Mason walked up to the gate and discussed something quietly with the man. The woman who stood by the man stared at Hunter and Victory. She ignored the rest of us. The morning light streamed all around us. The morning air was chill. Birds chirped from the trees up above.
Mason turned back to us. “This is Erik and his wife Salene. Erik says you can have the backpacks you requested. Wait here.”
Erik, his wife and the others behind the fence turned to leave.
“So you’re not going to tell us how you got out?” Mrs. Smith directly addressed Erik. “I saw you and your wife. You were in that room with the broken window. We went in there too. What happened to those zombies? They were torn apart.”
Couldn’t she feel how dangerous this man felt? The hairs on my arms still stood on end. Erik waved a hand to the other men with him and they disappeared back into the woods. Then he turned back to us.
“I don’t know,” he said with a knowing smirk. “Maybe it happened after we broke out the window. Maybe the zombies turned on each other.”
“We’ve never seen the zombies turn on each other though,” Darren said. His voice grew quieter as Erik’s eyes turned to him. Darren looked down at his feet.
“You know it wasn’t the zombies,” Hunter said.
“Do I?” Erik asked dangerously. He opened the iron gate and stepped through to our side of the fence. The atmosphere was already tense, but it grew more so as he and Salene drew closer to us.
He walked up to Hunter. Hunter was tall, but Erik was taller and more muscular. Not to mention he had this presence that no one else I’d ever met could match. He stared down at Hunter. Hunter quickly looked away. Victory hid behind Hunter’s back as Erik’s wife stared at her.
“Do you want to tell me face to face what I do and don’t know?” Erik’s eyes burned into Hunter. Hunter shook his head without looking up at the bigger man. “Did you rescue these parents from that party?” Erik asked him. “Did you go inside the house?”
Hunter didn’t answer him, but Grant did. “Yes, we did,” he said with bravado.
“Did you see your parents?” Erik asked Hunter completely ignoring Grant.
“Don’t,” Hunter said quietly as if the word choked in his throat.
“Because I did,” Erik went on. “Your father fell with the first flash of green light. Did your sister go inside too?”
Erik waited for a response, but neither Hunter nor Victory answered him.
“No. She didn’t,” Maria said.
“Did you tell her what you saw?” Erik addressed Hunter. “I can tell you exactly what happened. Your father fell. When he stood, he was a zombie. Your mother could have defended herself, but she didn’t. She just let him bite her over and over.”
“Stop!” Hunter shouted. He shoved Erik away from him hard. The wind began to pick up. Mason, Salene and the rest of Erik’s people tensed. Crouched a little even as if they were preparing to pounce on Hunter and his sister. I took a step towards Hunter. My grip on the handle of my ax tightened. I would protect him if I needed to no matter how much Erik frightened me. Molly ran erratically around Arthur’s legs as if she didn’t know what to do or maybe extra protection for Arthur.
Erik stepped back in front of Hunter with one quick movement. They stared at each other with hate in their eyes. Grey clouds began to drift in with the wind.
“Careful,” Erik warned. “You don’t want to challenge me.” They stared at each other only a few moments longer before Hunter dropped his eyes. With that simple movement, Erik’s people relaxed. Molly settled next to Arthur.
“And you,” Erik turned to me. I took an involuntary step backwards as he walked towards me. I hadn’t even seen him before today. Why was he addressing me? “You are like your father,” he said as he stopped in front of me. “But your siblings aren’t.”
“What do you mean?” I asked before I realized it.
“Did you go into that house as well?”
I nodded. Trepidation filled me. I really didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
“Did you find your parents?” he asked.
“Don’t do this,” Hunter pleaded.
The others were completely still. Even Erik’s people. I wasn’t sure what was happening.
“Yes,” I whispered in answer.
“Then you saw that your father didn’t turn into one of them,” Erik said. I wondered if that was something he had just assumed or if he had seen it. How much had he seen in that house before he and his wife got out that broken window?
“Maybe that means your father was the key to a cure,” Grant’s dad offered. “Maybe you are the key to a cure,” he said to me.
