did nothing. I didn’t recognize him, and Halle and I were alone. What took you so long?”
“He’s living at the end of the street? What was he doing in the brick house?”
“He was packing a lot of guns. I think he found them at that house. He didn’t see us. I don’t think he knows we’re here.”
Dad let the air escape that he’d been holding. “Good. That’s good. We should be more careful. I’m glad I have smart kids.”
“Are you going to answer my question?”
“Oh, I had to find something to carry back the plywood. I found a lumberyard and a tiny general store that was mostly empty.”
“You have blood on your shirt,” I said, looking at him more closely. “And your face.”
Dad looked down and then reached into his pocket. He handed me a piece of paper. It was my note to Mom that I had given to Darla.
“Where did you get this?” I asked, excited. “Did you see Brad and Darla?”
Dad lowered his eyes, his face solemn.