The last two weeks had possibly been both the best and worst of Alyssa's life.
After she'd finished giving her accounts of Tricell's crimes against her and the other 'test subjects', the B.S.A.A. had offered to send her straight home. She had been tempted beyond all belief to accept their offer, but she knew she still had a responsibility, whatever their officials may say. To that effect, with Jill and Chris supporting her request, she'd set off on an extended trip across the country, her expenses kindly footed by the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance.
First, she and David had met with Sarah's family in Washington. She'd been surprised by how the meeting went, all things considered.
It took her nearly five minutes to ring the doorbell, her B.S.A.A. escort standing behind her to authenticate the tidings, and when she at last pressed the ringer and waiting for the slow pair of footsteps to make it to the door, an old woman greeted her and said,
"Oh, hello. How can I help you?"
Sarah, it transpired, had mostly lived with her grandparents while her parents traveled around for business meetings. The pair had been very kind, had invited her inside to relay the story, and had accepted the news as stoically as they were able. Whatever Sarah may have been like during their ordeal or before, it was obvious that her grandparents had loved her very much. Even David, who hadn't initially been happy about her decision to leave out the worst of what Sarah had done, had ended up backing the story. He'd even managed to say some kind things about her.
"She was tough as nails," he'd said. "And she was always super supportive of this other girl, Ruth. They really helped each other out a lot."
After relaying the story – as much of it as they were able to before Mrs. Dollard seemed unable to compose herself any longer – they'd stood up to leave. The grandfather, Mr. Dollard, had stepped forward to shake their hands.
"Thank you for bringing us this news," he said. His words had been steady enough, but his grip had been shaky, and his eyes had been very wet. "I know you didn't have to come here yourself. It means a lot to us, that you would come all this way…after everything you've been through yourself…"
Alyssa, eyes stinging, merely nodded and shook the old man's hand. It was been David who'd stepped past and given him a hug. The older man was surprised at first, but returned it, closing his eyes and patting him bracingly on the back. As Alyssa had learned, the giving of reassurance could sometimes be just as comforting as the receiving of it.
"Please, give me a call if you have any questions," Alyssa said, and left them her new cell phone number. They thanked her again, and she left. She suspected she'd be getting a call from Sarah's parents sooner or later, and she'd have to recount the story all over again.
Next had been Ruth's family in Idaho. Her mom and dad had both been at home, and the visit had been much shorter by necessity. The missing posters they saw during their drive through the town gave Alyssa the impression that Ruth's parents, at least, had not given up hope that their daughter was still alive. She felt nauseous walking up to the door.
It was the same thing as before. She rang. She relayed the basics. She was invited inside to talk.
The news sent her mother into complete shock, and it didn't long for her father to break down as well. By the end of the story, it was all they could do to take her number, thank her for coming by, and usher her out the door before the man began sobbing just behind the thin wooden barrier. Alyssa barely made it back to the car before breaking down as well.
"You know you don't have to do this," their escort said earnestly. He was a young-ish man with short, yet messy brown hair and a passable imitation of a soldier's persona, name of James Tennison. "It's really our job. You can just go home."
She shook her head, finished her cry, and said, "Utah, next, right?"
Kyle's family had been simultaneously worse and better. His home was beautiful, a large single-story house hidden away deep in a green forest lane, hummingbird feeders hanging from the trees and a sprawling, messy garden in the back yard. A small, soft-looking white dog jumped up on some furniture below the main window to wag its tail and bark at them as they approached, and an old, weathered sign above the door read, As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
She rang the doorbell and was answered right away. The dog was very friendly, and jumped up on her leg, laying its light little paws on her knee to greet her. She bent down to pet him before explaining why she was there.
Most of his family was at home, including one older brother and sister in addition to his mom and dad. His sister rushed out of the room as soon as Alyssa told them Kyle hadn't made it, and Alyssa was able to hear her muffled weeping in the back throughout the story. His father asked a few questions, and while both he and his wife maintained their composures very well, their grief stood out tremendously in their eyes.
Their own composures had made the tale easier to tell, but what had made the trip worse was that Alyssa hadn't realized how much she still missed Kyle. She'd been the one to break down near the end, when she'd looked to the left and seen a wall covered in family portraits, Kyle's bright, grinning face looking at her through one of the thin panes of glass.
"I'm sorry," she gasped out as her throat closed up, tears streaming silently down her face. She was unable to continue, and thanked God that David was there. He finished the tale off, and they all sat in silence for several minutes. Kyle's brother had wandered off in a daze halfway through, and she saw him through the kitchen window a little later, feeding birds on their patio outside.
At last Kyle's mom stood up, brushed a few tears away and said, "Thank you for coming to tell us about our son. As much as this hurts, I'm happier knowing what happened to him. And if there's anything we can do for you, please, let us know."
Isn't that supposed to be my line…?
"I'm glad my son was surrounded by friends before he went," his dad said, voice only slightly hoarse. "I think…I think he must have been in a good place. He had so many of you left, you were close to escaping, and…"
He trailed off, clearly having difficulty continuing, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. Alyssa finally sewed herself back together enough to speak again, and she said, "We only really knew him for a day, but I hope you'll believe me when I say we loved him. It almost killed us to lose him. I'm so sorry I couldn't bring him back to you."
His mother rushed forward then, drawing her up into a hug and holding her close. Alyssa found herself floored by all the care in that hug, and thought, If this is the kind of love Kyle was raised with, I can see how he turned out the way he did. God, I'll miss him. I'll miss him so much.
