“Can we stop?”
“Again?” Ezra sighs but he smiles into the rearview mirror. “You drink too much of that juice!”
Benjamin laughs, the sound bright and still unusual in our ears. The boy has been drawn back and quiet for the last days, only warming up some when Ezra took him fishing yesterday afternoon at a clear and sparkling stream. Benjamin caught a large trout, grinning like a Cheshire cat when Ezra helped him pull the heavy fish out of the water. We made a campfire at the water, feeling relatively safe while the sun was still up and with the good view around us that would have us spot zombies approaching right away. But we did not meet any. In fact, since we are nearing Lesdale, we have seen less and less movements in the shadows although I am sure they are just hiding well.
“Pee break,” I announce with a grin and pull the jeep over.
I take the pistol with me as I walk with Benjamin to the side of the road where I turn around a bit to give him some privacy. While I wait, I valiantly fight the urge to scratch the scabs at my hands and arms and on my cheeks. The wounds are healing well and my hair is growing back, which I know I should be grateful for, but sometimes the itching drives me crazy.
“What’s that?” Benjamin says after a while.
“There's a fire over there.”
I turn around quickly and join Benjamin at the side of the road. We are on the side flanks of a wide valley and between the trees one can see down to the plane beneath.
Benjamin points at a spot in the very far distance, gray smoke wafting in a long, thin spiral into the air, barely disturbed by the wind. It must be a large fire indeed.
“What’s wrong?” Ezra asks from inside the jeep, leaning out the window. He taps his fingers on the dusty metal of the car.
“Is Lesdale in this direction?” I ask him, pointing in the direction of the smoke.
Ezra nods, frowning.
We get into the car again and drive on, more alert than before. At least we know now that Lesdale will not be abandoned as the other settlements we came through. I do not know if this should make me happy or disturb me, though.
It is already late and we know we will not make it closer to Lesdale today. Progress has been slow the past days. The road has been frequently blocked by crashed cars, trees or rocks, and one time we had to take a detour of a few hours because we could not get through otherwise. At least we got a bit of gas from one of the cars that we checked. Yesterday the jeep suddenly died on us and it took thirty minutes of me almost giving in to the rising panic until Ezra had figured out the problem and got it running again. I had no idea he was skillful with cars.
“There's a weather station not far from here,” Ezra says after a few minutes, regarding the dark trees moving past his window. “I think it may have a perimeter fence.”
That would be great because the evenings and nights are long with all of us inside the jeep. There is barely space for anyone to move, and cooking inside the car is a challenge of itself.
Ezra directs me down a few smaller roads and soon we stop in front of a high metal gate. It is guarded with a heavy, albeit rusty, chain.
“Do you have a key?”
Ezra barks a laugh at that. “Do you think I have a key for every damn weather station around here? Na... This one’s not one of ours.” He dangles his lockpicking kit in front of my eyes, smirking. “Don't need a key, though.”
Benjamin lifts Ezra's wheelchair parts to the front and Ezra transfers to open the gate. It takes only seconds until I can steer the jeep through. I park near the small cement building in the grass and get out of the car with a content sigh, stretching my legs. Driving for hours and hours on end, always alert and concerned about what might await us behind the next bend is exhausting after a few days.
Ezra has closed and barricaded the gate and pushes over the narrow path leading to the weather station toward us. He tests the door to the building but gives up quickly and wheels over to us.
“There's a stream nearby, Benjamin. Should we go fishing again?”
Benjamin jumps out of the car, beaming, a happy Lucy on his heels. “This time I catch an even bigger one, Ezra,” he announces and widens his arms to indicate just how big a fish he desires to catch. Lucy runs in circles around him, her ears flying.
I hand Ezra his father’s fishing rod from the trunk and the pistol. “Be careful,” I say. I do not feel too well with them going alone and getting lost in staring into the water. “Is it far away?”
Ezra shakes his head. “It's just a small stream nearby and there’s a trail to a bridge leading over it. We might not catch anything,” he adds in an even lower voice, watching Benjamin out of the corner of the eye.
I sigh. “At least bring some water so we save our reserves,” I say curtly and hand Ezra a small pot without looking at him. “And take Lucy with you.”
I get why Ezra wants to do this. We have been worried about Benjamin for the past days and no one was more relieved to see the kid happy again. If fishing does that, I am sure Ezra would risk everything to do it again. That is exactly what has me worried.
