We stare at each other, trying to figure out if we can trust the other person, only a few hours after meeting for the first time. I do not move an inch as I study Ezra’s grim features. His eyebrows are furrowed and his dark eyes glint threateningly. He is serious with the boy and in that moment I realize that although every fiber in my body is screaming at me to get away from here as fast as possible, now that I know about the kid I cannot just leave without at least trying to help. I would like to but I cannot.
I exhale, some of the tension leaving. “I help you with Benjamin. You get me to Lesdale.” From there I can take the highway south until I enter more familiar areas. “Deal?” I have no choice than to put my trust in him. I am not going anywhere without fuel and he is right about the fact that knowing your surroundings can be a valuable advantage. Plus he is good with a gun. That does not mean I am going to stop having an eye on him.
“Deal.” Ezra extends a hand and I step forward and stoop down to shake it. He has large hands, long and callused fingers with a dead strong grip, matching mine. There is still no smile in his face but the rigid line of his broad shoulders softens and I can hear him exhale slowly.
I have not been the only one preparing for a serious confrontation.
“You have already searched some of the houses?” I try not to let doubt tinge my voice but I can tell Ezra has noticed still. His face is dark again when he wheels back to the table, jerking his head for me to follow.
He pushes a piece of paper toward me. It is a rough drawing of the village, I realize. Houses are rectangles lined up along a broad line, the only road. A huge circle is drawn around the box where we are, another one around the box across from it. Some houses are checked, others crossed out.
Ezra puts a finger on one of the crossed out rectangles. “These have been left before and are basically empty.” He chuckles humorlessly and scoffs: “Even before the zombie apocalypse no one wanted to actually live here.” When I say nothing he goes on, tapping one of the checked boxes. “These I searched.” His gaze bores into me like he is challenging me to say something but I simply nod.
“Where do we get fuel from?”
Ezra turns his chair and wheels past the fireplace, empty except for a few handfuls of ashes. He opens the left of the two doors and I follow him through.
We have apparently entered the bedroom. A double-bed and a low cupboard are the only furniture. There is a rusty looking one-man fridge, useless now without power, sitting on the cupboard next to a microwave that looks like it was produced before microwaves were invented. The carpet is in an even worse state than in the other room, stains and burned holes in some places. Ezra wheels to the windowless wall.
He has stacked the outcome of his previous treasure hunts along the wall, some placed in boxes and bags, others lying in the open. Several cans of food and water in plastic containers. An ax. One ancient looking pistol, apparently no munition. A folded plastic canvas. Matches. And…
Ezra bends down to pick up a mid-sized gas container, handing it to me. When I receive it, barely believing what I hold in my hands, I chuckle lowly. “All the time it was just next door,” I mumble.
Ezra stiffens, his fingers curling around the handrims.
I look at him, holding one hand up in a conciliating gesture. “I will keep my side of the deal, don’t worry. If you keep yours.”
“I intend to,” he growls, still scrutinizing me.
A bit reluctantly, I hand the gas container back.
Ezra’s left leg starts bouncing as he takes the container out of my hands and places it back on the floor. He adjusts his position in the chair by pushing on the wheels to lift his lower body off the seat a little and the jittering stops.
“It will not bring us far but…” Ezra has maneuvered around me and is leaving the bedroom again. He leaves the end of the sentence hang open.
He is right. We need more gas than that to go south.
I follow Ezra and sit down in the only chair at the table, next to him. He shows me more of his papers, some with drawings, others with text in his slanted handwriting. Logs of his conversations with Benjamin, I realize.
“The situation is as follows. Benjamin is locked in the attic on the third floor. The door is closed and he has barricaded himself in by pushing furniture in front of the door. I have seen zombies on the first floor, two at least. I guess we cannot fully exclude the possibility that there are some hiding out on the second floor as well, although Benjamin said his parents locked all the doors.”
I put down the log I have been studying. Ezra used short sentences and simple words communicating with the kid. Some of Benjamin’s parts are barely understandable, words misspelled until their former meaning can only be guessed at. I remind myself that the kid is only eight. “What about the window?”
