The Senator scared her shitless. Every time the attractive, yet imposing woman appeared looking down at the main floor, Jenni felt her skin crawl.
“No, no, you’re right. We are different at the fort,” she admitted. “We actually are living. This is just existing. It’s not right.”
Bill sighed. “I was gonna ask Katarina out to disco night. I actually asked her out for a beer when we got back from the hospital.”
“Really?” Jenni grinned at him. “Good for you!”
“I felt kinda guilty at first liking her. My wife died a year ago, so…” Bill shrugged. “You know what I mean.”
Jenni actually didn’t, but she nodded anyway. She felt no remorse about her relationship with Juan or any guilt. But then again, she had pretty much hated her husband.
“But I figure that in this world, you gotta just take your chance at happiness. So I got up the guts to do that. Besides, I guess we are all walking around with some survivor guilt. I feel it now. Looking at these people. I mean the fort hasn’t been a cake walk, but we sure as hell had it better than these folks.”
Jenni slowly ate, looking at the people around her. They were muted.
Shadows. People powered down and living on what remained of their energy.
“This rumor about the Senator taking over the fort,” Jenni started slowly as she stirred her meal.
“I bet it’s real. It won’t happen though. Can’t. Notice how the high and mightys live up on the second floor? That shit won’t work with us. I can’t see it happening.”
They fell into silence for a few minutes, eating slowly.
“Since coming here, I have been thinking a lot about the first day,” Jenni said at last.
“My children died,” Jenni said, her gaze straying to the playground where too-thin kids played with stifled energy. “I didn’t fight to save my son Mikey. I just ran. I can’t explain what I was thinking, I just ran. I wanted to get away, survive. I know that much. But I ended up outside of my house, with the front door closed and Mikey…”
Bill touched her hand gently, trying to soothe her.
“I heard him die, Bill. I heard it. I heard him screaming ‘Mommy’ and I didn’t go back in.” There she had said it. Admitted it. She had admitted it to herself and someone else. It felt like something large, inky, and horrible broke inside her.
“There is nothing you could have done,” Bill said softly.
Jenni tried hard not to cry as she ran her hand over her long hair. “I know that, but I didn’t even try. I didn’t know what was even happening, but when I heard those horrible noises, I didn’t move. I just stood there.” She looked around at the people, noting that Amy sat nearby with her children eating. “How can I possibly ever make up for that?’ “You’ve gone out and rescued people. You’ve done a lot.”
Jenni sighed, wiping a tear away. “I just…Bill, maybe this is survivor’s guilt, but sometimes, especially now, I feel I should be the one who died.”
Bill enfolded her in a big bear hug, holding her tightly. “Jenni, you’re a good girl. You’ve done lots of brave things. Just because you didn’t act the way you wished you had that doesn’t make you a bad person. Hell, it’s damn lucky any of us are alive. It all went to shit so fast.”
Jenni snuggled into Bill’s warm shoulder and whispered back, “I just feel so guilty.”
“Well, don’t. You got a fine boy waiting for you back at the fort and Juan loves you something awful. We’ll get the hell out of here and get these people to a good life. You deserve it as much as anyone.” Bill gave her a gruff kiss on the cheek and let her go.
Jenni forced a smile, looking around. “I even feel kinda guilty for having been at the fort and not here.”
Jenni pouted at him then said, “Seriously, Bill. What if I was supposed to die that day? What does that say about my life now?”
“That you got a second chance.” Bill shook his head. “Or maybe you were supposed to survive that day so you could help rescue all these people.”
Jenni considered this. “You think so?” Her dream returned vividly to her mind.
“Why not? If destiny…fate…whatever has anything to do with our lives, then maybe this is what you were supposed to live to do.”
Thinking back on her dream about Lydia, Jenni remembered what she had said about choices made and not made. She was Catholic. She believed in things greater than herself. She believed in the mysteries of the spiritual, therefore, she truly believed Lydia had come to her.
Lydia had said she would soon be afraid and she was now very afraid. She could feel the great clock of fate ticking downward. She knew soon she would face a difficult choice. She hoped she would make the right one and that she would get back to Juan and Jason.
“I guess you’re right. I mean...I made the choice to leave home at seventeen and move in with my grandma. I made the choice to work at Pizza Hut where I met Lloyd. I was married and pregnant with Mikey at eighteen. Was a friendless trophy wife for years. And then it all went to hell. I screamed. Katie found me...then...It’s kinda like all these choices I made just...” Jenni waved her hand. “They landed me here.”
“To save these folks maybe.” Bill shrugged. “Kinda weird seeing all that coming together, huh?”
“I just hope we can get these people to a better life,” Jenni said with a sigh.
“We just got the military and zombies standing in our way,” Bill decided.
As they finished eating, they heard the sound of the helicopter returning.
Its shadow filled the food court as it flew over the enormous skylight, then it settled down somewhere beyond the mall’s walls.
Jenni stood up to turn in her bowl and spoon to the cleanup crew. She saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Turning, Jenni saw the handsome black soldier walking in with a few other people. The bowl and spoon clattered to the floor when she saw Katie and Travis among them.
Jenni pushed past people and rushed toward her friend. Katie saw her, called out her name and pulled away from Travis. Like some stupid movie, they ran to each other and flung their arms around each other.
Katie squeezed her so tight Jenni could hardly breathe. Pressing kisses to her best friend’s cheek, Jenni felt her tears falling down her face, hot and fierce.
Then Travis was there, hugging her tight, kissing her cheek while Bill bear hugged Katie and lifted her off the ground. They fell into a sort of fourway hug, tears and laughter spilling out of all of them.
“He’s fine,” Travis answered with a grin Jenni started to sob with relief as Travis kissed her forehead firmly.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. “It sucks here!”
Katie slid her hand gently over Jenni’s cheek, smiling at her softly. “We came to take you guys home.”
“We’re game,” Bill exclaimed. “Tell us what to do!”
Jenni became aware of Kevin and the other soldiers watching them and felt a little uncomfortable.
“They’re with us,” Katie assured Jenni, drawing her close again.
Jenni snuggled into her best friend’s arms, trusting her. For the first time since she entered the mall, she felt a sense of hope.
2. The Spider and the Fly
Those around him would make decisions, Lydia had said, and it could lead to their death.
Travis sat solemnly beside Katie in the food court as they waited for Kevin to return with the Senator. Lydia’s words echoed in his mind as he gently stroked the back of his wife’s neck. Her decision to come to the mall had terrified him, but somehow he knew the moment he had read her father’s letter that she would come here. One of the things he loved about Katie was her strength. He had to respect that no matter how difficult.
She looked at him with her clear, beautiful green eyes and smiled at him reassuringly. He smiled back at her and kissed her temple.
Jenni sat on the other side of Katie. Their fingers were intertwined as they sat hip to hip, watching the escalator Kevin had taken to the upper floor.
Travis was relieved to see that Jenni and Bill were still alive. Not that he didn’t mourn the passing of Roger and Felix, but in this world it was hard to not feel relieved when those closest to you survived.
Behind them the waterfall rumbled and roared. The rushing of the water sounded comforting. Kevin had briefly explained that the waterfall was constantly recycling its own water. It was their reserve water supply. The mall was on rationed water because a recon mission over the water treatment plant showed severe damage to the facility. There was uncertainty as to how long water would continue to flow or even if it was pure. Soon after the survivors had arrived at the mall, half the children and elderly died from a high fever and flu-like symptoms. All the water given to the people in the mall was now boiled before it was passed out.