Jake and Suzanne's family garden had helped a lot over the summer, and he and Janice had preserved what they could. Neither of them had known a thing about canning, but they'd dragged out Suzanne's canning supplies, chased down instructions on the Internet, and printed them out while they still had electricity (and before the Puppies took out the Net), and they'd managed to put up a lot of food. Or it had seemed like a lot, just looking at it in the pantry. Until he'd thought about feeding a family of seven through a Minnesota winter. Yet they could've made it. He knew they could have. Babbitt was still a functional town, its mayor and city council had managed—somehow—to hold their community together, and if they hadn't been delighted to see strangers, neither had they tried to turn them away. Besides, he hadn't been a stranger. Not really. And Douglas and Carla Jackson had spoken for them—Carla had been Suzanne's sister, and Freymark had known her since he was nine, visiting his aunt and uncle in Babbitt—and helped the Freymarks settle in at the farm. And there were still deer to eke out their food supplies, and there were always fish in Birch Lake. And so he'd been able to tell himself that whatever happened to the rest of the world, his family would make it.
Until three weeks ago, anyway.
There were a lot of things Lewis Freymark would never know, and one of them was why the Puppies had decided to strike Babbitt. The town had never had more than fourteen or fifteen hundred citizens, although it had probably crept higher than that over the summer and early autumn as other refugees filtered in. How it could have posed any kind of threat to star-traveling aliens was more than he could imagine. Maybe it had been a reprisal for something someone had done, or maybe it had been no more than pure viciousness on the Shongairi's part. He didn't know, and it didn't matter anyway.
What did matter was that Babbitt had disappeared into the same horrific fireball which had claimed a seventeen-year-old boy—a boy turning into a man any parent could have been proud of—named Dennis Freymark.
Dennis had taken the SUV to town to trade some of their precious canned food for medicine. The Babbitt Medical Center had continued to serve the town and its froth of refugees, but Mayor Oswald and the city council had collected the stock of Babbitt's half-dozen pharmacies under lock and key—and armed guard. They probably would have let Dennis have at least some of what he needed, anyway, but it never hurt to contribute a little something to the town's food stocks in exchange.
Only there'd never been an exchange. And the blast front and fire had swept outward from the devastated town, burning through the tinder-dry leaves of autumn with no one left to fight it. He'd had just enough warning to get Janice and the kids, grab Jake's sportorized Lee-Enfield deer rifle, a couple of boxes of ammunition, and all the food they could carry, and get as far as the lake before the flames swept through, devouring everything in their path. He'd sheltered in the lake water—icy cold, even at the height of summer, much less in the fall—neck-deep, holding Jacqueline in his arms and feeling her shiver—as the fire roared and bellowed around them. And when the flames were done, the farm was gone.
So they'd come here. Almost twenty miles west of Babbitt, to what had been the almost equally small town of Aurora. All of Babbitt's handful of survivors had ended up here, in the refugee camp that sprawled across the high school's athletic field on the west side of the town, near the lake. There was another on the football and baseball fields between Forestry Road and Third Avenue, on the other side of town, but there were precious few amenities for either. The high school had long since filled every classroom with refugees; there was no space inside it for late arrivals, however desperate their need, and so they crouched in whatever shelter they could while the exhausted city government tried hopelessly to find better asylum for them....