My hand hovers over the fingers curled around the weapon. The skin is gray and papery.
I do not want to give Ezra one more reason to think I am a liability. He already thinks of me as weak, that I am slowing him down, and I do not want to add anything to that. I can hear the blood pounding in my ears as I slowly lower my hand until my fingers touch the dead skin. My knife is ready in the other but the corpse remains motionless on the mattress.
I breathe out, shakily, try to pry the dead man’s fingers open but it is more difficult than I had thought because the man seems to stubbornly cling to his weapon. I stow the knife away in its sheath, take another step closer and use both hands until I have the small gun in my hands.
I am still wiping away vomit from the corners of my lips when I meet Ezra downstairs. He looks irritated, his brown eyes hefting on me with a frown.
“What happened? You took forever.”
“Found something.” I say curtly and hand over the handgun, a semi-automatic pistol, without looking him into the eyes. “Only one shot is missing.”
After emptying my stomach I have gone back and searched the place where the gun was stored, in a side table at the bed, and found cleaning utensils but no more ammunition.
“Good work,” Ezra admits, studying the gun closely. He opens the chamber to count the remaining cartridges and then hands it back to me. I try to hide the shaking of my hands as I receive it.
“You know how it works?”
“Yes.” The cold metal feels oddly hot on my skin.
“Don’t waste a bullet.” Despite his rough tone, I can hear a trace of grudging respect in his voice.
I hesitate. “Do you know... whoever lived here?”
“Huh?” Ezra has already turned to leave. “You mean in this house? Sure, I've seen the guy a few times. Never talked much, though. He is more the quite type.”
I decide not to mention what happened upstairs. As we leave I take a last look back at the shabby facade of the house. I think I will never get rid of the smell of rotting flesh sticking to my tongue.
We find a ladder in the last house, stored in a shack outside. As I get the rusty old wooden construction out from its place on the bottom shelf I see a bottle of Whiskey gathering dust behind it. On an impulse I put it in the backpack that is almost full with more or less useful items now.
We walk back to the car, me carrying the backpack and the heavy wooden ladder and Ezra keeping an eye out for zombies. With a look at the time we decide to divide our gathered items upstairs into what we take with us and what we leave behind. Space is limited in the jeep and everything we do not take with us will safe precious gas.
With a heavy heart I take my technical equipment out of the rear, leaving my camping equipment and the binoculars, and walk past Ezra who is beginning his elaborate journey up the stairs. I store the two tripods, the huge camera bag with several lenses and teleconverters, the rain covers in different sizes and the bean bags in an empty corner of the bedroom, after having made sure that the spot seems relatively clean and dry. Probably it is an illusion that I will ever go back and retrieve my stuff, but something inside me rebels against that thought.
Before I turn around again I pick up the Canon. The chip still has some space for photos but the battery is nearly dead, the lamp blinks red as I switch it on. All my replacement batteries are empty but still I hang it around my neck. A photographer does not leave their camera.
I get out again to take the wheelchair up as well and stop surprised at the top of the stairs when I see Ezra has barely moved up two stairs.
“Everything all right?” I ask when I step down next to him. Ezra is leaning against the railing, one hand gripping the rusty metal, the other fisted into the material of his pants around his right knee. His breath comes in short puffs.
He glares up at me, lines deep in his face. “Obviously not,” he snaps at me.
I shrink back, grab the wheelchair and squeeze past him. “If you need help, just say so,” I say coolly and walk up the stairs without looking back at him. I do not have the energy to deal with his temper.
However, when I hear nothing of him for a few minutes I get out to check on him again. He is still sitting where I left him.
I settle down on the metal steps next to him.
Ezra draws a hand through his already tousled hair and winces as he accidentally touches the plaster over his wound. “Sorry,” he grunts, not looking at me.
I say nothing and watch him try to pull his legs up a step, only for them to start shaking mildly as soon as he so much as changes his awkward half-lying position on the stairs, and tumbling down again. “Fuck! Fucking, useless shit.” He falls back against the metal construction, rubs his shoulder and stares straight past me.
“I could carry you up,” I suggest.
He gives me a poisonous look.
“Or you could stay here and just tell me what to pack into the car.”
He seems to debate that but then he shakes his head. “No, this is too important.”
I start to get angry. What is his problem? As if I am not equally capable of deciding what we take with us and what we leave behind. Irritated, I look at the bleak sky. The color is already fading, it seems. “We don’t have much time, Ezra.”
He shifts, his legs giving an angry quiver, and sighs. “Fuck. All right. Carry me up if you have to.”
He slings his arms around my neck and I lift him with one arm around his back and one under his legs. The spasming muscles behind his knees twitch against my fingers. He is heavier than I thought, his legs not quite as thin as I had expected and although I am strong I nearly collapse under him.
“Did you ever think of getting a fucking lift?” I grunt as I work my way up the steps, my muscles protesting.
Ezra, who has been avoiding looking at me, gives a barked, surprised laugh that sends his legs into more spasms and I have to stop shortly and readjust my grip.
“Are you kidding? This is not my house!”
“It’s not?” I am very grateful we have reached the top of the stairs and I let Ezra down in his wheelchair, not caring much for being careful with him while my back is screaming at me. Maybe I also enjoy seeing the brief flash of panic in his eyes as I let him fall into the seat. He can definitely use a bit of a reminder that we are in this together.
Ezra scowls, pushes up on the wheels to adjust his position in the seat and pulls his feet on the footrest. “Fucking hell, no way this is my house. I don’t hate myself nearly that much.” As he grins up at me he looks years younger but the expression vanishes quickly from his face, replaced by his usual morose one. “You’ve seen where I lived. Or what is left of it.”
I stumble back. The black heap of smoldering rubbish that was left of the fire is Ezra’s house? Did whoever stole his car also put fire to his house? “What happened?”
Ezra sighs. “It's a long story.” He wheels past me and inside.
I roll my eyes. “Well... make it short,” I say and follow him.
Ezra groans but goes on. “A zombie managed to get inside and... well, thrashed around when it could not find the exit, I guess.”
He circles the heap of stuff that I have placed in the middle of the room. “Some people thought it a brilliant idea to wait until it attracted more of the Crazies and then smoke the whole lot out.”
Ezra bends down to the floor, one hand again gripping a wheel to steady himself. He picks up the sleeping bag and sniffs at it. “I did not have much say in that, although I did not let them burn down my house without a fight.” He points at the plaster on his forehead. “Wanted them to wait and rescue the boy, too.”
“When I woke up they had taken my car and I was pretty much the only one left here. Except for the boy.”
I stare at him. “God, shit… I'm sorry.”
Who does shit like that?
Ezra shrugs, not looking at me.
We separate our equipment in two groups, one for things that we take with us and one for stuff that we leave here. I hurry to get several boxes with a variety of useful tools, warm clothes, blankets, the sleeping bag, all our canned food and water down and into the jeep which threatens to overflow soon. At last I stuff the camera into a corner.
Everything fits inside, but barely.
I stand at the foot of the stairs, looking up as Ezra wheels outside and locks the door on Lucy. We decided not to take her with us to rescue Benjamin since we already know where the zombies are and she might only get into the way. Ezra’s legs are still unruly, jittering whenever he moves, but the way down seems to be easier than up and he makes it without me having to kill my back again. I get the wheelchair and his gun, the automatic pistol snug against my skin behind my waistband.
Ezra turns to me when he is finished settling into the chair, taking more time than before. “Ready?”
I swallow and nod, handing him his gun. I start to feel nauseous again.
Ezra does not reach for the weapon. “We haven’t decided on what to do, yet. I cannot force you into anything. It’s your choice.”