Today's Reading

He could smell the overstrained portable toilets—and the communal latrine pits—from here. Water had to be hauled in from the lake, using some of the town's old water trucks, drawn by the priceless handful of horses who'd survived and been pressed into service as supplies of gasoline and diesel vanished. Food was already scarce and getting scarcer every day, despite mandatory rationing that restricted adults to no more than fourteen hundred calories a day, and medical supplies were nonexistent. The surviving doctors and nurses worked eighteen-hour shifts at the local hospital, a mile southeast from where he crouched feeding the fire, but they were swamped by far too many patients with far too little nourishment, shelter, and warmth, and that was only going to get worse. Winter was coming on fast, there'd be no new shipments of fuel, there was no electricity, none of the refugees had anything remotely like the clothing needed to survive it, and housing was desperately short. There would have been far too few supplies, far too few roofs, under the best of circumstances, far less the ones they actually faced.

The authorities were trying hard to find someplace for the fresh influx to go, but the town was already packed—by Freymark's lowest estimate, the city's population had to have at least tripled—and most of them were at least as malnourished, and cold, and wet as his own family. And so he crouched here, burning scavenged branches, praying someone could find them a roof, wondering where the next armload of fuel was coming from, while Jackie coughed behind him in her mother's arms, and there was nothing—nothing at all—he could do.

He looked up as someone dumped another scant pile of branches beside him.

"City police just dragged in a flatbed of downed trees," Alex Jackson said, squatting on his heels and laying the ax he'd salvaged from the burned farm's barn beside him. He looked at least a decade older than his fifteen years. "I was over there with the ax." He twitched a parody of a smile. "Gave me first dibs for helping cut it." He shrugged. "Supposed to be a wheelbarrow load headed this way in another half hour or so."

"Good, Alex." He reached out, squeezed the boy's shoulder. "Good."

He put all the approval left in him into those three words, and God knew Alex deserved it. His parents and his sister had caught a ride into Babbitt with Dennis on that terrible day. The Freymarks were all he had left, and Lewis Freymark put an arm around him and hugged hard, eyes burning as he thought about Dennis. Thought about his broad shoulders, his curly hair, his mother's eyes. About the way his son—his son—had always had a smile for his mom, a joke for his kid brother, his sisters. And Freymark had been even prouder of his boy when he paused quietly outside the closed bedroom door one rainy autumn night and heard Dennis—Dennis, the perpetually smiling, the always optimistic—weeping with quiet desperation when he thought no one else could hear.

Dennis, who the Puppies had taken from him and from Janice. His death had torn his father's heart in half and shattered his mother's. Only one more death among billions, but the one death which had reached right up inside them and ripped out their souls. So yes, Freymark understood Alex. Understood his pain, the strength that somehow kept him going, and he hugged the son of his dead friends, the son who needed a father as he'd never needed one before, because he would never hug his own again.

And now they were losing Jacqueline. Jackie, the baby, the laughing sprite who'd turned into a solemn-eyed ghost as the grim reality ground its way through every shield her parents—and Dennis—had tried to erect against it for her sake. She was only seven, for God's sake! Only seven. She would've been eight in another three months, but she didn't have three months. Maybe none of them did, if the rumors of the Puppies' bioweapon were true, but it didn't matter for Jackie.


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