Preston now sets the scene in Thurmont, Maryland, on September 25, 1983—four years after Charles Monet died. This is an idyllic American town near the Appalachians, and home to a Victorian house owned by Major Nancy Jaax, a US Army veterinarian, and her husband. Nancy is a short but strong woman, trained in martial arts, with auburn hair, green eyes, and quick hands. She is cooking dinner for her five-year-old daughter Jaime and her seven-year-old son Jaison. Nancy’s husband, Major Gerald Jaax (Jerry), is in Texas training. Both Nancy and Jerry are part of the Army Veterinary Corps, which cares for Army animals and inspects Army food. They work in Fort Detrick. In their house lives a small menagerie of animals, including a parrot named Herky, who frequently imitates family members.
Preston now moves on to two characters who will become central in his narrative: Nancy and Jerry Jaax. His detailed description of their suburban life at first seems like it’s simply supposed to introduce and endear the Jaaxes to us. It is also important to remember, however, that this is exactly the kind of peaceful, modern life that could be utterly shattered by an Ebola epidemic. Thus Preston is not only humanizing these characters, but also emphasizing how much they potentially have to lose should Ebola ever become an epidemic on U.S. soil.
Some officers at Fort Detrick take issue with Nancy’s hands, calling them abrupt and clumsy. As a result of their criticism, as well as their sexism, Nancy takes up martial arts, and learns how to kill a man with her bare feet. Despite working full time, she also does housework and cooking. The Jaax’s house is near an ambulance station, and the sirens wake them at night. There is also a rumor that the home’s previous owner killed himself in the basement. Besides the parrot, the couple also has two dogs, as well as a python named Sampson, which occasionally escapes its cage and slithers through the house. Nancy and Jerry are deeply in love, and met in veterinary school.
Of all the brave doctors and scientists within the book, Nancy Jaax is one of the bravest. Preston gives us a large amount of backstory—especially about the sexism that Nancy has faced in her male-dominated field—to emphasize her tenacity and competence. These qualities will prove crucial as she studies and combats Ebola. Like Charles Monet, Nancy Jaax is a lover of animals, and again Preston draws connections between beloved pets and carriers of diseases.
On this particular night, Nancy decides to open a can of green beans for her children. Unable to find a can opener, she uses a butcher knife, and cuts her hand deeply in the process. Her tendons and fingers are not damaged, however, and she seals the cut with a Band-Aid. Despite being a veterinarian, Nancy hates the sight of blood, because she knows “what some blood could contain.” Still, she finishes dinner and puts her children to bed.
Usually, cutting oneself in the kitchen would be an unfortunate but un-alarming occurrence. In the context of hot viruses, however, blood takes on an added sense of menace because of its potential as a disease carrier. Again Preston starts with an idyllic scene in order to build up the suspense about approaching horror.