Judging by the distance traveled, Valerie had walked an hour. The weight she bore was awkward with the large rucksack on her back, and the smaller, yet substantial medical bag on her front. The AR-15 sat atop the larger bag, strapped down and secure.
She trekked along the railroad running parallel to the highway which was blocked by abandoned vehicles. Though the gravel was uneven, the tracks provided a straighter path. She kept a steady pace and despite the weight and Valerie felt confident she could maintain it the entire distance. A few times she spotted other people walking or riding bikes. Mothers pushed strollers and walked with children in tow carrying backpacks. Many traveled in the direction of the military base, possibly hoping to reunite with their family members on the other side of the guarded gates. Little traffic still moved, using the shoulder or the median to weave in and out between the other motionless vehicles. No one obeyed posted signs or laws. They were just people trying to get where they were going like her. Only they were not like her.
August was like her. How many others were? They could not have been the only people to wake up looking barely out of high school. And why in the world was she so damn distracted by him? Still distracted. The static, the exploding computer, the malfunctioning equipment, maybe even her attraction to August all pointed to something electric. But how did the electricity transform her physical body? Something connected these details; she just could not figure out what or how. What was the difference between her and the people in the emergency room, or the people still able to drive cars and talk on their cell phones. What happened to cause this?
No doubt her father would have a solid theory on the matter. Though he was retired military, her father did not trust the government and would have avoided the CDC as she had. Kevin, being in the military still, would have no choice but to follow orders if he was affected, too.
A low drone of diesel engines took Valerie from her thoughts as a convoy of blue package trucks traveled north on the highway just next to her. A stalled pickup was her closest cover. She turned off the tracks and walked down the hill to the road. Ducking behind the truck, she waited for them to pass. Valerie counted twenty people in CDC uniforms moving from car to car, pushing them off to the side of the road to clear a path. She wondered how many people they had collected in the ten trucks that inched along the way heading north. Their involvement was another mystery. How had they reacted so quickly? And why were they far more concerned with the affected than the injured? The explanation of quarantine had been vague. They did not even tell parents where they were taking their children. They were only given a phone number to call for more information.
Heat rose in her face. No one could take her son out of her arms as long as she had a fighting breath. The hairs raised on her arms as the thought made her angrier. The radio in the truck she was hiding behind turned on, and a man’s voice was reading the CDC 1-800 number. She nearly screamed, which only raised the volume.
“Stop!” she whispered. It obeyed.
Frozen, she waited before looking back at the northbound lane. No one appeared concerned with her direction. She took a long drink of water and carefully stood up. She would jog the rest of the way.
Valerie set the packs on the porch of her father’s home. He was not expecting her, which made her more conscious of her surroundings. She did not want to be mistaken for an intruder and hoped his security cameras signaled her arrival. She knocked hard on the heavy door and waited a few seconds, listening. Nothing. She walked around to the side of the house and looked through the fence for anything to deter unwelcome guests. As she pulled the latch, the gate to the backyard opened without a problem.
Valerie collected a few pebbles and tossed them down the window wells. She knew her father would not stay on the main level of the house because he had yet to barricade the windows, leaving the first floor less secure than the basement. At the third window, her father pounded on the bulletproof glass to get her attention. Once they made eye contact, he pointed up toward the back door. She climbed the stairs to the back porch and sliding glass doors of the house and waited for him to meet her there. When he did, her father, Mike, yanked her into the house and secured the door behind her. He turned, put his hands on her shoulders and looked at her in the eye.
“What are you doing here, Val? You’re not supposed to be here.”
Valerie had a sudden wave of mixed emotions. Mike hugged her, squeezing the air from her lungs. The only other time she recalled her father embracing her was her wedding day.
“How did you get here?” he said, pulling her away to look at her again.
“I picked up a shift at the ER by Kevin’s place. I walked. I am just stopping to rest before I walk home.”
Mike gave a “Hmm,” and made his way through the house to the front door. He disengaged seven locks and opened the door. At 6 p.m., the sun had already disappeared behind the mountain, yet there were no lights on—no power at all. Valerie could only make out his silhouette but noticed her father’s limp. He was favoring his left leg over his prosthetic—the result of a wound retiring him from the military years ago.
“You carried these packs yourself?” Mike looked at her in disbelief.
“Is your stump bothering you?” Valerie asked, ignoring his question. She shooed Mike away from the baggage and pulled them into the house herself.
“Just today. My arthritis has always been worse on my right leg, but now I can feel every single piece of shrapnel grinding against my bone. Did you carry these?” He shut the door and reengaged the locks.
“I brought what I thought you could use.”
Mike eyed his petite daughter in disbelief.
“Valerie. I am so sorry. Look at you. It was you this whole time.” He held her face in his hands. “This is my fault. Where is Caleb, Val? Is he with Scott? Gia? Are they safe? I’m sorry. I can’t believe I was so wrong.”
“I have no idea,” she said, eyeing her father suspiciously. “I can’t call, my car doesn’t work. Scott’s on a train somewhere between Denver and Wyoming. Gia was able to call my phone at some point, so I guess Caleb is safe. I just. I need to. How am I supposed to get home? And what are you sorry for or wrong a...