We burn Ann in the flames. On one side we want to make sure she will not turn, on the other Ezra says she always wanted to have her body incinerated.
“They are together now,” Ezra murmurs when we watch through the open entrance door of the main building as the barn’s front tumbles down. I am sitting on the top step with Benjamin in my lap and Ezra's knees next to my head with the caster wheels close to the hand I prop myself up with. A gush of warm wind blows into our faces and sparks fly high, the darkness brightening shortly before they settle again, revealing the shapes of slowly moving creatures in the shadows. It seems like the fire is keeping the zombies off that have been attracted by the noise.
I shiver despite the warmth and wonder how long it will take for the sun to come up. This night seems to take forever. I have no idea what time it is but probably all of this has not lasted more than two hours.
We placed Ann’s body on the table that has been used for the buzz saw. It has metallic wheels on all four legs so that the heavy machine is mobile. Ezra removed the saw and I laid Ann’s body carefully on the sleek table top, straightening her long hair a bit around her face. Then I loosened the breaks on the wheels, positioned the table as close to the flaming barn as I dared and gave it a strong push.
In a way, it was easy.
Ezra pops the breaks on his wheels and I get up. When I am upright I grip Ezra’s shoulder but when he winces I let go of him again.
“Sorry…” I mutter.
Ezra shrugs, not looking at me, his back rigid and hands wrapped so tightly around the handrims that his arms shake.
I should have known. Everyone deals differently with loss and it should not come as a surprise that Ezra wants to be left alone. I try not to feel hurt about it. There is enough pain for me to deal with as is.
Benjamin does not protest as I gently loosen his arms around my neck. He has not moved, has not made a sound, has not uttered a single word since I picked him up from the foot of the stairs a long time ago. He does not cry even now, nor does he really look at us, all he does is climb into Ezra’s lap and curl to a ball there, staring at a point behind me.
“We should rest and I’m… I’m going to make us tea…” I say, because it is the only thing I can think of in the moment.
As I open the kitchen door I jump a bit because I completely forgot about Jim. The man is tied to a chair with ropes and tape, his mouth taped shut. As I enter, he throws his head around to look at me, small eyes widening as they fix on me. He shakes his head rapidly, the chair he sits on squeaking, and it takes me a moment to realize that he is terrified of me. No wonder, my hair is partly gone, I am dusted with ash and still wear the blue nightdress, torn and scorched at the fringes and dark blood smeared across its front.
“Shush...” I coo, stepping closer. “Not going to do you any harm.” I put my face close to his, until I can see the pearls of sweat glistening on his forehead, and smile. “Yet.”
I revel at the strangled noises emitting from behind the gag, but I turn around and do not acknowledge him any further.
I am too tired.
My hands and feet move automatically, turning on the stove, putting on a kettle, filling it with water. I find unidentifiable herbs in the back of a cupboard, fill them in three cups that I find in another, and pour the water over them as soon as it boils.
I step out again past Jim who is obviously desperately trying to communicate with me but I could not care less. I am afraid if I looked directly at him the overwhelming urge to hurt him would overpower me.
So I don’t.
We sit in Ezra’s room. It is more of a study, a shelf with books on the left side, and a small window with a desk in front of it across from the door. A broad couch shoved to the other wall serves as Ezra’s bed and leaves only enough space for Ezra’s wheelchair to narrowly pass.
Ezra has put the kid down and pulled the comforter over the smaller body. Benjamin sits up on his elbows and takes a few sips of the tea as I offer it to him but then he shoves the cup back in my hand and curls into a knot under the blanket.
Ezra places his hand on Benjamin’s head. “Sleep,” he says, his voice hoarse and brittle as if it belongs to an old man.
Benjamin closes his eyes obediently and only minutes later his breathing has evened out.
Relieved, I sigh a bit and sit down on the edge of the couch, watching the small face with the fine lips and the eyes closed tight.
