But all those pretty pictures they just start to fade away
And everything that I believed is getting hard to find
– Goo Goo Dolls, “Caught in the Storm”
Katie was eating cold ravioli from a can when her dad emerged from the radio room. His expression was controlled, but something about his stance told Katie that he was preparing for something mentally. Lindsay saw it too when she looked up from the book she was reading, a dog-eared SciFi paperback from the supply room called Icarus. Licking her lips and dropping her spoon into the half-finished can, Katie regarded him carefully.
“What’s going on, dad?”
He didn’t answer right away but walked to the gun closet and retrieved a gun that Katie rarely saw him use. The SCAR 17 was distinctively different looking than their AR-15s and chambered a bigger round. Katie struggled to remember its exact size, but came up with a blank. She knew they were illegal for civilians to have though. “Stopping power” her dad called it. But if their normal .22LR rounds were good enough for the Infected then…
“Katie, stay here. Watch the bunker. Keep Lindsay safe.”
He pulled ten fully loaded magazines and started loading them into a bullet-proof vest before slinging it over his shoulders. With his vest strapped on and his SCAR secured, he went into the supply room and began shoving supplies into a scramble pack. She got up and followed him in, lingering in the doorway with a frown.
“Dad, where are you going?”
“I told you, we need to get Kirchner back. Bill and I are going after him.”
“Bill’s coming? How? The base is a good two hours away!”
He hefted the pack onto this shoulders and grinned at her. He didn’t say anything but moved past her back into the main room and knelt in front of Lindsay. She had the book folded over her thumb, keeping her page and just stared at him, unsure what to do. He held out a slip of paper to her.
“Bill says the guy you were talking to is Zach Evans, a Specialist with the US Army up in Geneva. They have a FEMA camp and fortified position up there. Here’s his frequency.”
Lindsay reached out and took the paper hesitantly. She nodded to him just once before he reached out, squeezed her shoulder and then stood. Turning to Katie, he took her aside and led her from sleeping rooms and into the living quarters.
“Listen to me very carefully,” he said, lowering his voice. “Bill is bringing in a chopper. The plan is to get to Kirchner, extract him and retreat to Fort Dix in New Jersey. We could be gone for several days.”
“I want to go with you,” she said, a sudden panic welling up inside her. “Dad… you… I thought you were dead… you can’t just go now…”
His face softened and he frowned, gripping both her shoulders with his large hands. When she was little, she used to hold those hands as they walked through the woods. Her small fingers would be completely enveloped by his. They were rough, worn and strong, yet always holding hers so gently she barely felt them at all. In the two years since the divorce, she’d only ever felt comfort here, with him. Her mother expected things she couldn’t give and couldn’t be. Her dad just wanted her to smile. And to shoot straight, of course. Words were never his strong point. They spoke in other ways, with a language written in trips into the mountains and the beauty of a winter morning in the forest.
“I’m sorry, Katie-girl,” he whispered and hugged her tightly. She returned the hug, the suspicions of his lies forgotten for now. She wanted to feel safe again and right then, she did. Don’t ever leave me again, she thought but could not bring herself to say it aloud. Finally, he sighed and stepped back.
“Look, we could be gone for a while. The CB isn’t powerful enough to reach Jersey if power is down or the relays fail. Do you remember the radio station in Thorpe?”
She did, but only barely. They’d gone there for one of her birthdays when she was convinced she was going to be a famous radio personality. She’d gotten to sit in the torn leather seat Johnny T sat in when he was doing his show. She’d been very excited. And also ten years old.
“I… kind of?”
“If you go back to Main and head straight east out of town, you’ll come to Route Eleven. Remember? Eleven north for about twenty minutes, then take the Thorpe exit. It’s the biggest building. You can’t miss the tower.”
“Okay, sure, I got it… but why?”
Her dad squeezed her shoulders again. “If I don’t get back, or if the radio has trouble, go there. It should have enough power to reach Fort Dix. The frequency is in my files. You still remember the code for the safe?”
He grinned and patted her on the shoulder. “Good. If you don’t hear from me in two weeks, try to get in touch with Fort Dix. Got it?”
She paled. Two weeks? He could be gone two weeks? What was she supposed to do for that long? Suddenly the bunker felt very claustrophobic. The air smelled musty and damp. She felt cold and it seemed too dark inside. Her breathing started becoming more rapid as panic threatened.
“Hey, hey, Katie,” he said and gave her a small shake. “It’s because they could put us under guard for a bit. Understand? I don’t want to tip them off about this place if I don’t have to—”
A sudden, constant pulsing echoed through the ground and into the bunker. It was a steady, rapid wap-wap-wap. The helicopter.
“Dad…” she began, but found that her panic had turned to sharp fear. “Dad, don’t… just…” She couldn’t say the rest. Don’t leave me.
He must have read it in her face and drew her into another fierce embrace. She hugged him hard, her fingers digging into his shoulders. She whispered “don’t go” over and over. Suddenly she felt like she was five years old, grasping her dad’s leg and saying those same words before he left for deployment. She’d said them again years later, after the divorce papers ripped her away for 9 months out of the year.
“There’s a folder, in my files. Poveglia. Remember that word, do you understand?”
He was looking her in the eye now, his face deadly serious. Poveglia, she thought and committed it to memory even though she didn’t know what it meant. It only scared her more. It felt like he was saying goodbye. She nodded.
“Be strong,” he said and kissed her on the forehead. “Always remember. The easiest day was…?”
“Yesterday,” she sighed and wiped the tears from her eyes, then nodded.
“Remember, get to the radio station if the CB goes down,” he said and went for the door. Katie rushed to the monitors and saw that the helicopter was descending into the area west of the bunker. It was attracting attention too. Infected were converging on it from all angles.
“Dad, they’re everywhere out there!”
He pulled open the main door and turned to give her a wink. She was about to protest again when there was a series of flashes from the helicopter. Turning back to the monitor, she saw a large machine gun opening up on the infected. It was mounted to the side of the helicopter and operated by a soldier in full combat gear. There was one firing from the other side as well. Stunned, she didn’t even see her father leave and lock the door behind him.
With her heart thumping hard in her chest and her stomach attempting to purge itself from anxiety, Katie watched her father run towards the helicopter. He raised his powerful rifle and several infected fell. The men in the helicopter continued to fire, the large machine guns tearing into the small horde that was converging on them. They closed in, running towards her dad on both sides. For a long, terrible moment, Katie didn’t think he was going to make it. She was looking around for her rifle, ready to run out and help, when she saw a bright flash go off into the middle of them.
The bunker vibrated slightly and there was a quick, muffled thump. The monitor went white for a moment and Katie blinked her eyes in alarm. When it cleared again, the infected had turned on the source of the violent explosion of sound and light. Her dad’s path was now clear and he leapt into the helicopter as it began to pull away. It was out of sight in seconds, but the horde remained, seeking the disturbance in vain. She made mental note of that.
Lindsay appeared at her side, her eyes glued to the monitors as well. She reached out and took Katie’s hand, then turned to look at her. Katie could see real fear in her friend’s eyes, but something else too. Trust. Lindsay trusted her to get them through this.
And I will.