I do not speak as we hurry to the other side of the street. I try to find signs of an injury or, god forbid, of a bite, but, physically, Ezra seems unscratched. His strong arms pump the wheels next to me and he does not say anything either, does not even look at me as I walk along by his side.
The green metal gate falls shut behind us.
“Can I open my eyes now?”
I nearly forgot the kid on my back. “Of course,” I whisper. I crouch down and Benjamin climbs off. The second his feet touch the ground he runs to Ezra, who has his back toward us.
Ezra slowly turns the chair and forces a smile that comes out like a grimace. “Hey Benjamin.”
Benjamin climbs onto his lap and hugs the man, beaming. “Caroline saved me.”
Ezra’s dark eyes fall onto me over Benjamin’s shoulder. I feel uncomfortable under his gaze, clenching the pistol in my hand, still warm.
“So she did,” he says, voice hollow.
“Also I won the game.” Benjamin smiles at him, eyes huge and eager for praise.
Ezra stares and blinks confused.
“I… we played a game,” I supply, hoarsely. “Benjamin was not allowed to look while… while- until now. He did very well.”
Ezra nods slowly and Benjamin squirms in his lap, watching us happily. “I get a surprise present.”
“You will,” I confirm.
Ezra looks close to collapsing, gray-faced and gritting his teeth, and I decide it is time to get the child off of him. “Benjamin, let’s go upstairs and find a place for you to sleep, won’t we?”
“When do I get my present?” Benjamin asks as we walk up the stairs, me carrying Ezra’s wheelchair and both guns.
“Tomorrow,” I say.
Benjamin starts to fidget before I manage to unlock the door because my hands shake so violently I have difficulties turning the key in the lock. Before I get in after Benjamin I look down the stairs to see how Ezra is doing. He is already up a quarter of it, methodically heaving his body from step to step, staring down at his still legs.
I am glad we have more blankets than we have space in the car and fresh food we did not want to take with us because we knew it would not last long. I do not intend to go outside until noon the next day, in fact I would like to not go outside ever again. With the door to the second floor still open I can hear the sounds from the street, growing louder with every minute: scuttling steps, groaning and metal rattling as bodies collide against it. As the light fades, the soundtrack to this horror movie gets turned up and I feel sick just hearing it.
I know that there has never been a way around doing what I did. I needed to be the one to end the torment of that woman because Ezra would not have been able to do it, never. I could see that in his eyes as he looked at her, with indescribable pain and such tenderness that it broke my heart. But if she were still outside there now, wandering around as one of the Undead, it would kill him. So I did the only thing that was left to do.
I stare at my reflection in the broken mirror. Technically the woman has already been dead when I pointed the gun at her, but I cannot forget her searching eyes, locking at me just shortly before I pulled the trigger. At least it went quickly, in the end.
I would give everything to be alone somewhere, press my face into Lucy’s fur and cry, trying to forget the last ten minutes but Ezra and Benjamin need me. I wash my face with the icy cold water from the tap and inspect the small cuts on my forehead and on my cheeks in the mirror. They are not deep and do not need to be treated but I make a note for myself not to smash in windows every again if I can help it.
We eat all of the food leftovers, mostly withered vegetables, hard bread and some old eggs that I fry on the almost empty gas stove that we left behind as well. Ezra is silent and mentally absent during the entire time and Benjamin becomes tired toward the end of it, nearly dozing off over his makeshift plate that originally was a plastic lid to some container. It is already late, the entire rescue mission has lasted much longer than we thought it would and no one thinks of leaving the village now.
I make a bed for Benjamin on the sofa in front of the fireplace and put more wood into the flames.
“Can I pet the dog?” Benjamin mumbles, already laying down.
“Sure,” I say. “Say hello, Lucy.”
Benjamin leans down from the sofa to pet Lucy who raises from her favorite spot on the floor in front of the fireplace, tail wagging slightly.
I tuck the blanket in around Benjamin and run my hand down Lucy’s back as well. “You both need to go to sleep now.”
“I’m not tired,” Benjamin protests, sleep already making his eyes droop as he looks at me. I shake my head mildly, smiling.
Ezra looks up as the bottom of the bottle hits the table with a soft clunk. Two small glasses join it.
I found them in the bedroom, rinsed them and dried them with the sleeve of my sweater, probably making them dirtier than before but I could not care less. I pour a considerable amount of Whiskey in both glasses, pushing one toward Ezra. I sip from mine, the sharp, lightly smoky flavor warming me better than any fire could. Ezra stares at his glass for a while before he grabs it, downing the alcohol in one go. I fill the glass for him again. He swirls the brown liquid around, following the movement with his eyes.