They exchanged numbers, and she promised to keep in touch with them. Then they departed, and they were off to Texas – Theron. And David.
By the time she arrived at the Moore household, she was just plain tired. Tired of traveling, tired of telling these stories, but above all, tired of the grief. Losing them had been hard enough; but seeing the loss in the faces of the family members, knowing that their pain was a hundred times worse than hers, was harrowing. It brought every feeling of sorrow back with interest, and every night when she went to bed, she spent hours awake wondering how she was ever going to get back to normal.
Normal can start again when I'm home, with mom and Alex and Jessi, and my neighbors, and all of my friends from work. Until then, I need to start everyone else healing. And healing starts with closure.
Onto the next one.
She'd learned from James that Theron's mother had passed away a couple of years prior. Upon opening the door and greeting her, her first impression of Theron's father was a man who was old before his time. He can't have been much over forty, yet his dark blonde hair was streaked with grey; wrinkles, thick around the eyes and mouth may have spoken of either frequent laughter or constant scowling; and his sharp, attentive grey-blue eyes, almost an exact copy of Theron's, were slightly bloodshot. The man was unreadable as she gave the account of his son's service. David had opted to skip this one, saying that after Kyle's house, he didn't think he could handle any more.
She got through this one without a break down. Maybe it was the calm of the man she was addressing, or maybe it was just that she'd already done enough grieving for Theron; or maybe she'd just exhausted herself by then. Whatever the case, she gave the account evenly and without pause, and the lie of the death didn't even cause her discomfort. It was in the B.S.A.A's records, and no evidence existed to contradict the tale. As far as she was concerned, it was the truth.
"He knew it would come for one of us," she said, now dropping her gaze from his own. "It was about to come for me. He saw that, and…he yelled at it. He drew its attention, and gestured for me to get to the panel. There was nothing I could do against it. It killed him."
Theron's father clenched his jaw and nodded. "I see. He died fighting, then?"
The image of Theron thrashing in that thing's grip came back to her full-force, and strangely, it came almost without pain. She discovered real admiration there, and had found herself wanting – needing – to explain.
"Yes, sir," she said. "He was incredible. He fired until his gun was empty, he tased the thing again and again, he pepper sprayed it, he used every weapon he had. Everything. He didn't stop fighting until…"
She swallowed, realizing that the man didn't need to hear the rest; but he nodded sharply at her to go on. "How did it end?" he asked.
That last image was gone, blanked from her memory – thank God. But the words were still there, the ones she'd given to the B.S.A.A. before the memory had faded fully.
"It bit his head off. It was very fast."
His father closed his eyes then, breathing slowly, and she took a moment to look around the house. There were pictures everywhere, including a large, framed portrait of a young boy hugging a huge, grinning golden retriever. An old rifle sat in one corner of the room near the door, and stacks of papers and cardboard boxes lay on every available surface. There was a sagging couch against one wall, and she realized that what she had first mistaken for a pile of blankets was actually a large, curled-up black dog. A big T.V. hung on the far wall, a cushy old arm chair in front of it. A single beer bottle sat snugly in the arm's cupholder, and a couple more bottles stood upright and empty on the ground beside it. The kitchen was small, a little messy, and the dishes had begun to pile up.
After a minute of silence, her escort, James, spoke. "Sir, from all accounts I've heard, your son was a hero. He was the kind of man I would have been honored to serve beside. And the B.S.A.A. recognizes this."
He stepped forward, holding out a small, black velvet box and flicking it open. On a small cushion of beige silk rested…a medal.
Theron's father opened his eyes and looked at it, confused, then up at James.
"It's the highest honor the B.S.A.A. can grant to a civilian, sir," James explained. "Your son saved two civilian lives, and given the effect this ultimately had on the mission, I think it's safe to say that his actions may have indirectly saved a lot more."
Theron's father took the medal, lips pursing tightly. Alyssa watched him walk slowly over to his fireplace, turn on a small light set in the ceiling over the hearth, brush off some dust, and set the medal on the mantle before stepping back. On it, beside a small case of other medals, was a large portrait of a beautiful, dark-haired woman in a U.S. army uniform. Other pictures stood beside it – one of the woman in line with a dozen other soldiers, one of her holding her husband, and one with her standing beside a Theron who was clearly only a couple years younger, looking like he was heading off to basic for the very first time.
The medal box sat just beneath this last picture, and the man nodded acceptance of the placement, saying nothing.
Alyssa had to fight to hold back tears as she choked, "I'm sorry. He should have been the one to come back. Not me."
James looked mildly alarmed at this, but Theron's father only shook his head and walked stiffly over to her, putting a heavy hand on her shoulder. "Don't be silly, girl. It's not your fault, what happened, and I don't blame you. Don't you go blaming yourself, either." He sighed, looking back at the mantle. "I'm proud of my son. And his mother would be, too. Thank you for bringing me the news. Though, for that matter, why is the B.S.A.A. having you do it? Wouldn't this young man have sufficed?"
James answered. "Alyssa has been traveling across the country to deliver this news to the families out of respect for her friends, sir. She didn't need to do it. It was her choice, and the B.S.A.A. is supporting it."
