Raj had a good look at the referend's huge barn and his expression spoke of surprise at its architectural state. He didn't speak though and Penny guessed that he didn't want to remind anyone that it had been a while since he'd been outside the wall. Penny was sure he'd be fine now: there would barely be any danger.
House zero, the former police station, had been built in the middle of nowhere because various villages didn't want other communities to have the honour of housing it. By 1904 a tiny village had come to existence for the police station got company from a church, a referend's house, a pub/diner, an elementary school, and a doctor's practice. In the 1990's the settlement had been proud when a huge ugly mall had been built on its grounds to accommodate the entire region. Its nearness had been convenient for the locals but the Nielsens, the Torsviks and Penny's family had been glad to live at a dead-end road themselves so the many customers the mall attracted weren't driving past their houses.
The police station, the church, some houses and the mall were the only buildings that had survived humanity's downfall. In the panic during the first weeks of the zombie outbreak the pub, the school and half of the referend's house had gone up in flames. Someone who'd entered the only remaining shop using his truck for a key, had caused the building to collapse, though it took many months for that to happen. A year after Ramona had entered the farm a tree had gotten hit by lighting and had fallen on her practice and on the houses next to it. Penny still recognized the village of her childhood though and she thought that might have something to do with the fact that as a girl her dream of moving away had been so powerful that to her the village resembled a ruin already.
House zero now served as a place to encounter strangers. The last time had been when they'd first met the people from Stein farm. Leo Stein had not been insulted when later on he'd been told that the former police station wasn't their headquarters.
Sharon parked the car in front of the entrance and Penny and Tom went to check the building. After they'd declared that it was safe, Raj got a crate from the jeep's trunk.
'I could use a hand indoors,' Raj said.
'I'll guard,' Tom replied.
'I'll relieve Leo,' Randall said and he made it for the church's tower.
Sharon responded before Penny could offer her assistance. 'Sissies,' she said with barely contained pleasure. 'I'll help you Raj.'
So Penny stayed outside and soon enough she and Tom were joined by Leo. The first creature to appear in sight was harmless: a cat seated itself on the jeep's hood to enjoy the warmth of the engine. Penny amused herself by thinking that perhaps cats would tell their kittens about the time when they held humans to serve them. The moment the cat's ears turned, Penny and Tom lifted their bows. Leo followed their lead. From a small park opposite the police station a grey-haired zombie came crawling toward them. Tom told Leo to kill it using his knife. Leo obeyed and didn't require instructions when it came to checking the body and moving it out of the way. Content with the way things had been handled the cat curled itself into a ball.
Uneventful minutes passed by. At a distance they saw zombies, but the wind was favourable and the creatures didn't sense them. At last Raj and Sharon were done.
'If you could inspect my work?' Raj asked Penny.
Penny grinned at her friend and gestured Tom to join her. The hall seemed to be in use. There was a pair of stained boots on a mat and from pegs hung torn jackets and colourful shawls. An information board held a drawing made by Melody, who'd noted down the date of creation: 9 October 2014. There was also a fake schedule, listing the names Letitia was familiar with and others, all from former Caltech employees. Penny recalled the leaflets from the AA and the "wanted" posters that once hung on the board.
The former office resembled a living room. There was a book on a desk, a piece of paper marking where the reader had left off. A pencil attached to a crossword puzzle added homeliness. On a desk in a corner lay some books and a couple of 1000 pieces puzzles. On a side table that served as a room divider stood fake plants and picture frames, most of which had graced the desks of the policemen but some of which were connected to the farm. Tom stared at a framed picture of Sissy with the new-born Michael.
'That's my sister Elizabeth. She died here,' Penny said. She was sure that Tom had heard the story before, if not when it came to the place where Elizabeth had died, but she suddenly longed to talk about her sister. 'After 12 July my mum freaked out. Sis went to get the doctor and Ramona took her visitors, Melody, Keisha and little Leila, with her. Sissy's jeep got hit by another car and they sought shelter here. Sissy had been bitten and a policemen locked them all in here. Randall searched for Sis and he ended up killing her. She looks happy in that picture, doesn't she?'
Tom gestured at another frame. 'Is that young Mr Nielsen?'
'He was handsome wasn't he? When I was a girl I thought he looked like Sean Connery. I'm glad you got to know him.'
'A kind, down to earth gentleman.'
Looking at yet another picture Tom added: 'Your mother was kind too. Is that the tea house being built?'
Penny picked up the homemade frame that held a photo of her mother proudly standing in front of an octagonal structure. 'It is. Let's check the kitchen and then we'll go upstairs.'
The refrigerator in the kitchen wasn't functioning, but it served to store apples. On the sink stood mint plants and chive and some upside down mugs. A glass jar half filled with tea-bags and an apron were part of the tableau. Cupboards were filled with plates and pans. In a corner of the kitchen a mouse-trap had been placed on the floor.
Raj had destined the upstairs offices and cells to become bedrooms with sleeping bags for bedding. One room held a stained teddy bear as well as other toys and was obviously the children's bedroom. In the modest bathroom there was a pile of towels. A closet contained shirts, pants, underwear and socks, all neatly folded per size, that had been cast out by the sowing team at the farm.
'He's good,' Tom said.
'Isn't he? What's your view on covering the construction site's fences to spare the workers the sight of zombies?'
'I want to see danger coming, especially now.'
'Exactly,' Penny replied. 'I'll tell Caleb that I discussed his idea. Another thing: could you give it a private thought as to which guards are suited to live here and in the tower for shifts of say a week?'