Ezra touches my arm when I want to walk away to get more equipment out of the trunk. I turn to look at him, barely managing to keep the concerned frown off my face.
“Trust me,” he says. “I won’t let any harm get to him.”
“I know...” I mumble, turning my back to him and digging for more of our cooking equipment. For a change, Benjamin is not primarily what I'm worried about.
I tell myself that Ezra is old enough and experienced enough to assess a situation and its risk. And still I am glad when I see them come back one hour later, unscratched. The sun is setting low already and I have a good fire going by now and put stones around it that provide spots to place a kettle or hang a fish on a stick over the flames.
The two have not been very successful as it seems. Ezra is balancing the pot in his lap, water sloshing over its rim whenever the wheelchair is bumped over an uneven spot. The pot is not large enough for a good portion of fish. Benjamin is pushing his uncle who looks happy and uncomfortable at the same time. The boy's entire body is stemmed against the wheelchair's back, his small fingers wrapped around the low handles tightly and still the chair only moves at snail-pace. Lucy is trotting behind them, her nose low in the grass, her ears sliding over the ground.
I chuckle watching them and their slow progress. When I meet Ezra's gaze, the man's smile grows even more guarded, and I hurry to turn away and appear busy again.
“See what we have!” Benjamin screams already from the gate.
“What's that?” I ask, getting up from the empty box of equipment that serves as a chair.
“Go, show her,” Ezra says and carefully hands Benjamin the pot. Benjamin walks slowly, trying not to spill more water, while Ezra closes the gate again behind them. Pushing himself, Ezra is faster than the boy, and they are even when they have reached me.
Benjamin holds the pot up to me, smiling proudly. “Ezra saw it, but I caught it!”
It is a crayfish. Not a particularly large exemplar, but more than nothing. “Wow!” My eyes widen and I attempt reaching with my hand into the pot but Benjamin snatches it away from me, water slopping on his jacket.
“Careful!” he cries. “It's got sharp claws.”
I try to keep a serious face and nod, holding my hands in the air. “Okay, I'll take care.” This time Benjamin lets me take out the animal, staring at it with large eyes.
“It's beautiful, isn't it?” I ask, watching the tiny legs of the crayfish move frantically as I hold it up, its antennas feeling the air.
“Yep,” Ezra says, drives the wheelchair into my calf and snatches the crayfish from my hands as I jump. “And delicious.” He pours some of the water into the empty pot that I have placed over the fire. It fizzles and steams immediately. Then he puts the crayfish back into the other. “I prefer it with spaghetti, by the way.”
I rub my calf, glaring at Ezra. “Well, mister,” I step to the side, grab one onion and the knife that I have made ready and throw both to him. “Make yourself useful then.”
Ezra catches the onion in one hand and the knife’s hilt in the other, twisting a bit to the side to prevent having the pointy tip poke him in the stomach. I never said my throwing skills were worth a shit.
“Woah, woman!” Ezra yells, albeit grinning. “If you must stab me, do it where it doesn’t hurt.” He starts skinning the onion with nimble fingers.
“In your heart, then?” I joke and slide a cutting board on his lap for him to dice the onion on, before going to search for canned tomatoes in the back of the jeep.
Ezra grumbles something but he is grinning to himself when I look at him the next time.
The spaghetti are nourishing and Ezra and I brotherly divide the crayfish between us. After Benjamin watched Ezra dump the live animal into the boiling water he refused to eat from it.
“It's good,” Ezra teases as he pokes with his knife around the inside of the shell, trying to get to more crumbs of the rose, soft meat. “Sure you don't want to have a taste?”
Benjamin glares at him. “It's yucky...” he says defensively.
Ezra shakes his head and rolls his eyes.
“Leave him,” I say mildly. “He'll eat more spaghetti.” I load another portion onto the kid's plate. Somehow I feel responsible for making sure that the boy eats enough.
We sit around the warming campfire long after the sun has gone down, me and Benjamin on the box and Ezra in his wheelchair as close to the flames as he dares. I still have no clue how he made it out of the fire on the farm alive, with his wheelchair still intact and all. When I tried asking it became clear quickly that he does not intend to speak about it. I guess his father's death and the fact that he did not manage to prevent it is still too painful in his memory. It was hard enough on him to give the farm over to Jim. I almost felt sorry for Jim when Ezra gave him a lecture on what would happen if they met ever again, and Ezra would learn that Jim had somehow managed to burn down the rest of the farm. I do not think it will happen, though, because neither will Jim be so stupid as to destroy the roof over his head, nor will we meet again. I think.
