But Joe smiled, rolled down the window and did that curvy thing with his hand, weaving it in and out to the oncoming wind. “Did I even thank you?” Joe asked, as he inhaled the fresh air deeply.
“No, but you’re welcome,” Mike answered.
Mike was happy, too. Of course, he understood that this wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. But if they could cure Jack, then there would be three of them. Three people who knew more than what 99.99 percent of the rest of the world knew. He was happy, for now. So glad that he’d saved his Army buddy, Joe. He believed Army buddies were for life.
They’d decided to keep the phone calls to an absolute minimum. Mike had promised to call Carla within a few hours. They would return within those guidelines, and although he felt bad that she was probably going crazy wondering what was happening, this was the time to be careful. Extremely careful.
So, it wasn’t surprising that Carla questioned them when they finally arrived at the Los Feliz home and knocked on the door.
Carla peered through the peephole, no doubt with her gun drawn.
“It’s okay, Carla,” Mike said. “I’m back. With Joe.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” She tried not to sound like a needy woman. The detective in her had to know without a shadow of a doubt that they were safe. And sane.
Mike explained quickly, and then Joe appeared in front of the door with a huge smile. In Carla’s experience, those who were infected didn’t smile. Perhaps they grimaced viciously, but not with the joy Joe displayed now.
“Ta-da! It’s me! I’m back! Cured!”
Finally, convinced—and laughing lightly—Carla opened the door, with her gun still in hand, of course.
Anna, who had a reputation for not following orders, was, of course, listening at the top of the stairs. Jared stayed next to her, knowing he could do nothing to deter his beautiful but stubborn girlfriend.
And when Carla finally opened the front door, Anna flew down the stairs and into her uncle’s arms, almost knocking him over. She looked into his eyes. Yes, normal. Thank God! Anna started crying again, this time with tears of joy.
“Uncle Joe! Is it really you? And you’re okay?”
“I’m back. Your Uncle Joe is here and we’re going to fix everything.” Joe wasn’t certain this was exactly true, but for Anna’s teenage-limited world, the promise would do. For now.
“I knew you’d make it,” she said through her tears. When she was done hugging her uncle, she turned to Mike Mendoza. “Thank you,” her words were sincere. “I don’t know how to thank you enough. For bringing him back and making him...okay again.”
Mike was still new to this family and didn’t quite know what to say. “I did what I had to do.”
Anna took her uncle’s hand. “Oh, Uncle Joe. Was it horrible?”
Joe Carter understood that Anna hadn’t witnessed a real drowning. Yet. Mike had been shot and unconscious when his lungs filled with water. It had been much, much different for Joe. And he remembered all of it. The fighting, the panic, the absolute necessity for air in his lungs instead of the forced water that slowly but inevitably filled them. Then the insane realization that he wasn’t going to get any oxygen. Finally, the...fading away.
Joe embraced his niece again, gently this time. “It was necessary, angel. Mike saved my life.”
“My dad will have to go through the same thing?”
Carla stepped in. “Honey, we’ll do everything we can to make it simple and quick. And then your dad will be...fine,” she ended, more uncertainly than she’d intended.
Anna nodded. Jared came forward and took her hand. It was Anna he cared about most, although her father was growing on him big time. But he also knew that saving her father’s life was crucial to all of their survival. Before Jack had been infected, he was the glue that held them all together.
“Sooo...” Anna said as courageously as she could, “how are we going to do it?”
* * *
A little while later all were seated back at the kitchen table.
Carla wasn’t used to “family meetings” and she tried to reason how this group constituted a family anyhow. Only three were blood relatives, but all played a part in this strange set of circumstances that now encompassed each of their lives. The set of events over the last week or so bound them together. Bonded them more closely than any of them would have ever imagined.
Jared was inseparable from Anna. Carla knew his parents either weren’t aware of his whereabouts or didn’t care. Mike was the Army buddy who had gotten into this mess with Joe, who was Jack’s brother.
I’ve seen whackier families, thought Carla, but couldn’t muster even a small grin.
“Carla?” Joe interrupted her thoughts.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I was saying that Mike and I were feeling stronger when we were—transformed,” he repeated. Joe took in the dark circles under Carla’s eyes and her worried face. From what he could tell, she was just about at the end of her rope. Joe loved Anna deeply but he knew that, even under normal circumstances, the girl could be a handful. He also comprehended the gravity of the situation for his brother. Joe gestured to the cellar door as he continued, “How’s he doing?”
Carla took a huge gulp of her coffee. “He’s stopped obsessing,” she said, “but truthfully, I haven’t had the heart to go down there for the last hour or so.”
“You haven’t?” Anna cried out. Before anyone could stop her, she rose from her chair and bolted across the kitchen to the cellar door.
“Anna, wait!” Jared, Carla and Joe chimed together. But she opened the door and descended the stairs quickly.
They all cautiously followed her, some quicker than others. Jared knew that if Anna thought for an instant that her father was getting “better” she would be in his arms in a flash. He forced his way down the stairs faster than the others.
But Anna had stopped halfway down the stairs, peering into the darkness. “Daddy?”
A groan from below. Then a hoarse voice: “Anna? Is that you?”
“It’s me, Daddy.”
Before she could do or say any more, Carla was in front of her. “Back up, Jack,” Carla ordered. Jack did back up and Carla pulled the chain for the single light in the room. She positioned herself to one side of the cellar, out of Jack’s reach, but also able to see the other four on the stairs.