“I won’t give her to you. I just cannot.”
Nathan remains silent in the shadows for a while, then nods. “I would not have decided differently,” he says, his deep voice rumbling through me. He does not look very happy but his eyes search me with new respect. “I hope this was the right decision for you.”
I swallow down tears while letting an enthusiastic Lucy lick my chin and cheeks, my hands automatically gliding over her silky fur over and over again, relived and frantic at the same time. She is my everything and it would have killed me to give her away, I know that too well. But keeping her comes at a high price.
After a few minutes I inhale shakily against the pressure in my chest and push her down gently, murmuring quiet words of affection that she answers with a low whine, her tail wagging. When I look up, Nathan has vanished and the hallway before me is quiet and dark. I make my way to the bedroom that was assigned to me and open the old wooden door carefully, taking care not to wake up Benjamin who is already asleep behind it. I quietly change into night clothes and slip under the heavy covers while Lucy settles down on the stretch of floor in front of my bed. Before I close my eyes I look over to the other bed where Benjamin is lying asleep, his small chest moving up and down in a regular rhythm, his red hair reflecting the weak moonlight coming in through the window. The color is nothing like my brother’s – and still he reminds me of him.
I gasp and turn my face into the pillow to stifle a sob. Frank is still out there, somewhere, probably scared and alone. I need to find him but I am losing all hope that I will be able to. Without gas I am trapped at the farm. And even if I somehow managed to leave, the last days have shown how dangerous the world has become. I am afraid that we will not both survive long enough for us to meet again.
Soundlessly I cry into the pillow, inhaling the unfamiliar scent from freshly-washed laundry, my chest tight and hurting from the crushing feeling of loss and guilt of having betrayed my brother. The tears roll until I am completely exhausted and then sleep pulls me down into blissful oblivion.
I wake with a start and Benjamin’s small hand lying on my arm.
“What—what happened?” I drawl, still deep in dreams.
The kid is standing next to my bed, bent over me, his small frame outlined by the pale moonlight.
“Someone’s out there,” Benjamin mumbles, chewing on the sleeve of his pajamas.
“Who?” I ask and sit up, trying to get my brain into gear.
“I don’t know,” Benjamin whispers, pats to the door and presses his ear to the surface.
Then I hear it too. Distant muffled sounds, sometimes a rumble, and the low, deep voices of men.
Fuck. Someone is indeed out there.
I am wearing Ann’s night dress that she lent to me last night when we did not want to go back out to the car. I do not bother with changing clothes, slip into my boots barefoot and grab the automatic pistol from under the pillow. Benjamin looks at it with huge eyes and I crouch down in front of him.
“Okay Benjamin, I need you to do exactly what I tell you, okay? Exactly that, got me?”
The boy nods.
“Good. I am going to go out there and as soon as I have left, you are going to push--” I look around the small room and finally indicate a sturdy looking chest of drawers of just the right height, “this in front of the door, okay? When the door handle is blocked you are going to hide under the bed and stay there. Don’t make a sound, you hear me? When I come and get you I will call your name three times, okay? Before that you don’t move, don’t speak, nothing, understood?”
Benjamin nods and continues staring at me.
Benjamin swallows. “Y-yes.”
“You’re a very brave boy,” I say and hug the child. Benjamin whimpers into my ear.
I force myself not to sound worried. “See you soon, okay?”
“Good, no talking now! Lucy? Stay!”
Carefully, quietly, I open the door to a tiny slit. The sounds grow louder but not by much, confirming my suspicion that the noise comes from outside the house.
I slip through and take a last look back at a wide-eyed Benjamin and an excited Lucy next to him before closing the door on them. I wait until Benjamin has blocked the door before moving over to the stairs. When I have nearly reached it I hear a commotion downstairs and two figures appear at the foot of the stairs, barely visible in the moon light.
I can get out of the line of sight in the last second, my heart hammering.
“Jim, what the fuck?” someone says angrily.
It is Nathan.
“Where’s the damn key, Nathan?”
I recognize the voice as the same that we have heard at the door last night.
I quietly step closer to the top of the stairs, trying to glimpse down. Nathan’s big form is stumbling backward and something flashes in the moonlight. A knife. Nathan is threatened with a knife, the blade lying now across his throat.
“Fuck, Jim, think about this... call your friends inside and we can talk...” Nathan’s voice has lost its edge.