It may not be the best idea to have a fire going in the night but we are sick of being stuck together in the jeep, freezing in the dark in half-upright seats and waiting for sleep to come. Benjamin pokes with a small stick into the fire until it lights up, then dances over the grass with it, swinging the glowing stick through the air.
“What will you do in Lesdale?” I ask Ezra as we both watch Benjamin play.
We have not talked about any of Ezra's plans for the time that comes after we have arrived in Lesdale. I am going to search for my brother, further east near the coast, but I am curious to learn what Ezra wants to do. And I also dread hearing it. I grew strangely accustomed to his and Benjamin's presence.
Ezra shrugs. “We've got nowhere to be and no car. Maybe we'll just stay there.”
I scratch at the bottom of the spaghetti pan and throw the noodles that have stuck to it on the ground in front of Lucy. She devours them happily.
“If you want...” I say carefully, not looking at Ezra. “…you two could come with Lucy and me.”
Ezra clears his throat, correcting his position in the chair with his hands on the rims. I have come to learn that this is his way of fidgeting.
I suck at my salty and gooey fingers. “Maybe we find an island at the coast without zombies.”
Ezra chuckles. “A deserted island? How romantic!”
I whack him with the empty spaghetti pan in front of the shins. “Don't get your hopes up high. I just need someone with halfway useful skills in repairing cars.” The jeep has never let me down before, but this one incident yesterday has made me think: what if next time I will be alone when it happens? Even if it is just a marginal thing and barely requires any work to fix, I have basically no clue about cars.
“Hmmm...” Ezra makes, scratching his knees. “I'll think about it.”
My heart gives a short, totally unrelated stutter in my chest.
There is a clang against the metal fence and both of our heads fly up.
“Benjamin! Step away!” Ezra has pulled the gun from the space between his thighs and the wheel, aiming at a point next to Benjamin. The boy is standing close to the fence, the still glimmering stick pointed toward it.
“There's a zombie,” Benjamin calls over to us. He does not sound scared, rather curious, and takes another step to the fence as we watch.
I get up, my knife ready in my right hand. Nathan's old Winchester is in the back of the jeep, with barely any ammunition left. I notice that more zombies have been attracted by the light of the fire. They are walking past the fence slowly, searching for a way inside.
“Get away from it!” Ezra thunders.
Benjamin hesitates, his gaze going to and fro between his uncle and the creature on the other side of the fence. Finally the boy complies. He shrugs, turns and walks back to us. “It didn't look scary,” he says, swinging his stick. “I could have...”
“Don't even think of it,” Ezra growls, and secures the gun again before pulling the boy to stand in front of him, grabbing his shoulders tightly. “You’re not going to go near a zombie again, understand me?”
Benjamin frowns at him rebellious.
“And you’re sure as hell not going to try to kill any, got that?”
Benjamin huffs but then he nods, his eyes still challenging. “Yeah, yeah...” he mumbles, clearly not really meaning it.
Ezra bristles but he lets it slide. “Go to bed now,” he orders the boy.
Benjamin does as he was told, making a show out of clanging things louder than necessary and splashing water everywhere as he washes and changes his clothes.
“Sleep well, Benjamin,” I tell him quietly and tuck him in, making sure the door is shut firmly before I join Ezra outside again.
“That's how fast they grow from sweet kids to stupid teenagers,” I joke as I sit down next to Ezra again.
Ezra ruffles his hair, sighing. “He's... I guess he's still trying to cope with... all of this.”
I squeeze Ezra's arm. “He's tough. He'll make it through okay.”
Ezra nods, the concerned look in his face not fully vanishing. “Yes... I hope so. I'm just... I'm afraid I might be losing him on the way.”
I shake my head, wordlessly.
The zombies do not manage to get inside and after some time we get used to them walking, and groaning, in the shadows beyond the fence. We sit in silence, and I ponder about what is already behind us, fate that we escaped and people that we lost. If someone had asked me before all this, I would have never said I could even remotely cope with it. That is why I am relatively sure Benjamin will push through it as well, but I cannot say that I am not worried, too. I sigh and Ezra’s head turns to me before moving back to stare into the flames again.
