Lucy sidles past me, takes a sniff at one of the wheels of the wheelchair, ignoring the man completely before continuing into the room and settling in front of the fireplace.
The man has followed the dog’s every movement warily. I stare at his jeans clad legs, still, with the feet in brown leather boots placed parallel on the footrest. I should be able to trust the person that saved my life just minutes before, especially given the circumstances that I think I can still hear something banging against the gate downstairs.
I step past the wheelchair, into the warm interior of the room and take my furry hat off. My long dark hair falls out from under it and spreads over my shoulders. I unwrap the thick scarf around the lower part of my face.
“Huh, I thought-“
I turn around to the man who is locking the door, leaning forward to close the bolt from the inside. “You thought what?”
“Never mind.” He spins his chair around, faces me, one hand on a handrim, the other on the gun. “What drives you here?” He is watching me closely, his face full of suspicion.
“I was send by my agency to take shots of gray wolves... uh… their pups, specifically. I'm a photographer,” I add unnecessarily.
“What camera do you use?”
“A Nicon D5.” I lift my eyebrows.
“Assuming you wanted to capture the house across from here. ASA and shutter speed in this conditions?”
“100 and about 15,” I answer, lightning fast this time. “With an aperture of f8.”
He scans me for a while before nodding, apparently satisfied, and with powerful pushes wheels over the trodden down carpet to the only window of the room, parking behind a table that is placed close to it. “I guess you can forget about your pretty pictures now.”
I peel out of my coat and step out of the heavy boots. There is a moment of silence before I speak.
“You thought I was a man,” I state. It does not come as a total surprise, thinking about it. I have always been tall. I am as strong as most of the men I know and with the hat, scarf and the camouflage coat I can imagine how someone would get the idea.
The man only grunts and keeps looking out of the window with his back turned toward me.
“I’m Caroline.” I am surprised about how steady my voice sounds. I dimly realize I should be freaking out but inside me is only calm emptiness.
I choose to ignore his obvious animosity and nod toward him. “What happened to you?”
He twists around, throwing a dark glance at me before staring out the window again, ignoring me.
What did I--? Oh.
I clear my throat. “Uh… I meant… I meant that.” I point to my head as he looks at me again.
“Oh… that!” He absentmindedly raises his own hand to his head where blood is oozing through a dirty bandage. “An accident,” he murmurs.
“Was it?” I mumble and step behind him, looking out of the window over his shoulder. He has leaned his gun against the wall next to it. I notice his shoulders are broad, muscles bulging under the soft material of his cotton long sleeve that looks crumbled up as if he has slept in it for days. “Where is everyone?” I ask.
“They all left. As soon as the first one of these things appeared they scrambled to get away from this pit of hell as fast as possible.”
“When was that?”
“Five days ago.”
As the morning arrives and the gray outside turns to a watery blue I can see the body of the shot man lying on the asphalt outside of the gas station. I think I can see shadows moving behind bushes in the distance, too.
I shiver when I realize that this is real although it feels like it happens in my imagination. “What are these? Zombies?”
Ezra picks up one of the pencils lying on the table, playing around with it while his gaze never leaves the window. “For the lack of a better word… I guess.”
“Did you kill the one that attacked me?”
“Hope so. Otherwise I wasted a bullet.”
He still would have saved me, though. But I guess I do not really count to him.
A minute of silence passes.
“So, uh… when everyone left… why are you still here?”
Ezra appears not to have listened. Then his back goes suddenly rigid and he snatches a sheet of paper, pulling it closer to the edge of the table. “Because of him.”
“Because of--?” But I have already seen it. In one of the windows in the upper story of the building across from us a light has appeared, dimly shining at us for a few seconds then going out again.
Ezra bends down to the floor, one hand gripping the handrim of a wheel, and retrieves a strong flashlight not unlike mine. He flashes it out into the vanishing night. On the other side of the street the light answers with a sequence of shorter and longer periods of light on and off and Ezra picks up the pencil again, taking notes on the piece of paper.
“Morse…” I mumble as I recognize a pattern. Ezra grunts an affirmative.
“Who is that over there?”
The light sequence has stopped from the other side. Ezra answers with a short signal and places the flashlight on the table. “A boy of eight years, trapped in the attic by his parents.”
I feel suddenly dizzy. “They left him there?” I croak, gripping the table’s edge to steady me.
Ezra turns, his brown eyes hefting on me for the first time with a neutral expression. “I don’t think they did it intentionally. They left for some reason as one of the last ones in fact, thinking him safe in the attic. And never returned. Who knows what happened to them.” He blinks, turning his eyes away. “One day later… zombies found an entrance and blocked the first floor. That was three days ago.”
A bad feeling creeps up on me. It seems ages ago since I have been in the jeep, driving to this village without any idea of what is happening here, nearly crashing into the accident car in the middle of the road... “I… I’ve seen a car outside the village. There has been an accident. A man died.”
Ezra stiffens and frowns at me. “What did he look like?”
I describe the man from the car, the scenery invading my mind again as I do.
Ezra stares at me, blood has drained from his face. “And the driver?”
I shrug. “There was no driver.”
Ezra turns away from me, looking out of the window again. His knuckles are white around the handrims of his wheelchair.
No trace of the driver. We both know what that means. It feels like a horror movie is becoming real and I grip the edge of the table so hard it hurts.
