“When you have started the motor, there will be a display for the tanker’s load. Maybe we are really lucky indeed. Anyway, just moving it out of the way will be good,” Ezra says.
I have the pistol in my lap, double-checked and secured, and nod numbly.
“And if the truck has still gas, we could use that as well,” Ezra adds. He scratches his beard, oblivious of my nerves. “I’ll figure something out how to get to it, since we do not have a hose.”
“Hmmm…” My fingers tighten around the pistol’s handle. I just want to get it over with before I can decide otherwise. My other hand goes to open the door.
Ezra pushes his knees closer together and turns to get the wheelchair’s parts out of the back. “I’ll cover you,” he says.
“Don’t bother,” I say, quickly and without really thinking, pushing the door open a fraction as I speak. “I’ll be fast.”
I freeze. Fuck. “Oh god, I’m sorry. I-”
Ezra has turned back to look out through the windshield. “Go.” His voice is rough, his shoulders rigid.
I try to say something but when I cannot think of anything to make the situation less terrible I almost flee out of the car, not looking back at Ezra anymore.
With my hand clenched around the pistol I slowly approach the truck, rounding the front. Branches have scraped over the white paint and left silver streaks on the hood and I have to duck under the overhanging trees to squeeze past the driver’s cabin. Other than that and a long crack in the windshield the truck seems undamaged, though. I squint to see up there and am relieved to see that the cabin is empty. No zombies. No corpses.
I halfway expect the driver’s door to be locked and when I pull at the handle and it opens abruptly it takes me by surprise. Well, this is going smoothly. I climb up the steps and slip onto the broad driver’s seat. It is almost too easy when I see that the key is in the ignition.
“Please, please, please,” I whisper to myself as I turn the key.
The truck gives a sputter. And the motor dies again.
That was more than nothing, though. I force myself to wait, the key still turned with the ignition switched on but the engine off. I remember my grandpa saying that some old diesel vehicles need time to heat up before starting. Maybe this is the case here.
After a while, when I cannot wait any longer, I turn the keys further, this time pushing the gas pedal down as well.
The truck sputters, groans, and the engine starts with a roar. The analogue displays in front of me turn to life, the needles rushing to the right and then falling back, but not completely. The tanker is empty, it was probably on its way to be refilled when it was stopped, but there is still a bit of gas in its own tank and the motor continues to run smoothly.
My victorious cheer is cut off as something slings around my chest from behind, cutting the air from my lungs. I do not need to see what is attacking me because the smell engulfing me all of a sudden is enough and the rattling breath as the creature moves its head closer, teeth clicking, lets my blood run cold. I ram my elbow back without looking, hearing a groan at the impact and the grip around me loosens some. Leaning forward, I manage to grab the gun in my lap, firing behind me blindly and flinging myself away from the zombie at the same time.
I think I met my target but not in a way that would really stop the zombie. In fact I guess it just made it more furious. I try turning around completely to get a better aim behind me, but the zombie takes me by surprise, throwing itself at me with a shriek, knocking my arm away. The pistol flies across the cabin and slithers over the floor somewhere in the back, and before I can hunt after it the zombie thrashes at me, howling earsplittingly. I manage to keep a knee between me and the body of the man who tries to reach any part of me, his face wild, thereby avoiding his deadly teeth. He does not look injured like the other zombies, there is no blood in his face and only the fact that his skin is flaking from the bones, rotting away, and that his eyes look through me instead of at me, indicate that he is not alive anymore.
The zombie does not fight with cleverness but it is immensely strong, much stronger than I anticipated. I start to panic when I feel it press closer inch by inch, my leg slowly giving way and the man’s twitching face moving closer and closer to mine. With a groan I try to double my strength, using my entire body to push the creature further back but it barely budges. The zombie’s foul breath chokes me and its gnarled hands have grabbed my shoulders, pulling me toward it. It is only inches from my face now, blaring his teeth, a hungry grin stretching wide across its face and there is nothing I could do.