Tom looked surprised for a moment, but he nodded. 'I can stay here until the threat is neutralized,' he offered.
'Leo and Sharon will be in the tower and you'll be busy enough in the days to come. You can have your evening off as planned.'
Back at the jeep Penny complimented Raj and Sharon. Raj smiled brightly. 'Have you noticed the laundry racks we hung from windows? Oh look, a cat! Here kitty kitty.'
Penny pictured Raj ten years from now, fuzzing over an adorable child and worshipping his Sarah. Howard would be married too most likely. That left her and Sheldon. She found it ironic that in the old world she'd had her pick of boyfriends and right now she was married to a job. She had thought that Sheldon might show an interest in Melody or Ramona or perhaps librarian Cynthia, who'd followed his "Introduction to physics" course and had brought pencil and paper with her to make notes.
The cat allowed Raj to caress her once and ran off. Sharon joined Randall in the tower and the rest of them got in the car. After delivering a note to the Wise's post box to inform them of possible danger, they returned and made it for the mall, that was less than a mile from the police station. When the wind came from the wrong direction, the sounds of zombies moaning reached the farm, as well as their scent. That scent now hit them fully and they all applied a nose clip. Leo, Tom and Penny walked toward the gate surrounding the parking lot. Raj followed them in the jeep.
'That's why you never scavenge here,' Leo mumbled, looking at the herd wide-eyed.
'We'd like to, if only for weapons, but there are just too many,' Penny softly said. She bent over to tie her shoe-lace. 'And the ones inside will likely have survived for a while, so they'll be even more dangerous than the ones here. Before you and Tom check the fence, there's the minute check. We always check the responses of two zombies: Green Skirt and Scotsman. There they are.'
Leo swallowed hard as he looked at a zombie in a green skirt who hungrily reached out for them. Its left arm nearly fell off. Scotsman earned its nickname from its hoodie with the word "Edinburgh" on it.
'Between Raj's "start" and "stop" you will check how many bite movements Scotsman makes Leo. Tom will count Green Skirt's.'
A minute later on Raj noted down the numbers.
'The doctors reason that in two years these zombies will no longer be able to bite. We'll give the mall a try then,' Penny softly told Leo. 'Now Raj will cover our back. You and Tom will check the fence. I will cover you.'
Tom showed Leo how to use a stick designed to test the strength of the pole fence. Where Tom trusted Penny and Raj to protect them, Leo was easily distracted and he kept looking at the noisily zombies as if there was no fence between him and them. Penny's former teacher reached out for them. He wore the leather messenger bag he'd had when she'd attended elementary school. Its strap, crossing his chest, was covered in dried blood.
The entrance to the parking lot consisted of a movable mash fence. After the only man who'd ever been abandoned from the farm had damaged it in order to release the parking lot zombies, a line of cars had been placed in front of it. Tom, Leo and Penny climbed over the hood of a red Volkswagen. Penny noticed there was still a stain left by the traitor. She didn't point it out to Leo, whose chocolate skin had turned creamy as it was. They walked from the mash fence to a pole one again and passed the division that separated the customers' parking lot from the one for staff only. The cars standing closer to the outer fence here, they saw zombies turn their heads to them from their driving seats. A man wearing a grey shirt appeared to be unharmed and could have died of a heart attack. There was a woman whose left shoulder had been bitten, but who'd still made it to her car. Penny was reminded of Hershel Greene and his barn filled with "family and friends".
Once they'd concluded that no zombies would escape any time soon, Leo unceremoniously threw up.
'It's different here, where they are people rather than plagues, isn't it?' Penny said.
Leo nodded, wiping his mouth with his handkerchief. 'I was out there for eighteen months. I totally lost it.'
'One more check: the emergency entrances at the back. Ready?'
Leo straightened up. 'Yes ma'am.'
Leo was only a few years younger than Penny and he usually called her by her name. Howard had once told her that a formal address was a way to show someone was in charge: They call me "sir" at times, believe it or not. Caleb does, when I'm showing workers how something needs to be done. And then when he asks me to pass the cheese I'm Howard again.
Followed by the jeep they went to the backside of the mall. Penny walked ahead to guard their front. The grass stood high which made guarding more difficult, for she needed to scan both the surroundings as well as the ground right in front of her. At one point Penny stumbled and fell. She felt a stab in her shin. Turning her body she jerked her leg away and the next moment she saw a zombie that tried to bite her. She shot it.
'Are you all right Penny?' Against protocol Raj got out of the car and Tom immediately gestured Leo to take the wheel.
'Sure honey. Shoelace got loose again,' Penny said, bending down to fix it as well as to hide her red cheeks.
Raj admiringly looked at the zombie's pierced skull. Leo and Tom kept an eye on the surroundings.
'Look, it has a little garden shovel stuck behind its belt,' Raj observed.
'Scraped my leg,' Penny said cheerfully. In a back pocket of the zombie's jeans she found a wallet.
'Let's move on,' Penny said as she forcefully removed her arrow.
After bolting her door from the inside, Penny sat down on her bed. She'd fallen because of the stupid shoe-lace. She got hurt by the stupid shovel. She killed a stupid zombie. That was it. She felt a bit dizzy, but it was close to dinner time, so she just needed to eat something.
That's it, plain and simple, so I might as well check my leg, Penny thought. With trembling fingers she pulled her damaged and muddied jeans up. There was a mark and it wasn't the sort of mark made by a shovel.