Marion brought the construction workers apples and offered a massage to anyone who had sore arms or an aching back. Her healing hands were well known, but people didn't queue up in front of her for a treatment only. They also gathered near her to pry for information of which the second Mrs Close had plenty to share. Not only could she tell the construction crew that the doctor had said that though Leonard would be less mobile for a while, he'd be fine but also that Penny had lost her voice.
'According to Raj she simply has a sore throat,' Marion said while working on Alonso's shoulders, 'but I think it's stress related. You know, from saving Leonard.'
Alonso said that Leo had told him that Penny would like to scavenge in the mall. 'I think their outing – ouch! - had to do with that.'
Missy impatiently pointed out that the scientists had been excused from construction duty and spent a lot of time in their labs to prepare for an attack and why would they waste time to find a way to explore the mall? Alonso replied that the extra guns the mall would no doubt provide would surely help to fight the robbers. Those who preferred not to think of possible danger ahead countered that the scientists always spent a lot of time in the labs and besides: their neighbours had come over like they always did on Friday.
'And you've brought the children here, didn't you?' Sarah C asked Astrid Torsvik, who nodded and said: 'They longed to go to school. We didn't think code beige was a reason to stay at home.'
Wyatt emerged from the stables. Seeing Penny sit on a stool in front of the former garage that served as the outdoor lab, he went over. His daughter's eyes wandered from one branch of the old chestnut tree to another. It wasn't like her to sit so idly. He looked at the tree to see if he'd missed something.
'It's like a fairy at a ball, isn't it?' Howard, who was working on an excavator, said by way of a greeting.
Wyatt shook his head at this sign of Howard's poetic side. 'There's all sorts of talk going on. Gossip really,' he told his daughter. When she didn't reply other than by making a throatily sound, it was Howard who asked Wyatt about the nature of the gossip.
'Some people think you guys set a trap in the village for Pete and Hank. Just in case.'
'We are preparing for them,' Howard replied.
'Others think your outing has to do with the mall. They believe that the shed imploding was your work and that you plan to do that to the mall too to get people thick boots and windproof clothing and such shit.' With a warning in his voice he added: We've got all we need here. Better be careful.'
'We will be Wyatt,' Howard replied.
'Leonard wasn't was he?' Wyatt said. Looking at Penny he added: 'That's why you had to save him, didn't you Slugger?'
'He tripped and there happened to be a zombie nearby,' Howard casually said.
'You could have told me about your outing. Raj was worried this morning. He must have thought something had gone wrong. I pictured Pete and Hank hurting my little girl.'
Again there was no response from Penny. Seeing the concerned expression on Howard's face, Wyatt repressed his anger and worries regarding his daughter's behaviour and kindly asked: 'Are you all right Slugger?'
It got him a feeble smile, followed by a hug.
Dale sat atop his van. 'You're a wonderful van,' he whispered. He knew it was a silly thing to do and even sillier to expect the van to continue driving and protecting them because of the compliments he paid her. Dale smiled and bent over to pat her roof.
Beneath him people were setting up camp. His new friends – all of them – turned out to be good companions. Suddenly Dale was reminded of Lori. She'd once made a belittling remark about his habit of calling new people friends. But I'm sure they will be friends, he'd said. So why not call them that. It's better than referring to them as "the others" or "the strangers". Lori had told him that he was naive. Just like your husband, he'd wanted to say, but he hadn't. Of course not all people he met actually became friends. He'd never got to like Adam, who'd married Patricia, nor Adam's sister Gladys, who'd tried to woo him, old Dale. But Peter, who'd joined them a year ago with his siblings and nephews and nieces, gave him the shivers and then there was Shane. So when his precious girl had announced that she wanted to move, it had only taken him a moment to say he'd join her. Lori had thought him foolish. Making a journey like that at your age, she'd said. If my presence ensures that my friends arrive at Penny's farm safely, I'd say mission accomplished, he'd replied.
