“I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD,” WILL SAID.
“I’m sorry,” David said. “I can’t imagine what that was like for you.”
David wore a gas mask. His breath was loud through its filters. He breathed slow and steady, like an iron lung. The mask wasn’t like the ones that Will had seen the military wear. Twin black cylindrical air filters hung off the chin, and a clear plastic face shield allowed Will to see all of David’s face from his lower lip up. His eye was smiling. There had been so many things Will had regretted not saying to David when he’d found out he was dead, and now he was at a loss for words.
Will looked around the overdecorated Airstream trailer. It hadn’t been the worst place to count down the hours until he was virus-free. The place had a bed, a kitchenette, an eating nook with seating for two, and a couch. Orange light from amber bulbs in thrift-store lamps warmed the room. Floral design contact paper covered the countertop. Plaid curtains over tiny windows looked out to black night. The trailer had definitely been decorated by one of the mothers, by a chorus of mothers, maybe. There were comforting touches everywhere. Ruffles hanging off things, embroidered pillows, fanciful books aimed at middle schoolers. Newsprint hangman and Mad Libs activity booklets like you see in truck stops. There were teddy bears. Four bears to be exact—a black one, a polar bear, a koala, and a hot-pink one that was half the size of the others. He’d found them arranged in a line at the head of the bed. The fridge was plastered with Disney cartoon refrigerator magnets. There were decorative wooden signs hanging, with words like Love and cheerful phrases like Tomorrow is a new day.
“Who told you I was dead?” David said.
“One of the kids from the outside, the Saints, he said he saw a body with a white eye patch in a house that sounded like ours. I didn’t know what else to think.”
David sagged and shook his head. “I never imagined that you’d hear about that.”
“Hear about what?” Will said. “I don’t understand.”
David started to say something and then stopped. His good eye wandered toward the kitchenette window. Will’s stomach started to knot.
“Ugh, so dramatic.” Will said. “You’re killing me over here.”
David laughed. Will had forgotten what that sounded like. It was a good sound.
“When I got out, it wasn’t what I’d expected. There was no one in town. Not even the military. I limped through downtown, and every store was empty, every house deserted. I felt like I’d never see another human being, but then I did.”
David swatted away a fly that had landed on his face shield.
“Two guys in haz-mat suits in a red pickup truck. They saw my white hair and must have assumed I was still infected, ’cause they fired on me. I ran, but they started hunting me through town. I barely got away from them, and when I did, I headed straight home.”
“To our house?” Will said with wonder. He’d spent countless nights in McKinley thinking of their family home. Sometimes, imagining he was there, in his room, had been the only way he could get to sleep. “Is it the same?”
David winced. “Dad was out of town when the infection hit, so our house didn’t get boarded up like the others. The windows were all shattered. The front door was hanging off its hinges. I went in and the living room looked like a drained pond. Junk on the floor, black mold all over the carpet. Animals had shit on the coffee table. The old couch was torn to pieces.”
Each detail stung Will anew. He and David and their parents had played Pictionary and eaten pizza on that couch more times than he could remember.
“I found that old family photo on the mantel. Remember the one that Mom made us all wear Charlie Brown sweaters in?”
Will had always hated that photo. He looked like an idiot in it, but it had always made his mother laugh. Hearing about it now, he longed to see it again. He was starting to forget what her face looked like.
“Do you still have it?” Will asked.
“I wish. I was sitting in the easy chair by the big bay window—”
“The comfy chair?”
David smiled. “Yeah, the comfy chair. I was sitting there, staring at the picture, when this kid comes stomping down the stairs. White hair—infected.”
“He was living in our house?!” Will said, outraged.
“Oh, yeah, he’d set up shop, all right. He was wearing four sets of my clothes and waving around Mom’s butcher knife.”
“And you didn’t have a mask or anything?”
David shook his head, dead serious. “I held my breath.”
“He started shouting, ‘Yo, this is MY spot! Who the hell are you?’ Then he stopped right in front of the bay window. He looks at me sideways, lowers the knife to his side, and goes, ‘I know you.… You’re in all the pictures.’ Then the window exploded. Out of nowhere. Machine guns blasting, and the kid got drilled with bullets. Dropped dead.”
“I peeked out the window, fucking terrified, and I see the red pickup truck and those two hunters again, heading for the front door. My lungs were burning, I thought for sure I was going to die if didn’t run for it, but I also knew that they’d tracked me to our house. If they saw that they’d killed someone else, they’d keep on hunting me. That’s when I got the idea. The dead kid was about my size … so I grabbed a shard of glass and shoved it in his eye, then slipped my eye patch over it. I felt like my lungs were gonna pop. I jumped out the window and booked it out of there.”
David sat back as the story settled over Will.
“Whoa.” It was all Will could manage to say.
“I was just trying to throw the hunters off my trail. I never wanted you to hear about it. I had no idea.”
“It’s okay,” Will said. “I think I’ll get over it.”
He was downplaying it for a laugh, but the truth was, having his brother back felt like a miracle.
“I missed you,” Will blurted out, and then felt awkward.
“Missed you too, shithead.”
Will laughed. But then there was that uncomfortable silence again. The walkie-talkie on David’s hip squelched and he turned it down.
“How long have you been working with the parents?” Will said.