I guess we both feel too empty and too exhausted to talk. I cannot imagine what Ezra feels but if it is anything like I do, he cannot fall asleep either. My blood is still wildly pumping in my ears and my skin is crawling, making me restless. It is nearly impossible for me to sit and do nothing. The feeling is faintly familiar, the post-hunt rush that can be euphoric and can be so damn torturous as well, nagging at my insides until it seems it is going to swallow me whole, and the weight of grief, holding me down although all I want to do is scream.
We sit like this for hours, the sound of the fire raging outside growing quieter and fainter until it dies out completely, the crack of wood and thunder of falling timber going silent. I think we should be grateful that no wind is going because then the main building would be in danger as well.
Time is not linear anymore, minutes extending forever and hours skipping past, until the sky beyond the closed shutters grows brighter and the first bird starts to sing its song.
“Damn…” he groans and I startle.
Ezra pushes the wheelchair closer to the bed, his movements slow and sluggish as if he has drunken the entire night.
“Need to… take pressure off…” he rasps, his words equally slow.
I carefully reposition Benjamin who is still deeply asleep until there is space enough for another person on the couch and put the blanket to the side for Ezra to slip in next to the boy.
Ezra pushes his feet off the footrest, scoots forward in the seat and places one fist on the soft cushioning of the couch. He takes three attempts at transferring that he aborts each time, falling back into the seat. He tries to realign the wheelchair, probably aiming for a different angle but there is not much space to maneuver the wheelchair in any other way.
I get up, offering my hands and Ezra nods defeated, the lack of protest in his eyes telling me enough. He puts his arms around my neck and I grab his waistband, lifting him over the wheel to sit on the edge of the couch. His body is oddly warm close to mine. I wait until he has braced himself with his hands next to his thighs and scooted back a bit, and check with him briefly before moving his legs up as well, tucking them under the blanket next to Benjamin’s. They feel heavy and lifeless in my hands.
Ezra twists to the side, arranges his legs at the knees until they turn with him, and lies down with his head on the pillow. I sit on the floor to Ezra’s head, leaning mine against the soft cushioning, the hard ground beneath me a welcoming reminder of reality. Ezra’s hand dangles next to my face, his fingers hanging down as limply as his legs.
“Does it… does it get better?” He asks suddenly, his voice rough and so breathy I almost do not understand him.
I tilt my head up. “What?”
“Fuck… I’m- I'm sorry…” he hurries to say. “Forget it.”
I sigh and look into the dark in front of me for a while. I guess I know what he was referring to.
“My parents died when I was nine.” I close my eyes. I do not know why I even started talking. “My father was a photographer, my mother was a journalist and a translator. They were going to make a documentary about children orphaned by the war in Bosnia. They were killed by a road mine on their way to Mostar. Everyone in the bus died.”
Ezra’s fingers twitch. “I’m sorry,” he says. Then, after a while, he speaks again, as if this has been on his mind for a long time. “Where… where did you learn to shoot?”
Slightly, I lean my head against his warm hand. He does not pull back. “My grandfather taught me. He had a few rifles and pistols. When I was smaller we did it out of fun, in the back of the garden, shooting at tin cans. Later he took me to hunt deer or rabbits, but I never… I never thought I would ever…”
I think it is only then that I realize that I have killed a man today. Not a zombie. An actual human being. I gasp, realizing only now that I am shivering, my teeth rattling. I did not even need to shoot him, we could have just hoped they would go away on their own, eventually. Of course, they might have burned everything down and taken the gas with them, leaving me without any option to get to Frank, without supplies or a roof over our heads. But even though I shot one of them, we still have no gas now either. And if the second one had not been that fast, I would have surely pulled the trigger on him as well.
What is happening to me? Am I turning into a ruthless killer, similar to the men who robbed us? What’s the next step from that?
Ezra’s hand cups my neck, holding me in a steady grip until I remember how to breathe.
“Fuck,” I whisper hoarsely.
I crawl under the blanket next to Ezra, ignoring the startled look in his eyes and turn my back to him. He is warm and comforting against me and I am probably only seconds away from collapsing when I say: “It never really gets any different than this, Ezra, but... you will.”