“The window to the attic is locked too and there is no way to reach it from the outside without a long enough ladder. If we had one though… and I know a few places where chances are high we’ll find one…” Ezra runs a finger over a few of the rectangles in the middle of the village, “well… might be worth a try. I haven’t given it much thought before, obviously.”
Both of Ezra’s legs have started jumping now, the low rattle of his feet on the footrest clearly audible in the quiet room. Ezra digs his fingers into his right thigh, frowning absentmindedly. “I have a gun with eight more shots. Do you have a weapon?”
I swallow. “Just a knife.”
He hesitates. “Do you know how to handle a gun?”
He contemplates me for some time with an expression in his face that seems to say that he does not trust me but in the end he shrugs and leans back in his chair. “With that, I see two possibilities. Getting the boy out through the window, with a ladder, or going in through the door, with the risk of meeting some of those Crazies. And they won’t be happy, I can guarantee that much. Going in there I can cover your back. We should be able to overpower them, especially during daylight. Going up the ladder… I’m afraid is mostly your show.”
I meet his expectant gaze, cringing a bit. I did not know I was such a coward but this sounds all very dangerous. “Uh… let’s see first if we’ll find a ladder.”
He nods, all emotions carefully concealed.
Ezra has a backpack ready for me to carry, mostly empty, his gun strapped to the side. At the top of the fire staircase, after locking the door with the key I have given back to him, he spins his chair around and hands me the gas container he has balanced in his lap. I take it and look down the steep stairs, biting on my lips. How in all world will Ezra get down there? It had not occurred to me before, maybe I had hoped for a lift to magically appear.
Ezra wordlessly turns the chair to face the stairs, locks the breaks on the wheels and lifts each knee with his hands to level his feet off the footrest. He scoots forward in the seat and, with a hand on the seat behind him, slides down to sit on the floor in front of the wheelchair, legs falling to one side awkwardly. He grabs them by the fabric of his jeans, straightening them out down the metal stairs in front of him.
“Could you take the wheelchair down? Will make it much easier.” He does not look at me, voice tight.
“Uh… of course,” I breathe and pry my eyes away from him.
The wheelchair is light, to my surprise, and I squeeze past Ezra to take it down with the gas container in the other hand and the backpack on my back. Ezra moves down the stairs on his butt with the help of his arms, sliding down one or two steps before stopping to readjust his legs, then resuming the process. His legs do not seem to move on their own, the feet in the heavy boots flopping around and hitting the metal with a clonk. I try not to stare and fiddle with one of the straps of the backpack instead.
Having nearly accomplished the task of getting down the stairs, Ezra stops and looks at me. “My chair?”
“Uh-oh…” I hastily move the wheelchair that I completely forgot about closer to the foot of the stairs. “Sorry.”
The edges of Ezra’s mouth twitch in disapproval but he says nothing, just continues down the last steps before reaching out for the wheelchair, yanking it even closer. He scoots to sit in front of it with his back to the chair, manipulates his legs to stay close to his body with bent knees and carefully reaches behind himself for the seating without disturbing his legs, pushing himself up until his butt slides on the seat.
I can see it must be a strenuous process but there is no hint of it in Ezra’s face or voice as he sits upright, arranges his feet on the footrest and says: “Where is your dog?”
I lowly call for Lucy and she trots round the corner of the building at once, joining us in front of the green metal gate.
Ezra eyes her critically again. “And she is going to be quiet? Not bark madly at a cat? Or… a zombie?”
I shiver as he mentions that. “I told you, Lucy is very silent. Plus she can warn us of them. She did so yesterday.”
Ezra nods, not quite looking convinced. “All right. Okay, so… it will be noon soon. Around this hour, the Crazies are the least active. But still… any loud sound will draw them to attention. We will move quickly. First your car, then the houses, then Benjamin.”
I nod. We have gone over this already several times.
Ezra gestures at me. “I take my gun.”
We move down the street to the other end of the village without speaking. Ezra wheels next to me, the gun across his lap and his hands in black leather gloves pushing effortlessly. We both scan our surroundings constantly, not a rustling leave going unnoticed. Even so, or despite of it, everything stays silent. Lucy, who keeps close to me, does not act out of the ordinary.
As we walk down the street, further away from Benjamin in the attic across from the gas station, we pass a smoldering heap of wood and stone, set back a few rows from the actual street, smoke still rising from it and the smell of ashes and fire sharp in the air. I cough and wrap my scarf across my mouth.