We both do not really want to go to bed. We have not slept well during the last nights, but none of us is really looking forward to another night in the jeep. I have been thinking about erecting my tent on the grass, but then again I am not a hundred percent sure the fence will really keep all zombies off. The tent provides no shelter at all.
Ezra pushes on the wheels, suspending his body in the air for a few seconds. He is wearing his pullover again but the broad muscles in his shoulders and arms are visible through the fabric, making my mouth go dry as I watch him.
“Huh?” My eyes flicker to his face. The orange light of our campfire is etching shadows into it, his chin and cheekbones appearing sharper than in daylight. He is growing a beard again.
“You are staring again.”
“Oh...” I feel my cheeks glow hotter than they have before. “Sorry.”
To my surprise Ezra chuckles quietly. He eases himself down again, his right knee bobbing a bit before he adjusts its position with his hand on it. He says nothing, his brows drawn as he pushes around in the chair, trying to find a position.
It takes all of my courage to ask. I would rather stab a zombie than talk to Ezra about it, but I guess it might be important if we will maybe stick together for some time longer. “Is something wrong?”
Ezra frowns and I almost expect him not to answer but then he sighs. “I've spent too much time sitting,” he says in a low voice, pointedly looking at the fire to our feet. “And too much time in the car on bad streets and in the chair on bumpy trails.”
“Uh-huh...” I make, not understanding much.
Ezra scratches his head. “If I have bad luck I may develop a pressure sore.”
“Oh...” That I have heard of before.
“Since I can't feel it...” Ezra fiddles with a hole in his jeans.
“Will it be dangerous?” I ask.
Ezra weighs his head. “Untreated... yes.”
We both know there will be no treatment. Not now.
“Would it be better if you could sleep on the back seats? I mean... could you lie down maybe?”
Ezra looks up at me. “Yes... that would work, I guess.”
A bit later I collect our things and Ezra kills the fire, when the car door opens with a small click and Benjamin steps out, feet naked on the ground.
“Benjamin?” Ezra turns the wheelchair to the boy.
“Nightmare?” I ask, because it would not be the first time.
Benjamin sniffles and looks up, eyes shiny. “My parents… they aren’t going to come back, are they?” He hiccups.
A leaden weight plummets in the pit of my stomach.
“Oh Benjamin,” Ezra freezes, then, as if he is unsure it is the right thing to do, he opens his arms a bit. Within a second the kid has crawled into his lap, sobbing at his chest.
Ezra looks over the boy's shoulder at me, his dark eyes wide and confused.
I nod at him, encouragingly. “I'm going to uh... wash myself a bit,” I mouth at him, take a bit of water in a pot and my towel with me, ignoring the pleading look Ezra throws at me.
I almost grin when I brush my teeth, listening to Ezra and Benjamin talk on the other side of the house, Benjamin still crying a bit but clearly calming down.
They will be good for each other. Much more than they know now.
We are on the road as early as possible the next day, intending to make it to Lesdale by evening. Since Ezra needs quite a lot of private time in the morning and the main road is blocked by a fallen tree which prompts a small but still considerable detour, the sun is already lowering behind the clouds when Ezra gestures to me to stop the car at the side of the street, right before we turn around a bend.
Ezra reaches for the wheelchair parts in the back. “Benjamin, stay here. Caroline and I will go and have a look, okay?”
Benjamin nods and hugs Lucy who wags her tail.
“Lucy will stay with you. We’ll be back soon,” I say through the open window shortly before we leave. “Close the window now.”
“Promise you’ll come back…” Benjamin’s voice is small and scared. All of the cheeriness that he displayed over the day seems to have drained out of him all of a sudden.
Ezra lifts his butt over into the wheelchair and bumps his feet up on the footrest. He wheels closer to us and leans forward and through the open window into the car as much as he is allowed in the chair, cupping the boy’s cheek with his large hand. “I promise, Benjamin. I’ll always come back for you.”
Benjamin blinks. “You won’t leave like my parents?”
Ezra winces but he manages to bring himself to continue speaking. “You know that your parents didn’t want to leave you, Benjamin, right?”
Benjamin nods, his eyes glistening.
