“You know, Mike brags about you more than your brother,” Jack sighed. “I’ve known your pops for a long time. We served together at a training center in Louisiana in the late nineties. He saved my butt a few times. I owe him one.”
Valerie still had a hard time believing him. He looked so young, younger than her. She remembered living in Louisiana in middle school but did not recall ever meeting him. He would have looked then how he appeared to her now.
Alice’s sobs coming from down the hall broke her train of thought. Jack clenched his fists and leaned his head against the wall.
“I have to come with you. You’re an easy target traveling alone. We sent a messenger ahead to gather some people together. People we can trust. Since communications are down, they have no idea you’re here instead of Kevin. We can hope the crew will be there and willing to join us by the time we arrive.”
“Do you know what happened at my dad’s house? If you and my dad are so much older, why do you look younger than me?” She was still numb, not knowing how to mentally process what had happened. She could not wrap her mind around anything her father said about the electricity or why the CDC was so involved.
“I met up with your dad earlier in the day after we realized something was wrong and the planes went down. I left for a bit to touch base with another guy to gather the group together. When I got back to your dad’s place, the lights were flickering. The CDC trucks were already in the area, so I hurried and went in through the back door to warn Mike. I found him in the basement. He didn’t say much other than you were there instead of Kevin and needed my help. So, I waited for you outside. The lights got so bright I couldn’t look directly at the window. What I did see looked like electricity shooting from you to a hole you put in the wall. The Plexiglas melted, and the surge continued up the metal frame of the window well and into the ground.” Jack rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head.
“But how was the electricity coming from me? Dad said we absorb energy.”
“I absorb energy. You’re something else,” he answered, maintaining his thoughtful stance. “Like your dad, I just chalked all this up as a fairytale and went on with life, not thinking the awakening would ever happen.”
Jack rambled on as Valerie fought to stay awake. When it was evident he was walking down memory lane without any more useful information, she surrendered to her need for rest and dozed off. Her mind and body were exhausted.
Valerie’s shoulder was shaken, startling her awake. Her eyes shot open, and she was ready to sprint. Instead of the threat she anticipated, Alice stood over her with two cups of coffee. Her eyes were swollen and raw from crying.
“I’m sorry you have to see me like this. Can you imagine how unfair this is to me to not be a part of all this? To watch others regain their youth, and here I am stuck in the same aging bag of skin?” Alice handed Valerie one of the cups and sat down next to her. The older woman sniffled and wiped her eyes with a wad of tissue. “I was young and pretty once. I’d eat a baby to have my youth back. Not really, but you know what I mean. Men used to look at me, talk to me, and buy me things. Now I don’t get a nod. No one bothers to hold the door anymore. Seems like society forgets about middle-aged women. I’m not a cougar; I’m like a tired old hag.” Alice laughed, and Valerie could smell the whiskey from the woman's coffee on her breath.
“I left my son with a nanny this morning. I live in Denver. I can’t use a car to get home or a phone to even call. I would age one-hundred years to get back to my son as soon as possible.” Valerie did not mean to be insensitive to the woman. Vanity seemed like a petty consideration in the grand scheme of things.
“I mean that you get to live again. Jack might be somewhat of an asshole, but he’ll get you where you need to go, but when you get there, and everything is right again, live your life. You got a second chance, don’t piss it away. Alright?”
Valerie nodded. She found comfort in her reassurance of Jack’s ability.
“We’re not married,” Alice said, motioning to Jack leaning against the wall with his own cup of coffee. “Anymore, anyway. This is, what, our third try at this?”
Jack nodded as if she had asked if he was having a good day. Like the failure was of normal conversation.
“We’re not young anymore. We’re both different people than before. There is nothing wrong with that. Jack is this way, with this Event, and I’m not.” She patted Valerie’s knee as she stood and went back down the hallway and closed a door.
Jack stood leaning against the wall, watching the exchange. Valerie sniffed her coffee to ensure there was no whiskey in her cup before taking a sip. Black and bitter. She took one more sip and set the mug down. She would give anything to be normal again. Fat, wrinkled. These things paled in comparison to being able to drive home. She could see her son within hours instead of days.
“Nap time’s over. Let’s go,” Jack said, then took a long drink of his coffee.
The sun was not quite up, but there was enough light to see around the room, and their gear staged by the front door.
Jack held up her pack so she could slip her arms in and take the load on herself. She buckled the waistband and another band across her chest to keep the shoulder straps in place. Jack wrapped the rifle in an olive green waterproof bag and secured the weapon to the side of her pack to not draw undue attention. Opening the front door with his cup of coffee in hand, he took a deep breath and exhaled with a long sigh. He let Valerie out the door and locked the deadbolt behind them.
The pace was agreeable, to her surprise, and she could not complain. Her body complied with the weight of the pack and the speed they moved. She considered this would prove to be an easy trip.
“This reminds me of doing ruck marches back in the day, the difference being my load is lighter and my shoes more appropriate. You couldn’t ask for better weather either. You might sweat a little, but the breeze keeps the heat manageable.”
Despite his gruff demeanor, Valerie could tell Jack was in high spirits. His attitude was contagious and kept her motivated, making the journey feel less daunting. They started through the neighborhood walking east, away from the mountains. As the road came to an incline, their pace slowed a bit.
“Where are we going? I’m not complaining, just trying to get an idea of how far we’ll be traveling.”
Jack raised a hand to cut her off. He stopped and studied the road. CDC trucks moved slowly with the regular traffic of those unaffected by the event. He continued through the neighborhood instead of down the main street.
“We are going about twenty miles north of here. There is more traffic than I thought there would be,” Jack said.
“When I was walking to my dad’s, I watched the CDC clear the roads to move the trucks through. They pushed them onto the shoulder to make way for traffic. Everyone else just drove on the median or the shoulder to get around the stalled cars. There are so many left abandoned still. How many people do you think they took?”
He shrugged and tossed her an energy bar. She choked down the sticky, chalky mass with water. Before long, the overpass to the highway was in view, and they c...