"…Mmm. I see. That's brave of you, young lady. I think Theron would have thought so, too. Now, if there's nothing I can do for you…"
"We'll get out of your hair, sir," James said, gently pulling her away and directing her towards the door. Head down and eyes clouded, she hadn't been able to see where she was going. "Again, I'm very sorry for your loss."
She thought she'd make it through that one without crying. Really, she had. More fool her.
David's own home was in Texas, too. They drove there together, and Alyssa had been granted a reprieve from her task in the form of a huge party thrown in celebration of David's return. It seemed to her that half the town had turned out, and as they pulled onto his street, big signs and loud cheers followed them all the way to 1237 Cherry Tree lane. There were fireworks, a distinct smell of barbeque, and kids running and skateboarding all around the car.
"I've pretty much babysat for everyone in the neighborhood," David explained. "I'm pretty popular with everyone four feet and under." Then he stuck his head out the window and started calling and waving to all of the kids and their parents.
That had been a good night. He was asked a hundred times what had happened to him, and expertly described a dozen different thrilling scenes from their adventure without ever more than touching on the true horrors of it – the losses. Alyssa remained quiet, hovering well behind him and at the edges of the party, eating sparsely, just soaking in the tranquility and subtle joy permeating the air. Their relief at having him home, safe and mostly healthy (he was still using a cane) after all his time away was a nearly tangible thing. After the festivities concluded, she spent the night at his house, where she was hugged and thanked profusely by his family for getting their son/brother/cousin, etc., back to them.
"He wouldn't have made it back without you, he's made that very clear," Mr. Rancho said.
"Yeah, thanks for bringing my little brother back. I needed someone to play Mario Kart with. Oh, hey, since he's obviously not taking advantage…are you single?"
"Grant!" David cawed, and his brother laughed. The two jibed and poked at each other for a little longer, while Alyssa had sipped at her Seagram's ginger ale, smiling tiredly, and soon after she'd enjoyed a hot shower and settled down to sleep in their guest room. James, who had also attended the party and enjoyed himself very much, took the couch.
After that, they'd parted ways. Alyssa had promised to keep in contact, and David had vowed to come visit her any time he was able to. Given how far Maine and Texas were from each other, she figured that wouldn't be often, but who knew, maybe that would change – she'd been thinking about moving to Texas ever since she'd started paying taxes.
Still, she'd been looking forward to getting home. But there had been one last stop first.
Ajay's family was different from all the others. She'd found them all at their home in the early evening, just as they'd been finishing up dinner, and they invited her inside as soon as she'd gotten through the basics.
Ajay's home was small, a bit stuffy with all the rich, heavy smells in the air, and an absolute riot of color from the Hindu altars and pictures on the walls, the fashion magazines and comic books scattered here and there, and the bolts and swathes of bright cloth – silk, cotton, nylon, and a dozen other fabrics she couldn't even name – draped over absolutely every other available surface.
"I'm so sorry to tell you this," she began as she sat down. Ajay's mother, who had introduced herself as Shashi, was already busy at work putting on a pot of tea. "But Ajay didn't make it out. He's…dead."
His mother's hand had quivered as she spooned the tea leaves into the little strainer in the pot. His father, a thin, balding man who looked every bit as kind and considerably more tentative than his son had been, leaned forward, placing his face in his hands. A teenage girl, a few years younger than Alyssa, with long, wavy dark hair and black eyes, said, "Oh, no. Nonono. Please no."
"I'm sorry," Alyssa said again, more quietly this time. "I…we were exposed to a virus in the facility. There were eight of us, and only seven cures available. Ajay refused to take one, since he knew that one of us would die if he did. He said he couldn't do that. He…I'm sorry…"
His mother was still been working at the stove. His father looked up, eyes already wet and glistening, and said, "Yes, that sounds like Ajay. He could never have—condemned another to death like that—but—"
He choked off, dropping his head into his hands again. The girl, whom she assumed must have been Ajay's little sister, Sugandh, asked desperately, "Did it hurt him?"
Alyssa shook her head fiercely. She'd never intended to tell then what Theron had done, and only said, "No. The virus acted very quickly. At first it just made us all feel really hot and a little jumpy. He said he had a bit of trouble catching his breath near the end. But after that, it was just…"
She swallowed heavily and snapped a finger. "He was just gone. Just like that."
They all lapsed into silence then. She was able to feel the grief building in the room, like the steam in the teapot on the stove. After a while, the pot began to whistle, and Shashi poured two cups of tea. One she took to James, who had opted to remain in the living room. Then she came back and set the second cup down in front of Alyssa. She picked it up in both hands, blew to cool it, and inhaled deeply. It was a strong, spicy tea, not the kind that she'd have chosen for herself, but the first sip she took was bracing and soothing. She took a few more with a quiet "Thank you." Then she pulled out her phone, which Jill had sent the video to earlier in the week.
"He left a message for you," Alyssa explained. "And we were able to get the phone out and keep it intact…the two of us that made it out. Do you want to…?"
"Yes, please," his father said, looking up and quickly drying his eyes on his sleeves. "If you have it with you."
"Yes, it's right here. But are you sure…I mean, I can just send it to you, if you'd rather wait until later…"
"No, please," Sugandh said. "I'd really rather watch it now. Please."
Shashi nodded, and they all cloistered around to watch as Alyssa held it up and hit play.
