The Lives We Lost excerpt
Note: The following contains spoilers for The Way We Fall. I recommend reading only if you've already read the first book.
This is how the world ends: with the boy who used to be my best friend stepping off the ferry, hair shaggy and tangled, face too thin, looking at me like he isn’t sure who I am. Like he isn’t sure of anything.
I was so excited when I spotted Leo crossing the strait I didn’t wonder how he’d gotten past the patrol boats that were supposed to be enforcing the quarantine. Or why he was alone. I just grabbed Tessa and dashed for the harbor.
Then he was limping down the ramp with the man who’d driven the ferry, and Tessa was throwing her arms around him, and he was staring at her with that uncertain expression—and an inkling of what it all meant rose up inside me. For a second I wanted to turn and run. As if I could outrun the truth.
But I stood my ground. A few people from town had gathered around us. “You made it from the mainland!” someone said. “Is the government sending help? The electricity’s out, and the phones...”
“Did they find a cure?” someone else broke in, with a sort of desperate hopefulness.
Tessa stepped away from Leo, her gaze flickering to the opposite shore. “My parents,” she said. “Did you see them?”
He looked at me again, even though I hadn’t spoken, and this time a hint of recognition came into his eyes. Too faint to tell whether he was happy to see me, whether he was still stinging from our last argument, whether he cared at all.
Even before he spoke, my gut had knotted and my mouth had gone dry.
“There’s no help,” he said, with a rasp in his voice. “The virus, it ripped right through the country—the States—maybe the whole world. Everything... everything’s fallen apart.”
This is what I know: the doctors didn’t control the epidemic on the mainland any better than they did here. On the other side of the strait, everybody’s just as bad off as we are. No one is coming to fix the electricity or the water, to bring the supplies we need, or to bring about any of the other hopes I’d managed to hold on to.
I started writing in this journal for Leo, to practice saying what I couldn’t say to his face. I kept going because I thought it was important to keep track of the awfulness we’ve been through, to have some sort of record for the rest of the world. But the world I was writing for—it’s lost. The boy I started for looks lost too. So what is the point in writing? A journal isn’t going to help me find them.
I have to believe there’s something else that will.
I decided before I came downstairs that I wasn’t going to mention what day it was. I got choked up every time I even thought about it.
When I’d braced myself and made it down, Tessa was in the living room, pruning the bean plants on the window ledge. The smell of hot oatmeal was wafting from the kitchen. Gav stood over the pot with a wooden spoon, his tawny hair sleep-rumpled. I had to resist the urge to go over and run my fingers through it.
It was more than a week ago I suggested he crash on the air mattress here at what used to be my Uncle Emmett’s house, considering he was over all the time anyway and I couldn’t help worrying when he went home to his family’s empty house at night. In spite of all my other worries, I still felt a little giddy finding my boyfriend here each morning.
“Hey,” I said, and he glanced up and grinned.
“Good morning, Kaelyn!” Meredith crowed, bounding in from the dining room with an incredible amount of energy for a kid who’d just recovered from a deadly virus. I was starting to wonder if she was making up for all that time lying in a hospital bed by moving in constant fast-forward. But seeing the healthy flush in her dark cheeks made me smile.
She hopped up to peer into the pot of oatmeal. “Is there brown sugar?”
“Meredith,” I said, my giddiness fading.
Gav held up his hand. “Not brown,” he said, “but I can sprinkle on a little of the white stuff.”
Meredith’s lower lip curled, but she pressed her mouth flat before it could turn into a pout and lifted her chin. “Awesome!” she said. “Thank you, Gav!”
“I picked up an extra bag from the storage rooms,” Gav said to me as Meredith scampered over to the dining room table. “Figured if anyone deserved a treat, it was her.”
“Thank you,” I said. “And for breakfast, too.”
“Hey, I know you only keep me around for my cooking,” he said.
“And don’t you forget it,” I said. Slipping my arm around his waist, I leaned in for a kiss. Meredith snorted in amusement.
As I released Gav, he started spooning the oatmeal out into the bowls on the counter. The floor creaked behind him, and Leo emerged from the tiny downstairs bathroom, where he’d been washing up. He looked at us for a second with the uncertain expression I’d first seen when he came off the ferry. Like he wasn’t sure why he was even here. Then Gav turned, and the end of his serving spoon tapped Leo’s arm. Leo flinched back, his hip smacking the counter’s edge.
“Crap,” Gav said. “I’m sorry.”
Leo ducked his head and steadied himself with a hand on the counter. “I’m fine,” he said. “Crazy reflexes.” He laughed awkwardly, and my stomach twisted. The Leo I grew up with used to joke effortlessly. This Leo made it look like work.
His gaze lingered on me as I picked up my bowl, and my stomach twisted tighter. If anyone was going to notice the significance of today’s date, it’d be Leo.
“Hold on a sec, Kae,” he said, hurrying past us to the living room. Cloth rustled—the backpack he’d brought back from his parents’ place, I guessed. His old home, like mine, didn’t have a generator, so he’d been sleeping on the couch here.
Gav raised an eyebrow at me, and I shrugged. He knew the short story of my and Leo’s friendship, an abbreviated version I’d told him and Tessa after we walked Leo back to the house two weeks ago. I’d said I hadn’t talked about it before because I’d been so worried about what was happening on the island. Which was mostly true.
I hadn’t brought up how Leo and I had argued and then stopped talking after I’d moved to Toronto for one of Dad’s jobs. Not even to Leo. He’d seemed so messed up when he got back, I’d been trying to avoid all painful topics of conversation. Our argument hardly seemed significant, considering the friends and family we’d lost since. But then, on the fourth day, he’d said to me, “We’re all right now, aren’t we?” like he was afraid to ask.
All I’d managed to get out was, “I’m sorry, that whole fight was my fault.”
“I’ll take half the blame and we’ll call it even,” he’d replied, and hugged me so tight I lost my breath. And just like that, it didn’t matter.
But even if we were all right now, I was pretty sure he wasn’t.
As Gav carried his and Meredith’s oatmeal to the table, Leo stepped back into the kitchen with one hand behind his back.
“Close your eyes,” he said, with a smile that looked almost real.
“Leo,” I said, “I don’t—”
“Come on,” he said. “For old times.”
I had the feeling if I protested more his expression was going to stiffen up again. So I closed my eyes, holding my bowl. There was a grating sound, and a clink, and the soft patter of something dropping onto the oatmeal.
“Okay,” Leo said.
I looked down, and my breath caught in my throat.
He’d placed a dollop of blueberry preserves in the middle of the bowl. I recognized the angular handwriting on the label of the jar he held as his mom’s.
“Happy birthday,” he said.