“You knew her.”
“’course I did. I knew everyone in this damn village.” His voice is scratchy.
“I mean, you knew her well.”
Ezra sips from the Whiskey, staring into the glass again. There is a long silence and when I think he will say no more he starts speaking. “I fancied her. In High School. You know, small village, long bus drive every morning and afternoon. You get to know each other and… I liked her. She is great. Was. We were dating for some time, at least I think we were. We were good friends, for sure, best friends. The kind you think you know better than yourself. Then I went to college and she stayed here and...” Ezra's voice trails away and he tightens his fist around the glass.
“What happened?” I ask lowly, the tension crackling in the room.
Ezra leans back and shrugs, his face guarded. I have been too forward. “She married someone else.” He drains his glass, staring into empty space. “God, I always thought we would end up together. Somehow I thought that.” His cackle cuts through me.
I refill his glass again. “You saved her son.”
“Yeah...” Ezra says, frowning.
“You must have loved her a lot to risk that much.”
Ezra ponders over his glass. “I should never have come back,” he suddenly says.
For a second I do not know what he is referring to but then he goes on.
“Should have stayed away from this miserable hole. It was clear from the beginning it would only bring strife. You know, in a way I always knew something like this would happen.” He squints at me, eyes already losing focus. “We deserve what we got.”
There is more silence during which we both empty our glasses and I refill them.
Ezra dips his glass toward me. “What about you? Where is the family you should worry about? Any people in your life currently in danger of running around dead and killing others?”
I wince at his sarcasm, pick up my glass and take a sip. “My parents died when I was a kid. I travel a lot.”
He blinks. “So, no friends, no boyfriend, husband?”
“A brother,” I say. “Frank.”
He nods. “Where’s he?”
I shiver. “I hope he’s safe.”
Ezra looks over at Benjamin sleeping on the sofa, one hand dangling over the edge. Lucy lies curled up to his feet. I should go and chase her off, she knows very well she is not allowed to sleep up there. But I lack the energy.
“Guess it would be easier without the responsibility,” Ezra mumbles.
We end up sleeping both in the double-bed next door, with much appropriate space in between. When Ezra transfers, wobbly due to the alcohol, and arranges his lifeless legs on the mattress, I wish for a steadier vision out of the corners of my eyes. Pretty pissed, we both fall asleep immediately.
I wake to an empty bedside next to me. When I enter the living room on socked feet Ezra sits in his wheelchair in his usual spot at the window, a steaming cup of coffee placed on the table next to him. I wonder where he got the coffee powder from, if he has gone down to the car already. He wears the same ragged pullover as yesterday, his broad shoulders spanning the material. He does not acknowledge my presence and I sigh a little. Guess we are back to being strangers today.
The boy is still asleep on the couch in front of the now cold fireplace, Lucy pressed to his small body, one arm tugging the dog's head to his chest. I look at the peaceful image and all of a sudden I feel a little better. He is save with us now.
I am still smiling as I accept a cup of coffee from Ezra. He barely looks at me and grunts something unintelligible into his beard. I proceed with warming up the leftover milk that we considered not stable enough to take with us and wake Benjamin.
As I return from walking Lucy in the garden Ezra rolls back from the window a few inches. "We should leave soon."
"Okay," I say, stepping behind him and leaning over him to peek out onto the street. A part of me does not want to look and the rest wants to get it over with before the fear of what I might see gets overwhelming. To my surprise, the street is empty, no dead bodies to be seen and nothing seems to be moving outside. It is as if nothing happened yesterday.
I release breath slowly and suppress a shudder. "It's still early."
"Seems to be a calm day.” Ezra does not seem to be surprised that the zombies we shot are gone. I remember that the same happened to the zombie that attacked me on my first day. It was gone later as well. I refuse to think of what might have happened to them all.
“Best to get the shit out of here early I would say," Ezra grunts.
"Sure," I answer and fish Benjamin's jacket out from under the couch and catch the boy as he attempts to storm past me. "When can we be at Lesdale?"
“Two to three days,” Ezra says. “Depending on how fast we find more fuel.”
I nod. Based on the number of Ezra's gas containers and my experience with the jeep, the fuel should be enough for one day, maybe one and a half days of driving during daylight.
“Will we go to where my parents are?” Benjamin asks as I try squeezing him in his jacket.
I freeze and Ezra turns his chair around, his face unreadable. "No, Benjamin, I'm sorry."
Benjamin's eyes grow round and sad. "But why not?"