"Hey mom, hey dad, hey Sugandh. I'm recording this message to you because it looks like I'm not gonna make it out of here. I'm sorry I couldn't make it back to you. I just want to let you know that I'm okay, I'm not scared. You raised me better than that. You gave me the tools I needed to make it this far, and to help me help my friends. Hopefully they'll be the ones to deliver this to you…"
"I just want to let you know that I love you guys, and I know you'll be okay without me. I know things have been harder on you than they've been on me. Please…just…go ahead and keep being happy, okay? Live well. It'll be a pretty long time before we see each other again, but you know it's not forever. I'll be around. I love you guys."
Hearing Ajay's voice like that again, Alyssa had known that it was about time for her to leave. She'd barely been holding back tears by the end, and had reached down to pull the little piece of paper with her phone number and email address on it, which she'd learned to write down in advance after Ruth's family.
This was where Ajay's family broke from every other she'd visited. Unlike Sarah's grandparents, Kyle's mom and dad, Theron's father, and the rest, the Ramani family did not seem to be perturbed by the idea of crying in front of a stranger.
Sugandh stumbled back into a chair, covered her face, and wept. Her father followed suit, burying his head in his arm on the table and giving in to his grief. Shashi, as soon as Alyssa put away her phone and stood to make her goodbyes, surged forward, wrapped her arms around Alyssa's neck, and began crying into her shoulder.
Alyssa was shocked, but rather than pull away, she hugged the slight Indian woman back just as tightly. She hadn't been comfortable crying in front of the others. There, it felt natural.
They cried until the tea was tepid. Only when Alyssa had to break off to wipe her streaming nose had Shashi let go. She went and fetched a box of Kleenex for them all, and after mopping herself up, Alyssa finished her tea in a large gulp, gave them her information, and said, "I'm so sorry. If you have any more questions, or just want to talk, call me any time. We're in the same time zone, I'm just a little farther north. I've got to get going soon, though—I'm due home tonight, and my flight leaves—"
Shashi waved her explanations aside. "Thank you for coming. And thank you for bringing this back to us. It means everything to us."
Sugandh stood up and hugged her as well, hiccupping violently. "Mhm. Th-thank you."
"Thank you," their dad said, standing up and reaching out a hand to shake.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name," Alyssa said apologetically.
"Dan," he said in his warbling Indian accent. "Thank you for bringing my son back to me. If only the message. And please, also call us if you want to talk. Okay?"
"Okay. I'll call. I promise."
She'd gone. James had been standing by the door already, eyes slightly red. An hour and a half after that, they'd been at the airport. Their eyes had still been red enough that security had asked them it they were high.
"No, sir. Just grieving."
James cleared everything up with them, security apologized and wished her the best getting home, and by one A.M. she'd been in her own home, being coddled by her family. Another hour after that she'd finally gone to sleep in her very own bed. James, again, had taken the couch on account of Alex, who lived a few hours away, taking the guest room. He'd departed the next morning…after giving Alyssa her own medal.
"I don't know what to say," she said, taking the ornate little decoration in the black and grey box.
James replied, "I think you've said enough this week. The way I see it, it's time you settled down and relaxed for a while, take care of yourself. Although, there's just one more thing…"
"I was asked to let you know that the others – Redfield, Alomar, Fisher, so on – still have a few minor responsibilities. Their flights will all be taking them east, so they'll probably be stopping here before they move on. I believe they'll be here on Monday, and will want to drop by. Is that alright with you?"
"Of course," Alyssa said, surprised. Not unpleasantly, though. She'd thought her goodbyes to her new-found friends in the B.S.A.A. had been far too brief. She was glad to be able to see them again before they all got back to their routines.
That had been three days ago, and Alyssa had spent much of those three days walking the neighborhood alone, being greeted by the occasional neighbor – she wasn't as popular as David was with his neighbors, but she still knew a few people – and, of course, calling Cracker Barrel to ask if she still had a job. They said they'd be thrilled to have her back as soon as she felt able to return, and to please come in for a meal sometime this week. On the house.
She'd foregone the free meal and asked if she wouldn't be able to break the rules and reserve a table for her and some friends for Monday night. Normally they didn't do reservations at Cracker Barrel – first come, first serve – but they'd made an exception for her. Now it was Monday night, and the last of the party was just arriving.
"Here they are, sir," said the hostess, a cheerful, older Asian woman named Lorina, as she escorted the late arrival to the table. He stumped over with an ornery expression, pulling out the empty seat and sitting down in it with a hardy scowl. "And your server's name is Marcus, he should be along shortly."
"Reynard!" Alyssa greeted. "I was wondering if you were going to make it. It's great to see you. How was your flight?"
"Tedious," Reynard growled. "And I'm sure the next flight will be worse. How is it, being a civilian again?"
"Great," she said emphatically. "It's amazing being home. My big sister is heading back to her house soon, and my other sister has to get back to work tomorrow, but it'll be awesome just living with mom again for a while, and working here again."
She saw their server, a grade-A guy named Marcus, walking up to get Reynard's drink order as he said, "That's right, you work here, don't you? We'd better be getting a good discount."
He received a light slap on the shoulder from Jill, whom he had sat down beside. "Of course not," she said scoldingly. "It's rude to ask for a discount on big parties."
"Yeah," Chris added, leaning forward to look past Jill and grinning widely. "And you'd better tip well, too. Don't want to embarrass Alyssa, do you?"
Reynard glared at him. "Redfield, you—"
At this point their server reached them and said, "Good evening, sir, my name is Marcus. Can I get you something to drink?"