“Everything is going to be all right, stupid old man.” Jim spats. “As long as you give me the fucking keys!”
In the pale light I can barely make out Jim’s appearance. He is a tall man with strong arms and dirty, longer hair that almost reaches his shoulders. Dark eyes glint in the moonlight.
“What do you want with the truck?” Nathan pants.
“What we want?! Get the hell out of here and take as much with us as we can! The truck and the trailer are just what we were waiting for and the stupid amount of gas you have stored will get us a good distance away from here.”
“You don’t really-”
“Stop blabbering now, dumbass, and show me where it is or this will be your last words!” Jim hisses, his voice growing louder.
I have crouched down and robbed to the front of the stairs, aiming the pistol down at the two men. My hands shake but I close my eyes and force myself to breathe evenly and, slowly, calmness lies itself upon me. Still, the light is not sufficient and Jim is standing too close to Nathan, moving constantly. I cannot get a good enough aim, I might as well hit Nathan.
“Don’t be a fool, Nathan.”
“Go to hell, Jim, you'll get nothing from me,” Nathan growls and throws his head back, hitting Jim square in the face.
Jim howls in pain and reels back. “That was a mistake, old man,” he yells with a muffled voice, hand covering his nose, but before he can do anything a shadow, inhumanly silent and quick, approaches him from behind and throws itself upon him, tearing him down.
There is a crash and chaos evolves, men grunting and dark shadows writhing on the floor. I dash down the stairs, but before I have reached the foot of them I hear Ezra’s voice.
“I got him, he’s down. All is good.”
Flickering lights go on at the top of the stairs. Ann is standing there in a white night dress, holding an oil lamp in her hands. She inhales sharply as she looks down on us.
Ezra is lying on the floor together with Jim. The tall man is seemingly knocked unconscious, his face bloodied from the hit by Nathan, long hair plastered across his glistening forehead.
Ezra rubs his fits and sits up on his elbows, glowering at us. “Fuck, don’t just stare. Help me up!” His legs are twisted, partly trapped underneath Jim’s body and his wheelchair has rolled back and tipped over.
Ezra’s father kicks the knife out of Jim’s hand and then grabs his son under the armpits, sliding him back over the floor. I hurry to get the wheelchair and put it next to Ezra, locking the wheels.
Ezra murmurs a thanks to his father and waves him off, grabbing the wheelchair to haul himself back in. He fails the first time, his legs falling to the side and he collapses onto the ground, panting.
“Just… fuck… no, I got it, Dad, really…”
But Nathan has already grabbed him and replaced him in the seat, ignoring his son’s protest.
Ezra glances darkly at him, still out of breath.
“Thanks, son,” Nathan says and tightly grabs Ezra’s shoulders, crouching down so that their foreheads are almost touching. “Fuck… you came not a second too late. Are you okay?”
“Yeah… I’m all right,” Ezra says and gestures to the man on the floor. “Do something with him.” Ezra pushes on the wheels as soon as his father backs off, sits back against the backrest and pulls his feet on the footrest. Then he wheels to the window, looking outside.
Nathan grabs the unconscious man and unceremoniously pulls him over the floor into the kitchen, groaning from the weight. “Ann, take care of him.”
Ann comes rushing down the stairs. “It will be my pleasure,” she says, her face set in determination.
Nathan joins Ezra at the window. “What is happening out there?”
“I think they are emptying the barn,” Ezra says.
“Assholes…” Nathan murmurs. “How many, you think?”
“Three more,” Ezra says, his voice sure.
Nathan takes a step back. “How do you know?”
Ezra swivels the chair around, looking grim. “That’s my car.”
I take a look through the slits in the shutters and indeed, there is a car parked in the middle of the driveway, headlights on.
Ezra wheels back into his room and returns with his gun and an ax across his lap. “I just fucking knew it. Those are the ones that stole my car from me, Dad. I never believed Jim’s story. Zombies, my ass. I suppose Jim’s gang was waiting outside right there with him last night, with their weapons ready. I wonder if we were still alive had we opened the fucking door!”
I shiver at the thought. “What- what do they want here now?”
Ezra shrugs. “I guess they ran out of gas, or they are short of supplies. Could be the reason that drove them here in the first place. I suppose they remembered the farm and its machines, and decided to help themselves. Probably took a liking to the truck and then found out they needed the keys to start it.”
