The ladder is still lying outside the gate where I have left it and the street is empty as Ezra and I approach the house across from the gas station, me carrying the ladder again.
Ezra spins his chair around and looks up at me. “I think our plan is a good one,” he says. “Any questions?”
I shake my head. The plan is rather simple. Go up there, open the window, get inside and get down with the boy again. I will try to move silent and rescue Benjamin in no time. There is no reason why we should meet any zombies.
Together we place the ladder against the wall. It comes up to the small window in the third floor, but only barely. I can count myself lucky for being so tall for once.
“Remember to always shoot them in the head. It’s the only sure way to stop them,” Ezra says as we both load our guns.
I nod, numbly, and secure the gun before sticking it back into the pocket of my coat.
I have no idea why I agreed to do this. Sure, when you have the choice between fighting against the zombies that are possibly roaming around inside the house and circumventing the issue entirely by going in through the window, the case seems pretty clear. But why me?
I look at Ezra. His hands are wrapped around the gun in his lap and just when our gaze meets his right knee jumps a bit. Of course I know why me. Because he cannot.
“Ready.” My voice sounds detached from my body and I grip the first rung tightly.
Before I can set a foot up, Ezra places a hand on my arm. “Caroline…”
When I look at him he retreats his hand at once.
Ezra blinks and looks away. “Good luck,” he says and his voice is low. He looks like he is grinding his teeth. “And I’m sorry.”
I shrug. “It’s not your fault.”
Ezra stares at me for a second before wheeling back, turning to watch out for zombies behind me. When he does not say anything I start climbing the ladder, slowly. It is an old, wooden one, and was probably used to pick apples or something centuries ago. It becomes clear soon that I have to be very careful not to throw it off balance.
“Ezra!” I hiss.
“Huh?” Ezra twists in the wheelchair to look up at me.
“Can you hold on to the ladder?”
Ezra frowns but wheels closer and puts his gun back in his lap, grabbing the part of the ladder he can reach. “Like that?”
I test the stability of the damn thing. “Yeah… I guess.”
I continue climbing, not looking down anymore, grabbing each rung as tightly as I can. The wood creaks a few times when I step on it with trembling knees but so far the ladder was able to carry my weight. I can only pray it will continue to do so.
I have almost reached the top, having passed two rows of windows, and I currently stare at the yellowish wall right below the window in the attic when I hear Ezra swear under his breath.
“What’s wrong?” I whisper and dare to look down.
I should not have done that. Not only does the ladder start swaying as on cue when I twist around; I can only see what I better would not have seen at all. Ezra has let go of the ladder and positioned himself next to it, his gun at the ready. When my gaze follows his further down the street I see a zombie coming toward us. It is an older man with white hair, his clothes hanging in rags from his thin body. It seems like he has not noticed us yet.
Ezra’s head flies up and he makes a hurried gesture at me to continue climbing.
Right. Silent and fast, Caroline. I turn back to the ladder with my heart beating fast in my chest and climb the last part up. Very slowly and carefully I push up from the second to last rung, the ladder creaking and scraping over the wall as it sways and my hands pressed flatly against the wall until I can reach the window sill and pull myself into standing holding on to it.
I almost scream in shock when I find myself face to face with a small boy on the other side of the glass, his green eyes wide and his red hair tousled.
“Benjamin!” I squeak, my hands clenched around the window sill, my heart racing.
The boy stumbles back, his face guarded.
I shake my head erratically, one hand pressed against the glass that does not budge. “Open the window!” I mouth but the boy only retreats further into the room, looking back at me scared.
The fault in our plan becomes clear right then. How am I supposed to smash in a window without making a sound? I look down at Ezra. He is still aiming at the zombie that is currently shuffling around two houses away from us, oblivious of what is going on.
I pull my scarf higher, protecting my face and get the gun out. My hands are in my gloves and my coat is thick and will hopefully protect me from flying glass. The first time the handle of the gun collides with the window it sounds so loud in my ears I feel the entire neighborhood must have heard it. The glass pane, though, is still intact.
