Wed. Jan 19th, 2022

DAY 4 : HALEY

“Ya okay?” Braden rubbed my back.

After a few deep breaths, I wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve and nodded.

“One of the protein bars must have been expired or something,” he offered, letting my messy, black hair fall back down past my shoulders. It was the second morning I’d gotten sick. “We’ll have to check the rest of the expiration dates.”

I took a few sips from a water bottle and steadied myself.

“Alright. Let’s not waste anymore time.” Braden helped me secure our army-grade backpack, and whistled for Jaxx. The three-year-old German shepherd came trotting over, nose covered in snow.

“He’s probably so cold.”

“I actually think he likes it,” Braden laughed. “He’s on an adventure—he can pee anywhere he wants!”

Yeah, an adventure all right, I thought. Trudging through snow and ice for days in frigid temperatures with only as much food and water as we could carry on our backs. No showers, no warm bed, no heat, no electricity. It was camping from Hell, if Hell freezing over was similar to a record-breaking winter in Pennsylvania.

And to top it all off, I could have the new plague. Farm Flu, they called it. I tried to picture the website in my head, but the only symptom I could remember was the blood dripping from your ears.

I casually slipped my fingers into my ear as if I was scratching it. No blood. It’s not like I’d eaten much meat in recent years anyway, after watching that documentary on beef—I shuddered just thinking about it.

But still, how did they really know that it wasn’t airborne? And what if it was in fish, too? [pullquote align=”center”]It was camping from Hell, if Hell freezing over was similar to a record-breaking winter in Pennsylvania.[/pullquote]

Lost in my own obsessive thoughts, I didn’t notice a slick patch of ice. Normally, I would have been able to right myself without falling, but the awkward weight on my back pulled me down. Before I hit the ground though, Braden caught my arm and yanked me back up.

“Didn’t you hear me? I told you to watch the ice.”

“Guess not… I was thinking.” After being married for 6 years, Braden knew very well how lost I could get in my own mind. He thought it was a professor thing. I thought it was an English thing. Maybe it was both.

“Well, I also said that if we keep a good pace, we might make it to Linvalley by the day after tomorrow.”

I didn’t say anything. Getting to the Linvalley Hospital was our last hope, but who knew what would be waiting for us when we actually got there. When the evacuation notice went out for Oxborough University and it’s surrounding towns, Braden had been on a reserves training weekend with no communication. I couldn’t leave without him, so Jaxx and I barricaded ourselves in before the true chaos ensued. When the call for survivors to the hospital came over the radio, we packed as much as we could fit into Braden’s army bags and started our trek.

As we hiked through the snow and ice on miles of deserted streets, Jaxx usually walked right beside me. He was our baby. We had been trying to conceive for the past three years. I guess it was for the best that we hadn’t. I can’t imagine having to force a toddler into this terrible storm, into the uncertainty that hung over our heads.

Jaxx began sniffing the ground and strayed toward some nearby trees.

“We should probably stop and give him some water, Braden,” I said, pulling his attention from his map and compass.

“Where is he?”

“He was right—“ I turned. “Jaxx!” I whistled for him. Then we heard barking deeper in the trees.

We both took off running. Braden, much more adept at running in his army boots, was much faster than I was in my heavy snow boots.

By the time I caught up to him, Braden had shooed Jaxx away from something behind a tree.

“What? What…is it?” I said, between puffs of breath. The air felt like icicles in my lungs.

“Get back, Haley. It’s a body. Nothing you need to see.” He threw his hand back toward me, waving me away. “But I don’t see any blood from his ears—“

A thick arm wrapped around me, and I felt something sharp against my throat, right above my scarf.

“Gimme everythin’ ya got er she’s dead!” a deep, scratchy voice shouted at Braden. Before he could even move, Jaxx launched himself at the monster behind me, his teeth finding their target in his right thigh.

The man howled, and I ducked out of his grasp. He lashed out haphazardly at Jaxx until he landed enough blows for the dog to let go. Just as he did, Braden hurled himself at the man, fists flying.

I pulled the gun Braden had given me from my pocket and aimed it just like I had hundreds of times at the shooting range with him. It’s just like the range, I told myself.

But I couldn’t pull the trigger. What if I shot Braden?

But then I saw the flash of the knife that had been against my throat, and I fired.

Everything was quiet. I just watched and waited. No one moved.

Then the man made a gurgling sound and collapsed to the ground.

Jaxx circled around me.

My hands still shook as I slowly lowered the gun.

“That’s my girl,” Braden said in a short gasp. Then he slid slowly down against the tree.

“What? What happened? What’s wrong?” I sprinted over, panicked. Had I somehow shot him too?

“His knife,” he lifted his hands from above his left hip. Even through his many layers, they came away stained in red.

There was still a three or four day walk between us and medical attention. Braden’s head began lolling to one side. It was clear he was losing blood at record speeds. Jaxx sniffed his jacket and whined.

“…Braden, what are we going to do?”

Allison Cleary is a third-year student majoring in English secondary education. She can be reached at AC780703@wcupa.edu. Veronica Mattaboni is a third-year student majoring in English writing. She can be reached at VM785925@wcupa.edu.

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