Ann returns from the kitchen. “I got him gagged and roped up nicely,” she informs us.
“Good,” Nathan nods and turns back to his son. “What do we do now?”
Ezra makes sure the gun is loaded. “We go out and show them what we are made of,” he says, his eyes dark.
Nathan nods. “I’m with you, son,” he grunts, the Winchester in his large hands.
“No!” I hiss to my own surprise and everyone turns to me. “Don’t. There’s… there’s a better way! There must be.”
Ezra frowns at me and Nathan laughs out shortly. “And that would be?”
I take a deep breath, my thoughts whirring, and open the entrance door a bit, lowering my voice. “We stay here, in the dark. They are waiting for Jim to bring the keys. If he does not turn up, they will come to check on him. We will be waiting for them and have the surprise on our side.”
Nathan gives an unconvinced grunt but Ezra nods slowly. “Huh… that might work…”
I squeeze my fists at my sides, hoping they will go with my plan. We are two inexperienced women, one old man and a guy in a wheelchair and hell, maybe we have gone through a lot already and I never thought I could do the things I have done, but the odds are still definitely stacked against us. If we go out there with the guns and risk a fight in the open, this could end in a disaster for everyone.
Nathan groans something but finally nods.
Ezra gestures at him. “Dad… you stay to the left. I will come from the right. Ma… you go back into the kitchen-“
“Forget it,” Ann says. She has a large meat knife in both of her hands. “I’m not going to hide.” She looks like she has made up her mind, her face wild.
“Okay…” Ezra says, sighing exasperated. “You stay in front of the kitchen door, okay?”
Ann nods, her fingers tightening around the large handle of the knife.
“Caroline…” Ezra spins the chair around to me. “Think you can have a good aim at the door from the top of the stairs?”
I nod, blinking at him in surprise. What is his plan?
Ezra hands me his rifle, his fingers tight around it a second too long, handing it over only reluctantly. “Two more shots remaining,” he reminds me. He takes the pistol from me and tucks it in the side between the wheel and his thigh.
I hurry up the stairs and lie down at the top, aiming the rifle at the door. Ezra exchanges a glance with me, then the lights go off.
“Everything all right?” Ezra whispers from downstairs.
Everyone murmurs an okay.
“Let me be the first to charge,” Ezra say. “I’ll try to be as quiet as possible. Maybe we can play this game more than one time. But as soon as you have a clear sight, Caroline…”
“Don’t worry,” I say, my voice much steadier than I feel. “I know what to do.”
“Good, no talking now.”
We stay silent, listening to the sounds of people trying to be quiet while carrying heavy things around in the barn. Once or twice a car door is opened or shut. It comes to my mind that the thieves take a big chance, robbing someone else in the middle of the night. Are they not afraid of zombies? Or maybe they are so desperate that zombies do not scare them anymore.
Just then I hear distant footsteps approaching, gravel crunching under heavy boots.
“Jimmy? Hey! Where are you?” a voice calls lowly.
“What’s he doing?” Another voice hisses, annoyance clear.
They are two men.
Two men, two remaining shots.
“Fuck, you think he’s still in there?”
“Sure he is. Probably got distracted by old tits.”
“Ugh, you’re disgusting you know that!”
I hear Ann shift by the kitchen door but she does not lose her nerves.
“The door is open,” the first guy says. His voice is shrill and scratchy.
“Jim, say something!” The second guy hisses again. “Do you think something went wrong?” he adds to his companion in a whisper.
“Chill it,” Scratchy voice snickers. “Grumpy old man and cripple are probably sleeping or already dead.”
“They will be, soon. Okay… You go, I stay here, cover you,” the second one says. His voice is deeper, vocals stretching a bit into a drawl. Maybe he is tipsy.
I nearly snicker. How does he think he is going to cover anyone from the very outside? I tighten my grip around the rifle, the metal on my cheek warm by now, the feel of the butt against my shoulder firm and reassuring.
The door swings open with a low creak.
The first man steps inside, something grabbed in his hand, squinting in the absolute darkness. In that moment Ezra silently rolls forward from the side, holding an ax above his head. As if he has anticipated it the intruder turns toward Ezra, and the blade of the ax misses the head of the smaller man only by inches and instead buries deep in his chest.
