I almost fly up the steps to the main entrance, jump over the spot where blood has soaked the wooden floor in the entrance hall and run up the stairs behind it. Skidding around the corner, I dash down the hallway, the gun gripped tightly in my hands and the nightdress fluttering around my ankles.
The entire time, Benjamin never stops screaming, the high-pitched sound curdling my blood and urging me on to inhuman speed. My heart hammers in my ears when I reach the door to the bedroom, hanging only half from the hinges now, its front bashed in with splinters sticking out. I catch my breath for a fraction of a second, doubled over with my lungs burning. Then I lean my shoulder against the wrecked door, pushing it further open. The rifle is at the ready and my stomach clenches with fear of what I might find in the room.
Benjamin has stopped screaming or maybe all sound gets turned off in my brain, I cannot tell. Ann’s body is sprawled to my feet one step past the threshold, the kitchen knife still in her hand, her face turned to the side a bit, her cheek resting on the floor. Before I can get a closer look, a whimpering sound above me lets my head fly up.
Benjamin has climbed on top of the wardrobe at the end of his bed and is pressing himself into the dark corner against the wall, barely visible to my eyes that are still blinded by the fire outside. A man is standing on the bed in front of Benjamin with his hands stretched out to the boy. I recognize him immediately. It is the one with the scratchy voice, the one Ezra killed with the ax, his dirty blond hair hanging limply from the scalp. Lucy has sunken her teeth in his right leg but the man does not seem to feel it. When the zombie turns his head and sniffs in my direction, the blood soaking the shirt at the front of his chest becomes visible. It is his own blood, already starting to dry, but the blood dropping from the zombie’s chin is still fresh.
I react on instinct. The rifle sounds terribly loud in the small room and the zombie collapses soundlessly on the bed, shot clean in the head.
“Benjamin!” I let the now useless gun fall and jump up on the bed next to the unmoving zombie. I cannot see if Benjamin is hurt but it does not seem to be the case. I extend my hands out to the boy, but his wide eyes look past me over my shoulder. “Are you-”
I whirl around, expecting a cruel image of her as a zombie advancing us but there is no such thing. Ann is still lying on the floor in front of the open door, as if she is sleeping. Hope kindles in my chest as I hurry to her and crouch down at her side, my knees hitting the floor with pain not registering. At first I think the older woman is maybe unconscious. When I frame her ashen face with my hands I beg her to be just knocked out by the zombie, but then my palms come back dark with blood. My stomach turns.
No, no, no!
I blink and my eyes travel the inches over the floor under Ann, registering only now that I am kneeling in a pool of blood that is still increasing, the edges creeping over the wood like in slow-motion. Red liquid is gushing out of the side of Ann’s throat and flowing over my fingers before I pull them away, no pulse detectable.
Benjamin’s naked feet tap lowly on the wooden floor, his voice is high and childlike over my head. I react within seconds, snatch him up and press his face to my chest before he has a chance to see anything more than he has already seen. I can only imagine what he might have witnessed before and I stagger against the bedframe with the terrible weight of it.
“Hush… Benjamin. We need to go to Ezra, okay? He needs our help.”
Benjamin nods into my chest.
I do not look back at the zombie on the bed but I call Lucy to my side. “Good… good,” I murmur, more to myself, although nothing is good and it will never be again. “We are safe. You are not hurt, are you, Benjamin?” My voice breaks several times as I step around Ann’s dead body, my knees weak.
Benjamin shakes his head. His body is oddly light and motionless in my arms. I set him down on the top of the stairs, wait to see if he can walk but I need not worry. He seems to be much more stable than I am, looking at me with slightly questioning eyes. It occurs to me that he might still be in shock. I take the boy’s hand and pull him after me down the stairs, my heart squeezing with loss and pain and a rekindling dread in the back of my throat: Where is Ezra?
The fire outside has not lost any of its strength, if anything it has only grown worse, the flames howling in rage and the air over the court flickering with heat. As I look at the inferno I can barely believe that this is real and not some really, really bad dream. I grip Benjamin’s hand tighter, for a second debating leaving him in the house but then I think of the dead zombie and Ann. I take the boy with me as I run toward the cow barn but I order Lucy to stay in the house. She cannot do anything in the fire.