Ezra looks up at me, pain and panic flickering over his face.
"Let's talk about that later, Benjamin. Okay?" I jump in, deciding that now is not the best moment to tell the kid the truth about his parents.
Benjamin buries his face in Lucy's fur and murmurs something.
Ezra exhales lowly and throws a grateful look at me. I ignore him.
We load dog and kid in the car, and Ezra transfers to the passenger seat while I stand guard with the gun poised, my ears pricking up at the smallest of sounds. The wheelchair is squeezed in the back once more, leaving not an inch of space left either there or in the packed trunk.
We have just left the city when I remember the car with the dead man, my knuckles turning white around the steering wheel.
Ezra has noticed. "Eyes on the road in front of you," he says, his rumbling voice calming my nerves some.
The car appears in the middle of the road but before we are close to it Ezra turns around to Benjamin in the back. "Remember the game from yesterday?"
I see Benjamin nod in the rear mirror. I would like to close my eyes as well but I cannot do that while driving. Instead I keep as much distance between the vehicle and us as is possible on the narrow street. Although I follow Ezra's advice and keep my eyes on the dark asphalt in front of us I still see the hunched-over figure of the man leaning against the broken window out of the corner of my eye.
"Stop the car," Ezra rasps after we have passed the spot of the accident and already brought quite some distance between us and the vehicle.
I startle and automatically do as he told me to. Only when Ezra turns to the back to get out the wheels of his chair do I understand what he plans to do and it runs cold down my spine.
"No, Ezra, no! It's too dangerous,” I hiss quietly.
He does not look at me, scanning the outside, then shoves the passenger door open with a grim expression. He assembles the chair with quick, efficient movements and heaves himself out of the car and into it, barely taking the time to arrange his legs before he pulls the gun in his lap.
"Still got your eyes closed, Benjamin?"
"Hmmm..." comes from the backseat.
"I need to know," Ezra says to me, lowly. "If anything goes wrong, leave. Don’t play the hero, save Benjamin, okay?"
I swallow, my throat tight, but before I can protest Ezra throws the door closed into my face.
I watch with a thumping heart in the rear view mirror as Ezra approaches the other car, slowly wheels around it, a hand returning to the gun in his lap every so often. He carefully reaches through the passenger’s window as I have done, shrinks back and then sits motionless for a few seconds before turning around abruptly. He lets the chair roll away from the car and bends over, his hands clenched into his thighs.
I frown and watch Ezra’s back for long seconds until he straightens and squares his shoulders. Instead of coming back to us, though, he wheels to the accident car again and tries to wrench open the passenger door in the front. After a few trials he jams in the breaks on the chair and throws himself with his entire weight against the closed door. When it finally snaps open he almost falls out of the wheelchair, only a quick grip to the now open car door saves him from it. He pulls himself in a stable position, releases the breaks and wheels closer to the body hanging halfway out of the car. I can see Ezra’s hands searching over the body, moving limp limbs and tilting the head of the man to the side. Finally, after what seems like forever, Ezra turns around and comes wheeling back to the jeep.
I loosen the grip around the door handle in my left and the pistol in my right, securing it and letting it glide back into the hand pocket before Ezra lifts himself in the seat next to me. His face is ashen and he says nothing, jerking his head with a stony expression to tell me to continue driving as soon as he has stored the wheelchair in the back.
"Is it his...?" I whisper, although I have known the answer for a long time.
Ezra nods curtly.
"Can I open my eyes again?" A bright voice from the back asks and we both flinch.
"Yes, Benjamin," I say, hoarsely. "Well done."
It takes a few minutes for the knot in my stomach to loosen some. "We should have taken the gas," I say.
Ezra shakes his head. "I checked. It was not worth it."
Sometime later Ezra makes us turn right at a hidden junction and the old jeep rattles down a narrow unpaved trail.
“Where are we going?” I ask Ezra, concerned since this road looks like it might end any second.
Before Ezra can answer, the trail indeed ends at the edge of a clearing and my alarm grows.
“I’ve got to check on something,” Ezra mumbles, grabbing the wheelchair parts again. I wonder how many assemblies and transfers he can do before he gets exhausted.
The clearing consists of a grassy hill that at its highest point rises slightly above the height of the surrounding trees. It looks strangely out of place in the otherwise flat landscape and there are radio masts and other devices on its top. I frown, looking at it.
Ezra has moved his butt over and into the chair with ease and lifts his legs out of the car and onto the footrest. “Can you give me the flashlight?”
I lean over and hand him the flashlight.
Ezra switches it on and off again as a test. “Stay here.”