Penny, Tom, Howard and Neill worked like a well-oiled machine. After the last zombie at the fence had dropped to the ground Penny and Neill made sure they were all dead and the two of them retrieved the arrows. They found some of the zombies covered in poop.
‘Curtain moving in blue RV,’ Tom softly said.
Penny had a look and noticed a hand holding a gun. It wasn’t pointed at them but the message was clear. Penny raised a hand by way of a greeting. The gun disappeared and the passenger’s door opened. A man stepped out and walked toward them, still holding his weapon.
‘Hello. My name is Penny. Do you need help?’ Penny asked when the man, who seemed to be about seventy years old, stood still at a little distance from the fence.
‘I’m Bill Terfel. My family’s there and I will defend them,’ the man stated.
‘Good,’ Penny replied. ’Family is worth protecting.’
The man’s expression softened at that.
‘Why did you kill these biters Penny?’
‘To see if you need help and possibly to trade. We’ve got goods with us.’
Bill lowered his gun. A woman stepped out of the blue RV. Bill, unaware of that, softly admitted that he could use food.
‘We thought we heard moaning coming from inside the hall. We didn’t dare to enter it in search for leftovers.’
‘We’ve been here before and we entered the office and storage room. It should be safe there but some zombies from the hall might have made it there by now.’
Bill nodded. ‘What did you bring Penny?’
‘Apples, carrots, canned vegetables. Let’s see… some canned fruit, dried meat, nuts, goat cheese.’
‘You’ve got all that?’ the woman from the RV, who’d now joined them, asked. Bill didn’t seem pleased by her arrival but he made introductions still. The woman, who was in her sixties and skinny, was called Nigella and she was Bill’s wife. She intently looked at Penny, who got the impression she was in a fortune teller’s tent, but maybe that had more to do with Nigella’s long skirt and her bracelets than with the woman’s stare.
‘Do you live nearby Penny?’ Nigella asked.
‘We live in a former police-station a while from here,’ Penny pleasantly said. Behind her she heard a thud, like that of a zombie dropping to the ground.
‘A police-station? Were you a policewoman?’
Penny grinned. ‘Waitress. Unlike the diner the police-station was made to be defendable against an angry mob.’
Nigella softly laughed and Bill looked pleasantly surprised by that. ‘Penny suggested trade,’ he told his wife. He asked Penny what she was looking for.
‘We’ll consider anything you have, especially building tools. Have you lived here for a long time?’
‘About four days,’ Bill replied.
‘You needed to flee for something?’
‘We met people… who attacked us.’
Nigella looked at the ground. Seeing that Penny noticed that, Bill quickly added: ‘We’d like to trade.’
‘Why don’t you come in honey?’ Nigella suggested.
Bill seemed worried concerning his wife’s invitation and that settled it for Penny.
‘All clear?’ she asked her men.
‘Confirmed,’ Tom replied.
Raj was busy in a corner of the garage when he heard voices near. Caleb entered with Gareth. It was obvious to Raj that they weren’t aware of his presence and he didn’t mind not being interrupted for a change.
‘If you carry those shovels, I’ll take these spades,’ Caleb said. ‘We also need more knee-protectors. I’ll get them.’
‘You weren’t in a real community before, were you?’ Gareth asked.
‘In between the collapse of our old world and coming here. A community with leaders and rules.’
‘I suppose I wasn’t.’
A drawer was closed. ‘I thought they were in there,’ Caleb said.
‘I was. We lived in an AUB community for some time.’
‘Why don’t you check that drawer?’ Caleb asked, followed by the question: ‘Liked it there?’
‘Yes I did. I had three wives and most of my children had survived: I was a man of some consequence. One of the councilmembers in fact.’
‘Nice. Damn, where are they? Found anything? Maybe in that box at the entrance?’
Raj heard footsteps and some noise as if someone was going through a pile of equipment.
‘I have the capacity for that. You could be a councilmember too. I wanted to ask you Caleb: What do you make of the reward system?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Everyone works for 48 hours a week and every adult gets “paid” the same.’
Raj, who’d continued to work, now needed to search a can for a specific part, but he refrained from doing so.
‘I like it. Makes me feel valued.’
