They get stuck fifteen minutes after they escape the traffic jam.
Lori leans out the window, waves a hand frantically, but the brake lights on the Cherokee don't even flicker. In the deepening gloom she can just make out the stricken eyes of Carol and her little girl peering through the back window until the bigger vehicle disappears around a bend in the road.
"They left us," she bites out.
Shane is already out of the car, hands on his hips. The rain has lessened to a slight drizzle, cooling through the open window after the sweltering day, the long hours spent stuck in the line of cars trying to reach safety in Atlanta. But it has turned the dirt roads they're travelling into a quagmire, the rear wheels spinning and doing little more than churn up a shower of mud.
Lori closes her eyes briefly, sees again the explosions, Atlanta lit up like the fourth of July. They'd hurried back to the car, Shane tersely explaining the situation to Carol and Ed before getting back in their vehicle and edging out of the endless row of cars, lurching over the verge. Ed had taken the lead, telling them he knew the way to an old campsite used by the boy scouts.
And now he'd left them.
Her eyes pop open when a twig snaps in the underbrush to her right. She eyes the treeline, strains her ears, but now the only sound she can hear is of fat raindrops dripping from the leaves, the whisper of the breeze through the branches. Only when she's sure that there's nothing moving within does she take a breath, twist in her seat. "You okay back there, kiddo?"
"I'm okay," Carl says. But his eyes are too wide, his face too pale. She manages a weak smile in return before leaning over the driver's seat, catching Shane's eye, and strains to keep her voice even. "We can push."
It's not quite a question, but he shakes his head anyway. "We're overloaded," he says. "Puts too much strain on the engine, and these roads are for shit after a storm. Pushing ain't gonna do much good when we're just gonna get stuck again another mile or two down the road."
Lori glances again at the dense wall of trees lining both sides of the road. The glow from the headlights barely breaches the darkness; beyond their feeble glow anything could be coming up on them, stumbling through the underbrush. Anything at all. "Well, we've got to do something," she says. "We can't just sit here!"
"Gonna do something," Shane says. He opens the back door and swipes a hand over his chin, studies the belongings piled there intently. "We're too back heavy," he concludes, leaning into the interior. "We gotta dump some of this stuff. We'll keep the necessities--"
"No!" Lori practically launches herself across the seats, her left arm coming to rest atop the closest box piled haphazardly next to Carl in the crowded back seat. "Don't you touch it," she hisses.
When Shane looks at her askance, she realizes how she must look – sweaty and wild-eyed, teeth bared, desperate to preserve a few boxes when they are running for their lives. But so many other things had been left behind – things packed lovingly in the cedar hope chest that had once belonged to her grandmother. The sterling silver tray, a wedding gift from Rick's parents. All the letters Rick had sent her from college, the year before they married. The wedding gown that had been her mother's and then hers, preserved in the wish that one day she'd be able to pass it down to the daughter she hoped to have.
And now Rick…
She blinks back the tears, refuses to cry. There have been too many tears today already.
Surely Shane must know how important this is to her. In the frenzied rush to get on the road she'd barely had time to grab a few pictures off the walls and a handful of photo albums before Shane had returned from the hospital with the news and…
And this is all she has left.
"Lori," he says placatingly.
She shakes her head, not willing to trust her voice just yet.
"Lori," he says again, and now it's his Reasonable Cop voice, the one that sets her teeth on edge. "I understand how much this stuff means to you, I truly do—"
"If you did," she says, "you wouldn't ask me to leave it behind!"
He ducks his head, and she curls her fingers into the edges of the topmost box, and she doesn't know how long they would have stayed in that impasse if the RV hadn't rolled to a stop opposite them, the old man leaning out the window and calling, "Problem here, folks?"
"We're overloaded, got mired in the damn mud," Shane answers, standing straighter, his voice even and friendly, but Lori can't help but notice the way his hand casually rests near the holster on his hip.
Neither does the old man, because he lifts his hands from the steering wheel in the universal gesture of surrender, then strains his neck to peer into the back seat of their sedan. He smiles when he sees Carl before returning his attention to Shane. "Can see that," he says. "Rough going on these country roads."
"Ain't tellin' me anything I don't already know, mister," Shane answers.