Dale saw movement behind some bushes. A group of some thirty zombies was heading their way.
'To arms!' he cried, grabbing his rifle.
There was shooting and retreating and reloading. There was shouting and moaning and gnashing of teeth. Dale had a good overview but when the zombies and the humans got too close to one another, he left the roof to engage in close combat.
With no one in the CDL except Sheldon and Penny, it raised no questions when the former took the latter's blood and DNA samples. Penny kept an eye on the monitors.
'Penny, your sister turned. Did your mother also turn?'
'Don't know. Dad shot her.'
'It could still be x-chrome related,' Sheldon said. 'The next person I'll ask for a sample will be your father.'
Penny checked the time indicator on one of the monitors. It had been some 18 hours since she'd been bitten. Her friends were convinced that she wouldn't turn, but she wasn't sure it couldn't happen still, despite the way zombies had reportedly acted toward her. Dream and reality were hard to separate just yet.
'I feel like Alice in Wonderland,' she said.
'It will make sense. Time will pass by and you won't be afraid anymore.'
'I was terrified. I am no more.'
Penny watched the monitors. Sheldon stared at Penny.
'Hold me please?'
Daniel, having learned that Penny had taken a double shift monitoring in the CDL, awaited her when she was to be relieved by Raj. He tried to get information from the man, but Raj merely repeated what he and Leonard had told him previously: that they'd gone to house zero to pick up their friends. Did they take him for a simpleton? Anyone could understand there was more going on and with him being in charge of security, at least when Penny wasn't around, he ought to be informed. He'd mentioned this to Howard, who'd reminded him that he was one of two second-in-commands and that he didn't need to know more about their "outing". It took a while before Penny left the CDL after Raj's arrival and Daniel was sure that Raj must be telling her: "Daniel's nagging". When Penny emerged he failed to acknowledge her kind smile.
'I tried to get information from your friends about your unannounced trip to house zero. All I got in return were a lie and evasive answers.'
'I'm supposed to believe that Raj and Leonard went over to pick up the three of you using only two Vespas.'
'Raj drove Roheryn, who can seat three.'
Right! Daniel thought. 'Why were you there? Did it concern plans regarding the expected attack?'
'No it didn't. Any such plans will be shared with security.'
Daniel waited for a moment, hoping Penny would continue talking. When she didn't and even stifled a yawn, he mumbled a greeting and left for the kitchen block of house six where he was certain to find his fiancée. He was glad to see that Lana, Caleb and Ramona weren't present. Keisha continued to throw darts but Melody stopped playing to sit with him. He gave her a summary of the things that troubled him and concluded: 'I bet she did tell Tom.'
Keisha looked over her shoulder. 'If she did, well they were out of the wall and Tom –'
A gesture from her sister made her swallow the rest of her line and she resumed her game.
'She said it didn't have to do with the robbers right?'
'Yes, but you have to admit: the five of them meeting at house zero and three of them spending the night there: for what? Why?'
'It could be something personal.'
'That doesn't make sense.'
'Maybe they were testing something? There's talk that they want to implode the mall.'
'That. Doesn't. Make. Sense. And if they plan something, I could contribute.'
'Maybe they just wanted to have more guards at the village, in case the robbers would arrive unexpectedly,' Keisha volunteered.
'And why wouldn't they have said so?'
'They'll have their reasons.'
Daniel sighed in annoyance. 'I bet they did tell Tom.'
'Can't you just trust them?' Melody asked.
'Or reason that their trip didn't have to do with security?' Keisha suggested while throwing her little arrows. 'When Sharon and Leo return you could question them and learn that Penny, Howard and Sheldon were rehearsing a medley for your wedding.'
'Make fun about it. I'm not convinced they are not keeping things from me.'
Melody sighed. 'It must be a reassurance that they're keeping things from everyone. I don't know any more than you do.'
'You're not a security officer.'