I hadn’t even had store jam in at least a month. The juicy-sweet smell was making my mouth water. At the same time, my eyes prickled.
When we were little, Leo’s family and mine used to go berry-picking together. I would watch for rabbits between the bushes, and Leo would practice leaps and tumbles on the rocks. His mom gave my parents a couple jars of preserves every August, and Drew and I would polish them off by the end of September.
Back before the virus took all of them away. Gnawing through Mom’s mind, making Drew feel he had to sneak to the mainland to try to find help. And Dad, struck down by the gang of islanders who’d wanted to burn the hospital and all the infected patients inside.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Leo was saying. “Our pantry was a mess, but this one jar was lying behind a box in the corner, like it was waiting for me.”
“You should have it,” I said, offering the bowl to him. “It’s your mom’s.”
And she wasn’t going to be able to make more, ever again. The virus had taken both of Leo’s parents too.
He shook his head, nudging the bowl back toward me, but his smile faltered.
“I think she’d have wanted me to share it,” he said.
He’d hardly spoken when he’d come back from their house, and I hadn’t pried. He still hadn’t even offered us more than a vague summary of how he’d hitchhiked and walked his way here from his dance school in New York. Most of what I knew about the mainland I’d heard from Mark, the other islander who’d been stuck across the strait and come back with Leo. But what could I do except give him time?
As I hesitated, Gav poked his head into the room. “It’s your birthday?” he said. “You should have told me.”
“I didn’t want to make a big deal about it,” I said, carrying my breakfast over to the table. “Seventeen’s not an important one anyway, right?”
“I think seventeen’s pretty good,” Gav said. “But then I might be biased.”
“I forgot!” Meredith said. “I’ve got to make you a card!”
“You don’t have to,” I said, but she was already gulping down the last of her oatmeal and dashing into the living room, where construction paper and colored pencils littered the coffee table.
“Tess, breakfast is ready,” Leo said, coming in after me. I sat down next to Gav, who hooked his ankle around mine.
“I’m going to think of something,” he said.
“Really,” I said, “you don’t—”
“I know, I know. Still going to.” He turned to Leo. “Any other secrets of Kae’s that I should know?”
Leo paused, as if taking the question seriously, and then put on a grin. “I think I should stop now. She might sic those vicious ferrets on me.”
The teasing sounded weak to my ears, but it made Meredith spin around. “Mowat and Fossey don’t hurt people!” she hollered, and the rest of us laughed, the tension breaking. But as Tessa slipped into the room and everyone started eating, my eyes kept prickling.
“No matter how busy we get,” Mom used to say, “we shouldn’t forget that family’s more important than anything else.” On my and Drew’s birthdays, she and Dad had always arranged to go in to work late and for us to skip the first period of school if it was a weekday. We’d come down after sleeping in, to the presents Dad had stacked on the table and Mom making whatever we’d requested for breakfast the night before, and we’d all eat together.
I couldn’t remember what breakfast I’d asked for when I turned sixteen last year. It hadn’t seemed important at the time.
I swallowed a mouthful of oatmeal, the blueberries sliding in a sticky clump down my throat. The taste was both achingly familiar and completely alien to the lives we had now.
“Leave it in the sink,” Tessa said as I finished. “I’ll take care of the dishes.”
I might have argued, but I needed to get away, just for a moment. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be upstairs.”
Meredith’s bedroom felt a lot smaller now that she was back from the hospital. I’d set up the cot, giving her the bed, and it took up nearly half the floor space. The cardboard box holding everything Dad had left at the hospital over the last few months sat in one corner. I’d collected it from his friend Nell, the island’s only remaining doctor, on one of my trips to visit Meredith.
I sank down onto the cot and pushed open the flaps of the box. When I’d first brought it home, I’d gone through it as quickly as possible. Now I pulled out the wool coat that was folded on top and pressed my face against the scratchy cloth.
It smelled like my dad, like oak and coffee and citrusy aftershave. Like being back in his study, talking with him about some curiosity of animal behavior or environmental phenomena.
Only three weeks ago he’d worn this coat. I wrapped my arms around it, willing back tears, and a hard shape dug into the underside of my arm.
I ran my hand over the inside lining and found the slit of an inner pocket. When I reached inside, my fingers touched a cool metal edge.
The two keys I pulled out hung on a delicate ring, with a plastic fob imprinted with the emblem of the research center where Dad had worked, a half circle split by a wavy line.
I stared at them. When I’d collected his possessions, I’d been hoping I’d find the key to the research center, but I’d thought I was out of luck. I’d tried every one on the big ring Nell had handed over, and none had fit in the keyhole. They’d been here, separate and hidden, all along.
And now I had them.
I could finally check what he’d been working on all that time he’d spent there between his shifts at the hospital. If he’d been even partway through developing an experimental treatment, Nell could try it out. Or at least I could bring equipment from the labs over to the hospital. There had to be something we could use.
Gav’s voice carried up the stairs faintly. If I told him where I was going, he’d want to come along. They all might. The thought of having to share my first glimpse of this last piece of Dad’s life made me tense.
I folded the coat and laid it back in the box, then headed down to the front door. It wasn’t far. I’d just pop in and look around. We could explore it more thoroughly together in the afternoon.
“I’m going out to stretch my legs a bit,” I called as I tugged on my boots.
“You want company?” Gav asked from the living room doorway.
I shook my head. “I won’t be long.”
Outside, the air was cool but not brittle against my face. It was a thaw day, a couple degrees above freezing. The snow that’d fallen last week was disintegrating into a trickle in the gutters.
Otherwise, the streets were quiet. Last year there would have been people out shoveling or de-icing their walks. Now there was no one. Jagged glass glinted in the window frames and battered doors hung ajar, in the wake of the gang’s looting. The twenty or so volunteers who helped at the hospital mostly slept there too. Over the last two months, the few hundred houses Gav’s group used to bring food to had dwindled to a couple dozen, where people who’d managed to avoid the virus were still hanging on. The rest were empty.
I skirted the hospital. Beyond it, a narrow stretch of pavement led me through fields spotted with fir trees and reddish crags peeking through the snow. Paw prints crossed my path here and there, mostly squirrel and coyote. Another day I might have stopped to examine them, but the keys pressing against my hip urged me onward.
Who was left who’d care what I observed anyway? There wasn’t going to be much call for wildlife biologists for a good long while.
The research center stood amid a semicircle of pines, a broad rectangle of beige concrete. A few steps from the door, I stopped. Footprints marked the snow around the entrance—dozens of them, with the thick treads of winter boots. At least a few people had come around here since the last snowfall.