Reynard cut off and Chris leaned back, sipping his soda. "What kinds of beer do you have?" he asked shortly.
Across from him, Alyssa winced. "Sorry, Reynard, Cracker Barrel doesn't serve any alcohol."
Sheva and Josh, who would be heading back to Africa to finish wrapping up the Kijuju incident, chuckled as Reynard exclaimed, "What the hell!? What kind of restaurant doesn't have booze!?"
"This one. We're family-friendly."
"Family friendly! Bah! Even Chuck-E-Fucking-Cheese's has beer!"
"Wha…seriously? Nah, no way!" Alyssa said disbelievingly.
Sheva, who was making her way through an impromptu Shirley Temple – they didn't sell those at Cracker Barrel, but Marcus had made it special for her – pulled out her phone and started tapping away at it. Meanwhile, Reynard looked back irritably at the server and said, "Do you seriously not have beer?"
"We have root beer," Marcus suggested with a smile, swinging his arm energetically as he did.
Jill started laughing, Josh chuckling, as Reynard spat with disgust and said, "Fine. Water with lemon, and…ugh, what else do you have?"
"Do you mind having coffee this late?" Alyssa asked.
"No, doesn't keep me up like it used to."
"Then you could try one of our crafted coffees. The caramel latte is super good, and I just love the mocha."
Reynard sighed heavily. "Water with lemon and a mocha, then. If I'd have known they didn't have any damn beer here I would have bought some myself at the Walmart across the street…"
Sheva popped in at that moment, still looking down at her phone. "Oh, look at that, Chuck-E-Cheese's does sell alcohol."
"Seriously? Huh. Who'da thunk it."
"Water with lemon and a mocha. Right away," Marcus repeated back belatedly as he punched it into his tablet. He stepped aside for one of the other servers to squeeze past. Alyssa saw Jahaine, their top server, go by with his arms piled up with dishes. "And have you had a chance to look at the menu, or do you need a few minutes?"
"What should I get?" he demanded of Alyssa. "I assume you've all been waiting on me, so I won't waste any more time."
"Nah, we already ordered. What, you think we were going to wait for your slow ass?" Chris replied.
He was sitting right next to Alyssa at the large round table, Jill on his other side, then Reynard, Josh, Jill, and back to Chris. She flicked him lightly on the arm. "Rude! Yes, Reynard, we waited for you, and we haven't been waiting long. We only just got our drinks a few minutes ago. Personally, I'd recommend the pot pie, they're awesome. Our fried chicken is phenomenal, too, and we make a pretty darn good burger. Though, if you're into chicken livers, we're the only place I've ever heard of that sell them, so you might want to take the opportunity if you're into them."
"You have chicken livers here?" Reynard said, raising both eyebrows. "I haven't had those in years! I'll get the chicken livers."
"Sure thing! With two or three sides?"
"What are the sides?"
Alyssa winced. That was the absolute most annoying question to ask. She quickly supplied a few good ones. "Our mashed potatoes and white gravy are great, or you can upgrade to a loaded baked potato if you're feeling really peckish. The loaded hash brown casserole is fantastic, also a premium side. The corn is good, green beans are great, carrots are awesome but very sweet—"
"Loaded hash brown thingy and the loaded baked potato. Wait, what are they loaded with?"
"Cheese and bacon. Sour cream and green onions on the potato."
"Hell yes. Hold the green onions, though."
"Biscuits or corn muffins?"
"Biscuits," Alyssa answered for him. "Trust me, the biscuits are way better."
"Whatever. Biscuits, then."
"Right away. Alright, I'll go grab your drinks, and I'll be right back. Oh, Alyssa, Nick says hi."
Alyssa grinned and said, "Tell Nick to get his butt out here and tell me himself."
"Will do," Marcus said absentmindedly has he checked his tablet for something and wandered off to get their drinks.
"So, how long have you worked here?" Sheva asked Alyssa as her eyes roamed the walls. They were covered with old-fashioned farming equipment, old-timey posters and advertisements (Give that summer heat a lickin' – Ida's Ice Cream! Just 5 cents a cone!), and various pieces of kitchen equipment that even Alyssa's mom could only identify about two-thirds of.
"More than a year before the kidnapping," she answered. "I was one of the servers who started when they were just opening this location."
"Seems like a nice place to work," Chris commented. "Your co-workers seem glad to have you back, anyways." She'd been greeted by nearly every server so far, except for two news ones they'd hired since she'd been gone.
"Indeed. And no rowdy customers, I'd imagine, given the no-alcohol decision," Josh added in.
Alyssa rolled her eyes, thinking back on a couple of altercations. "Oh, don't worry, we still get a few crazy guests every now and then. But yeah, mostly it's pretty mellow. I'm really looking forward to getting back to work. So what else do you guys have to do to wrap up the Kijuju thing?" she asked.
Josh sighed and Sheva clicked her tongue. "Mostly we're going there to ease tensions with the local governments. They aren't happy about what happened to their city, and they're looking for explanations. It won't be fun, but it won't be combat, either."
"Hopefully," Josh added jokingly, though Alyssa privately wondered if that was a joke.
Well, even if it wasn't, he and Sheva could take care of themselves. "How about you, Reynard? What are you up to after this?"
"Confidential," he grunted. A moment later, Jahaine-the-top-server popped over in his nice, long-sleeved burgundy shirt and matching apron.
