“Is it dead people?” Cole asked.
“I want to see them.”
“No, you don’t.”
“It won’t bother me. I promise.”
“I can’t make you shut your eyes, but I can give you fair warning. This is the kind of thing you’ll dream about, so when you wake up tonight crying and scared, don’t call out for me to comfort you, because I warned you not to look.”
Thinking, Will there be a tonight to wake from?
Jack drove on. They had been shot down, ten or fifteen of them, some killed outright, brainmatter slung into quivering gray-pink globules on the street. Others had managed to cover some ground before dying, the distance of their final crawl measured by swaths of purple-stained pavement and in one instance a long gray rope of gut like the woman had been tethered to the street. Jack glanced back, saw Naomi and Cole staring through the window, their faces pressed to the glass. His eyes filled up.
In the middle of town, they crossed a river that sourced from the mountains. In the summertime, in direct sun, it shone luminescent green and teemed with rafters and fly-fishermen. Today, the water reflected the colorless, smoked-out sky. A body floated down the rapids under the trestle bridge, jostled in the current, and Jack spotted numerous others rounding the bend—a group of blindfolded children.
Main Avenue widened to four lanes. Burned, abandoned cars clogged the street. Out of the valley rose a hundred unique trails of smoke.
“It’s like an army came through,” Dee said.
They passed two fast-food restaurants, several gas stations, a fairground, a high school, a string of motels.
Jack pointed to a grocery store. “We should get more food.”
“Keep going, Dad. I don’t like it here.”
A woman stumbled out of the supermarket parking lot and ran into the street, holding out her hands to the Land Rover as if willing it to stop.
The Land Rover’s bumper came to rest ten feet from the woman in the road.
Dee glared at him as he turned off the engine and opened his door and stepped down into the road. The doorslam echoed against an unnerving silence, disrupted only by a single sound Jack barely even registered with one unshattered eardrum—a baby wailing several blocks away.
He could see in the way the woman watched him approach that her eyes had witnessed pure horror in recent hours. He suddenly wished he’d never stopped the car, that he’d stayed on the other side of the windshield, because this was real, breathing agony standing before him. She sat down in the road. The intensity of her weeping like nothing Jack had ever heard, and he acknowledged the urge to dehumanize her, to shun sympathy. Too horrifying to identify with a human being who had reached this level of despair. Something contagious in their grief and loss. Her hair was dreadlocked with blood and her arms streaked red and her long-sleeved white tee-shirt stained like a butcher’s apron.
Jack said, “Are you hurt?”
She looked up at him, eyes nearly swollen shut from crying. “How can this be happening?”
“Are they still here? In town?”
She wiped her eyes. “We saw them coming with guns and axes. We hid in the closet. They came through the house, looking for us. I’d been in Mike’s house before. He’d sung carols on our front porch. I’d taken his family Christmas cookies. He said if we came out they would do it quickly.”
Jack squatted down in the road. “But you got out. You escaped.”
“They shot at us as we ran out the back door. Katie was hit in the back. They were coming. . .I left her.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“I left her and I don’t even know if she was dead.”
Dee opened her door. Jack glanced back, said, “You want to come take a look at—”
“That’s a lie. I’m a f**king liar. I know she wasn’t dead because she was crying.”
“We need to go, Jack.”
“She was crying for me.”
He touched the woman’s shoulder. “Do you want to come with us?”
She stared back at him, her eyes glazing, mind drifting elsewhere.
“Jack, could we please leave this f**king town already?”
“Katie was crying for me. I was so scared.”
“Do you want to come with us?”
“I want to die.”
Jack walked back to the Land Rover and opened the door as the woman screamed.
“What happened to her?” Naomi asked.
He started the engine.
Drove around the woman in the road and turned up a sidestreet.
“Jack, where are you going?”
He pulled over to the curb and turned off the car and got out. The houses burned and smoking. A row of bodies in the street on the next block. Dee climbed out and walked around to the front of the car and stood facing him.
“I heard a baby crying over here while I was talking to that woman.”
“I don’t hear a thing, Jack. Look at me. Please.”
He looked down at her. As beautiful to him as she had ever been standing in this charred neighborhood in this murdered town. He saw the pulsing of her carotid artery in her long and slender neck. She seemed intensely alive.
Dee pointed toward the Land Rover. “They’re our charge. Do you understand that? Nobody else.”
“You made me stop for the hospital patient last—”
“That was the doctor in me. I’m over it now. We don’t have much food or water. We’re so vulnerable.”
“Jack.” She wouldn’t go on until he’d met her eyes. “I am holding my shit together by a very thin thread.”
“I need you to make smart decisions.”
“I know,” he said, still straining to hear the cries of the baby.
North out of town. Out of the smoke and through a valley, its winding river marked by cottonwoods and the valley itself enclosed by red-banded cliffs and everything so purely lit under the lucid blue, like a dream, Jack thought. Or a memory. The way he still saw Montana that fall day all those years ago when he’d caught his first glimpse of Dee. The highway paralleled a narrow gauge railroad. They passed no other cars. Pastured cows raised their oblong heads to watch them speed by, and the air that filled the car carried the sweet, rich stink of a dairy farm. In the backseat, Naomi leaned on the door, listening to her iPod. Cole slept. For a second, it felt like one of those weekend trips to Colorado, and Jack did everything in his power to embrace the fantasy.