‘Common! Valued? You’re an expert in your field. The only construction worker we’ve got. You labour on the Nielsen site and yet you get the same amount of points as say Maud who doesn’t have half your strength.’
‘In the old world you would have made more money than Maud.’
‘I would have made less than Maud the dentist’s assistant. And I would have made far less than an engineer like Howard, plus I didn’t get to be in charge on the site.’
‘You’re not in charge. Howard is.’
‘When it comes to planning and making decisions: yes. But he leaves the day-to-day things to me.’
‘And why shouldn’t you be rewarded for that?’
Caleb’s voice came from another spot. ‘I am: Howard leaves the day-to-day things to me. Found them!’
‘What if the new people are lazy?’
‘And they read romantic novels on the toilet while they should be helping in the vertical garden?’ Caleb said teasingly.
Raj smirked, knowing whom Caleb referred to.
‘This is too heavy for me,’ Gareth complained. ‘You take some shovels too.’
‘Half my strength… Ass,’ Caleb mumbled.
Bill opened the gate a little so Penny could walk through. ‘You’re all welcome to come in.’
‘This is Neill,’ Penny started, gesturing at the only man who faced them. ‘The others are Howard and Tom.’
The last two raised a hand in greeting but didn’t look around. Neill nodded at Bill and Nigella and seemed to hold his hand-bow with a bit more emphasis.
‘I’ll join you,’ Penny said and she stepped into the parking lot. Bill nodded and closed the gate. Penny followed him and Nigella, who picked up the ball. They went through the small opening that was left between the two RVs. Behind it the parking lot was empty safe for six RVs of various sizes and two men: a bearded one in his fifties and a man of Penny’s age who was very tall and muscled. At Bill’s gesture they put away their guns. Bill whistled in a particular way which led to people coming out of their RVs. Two young boys flew toward Nigella, who told Penny that they were her grandchildren Will and Paul. They observed Penny from behind their grandmother’s skirt with the taller of the boys having taken possession of the ball.
Nine others emerged, guarded and silent. A petite blonde woman looked at Penny wide-eyed.
‘No Nigella, not you!’
‘No!’ Nigella said and she walked toward the woman, put her hands on her shoulders and softly talked to her. Penny was anxious to overhear the conversation, but Bill introduced her to his people so she had to pay attention to that.
‘Penny lives in a former police-station,’ Bill then said. ‘She’d like to trade with us.’
‘A police-station huh?’ the bearded man, Moses, said. ‘In a town?’
‘In a village, two buildings away from where I grew up. There’s plenty of space to grow food,’ Penny said. ‘We’ve got food and some other goods with us to trade. We could use building tools and specialized tools but whatever you have to offer, we’ll consider.’
‘Go through your belongings and whatever you wouldn’t take when we have to flee, bring it,’ Bill told his people. ‘And bring your waste-holding tanks. Mitch could you empty those again?’
The tall man nodded. Moses declared that he’d keep an eye on the entrance and he took a position at the front wheel of the blue RV. The woman who’d questioned Nigella now approached Penny, with a woman of Chinese descent in tow. She waited until the others, who all went to their RVs, were out of earshot and then asked: ‘You live somewhere safe?’
‘You accept people into your community?’
O shit, Penny thought.
‘Provided that they obey our rules, we do.’
‘I’m Martha. This is Camilla. Could you take us with you please?’ Martha said on the verge of tears. ‘Before the bastards return? We’ll bring our van if you like.’ She gestured toward a dark green RV that seemed big enough to house a family.
The moment she’d seen the RVs Penny had thought of her housing issue but Martha’s offer troubled her. She’d had her share of bullies.
‘Now hold on!’ Moses said walking toward them. He fingered a rabbit’s leg hanging from his belt. ‘That’s not yours to take.’ He positioned himself right in front of Penny. ‘Look you missy, you think you can order us around now can you?’
‘I’m not ordering you around sir,’ Penny calmly said.
‘We take care of our own.’
‘And that’s all you do!’ Martha said.
‘I never hurt you Martha.’
‘You didn’t help us either, did you?’
‘Paul did and he’s left behind my widowed sister and my fatherless niece!’
The sound of arguing had drawn the attention of Bill and Nigella, who quickly came toward them.
