Dale had gotten used to Daryl sharing his passenger seat, but right now he was accompanied by Philip. The two groups had decided to combine their forces and Dale's van was the middle one of a train of five vehicles.
'How did you learn about Drottningville?' Philip softly asked Dale, for there were people sleeping in the back of the van.
'Years ago we run into Penny and her friends.'
'Before or after the outbreak?'
'After. We were camping at a farm, present day Greeneville, and they did miracles to make it safe.'
'Was it overrun?'
From the corner of his eye Dale noticed Philip's surprised expression. To prevent the young man from questioning him about why he'd left Dale gestured at the plastic covered trunk of the jeep in front of them.
'I guess that's all trading goods huh?'
'Yeah. I'm really excited about going to the fair,' Philip shared. 'You won't believe how jealous people were of those who got selected.'
'I believe you! Meeting new people and doing something that belonged to the old world: a fair and games! Small wonder people envied you. I won't be participating in the games, but I look forward to them. I feared we might be too late for it all, but since they won't start until after your arrival, I'm truly glad we run into you.'
'It feels safe, travelling with a larger group, even though we all know how to handle creeps, even Edward, although you wouldn't say so. He's nice. We share a room and he barely ever snores. Shame that there are eight others who do.'
'Wow. That's crowded. What's it like otherwise?'
'We all work for the roof over our head and the food on our plate. What about your former place?'
'Was it crowded?'
'Twenty-eight people. Most grown singles had a room of their own.'
Philip whistled. 'Still I'm glad that I found the Stein farm. Better being surrounded by snoring men than by creeps and better being bossed around than eaten.'
Dale grinned along with his passenger and wondered whether Leo, who'd seemed like one of the guys, was a different man at home. He planned to pay attention and question some other Stein people.
Philip ticked against a small Elmo doll hanging from the rear-view mirror.
'Will you participate in the games Philip?'
'Yes: in the weight lifting category. I used to work for a pharmaceutical firm, but being a farmhand for four years gave me muscles.'
'I'm sure it did. What did you do in the firm?'
'Clerk. Didn't particularly like it, but wouldn't mind having that life back. What about you?'
'Retired salesman. Bought this van to travel the country with my wife. She died just before the start of the outbreak.'
It was silent for a while and then Philip softly said: 'I envy those who know what happened to their family and friends.'
'I understand: I too have loved ones that –' Dale started. He wiped away his tears, startled at his sudden outburst of emotion.
'I just hope,' Philip said, 'that if my mother and brother and sister are alive, they'll assume that I'm dead. Nothing to be done but mourn and move on. If not, they'll worry for me and feel guilty for not searching for me. I have nightmares about me not searching for them while they're alive and need help. Cate, the woman with the scar on her cheek, used to be a therapist. She helped me a bit. But at times I just -. Well, it sucks.'
'It does. And part of why it sucks is that we can still enjoy things, isn't that so?'
'Yes. But that's because there are still things to enjoy.'
'Remember that Philip. Always remember that.'
Sarah Close, who was guarding at the gate, told Howard and Sheldon that Penny had left for the Nielsen property an hour and a half previous. 'She went to bring supplies for the workers. And she said she wanted some quiet time.'
'We're going to the Nielsen property too,' Howard said when Sheldon remained silent. The sixteen year old didn't question them but as she opened the gate she asked whether they'd heard something too. 'A while ago? Like something collapsed. Maybe the vicar's old shed in the village broke apart?'
'Could be,' Howard curtly said.
He and Sheldon didn't speak as they walked to the backside situated entrance of the Nielsen house.
'Check downstairs first?'
Sheldon nodded. The men turned on their headlights. On the floor of the hall stood a jar of water. Howard whistled and there was no reply. After checking two empty rooms Howard muttered: 'This is hell.'
When the ground floor proved clear, they went upstairs. The door to the toilet stood slightly ajar. Howard coughed and nothing happened. Using a telescopic prong that served to restrain zombies, he opened the door further. A bow stood between toilet and wall. A small gun lay in the sink and stuck against the wall was a long blonde hair.
Howard cried out Penny's name. No hungry zombie shuffled toward them. The men checked all rooms but Penny was nowhere to be found. Howard went back downstairs and Sheldon followed him once more.
'So she walks,' Howard said when Sheldon just stared ahead. 'If she turned before the shed fell apart, she might have wandered that way.'
Sheldon made no reply. Howard wished there was someone to take charge for he felt as beaten as Sheldon looked. He cleared his throat. 'Or she went to the wall.'
Howard couldn't bare the idea that Penny might walk straight into the barriers that were named after him. He was about to tell Sheldon that they would make a round past the trench, but his friend made it for the village. Howard tried to stop him, but when Sheldon just kept walking, he gave up. Like a robot Sheldon opened the fence. Howard closed it behind them. On their way to the village they encountered four old zombies. Howard finished them off but he only had time to retrieve one arrow for Sheldon was marching on.
Sarah had indeed been right: the shed had collapsed. The brand-new ruin bathed in the light the moon had to offer. At a distance from one another three zombies stood gazing over the remains of the shed.
Two zombies turned around when they sensed fresh meat. One of them was fairly complete, the only wound on its body being a half-eaten cheek. The other one had lost an arm as well as a chunk from its waist.
'I'll take Baseball Cap,' Howard said in a whisper. With unsteady arms he fired his bow. It pierced the zombie's chest. With Sheldon just standing there Howard reloaded and hit the zombie's brain. It took him three arrows to kill One Arm.
Howard took a sixth arrow to handle the third zombie. Though it was only some fifty feet away, it still stood with its back toward them, its blonde hair put up in a bun.
'Penny!' Howard cried out. He hadn't pulled the string yet. From behind a collapsed wall came a zombie whose nose had been eaten. It walked straight passed the third zombie.
'Damn it Penny! You were supposed to do this for me, remember?' Howard shouted through his tears. He let No Nose come close and used his bat on the creature, not looking up until Sheldon made a small sound. Zombie Three had turned around. With a shout of joy Sheldon ran toward it.
'No!' Howard cried out. He hurried after his friend who had truly gone crazy now.