He can’t bear to tell her the truth, although it’s been two days since they fled the house, and Cassie wants to know what happened to Mommy. Ryan replays the events of that night in his head, unsure at what point they were separated from Meg. He tries to reconstruct the memory. He’d fired the gun four times, checked to make sure their pursuer was dead, and then ran. The rest had been a frantic blur, and he’d been so caught up in the aftershock of pulling the trigger (and BLOOD, it had been BLOOD on his fingers) and protecting Cassie that an hour could have passed without him registering the passing of time.
Now, after he’s had time to consider the options, one grim possibility weighs on him, a single horrifying reason that Meg is no longer with them, stacked atop all the less likely scenarios. She could have been grabbed in the rush out of the house. She could have twisted her ankle somewhere along the way and fallen out of sight as Ryan and Cassie sprinted as fast as they could from the swirling panic that had thrown their entire town into upheaval. He remembers someone at their back, turning on instinct and firing his gun.
The thud of the body hitting the ground without protest, dead before impact.
He tells Cassie that Mommy stayed behind to protect their house, and they’ll meet up with her again when it’s safe. When Cassie asks why he didn’t do it, why HE didn’t stay to protect everything that they had, he tells her because protecting her is more important. This appeases Cassie, although she misses her mother and that feeling of doubt never goes away.
When Ryan sleeps that night, he dreams of Meg staring at him in a room filled with darkness. She points and whispers: “You shot me.”
Ryan’s legs were burning, and the weight of Cassie and her pack was slowing him down.
He could no longer hear the sounds of his pursuers; his gunshots had made them wary. But he knew they were still out there, marshaling their ragged forces, waiting for him to slow down so they could pounce. At that point it wouldn’t matter how many bullets he had left.
“Cassie,” he said between breaths. “I have to put you down and you have to run. Can you do that for me?”
She paused before answering. “Will you promise not to run too fast?” she asked.
“I promise, baby. I would never run too fast for you. I’ll be right with you and if your legs start to hurt or we need to run faster, I’ll pick you up again. Can you do that for me?”
He felt her reluctant nod, although she didn’t voice her agreement. He put her down carefully. Then he took the bag from off her shoulders. “That should help you run faster,” he told her, kissing her forehead. “Ready, set, go!” She turned and started running as fast as her little legs could take her, and after throwing a quick look behind them, Ryan adjusted his pace and followed.
Hours passed and the night wore on. They’d slowed to a jog before Ryan offered to pick Cassie back up again, and after a few minutes he could hear her breathing slow to the steady cadence of sleep. She was so exhausted she might have fallen to the ground asleep if he hadn’t scooped her up. There’d been no sign of activity in all that time, and Ryan pondered the intentions of his phantom pursuers.
They’d long since escaped the town into a thin patch of nearby woods, and he wondered if the wolves had decided to abandon the hunt and pillage what they could from the empty buildings. He wondered this, but did not believe it. Food was the biggest shortage any of them faced, and he’d seen the remnants of cook fires in other towns. He had never fooled himself into thinking that what they most wanted were the possessions in his meager backpack. But he couldn’t run forever. He would need to stop and rest eventually, and if he didn’t do it soon, they might catch him when he was at his weakest and most exhausted. Better to take his chances among the trees on ground of his choosing.
He set Cassie down and removed the pack from his shoulders, feeling his muscles burn in exasperation as he relieved his body of their burdens. He took a minute to reload his gun and placed Cassie and the pack against one of the maple trees that populated the woods.
Then he stooped onto his knees, gathered her into his arms, and prepared his vigil.
Slowly, he settled onto his butt and posted one hand behind his back to support his weight while still cradling Cassie. Sleep came to him, as much as he tried to fight it, inevitable as the tide. Unyielding as the night.
A light rustle was the only warning he received, but it was seconds too late. His eyes snapped open and he saw, in the breaking morning light, the form of someone reaching from behind the tree and grabbing Cassie from his arms. His daughter cried out and Ryan shouted, “Stop!”
The figure stood, clutching Cassie and holding something to her throat, and as Ryan’s eyes adjusted to the dim light of sunrise he could see that it was a woman. She stepped closer, and he saw the object in her hand was a broken piece of glass, quite possibly from the window he’d shattered during their flight. And then he switched his gaze to their assailant’s face. It was the woman from the hotel, who’d led the wolves to the town after them, who’d pursued them all this time.
She held the piece of glass to Cassie’s throat, and Ryan could see her trembling.
Whatever else she might have become in the long dark they’d all endured, she was still frightened by the prospect of violence. Ryan steadied his grip on the gun with both hands, willing them not to waver. “Let her go,” he said, his voice a hoarse croak.
“I can’t…” she whispered, nearly a plea. “You have to help me.”
“I can help you,” Ryan said. “Let her go.”
Cassie fought back sobs, and he guessed it was because she sensed that any sudden movement would make the woman twitch. Ryan saw tears on her cheeks, but she was managing - by the grace of what God he couldn’t say - to keep from shaking.
“They’ll kill me, you don’t understand,” the woman continued, frantic. “I can’t come back empty handed, I already did that once. Because of you. That night at the hotel. You have to give me your things. You have to give me that gun or I’ll kill her, don’t you understand that?”
“Alright,” said Ryan, removing one hand from the gun and holding it up in a calming gesture. “Alright, easy.” He lowered the gun, slowly, counting the seconds. “Just let her go and I’ll do whatever you say. Don’t hurt her.” He looked at Cassie, gave her the slightest nod, hoping it would register.
“No,” said the woman. “You drop that gun and kick it over here and then I’ll let her go.” The hand holding the piece of glass moved, just barely, and Ryan saw Cassie wince as it touched her skin.
And then he shouted, “Cassie, move!”
The woman’s eyes widened. Cassie leaned back into her, away from the blade, and ducked. The glass cut into her neck; Ryan saw a thin line of blood before Cassie dropped to the ground. His gun was back up and pointed at the woman, who had gone limp as a doll, arms at her side, looking down in shock at the little girl on the ground. She looked back up in disbelief, her lips struggling to form words. Ryan walked slowly over to her, put the gun to her head, and fired. Her body dropped to the ground before she could make so much as a gasp.
Ryan felt the gun fall from his fingers as he stooped to pick up Cassie.
Her little body shook as she huddled like a dog who’d been kicked, kicked hard and often, arms protecting her head. The release she’d fought so hard to prevent - for so long, too damn long - had finally come. His heart broke at the sound of muffled tears as his little girl buried her head in her arms and cried: for her mother, for the wound on her neck, for the sound of a gun firing inches over her head, for her lost little world. Ryan held her and let her cry; it was all he could offer, and it wasn’t much. He felt along her neck and confirmed the wound wasn’t deep.
His hand came away bloody and he thought about the fact that they would have to clean the wound, and that she would cry again, and at the unfairness of it all, and then Ryan bent his head down to rest on her head. He would have welcomed the release, as well.
He would have cried for Meg, and for Cassie, and even for the woman, that wretched creature, who he’d just killed more out of anger than defense. He would have cried then, and felt welcome to it, but instead he clung to the little girl cradled in his arms, and fought back the tears. He closed his eyes.