The thick glass in one of the windows looked chipped, as if someone had tried to smash it. Spidery scratch marks scarred the metal around the door’s keyhole. The intercom mounted on the wall by the door had been broken open, the wires snapped. My hands clenched in my coat pockets.
So the gang had finally gotten interested in this place. As if they hadn’t already taken enough.
The stream of footprints rambled off toward the trees in a line diagonal to the lane. No tire tracks, which meant the trespassers had probably been killing time rather than on an official mission. There was no sign of anyone else here now.
Shivering, I pulled out the keys. The larger one fit in the lock and turned easily. I pushed open the door.
The backup generator was still running—the lights blinked on in the hall when I tapped the switch. I guessed that wasn’t surprising. Being the newest building around here, it probably had the best machinery in the island.
Past a row of empty mail cubbies, I found a kitchen that held only a box of orange pekoe tea, and what appeared to be a meeting room, with a flat screen TV filling most of the opposite wall. A thin crack ran down the middle of the screen.
A vague uneasiness washed over me, and I continued on to the stairwell.
Upstairs, the second room I peered into had to be Dad’s office. A framed photo of a younger me and Drew on the beach stood on one side of his desk, and the leather gloves Mom had given him our last Christmas together lay beside it.
The computer asked for a password I couldn’t supply. I pawed through the drawers, finding only reports on marine bacteria and plankton populations, and then sagged back in his chair.
How many hours had Dad sat here, puzzling over the virus? Missing Mom? Worrying about me and Drew?
I blinked hard and pushed myself out of the chair. If I took too long, Gav would get concerned.
Three doors down, I came to a laboratory. When I flicked the light switch, the florescent panels flooded the room with flat white light. Microscopes and petri dishes dotted the shiny black tabletop beneath a wall of cabinets. A huge stainless-steel fridge stood in the corner, with an electronic display reporting the internal temperature. This was clearly where Dad had spent the rest of his time. A styrofoam cup sat next to one of the microscopes, half full of cooled tea. Notebooks were scattered on the table beside it, one of them open to a page of Dad’s loopy printing.
I picked up the notebook Dad had left open, and my gaze snagged on one small word.
I leaned over the table, skimming the page. If I continue three more days without any side effects from the vaccine, I’ll discuss the next step with Nell, he’d written. And at the top of the page, Project WebVac, Day 18.
Heart thudding, I dropped into one of the chairs and flipped back through the book.
After several minutes of reading, I walked over to the refrigerator and opened it. On the second shelf, five sealed vials of a pale amber solution stood in a plastic tray. I closed the door before I let in too much warmth, and leaned against it. My hands trembled.
There they were. The samples of Dad’s new vaccine.
He’d kept working on creating one, even after his team had sent their original attempt over to the mainland; even when he was the only person left at the center. He’d recorded the whole process in the notebook. Trying new methods of inactivating the virus, incorporating proteins from its earlier mutation, he’d come up with a formula he was almost sure would be both successful and safe. But first he’d had to try it out. And being Dad, he hadn’t felt right letting anyone else take that risk.
So without telling anyone, without telling me, he’d injected a sample into himself, eighteen days before he died. And he never got sick. Even though he’d been with infected people in the hospital every day.
We had a vaccine.
We had a vaccine that might work.
The hospital was a lot less crowded than it used to be, but in the empty reception room I could hear every stage of the virus’s progression. The coughs and sneezes and rasping of fingers chasing endless itches, in the rooms just off the hall. The bright babble of voices in the farther rooms, saying things the patients would have cringed to hear when they were well: a woman raving about her infatuation with a neighbor’s husband, a boy gloating over how he’d broken his brother’s favorite toys. And from the second floor, the screams and shouts of those the virus had gripped the longest. We had no sedatives left to chase away the violent hallucinations just before the end.
A couple weeks ago, Nell had told me they’d run out of face masks too.
“We’re not really supposed to reuse them,” she’d said, “but we’ll still have the patients wear them—it does help protect us, and it can’t hurt someone who’s already infected.”
The rest of us had been covering up however we could when out of the house. Because I’d been sick and so was now immune, I went to the doors first when delivering food around town with Gav or scavenging for supplies with Tessa, in case we ran into someone infected. Gav grumbled about it, but I wasn’t taking chances. Catching the virus was all but a death sentence. I’d survived because I’d caught an earlier mutation that had given me partial resistance. Meredith had only made it because of an experimental treatment involving my blood.
I didn’t see Nell on the ground floor, so I headed upstairs. A thin wail rose above the others, piercing the walls. I drew in a breath and climbed on. If I’d had enough blood to give, I would have tried to cure every patient here, but dying in the attempt wouldn’t have helped anyone. Just saving Meredith had weakened me enough to put me back in the hospital for a day. If Dad’s new vaccine did what he’d hoped, maybe it wouldn’t matter. Because no one else would be getting sick.
When I came out of the stairwell, Nell was standing halfway down the hall, talking to one of the volunteers. They both had strips of fabric tied across their lower faces. Nell’s was stark white above her stain-mottled lab coat. As I started toward her, she saw me and motioned toward the floor to say she’d meet me below.
The cries rattled in my ears as I hurried back downstairs.
Nell followed me a couple minutes later. She popped out her earplugs and tugged down her mouth-covering.
“Everything all right?” she asked wearily.
Her face looked worn, and her hair was falling out of its bun. I wondered how often she went home, slept, ate, even now that the hospital had only a fraction of the patients it’d held a couple months ago. She and two of nurses were all that was left of the former staff.
“Yeah,” I said. “I had to tell you—”
The lights overhead flickered. I looked up at them, startled. Nell smiled thinly.
“We’re having a few issues with the generator,” she said. “No one expected it to have to run this long. Howard thinks he’ll have it back to normal in a couple days. What did you want to tell me?”
I pulled my gaze away from the ceiling, suppressing the nervous fluttering in my chest. “I found the keys to the research center today,” I said. “I went to look around, and—Dad made a new vaccine, Nell.”
She blinked at me. “A vaccine,” she said. So he hadn’t told her.
“For the virus,” I said, as if that wouldn’t be obvious. “He was testing it on himself, and when he was sure it was safe, he was going to make enough for everyone left on the island.”
No more deaths. No more fear every time Gav or Tessa or Leo stepped outside the house. I felt like dancing, but Nell seemed firmly planted on the ground. She shook her head and gave a shocked little laugh.
“I knew he was trying to find a formula, but he never... He never said he was that close.” She rubbed her forehead. “How much is there?”
“It looks like only five doses,” I said. “He wasn’t finished taking the data on himself, so I guess he didn’t want to waste time making more until he was sure. But he had it in him for eighteen days and he was fine. That means the vaccine probably works, right?”