“We’re going to come back, Benjamin,” I say. “It won’t take long.”
The trustful eyes of the boy are ingrained in my brain and Ezra's words heavy in my chest as I lead the way. The climb to the top of the hill is difficult. Ezra fights with the steep incline and the rocky path until I offer my help and pull the chair up backward, sweating and swearing under my breath. Ezra keeps his legs from jostling around with his hands on his knees, his shoulders rigid, telling me he is barely holding back his annoyance.
The view from the top is breathtaking in the lowering sun and making up for the exhausting way to get there. Orange light is flooding the plane under us and the city in front of us looks like rocking boats on a glittering sea.
“Damn,” I murmur.
“Romantic, eh?” Ezra says and I nudge his shoulder.
“Give me the binoculars,” I demand.
Ezra shakes his head and lifts the binoculars to his eyes, turning the lenses in the direction of the city before us. It is much larger than the assortments of abandoned houses we have come through before but not a big city by any standards. Maybe a few hundred houses. The city center is located in the middle, with larger buildings a few stories high but the rest are smaller residential houses. The empty highway winds its way through the hills behind it. Flames are shooting out of the burning heap set apart from the first buildings, visible even without visual enlargement.
I huff and sit down on a rock next to the wheelchair but I do not manage to really be angry with Ezra. He has been a valuable companion in the last days, a second set of eyes to watch out for zombies, fallen trees or rocks blocking the road, someone to talk to and even laugh with in the long dark hours during which we hid from the zombies every night. I do not know what I would have done without him. And in weird times I wish him much, much closer than that.
“What do you see?” I ask impatiently after a while.
“Look for yourself,” Ezra says, a frown edged onto his forehead but not directed at me.
I take the binoculars from him and direct them over to the city. The burning heap is not identifiable even through them, flames licking up from it, shining bright and lively. I shiver a bit, thinking back to the burning barns at the farm, and continue to watch the people around it. They definitely move too surely and too coordinated to be zombies.
“The road,” Ezra murmurs.
I trace the road to the city, stopping short before I have reached the first buildings. Something big is blocking the road. A car? No, much bigger. A huge wall of concrete debris, held together with wooden planks. A checkpoint. I see small figures on it and people patrolling in its vicinity. They do not look like police or military to me.
“The city is locked down,” I whisper.
“Seems like it,” Ezra confirms.
“What do we do now?” I set the binoculars down again.
Ezra next to me shrugs. “Hmm… It doesn’t keep off the Crazies, obviously. I guess building a wall around the entire city was too much work.”
“So what does it keep off then?”
“Only one way to find out,” Ezra says.
“We have no other choice anyway.” We are running low on fuel again.
“Yep,” Ezra says. “So?”
I scratch my head. “We’ll go there and politely ask them to give us some gas and let us pass?”
Ezra nods. “That’s what I’ve been thinking,” he says. “But with a bit more… tactics than that.”
“Okay…” I look at him. I can see he is making a plan already. “Let me do the talking,” I propose.
Ezra chuckles, grinning crookedly. “Can't promise you that.”
“We have to be sensible,” I warn. “They might not be friendly.”
“Guessed that much,” Ezra says. “That's why I'm not sure you should be the one doing the talking.”
I playfully shove him. “Careful or I’ll get you down from here the fast way,” I jest.
Ezra grabs the handrims, steadying himself before he can roll over the edge in front of us. He grins. “Woah, death threats! Keep them coming, it’s not as if I've never heard them before.”
I giggle. “You always choose your women dangerous?” I joke, but a part of me wonders what he meant with that.
“I love the risk,” Ezra says, winking at me but he knocks in the brakes.
I get up, patting dust from my pants. “Okay, let’s grab us some gas and maybe a shower, huh? And a pizza for Benjamin?”
My stomach rumbles as I speak. We have plenty of food but we are still rationing, in case we will not be able to get our hands on more soon.
“He’d certainly love that,” Ezra says and nods.
“I’m glad we are in this together,” I say after a short hesitation, watching Erza who is still looking out over the plane, eyelashes shining orange in the lowering sun. He is damn attractive like this, arms strong, chest broad, his chin set in determination. We have not kissed again since the time in the kitchen at the farm, when I had been overwhelmed by emotions. I guess Ezra knows that it had happened in the spur of the moment and he did not try to bring it up again at all.