"Here ya go," he said smoothly, setting down Reynard's drinks. "And here's a honey bear for the chicken, some ranch for those fries; here are the two side salads, one with bleu cheese, one with Caesar. Here are your biscuits in advance so you'll have something to nibble on while you wait – the chicken has to be made fresh, so it'll take just a few more minutes than normal to come out, so sorry about the inconvenience – and is there anything else I can get for you right now?"
There was nothing. "Thanks Jahaine, you're the best," Alyssa said, meaning it sincerely.
"Ah, no I'm not," said Jahaine, equally sincerely and completely untruthfully. He really was the best server in the building. He was probably five-star restaurant material.
As he took off to take care of his other tables, they all grabbed some biscuits – hot, fresh, light and fluffy thankfully (they got dry and hard if the bread box humidifier ran out of water) and Chris and Sheva got to chatting about AR-15s, a conversation Jill joined in on quickly, while Josh and Reynard got to talking about that mole they'd just dealt with back at HQ. Alyssa leaned back, happily uninvolved in the conversations and simply enjoying the cadence of it.
She was happy. She'd been talking to her mom nearly every night, going through the story little by little, and every session left her feeling weak and sad and uncertain. Morning brought optimism back to her, and every day was slightly more bearable than the last, but she knew it would take time to fully recover. That said, the joyous surprise of her new friends – Josh, Sheva, Chris, Jill, and Reynard – all coming by tonight to take her up on the offer she'd casually dropped those difficult weeks ago…it was bracing. It made her feel sturdier, her suffering both more significant and less unmanageable, and she was unfathomably grateful for their presence. And what was more, they all seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much.
"Alyssa Legend, I swear, if anyone else told their manager to get their butt out to the dining room to greet them…"
Alyssa laughed as she turned to see her manager, Nick, strolling up. "Hey Nick. How's it been?"
Sheva looked briefly concerned, then relaxed as it became apparent that employee-manager relations at Cracker Barrel were casual. "Ah, same old, same old," Nick replied with a shrug. He was a beefy, slightly pale man, with a deep and charismatic voice and short, curly black hair. "How 'bout you, what have you been up to?"
"Oh, you know, fighting bioterrorists, getting chased by B.O.W.s, nearly dying. Fun stuff."
Nick's face twisted up. "Jeez! Is that what you've been doing? Remind me to give you some free cake."
Jill, who had been sipping her hot chocolate, nearly choked on it. "Hey, would you like some cake with your PTSD?" she asked Alyssa.
"Oh, no, cake goes terribly with PTSD," Alyssa answered as the others chortled. "Peach cobbler would complement the flavor very nicely, though. Hey, we should get a big family cobbler to split before we go."
"That's the spirit," Nick said, and Alyssa caught the mild distraction in his voice as he covertly pressed a finger to his earpiece and listened in. He was wired, and being called to take care of a problem. "Hey, it's great to see you're alright, and we can't wait to have you back, Alyssa. We need you to teach our new guys how to upsell."
Chris leaned back in his seat, nodding reminiscently. "Ah, the art of the upsell. It has been a long time since I was hawking malt for the milkshakes at my old place. Mel's, in case anyone was wondering."
"Hey!" Alyssa protested indignantly. "I'm already upselling! I convinced everyone here to get a drink, and I got nearly all of them to upgrade to premium sides. He got two, and a crafted coffee!" She nodded at Reynard.
"Is that why you were recommending all that crap? To get a damn upsell?"
"It's not crap! I only recommend the best to my friends! Trust me, loaded is totally worth the few extra quarters. And you're enjoying the mocha, aren't you?"
Nick was wheezing slightly, black-bearded face clamping down hard on a smile, and the rest of the table was positively raucous. Her manager waved goodbye and stepped through the doorway to the back of house. Knowing how to listen, she kept her ears keenly pealed for his voice, and just caught him relaying what she'd said to the server alley at large. Then the table's laughter echoed back through the vestibule separating them, and she grinned widely.
The food came out a while later – a bit late, but the chicken, fries, and okra were all hot and sizzling out of the frier, which was the best way to get them – and they all tucked in to eat. Juicy, sauced up burgers, crackling fried chicken, a huge pile of chicken and dumplings for Josh, a massive chef's salad with lots of chopped onions for Sheva, while Alyssa opted for a kid's dinner, Lil' Barrel Sliders and a side of mashed potatoes with butter and sour cream.
"I notice you didn't get any premium sides," Reynard growled, pointing at her meal with his fork.
"I'm saving room for dessert. Anyways, this is my favorite thing on the menu. They're super good."
Chris and Jill both asked to try a bite of Reynard's fried chicken livers, which he only acquiesced to because he knew they would both hate it. He was entirely correct. He reluctantly admitted that the loaded sides were both worth it, and the sweet, bubbly, non-alcoholic drinks flowed all night long. Or at least until eight or so.
At that point, an hour before closing, Alyssa looked up to see one of her old managers, Craig, walking up to the table. He'd been promoted to the regional level, so she didn't see a lot of him anymore, but was always glad to. He'd always been one of her favorite managers.
"Craig! It's great to see you," she said warmly. "How's your day going?" She asked this very specifically, knowing exactly what his answer would be.
Sure enough, he answered her promptly in a voice slightly too exuberant to match his sharp, focused expression, perfectly pressed and clean-cut uniform, and air of competence and authority, "Every Day's A Great Day at the Cracker Barrel!"
