The sunny rays shining in were absurdly bright. It was a beautiful morning. It was an ugly awakening to the day.

I heard my brother calling now. “Hey!” Clank-clank. “Anybody up there? Hey!”

I listened at the cellar door to the harsh whisperings down below. My brother was in conversation with Mike. I couldn’t catch the words. I tried not to let myself hope. They sounded so normal. Just two guys talking. They were not the monsters described in my daughter’s research. I closed my eyes, cleared my mind. I took a deep breath and opened the door. Bright light spilled inside.

“Hey!” shouted both in unison.

I took a couple of steps down. “Joe?”

“Jack! Thank God!”

A wave of guilt as I descended down, my gun still drawn. I pulled the light chain.

“Jack!” my brother cried again. His expression was one of relief. He glanced at the gun and I slowly lowered it.

“Joey?” I didn’t know what else to say. Joe and Mike just stood there, handcuffed, staring, looking confused.

“You were both so sick...” Words failed me.

“I know, Jack. We were bad off.”

Mike nodded, agreeing. He wiped his face with his sleeve. “I remember,” he said. “We were out of our minds. That goddamn rock...”

“How do you feel now?”

“Better,” answered Joe. “Much better.”

“Yeah,” Mike echoed.

They did look better. Their color was back, and their eyes weren’t so red. They were coherent. I reminded myself to be objective.

“Tell me exactly how you feel.” Joe’s eyes were bright, almost too bright. They were still a little red, from what I could see in the basement’s dim light.

But my brother gave me a genuine smile. “I’m really thirsty. And hungry.”

“So, you remember what happened?”

“Yeah. I was angry, confused. I’m sorry I fought with you. I was so...”

“It was like this rage seized me,” Mike chimed in. “I couldn’t control myself. I don’t blame you. I was at your daughter’s room.” This was true. He knew enough that he had to address it if he was going to get out of here. “I apologize, sir. You took me into your home when I was sick. Not many people would have done that.”

“I have to protect her. Myself. Maybe both of you, too. I might still have to—”

“I know, Jack,” my brother said. “I probably would have done the same. You probably saved us. Has anyone been looking for us?”

“Yes. You’re both wanted. By the military and local police.

You’re AWOL,” I said. “And considered armed and dangerous.”

This quieted both men. I needed to think this through. Joe did look better. Maybe too good, for what he’d been through. He saw me looking at him.

“Jack, I swear we’re better.” His speech was a little animated, maybe because he wanted those cuffs off. Water, food, a shower. I could understand that. But...

“Let me get you some water, and then we’ll talk.”

“You’re not going to let us out of here?”

“Shit, Joey. I want to. You don’t know how hard it was to put you down here.”

“Okay, okay. Water would be great.”

“I’ll be right back.”

I didn’t want to keep Anna waiting. I rounded the corner to the stairwell and found her and Jared huddled next to each other halfway down the stairs.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“Sorry, I just had to listen. Don’t blame Jared.”

I exploded. “Anna, this is no game. Get the hell upstairs. Now! Both of you!” I felt more anger than I had in quite a long time.

I grabbed the key that Jared held. Anna knew she’d pushed my limit and quickly back-pedaled up the stairs. I followed them up into my room. I could feel my cheeks flush with anger as I crossed the room without a glance at either of them and slammed the door shut. I locked it.

I shoved down the guilt of locking my daughter and her boyfriend in a room. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I thought wildly. I moved quickly back down the stairs. In the kitchen, I grabbed two glasses out of the dishwasher, thought about it, and then exchanged them for plastic cups. No use giving anyone a weapon.

In that moment, as I filled the red Solo cups under the faucet, my hands started shaking and I felt sick, so sick. I poured out the filled cups, watching the water swirl down the drain. The pressure of the day—my sick brother, the government agents, the yelling at my daughter—it all came crashing down on me.

I pounded my fist on the tile counter. Let the damn tears come. It wasn’t as if I could stop them anyway. I turned around and faced the door that led to my imprisoned brother and another man I didn’t know from Adam. What was wrong with me? I couldn’t control myself. Couldn’t control the emotions. Couldn’t control the anger.

I knocked the cups into the sink and slid down, my back to the cabinets. I sat there in anguish, the waterworks rushing from me now. Was I going crazy myself? I had handcuffed infected people in my cellar, and had locked up my daughter with a horny fifteen-year-old boy who was crazy about her. What could be more insane?

Just a few days ago, the world had been normal. Life had been good. Balanced. I didn’t know if I could handle this.

So, a pent-up volcano of misery, I sat there with my legs stuck straight out and erupted. The cork on my uncontrollable emotions popped. Emotions that I hadn’t let myself feel in years, decades even, spewed out. Some hero I was. Not.

I wept for the loss and the horror of the infected, and I raged for those who tried to help them and then, I screamed for those who tried to kill them. I sobbed and shouted until my throat was scorched from screaming my anguish, and from eyes that felt like they had sand thrown in them. Tears salted my gritty neck for the first time in decades. I was crying so hard that the pots and pans rattled in the kitchen cabinet against my back.

And that’s how Carla found me.

Chapter Twenty-three

Carla grabbed a roll of paper towels off the counter and sat beside me, cross-legged.

I chided myself for not hearing her enter through the back door; at the same time, I didn’t really care. It was Carla. Safe. A friend. She was the only friend I’d confided in. And she just waited, like friends do.

It was strange how I really didn’t care that she watched me cry. I usually kept up the macho façade that men tend to muster up around women. But I was so tired that I just didn’t care.

J.R. Rain Books | Horror Books | Walking Plague Trilogy Series Books