“I think that’s Mom!” I said. “Look, Halle, on the roof!”
Two men ran out of the house. One climbed up a ladder to the roof, yelling, and the other waved his arms at us.
Halle and I began to run, and the woman on the roof shouted something in an excited, high-pitched voice.
“It’s Mom!” I said, trying not to run ahead of Halle.
They began calling to us. Happy tears streamed down my face. I tightly gripped Halle’s hand, worried I would get too excited and run too fast.
The men began to run toward us and then a woman followed. Mom stayed on the roof and aimed the rifle she was holding.
Something is wrong.
Mom began to panic, shrieking words I couldn’t understand. I slowed down, pulling Halle to a stop, and I looked around. The wheat was swishing. Mom could see something we couldn’t. There were infected in the field. They were heading toward us.
“Run!” Mom screamed.
I looked behind me, tightened my grip on Hall’s hand, and began sprinting toward the farmhouse. The men were running toward us, weapons in hand. They must be friends of Mom’s. They were just as invested as she was to get us to her, just like Joey had been.
The men called to us, motioning for us to run to them. I could run faster, but Halle’s legs were going as fast as they could, and I wouldn’t leave her behind.
Halle began to cry, the sound carrying every bit of her fear and relief, knowing that we were at the end of our journey either way.
A shot popped, echoing across the waving wheat. After a few seconds, I heard it again. It was Mom. She was shooting the infected in the field. The popping came steadily, each time cracking through the air, rumbling like thunder.
The first of the infected emerged from the wheat. I stopped and leaned back so hard that I fell, taking Halle with me.
The gunshots continued while I scrambled backward. A wall of tattered, rotting bodies formed between the men trying to save us and Halle and me. There were so many. It was as if the entire town of Shallot had followed us just to stop us right before we got to Mom.
The men and a woman began yelling to get the attention of the huge group of infected, but they kept coming at us. I could hear the wheat swishing behind us, and I knew we would be surrounded at any moment. I grabbed Halle and held her close.
“Mommy!” A shrill scream I barely recognized as my own emerged from my throat. “Mommy!”
A pop went off, and the closest infected fell, his brain matter spreading out and mixing with the red dirt. Another infected fell, and I knew Mom was taking out anything getting too close.
A man appeared from the field on the other side of the road and grabbed my arm. Halle and I screamed, but then the man pulled us up and pushed us behind him. Mom picked off another infected with her rifle, but there were more behind it. The man shoved one away from us, and it stumbled back, falling to the ground. Then another shot went off, this one much closer.
Our neighbor was standing at the end of the gun that had gone off.
“Go, Nathan!” our neighbor said to the man holding my arm.
Nathan looked down at us. “We’re going into the other field and around, okay? Follow me. Stay close!”
We ran into the tall stalks, hunkered down like before. Nathan stopped for a moment and listened, and then he pulled me as I dragged Halle along.
“Just a little bit farther,” Nathan said, guiding us through the wheat.
We stepped out of the field and onto red dirt again. This time, we were right in front of the driveway. We crossed the road and went through the yard toward the porch. A woman with long blonde hair opened her arms wide and guided us into the house.
Halle reached behind her. “Mommy?”
The woman’s eyes were wide and worried, but she offered a comforting smile. “She’s just going to help the others. You’re safe. You’re safe.”
Two other girls were inside, warily watching us. One was my age, and the other was closer to Halle’s age.
More shots rang out over and over. Halle covered her ears, and I pulled her into me.
She shook her head, sobbing. “Where’s Mommy?”
“She’s right outside. She’ll be here soon. Do you remember me, Halle? I’m Ashley, the doctor’s daughter. We’ve met before.”
Halle nodded, and buried her face into my neck. Now that we were here, the wait was agonizing.
After a few minutes, the crack of gunshots slowed down, and then they stopped altogether, both from the roof and the road.
“I think it’s over,” Ashley said. Then, her shoulders shot up to her ears when two more pops sounded.
Ashley rushed outside, and I followed.
There she was, our mother, standing on the front porch, seeing us but not truly believing. I collapsed into her arms, pressing my face into her chest. Only by hearing her cries did I know that Halle had done the same. We all fell together in a heap on the porch, and Mom’s body began to tremble and then shake as she cried right along with us, like I knew she would.
Mom lifted my chin and then cupped my cheeks, looking into my eyes in awe. She looked down at Halle, too, and then we began to laugh before crying again.
Nathan and our neighbor guided the blonde back to the house. She was bawling hysterically, reaching for the road, until our neighbor finally resorted to forcing her inside. The walls barely muffled her wails.
Nathan watched Ashley and our neighbor until they disappeared behind the door, and then he looked down at us in awe. “You have some incredible kids there.”
“Miranda?” Mom asked.
Nathan sighed. “Bryce was attacked. She tried to save him. I couldn’t get to them in time.”
Mom’s shoulders fell, and then she kissed Halle’s face, which was buried under my arm. Her dirty fingernails dug into my skin. I kissed her head.
“Come on, girls. I’ve got you. Let’s go inside.”
I hadn’t heard Mom’s voice in so long, but it was still as soft and strong as I remembered.
Nathan helped us up, and we walked inside together. Mom, Halle, and I kept looking at each other and smiling.
“We saw your message,” I said, my voice breaking.
Mom shook her head in disbelief. “Where’s your dad?”
“He was bit,” Halle said in her small voice.
“He made us leave him,” I said. “He made us.”
I meant that he’d made me shoot him, but I couldn’t say it out loud. Even if it had to be done, it sounded awful, and everyone in the room was listening.