“What’s that? A house?” I ask with a look at the remains of what looks like stone walls.
Ezra nods as he rolls past, barely looking. “It was.”
“One less to search.”
Ezra does not laugh.
When I spot the familiar form of the jeep on the side of the street, relief weakens my knees. Somehow the irrational fear that it might be gone had taken hold of me. I go to fill the tank while Ezra takes to wheel around the vehicle, judging it with a critical look.
“It’s a good car?”
“It’s been quite sturdy, to say the least. Never had any major problems.”
I get behind the wheel, turning the key with a slightly trembling hand. Hopefully the car will live up to my praise. When the motor starts with a sputter that turns into a solid purr, I feel a bit giddy with joy. “Yes!” I exclaim as lowly as possible, punching a gloved fist into the air. Lucy huffs on the backseat.
I lean over and unlock the door to the passenger’s seat, grinning at Ezra waiting outside. “It works.”
Ezra grunts and pushes closer to the seat, flipping the breaks again and moving his left foot from the footrest. He puts the gun inside the car before he transfers to the passenger seat, leveling his ass over with one fist placed on the car seat and the other hand grabbing his chair’s seat. He leans against the back of the car seat, still only about halfway in the car with his left hand braced on the seat, and pulls his legs into the leg space in one go.
When he turns to me, I hurriedly pretend I did not watch.
“I’d like to store the chair on the backseats.”
“Uh, sure… Go ahead.” I understand that he does not trust me to put it in the rear where he cannot reach it.
Ezra pops off one wheel after the other, folds the small backrest in and together we manage to squeeze the wheelchair parts in the back, next to the dog who is looking reproachfully at us as we invade her space.
Ezra scoots back in his seat, closes the door and wraps his fingers around the gun in his lap. “Accelerate slowly, we do not want to produce unnecessary noise.”
“Sure...” My hands shake a bit as I place them on the steering wheel and carefully I push the pedal down with my foot.
Ezra nods approvingly and hums something in his beard.
We slowly creep down the street, seemingly without attracting attention and I manage to relax a bit. Ezra observes the outside, ignoring me.
“How... uh... how do you usually get around?” I ask him, aiming to resolve the tension with conversation. “I mean... without a car?”
Ezra blinks at me. “I have a car.”
“Oh...” I knew there had to be a way for him to drive a car but I do not know how it actually works. “So... where is it?”
“It's gone. They took it.”
Ezra pushes with his left hand into the seat, moving his butt up a bit. “Assholes.”
“Huh...” I decide not to ask any further, seeing Ezra’s hand clench around the gun.
The rest of the drive back to the gas station is quiet and uneventful. I am worrying about the noise of the car the entire time but I also feel less vulnerable inside the jeep. Ezra moves the chair and his body back out and as quickly as that we are back on the street, advancing the first unchecked house on our map. My stomach is knotting with anxiety again, my skin crawling with the feeling that we are observed. I long to be back in the car, to let this village far behind me, be gone from this horror.
Soon. It will be soon, I tell myself.
Searching the houses is a slow procedure although we try our best to make it as efficient as possible. Almost all houses are locked but Ezra proofs very proficient in lock-picking, using two wires. He is also familiar with the layout of many houses, having known the people who lived there and been to visits before. He sends me to the upper stories, sometimes with the task to search for a specific utensil he thinks might be located in a bathroom or kitchen while he searches the first level himself. But most of the houses are on ground level only.
Walking through the houses that have been full of life only a few days ago feels like an intrusion on something private. People have obviously left in a hurry. In one house the table is still set for breakfast; bread, butter and jam silently rotting on the side. Often cupboards are left open, drawers pulled out and objects strewn across the floor in the haste of packing or searching for something specific before leaving the place.
I am hyper-alert, jumping at the smallest creak of a floorboard. We might meet zombies in the houses, Ezra had warned. Either because they were locked in on purpose or found an entrance. A rat scuttling out of a low kitchen cupboard as I open it nearly gives me a heart attack. I keep Lucy at my side at all times, watching her out of the corner of my eyes for any warning signs. But apart from the occasional encounter with a mouse that is nearly as scared as I am we do not meet anything moving, dead or alive.