I do not see Ezra, over the shoulder of the zombie I only see the barrel of the rifle directed at me.
With a gasp I let myself fall into the space between driver’s seat and steering wheel, pushing the zombie away from me with last resources. The gunshot is deafening but it has immediate effect. The zombie collapses on top of me, unmoving.
“Caroline! Fuck, are you all right?”
The dead man’s weight on my chest has cut off my air and I cannot answer. Ezra must have sat on one of the steps outside before because he hauls his body into the driver’s cabin, and robs over the floor behind the seats to me, his legs dragging behind. He grabs a hold of the dead man and yanks him off me forcefully, freeing me all of a sudden from the weight.
“Caroline? Come on, what’s wrong?!” The concern in Ezra's voice borders on panic.
Callused fingers scrape over my upper arms and frame my face, feeling along the skin in search of a sign of injury. Ezra’s touch brings me back to reality.
“I’m good,” I squeak and gulp in air while trying to sit up, squeezed between pedals and driver’s seat.
Ezra’s hands fall from me as if I have shaken them off by moving and he lets out a huge breath. “Fuck…”
“Only…” I frown and look down at me when I have managed to get to my knees. Out of the corners of my eyes I see Ezra grab the armrest next to my head, sitting up in alarm. I dip a finger into the gray, slimy mass on my jacket. “I think I have zombie brain all over me…”
Ezra stares at me and I break out in giggles as I catch his incredulous look.
“Ugh…” Ezra shakes his head, but then he closes his eyes for a moment, head leaning back and sighs. “Geez…” He braces himself against the side of the driver’s seat and pulls his legs up, slinging one arm around his knees. “Zombie brain… That’s good.”
As I stare at the dead man behind us it becomes eerily clear to me how close this has been and my laughter turns into a sob. Ezra reaches out and strokes my arm.
“Oh fuck, I’m so glad you came,” I blurt out, concentrating on his touch and forcing the tears down. In this moment I do not care so much about appearing strong anymore.
“Yeah…” Ezra says and we both look at the same spot where his fingers wrap around my elbow and away again at the same time. “You took long enough for me to come to your rescue.”
I chuckle weakly, wiping away traitorous tears. “I’m sorry, really. I didn’t think.”
“We are good, I guess,” Ezra says, although he still looks a tad angry now that his fear has made way for relief. “I’m kind of glad you survived, it would have been damn work to teach Benjamin how to drive.” His eyes glint with mischief at that.
I grin and roll my eyes at him. Yes, he is still Ezra.
When my hands have stopped trembling, I climb back on the seat and try starting the truck again. The engine starts with a roar and continues running, but when I try putting the truck into any gear it just gives off a terribly loud screech, groans and vibrates, but barely moves. Not enough to let us through with the jeep, anyway.
“There’s something seriously wrong,” I say, killing the engine again before the loud noise can call too much attention to us. Disappointment settles in my stomach.
Ezra nods, still sitting on the floor behind the seats and looking grim. “Yeah, I heard that. Seems to be a problem with the transmission. I could get it fixed, maybe. But not here, not without supplies. And not under a few hours.”
Beaten, we decide to try to find another route. I follow Ezra down the passenger’s side of the truck. He moves down the steep steps with grace, holding on to the rail on his right and letting his legs hang down, swinging freely. At the bottom step he yanks the wheelchair closer – it has rolled away a bit, obviously left in haste – jams in the breaks and transfers in one go, without touching the floor. As he places his limp feet from the bottom step to the footrest, the entire weight of his words from before becomes clear to me. Ezra cannot drive the jeep. Without me he is stranded somewhere in the woods.
Quietly I follow him back to the car.
We do not dare driving through the night. The engine’s noise might be enough to get us into trouble. As soon as the sun has gone down completely I steer the jeep to the side of the street and turn it off. We have driven for four more hours and have another three ahead of us, Ezra informs me. The gas is already troublesome low.