The man lets out a suffocated yelp before crashing to the ground, almost burying Ezra under him.
“Fuck, Dip, what-?”
I hold my breath, adrenaline sweeping my body. As soon as the second guy steps into the opening of the door this will be my turn. In that moment Nathan storms past his son and the trembling, dying man on the floor, and wildly fires outside.
I shoot up and run down the stairs.
Nathan stumbles back into the house, fiddling with the Winchester. “I missed him,” he murmurs.
“Hurry up!” The receding voice of the second man splits the night. “They are armed, Dip is dead!”
Another voice sounds from further away, deep and booming: “You fuckers! You are going to regret that!”
I shiver at the threat and push the door closed. The light goes on again. The blood of the intruder is soaking the wooden planks, his chest is not moving anymore. Ezra wheels to him and grabs the handle of the ax, wrenching the bloodied blade out of the guy’s chest. A car jack falls out of the corpse's hand.
“Jesus…” Nathan breathes, leaning against the door.
Ann makes a small, scared sound.
“Are they leaving?” Nathan asks, voice hoarse.
Ezra has wheeled to the window again and glimpses outside.
“I’m not sure… they are still there… don’t know what they are doing...”
“Probably refueling,” I say, stepping up next to Ezra, avoiding looking at the body on the floor. I listen to the sounds of people walking around in the barn. They are going to take all the gas with them and we will be trapped here. My heart rate speeds up even more. “You think they are armed?”
Ezra scratches his chin. “Jim had a gun for sure. The others might have one, too. Don’t know if they still have ammunition.”
Maybe not if Jim came here only with a knife. I start to see hope and I know I do not want to give up yet. Whatever happens, our survival is tight to the fuel in the barn. And the last chance that I might get to see Frank, as small as this chance might be, is there as well.
“Is there a backdoor to this house?” I ask.
Ezra nods. “What is your plan?”
“I don’t know exactly… But they know to expect us in the front part of the house now,” I say. “If they plan on letting us pay for killing their friend, that’s where they’ll search for us first.”
“I go with you,” Nathan says.
“No,” I decide. I cannot rely on him. “You need to stay here. Protect… Ann and Benjamin. Make sure no one gets harmed. Ezra can show me.”
Nathan squints angrily at me but then he clenches his teeth and grunts: “Okay…”
“Be careful…” Ann says, watching us concerned, and I nod.
I follow Ezra down the hallway and to the back of the house. We stop at a steep stone stair leading down into darkness.
“It’s the entrance to the cellar. There is an exit coming back out in the garden,” Ezra says, wheeling back to let me through. The light is low and I can barely make out his face.
“Are you not coming with me?”
Ezra watches me, slight confusion flickering in his expression. “You want me to come with you?” he repeats.
I bend down to his level. “I need you,” I hiss.
Ezra shakes his head and sighs, avoiding my eyes. “Caroline, I don’t know…”
Ezra looks at his lap, his knuckles tight around the rims. “I’ll slow you down, that’s all.”
“Sure.” I ignore the flinch I receive at that. „But I cannot do this alone. Please, Ezra…” I grab his shoulders, trying to force him to look me into the eyes. “Please. Help me.”
Ezra looks up, clearly baffled.
I let go of him, stepping back. “Come one now, get your ass down there. I know you can!”
Ezra huffs at me but finally he knocks his feet off the footrest, his face set in grim determination. He hands me the pistol. “You’re taking the chair?” he asks gruffly.
I nod and wait until Ezra has slid to the ground before I take the wheelchair down. Ezra moves down the narrow and winding stairs without a railing as he has before, hastily throwing his legs down in front of him and sliding from step to step on his ass. At the foot of the stairs he transfers back into the wheelchair that I keep ready and speeds in front of me through the dim cellar. I jog on his wheels, along long rows of shelves full with jars of preserved fruits, vegetables and jam, bottles of juice, syrup and honey wine, glittering in the moonlight falling in from the windows slits.
“It should be right here… yes!”
I round the corner, ducking under a huge ham hanging from the ceiling and close up with Ezra. We stand in front of another set of stairs, leading up to a narrow door. I jump up the stairs in front of him, quietly move the heavy bar to the side and push the door open. Cold wind grabs at me from the outside, letting me shiver in the night dress. I leave the wheelchair on top of the stairs for Ezra to reach, place the pistol on the seat and sneak past the chickens’ coop and along the side of the house.