I am grateful for that because I cannot think of anything more difficult than trying to start a relationship while the world is falling apart around us. Only now I fight against the impulse to lift my hand and put it in Ezra’s neck, kneading the strain out of it. I would tangle my fingers in his hair and pull his head back a little to kiss him again, closing my eyes against the blinding light of the setting sun, my chin rubbing against the stubble. He would taste of fire and dust and the remains of what we have had for lunch and he would place his strong hands around my waist and pull me in his lap to deepen the kiss, letting me forget everything around us – Frank, Benjamin, the zombies and whatever awaits us in Lesdale.
Instead, Ezra releases the breaks and slowly turns the chair on the uneven ground. “Me too,” he says, smiling up at me as he wheels past.
I take the pistol in hand and try to reciprocate the smile as I watch out over Ezra’s head for zombies lurking in the growing darkness in front of us, avoiding looking at Ezra. Having him with me is an immense relief, despite the fact that I am sometimes not sure if I want to punch him or kiss him senseless. Thinking back to where we started I would not have believed we could become such a good team as we are now. But as it is and although I usually prefer to be on my own, I am sincerely glad I have Ezra and Benjamin as company. With them both and Lucy at my side, I feel optimistic. We will get gas in Lesdale and then I will follow the highway that starts at Lesdale and find Frank.
Finding Frank is the most important thing.
I watch Ezra in front of me, his hands wrapped around the handrims and his face turned back and up to me, and I allow myself to be hopeful.
“All right?” he asks.
“Ready,” I answer, and we start our descent.
The commanding voice comes from somewhere inside the barricade of debris and a few wracked cars from what I can see now that we are closer. It looms dark and frightening over us. The jeep jolts to an abrupt halt on the street, still several feet away from the checkpoint. The motor hums audibly in the silence and the headlights illuminate jagged edges and protruding steel in front of us.
“Who are you?!”
It is a woman’s voice.
A figure appears on top of the checkpoint, dark against the graying sky in her back. She has long legs and a narrow waist, short hair and a rifle in her hand, pointed at us. In the twilight I can make out more people, moving in the shadows to the sides of the barricade, ducking low with weapons of their own. I have my hands clenched around the steering wheel to prevent them from twitching to the handgun in the glove box. On the passenger’s seat Ezra’s upper body is all tight muscles and vibrating tension.
I look over to Ezra. He lowers the window. “We are unarmed!” he yells.
“Who are you?” The woman asks again and aims her gun at Ezra, her voice not leaving any doubt that she will not ask a third time.
Ezra swallows but when he speaks his voice betrays no nerves. “We’re searching for shelter and food.” He lifts one hand outside the car, showing his empty palm. “We don’t want any trouble. We only narrowly survived the outbreak. My wife and I… and our son.”
Pretending that we are a family has been Ezra’s idea. Chances are higher that they see no threat in us this way, and it is less likely that we will be split up. He also insisted we leave behind almost all of our best preserved food reserves, safely hung up into a tree. On one side this will make us appear more vulnerable and thus less threatening, on the other side we will have a plan B for escape. Because apparently we need that.
“Are you clean?” the woman yells.
Ezra turns and lifts his eyebrows at me but I shake my head. I have no idea what the lady means.
“Any bites? Open wounds?”
“No!” Ezra yells back.
The woman on the barricades does not lower her gun, her stance unchanged.
“Step out of the car!”
Ezra bites his lip.
“Out of the car. Now!”
Ezra sighs, gesturing for Benjamin in the back to hand him the wheelchair parts.
“What are you waiting for?”
Ezra nods at me when I carefully ease the door open. “You too, Benjamin,” he says. “Get out with Lucy. Grab her collar and don’t make any sudden movements.”
My heart hammers with fear as I kill the engine and open the door fully to step out and away from our guns, our equipment and our food. And Ezra. With my empty hands raised, I feel incredibly vulnerable as I turn and look up at the figure looming above us, and the gun pointed steadily at me. I pull Benjamin close and behind me, partly shading the boy with my body. He is trembling and Lucy whines, pressing herself against my leg.
“It’s going to be okay…” I murmur, stroking the boy’s short hair.