I have slept more than one night in the jeep, lying across the back seats with Lucy on the floor. It is slightly less comfortable with two more persons though. In the end we let Benjamin in the sleeping bag and Lucy occupy the backseats, the parts of the wheelchair moved to Benjamin's feet. Ezra and I stay in the front seats, the backs reclined a little. I am in my own sleeping bag and Ezra is covered by the blankets. I noticed how he carefully wrapped his legs in, tucking the end of the blanket under his thighs to make sure they stay warm. I do not expect I will manage to fall asleep but as soon as I lean back and close my eyes I am gone.
I wake up to icy frost and hell breaking lose.
Ezra is yelling my name and I shoot up, blinking into the milky morning light beyond the window.
I whirl around. Ezra is not in his seat anymore, he is hanging onto Benjamin's legs instead, his own tangled together with the blankets in the space between the front seats. His upper body is turned at an awkward angle. Gray, rotting hands have grabbed Benjamin's arms, pulling at him from outside the half opened window and the boy screams in pain and fear.
The hunting knife is in my hand within milliseconds and I jump over Ezra's body, halfway leaning on him while I hack at the hands that have closed around Benjamin's arms, barely worrying I might hurt the kid because I hear the ragged breath of the creature outside, can smell the stench and I know there is much worse waiting than a cut. With my teeth clenched I stab at the rotten flesh, drawing no blood but something thicker, darker, that gives off a vomit-inducing smell, but the creature's inhuman strength does not seem to waver.
"Get his eyes, Caroline! His eyes!"
That's when I look up and see that the zombie has pressed its face into the gap in the window. It does not fit through but the mouth with the sharp teeth is opening and closing rapidly, clicking noises emitting when the teeth clatter onto each other, biting into nothing. The small, dead eyes seem to be looking directly at me. I stick my knife deep first in the left one, then in the right, in rapid succession. The creature howls, its grip loosening, and Ezra finally rips Benjamin from its grasp with a loud growl. I ram my elbow into the zombie's face that is screwed up in agony and the creature tumbles back. With trembling fingers I hurriedly turn the window back up.
A few seconds I stare at the glass, misty with water from the inside, running down in tiny rivulets. I breathe heavily with the roar of my own blood in my ears when something collides with the car and the zombies' face crashes into the window, a pair of destroyed eyes popping up. For a frightening second I imagine the glass might break but it holds and I scurry back, turning away from the ghastly image.
Ezra has hugged the kid close to his chest, his large hand cupping the boy’s head, breathing in ragged gasps.
"Why was the window open?" I demand to know, checking with a quick look the other windows. They are all closed and I see no zombies out there, for now. "How could this happen?"
"Benjamin?" Ezra asks, panting, pushing the sobbing boy away from him gently. The kid looks disheveled, teary eyes wide.
"I... I...” Benjamin hiccups and swallows. “Ezra said not to open the doors. So... So... When I woke up and I was bored... I thought... I'm sorry!" he tells us through tears.
"You opened the window?" I ask quietly.
The boy stops crying and nods, eyes turning down.
Ezra's hand surges up and across the boy's cheek with a sharp slap before I can move. Benjamin howls shortly in pain, then starts crying again.
I look perplexed at Ezra before I pull the boy in my lap, stroking his back with soothing motions. "He didn't mean to do that," I murmur into Benjamin's ear, trying to calm him with my voice. "Ezra was just scared you could be harmed, Benjamin."
"I was," Ezra grounds. "But I definitely meant it. And there is going to be worse if you do that again, understand me, Benjamin? This is not a game."
Benjamin cries harder.
"Ezra!" I hiss.
"I cannot have you fooling around, Benjamin, and getting all of us into danger, understand that? Now stop crying. Are you hurt?" Ezra says, looking back at me unblinking as if he dares me to fight him.
Benjamin stops crying then and sniffles but shakes his head into my chest. I stare at Ezra, angry, but he turns away and attempts to lift his body back into the front seat. He stops mid-movement, hissing through his teeth. Now that the boy is in my arms I see Ezra's legs are shaking badly, the heel of his left boot drumming on the middle console.
