Today's Reading

He wasn't a doctor, but he didn't need to be one. It was pneumonia. He could hear it in the wet cough, the labored breathing—feel it in the raging temperature, see it in the chills. In the way she was just fading away. And without the medicine Dennis had died trying to get and Aurora simply didn't have, there was nothing they could do about it. Nothing but keep her as warm as they could, try to get fluids into her somehow and hug her. Hold her. Be there for her as that last, precious ember flickered its way forever into the dark. Manage somehow to 'smile' for her when she roused and called out for "Mommy" or, most heart-wrenching of all, for "Poppa." To tell her it would be all right and urge her to rest, torn between the terror that she might slip away without ever awakening again and the prayer that she would, because the father who loved her more than life itself knew it was the only peace she would ever find again.

And there was nothing—nothing—he could do for her, or for Stevie, or Camila, or Francesca. Not in the end. He was their father. It was his job to save them, and he couldn't do it, and dying himself would have been easy compared to that.

His daughter coughed again, and he looked over his shoulder.

Janice sat on an overturned plastic crate, hunched forward, trying to shelter the tiny, blanket-wrapped body in her arms. Janice—his strength and his rock, who was always there for him and the kids, whose face had grown thin and gaunt, and whose eyes could no longer share the hope she promised her children. Janice, whose cheek rested on the crown of that small head while she whispered lullaby words so softly he couldn't hear them through the rattle of sleet, the sigh of the ice-fanged wind, and the weeping of his own heart.

He made himself stand, straighten his spine, square his shoulders, and somehow produce a smile. It was his turn to be Dennis, he thought, steeling himself before he bent to kiss his wife, take his own turn holding their daughter while she trickled away from them. It was—

He froze, his head jerking up as a sound he hadn't heard since before The Day came thumping out of the windy, frigid dark.

"Lewis!" Janice cried, struggling to her feet with Jackie in her arms while the other kids jerked upright in the pitiful nest of blankets where they'd huddled together, sharing body warmth.

"I hear it!" he said tautly, and picked up the rifle he'd clung to through fire and water and cold. He could remember Jake teasing him the summer when he'd loaded the magazine by hand, without stripper clips, and gotten the overlap on the rimmed .303 cartridges wrong and locked up the magazine. This time, he was sure he had them in the right sequence, even if it wasn't going to matter in the end.

"Stay here," he said flatly. "Alex, stay with Aunt Janice. Keep her and the babies safe. Frankie," he took time to throw one arm around his fourteen-year-old daughter, hugging her hard. "Take care of Mom."

"'Dad,'" she whispered into his chest, "don't go!" She looked up, eyes gleaming with upwelling tears in a face that was far too thin. "Stay with us!"

"I can't, Punkin," he told her gently and released her to reach down and ruffle Stevie's hair as he and Camila clung weepingly to their mother.

He looked up, met Janice's eyes, and saw the knowledge in them. The knowledge that she would never see him again. And that it probably wouldn't matter in the end, but that he had to try anyway.

"If—when—the shooting starts, head farther into town. Find a place to hide with the babies," he told her, cupping her cheek in his hand. "I'll find you . . . after."

"I know you will," she lied, pressing her cheek harder against his palm. "We'll be waiting for you. We love you."

Her voice wavered on the last three words, and he closed his eyes for a moment. Then opened them again.

"I know," he said, and leaned close, kissed her forehead. Then he drew a deep breath and headed off into the wind and the cold through the suddenly panicked refugee camp as the running lights of not one helicopter, but at least three, came out of the lowering cloud and circled....

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