“There’s a good chance it’s safe, then,” Nell said. “But he was taking all the same precautions as before—wearing a mask and gloves and a protective gown with the patients. To know whether it actually protects you...”
To know that, someone would have to take the vaccine and then allow themselves to be exposed to the virus. Was that what Dad had meant by taking the next step?
“But it might work,” I said, and paused, a gnawing question wriggling past all my other thoughts. “Why was he trying to make another vaccine, Nell? We know now from Leo and Mark that the first one, the one he made with the World Health people and sent over to the mainland, wasn’t effective. But Dad didn’t know that.”
“He did know,” Nell said softly. “His contact at the Public Health Agency reported back a few days before we lost satellite contact.”
For a second, I couldn’t speak. He’d known? Dad had known the virus was still spreading on the mainland, and he’d let me hope the world outside the island might still be okay, for weeks and weeks.
But that wasn’t important now. “Well, now we have it,” I said. “He left a lot of notes—could you use them to make more of the vaccine? Or, since the soldiers who were guarding the strait have left—” Or died. “—we could bring the samples to the mainland and find someone there who can. There’s got to be someone.” No matter how bad the situation had gotten, not everyone would have given up. We hadn’t.
“Yes,” Nell said. “You’re right. I wish I could do it, Kaelyn, but I don’t have the training. I’d be more likely to make a mistake than replicate the vaccine properly. We’ll have to organize a group to take it to the mainland and locate whoever’s still working on the virus.” She paused. “I wonder when they’d be able to go.”
“They should go now,” I said. “The sooner we can distribute a vaccine...”
“Kaelyn,” she said, “we have to think practically. I’ve talked to Mark. The roads on the mainland aren’t plowed; the gas stations are closed; there might not be anywhere to take shelter from the cold. There are at least two months of winter left. Sending someone now, it could be a suicide mission. And if something happened to the team, we’d lose the vaccine too.”
“We could lose it here if we don’t do something soon,” I said. “What if the generator in the research center dies?”
“We can move the samples to the hospital,” Nell said.
“Where the generator’s already having problems,” I said, and the lights flickered again as if to prove my point. Nell’s mouth flattened, but I kept going. “And some people from the gang were already trying to break in—where can we keep the vaccine that’ll be safe? What if something happens to us in the next two months?”
Nell touched my arm. “We’re going to be fine until spring,” she said. “I think we’ve proven we can withstand an awful lot. It’s fantastic that you found the vaccine, Kaelyn, and we’ll keep it safe, but I don’t think we have any choice but to wait.”
She said the words, but I didn’t hear even a hint of joy beneath the exhaustion in her voice. Nell had been working in the hospital so long, and seen so much, maybe she couldn’t believe in a vaccine appearing out of nowhere to save the day. Maybe it felt too much like a fairy tale.
Maybe it was. And she was right about the risks. But how many more people would get sick between now and the spring? If we even survived that long.
“We’ll be fine,” Nell said again, patting my shoulder. But as she turned away, the sense crept over me that she was saying it to convince herself as well as me.
* * *
The sun was glaring off the snow by the time I got back to the house, but the temperature had dropped, and the wind was grazing my face with icy fingers. I hesitated with my hand on the doorknob. As I’d walked from the hospital, the knowledge of what I needed to do had risen up on me. Now it sat like a stone in my gut.
I had no idea how to tell them. Tessa might support me, but I didn’t know what to expect from Leo. And Gav...
I set my jaw and pushed inside.
Tessa and Meredith were sitting by the coffee table, Meredith muttering at the knitting needles she was stringing with yarn and Tessa frowning at the faded instructions that had come with the old kit we’d found. Her gaze flickered toward me with a half smile of greeting, and then she said to Meredith, “I think maybe you wind it the other way...”
In the kitchen, Gav was sprawled on the floor half under the sink, while Leo crouched next to him with the toolbox. “Can’t get a good grip,” I heard Gav say as I slid off my boots. Leo cocked his head and then offered a wrench.
“Try this one.”
There was a raspy metal sound, and Gav let out a breath. “Perfect! You done this before?”
The corner of Leo’s mouth quirked. “My dad was always trying to get me into ‘guy things’—tools, boats, guns—his idea of counteracting the dancing, I think. A few things stuck.”
“Works out for us,” Gav said. He knocked on the pipe and squirmed out. “My dad was a plumber, so this is about the only thing he did around the house. Guess I should have paid more attention.”
Seeing them chatting together so easily warmed me a little. For a second I forgot the difficult conversation I was about to start. Then Meredith sighed and set down her needles.
“Kaelyn!” she said, snatching up a folded piece of construction paper from the couch. She dashed over, waving it. “I got everyone to sign it,” she said. “And I’m going to make you mittens or a hat with the knitting stuff. For everyone else too, but you first. As soon as I figure out how.”
She’d decorated the birthday card with shiny star stickers and a drawing of me with jagged hair and turned-out feet, surrounded by a ring of lines like the rays of a sun. For the best cousin ever! she’d written inside. The heaviness in my gut swelled with guilt.
I didn’t want to get her overexcited about the idea of a vaccine, or worried about what I was planning to do, not while I was trying to explain it to everyone else and dealing with the arguments I knew were coming. I wasn’t even totally sure what my plan was yet. But I’d talk to her when the arguing was over, when I’d figured out the details and could say exactly what was going to happen. Soon.
I wondered if that was what Dad had been thinking when he’d decided not to tell me about testing the vaccine. But Meredith was seven, and I’d been sixteen. It wasn’t the same.
“Thanks so much, Mere,” I said, bending down to hug her. “You want to take the ferrets outside for a bit? I’ve got some other things I need to do, but they could use the exercise.”
“Sure!” she said, beaming at me. Any request having to do with the ferrets was pretty much guaranteed a yes. She scrambled up the stairs to collect Mowat and Fossey, and I went to the dining room window as she dashed with them into the backyard.
“You were gone for a while,” Gav said, coming in.
“I stopped at the hospital,” I said. The rest of the words stuck in my throat. I glanced out at Meredith again. I only had so long to do this before she came racing back inside. “Actually, I need to talk to all of you. Let’s sit down.”
When he, Tessa, and Leo had gathered at the table, I explained briefly how I’d found the keys and gone to the research center. When I mentioned the vaccine samples, their eyes widened.
Tessa spoke first. “It’s so lucky you found them,” she said, brightening. “If it works—”
“We could make sure everyone’s protected,” Gav jumped in, catching some of her enthusiasm. “It’s worth a try, anyway. You went to the hospital to talk to Nell? Is she going to start making more?”
Leo just watched me, silent, a stiffness in his posture. As if he knew I wasn’t finished.