The closer we come, the fiercer the heat of the flames grows and the air gets difficult to breathe. Thick smoke rises into the sky, billowing out up high and shading the moon. I have not heard a sound from the animals for a long time and I do not think I will anymore. Anyone inside the barns will be dead by now.
“Ezra!” My voice sounds shrill and still too low over the loud whoosh and fizzle of the fire. Occasionally there is a thundering snap and rumble of wooden planks collapsing and falling to the ground as flames bring down their first victims. Both barns are still standing but it can only be a matter of minutes before a roof or a wall caves in completely.
“Ez-” A coughing fit cuts off my voice, so violently I nearly lose hold of Benjamin’s hand. I raise my arm in front of my face, shading my skin from the sizzling heat and covering my nose, trying to slow my frantic breathing. I crouch down to Benjamin’s level, aiming to get access to cleaner air while we stumble over the space in front of the barn, searching for Ezra. The flickering light and smoke make it hard to make out anything. With a groan I try to get closer to the wall of flames but it is impossible, the heat is too strong and almost physically pushes us back.
Ezra has got to be somewhere here!
Desperation claws at my chest as I yell Ezra’s name over and over again and again, only interrupted by sobs and more coughing fits. No one replies and there is no sign of either Ezra nor of Nathan. I turn on the spot, my eyes watering and my heart burning with the dawning knowledge I might have rescued Benjamin and lost Ezra instead.
But I am not ready to accept that just yet.
I let go of Benjamin’s hand, sinking to all fours on the ground. “Ezra! Fuck!” I clench my teeth and start crawling forward toward the orange ball of heat that is the entrance of the cow barn, the hairs on my arms shriveling away, tears burning on my blistering cheeks. “Ezra, you stupid, fucking…” I choke as I inhale a gush of smoke with the next breath and lie down flat on my stomach, my lips pressed to the hot stone under me, searching for the last oxygen molecule that may save me.
But there is nothing for me to fill my lungs with.
I would probably have died there had it not been for a weak tuck at my ankle that I register within several seconds of delay. I raise my head with a groan, all orientation lost, and fumble behind me, feeling Benjamin’s small torso heave under my hands and then his soft hands grab mine.
More coughing that never seems to stop.
I blindly follow the boy back to where the ground is not melting and the air is not made of liquid lead, although every inhale stings in my lungs. My legs collapse after a few more steps. I blink the tears away from my hairless eyelids and stare into the boy’s dirty face, standing in front of me while I am kneeling.
“Benjamin…” I press him to me, sobbing. “Fuck, Benjamin, I’m so sorry.” In my panicked search for Ezra I had almost forgotten about the boy. It would have been his end as well and now he saved me.
I cry with the realization that the boy and I are the only survivors on the farm. If I had the air to scream I would have done so, but instead I just bury my face in my burning hands until no feeling is left anymore.
“Let’s go back inside,” I manage finally, picking up Benjamin’s hand. He has sat quietly next to me the entire time.
I have seen no zombies so far but it can only be a matter of time until the place is swarmed, with the noise of the barns burning to ashes and the light shining bright into the forest. We slowly make it across the court, the fire in our backs still raging. I have no idea what we will do now, where we will go although we probably have no other chance than staying at the farm and hoping we can survive with the supplies in the cellar. Maybe someone will come and rescue us. Who, I have no idea.
We have almost reached the steps when I hear it.
My heart jumps in my throat and I nearly stumble as I freeze mid-step at hearing the low voice behind me. Did I imagine it? I must have.
“Ezra?” I whisper, unbelieving.
I whirl around, squinting against the flames behind me. Slowly, a figure peels itself out of the smoke, outlined sharply against the orange glow of the fire.
A figure in a wheelchair.
Before he has reached us, Ezra slows down the wheelchair with his hands loosely wrapped around the rims, stopping a few feet away from us. His hair is wild and gray, covered in cold ash as is his face, only his red-rimmed eyes standing out.
I sway from the shock of relief rolling over me, my hand pressed over my mouth. “Oh god…” I whisper, new tears blurring my vision but I can still see clearly enough to notice that Ezra is alone. “Where’s...” I do not manage to say his father’s name but I do not need to because Ezra shakes his head. I feel even dizzier, fumbling for Benjamin’s shoulder. “Fuck… I’m… I’m so sorry, Ezra.”
Ezra’s eyes fall onto the boy. “Benjamin…” He manages a small smile when he says his nephew’s name in a raspy voice. “I’m so glad you are…” He trails off as he seems to remember, turning the chair to the main house. “What about… Ann?”