Lori meets Shane's eye when the man swivels in his seat to speak to someone else in the shadowy RV interior. She thinks of herself as a good judge of character, always has been, and nothing about the man pings any interior warning bells. But Shane's a cop, a good one, trained to catch nuances that she could miss. She raises a brow, gets a small nod from Shane in return, and relaxes just a little.
"We're getting out," the old man finally calls down, "see if we can give you a hand." He looks significantly at Shane's gun before continuing, "We'd appreciate not being shot for our trouble."
"Just being cautious," Shane says.
When he hooks his hands into his belt instead, the old man nods and moves toward the door. If he'd seen Shane on the firing range and knew how fast he could draw, Lori thinks he'd have been a lot more cautious.
She eases out of the car to meet them on the road, the old man and two pretty blondes who are probably his daughters.
"Where were you folks headed?" he asks. "Atlanta?"
Lori sees again the jets strafing across the sky, the orange glow of the buildings in flames. She puts a hand to her throat, her finger closing on Rick's ring hanging on her chain. She tries to draw strength from it. "Not there," she answers.
"Atlanta's gone, man," Shane says.
"Gone?" the youngest girl repeats. "What do you mean, gone?"
"We made the right choice," the man says, patting her softly on the hand before turning back to them. "There's a gravel access road, leads up the side of the escarpment here," he continues, gesturing behind him vaguely with the floppy hat. "Not many people use it these days. Heads up to an old quarry my wife and I used to visit, fairly deserted usually. We figure on hunkering down there until this gets sorted out."
"If this gets sorted out," the oldest woman says bleakly.
"Now, Andrea," the man scolds gently. He exchanges a look with both of the women before turning back to Shane. "You're welcome to join us."
"Safe?" Shane asks.
The old man lifts his wiry brows. "Safe as any place can be in these dark times."
Lori meets Shane's eyes again, raises a shoulder. When she saw the first walker on television, the CNN anchor warning first about the graphic content, she'd been horrified. Shocked. Had felt pity for this person, trapped in a decaying body, ravaged by some unknown disease. The terror only struck her when the reports had continued, the incidents of attack rising sharply, the slowly comprehending knowledge taking hold that these were not sick people. They were dead people.
Safety was supposed to be a refugee centre in Atlanta, staffed by the army and the national guard. And Atlanta was soon to be a smoking ruin.
Lori's not sure she'll ever feel safe again.
But she has a son to protect, a son who needs to believe that there is a place of safety out there, even if she doesn't. She glances in the back seat, waves a hand for Carl to get out of the car. He looks so small when he stands beside her, his freckles standing out on his pale face even in the moonlight. She sweeps a hand through his shaggy hair, drapes an arm protectively around his shoulders and smiles when he squirms and grimaces up at her.
He has Rick's eyes.
"Carl," she says, "we're going to stay with these nice people."
"Looks like we’re in," Shane says. He rubs a hand over his stubble, quirks a brow and studies the car mired in the mud. "But we're still stuck. Back heavy."
"Well," the man says, looking over his shoulder at the ancient RV, "as you can see, we've got plenty of room. We'd be glad to take on some of your surplus, if you'd like."
Lori looks up quickly. "Thank you," she breathes out. "Thank you so much."
The old man shrugs. "No problem. Just because the world's ending, that isn't any reason not to help a stranger." He cocks his head. "Probably an even better reason to do it, I'd say."
"Besides," the woman he'd called Andrea says practically, "there's safety in numbers."
The next day, Shane will set up their tent in the clearing. Dale will share his meagre supply of food for a lean breakfast. They will all trek to the quarry for water, and when they get back they will find two brothers leaning against a beat-up pick-up and surveying their camp with appraising eyes. The brothers will later be joined by a family of four, and a lone woman, and even later still by Ed and Carol, the former taciturn and the latter taking Lori aside to quietly apologize for driving off without them, jittery eyes jumping to Ed all the while. Perimeters will be set and watch shifts will be assigned and the brothers will add a brace of rabbits to the communal pot, and they will all share stories around the fire.
It will be another twenty-four hours before Lori can sit quietly in the tent and run her fingers over the front of a photo album. She will look at Carl sleeping on the fold-out cot, Carl who is desperately in need of a haircut and whose strong, forthright gaze reminds her so much of his father.
She will open the photo album to the first page.
She will not cry.