When we leave the third house with not more than a few candles and matches as the outcome, the disappointment has got to be written on my face.
“People are not wealthy around here. They don’t own much and what they had, they took with them,” Ezra says, wheeling up next to me.
“I know. I just thought… I don’t know. I had hoped for something more useful.”
We come across a small radio working on weak but functional batteries. All there is to hear, however, is white noise on every station. Ezra takes it out of my hands, wordlessly, turns it around in his laps and plucks out the batteries to take them with us. He firmly places the radio back on the side table where I have found it.
I stare a few seconds at the black device on the pristine white linen tablecloth, panic bubbling up in my chest like acid. Out of some reason I have thought the zombies had only attacked this village.
But apparently I have been wrong.
Does that mean that other places look just like this? Empty cities with zombies walking the streets, abandoned buildings and no one to give a warning, not even on the radio station? My legs grow weak and I stumble into the side table, my hands against the wall behind it. Frank! Why did I not think about him earlier? Have the zombies reached his place? What will happen to him?
“Hey!” Ezra murmurs and a hand lands heavy on the small of my back.
I whirl around, breathing irregularly.
“You are not going to have a panic attack now, are you?” he growls, one large hand closing firmly around my wrist, grounding me.
I close my eyes and shake my head. No. No, Ezra is right, I need to focus. We are in a dangerous situation, there is no room for panic. First, we need to get out of here. Then I will have to get to Frank. One step at a time. We can do this.
Slowly I feel the pressure from my chest lift, if only slightly. I open my eyes again and nod into Ezra’s grim face, pushing back from him and freeing my arm.
Some of the houses are boarded up and we lose useful minutes removing the nails from wooden planks using the tools Ezra has stored in the backpack until we can enter. But with time we perfect our searching routine. It seems that our eyes get used to the chaos and get faster in picking out what might be of use. Ezra calls me once to open a high cupboard he cannot reach but apart from that he is as quick and efficient as I am with searching. I locate several small bottles of cooking gas in a kitchen and Ezra finds a sleeping bag. The items join the other ones in my backpack that slowly gets heavier.
It might be that my senses get dulled with the time that nothing exciting happens, my nervousness decreases and I feel myself relax a little. Searching the houses is rewarding, if only slowly, and every time we check another house on the map I feel us getting closer to leaving this village behind.
It might be because of that or because of the haste of our search or the fact that Lucy does not seem bothered at all, I am already standing in the middle of the room in one of the last houses when the stench hits me and my eyes fall on the dead body on the bed.
My stomach turns and it is all I can do not to hurl over the dirty carpet.
Judging from the clothes, it is the body of a mid-sized, older man with gray hair, not altogether clean dark pants and a sweater that is threadbare at the elbows. I am suddenly thankful for the low temperatures because I am sure that without them it would have been impossible to stay in the room for more than a few seconds. The smell is overwhelming as it is and my stomach does a few more attempts at emptying itself as I carefully step closer.
I would not have approached the decomposing body, had I not seen the handgun. The small black gun sitting in the hand of the dead man, fallen to his side, gleaming menacingly at me. The wall behind the bed is dark with a substance I recognize, with my guts clenching, as dried blood and finally I understand: The man has shot himself.
I whimper and turn away, squeezing my eyes shut. My body goes numb and for a while I do nothing else then concentrate on not crashing right there and then. It takes a good minute until I can breathe again and slowly, my trembling hands balled to fists at my side, I turn back around, facing the dead man on the bed.
I watch the still face. What has caused him to pull the trigger? Did he act out of fear of the zombies or out of a totally disconnected motivation? I will probably never know.
It crosses my mind that I could call for Ezra. He is able to get up the stairs; either scooting on his butt as he has done before or, if the railing is sturdy and the stairs not too steep, pulling himself up in his chair. I have seen him do it several times by now although he usually leaves it to me to search the upper levels. I could wait until he gets up here, let him retrieve the gun.
But what will he say if I am not even able to complete a mundane task such as getting a damn weapon from a corpse?
If the man really is dead, though... With a thumping heart I stare at the unmoving, gray fingers curled around the handgun. Is he? I know there is only one way to find out.