I look down at Ezra. He has of course heard the noise and nods at me when our gazes meet. The zombie has stopped walking, moving its head from side to side slowly.
I lift my arm again, checking if Benjamin has still backed away from the window before swinging the pistol against it with all my strength. The glass bursts with a loud crack and shards rain down on me and on the street downstairs with soft tinkling. I have squeezed my eyes shut against the flying pieces and can feel blood on my lips. I must have a cut somewhere but I do not feel where exactly, adrenaline flushing my body and turning all sensation of pain off. I smash at the window two more times, kicking out enough glass until I can reach inside to the handle and open it.
Before I climb through I look down again at Ezra. The zombie is staggering toward him fast now and he will be forced to shoot, soon. His hands hold the gun steady and the muscles in his broad shoulders are impressive from above. I peel my gaze off him, only to almost fall down the ladder when I see what is behind him.
He looks up at me but the zombie choses this moment to break into a staggering run, its shoes scraping over the asphalt. Ezra turns back around and fires. The zombie slows down but it does not stop and Ezra lifts his gun to aim again.
Shit, shit, shit.
I can only watch as behind him a woman steps fully out of the bushes, wearing a brown coat and a torn skirt that leaves her long legs bare, her hair falling in thick, dirty strands over her shoulders. She lifts her head as if sniffing the air, then makes a quick step toward Ezra, her hands stretching out to him.
Ezra’s second shot at the old man is a hit, the zombie goes down at once and Ezra unlocks the brakes on the wheelchair, trying to swivel it around to the woman but too late. The zombie has latched herself onto him from behind, and I gasp seeing them wrestle. I do not know what happens, but the next moment Ezra has rammed his gun into the zombie’s stomach and she stumbles backward.
“Ezra, two o’clock!”
More zombies have come out of hiding, staggering toward the source of the noise, one of them has almost reached Ezra. The ladder hits the ground with a loud clatter, pulling the zombie woman with it on its way down and Ezra turns around to the newcomers, firing and hitting the two closest ones in the head. Then he wheels backward and positions the wheelchair for a good aim on the rest of them, with the house in his back.
“Hurry,” he yells, not bothering to look up at me.
The moment I decided to kick the ladder to the ground I knew my save way down was gone. I have pulled myself up and through the window, and stared down at the scenery below, unmoving. Only when Ezra shouts at me do I remember where I am.
I climb into the small room in the attic. It is stuffed with boxes, dust on all surfaces. In a corner there is a mattress and a small drawer is pushed in front of the only door. I turn to the boy who has pressed himself against the wall in the far back and wipe my face with my hand, seeing a small trail of dark liquid glistening on my gloves.
“I’m a friend of Ezra. My name is Caroline,” I say, trying to smile at the kid while my mind is racing. Ezra needs help! We have to get out of here, now! But the way down through the house will be challenging enough and I need the boy in control for that.
I exhale slowly. “You can trust me.”
Benjamin seems to dissolve more into the wall behind him. Okay, he does not believe me. What a shocker.
There are two more gunshots from downstairs and Benjamin and I flinch.
I scream inwardly and close my eyes for a brief second before addressing the boy again. “Ezra told me a lot about you. I watched how you talked to each other in Morse.”
The child seems to relax a little, his small fists unclenching. “I’m good at Morse,” he mumbles.
I smile relieved and dare to step closer. “That’s what he told me. You are a very clever boy.”
Benjamin eyes me, still suspicious but clearly more interested now.
“Who taught you Morse?”
“My grandpa,” Benjamin says, fiddling with the hem of his shirt.
“Oh, great, that’s very nice of him, isn’t it?”
Benjamin nods, his brown eyes blinking. “He taught Ezra, too.”
“He did?” I frown. What is Ezra’s connection to the kid again? Well, it is not important now.
I kneel in front of the boy who looks at me with huge eyes. “Benjamin, listen. We will go downstairs, to meet Ezra, okay?”
The boy nods, chewing on his bottom lip. He looks starved to me, skin grayish and cheeks hollow. How did he survive up here? What did he eat? I see a few empty water bottles in one corner and an empty plate on the hardwood floor next to the mattress.