The way he said this always made her think the sentence was capitalized, all the way through. He'd been saying it since day one, and he was well-known for it.
"Really, Alyssa, it's great to have you back," he added. "When I saw that security footage of you getting nabbed in the back lot…" he frowned and shook his head sharply, as though to dismiss the memory. "…we were all pretty shaken up over it. It's good to know you're okay. How was the meal?"
This question was aimed at the table at large, and everyone started crowing over it, the polite way people do when they've been directly asked by an authority figure in the restaurant whether the food was good. Even Reynard put his two cents in, saying, "Haven't had chicken livers since the last time I saw my mother. Brought back some good memories. Ey, why don't you guys sell beer?"
"Corporate decision," Craig answered. "We try to maintain a warm, family-friendly atmosphere."
Reynard scoffed slightly at that, rolling his eyes, and Alyssa decided for a brief introduction, since she really hadn't covered it with anyone else. "Oh, Craig, these guys are all B.S.A.A. They're the ones who found me and got me home."
"What's up with you and always going the helpless civilian route?" Chris asked. Then clarified to her manager, "She got herself out, mostly. We just stepped in near the end."
"Yeah," Jill added. "You've got yourself one hell of a server. Your business ever gets attacked by zombies or anything, just give her a gun and she'll take care of you."
Craig blinked, trying not to look too surprised, then said, "Wow. Duly noted. Well, whatever happened out there, it seems like we have a lot to thank you for. Alyssa aside, we have a lot of respect for our service men and women. We're taking your drinks off the check. And can I get you all some dessert to finish up your night? On the house. We can package it To-go if you'd like."
Marcus had come out, and was standing right beside Craig, ready to take their dessert order. Reynard waved the offer off. "Already had my dessert," he said, pointing to the empty crafted coffee mug.
Sheva thanked him, and said she'd love to try the peach cobbler. Jill got the blackberry. Chris asked if they had apple pie, and decided on a piece of that. Josh also went for the blackberry cobbler. Alyssa, the peach. She loved that stuff.
"Alright," Marcus said as he finished ringing it all in. "That'll just be a few minutes. And here are the checks for your convenience. You can take them right up front whenever you're ready to go."
Craig made his goodbyes, since he was off for the night, and insisted to Alyssa that she not come back until she was feeling ready for it, but that they'd all be glad to see her when she did. And once their desserts came, they all stood and headed up to pay, chatting in a line in the store as they checked out one by one. They all left cash tips, and Alyssa was pretty sure she counted upward seventy bucks on the table before she walked off. She passed Jahaine heading out, and told him to make sure Marcus picked his tip up fast, before anyone nicked it.
They all headed outside. Several of them were getting cabs, and Alyssa had texted her mom for a ride home, since her own car had died sitting idle in the driveway for three months and she hadn't looked it over yet. Probably just the battery.
The early summer night was warm – for Maine – and the golden lamp-lights hanging overhead gave the front porch a sleepy, comfortable feel. So she'd always felt, and hopefully would continue to feel as she continued to work there.
"So, where are you two going when you get out of here?" she finally asked Chris and Jill. "Vacation?"
"Yup," Chris said excitedly. "Won't say where, but it's a place with lots of beaches and not a ton of people."
"I know I could use the break," Jill said. Alyssa had hardly recognized the woman when she'd seen her walk in – wouldn't have, if she hadn't come in beside Chris. Not only because they were wearing normal, civilian clothing, which was strange enough in itself, but also because she'd dyed her hair brown. Whatever she'd gone through had naturally bleached it, but she'd been born brunette, and was happy to get back that way. "Thanks for having us over, Alyssa. I couldn't think of a better way to start my three weeks off."
"Indeed," Josh furthered. "This has been a very welcome layover. It's back to the grind tomorrow, but nothing gets me ready for an unpleasant job like a good meal amongst friends."
"Amen," Sheva said. Then, eyes twinkling, she added, "Right, Reynard?"
The dour man, who had been leaning against one of the pillars scanning the parking lot, glanced over at her. Then he pushed himself off the post with a gravelly sigh, stepped over, and to Alyssa's surprise, gave her head a strong, reassuring pat.
"Saving people has never really been my job," he said gravely. "My job is intel and subversion. But…I suppose it's good to be able to help someone, if only once. It's been said enough tonight, but I'm glad you've gotten home safely, Alyssa."
She swallowed thickly. She thought that was maybe the most he'd ever spoken outside of a conversation on strategy or combat.
She threw her arms around the man who had saved her life, hugging him tightly. And for once he didn't tense up and growl, only patted her on the back again. Though, when she let go, she saw he was glaring daggers at Chris, who was grinning at him.
She stepped over and hugged Chris, too, since it may well be the last time she saw him. Any of them, really. The only reason they were here at all was because they were dropping by to see her on their way to other business, and she didn't expect that to be a regular occurrence. They were all just too busy. So she went around, one by one, and hugged them all goodbye.
Most of them weren't huggers, but Sheva hugged her back like a sibling or best friend, and said, "It was an honor to fight beside you. Keep in touch, hm?"
"I will," Alyssa nodded. Sheva had given her a way to contact her. Jill had given her her information as well, and had included Chris's. She'd be sure to send them all Christmas cards for the rest of her life. Josh and Reynard and Doug, too, if she was able.
"It is a rare thing to see a civilian get dragged into the hell of war and stand up to the trial as well as you did," Josh said as she gave him a short hug. "Even rarer to see them triumph, and to return home with the prospects of normalcy waiting them."