Carefully, I peak around the edge of the house. The lights of the car parking next to the barn are blinding, but I see dark figures moving around in front of it. What are they still doing here? A voice in my head tells me that something is wrong but I cannot pinpoint exactly what it is.
“So, what’s the plan?” Ezra’s whispers close to my ears.
I flinch a bit, surprised he managed to sneak up on me. The wheelchair’s wheels are a lot quieter than I thought.
“I had hoped you would have come up with something by now” I say, teasing.
Ezra grunts. “I wonder what they are doing…”
“Yeah, me too…”
In that moment a loud hissing noise from the cow barn is heard, and a flame shoots through its roof. Two things hit my brain at the same time: the smell of gasoline in the air. And the noises from the barn with the cows, that seemed much louder and more agitated than usual. It should have been obvious to us what was wrong.
“Fuck, they… they put the barn on fire!” Ezra yells.
I prevent him from rolling past me by grabbing his shoulder. “Careful! They are still in the other one.”
Ezra freezes but then he wheels back into cover again. “I don’t believe it… Fuck! The animals! We got to do something Caroline!”
“Yes, but what?” The sound of the flames licking at wood grows louder. I bite on my lips. “What if they plan to burn everything down, Ezra?”
Suddenly I have the terrible feeling that this is exactly what they are about to do.
Ezra rubs his forehead. “I’ve got more ammunition than you and you are faster…” he says quickly, looking at me hesitantly as if he is already starting to regret what he is about to say. “I’ll go to the right side. When I have good aim, I fire. I’ll try to keep them engaged. You will sneak around on the other side, surprise them.”
I consider this for a second, then nod. I am scared but I am also desperate. This might be our only chance. “I knew why I took you with me.”
Ezra shakes his head, unhappy. “It’s dangerous, Caroline! I don’t feel good about this… I would swap positions with you but-“
“No but. It is as it is. Trust me, I’ll get them.” I pat the rifle.
Ezra sighs and chuckles lowly. “Remind me to never make you my enemy,” he says with a weak smile, then he turns the chair around and with powerful pushes wheels over to the other side. Luckily the ground is more even in the garden and the chair rolls smoothly.
For a short while not much is happening, except for the sound of the fire and the cries of the animals growing more urgent. We do not have much time left. Then the first shot falls from Ezra’s side.
He misses but I do not blame him. It is hard to meet a moving target with a pistol from this distance.
The two men are not stupid. After having been shot at they ran for cover at once, sitting in the shadows for minutes on end, not moving. Then I see the first crawling over the earth toward the car, taking cover from Ezra but in plain sight for me, shoving a gun over the ground in front of him.
He is dead before he has even completely left the barn.
I change position at once, run past the jeep parked close to the main building, over the right part of the court and press myself against the side of the barn. In the bright blue night dress I am probably an inviting target for everyone who looks in my direction. I can only hope the second guy is indeed still inside the barn, as I think he is. My last bullet is for him.
Then I hear a small noise, like an inhale of breath, from the inside of the barn.
I act out of reflex, pushing off the wall, my feet carrying me away from the building as fast as possible, the dress hiking up to my waist.
I am taking a dive into the bushes when the barn behind me explodes, a huge fireball erupting from its roof, flames licking into the night sky.
For a moment the scenery is bright as daylight, and I can see Nathan running over to the cow’s barn that is burning bright now as well. I hear the horrible screams of the animals trapped inside, the cracking and whooshing of the flames eating through the wood, ever growing more urgent. I see Ezra wheeling around the corner, yelling at his father to come back.
The sound of a car starting reminds me of the second man but I am too late. As I am standing in the middle of the court and aiming with the rifle I can barely see the red taillights through the thick smoke wafting over the ground and I let the gun sink again as they grow smaller and smaller as the car accelerates, not going to waste my last bullet.
“Caroline, help-!” I hear Ezra’s voice, then desperate coughing.
I want to sprint into the direction in which Ezra has disappeared, to the roaring inferno of flames and heat, when a scream from the inside of the house makes me turn around. It is the scream of a small boy in utter terror and when I look through the open entrance door into the hallway bathed in flickering light, I realize that something is missing.
The body of the man that Ezra killed with the ax is gone.