Morning came after a long, restless night with little relief from the worries that plagued us. Finally we gave up on the attempts to rest and found ourselves sitting in the dining room, waiting for the others.
“I don’t think they’re going to go for it.” Jay murmured, interrupting the silence.
“Would we? They have to protect Toby.”
“We wouldn’t let anything happen to him!”
The tension in the air felt palpable as I withheld my response from Jay. We both knew what I was thinking – we’d never let anything happen to Annie, either, and look how that had ended up.
“What are they going to do, then?” He continued impatiently. “Stay here? Hiding from those military guys?”
“Actually, Jay,” Ken spoke suddenly from the hall. I started, unsure how long he’d been there, and he paused in the doorway before continuing, “We’ve been thinking of approaching them. We put it off as a courtesy to you both – just in case – but we think they might be our best chance.”
“We don’t know anything about them!”
“We know they’ve been getting closer to inspecting this street.” Laura had followed Ken into the dining room, pulling a sleepy Toby behind her. “If you’d been away a few more days, we would have been out of options anyway.”
“Look – “ I began.
“If we leave, we’re not coming back this time.” He interrupted. “Once we’re gone, we’re gone.”
“We’re just trying to make the best of this.” Ken’s tone was calm, with only a slight hint of annoyance. “This isn’t our fight. It’s never been our fight.”
“We have to keep Toby safe.” Laura said quietly. She pulled him close and brushed his hair, which had grown long and wild, away from his eyes.
“You think we won’t?” Jay challenged. “You think we’d do anything to put him at risk?”
“Okay, that’s fucking enough!” I shouted. “We can keep going, we can push this to something we’ll all regret, or we can just back off now.”
“Enough.” Ken agreed. “This isn’t personal. This is us doing the best by our family. Just like you are.”
“Sure. Fine.” Jay had sat back down, still looking pissed off.
“Look, guys, let’s just figure out something to eat and all calm down. We’re going to have a lot to sort out.” I stood as I spoke, making my way into my aunt’s old kitchen.
Laura and Ken had done some work in here while we were away, sorting and packing what meager supplies we had left. The water bottles we’d collected sat on the counter, and our packs crowded the small kitchen table, waiting to be unpacked from last night.
I grabbed a tin of sliced apples and some crackers – an unusual breakfast, but a welcome change from the slimy tinned meat we’d been living on.
Laura had followed me – without Toby – and she stopped me before I could leave the kitchen.
“You understand… Don’t you?”
I looked at her for a long moment, absorbing the fear and worry in every line of her face. How could I not understand? We’d lost Annie, the worst of all nightmares we’d faced, and they were only trying to avoid the same horror. This was a crossroads, no time for expressions of forced loyalty or taking unnecessary risks. The only possible choice, the only path, was the safest one for them. While I didn’t want to admit it – I was loyal to Jay, loyal to Annie – in their position, I would have done the same.
“Sorry.” I replied finally. “I’m just… Thinking it out. I understand. Jay will too, once he’s over the anger.”
“Thank-you.” She said, and moved aside to let me past.
I took a step and then paused. “He’s not… He doesn’t mean to be so aggressive.” I said quietly. “It’s everything – his guilt, his fear – talking. He forgets what an asshole he can be.”
Laura smiled – briefly, sadly – then nodded and turned to the counter to choose their own breakfast.
Jay and I shared the apples and somewhat dry crackers in silence while the others did the same across from us. Even Toby was fairly quiet and still.
“Okay.” I said, finishing the last of my crackers and washing it down with a few sips of water. “We have a lot to figure out – how long do you think until the soldiers are checking this street?”
“Not long – a couple of days at best. We’ve been watching them get closer, they must be just about done with the next street over.” Ken nodded towards the window. “They do most of their work at night.”
“You think they could be here tonight?” Jay asked, his voice calmer, stabler. I felt a small sliver of relief – I needed him to keep his cool.
“We’ve been preparing in case they are.” Laura said.
“Then we need to do the same,” I said, mostly to Jay, “we don’t know how they’ll react to us leaving. The area closer to town seems pretty locked down.”
He nodded. “We’ll get out of your way at sundown.”
“Do you guys want a backup plan?” I asked cautiously. “In case it goes wrong here? Somewhere to meet us?”
They looked at each other for a long moment, then Ken shook his head. “No… If it goes wrong, if these guys are dangerous, we won’t risk you.”
“We’ll do the same for you then,” Jay stood and started pacing, “if it all goes to hell out there, we won’t come back. You can tell these guys it’s just the three of you and we won’t blow it.”
“We need to divide the supplies.” I said, wanting to keep the plan moving. It was still only early morning, but the sooner we could be ready, the better. There might even be time for a proper rest before we left. “I suggest keeping it fairly even, with some extras for you guys – there’s three of you and we can hopefully find some stuff out there.”
“We need to take the gun. “You – “ His voice hitched for a second, “you guys can’t compete with the gear these military guys have, and we…”
“Agreed.” Ken said quickly.
We sat in an uncomfortable silence for a moment until Laura and I headed to the kitchen and started work on dividing the supplies. We really didn’t have that much left – maybe a couple of days worth, at best – but we divided it in half and then added extra food and water to their pile.
“What do you think?” She asked finally.
“It’s as good as we can hope.” I shrugged. “I really wish there was some more water.”
I stuffed everything evenly between our two packs and dragged them out to the dining room where Jay and Ken had the pistol and what was left of the ammo on the table.
“We’ll keep a couple of knives,” Ken told Laura, “but…”
They had no chance of surviving if it came to a fight with the soldiers we’d seen, and no chance of outrunning them on foot when they all had well equipped vehicles. They were risking their lives at the hands of the unknown – but so were we.
“So that’s it, then.” Ken said after a heavy silence. “You guys should try and get some rest.”
“Yeah. OK.” Jay agreed. “We’ll go over everything one more time before we leave.”
We went our separate ways within the house – Ken and Laura taking Toby down the hall and us heading back into the bedroom we’d claimed. We left all our gear in the dining room, waiting for a final inspection before we said goodbye.
On the way through, I stopped at my aunt’s bookshelf and grabbed a few titles about gardening, first aid, cooking – anything I thought we could use. We flicked through them in the minimal light allowed through the drapes before finally getting some rest.