“We need to be very, very fast, understand?” I tell him.
Benjamin nods again, tugging at his shirt.
“Because of that I need you to climb on my back and hold really, really tight. Can you do that?”
Benjamin’s eyes grow even more but then, finally, he moves and steps behind me warily. His slim arms sling around my throat and his bony knees press through the thick material of my jacket. It will do. I can still use my arms and hands to hold the pistol.
“We will play a game, Benjamin, okay? I have a difficult mission for you, but when you succeed there will be a present waiting,” I say.
I smile at the tiny voice near my ear that has suddenly gained so much strength. “Hmmm… it’s a surprise.” I have no idea what I am talking about. “You ready to play?”
“So, here comes the mission. Close your eyes. Are you?”
“Yes,” Benjamin squeaks into my shoulder.
“The mission is: don’t open your eyes until I say it. You think you can do that?”
“Okay. But don’t cheat. I will know if you do.” I am pretty sure I will.
Benjamin shakes his head, or at least I assume he does. I quietly move the drawer that Benjamin has pushed in front of the door to the side. Then I wrap my hand around the door handle, pistol poised in my right. “Ready?” I do not wait for Benjamin to answer, I open the door, silently, listening.
The house is quiet and dust dances in the thin beams of light falling in through the cracks in the blinds of the windows. I follow a steep staircase down to the second floor, my blood rushing loudly in my ears. Nothing moves as I tiptoe through the darkness. Broader stairs lead down to the first floor with a closed door at the end.
“Do you still have your eyes closed?” I whisper.
“Yes,” Benjamin’s voice is breathy.
“Good. Very good. A little longer and the mission is accomplished. Understand?”
The door is locked. Of course.
I tell Benjamin to hold on tight and take a step back. It takes two strong kicks with my heavy boots against the wooden door until I hear a dry crack and it springs open. First I see nothing in the darkness behind it but then a head pops into my field of vision, teeth blinking white as the creature bares its teeth. I have pulled the trigger before my own scream has left my mouth.
I do not think anymore. I leap over the zombie’s body to my feet and sprint across the room, toward the door on the other side, dodging a shadow trying to throw itself upon us from an opening in the wall that probably leads to the kitchen. I throw a chair behind me as I run past it, hearing it collide with something, not looking back. I reach the front door, wrench it open and we slip through, the door falling shut with a bang behind us.
The bright light outside is blinding.
I squint, covering my eyes with an underarm, blinking into the sun. The street seems safe, no more walking zombies to be seen. Ezra is slumped forward in his chair, the bodies of at least three zombies strewn around him on the ground. I think I can see his shoulders heaving. He is alive. I slowly approach him with Benjamin on my back, the gun gripped tightly in my right, pointed at the zombie to Ezra’s feet and my eyes scanning the surroundings. Ezra’s head lifts and I am shocked by the expression on his face, raw pain contorting his features.
“Ezra?” I hiss.
Ezra seems to look through me, barely registering I am there. I take another step, cautiously, and freeze. The zombie’s fingers have crawled up Ezra’s right leg, clinging to the material of his pants. Apparently he does not feel it.
When Ezra does not react I run the last steps to him and jump forward, kicking the zombie that just wanted to lash out in the guts. It falls to the side and curls in on itself, obviously already hurt and I recognize it as the woman from before, with the brown coat. Realization hits me with a sickening feeling when I notice the color of her hair. It is the same red as the hair of the small boy on my back. I am glad I can feel his face pressed to my back between my shoulder blades.
Ezra remains silent and raises his gun from his lap, slowly as if only straightening in his chair costs the world, and aims the barrel at the female zombie.
“Do it,” I whisper.
Ezra’s finger tightens around the trigger, his hands shaking. The woman wails, spit hitting the floor, and lifts her head. Her eyes roll around, barely fixing on us as she fights to get up again. It is fruitless, she seems too badly injured to move much.
I lift my hands, aiming the pistol at her head.