I fall asleep immediately and I do not remember hearing his answer.
When I wake up Ezra is already gone and the light in the room is low again. I guess the time is near afternoon. I sit up quickly, the memory from last night washing over me and causing adrenaline to shoot through my veins immediately. Benjamin next to me wakes with a start.
I blink at him. “Sorry…” I apologize.
The kid looks at me with large, confused eyes. “What happened?” The disorientation in his small voice nearly breaks my heart.
“Nothing…” I say, smoothing down his hair. My heart beats loudly but there is only silence around us. “You’re okay. We’re okay.” I tell that to Benjamin as much as to myself. My senses are hyper-alert and every fiber in my body is taught.
Benjamin hugs his arms around his knees and I pull the blanket tighter around his shoulders.
The boy does not react, staring into space.
“I'm tired...” Benjamin says, a tear running down his cheek. It falls silently onto the blanket.
I wrap my arms around the small body, hugging him to me. Benjamin's sobs wrack his frame, he trembles against me.
“I’m so sorry, Benjamin…”
The kid cries for long minutes, and I rock him back and forth like I used to do with my brother when he was upset, keeping him firmly pressed to me. Eventually Benjamin goes still and soft in my lap, sleep and exhaustion having claimed over again. Gently, I lay him down and pull the blanket over him before leaving the room, grabbing one of Ezra’s shirts to put over the torn nightdress at least. I wince as the fabric touches burnt skin on my arms.
I meet Ezra outside at the jeep. He is busy packing things into the rear.
“How… how are you?” I ask carefully, walking closer behind him. The air is cool and at once I start to freeze in my thin clothes. My raw cheeks though are burning like hell.
Ezra freezes, then pushes the door shut with a bang. His rigid back remains turned toward me.
“Um…” I study the jeep. “What are you doing?”
Ezra swivels the chair around to me. His chin is shadowed with stubble and his eyes are dull with grief.
“We’re leaving. Benjamin, you and me.”
I take a look through the window into the rear. Ezra has switched a few of our supply with better versions from the farm. There are loads more of canned food, glasses and bottles full of preserved fruits and vegetables, as well as warm blankets and plastic canisters with clean water.
I do not know what to say. Did Ezra forget that we have no gas?
Ezra sighs, puts his hands in his lap and stares at the clenched fists. “I cannot stand being here any longer.”
“Ezra…” I say softly and turn back to him. “You know we cannot go, don’t you?”
“Huh?” He asks, wheeling already back to the house, looking tired. I notice he must have worked quite some time already and be exhausted probably, hauling the stuff up from the cellar and into the car, taking the journey up the steps and stairs every time. I am grateful he did not wake me up though, I feel like I have not really slept at all although it must have been more than ten hours.
I frown. Did the shock of losing his parents somehow screw with his memory? “Uh… we have no gas, remember?”
Ezra chuckles roughly, pushing and pulling himself up the steps slowly, his brows drawn in concentration. He does not look up before he has reached the top and adjusted his legs. “I keep my promises, Caroline. And if I know anything, then that my father was a damn stubborn idiot.”
I flinch. “Ezra…” I extend my hand but do not attempt to get closer to him.
Ezra wheels inside, the muscles in his back flexing. “Yes, he was. He was a fucking brave and stubborn man, but an idiot nevertheless.” He opens the door to the kitchen, pulling himself through, me following him. “That’s why I refueled your car already yesterday when you went to take photos with Benjamin, before you even asked Nathan about the gas. And I hid a few containers in the chickens’ coop. To make sure, you know?”
“What?” I grab the doorframe, steadying myself against sudden dizziness. “You refueled the jeep?”
“Yes,” Ezra says, roughly throwing a pan on the stove and carelessly knocking some eggs into it. The stove is too high and he has to stretch and lean over in the wheelchair to be able to reach it. There is a pot with leftovers of the stew heating up on another plate already.
