I could have stood there holding Rachel in my arms for the rest of the afternoon, but there were infected and razorbacks in the area and it was looking more and more like one hell of a storm was brewing. We needed to get somewhere safe, but first things first. Where was Jackson?
The smile at being reunited with me disappeared from Rachel’s face and she told me her story in a low, quiet voice. Finished, she took my hand and led me to a ditch on the north side of the freeway where she pointed at a half submerged truck sitting in the bottom. I asked her to stay at the top and keep watch, heading into the flooded cut in the ground when she nodded. I told Dog to stay with her, wanting his superior senses to help keep an eye out for danger.
Wading through the water, I climbed into the back of the truck, made my way forward and stuck my head into the cab through the broken rear window. I’d known Jackson all of two days, but combat has a way of compressing time and forging bonds. He was my friend, and he was dead. He deserved better. We all did. Reaching out I pulled his vest and clothing aside and removed one of his dog tags, slipping it into my pocket. A small, gold cross hung from its own chain around his neck, and I gently placed it atop his clothing.
Saying goodbye, I made my way back to where Rachel was standing with her rifle up and ready. I had noticed the heavy equipment earlier and now walked over to the backhoe. Climbing into the cab, I was pleased to find the keys dangling from the ignition. Pleased and surprised, but I wasn’t going to complain when luck finally came my way.
Starting the big vehicle, I played with the different levers for a few minutes until I got a feel for how the machine operated. I wouldn’t be doing the precision excavating that was required for most construction jobs, so I wasn’t worried about practicing for what I had to do. Driving the machine to the side of the ditch, I scooped up a big bucketful of dirt, pivoted the arm and dumped it into the ditch on top of the truck. I kept at it until the hole was filled in and Jackson was buried. It was the best I could do for a fallen brother. Leaving the backhoe where it was, I turned off the engine and climbed down.
“OK, we need to get the hell out of here.” I said. “But first, I have something in my pack for you.”
Rachel followed me to the Lexus, a curious expression on her face. Dog was ranging around the area after having thoroughly checked out each of the dead razorbacks. Pulling out my pack, I retrieved one of the syringes I’d filled with vaccine when I turned the box I’d received from Irina in for study. I had brought two doses, but unfortunately only needed one.
I gave Rachel an abbreviated version of what it was, but after her experience with the girls’ parents, and then Jackson, she didn’t require any convincing. Turning, she unfastened her pants and lowered them to expose her ass. Tearing open an alcohol swab, I cleaned a small area and stuck the needle in. She twitched slightly, looking over her shoulder at me.
“That was a little bit of revenge for all those antibiotic shots, wasn’t it?” She asked with a grin.
“No. That wasn’t. This is.” I said, pushing the plunger. Rachel looked confused for a second, and then her eyes opened wide.
“Holy shit! That hurts! Bad!” She said, reaching back and rubbing the spot where I’d injected her.
She rubbed hard for a few seconds, pulled her pants back up and kept rubbing. Dog trotted up and sat on my foot as I closed my pack and tossed it into the SUV. Rachel walked in a tight circle, rubbing her ass and shooting me an occasional look that said somehow this was my fault. I grinned, opened the back door and waved Dog inside the Lexus.
A few minutes later we were all inside the vehicle, driving west. Rachel was still grumbling, wriggling around in her seat as the painful vaccine spread through her muscles. Dog seemed delighted for things to be back to normal, taking a seat on the back floor and resting his chin on the leather upholstered console between the two front seats. I had to agree with him. It felt good to have the three of us back together.
I pushed our speed up, wanting to get farther west before the storm struck. Even though it was still afternoon, and the sun was shining brightly somewhere, it was gloomy under the oppressive overcast. Rachel finally settled down, reached across the console and took my hand in hers.
“Thank you for finding me.” She said, giving my hand a squeeze.
“Try not to get lost again. OK?” I said, squeezing back. She smiled and relaxed back into her seat.
I tried not to let myself think about the change in our relationship that had just happened. I hadn’t planned it, and in fact was surprised at myself. But, it had happened. And it felt good. Until I thought about Katie. Suddenly, I felt like shit. Like I was betraying my wife.
There was only a very remote chance she was still alive. I was finally ready to acknowledge the facts and not keep going on hope and fantasy. If she was alive, somewhere without the vaccine, she could have already turned. And if she hadn’t turned yet, she would within a very few days according to GRU Captain Irina Vostov.
I wanted to share my thoughts with Rachel, but I realized if I did she might wind up feeling like a consolation prize. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I’d still feel the same way about Rachel if Katie were sitting at Tinker waiting for me. I just wouldn’t have acted on my feelings. But that wasn’t something I thought I could articulate without hurting her. Damn it.
“You alright?” Rachel asked, reclined in the leather seat, head turned in my direction.
“Honestly, right now I’m about as alright as I’m probably ever going to be.” I answered, smiling. Giving up unrealistic hope and moving on is a freeing experience.