"For god’s sake..." Ezra murmurs.
We have to wait in the back, all four of us more or less stacked on top of each other, until Ezra's spasms have reduced to tiny tremors and I dare to carefully climb back over them onto the driver’s seat. Ezra attempts to pull himself back in the front but his semi-rigid legs are in the wrong angle and start to quiver again when he tries to reach down to them. I watch him out of the corners of my eyes without a word until I lose my patience.
"Need help?" I ask sharply.
Ezra leans back on his elbows and glowers at me, finally releasing breath. "Yes." He clenches his jaw and averts his eyes.
I lean over, and when I see him steeling himself, more carefully than intended work a hand under his knees and slowly reposition his legs to turn more into the space in front of the seat. Ezra exhales and pulls himself into the front.
I start the car and observe Ezra from the corner of my eyes as he stores his legs securely in front of him. We do not speak for some time while the trees glide past us to the left and right.
"Don't you have meds against that?" I finally break the silence.
Ezra frowns at me from the side. "You mean the spasms?”
“I had, before they got burned in the fire. Now only those few I have had on me are left."
"I guess you are lucky we are going to your parents then." When Ezra looks at me confused I add: “They surely will have some of your meds at their house, don’t they?”
Ezra laughs, the sound rough. "Ha... No. I would be surprised if any of my meds were at the farm. We are not very close, my parents and I. That’s to say… my father and I. My father… well… he grew up working hard physically day and night. That his oldest son cannot mow the grass or herd the cows, cut down trees or bent iron with bare hands, in fact cannot even walk… Let’s say he did not take that very well."
“But…” I shake my head, trying to wrap my head around the information. “It’s not your fault. You can’t… I mean, whatever happened… What I want to say is-”
Ezra studies me from the side with his thick eyebrows cocked. Fuck, I should just shut up.
To my surprise, Ezra chuckles. “It is as it is. I never really expected anything else. Hell, I am not as innocent as you might think.”
I open my mouth but he has directed his gaze to the front again and I decide it is better to keep silent.
We drive along for another few hours without talking. Then Ezra makes us turn right at a small street that quickly turns into a broad muddy track. Finally we round a corner and I stop the car in front of a low fence. Behind it we can see a clearing with a farm that consists of three buildings, two of which are wooden barns and the third is a larger one with a red tiled roof.
“Would you get the gate?” Ezra asks, scanning the outside.
I nod, grab the pistol and carefully open the door to slip out of the car. Nothing stirs, the forest at the side of the track is silent and dark, the air is still cold although it is shortly past noon. In the distance I hear the muffled sound of kettle. I quickly step to the gate and find the latch to open it. I wonder if the fence that barely goes above my waist is any obstacle for zombies.
I steer the car through the gate and get out again to close it behind me. Ezra directs me to the house in the middle, the one with the red roof. It seems to be in a better shape than all the houses I have seen here so far. It is fairly large, made of solid yellow stone and with dark green window shutters.
“My parents bought the farm a few years ago,” Ezra says as we rumble down the stony path. “My father had long lost his job in the mines and never thought to ever get work again, not with his age. Then the couple that had lived here suddenly got to money. I don’t know how exactly but I guess by heritage. They moved away like so many have done since the mines closed. No one was interested in the farm, that’s why my parents got it rather cheap.”
We get out of the car and wait for Ezra to assemble the wheelchair and pull himself out of the jeep and into the seat before we advance the entrance over the pebbled walkway. Lucy follows at my heels and Benjamin runs to the front, seemingly the only one happily excited to be here.
The first thing I notice is that there is no ramp up the three steps to the door.
“They will have heard the car,” Ezra says lowly and stops the chair in front of the first step, the sound of his tires crunching over the gravel dying down.
Rightfully so, just as he has finished speaking, the door is opened by an older, nearly bald man in jeans and a shirt that sits tight over a bit of a belly. His gray mustache quivers as he examines us wordlessly.