After a few minutes of silence Ezra speaks again, voice low. “We are getting the kid out of there. And then we are leaving. I guess you have a car?”
“Do you have a car?” He swivels his chair around to face me.
“I…” Suddenly I am so tired. My legs seem like butter and I realize I am shaking. “I… yes, I have a car. It’s parked at the… but no gas.”
I stumble and he catches me, steadying me around my hips. His hands on me burn like fire.
“I think you should sit down.”
With his help I maneuver to the coach in front of the fireplace, the only other furniture in the room. My teeth are clattering and I barely manage to draw my legs up on the couch, sweat breaking on my forehead. The adrenaline from before is wearing off, I realize dimly.
I hear the muffled tread of wheels on the carpet. Ezra mumbles something under his breath that sounds unmistakably like “All I need right now on top of everything”.
When I close my eyes I see the image of the dead man’s head leaning against the blood smeared window and when I try to think of something else the zombie pops into my mind, grinning at me with his half mouth stretching lopsided, the bone under the teared skin white.
I gasp and screw my eyes shut, pressing my fists to them. I need to keep things together, at least on the outward. I need to remind myself that this is only temporarily, that it will go away. I need to focus on what is important, on staying alive.
Ezra comes wheeling through one of the two doors on the long side of the room across from the window. He has a blanket in his lap. “I slept in it. Hope you don’t mind,” he says gruffly, not looking at me.
I swallow a sob and silently shake my head, snatching the blanket from his outstretched hand. A series of forcefully controlled breaths in and out and the buzzing in my ears tunes down some. The couch smells funny but the blanket is heavy and comforting. I watch Ezra put more wood from the small heap next to the fireplace into the fire, sparks flying high between the spikes of his wheels. His back is dark and broad in front of the dancing flames. The dizziness and nausea retreat as soon as I close my eyes again and before I can start wondering how in hell I am going to fall asleep now, I have already dozed off.
I wake with a gasp and Ezra’s hand on my shoulder. He pulls back as if he got burned, turning his chair to wheel away from me.
“Sorry. Thought I’d wake you. Noon is the best time,” he mumbles.
Best time for what? Peeling back the heavy blanket with a still racing heart, I know instantly where I am and the events from last night are sharp in my memory. I feel like I have not slept at all and when I look out of the window into the murky white that seems to be this day, I am sure it can indeed not have been more than a couple of hours.
“Water supply still works,” Ezra says without looking at me, once again sitting at his vantage point at the window. He has replaced the bloody bandage around his head with a huge clean plaster on his forehead. “Only cold, though. Bathroom is over there.” He nods towards the right one of the two doors.
The bathroom is tiny; toilet, shower and sink crammed in as few space as possible. The walls and the floor are faded yellow tiles, the mirror over the sink is cracked and a dirty looking rag is lying in front of the stained shower curtain. I do not look behind it. No shower for me, again. After releasing my bladder I splash some icy cold water into my face, rinse my dry mouth and steal from the near empty tooth paste tube I find in the small cupboard under the sink to at least smear some tooth paste on my teeth with my fingers. I comb my fingertips through my greasy hair and tie it into a bun.
Lucy trots toward me when I exit the bathroom, huffing at my knees. “Can I let her out for a minute?” Also dogs have their needs.
Ezra looks up from the notes stacked in his hands, clearly irritated. “Make sure she stays behind the fence.”
While I watch Lucy from the top of the stairs (there is something revolting inside me to go down there although the fence seems solid) I ponder about Ezra. Why did he stay behind, as the only adult in this village? To save that child in the house over there? A grumpy man in a wheelchair? He does not seem to have a car, all he has is his gun. What in all the world did he think he could do about it? I shake my head and call Lucy upstairs again.
“We need to refuel your car first. Then we take a tour through the houses I have not searched yet, see if we can find anything useful. More food, gas, batteries…. Guns and ammunition. I am running low. Everything that might be handy and has been left behind.”
Ezra has wheeled up to me when I came in through the door again.
“Uh… okay.” I rub my cold hands against my thigh.
Ezra places his large hands on his knees. “We pack everything in your car, then we get Benjamin.”
“The boy…” I say, suddenly hesitant. Ezra mentioned rescuing him yesterday, I remember. It sounded dangerous and when I am being honest I have already given up on the kid. All I want is to be gone from here as fast as possible. Someone locked in the attic of a house full of zombies is very tragic, but look at us two... What can we possibly do?
Ezra freezes in his chair, his face darkening. “You’ll help me get him out, I’ll help get all of us out of here.” There is a warning undertone in his voice and the knuckles of his hands gripping his knees stand out white. “Understand?”
I blink, my fingers forming into fists. I know a threat when it is directed at me.
I have left my jacket on the back of the couch, with my knife in the pocket. Ezra’s loaded gun is still by the window. It requires all mental strength I can muster to keep standing where I am, not to let my eyes wander over there. If I am quick… he is in a wheelchair, I should be able to get there faster.
“I know where to find gas. And I know my way around here. I don’t suppose you have a detailed map of this area and I don’t think GPS is working if your phone is not dead already anyway,” Ezra growls.
I do not answer, calculating the steps it will take me to the gun and to the knife, steeling myself for a quick dash. Ezra’s hands return to the handrims, his frown deepening.