Among Monsters / Page 37

Page 37

“Don’t forget this,” I said, handing it to her.

Dad was quiet, but I didn’t want to talk to him about it. I was afraid he’d change his mind.

We walked down the back alley as the birds and crickets chirped. The gravel crunched beneath our feet, and Dad’s pants made that familiar swishing noise that I only noticed when we were on foot.

Dad had been forced to tighten his belt two notches since all this had started, and his pants sagged in the backside. I didn’t make a habit of looking in the mirror, but it wasn’t hard to see that we had all lost weight. The more I thought about it, the more I prepared myself that Mom would look different, too.

My heart leaped. We would know by the end of the day. I was just as excited to calm her fears as I was to see her.

When we stepped out from behind Shallot’s hill onto Highway 123 and turned north, that was when I really began to get excited. Seeing Mom today was actually happening. Dad was still quiet, twisting the wooden handle of the trident he’d found in someone’s barn the week before. He still carried the semiautomatic rifle he’d found on the overpass near Anderson, and I still carried his rifle and Jud’s aluminum bat, but because of the man with the guns, it was easier to get out of town than it was to get in.

I never found out if the man—whoever he was—was trustworthy, but he was definitely smart. Walking to that side of town every day to shoot the infected had not only thinned out the undead population, but the noise had also drawn them to the opposite side of town from where we’d stayed. When we’d left, we’d only come across a handful.

Dad was right. We hadn’t been on the road for more than twenty minutes when we discovered the first group. They were headed north, but we were upwind. Once we got close enough, they turned toward our smell.

“Get ready,” Dad said. “Knees first and then the head. Swing hard. Halle?”

“Yeah?” she said, fear nearly drowning out her voice.

“Stay out of the way, but don’t just focus on us. Pay attention to your surroundings.”

When the first infected got close enough to Dad, he thrust the trident into its face. It immediately froze, and when Dad jerked out the metal prongs, it fell to the ground. He went for another one, and I twisted the grip of the bat, holding it low and to the side, until I was close enough. They were mostly focused on Dad. It seemed like whenever one was killed, those around it became agitated and more fixated on the aggressor.

I swung at the knees of a woman approaching Dad’s side, and then I swung again when she fell to the ground.

“Get back a little, Jenna. Stay close to Halle!”

I complied and fell back, glancing behind me. Halle was standing in the middle of the road, like Dad had instructed the night before. She was watching us but also looking around herself often.

“You’re doing good, Halle. Keep it up!” I said, swinging at an infected that came too close.

Within minutes, the group was down, and Dad and I were standing over them, breathing hard and smiling.

“We did it,” I said, huffing.

“Good job, kiddo,” Dad said. “You all right, Halle?”

She ran to my side, hugging my arm. “Let’s hurry!”

We continued walking in a slower pace until we caught our breaths, and then Dad set it a bit faster.

“You made me proud back there.”

“Yeah?” I said.

He grabbed the bill of my hat and playfully pulled it down. “Yeah. We make a good team.”

“Told you so,” I said with a smug smile.

“You, too,” he said to Halle.

She looked up, squinting one eye, and grinned.

“You’re different,” I said. “In a good way. You don’t really yell anymore, and you don’t get super mad.”

Dad hooked his arm around my neck. “Well, maybe the apocalypse forced me to grow up.”

“I think Mom will be surprised.”

“You think so?” He chuckled.

“Yeah, and she’ll be grateful to you for bringing us safely to her, for taking care of us all this time.”

“Well, that’s nice, but…I didn’t do it for her. I did it because you’re my kids, and I love you.”

Halle hugged one side of him, and I hugged the other. We stood there together in the middle of the road in a tangled wad of love, acceptance, and gratitude. I felt like Dad and I finally had an understanding, and I knew that things would be different once we got to the ranch—between him and Mom, too.

As the sun rose and the heat turned everything a foot off the highway into wavy lines, our lovefest turned into a single line of sweat and determination. We weren’t halfway there, and Halle needed shade and a water break.

Dad took a sip from his canteen and handed it to me. “We’re going to have to step it up, girls. At this pace, we won’t make it by nightfall.”

I looked to my baby sister. “I know it’s hot but think about Mom. Just keep thinking about Mom.”

“Don’t let the heat keep you from paying attention to your surroundings,” Dad said. “We have to—”

Too late, I heard the moan. After all the infected we had slipped by and taken down, it just took one to appear from the trees and sink his teeth into Dad’s forearm.

Dad cried out and pulled the creature down with him.

Halle screamed, too, but I didn’t have the luxury of being afraid or even being sad. I was angry. Dad had been bitten, and I could see in his eyes, and he in mine, that it was over. A few miles ago, we had just come to an understanding. We had just figured everything out. Things were going to be different. I funneled every bit of that anger into my bat, and with one swing, the infected went from gnawing on Dad’s arm to a lifeless, harmless body on the ground.

Halle was still screaming when Dad stood. She was staring at his arm like it was on fire.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice thick with emotion and my chest heaving. “I’m so sorry.”

“The first-aid kit!” he said, pointing to his pack.

He turned around, and I pulled on the zipper, lifting out the plastic container.

“What? What do I do?” I asked. The tears were falling then.

Halle’s screams blurred in the background.

“The tourniquet!”

I handed him the stretchy band.

“The gauze and the tape!”

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