Except Erik couldn’t know that just by looking at me and I didn’t think that was the comparison he was making.
Erik and his people laughed. “A cure?” he asked incredulously. “To a green flash in the sky?” His people laughed even harder.
“You don’t know,” Grant came to the defense of his father. “Maybe that green light was a virus or something.”
“A virus that also stopped all our electronics?” Darren asked him as if he were stupid.
That shut up Grant and his dad.
“You think you don’t need them,” Hunter said drawing Erik’s attention. “You think you and your people can hide safe in your little settlement, but you’re wrong.”
“What do you mean when you say them?” Erik asked Hunter. He stepped away from me back towards Hunter.
“Them,” Hunter waved to us. “Not exactly them, but them. You know what I mean. A world filled with zombies will affect you whether you think it will or not.”
Erik cocked his head to the side as he studied Hunter. Salene, Mason and the others watched Erik carefully as if what he said next held great value. Maybe it did.
“We don’t need them,” Erik said to Hunter. “I don’t commiserate with those who turn into zombies or those who are left behind. You think they would care about you or I if they knew the truth? You don’t think they brought this zombie apocalypse on themselves? Your mother kept you and your siblings sheltered. There is a lot you don’t know. A lot of failed negotiations. A lot of unfounded hate. In some instances genocide even. And I’m not talking about generations ago. I’m talking about now.”
“But those that did this will gain even more power,” Hunter said.
“Do you even know who did this?” Erik asked.
“I could guess, but I don’t know for sure,” Hunter said.
“Leave it that way,” Erik said. He left us and headed back towards the gate. Salene stepped in beside him. The men who had left came back out of the woods on the other side of the fence. They had several empty backpacks with them. Erik took a backpack and tossed it across the distance to Hunter. Hunter caught it easily.
“You are risking your safety and your sisters by traveling with them,” Erik said.
“We would never hurt them,” Mackenzie said defensively.
“Maybe not you,” he said to my little sister before turning his attention back to Hunter, “but you can never tell who will when they know the truth.”
“The truth about what?” Grant asked. He looked suspiciously at Hunter and his sister.
Erik smirked, but no one answered Grant’s question. Erik motioned to the men behind him and they brought the backpacks out to us. Mrs. Smith and Maria immediately began to fill the backpacks with items wrapped in jackets. Darren and Richard helped them.
“Be careful who you trust,” Erik said to Hunter. “Mason will take you out of our territory. If you or your sister cross the boundary again, we will kill you. No questions asked. Do you understand?”
Hunter swallowed hard and nodded.
“Does that apply to just them?” I asked as Erik and Salene begin to retreat back into the woods on the other side of the fence.
“No,” Erik said. “You have no means to detect our territory. He,” he waved a hand in Hunter’s general direction, “does.”
He didn’t say anymore as he and his wife retreated. The men who brought the backpacks soon followed. The people who were with Mason retreated back into the woods on our side of the fence until I couldn’t see or hear any of them except Mason.
“Follow me,” he said. We grabbed our newly acquired backpacks and followed Mason in silence. I couldn’t tell if we traveled the same way we had come. Everything looked the same as we walked among the trees.
We walked about a half hour before we reached the treeline. The freeway came into view, but it was a different section than we had left last night. We just needed to follow it and we would reach the diner. It would only have taken about 2 hours in the cars, but I wasn’t sure how long it would take now that we were on foot in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
“Sorry it has to be this way,” Mason said as he turned around to face us. “Erik’s just on edge. It’s his responsibility to protect all of us. I hold no ill will towards you,” he said pointedly to Hunter, “but I hope I don’t see you again. I will follow Erik’s orders even if I don’t want to.”
“Don’t worry,” Hunter said. “I don’t have any intention of coming back this way again. We just want to find Grace and Tanner and be on our way.”
Mason nodded. “Then I wish you luck.” He patted Hunter on the back of the shoulder. He didn’t say goodbye to any of the rest of us, but he did stop to crouch eye level with Molly. “You’re a good girl,” he said to her. She happily wagged her tail and licked his face. “Make sure you guard your owner well.” He scratched her ears and then disappeared into the woods.