“My father…” Ezra murmurs in my direction.
The man looks strangely familiar to me but it is not because of his resemblance with Ezra. In fact, the two only remotely look alike. He turns toward the interior of the house and yells: “Ann! Come here!”
Ezra has offered nothing of a greeting yet, his shoulder rigid, his large hands wrapped tightly around the handrims. I can practically feel the tension in the air and subconsciously move a few steps back, Lucy pressing herself against my leg.
A woman, probably Ezra’s mother, appears at the side of the man. She is older as well but with long, curly hair that is only graying in parts. The crinkles around her eyes are the same as her son’s. She is drying her hands on her apron and starts smiling as she sees us.
“Granny!” Benjamin yells and breaks the ranks, running up the stairs toward the woman and hugging her around the waist.
The woman, Ann, laughs and pulls the boy close, showering him with kisses. “Benny! It’s so great to see you… You cannot believe what we went through. We were in such a worry!” she exclaims, beaming at him and then down at us.
I have not overheard what Benjamin has called her and the puzzle pieces finally fall into place. Benjamin's and Ezra's closeness. The resemblance of Ezra's father, not so much to Ezra himself but to the dead man in the car. Everything makes sense now.
“What do you want?” Ezra’s father growls and folds his arms in front of his broad chest, glaring down at Ezra. I think I know at least where Ezra got his impressive physics from.
“Where's Paul?” Ann asks, frowning, and looking to the car as if searching for another person among us. “And Helen?”
“Caroline?” Ezra says with forced calmness in his voice. “Would you take Benjamin to see the cows?”
“Uh…” I frown down at him but he does not turn around to me.
“Ohhhh, do you have calves?” Benjamin asks Ann.
“Yes, one,” Ann says, smiling, and lets go of the wiggling kid.
Benjamin comes running down the steps, grinning, and takes my hand.
“Uh okay…” I say and let him tug me toward the barn on the left of the main building.
Before I am out of earshot however, I can hear Ezra speak to his parents. “Mom… they're… they're dead. I’m sorry, I couldn’t… they're dead,” he says, and the raw emotion in his voice has not been breaking through like this before.
I tighten my hand around Benjamin’s small one, hoping he did not listen and urge us on and inside the open barn. We are barely around the corner when I hear a loud noise, like a muffled gunshot and we both flinch.
“What was that?” Benjamin asks, staring at me scared.
I peek back to the main building. Ezra’s father has disappeared and the door is shoved shut, which explains the noise. Ezra’s mother has come down the stairs and is currently hugging her son, her shoulders heaving as she is crouched over him.
“Nothing, probably,” I say. “Maybe something fell over. Look, there they are.”
The barn is full of cows, probably about thirty, and they stand around in two separate parts with a paved walkway in between, munching silently on food or lying on the ground and napping. In the right corner directly next to the entrance is a small cubicle for the mother cow’s and their calves.
Benjamin ducks under the low barrier and tries to get closer to the calf. It startles and hides behind its mother.
“Be careful, you hear,” I tell him as I observe the mother cow warily watching the human child.
Lucy stays close to me but turns her nose interested in all directions as we walk deeper into the barn. Benjamin continues wandering among the animals, patting them and trying to feed them straw which they pointedly ignore.
“Do you like visiting the cows?” I ask Benjamin.
Benjamin returns to my side and nods happily. “I like cows,” he says with a broad grin. “Look, this one’s the boss!”
He points at a big cow with impressive horns and curly hair on its forehead. It blinks at us with its soft eyes and extends a long tongue as Benjamin pats its nose.
“Uwww!” Benjamin exclaims and rubs his slobbery hand at his jeans.
I laugh and pat the cow’s head, carefully avoiding the pointed horns. The cow shakes its head as if it is annoyed of us and retreats among the others. Probably it decided that we are not worth the attention and definitely no threat.
We sit down on some balls of straw in the back of the barn. The boy hammers his heels against the ball, watching the animals in front of us.
“Where are my parents?”