I close my eyes for a second, a heavy weight on my shoulders. “Ezra…”
“Where’s Ann?” Ezra is speaking louder now, his red eyes on me.
“I’m sorry, Ezra, I couldn’t-”
But Ezra does not listen to me anymore. “Ma? Ma!” Ezra brings the chair to the foot of the stairs with frantic pushes and almost loses his grip on the railing as he forcefully pulls himself up with his back to the stairs, his legs jostling around. Ezra’s left foot slips off the footrest but he does not bother to stop and correct it.
I hoist up a suddenly boneless Benjamin and have only reached the stairs when Ezra disappears inside, leaning forward over each push.
“Ma!” He coughs and wheezes for air. “Ann!”
Ezra has left the wheelchair behind and started bumping himself up the staircase, already a considerable number of steps up when I place a limp Benjamin down on the first one and follow Ezra slowly.
“Ezra, please… You don’t want to see this.”
Ezra yanks his legs closer carelessly, not reacting to my presence as I approach him. Panting, he pushes up from the step he is currently sitting on, and his ass slips onto the next one. In his haste he almost loses his balance but manages to catch himself on the railing in the last second, then resumes as if nothing has happened.
I stand by next to him, clueless of what to do, watching him fight his way up with increasing desperation, his arms shaking weakly. The muscles in his back, shoulders and arms are clearly coming to their limit in this night.
My heart breaks at the sight.
“Fuck!” Ezra slams down a hand on his thigh, staring at me with pure hatred in his eyes. “Do something, Caroline! Go and help her!”
I freeze. “I…” I do not know what to say.
But Ezra has already turned his attention back to climbing the stairs, muttering swear words under his breath. A few steps higher up his left knee straightens suddenly and the leg starts trembling slightly. I can hear Ezra growl lowly but he ignores the pain and moves on, making it two more steps further up before both of his legs are full on rebelling, shaking with the boots drumming on the steps.
Ezra doubles over, an agonized hiss going over his lips.
I cannot hold back any longer. “Ezra, I can…”
I jerk back at that, my hands flying up. “Sorry.” I stumble back and swallow. “I don’t… I shouldn’t…” I crouch down with some safety space between us. “Please let me help, Ezra.”
Ezra pushes up against his knees, causing them to tremble violently. He breathes wetly between clenched teeth, not looking at me, and shakes his head. “No.”
The word holds so much power I do not dare to move and instead I watch Ezra try to find some purchase, try to bent his legs at the knees but to no avail, and finally he howls and collapses against the railing, his breath rattling in his chest.
“Please…” I am almost crying now. “Ezra I can… I can bring her to you.”
Ezra stills with his forehead against the railing.
“If that… if that is okay?” I add with a tremble in my voice.
Ezra does not move for a while, his hands clenched around the wooden bars.
Slowly I get up from where I sit, trying not to startle Ezra. “I’ll… I’ll do that, okay? I’ll get her. Just… just keep sitting here. I’ll be back quickly.”
And then Ezra nods, his face crumbling to a grimace I cannot stand to see and I turn to run up the steps.
I am hugging Benjamin at the foot of the stairs, Lucy’s head resting on the kid’s knees. The boy is oddly silent and does not seem to take in his surroundings. I try talking to him for a while but when he does not respond I give up and turn back to Ezra.
I have pulled a scarf out of one of the drawers in the bedroom and wrapped it around Ann’s neck. The back of her dress is drenched in blood but it is not visible from the front.
Ezra does not look up when I call his name. His shivering fingers trail over the side of Ann’s face.
“What do we do now, Ezra?”
Ezra still does not react.
“It is time.”
It has been long. Dangerously long.
“We cannot wait anymore. It’s… it’s not safe.” I do not dare to get closer to him. He is sitting on the step where I left him, his mother’s body cradled in his arms. “Please…”
Ezra exhales slowly, the air shuddering in his chest. “I know,” he whispers, his voice wet, and he pulls one corner of the shawl over Ann’s face. “She might turn.”
I nod, glad he is acknowledging it.
Long seconds of silence follow.
“What do we do, Ezra?” I repeat carefully.
Ezra lifts his head, his shimmering eyes not finding me. “I don’t know,” he says.
I realize it is time to take matters in my hand.