Her mom had pulled up behind her, and was waiting patiently for her to finish her goodbyes. "Well, if you guys ever want to be civilians for a while again, drop by," she said. "I'd love to see you again. We have a guest room."
"A spare room in Maine?" Jill said. "I'll keep it in mind. Thanks. See you around, Alyssa."
"Bye," she said, walking backwards to the car. The five of them were all crowded around near the front doors, under the warm light of the front porch, ready and willing to head off on their next tour of duty. To keep fighting all the things out there that went bump in the dark. She wondered – if Kijuju was just the first thing she'd ever seen them involved in, what was waiting for them up ahead?
She got into the car, and watched them as long as she could, until she turned the corner and they were gone. They'd all waved goodbye as she'd rolled out, and she missed them already.
But she knew they'd be alright. They were the strongest people she'd ever met. And if they'd decided that it was their job to keep the world safe…she trusted them to do it. And to keep themselves safe, too.
"How was your dinner?" her mom asked she slipped into the far right lane and swept them onto the freeway onramp.
Her eyes had been on the mirror, staring at the distant glow of the restaurant lights, but now they turned aside, to the cabs trundling in its direction, then ahead to the short road home.
"It was great, mom. And I got us a cobbler."
"You know it."
Her mom reached over and rubbed her shoulder, eyes still ahead on the road. "I love you, hun."
She tilted her head and touched her cheek to the hand. "Love you, too, mom."
They went home.
Chris watched the little white Subaru pull out of the lot, and for whatever reason, the sight was reassuring to him. Alyssa was on her way home, and they were heading out soon and probably wouldn't be back here again. Her life was her own again. Their's were their's.
"It's good to be here," Jill said. Josh and Sheva were talking quietly in the background, about the upcoming tidying they had to do back in Africa. They sounded optimistic about it.
"In Maine?" Chris scoffed. "Too cold for me. I'm looking forward to the beaches."
"You know what I mean," she said. She didn't look at him. She was idly gazing through the large front windows, watching the servers cleaning up, talking to guests, running out the last few meals of the night. One couple, an extremely elderly man and woman, had just been seated, despite it being less than half an hour to close. But he spotted warm recognition in the face of the server than approached them – an athletic, black-haired young man of possibly Filipino or Mediterranean heritage whose name, according to Alyssa and his own custom apron, was Riley – Chris was willing to bet they were regulars, coming in after the dinner rush to enjoy themselves in the quiet.
"Yeah," he admitted. "I get it."
"Do you?" she asked, glancing over.
He thought on that. Years and miles away from home, in the grips of the very people she'd spent her life fighting. Months, at least, of being forced to watch them murder and mutilate people, unable to stop them and not knowing if she'd ever be able to again. And then, after it all, being forced to fight her own partner, fight against the freedom she'd been waiting for so long. Could he ever really understand that?
He considered, then said, "Well, I get the gist."
She sidled a little closer to him. It was summer, but it was still Maine. Sheva was in a thick jacket, hands buried in them to keep them warm, and Reynard looked uncomfortable. Jill pressed an arm against his, warm and slight and strong, and he pressed right back.
"I know what we do makes a difference," she said quietly. "But sometimes it's hard to see what it is from where we stand. Not all that often you get to give that difference a hug and see them off on their ride home."
Chris wrapped an arm around her and gave her a brief hug.
More and more, he'd been finding himself wondering if it was all worth fighting for. All the uphill battles. All the uncertainty. All the losses. But even after everything he'd had to deal with, here he stood – friends behind him, friends beside, knowing that, for one or two people at least, the nightmare was over. Life could go on.
Is it all worth fighting for?
Inside, a server walked over to that elderly couple, tray lightly loaded with a pair of chicken pot pies. He chatted with them for a minute, then took off, meandering back through the tables, winding down and getting ready to head home after his weekday shift. The manager who had talked to them earlier strolled out of the back, a light jacket on his back, exchanging a few more pleasant words with the greeters and the servers and the host before stepping out of sight. And beside Chris, Jill's eyes had slipped closed waiting for the cab, and her lean on him became slightly more pronounced. Tomorrow, they were starting a long-deserved break. And after that…more fighting.
Was it worth it?
For a world without fear? he thought, as a cab pulled in behind them and his partner shook herself off and stood up straight.
Yeah, it is.
"Ride for Chris?"
He turned away from the window, the couple, the servers. He bade goodnight to their friends and allies, got in the car, and they were off.
Whoo! Alright, that's it. This one took a while. Wasn't quite as popular as RE4, which doesn't surprise me - I had a lot more passion for RE4. I really enjoyed this one at the beginning, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing Wesker throughout, but it was a bit more of a slog to get through in some sections. This'll probably be my last fan fic for a long while, though I am working on editing and revising Heroes. I had an idea bouncing around for a Subnautica fic featuring the Torgal crew, but I probably will never get around to that. I'll be happy enough to get back to my own stories.
Eternal thanks to you, Rel - I'm so glad you liked the story :) I'll see you around sometime - feel free to PM me if you ever want to talk Resident Evil :D And of course if anyone has any last-minute questions, I'd be thrilled to answer them, too. Send them however you like. Love and thanks to my readership. And to Shinki Mikami and Tokuro Fujiwara for creating this amazing game series. Farewell all, and God Bless!
The Topaz Dragon