“Nell can’t,” I said. “She doesn’t know how. My dad was the only one left on the island who would have.” I paused. “But there’s got to be someone on the mainland who does. A scientist, or a doctor. People were still trying to find a cure over there, weren’t they?”
Leo nodded. “Last I heard,” he murmured.
“So she’s going to send people over?” Tessa asked.
This was the hard part. “Not now,” I said. “She thinks it’s too dangerous for anyone to go during the winter. She wants to wait at least a couple months, until it warms up. But the generator at the hospital’s acting up. The one in the research center could fail too. If the samples aren’t kept at the right temperature, they’ll be ruined. I don’t think it’s safe to wait.”
Gav shrugged. “I know a few of the guys on the food run have been getting restless, especially knowing the army’s abandoned the strait. I bet if I talked to them—”
“I don’t think they’ll listen,” I said. Most of the remaining volunteers were adults, and while they respected Gav, I was sure none of them had forgotten we were teenagers. “Especially if we ask them to keep it secret. You know one of them will mention it to Nell, and she’ll tell them not to do it, and then she’ll probably insist on locking up the vaccine so no one can get to it until she decides it’s safe to go.”
“Maybe she’s right,” Tessa said, brushing a strand of carrot-red hair away from her face. “It is going to be dangerous. A couple months isn’t that long.”
Leo laughed weakly.
“In a couple months, the people who might be able to make more vaccine could die,” I said. “In a couple months, who knows what will have happened to us here?”
“So what are you saying, Kae?” Gav said, but I think he’d already guessed.
I drew in a breath. “I’m going to take it. I’m not going to be able to think about anything else until I know the vaccine’s with someone who can make more.” Gav looked like he was about to argue, but I pushed on. “My dad was working on this vaccine up to the day he died. He risked his life to test it. I can’t just let it sit in some fridge while more people die. I’m going to be careful, I’m going to make sure I’m prepared, but I have to do this. No one else is going to.”
“You can’t prepare for everything,” Leo said.
My chest tightened. “Maybe not,” I said. “But I’m going to try.”
He met my eyes. A strange heat washed over me as I saw the look in his—startled but awed. Then he blinked, and the only thing I saw was fear.
“Kae,” he said. His mouth stayed open, but no other sound came out. He jerked back his chair, standing up.
“Sorry,” he managed, and walked out of the room. Tessa’s face went even more pale than usual.
“He’s just...” she started, then trailed off, obviously not knowing how to label what was going on with him any better than I did.
Gav cleared his throat, breaking the silence. “You shouldn’t go alone,” he said. “That’d just be crazy.”
“But—” I said, and he took one of my hands.
“So I’ll go with you,” he said. “We’ll do it together.” He paused. “I mean, as long as you’d want me there.”
The tension inside me released. “Of course,” I said. “But are you sure? The food run, everything you organize here on the island—”
“The rest of the volunteers can look after the food run and the drop-offs for a while,” he said. “I’m not going to be much use if I’m spending the whole time worrying about what might be happening to you.”
I intertwined my fingers with his. “Thank you,” I said, and glanced at Tessa.
She nodded before I even asked. “I’ll look after Meredith until you’re back. I don’t mind at all. She’s kind of like my cousin too, now.”
“Thank you,” I said again. A lightness filled me that could have been excitement or terror or both.
I was really going to do this. I was taking the vaccine off the island, into whatever waited on the other side of the strait.
Gav found a car the next morning—an SUV someone had donated for the food runs, solid with wide snow tires. Rather than risk emptying the last working pump at the island’s gas station, we took a rubber tube and siphoned out what was left in the tanks of the town’s many abandoned cars. After a few failed attempts and a mouthful of gas for me that left me sputtering when I didn’t move fast enough after getting the suction going, we managed to stock up an extra ten gallons in jugs that we stashed in the back.
“I’ll see if we can find some heavy sleeping bags for the nights,” Gav said as we closed the hatch. “And we’ll want to have more than enough food, in case we run into trouble. How far are we going?”
“I’m thinking Ottawa,” I said. “Since it’s the capital—if the government still has scientists working on the virus anywhere, it’d be there, right?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Or we could try Halifax first, since it’s closer.”
He shrugged. “What you said about Ottawa makes sense. If there’s no one who can help in the capital, there probably isn’t anywhere.”
He said it so casually I stopped and looked at him. “You don’t think we’re going to find anyone?”
“We don’t really know, do we?” he said. “Look at how quickly the government abandoned us here.”
At my frown, he stepped toward me, resting his hands on my arms. “I get that you need to do this, Kae,” he said. “And I want to go with you. I don’t think anything else matters.”
“I was always planning on leaving the island some day,” he added when I didn’t speak. “Me and Warren, we were going to travel the country, see what we’d been missing.” A roughness had come into his voice mentioning the best friend he’d watched die, but then he tugged the collar of my coat playfully. “If I have to go with a pretty girl instead, I guess I can deal.”
The warmth in his gaze made me flush. He leaned in to kiss me, and I pulled him even closer. In that moment, nothing mattered more than the tingling of my skin and the heat where his body touched mine.
* * *
Before dinner, Leo knocked on Meredith’s bedroom door while I was refilling the ferrets’ food dish.
“Hey,” he said from the doorway.
“Hey, yourself,” I replied, trying to keep my concern out of my voice.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” he said. “I wasn’t judging you, or what you want to do. I just—when I even think about what things were like over there sometimes...”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“No, it’s not, really.” He dragged in a breath. “I wanted to see if I can help. With whatever you’re planning.”
I hesitated. As if sensing that I was evaluating his stability, he stood straighter. Though his body had always been lean, he looked too thin in his sweatshirt and jeans now. But his jaw was firm and his eyes clear.
“You’re the only person I can talk to who’s been off the island since the epidemic started,” I said. “If I ask Mark too many questions, he’ll probably mention it to Nell. I could use some advice figuring out the best route to take.”
“Okay,” he said. “I can do that.”
So the next day I scrounged up a map book and sat down with Leo in the living room. He traced his finger from the grayed out area of the United States across the spread that showed all of Canada.
“I came this way,” he said, “through Maine and into New Brunswick. If you’re going to Ottawa, I think you’ll want to head up into Quebec and then down by the St. Lawrence River.”
“How bad were the roads?”
“There wasn’t too much snow yet. But there’s definitely no one plowing anymore, and there won’t be lights. You’ll probably have to get around abandoned vehicles. I think some people just drove until they ran out of gas.”
I bit my lip, studying the map. My grandparents on Dad’s side had lived in Ottawa—we’d done the drive in a day and a half before. But that was on properly cared-for roads with working gas stations along the way.
