He opened the door slowly, softly. Jared looked up at him. “Thank you, son,” Jack said simply. “I’d like to sit with her. Alone. For a few minutes.”

Jared gently loosened his hand from hers and replaced it with Jack’s. Anna didn’t open her eyes as Jared quietly left the room. He was a good kid, understanding a lot at his age, or so it seemed. Although never mentioning a word about his background, parents, etc., seemed downright weird.

Jack leaned closer and stroked his daughter’s hair like he used to when she’d skinned her knee or had a bad dream—those little girl moments seemed so long ago. She turned to him with a wan smile and opened her eyes.

“Hey, Angel,” he whispered.

“I’m sorry, Daddy.” Daddy, her little-girl name for him.

“I’m the one who should be sorry.”

“This is the last thing any of us needs,” she said. “Anna screwed up again. She didn’t listen. Now look what happened to her.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said soothingly, uncomfortable she was talking about herself in the third person. “You’ll be all right, Anna.”

She moaned and rubbed her bitten ear.

“Can I take a look?”

She pulled her hair back, angry tears appearing again. Her ear was swollen. Cleaned and disinfected as best as could be, the teeth marks glared angrily in their redness. The wound was festering, though, like they all did. But it hadn’t spread to the rest of her head. Not yet.

“It hurts,” she told him. “And please don’t touch it, Daddy.”

“I won’t. But it doesn’t look so bad.”

“Yet.” Her voice was cold, bitter. “But I know how it will go. I had plenty of time to think about it before I ever got bitten. Soon, I won’t be able to think at all. I will be a monster.”

“No, never that. You will always—always—be my daughter.”

Anna cast aside the jackets over her, reached up and hugged him. “Why, Dad? Why is any of this happening? I’m so scared!”

He wrapped his arms around her. Tightly. “Sometimes there is no ‘why,’ Anna. I can’t answer why. But we’re going to figure it out. Okay?”

“You’re going to figure out how to drown me!” She wept bitterly. “Aren’t you? Don’t lie!”

“Shh. Don’t think such nonsense!”

“How can I not...”

“Just don’t! That’s an order. You couldn’t have a better group of people protecting you. Who love you. Who would do anything for you.”

“Jared,” she said softly. Apparently, he’d been waiting just outside the door. As soon as he heard his name, he stepped into the room.

“I’m right here, Anna. I said I wouldn’t leave you. And I never will.”

It was enough for now that Jared was supportive and loving. Forcing back his own tears, Jack hugged her, stood and made room for him.

“Can you drink some water?” Jack asked.

Anna frowned. “It doesn’t sound appealing.”

“You should, if you can, Angel,” he said.

“Yeah, I can.”

“I’ll get you some.”

With that, Jack left the room.

* * *

An hour later, Jared stepped out from the office and joined them.

“She’s asleep,” he announced, and plopped down next to Jack. They were sitting cross-legged in a circle not far from the office.

“Now that we’ve got this place secure, we were just talking about our options from here on out,” Jack said, bringing him up to speed on what the rest of them had discussed for the past twenty minutes.

“What do you mean?” Jared asked.

“What to do. About everything.”

“Including Anna, or only about her?”

“Whether this is the best place for all of us to remain, and for how long,” Carla advised. “Food. Supplies, like sleeping bags, batteries. Communication with the world. And yes, Anna.”

Jared didn’t respond, and Jack didn’t know how best to tell him the rest. He caught his brother’s attention by raising his eyebrows.

Joe nodded. “Jared... Carla has an idea. I mean, we all do. We don’t know much about this infection yet, and it got us thinking.”

“What’s the idea?” Jared stared at the marble floor.

“Well, she was bitten on the ear, right? Her dad said it didn’t look too bad. It hasn’t spread through her body, and definitely not to her brain yet. Not so far.”

Jack watched the boy; he remained still, but he was listening. Listening for any glimmer of hope.

Joe continued, “You know how sometimes, like if you get bitten by a snake, you have to cut off the blood flow so the poison doesn’t get into your bloodstream? Well, we were wondering if it might be the same type of thing with this.”

“My infection seemed to move slower,” Jack added. “I don’t know why I was spared what happens to most victims, when the change happens swiftly.”

“What’s this got to do with Anna?” Jared raised his head and looked Joe dead in the eye. “You can’t tie a cord around her ear. It wouldn’t work. I don’t like where this is logically headed....”

“Son,” Jack said gently, “is my angel showing signs of sickness yet?” Jack could have gone and looked himself, but it was hard to face her, and he had to think straight.

“No,” said Jared, almost inaudibly. “I don’t think so, anyway. She doesn’t want to eat, but that’s how she is when she’s really upset. It’s not a physical rejection of food... not yet. She did finally drink the water you brought her.”

Jared nervously watched the rest of them exchange knowing glances. “What are you thinking now? I know you’re planning to try something to stop the blood flow. Right?”

“It’s a bit more drastic than that,” Carla’s voice was soft and strong at once. “We’re thinking we should cut off her ear.”

Chapter Three

The Agent dressed in black set the box of machine gun magazines into the back of the SUV and wiped the sweat away from his face. The vehicle was full. He covered his vast array of weapons with a tarp and closed the back hatch. He was ready for war.

Just after noon, he could reach his destination in an hour, depending on traffic. He’d done his homework; he had detailed maps of the Griffith Observatory, the L.A. Zoo and the surrounding areas. He’d searched Joe Carter’s file and had printed out photos of the brother, Jack, and the niece, Anna. Procuring civilian clothing and shoes suitable for hiking, he was especially pleased to find night vision goggles, bugs to plant so he could listen to them, and a bullet-proof vest.

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