“Let’s go home,” Kevin said at last, wiping his tears away.
The sparkling Christmas lights were the first thing many of the evacuees saw as the convoy crested the hill and sped down toward the fort. Despite the gloomy cold, drizzly weather, the lights seemed very bright, twinkling in the grayness of the day.
Amy’s children, huddled together in a metro bus, stared with wide, shellshocked eyes at the lights. Margie leaned over and whispered to her brother and sister, “Maybe Christmas is here.”
To Guadalupe, the lights were a welcome sight. She broke down crying, her gnarled hand, aching with arthritis cupping her forehead. It was almost too much for the old woman to bear. Those around her reached out to lay comforting hands on her.
On one of the lead trucks, Bette sat in silence, watching the lights with sad, weary eyes. Tired to the core of her being, she just wanted to be somewhere safe and warm. Despite being a nurse, who tried to heal the sick, she had been an executioner. Yet, it made sense to quickly destroy the thing that could infect so many others. She was just so tired.
Exhausted, she rested her head back on the seat and watched the twinkling lights grow blurry through her tears.
As the gates opened to let the trucks in one at a time, the convoy fell into silence. No zombies attacked as they waited. Overhead, the helicopters hovered watchfully.
As Katie and Travis’ truck passed through into the complex, Katie broke down sobbing, her hands covering her face. Travis gently stroked her neck and back, whispering softly to her. But they both felt the emptiness that could never be replaced.
Kevin turned his eyes up toward the wall when his truck entered. He saw the tall, older Israeli woman watching with keen eyes. They shared a moment where their gazes touched and something unspoken passed between them. She nodded, then his truck turned into the garage and she was gone.
As the survivors began to pour into the courtyard, that was once the construction site, the citizens of the fort rushed to greet them.
There were moments of sheer joy as family members were reunited.
Friends who had not seen each other in years wept as they embraced.
The weary soldiers found themselves hugged and kissed by strangers.
The Reverend found lost members of his flock and wept as they greeted him.
Unexpected reunions filled the dreary day with cries of happiness that were mingled with tears of sadness. There was joy and there was heartbreak, but it was human and it was real.
Finally, the last truck rolled in. A beleaguered man, his hair messed and his face drawn, trudged through the crowd to the redheaded woman staring at him with disbelief.
With infinite gentleness, Bill put his arms around Katarina and kissed her lightly, then said, “I need a beer.”
“We must remember that our loved ones have moved on to a place where there is no fear or pain. It is we, who are left behind, who feel fear and pain. We must take comfort that their suffering is over and the salvation to our fears is to love one another and live the best life we can in honor of their memory,” the Reverend’s voice intoned, comforting his former parishioners as they gathered around him for prayer.
Katie moved past him, her legs feeling heavy and leaden. Her Travis walked behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders. She felt dizzy, tired, and her body was aching. Her hand pressed protectively against the swell of her stomach as she walked toward the hotel.
People from the fort flowed past her as they hurried to greet the newcomers. As one man moved aside to let her pass, Jason came into view, standing very still. Beside him, Jack pressed to his side. Shelley stood behind him, her face pale. Katie felt her heart break as she looked into the boy’s eyes and his image blurred as fresh tears filled her eyes.
Blinking the tears free from her lashes, she saw Jason duck his head down, his bangs falling over his brow. His hand lifted to his face as Jack began to whine, pawing at the boy’s knee.
“Jason,” Katie managed to say before he flung himself into her arms. His body violently shaking, he buried his face in her neck as he cried.
Clutching him tightly, she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
The teenager sobbed desperately, his body sinking downward. Travis wrapped his arms around both of them and pulled Jason firmly against him. “We’re here, Jason. We’re here.”
Katie kissed his brow and clung to both of them.
Shelley wrapped one arm hesitantly around Katie and Katie reached out to pull the girl into a four-way embrace. Jack squeezed between their legs and began to howl.
* * * * * Nerit held out her hand to Kevin as he stopped next to her. She stood near the entrance to the hotel watching Travis and Katie trying to comfort the distraught Jason. The cries of pain said it all. Jenni was gone. She felt the sting of pain in her own heart and her eyes grew moist. As Kevin took her hand, she looked at him and gave him a tight smile.
Glancing over his shoulder, he saw what was happening and sighed.
Kevin ran a hand over his cropped hair. “Things went very wrong.”
“That is what Greta said when she called us,” Nerit said.
“Jenni died saving people. They didn’t get her though. Katie released her before that.”
Three little kids wandered up to them. The two younger children were clutching the eldest girl’s skirt so tight, the girl’s Wonder Woman underpants were visible.
The little girl pointed to the Christmas lights strung up along the walls.
Nerit hesitated, then said with a soft smile, “I think a piece of Christmas is still here.”
Kevin looked down at the kids and his face was full of pain. ’Yes, I’m sure it is here.”
“Okay, cause Santa forgot about us at the mall…”
Behind them, voices rose in soft song.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow...”
* * * * * Rosie was in a feverish rush to get a lunch on the table for the newcomers.
Fresh biscuits, golden and hot, came out of the oven and made the kitchen smell wonderful. Wiping her hands off on a towel, she moved to check on the fried chicken. She had decided to break out the rest of the frozen chicken to feed the new people. They needed good food from the sight of them.
“Hey, Rosie,” Calhoun’s voice called from the doorway. He looked mummy with his head heavily bandaged.
“Your Mama is out in the lobby. And, that old Amazon hit me with her cane.”
“Your Mama, Guadalupe, hit me with her derned cane,” Calhoun repeated and began to saunter not too casually toward the biscuits.
Waving metal tongs at him, her expression was one of disbelief. “My Mama can’t be alive. She went to the hospital for a checkup on the first day. Hospitals were death traps”
“Well, she’s alive,” Calhoun answered, trying to make a dive for the biscuits.
Rosie smacked him, and he grunted as he managed to snag one. She hesitated, then handed the tongs to one of her helpers. “Don’t let him get another one.”
Calhoun shoved the entire biscuit in his mouth and grinned at her as he dove for another.
Rushing into the hallway, she made her way through the growing throng of very smelly people to the lobby. The thought of her nearly hundred year old mother being alive was too much of a long shot to even hope for, but when she entered the lobby, she saw the hunched up old woman sitting in a wheelchair banging on the check in counter.
“I want a room with a view with no zombies!”
Rosie never made it to her mother. She passed out.
Guadalupe turned around as people cried out, surprised to see her daughter slumped in the arms of several people. “Dios mio! My baby is alive!” Motioning to the gangly teenager who was pushing her around, she began to cry.
When Rosie woke up, her mother was patting her face with a gnarled hand. “Mama!”
“Just tell me one thing,” her mother said. “Is Juan alive?”
The old woman grinned as she fell back in her wheelchair and clutched her hands to her chest. “Thank you, Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
Rosie wrapped her arms around her mother and together they wept with relief.
* * * * * The dining room had never been so full. People were crowded in, eating feverishly, some laughing, some still crying, but the food was good. The Reverend blessed the meal and some people wept at his words.
It was a hard morning. So much death and so much sadness.
The mother of a girl named Kimberly sat in silence staring at her food as she remembered her brave daughter kissing her goodbye before taking her own life on the side of the road. Next to her, the only member left of her family, her youngest son, began to eat with relish. Looking up, the mother saw faces both new and old and with sadness in her heart, she began to try to eat. Kimberly would have wanted her to eat and go on.