‘She wants an RV!’ Moses told Bill, who put down two small folding chairs. Nigella placed a set of pans on the ground as well as a filled bag.
Martha said that Penny hadn’t asked for an RV but that she would offer their van in case Penny would take Camilla and her with her.
‘And I told her that it’s not hers to take!’
‘We owe it to them,’ Nigella said.
A woman with auburn hair, Charlotte, or so Penny recalled, joined them. She placed two loaded canvas bags on the pavement. Her daughter Courtney accompanied her, holding a stuffed children’s back-pack, and rolling a waste-holding tank along. Charlotte looked from Nigella to Moses to Martha and Camilla.
‘We want to –‘ Martha started to explain.
‘Hand our van to her!’ Moses interrupted. ‘Charlotte, tell her that it’s not hers to take.’
‘I agree with Nigella Moses.’
Moses grumbled and looked pissed but he shut up. The piles of trading goods grew. They contained among others a saw, boots, porcelain statues and embroidered pillows.
‘Please Penny, take us with you,’ Martha begged.
‘They might not make it Martha,’ Charlotte tried.
‘Ill weeds,’ Martha said.
Nigella and Charlotte shared a glance.
‘You don’t know her,’ Charlotte tentatively told Martha and Camilla. ‘What if her people are worse?’
‘Worse?!’ Camilla exclaimed.
‘What sort of work do you do in your place Penny?’ a woman wearing unbecoming pants asked.
Penny nodded to show she understood the question. On leaving the farm she’d replaced her Grace Kelly bun for a merry pony tail and it danced at every head move. ‘I help out in the kitchen garden Rose. I make soap and candles and goat cheese too and I scavenge.’
‘Do you have rules?’ Rose asked.
‘We have to work for 48 hours a week for food, shelter, protection, medical aid and basic clothing.’
‘Medical aid?’ a balding man asked.
‘For crying out loud Henry, we can take care of our own!’ Moses cried out, making the others tense.
‘You can,’ Penny calmly said, ‘for you’ve made it this far in an apocalypse.’
Taken aback Moses muttered: ‘Damn right we did.’
‘What sort of medical aid do you have? A dentist?’ Bill asked.
‘You think your dentist could have a look at my wife?’ Henry said in a slightly raised voice that revealed his anxiety. ‘You said you need building tools: I offer the small roller over there. If it’s of no use to your people: I used to work in a road-crew and I’m a construction worker. I can do plumbing and roofing. I could work for you in exchange.’
‘Let me think on that while I see what we can use, is that all right?’
Will suggested his brother and Rose’s daughters to play leap-frog. Courtney, who was the eldest of the children, seemed pleased by not being asked to join them. The four children set to play and Henry left for his RV but the others kept an eye on Penny who went through their things.
Henry returned rolling his waste-holding tank with him. He was accompanied by a woman who held her hand to her cheek and was in such pain that she needed her husband’s support to walk. He left her in the care of Nigella and helped Mitch, who was carrying a spade, to bring the tanks the others had brought to the fence.
Penny wanted to question Bill but not with the others being present. She eyed Nigella, who was surprisingly understanding. ‘Let’s give Penny some privacy as she decides what she can use,’ Nigella said. She put her arm around her suffering friend’s shoulders and walked toward the hall. The rest of the group followed her.
‘It’s amazing that you were able to keep these RVs on the road for this long,’ Penny said while looking in between the two RVs at the front. Neill nodded at her and she returned the gesture.
‘We stayed in a traveller’s community for some years.’
‘Were the men Martha referred to the ones you fled for?’
Bill shook his head. ‘Pete and Hank are part of our own group. They… uhm. They help us survive, for they’re unafraid. But their methods… Martha and Camilla and Marlene too, she’s missing, might still be with Pete and Hank and the others. The three of them were settlers. Non-travellers that is. Pete and Hank took them for… well, you know. Charlotte’s husband tried to defend them, but Pete killed him for that. No one dared to help the women afterward,’ Bill said, looking ashamed. ‘I must warn you that should you accept them, Pete and Hank will come for them.’
Penny thought about the Trojan war. She had never been sure whether the willingness to sacrifice thousands of lives to save one stranger was a triumph of mankind or a sign of utter stupidity. It was decision time now. Ill weeds and all.