“You must have gone through a few towns,” I said. “What were they like? Did you see many people?”
Leo opened his mouth, and his eyes went briefly glassy. He lowered his head.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it,” I said quickly. “If it’s too hard thinking about it.”
He exhaled, and then he looked back at me with a small, tight smile. “You know, I haven’t thanked you,” he said. “You’ve been trying so hard to make sure I’m okay—I know that. So, thank you.”
He squeezed the top of my hand, where it was resting on the couch between us. Then the stairs creaked, and his arm jerked away. I felt my face warm as Tessa walked into the room, even though we hadn’t been doing anything friends shouldn’t, even though I hadn’t thought of Leo as more than a friend in months. He’d reacted because the sound startled had him, that was all.
As Tessa bent to kiss Leo and then turned to the seedling tray she’d started setting up before breakfast, I thought of my old journal. All the feelings I’d poured into it—about Leo, about every horrible thing happening around me. I didn’t know how I’d have stayed sane during the last four months without it. Maybe Leo needed more than time and space. Maybe he needed to get the memories haunting him out of his head.
“If you do want to talk about what you saw over there, I’ll listen,” I said. “It’s not that I don’t want to hear it. It’s totally up to you—whatever you’re okay with.”
Leo ran a hand through his dark hair, which had been short and spiky since he’d taken Uncle Emmett’s electric razor to it the day after he made it back to the island. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat.
“It’s not the roads that are really bad, Kae,” he said. “It’s... It’s people. You can’t trust them, even if they act like they want to help. You shouldn’t talk to anyone if you can avoid it. Just keep driving.”
“I know to be cautious,” I said. “We’ve dealt with enough, with the gang and their craziness, here on the island.”
He shook his head. “Everyone here is still mostly looking out for each other. Once you get to the mainland, it’s not going to be like that.” He paused. “You remember how you always told me, when we were kids, that the most important rule with wild animals is keeping your distance, making sure they don’t feel you’re threatening their home or their food? You have to treat everyone you see like that. They won’t care that you’re trying to save them from the virus. They’ll just see a car with gas and food in the trunk that could keep them alive a little longer. And they won’t care what they have to do to you to get it.”
Tessa set down her watering can with a clunk loud enough that we both turned our heads toward her. “Do you really have to talk like that?” she said to Leo. “Kaelyn already knows it’ll be dangerous.”
“I think she needs to know just how bad it is,” Leo said cautiously.
“She’ll be careful,” Tessa said. “She always is. How is going on and on about it going to help?”
A shadow passed over Leo’s face. “Maybe,” he said quietly, “I believe in telling people the truth. So they can decide how to deal with it for themselves.”
Tessa stiffened. Without another word, she left her plants and headed back upstairs. I watched her go, baffled. Leo dropped his face into his hands.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he said, his voice muffled by his palms. “I know why it bothers her. She still doesn’t know what happened to her parents.”
“I feel like I’m missing something,” I said.
“We’ve argued a couple times,” he said. “About— She was writing e-mails to me, while I was at school, you know? Before the epidemic was big enough news that people were talking about it in New York. And she pretended everything was fine. Never mentioned people getting sick, or the quarantine, or any of it... The last time I talked to my mom, I had no idea it might be the last time. We had a fight about whether she’d cook turkey or just a chicken for Thanksgiving. So that’s my last memory of her.”
I waited for the right words to come. When they didn’t, I leaned forward and squeezed his hand the way he had mine.
“Tessa didn’t know how bad it was going to get. No one did.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But you’d have told me. If everything had been normal with us, you’d have told me right away.”
It felt like betraying Tessa somehow to admit it, but I wasn’t going to lie. “I would have,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
He smiled at me for a second, less forced than before. “It’s the past now,” he said, reaching for the map book. “We’ve got the future to worry about. Let’s get your route figured out already.”
* * *
When I went upstairs a half hour later, Tessa was in the master bedroom.
“Hey,” I said. “How’re you doing?”
She turned, brushing her overgrown bangs away from her eyes. “I’m fine,” she said. “I should probably finish up with those seeds.”
“You know,” I said, “I’ll look for your parents on the mainland. Ask around. Maybe I’ll be able to find them.”
I didn’t realize how much I wanted her to smile and say she was sure they’d make it back someday until her face fell. “You don’t need to, Kaelyn,” she said. “I know they’re dead.”
“You don’t,” I protested. “They were smart—they knew about the virus early on—they’d have protected themselves. You can’t assume they didn’t make it. My brother Drew is still out there somewhere, and yeah, I know the chances aren’t great, but I haven’t given up on him.”
“That’s different,” Tessa said, so calmly I felt suddenly cold. “Your brother could be anywhere. My parents were right there on the other side of the strait the last time I talked to them. They wouldn’t have left, they’d have been there on the ferry if they were still alive. Which means they’re not.”
“Tessa...” I started.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I’ve known since Leo got back. I knew it might be true for weeks before that. Nothing’s changed, not really. So it’s better not to dwell on it.”
That was Tessa. Practical, unemotional. Maybe she’d talked through the grief with Leo, gotten out all the pain she must have felt when neither of her parents stepped off the ferry that day.
Or maybe she was just pushing it down so deep she could almost forget it was there.
“If there’s anything you want—or need—me to look into while I’m gone...” I said.
“I know.” She touched my elbow as she walked past me into the hall; that was as close as Tessa got to hugging. “Thank you.”
* * *
I drove out to the research center in the SUV, getting used to how it handled, the wipers swishing back and forth over the windshield with the gusts of snow.
Inside, I went straight to the second floor and rummaged through the offices for books I thought might be useful. Unless we kept the samples in viable condition, there was no point in leaving at all.
One of the manuals had a chapter on vaccine transportation. After I read through it, I searched through the lab room until I found an industrial-grade cold-storage box in the cupboard beside the fridge. I grabbed a smaller plastic box too, to prevent the vials from touching the cold packs and freezing. Beside the cold box, I stacked the three notebooks of Dad’s that were from dated after the virus appeared, and added a box of petri dishes, a container of syringes, and a pack of microscope slides I found in one of the cabinets. Who knew what supplies they’d still have on the mainland?
I set it all in front of the fridge, where I’d be able to grab it quickly as soon as the weather cleared up enough that we could safely take the ferry across the strait. Leo thought he’d be able to get it going, after watching Mark start it up before. Until then, the vaccine would be safer here than anywhere else in town, with the specially calibrated fridge and modern generator behind the unbreakable windows and the door that had already stood up to the gang’s prying.
In the middle of the counter where they would be easy to find, I placed the papers onto which I’d copied all of Dad’s notes about creating the vaccine. I’d give the keys to Tessa when I left. If we failed, I didn’t want Dad’s work to be completely lost.
