Just above the jagged silhouettes of the colossal trees, glinting rays of sunlight flickered as they broke through; the warmth of the showboating star could be felt on the cold ground, contrasting the mid-Autumn temperatures. The blinding glimmer of it leaked onto the stretching fields and painted the world with color, leaving it in a state of peaceful tranquility. The minutes before the children awoke and their energy went rampant; before the dogs began to bark at figments of their imagination; and before the reminder of a world yet to be rebuilt – it was all put on pause as, for just a few moments, the world decided to be beautiful. And for once in her lifetime, Winifred Ross had the chance to slow down and experience sunrise, to see the sky change from lukewarm tones of mediocre dimness to a canvas of gold and salmon in just a matter of minutes. A minor detail she always took for granted that never registered as something more important – yet that morning, as she sat by the lake that gently rustled every time the wind graced it, she was able to check yet another natural miracle off of her bucket list.
“There’s beauty in the breakdown,” Winifred mumbled to herself.
For what felt like just a sliver of a second, Winifred let her forehead cozy up on her knee while her eyes closed and took a breather. The world and all her thoughts with it went black. Her body slumped into itself and relaxation overcame her. A brief dream of standing on a stone platform before a massive nebula, twinkling with an eerie darkness, unfolded in her head – but it ended the second the firmness of the hand on her shoulder jolted her awake. Instinctively she jerked away from the grip that held her, but a soothing voice lulled her, saying, “Hey, hey, don’t worry, just me.” The disembodied voice from behind came from Sam. Uneasily with joints that had gotten used to the position they had been in for the past few hours, Winifred stood and faced him. The mess of short blonde hair and bags under his seemingly always squinted eyes – like they could manage to somehow smile on their own doing, or perhaps the sun was always in his face – met Winifred. Before everything, Winifred had no doubt Sam was once handsome, and though his nickname of “Pretty Boy” had its reason, life had taken a toll on him and his appearance showed for it.
“You fell asleep,” Sam said. “I’m thinking you’re getting too comfortable on Lake patrol.”
“Not much to shoot these days,” Winifred replied.
“There’ll be time for that later. But for now, a specific someone –” a hard poke on Winifred’s shoulder made her snort with laughter. “– should go get ready before we leave.”
“If I can,” Winifred sighed with an attempt at an assuring smile. Slowly she swayed before her feet took baby steps forward, heading lazily towards the forest trail leading back to the Farm.
“Hey, you think I’d let anything happen to you?” Sam remarked with a grin. “I thought you liked me better than that.”
“You use that line on everyone you flirt with?” Winifred shot back.
“Ah, get out of here, Ross. You scamp, you.” Before becoming engulfed by the mouth of the forest, Winifred smiled back at Sam, who shooed her away with a gesture of his hand.
With her thoughts tangling around each other in a mass of confusion, Winifred drifted along the padded-down trail in the midst of the forest. Most mornings she didn’t take on the Lake patrol, but finding herself wide awake into the haunt of midnight, Winifred decided to relieve Brandon Flint from his shift. A fraction of her wanted Brandon to get the chance to sleep in the same room as his sons Peter and Hayden for once, to know they were safe. But the other side of Winifred wanted solace in isolation. Somehow, perhaps always to remain a mystery, staring at water brought up the deepest of reflecting.
Just as she rounded the gentle twist of the trail and could see the Farm ahead, a voice called out to Winifred.
“Hey, have you seen Hayden anywhere?” Charlotte asked with a drawn-out huff. The sharp, beautiful features of her face were all contorted into annoyance.
“Not since yesterday,” Winifred replied. “Gone again?” In Charlotte’s opinion, Winifred had a dead voice; there was little energy to it, nothing to make it remarkable. It was a drone that failed to try and become a melody.
“Yeppers,” Charlotte sighed. “And guess whose job it is to find him?” Charlotte walked past Winifred who wished her good luck. There was no offer to help; Winifred simply kept walking along the trail, leaving Charlotte stranded in the hair-raising bowels of the forest that carried her deeper into itself as she searched for the young boy.
The low hum of bustling voices grew as Winifred neared the Farm common area. The first faces she saw through the gaps in the trees were of Lacy and Danielle, their round, glowing faces framed by their blonde hair. Both looked like they had just woken up, their expressions happy yet slow. Both sisters waved to Winifred, though Danielle’s missing-tooth grin and exaggerated wave was what made Winifred smile.
“We just saw a snail!” Danielle exclaimed. “It was a big one!”
“Yeah? What’d you name it?” Winifred asked as the younger sister trailed along beside her, skipping and hopping every few steps.
“We named it, um... I – I don’t know what we named it, but it was pretty! Want to see it?” Danielle asked hopefully.
“Maybe later. I’ve got things to do before I leave,” Winifred replied, to which Danielle frowned.
“Um, Winnie? Do you wanna make me a promise, pretty please with a cherry on-top?” Danielle mumbled. Winifred bent down beside her so that the two were at eye-level.
Standing on her tip-toes, Danielle leaned in and cupped a hand to Winifred’s ear. In ragged breaths she whispered, “Promise me you’ll come back, okay?” The instant feelings of adoration and directionless guilt ripped at Winifred’s heart, making her smirk sadly.
“Promise on my life. I’m gonna be back in a day or two, and when I am, you better show me how much that snail has grown.” At that Danielle beamed; she nodded happily and patted Winifred on her shoulder consolingly. Her face was red with delight when she turned and skipped off, her long hair flopping behind her and adding to the cartoonish sweetness.
Over by the driveway where the truck was being prepared, Winifred saw the small crowd readying the vehicle with supplies. Chuck was stacking crates in the back and the duffle bag filled with ammunition and gun’s was being sorted through by Brandon; his son Peter stood interestedly as he listened to his father explain various things. Angela was telling something to Valerie, who nodded and took off at a jog into the forest. Doug Bishop was pouring over a map and the sudden bubble of anxiety in the depths of her stomach made Winifred stir uneasily. She didn’t want to do it; she didn’t want to leave. It terrified her of what may be waiting outside the Farm when she hadn’t seen the rest of the world for about a year. There was comfort and security in her familiarity, but one single glance to the window where Bernice was inside – in pain and in need of medical supplies – made the much-unwanted responsibility convince Winifred she had to do it. She couldn’t always live innocently, pretending there weren’t horrors at the doorstep. If she backed-out when she was needed the most, she couldn’t stand to face herself. It would be her first time seeing what happened to the rest of the world – she knew from what she heard by the others who went on trips that the undead weren’t completely gone. But what would she find? The anxiety and fear made her restless and wishing for simpler days.
“Hey girl, you excited?” Doug Bishop asked when Winifred was close enough to hear.
“Scared, more like it,” Winifred replied.
“Don’t sweat it. It ain’t a party, but it ain’t a funeral if you don’t let it be.”
Looking once more out at the Farm before her, Winifred had a spontaneous thought – a wishful notion that turned into a clarification that she couldn’t imagine not returning. Things would be fine, she decided; they had to be. She, Winifred Ross, would make it back home safe and sound.