“Tell it to me again,” Jared said as they sat at the kitchen table, squeezing out the last rays of daylight before the whole city plunged into thick darkness.
Cassie rolled her eyes, something she never would have done with any of the other leaders at the base camp, but Jared didn’t flinch. “This isn’t a game, Cassie.”
She blew out a frustrated breath. “We travel silently. No main roads. If we see anyone, we do not engage. No helping strangers no matter how badly we want to. You are in charge. What you say goes.” At this last part, she rolled her eyes again. She was eight-years-old and acted eighteen Jared thought as he looked, really looked, into his daughter’s face. When had she turned into a small version of Eve with her dark, arched eyebrows and her red, puckered mouth that frowned, disappointed, whenever she thought Jared was being ridiculous? At the thought of Eve, a flare of regret and remorse gripped him, but he pushed it away.
“Good,” he said, handing her the smaller pack. “Let’s go.”
They walked to the back door with little fanfare. He’d taken only one photo and one book. A survivalist knows what’s important after all. Plus, his bag was stuffed with the most precious cargo from the Faraday Cages. It’d been hard to pick from the three barrels of electronics, but he he’d made good choices. Then they’d taken pains to hide the rest in a cobwebby corner of the basement under tarps and cardboard boxes. It would be a miracle if everything remained untouched until they’d be able to send a team back to get the rest, but Jared liked to think miracles still happened.
As he took his final step across the threshold of his house, a pain clenched his heart. He never was good with goodbyes.
Three days. It would take three days at best to reach the camp. Three days of night walking, exposed to any number of dangers along the way. They’d heard the gun shots, seen the fires. Chaos reigned in a world gone dark. If he was honest, three days was a generous guess. With Cassie’s illness they were lucky if they could make ten miles a night. It was thirty-seven miles to the camp. He’d inched his fingers along the map, counting and swearing and wishing to God Eve would've let them move closer liked he’d begged three years ago. Thirty-seven miles. And Cassie hadn’t kept down a full meal in four days.
Ten miles a night would be a miracle.
They slipped down the walkway and into the neighbor’s yard, the grass already pushing up past their ankles. How quickly things went to rot, he mused. He flicked a glance at the house, but his eyes didn’t linger there. Instead they swept the dim street, noting the changes his nice suburban cul-de-sac had undergone. Two houses burned to the ground and another singed like an overdone casserole. On the other side of the road, a Volvo stood, doors open, windows smashed into tiny glass shards that winked in the twilight. As they passed another house, a curtain twitched and he caught a glimpse of a face before it ducked back into the shadows. His hand itched as if wanting to draw the Remington 1911 from his shoulder harness. But the last thing he wanted to do was stalk the streets with a handgun pointed at every shadow. It was a great way to get shot by frightened neighbors and, besides, he didn’t want Cassie to think that was what the world had come to. Not yet, anyway.
The swish of the grass and the hum of cicadas accompanied them as they trekked past the yards and through a dense field. He flicked a glance at Cassie to see if she was appreciating his insistence on the long black pants instead of the shorts she’d wanted to wear. She said nothing, just walked, head high, eyes alert like she’d been trained. His gaze fell on the pink sparkly nail polish on hands that gripped a survival pack. The paint was already chipped and fading.
Cassie stopped mid-stride, her body tensing. He jogged up beside her and studied her face. It was twisted in pain.
“What is it?” he whispered, putting a hand on her shoulder. It was hot. Burning hot.
Her hands went to her stomach and she doubled over. Jared watched helplessly as she wretched the MRE meal into the weeds. Only after she’d throw up twice did he remember to hold her hair back. God, how could he be so good at some things and so useless at others? It wasn’t the first time he missed Eve since she’d left.
“Are you okay?” Stupid question, he thought.
She stood, hands on knees, spitting into the grass. “Water.”
He dug around and unsnapped his water bottle from his pack. She took it and drank. He didn’t have the heart to remind her of rationing as he watched her hands tremble.
Long minutes passed as they stood in the grass, batting away mosquitoes, Cassie resting. How far had they gone, a half mile? Thirty-seven miles might as well be three thousand.
He was clipping the water bottle to his pack when he heard it. A crackle in the grass. Twigs breaking.
Someone or something was coming.
He grabbed Cassie’s arm and tugged forward. Her eyes widened and she followed, sprinting through the grass. The sound of pursuit followed.
They ran for a half mile through grass that grabbed at their clothes and the bushes that scraped their flesh. Cassie’s breath became ragged. He glanced at her, willing her to keep going. What he didn’t say was there were at least three human shadows running after them. He thought about the hand gun, but dismissed it. Shots in the dark were just that.
When she fell, she fell hard, tumbling into the grass with a cry that tore his heart to pieces. He reached down to pull her up, but she might has well have been boneless. He should have known. She was her mother’s daughter and didn’t quit until it was impossible not to.
He tried to lift her, but, between the heft of his pack and the weight of his daughter, the strangers would be on them in minutes. He looked at his pack, filled with priceless working electronic devices, the only usable currency in this broken world. Then he looked at his daughter. His baby girl. Wet curls clung to her sweat drenched forehead.
There was only one choice.
He unzipped the pack, pulling out the one item they could not live without, and put the rest on display. The GPS, the cell phones, the lap top with solar power supply. So many untold treasures. Treasures they would need.
But none more than he needed his daughter.
He hefted Cassie into his arms and took off running.