There were so many things he hadn’t told me. He should have been prepared for the worst, for the possibility that he might not always be here.
He probably wouldn’t have thought I could handle this. He would have said to wait, like Nell had. And he might have been right. The roads could be so bad Gav and I would get stuck. We could run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. We could get held up, like Leo said, because all people would see was a couple of teenagers with resources worth stealing.
But bigger than those doubts was the feeling that had been swelling inside me since I’d watched Nell turn away. That if I didn’t do something now and we lost the vaccine, I’d spend the rest of my life regretting it.
The last things I packed in the SUV were two bags of sidewalk salt, which I thought to check the garage for after Meredith complained about the slippery front step.
The bags weighed forty pounds apiece. Despite the chill in the air, I was sweating under my coat by the time I’d carried them to the clear area by the door. But I’d also found a jug of winter windshield-wiper fluid, so I figured the effort had been worth it. I’d paused to stretch my arms when Leo stepped through the doorway.
“Hey,” he said. “Meredith said you were out here. Looking for salt?”
“Yep,” I said, nudging one of the bags with my foot.
“Ah!” he said. “That kind of salt.”
The silence that followed felt awkward. I looked at him, and he looked back at me, his expression so serious my heart skipped a beat. Before I could ask why, he dropped his gaze.
“You want help bringing those to the SUV? They’re for the trip, I guess?”
“Thanks,” I said. “Grab one and we’re good.”
I hefted the first bag onto my shoulder and trudged along the snowy driveway. Flakes whirled around us.
“You’re ready to go?” Leo asked as we shoved the bags into the back of the SUV.
“Completely,” I said. He followed me as I headed back for the wiper fluid. “All we need now is a break in the weather.”
We ducked into the garage.
“Kaelyn,” Leo said. When I turned, he opened his mouth and closed it a couple of times, as if he’d forgotten what he’d wanted to say. Then he smiled crookedly.
“You wouldn’t believe how much I missed you when you left for Toronto, all those years back.”
“Please,” I said. “I bet it wasn’t half as much as I missed you. You still had a gazillion other friends here, at least.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But it wasn’t the same. You were the only one I knew really wanted me around.”
“What are you talking about? Everyone liked you.”
“Sure, they liked me,” he said, and hesitated. “But they never stopped seeing this.” He pointed to his face, and I knew he meant the shape of his eyes, the olive tone of his skin. “They never forgot I was adopted, different, not a real islander. I knew they couldn’t help it, so I acted like I didn’t notice. But with you I didn’t have to act. You didn’t judge me by where I was born.”
He’d always seemed so happy. I’d never known he’d felt that way about the rest of the kids the whole time we were growing up. But he was probably right. I’d felt the same sort of judgment aimed at me. It’d been easy for me not to care that Leo was different, because I had parents who were of contrasting colors and a mainlander dad on top of that. I was different too.
“Leo,” I said, but he kept going.
“I was so relieved when I got off the ferry, and you were there and you were you. When you moved to Toronto, you seemed to be getting so... critical, and closed off, and I started thinking you’d changed, or that I hadn’t really known you as well as I thought. Especially when you came back and it was like you were avoiding me. I can’t believe I left for New York without trying to talk to you. And then the virus started wreaking havoc on everything...” He swallowed. “But you’re still the same person I remember. Even more that person. The way you’ve thrown yourself into helping the town—you’re amazing, Kae. You know that, right?”
My cheeks warmed. “Lots of people are helping,” I said. “It’s Gav who really got everyone organized.”
“You’re the one who’s decided to go to the mainland with the vaccine,” he said. “You saw someone had to, and you’re doing it, despite all the risks.”
“I’m going to be fine.”
“You can’t be sure of that.” He stepped closer. “Look, I know nothing’s going to change; I know you have Gav and I have Tessa and that’s—-that’s all right. But you’re leaving, and I might not ever see you again, for real this time. I need you to know what that means to me, and how sorry I am that I didn’t try harder to make things right with us before, and how much I really, really want you to get back safe.”
Then he raised his hands to the sides of my face and kissed me.
It was a gentle kiss, but so steady and sure my lips started to part against his instinctively. I caught myself, stiffening. My brain stalled. Leo wasn’t supposed to be kissing me. What was he doing? What was I doing?
I raised my arms to push him away, and suddenly the kiss was over. Leo shifted back, his hands falling to his sides. A tremor passed through his shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It won’t happen again. Please be careful out there, Kae.”
And then he turned and walked out into the snow.
* * *
The next morning, the wind had died down. We got a sprinkling of snow, but by the time we’d eaten lunch, that had cleared up too.
“We should wait until tomorrow and leave first thing if it’s clear,” Gav said. “We want to get as far as we can on the first day.”
I could have left right then, but he made a good point. And it gave me a little extra time with Meredith before I said good-bye. We all ended up tramping out to the backyard with the ferrets.
The back of the house faced the strait, and the yard led down to the shoreline. Fossey scurried to the edge of the water, Meredith scrambling after her. I loosened my grip on Mowat’s leash as he trundled over to join them. Behind me, Leo and Tessa stood together, Tessa’s arm hooked through his. I was trying not to pay attention to them, but every time Leo moved, I felt it like a prickle over my skin, as if I had a new extra sense tuned specifically to him.
Since that moment in the garage, he’d pretended nothing had happened, so I’d pretended the same. Even though part of me was furious that he could lean into Tessa and peck her cheek so casually, like he hadn’t been kissing someone else yesterday, like he hadn’t betrayed her. Even though every time Gav smiled at me, guilt welled up inside me, as if I were the one who’d done something wrong. But my head was full of gnawing little questions I couldn’t shake. How long had he wanted to do that? Had he been agonizing over me the whole time I’d had what I thought was a hopeless crush on him?
What would it have been like if I’d let myself kiss him back?
I closed my eyes, shoving those thoughts away. Leo had been through a lot. Maybe he wasn’t thinking straight. I shouldn’t be angry—I should just get over it, the way a girl who’d been kissed by her best friend, who promised it wouldn’t happen again and for whom she had no romantic feelings whatsoever, should.
“It’s funny how they don’t get cold,” Meredith said as the ferrets tumbled in the snow. She grinned at me, and a different sort of ache filled my chest. The thought of telling her I was leaving was almost as painful as remembering the night I’d had to carry her into the hospital. I couldn’t even promise her I’d be back soon.
“There’s someone on the water,” Tessa said. She pointed to the opposite shore.
A small boat was pulling away from the mainland harbor. It veered a little north, then a little south, as if the driver wasn’t used to handling it, but it was definitely headed toward the island.