Ezra offers me a loaf of bread. “Bread? It’s gonna get stale…”
“We can go?” I ask stupidly, the meaning of his words failing to register in my mind. “We can go to Lesdale?”
Ezra swivels around and smiles a bit for the first time, but it is quickly gone. “We can.” He puts the loaf of bread in his lap when I do not reach for it.
“Jesus…” I sink down on the bench at the table, joy and a ridiculous giddiness fluttering in my stomach despite everything, and press my trembling hands together. I will be able to find Frank! “Fuck…”
“A thank you would have been enough,” Ezra says with another small ghost of a grin, pulls up to the table and places bread and some plates from his lap onto it.
I grab him by the shoulders before he can turn around again and press my lips on his. His beard scratches my skin and he still smells of dust and smoke although the scent of shampoo is lying over it all.
Ezra stares at me thunderstruck as I lean away again.
“Don’t get used to it,” I say, somewhat surprised by my own boldness and get up. I turn the eggs over that have started to make hissing noises and grin while I try to ignore the strange, twisting feeling in my gut.
Ezra, it seems, prefers to stay silent.
We wake Benjamin and have an excessive dinner, everyone starved from the long night and the long sleep following that, although none of us is really hungry. But the appetite comes with the food and we eat without talking until we cannot take more.
“Where’s Jim?” I ask after we have finished, only realizing now that he is not in the kitchen anymore.
“Put him in the broom’s cupboard,” Ezra says, occupied with scratching out the bottom of the pot to get to the last remains of the stew.
I cannot help but laugh. “Geez, really?” I try to picture Ezra wrestling with the man tied to the chair, trying to get him maneuvered into the cupboard. I guess he did not pay attention to being gentle, though.
Ezra shrugs. “Couldn’t stand looking at him,” he says.
“Yeah, I feel you…” I sober down. “What do we do with him?”
“I don’t know,” Ezra says, cleaning the table of empty pots and plates, putting them in his lap before wheeling to the sink. “I propose locking the asshole out tonight.”
I inhale sharply. “Ezra!”
Ezra looks at me grimly. “What? It’s no different than my mother’s death.”
I shake my head. “No, we cannot do that.”
“If we leave him in the cupboard he will suffer much longer,” Ezra warns.
I sigh. I know that. I wish I could just forget knowing that he was in there. It would make everything so much easier. Why do we have to make a decision like this? At least this problem is distracting me from the jolt my heart does every time Ezra looks at me now. I do not know why I kissed him. Why did I do that?
“Someone needs to feed the chicken,” Benjamin says.
We both turn around to the table, startled. We completely forgot that the boy is still with us. He was silent all throughout dinner, eating what was placed in front of him, eyes on the plate and fork tight in the boy’s hand.
“They will die if no one does,” Benjamin adds, gets up from the table and walks out of the room.
Ezra and I take a look at each other before we quickly follow the boy.
“Are you sure?” Ezra asks carefully.
Benjamin turns in front of the door to Ezra’s room, fiddling with his shirt. Ezra wheels right over the dark spot where the blood of the man has soaked the wooden floorboards.
“Yeah” Benjamin says, looking at the floor. “I don’t… I don’t want any more people dying…” he whispers.
“Of course...,” Ezra says softly, his shoulders lowering. “But… it's also Jim’s fault that your grandparents are dead, you know? He does not deserve to live here. It’s not his place, it’s not his home. It’s our home!” Ezra’s fists tighten around the rims.
“You don’t know if he will feed the chicken. He might just burn the whole farm down,” Ezra adds. He has wheeled up to the child and slowly lifts his hand, smoothing Benjamin’s unruly red hair back. “I’m not surrendering the farm to him.”
He is right, I cannot really picture Jim working on this farm as he should. But then again… maybe he would care for it, because the farm is his last chance at survival.
Benjamin shies away from his uncle’s touch and chews on his lip, stubbornly glaring at us. “Then we’ll take him with us.”
Ezra looks up and around at me, pleadingly.
Ezra looks up and around at me, pleadingly.