People step out of the dark around us cautiously, shoes scraping quietly on the asphalt. They are in jeans and faded pullovers, with dark jackets and unwashed hair, some with bandages around arms or plasters on scratched cheeks. As they come closer and our wide eyes meet, they do not look so menacing anymore. Most are around my age, some are older, and I spot only one much older guy with short white hair in the background, the hands around his pitchfork quivering.
I realize that they are as scared as we are.
“What about the- Oh…”
The woman has climbed down the barricade and made her way through the advancing group. She lowers her gun as she watches Ezra finish attaching the wheels and heave his body over and into the wheelchair. I can see her eyebrows lift in astonishment as Ezra pulls his feet on the footrest and wheels around the open car door, stopping the chair in front of Benjamin, Lucy and me.
“I’m Ezra,” he says. His voice is deep and confident, and something unclenches within me. “Nice to meet you.”
He extends his hand to the woman who presses her lips together, hesitant, and watches him closely as if trying to figure out something. Then she finally steps forward to briefly shake his hand. Ezra breaks a smile at her but the woman’s dark facial expression barely changes.
“What do you want?” she asks sharply, retreating into the lines of the others that have formed half a circle around us now. Her rifle stays lowered, although her hands keep wrapped around it in a strong grip. Her naked arms are covered in dust and I wonder how she is not freezing.
“A safe place to rest,” Ezra says with his hands in his lap. “And maybe stay a few days, if that is allowed. Something to eat. A place to sleep. Gasoline. We don’t need much and we can work.”
“Huh…” The woman’s gaze goes over me, Benjamin and Lucy. “We could use the dog. And you.” She fixes her gaze on me. There is dirt in her face as well but I think she might only be a few years older than me or Ezra. “You are strong.”
I nod. No talking, Ezra has said.
“I’m good with cars,” Ezra says.
The woman sighs. “And the kid?”
“I can fish!” Benjamin pipes up.
I poke the boy but Ezra smiles and nods. “He’s a clever kid. And hardworking.”
The woman finally nods. “Good. You can come with us. Leave the car here.”
“The car? But…” I fall silent at Ezra’s glare leveled at me. Yes, yes, all right, I'll shut up. I pull Benjamin with me as we follow the group around the barricade.
And so we enter the city at nightfall, amidst a group of ragtag fellow survivors who now seem to govern Lesdale.
“Do you have pizza?” Benjamin asks the middle-aged woman who walks next to us as we go around the checkpoint. There are only a few buildings out here, abandoned and broken down already a few years ago I assume and the walkways are in no good shape. I see Ezra fight with the uneven ground out of the corners of my eyes but decide he is going to make it on his own. He is talking to that lady from the barricades, whose name I still do not know, and I think it is better not to interrupt. She seems to be something like a leader here.
“Pizza? No!” The woman laughs, her curly, dark brown hair fluttering around her face that is powdered with dust. Her blue eyes are clear and friendly. “But we have bean soup today, I think.”
“Ewww,” Benjamin makes and sticks his tongue out.
“Hey…” the woman says conspiratorially, leaning down to Benjamin. “I know who to ask for extra bacon.”
“Really?” Benjamin looks at her and beams. “I love bacon.”
“Thought so,” says the woman and winks at me.
“Is it… is it safe here?” I ask her in a whisper as we come closer to the first row of densely built houses at the fringe of the city, and my anxiety increases again.
“We have food, water, housing, medicine,” the woman says, smiling. “And we're currently securing the inner city. Only a few weeks left and there won’t be a single Undead walking our streets.”
I notice the group moves closer together as soon as we enter the shadows between the houses, the men and women lifting their weapons again with nervous eyes searching the dark around us.
“This will soon be a place where you don’t need to be afraid anymore,” the woman says, her eyes shining with hope.
I shake my head in disbelief, but I am smiling now as well with that thought in my mind. “That sounds awesome.”
“Doesn’t it?” The woman stops and offers her hand to shake, grinning. “I’m Rosalind by the way.”
“Welcome to New-Lesdale. I’m glad you came here.”
Looking into the friendly face in front of me, I mean it. Seems like after all we went through, we finally found a safe haven where we can get some rest, stock up on supplies and then, hopefully, go on searching for Frank.
I think we deserve being lucky for once.
“Um… any chance for a hot bath here?” I ask Rosalind, halfway joking.
The woman laughs. “I guess that can be arranged,” she says.