The door to the CDL stood open. Sheldon sat near Penny's room, going over a list with points concerning the expected attack. For some time the only background sounds he heard were the cooing of pigeons and the wind rustling through the chestnut. Then from behind the door where he sat guard came an off-key voice singing a joyous song from Mary Poppins.
'Isn't it loverly?' Howard, monitoring in the CDL, said.
'Wrong musical. But yes it is assuming you're not referring to the quality of the singing.'
A bolt was removed and the door was opened. 'Good morning!'
Penny, wearing a kimono, glanced at a small hand bow that was casually leaning against a wall. 'You would have been too late to grab that,' she said.
'Zombies can't handle bolts,' Sheldon said through Howard's: 'Too late to cut off that song?'
Penny just smiled until her eyes watered. 'I'm still alive. I don't want to eat you.'
'We wouldn't appreciate it if you did Penelope,' Howard said.
As Penny dried her cheeks Raj approached carrying a tray.
'Hello Penny! I brought us breakfast.'
'And a rose,' Penny said, moved.
'I made it out of paper. Leonard wrote you a note.'
Penny took the note from the tray.
Zombies don't read. You read. You are not a zombie.
'By Newton woman, I hope that "You Know What" isn't going to have a lasting effect on your tear-production,' Sheldon said.
'Is she all right?' Leonard asked when Raj, clearly agitated, burst into the living room/kitchen of the workmen's house.
'You must talk some sense into her!'
'I knew she'd be fine!' Leonard said with a beaming smile.
'You wouldn't say so!' Raj exclaimed, stamping the floor in frustration.
'I need an update buddy.'
Raj sighed and without taking off his coat seated himself at the dining table. Leonard put down the bow he was making.
'Penny wants to go inside the mall to get protective gear and weapons and to rob the pharmacy.'
Leonard looked at Raj wide-eyed at first, but then, to Raj's dismay, he nodded. 'If Penny feels she's up to it…'
'What? We can't let her go in there! She only met one zombie at the time. What if a herd will attack her?'
'Single zombies don't behave differently from a group of them.'
'What if the zombies that encountered her so far were ill zombies? Lacking sense of smell or you know, something. I don't want our Penny to be eaten.'
'What did Howard and Sheldon say?'
'Howard feels more research is needed as to how the zombies behave around Penny. But he's very anxious about the travellers. I told him that we faced other dangers and that no one felt the need to go shopping with zombies.'
'But we have Penny now. What did Sheldon say?'
'Quote: it would be foolish not to use our strategic advantage. End quote. As if she is a chess piece. You know what he said when I said that?'
Leonard shook his head, Raj being opposed against Penny's idea now giving him second-thoughts too.
'He said that she'd be the grand empress.'
To Raj's anger Leonard laughed. He rose and made to leave, but Leonard stopped him by using his walking stick as a barrier.
'I'm sorry Raj. Sheldon's designing a three player chess. The grand empress is a very powerful piece.'
The front door opened.
'This isn't a game!' Raj said.
'No. And like you I don't want Penny to get hurt. But she won't go there all alone, will she? Well inside she will, but -'
Leslie entered the room.
The men, eager to discuss their topic further, remained silent in Leslie's presence.
'I'm fine, thanks for asking.'
'Oh yeah, you went to see the doctor,' Leonard said, checking his watch. 'You're late. Did she run many tests?'
Leslie shrugged. 'Ramona said she'll carry her bag with her all the time in case Randall comes for her. Any day now. What did I hear you mention about Penny?'
'Penny's rescue of Leonard is the talk of town! That's a nice drawing Michael made,' Raj said as he made a show of checking his friend's plastered leg. 'I like the line too: No bow? No gun? Use a tree!'
'I hadn't seen that!' Leonard said as he stretched his neck to have a look.
'It's convenient that you have a couch on the ground floor,' Raj told Leslie, indicating the bedding in a corner of the room.