Tessa’s parents, I thought. Drew. Someone from the government, finally. “Hey!” I shouted, even though there was no way anyone could have heard me at that distance, and waved my arm. Meredith spun around. As soon as she spotted the boat, she started jumping up and down, waving eagerly.
“Come over here!”
“They’ll go to the harbor where they can dock the boat, Mere,” I said. As the boat drew closer, I saw it was a speedboat with no cabin, just a wide glass windshield with a lone figure behind it. My initial excitement dampened. It could be anyone. It could be a mainlander hoping the island would make for easy pickings.
“Maybe that isn’t someone we want on the island,” Leo said, echoing my thoughts.
“We could meet them at the harbor, be ready in case they try something,” Gav said, and then paused. “Except I think they are coming this way.”
The boat was bobbing on the waves, but it had definitely turned away from the harbor, toward us. I eased closer to Meredith, resting my hand on her shoulder. After a few minutes I could make out the man driving well enough to tell I didn’t recognize him. He took his hands off the wheel to wave both his arms at us, the way Meredith had, but he looked more frantic than happy.
As the boat approached the shore, Gav stepped to the water’s edge. “Everything all right?” he called.
The man drew the boat as close to us as the shallower water allowed. His face looked pale and thin, engulfed by the padded hood of his coat. “You have to get out of there!” he hollered, cutting the engine. “Tell everyone! You have to get off the island!”
“What?” I said. “Why?”
He might not have even heard me. “They’ll be here any minute,” he said. “They want to destroy the whole town.”
The breeze brought a faint sound to my ears: the choppy rumble of a helicopter in flight. We hadn’t seen a food-drop or a news chopper in ages. I made out a small dark shape in the northern sky, and when I glanced back at the man in the boat, my pulse stuttered. He was looking at the shape too, and his expression was like that of a mouse in the shadow of a hawk. Pure undeniable terror.
Whatever he was talking about, he obviously believed the danger was real.
“Who’s coming?” I said. “What are they going to do?” But my words were lost as the boat’s engine roared.
“I’ll meet you at the harbor, for anyone who doesn’t have a boat,” the man yelled, reaching for the wheel. “Hurry!”
“Hold on!” Gav shouted. The boat turned toward the docks and sped away.
“Do you think we should listen to him?” Tessa asked.
“He could be in the hallucinating stage of the virus,” I said, but I’d never seen someone that sick who’d still be capable of handling a boat. My heart started to thump. “But maybe we should do what he said, just in case.”
“I can swing by the hospital and tell them something’s up,” Gav said.
“I’ll go with you,” I said. “Tessa, Leo, can you get Meredith to the harbor? We’ll meet you there.”
Tessa nodded, grabbing Meredith’s hand. I scooped up the ferrets, let them leap through the back door, and closed it behind them before hurrying after Gav. He had hopped into the SUV. The growl of the helicopter’s engine was getting louder.
“What do you think’s going on?” I said as I scrambled into the passenger seat.
Gav hit the gas. “I don’t know. Let’s hope he’s just a lunatic.”
I hugged myself as we followed Tessa’s tire tracks through the thick layer of snow on the road. Her car vanished around a turn up ahead. We were just rounding a corner, halfway to the hospital, when the shadow of the helicopter slid by overhead.
A second later, the block of houses next to us exploded.
I shrieked, clutching at the door as the ground rocked beneath the tires, the blast ringing in my ears. Beside us, roofs were crumpling, flames spurting through shattered windows. A sharp chemical smell filled the air. Gav drove on, faster, his jaw clenched, his arms trembling.
“Not a lunatic,” I said shakily. “What the hell are they doing?”
Another explosion thundered somewhere to our right. I cringed. Gav leaned forward to peer through the windshield.
“I think it’s a military helicopter,” he said. “They’re bombing us. After all the other ways the army’s screwed us over, they’re fucking bombing us!”
Tears I hadn’t felt forming were leaking down my cheeks. I wiped my eyes and tried to breathe steadily. Then a single panicked thought jolted through my mind like an electric shock.
“The vaccine,” I said. “Gav, what if they hit the research center?”
“Maybe they won’t,” Gav said. “We should go to the harbor—get out of here, like that guy said. I’m pretty sure no one in town needs to be warned that something bad’s happening now. We’ll come back when the chopper’s gone.”
“No!” I said. “We can’t leave behind those samples. If we lose them...”
If we lost them, we were maybe losing our only chance to beat the virus, to get back the world we used to have.
“Kae,” Gav started.
“Please,” I said. “We have to get them. If you won’t drive there, I’ll jump out of the car and run for it.”
I was serious. He must have been able to tell. He swore under his breath, but at the next intersection he turned toward the research center instead of the harbor. We’d already missed the hospital. As the SUV careened down the lane, the ground shuddered with a third explosion. I clutched the keys in my coat pocket.
The research center was still standing when we reached it. The car skidded to a stop, and I leapt out. Gav left the engine running as I scrambled over a snowdrift to the door.
I fumbled with the keys and shoved the door open. My boots slid on the smooth floor inside. The cold-storage box and the supplies I’d set aside were all where I’d left them. I stuffed the sample vials and the packs from the freezer into the cold box, and dropped everything else in on top to make sure I didn’t lose anything.
Smoke was billowing up over the trees as I dashed back outside, so thick the whole town could have been burning. Not the hospital, I pleaded silently. I hauled myself into the car.
The whole way to the harbor, I clutched the cold box on my lap, my eyes squeezed shut. The acrid smell of burning filled my nose. The helicopter rumbled by overhead, and I winced, bracing myself. I couldn’t tell which of the tremors I felt were bombs and which were buildings collapsing or something else I couldn’t even imagine. Gav’s breath started to rasp as he yanked the steering wheel one way and then the other.
Tessa’s car was parked by the harbor. We pulled up beside it and I tumbled out, dragging the cold box with me. The speedboat was bobbing by the far end of one of the docks, Meredith and the others sitting in it. Gav and I ran together, his hand on my back. Tessa took the box from me and helped us in.
“He wanted to leave without you,” Meredith said, a sob in her voice, looking accusingly at the driver. “We said we’d throw him off the boat if he tried.”
The driver—our savior—was too busy staring at the sky to look guilty. “We’re going now,” he said, grasping the wheel. “Before they notice us.”
“But other people from town might come here to get away,” I said. “The rest of the boats are wrecked. We have to wait and see—”
“No,” the man said. “We’re lucky we’re not already dead.”
He tugged the wheel, and the boat swerved away from the dock. As it sped toward the mainland, I turned. The town I’d spent most of my life in was hazed with smoke and flames, growing smaller as the strait stretched between us and the island.
@2016 Megan Crewe