'It will be crowded here, should I have to stay downstairs too. I'm sure the baby's crying will speed Leonard's recovery,' Leslie good humouredly said.
'I'll use a bottle to pee in then,' Leonard attempted to joke. Looking at Raj he seriously added: 'But it will be fine I'm sure.'
Raj swallowed hard. 'Yes, I guess.'
Raj greeted his friends and left. Leonard focused on his bow. 'I really like doing this,' he said by way of distracting Leslie.
'Something funny happened on the way to the forum.'
'I saw Howard, Tom and Penny leave in full scavenging gear.'
'So they're scavenging again,' Leonard said with a shrug as if he didn't think the topic worth mentioning. 'They'll need more stuff to hand to the robbers.'
'Might be, but why would they endanger themselves by going to the mall?'
'Are you sure?'
'I asked the guard at the gate where the threesome was heading to. Are they trying the zombie cloak again?'
Leonard focussed on his bow.
'It proved inadequate. Is everything all right?'
'Couldn't be better.' Leonard let his fingers slide over the bow's emerging curves. 'We are fortunate Leslie.'
Leslie was about to make a witty remark when she saw her brother-in-law's expression. He looked peaceful yet his eyes were glancing suspiciously. Leslie decided to quite the wit, but she still wanted to question Leonard about what Penny was doing. Baby Winkle kicked her though and while resting her hand on her belly, Leslie merely said: 'Absofuckinglutely.'
Tom was securing fences around an emergency entrance of the mall that, according to a floor plan Sheldon had memorized, let to a small hall. Howard guarded him but he'd parked the pick-up in such a way that atop of it he could watch both Tom and Penny. Through the visor of his rifle he saw Tom attach a fence to a rain-pipe. The corporal looked up and around every fifteen seconds. Howard shifted his gaze to Penny, who was talking or possibly singing to the zombies. Those who saw her ignored her from the start and those who had their backs at her came a bit closer but lost interest after a few feet already. Tom carried the second fence to its spot. Penny took some bites of an apple. The zombies didn't care. Tom looked up at Howard's warning whistle and indicated that he would handle an approaching zombie himself. Penny pressed herself against the poles. Not a single zombie took an interest. Penny shone a zombie in the eyes with a powerful flashlight. The creature wasn't angered. Penny put her hand through the fence and no walking corpses came to feast on the offered meat.
Some five minutes later Penny walked to the back of the mall. Howard parked the car at the newly created gate. 'It looks like I'm safe to go,' Penny said . 'My stomach rumbled like crazy and they didn't act on it. I yawned, I sneezed, I even cut myself and the blood was nothing to them. I wasn't able to knife one though.'
'Is it some cologne you came up with?' Tom asked. He'd witnessed Penny's first encounter with the zombies.
'We can't really say anything about that,' Howard said.
Other people might have felt insulted by this answer but Tom merely nodded. When Penny stepped inside the U-shaped fence and asked to be locked in, Tom made eye-contact with Howard.
'She's going in,' Howard said as confidently as he could master. Seeing Tom hesitate, he closed the fence himself.
Penny stepped on the small slope that was meant to allow fleeing customers to easily exit the building. She started working on the door's lock. Ever since she'd suggested to go into the mall she looked calm and collected but Howard couldn't imagine that she felt no anxiety. Despite the chilly weather he was sweating.
'Are you sure Penny?'
His friend looked over her shoulder and nodded once. 'I'm opening the door. Ready?'
Howard readied his hand-bow, feeling murderous toward anything that might prove their theory wrong and hurt Penny.
A zombie fell face down on the slope. It got to its feet, found Penny in its way and shuffled past her to the men behind the gate. Penny stabbed its skull. No other zombies emerged.
'If there happen to be comic books I'll bring you one for Yule,' Penny said.
Howard nervously smiled. Penny grinned at him, entered the mall and closed the door behind her.
Give me one hour, Penny had said at the farm. One hour and I'll be back. If not then I'm brunch.