Once inside the mall Penny's grin disappeared and she was hit by a wave of doubt.
Don't be silly, she told herself. You'll have to face Pete soon. There's no time to run more zombie tests when you have people to protect. You are the zombie queen. Go shopping woman!
Using the light from her head-torch she looked around. The small hall had served as a locker room and office of sorts and as a hiding place for the zombie she'd just killed. The man he used to be couldn't have survived for a long time judging by the eight empty cans of beans and corn, a handful of candy wraps and a mere five bottles of water. Had he been too afraid to leave through the emergency exit? Had he thought that the outbreak would blow over soon enough? From the stories of survivors that Cynthia had noted down Penny knew that people had done many strange things when the panic hit.
Penny made it to the indoor emergency door that stood slightly ajar. A table loaded with boxes of paper as well as the end of a fire hose wrapped around the door handle had prevented it from being opened fully. Without allowing herself to think things over Penny removed the obstacles and stepped into the actual mall. The noise she'd made had gathered a small audience, but it didn't act on seeing her. Penny took a cobble from a pocket and threw it away. As it hit the floor most zombies left. Penny wasn't sorry to see them go. She took a moment to observe the sight in front of her and to calm down. Zombie queen, zombie queen, she told herself. The abandoned shopping carts that would never be rolled to the check-out and the tires from the car department that had somehow ended up here were like the dramatic score to a film. Penny willed sorrow to replace her anxiety. She closed the door and walked into the mall. Glass from a destroyed showcase crushed under her boots. Several zombies briefly focused on her and lost interest, like Borg on the Enterprise spotting unarmed crewmembers.
There was enough light coming if through the sky-lights to switch off her torch. Penny pulled out Sheldon's floor plan and her shopping list and went to the camping department. Blocking her path was an abandoned cart that held several decorative pillows. What would make someone purchase those when there were zombies around was beyond her. She removed most pillows and pushed the cart to a rack with huge back-packs. She placed three of those in her cart. In the nearby weapons section many racks were empty, but there was enough left and at a glance she saw that most rifles were still under lock and key. The isle containing protective gear had barely been touched and Penny started loading. A zombie passed by. Not finding anything to its liking it walked on, dragging its bowels along. Penny felt an itch at her shin, just as her head always started itching when someone spoke of lice. When the back-packs were close to bursting and the rest of the cart was filled also she checked her watch. To her surprise over half an hour had passed by already and rather than continuing to shop she made it for the exit, knowing that Howard and Tom must be worried.
'What's up Sheldon?'
Sheldon looked up from the workbench. 'Hello Wyatt.'
'I heard you guys and Pen were meeting about the travellers during breakfast?'
Sheldon gave it a thought and replied affirmatively. He hoped Wyatt wouldn't question him any further.
'Ready to get rid of Pete and Hank?'
'We are well prepared yet we won't know if we are ready to defeat them until after the upcoming confrontation.'
'Sure. See you later Sheldon.'
Sheldon mumbled a greeting. Before continuing his task he closed his eyes the better to transport yet another telepathic message to Penny.
After carefully closing the door to the actual mall behind her, Penny parked the shopping cart near the outdoor emergency exit. She knocked to alert Howard, opened the door and rolled down the cart. The relief and admiration on Howard's face made her want to cry. She briefly told her friend what was in the backpacks and before Howard could reply she went back inside.
'Look, they're returning,' Duane observed.
Several people at the construction site turned to look at the approaching pick-up.
'They are up to something, I'll tell you,' Duane said.
'You think so, Einstein?' Caleb replied.
'Seems like there's only a driver in it,' John remarked.
'It's a shame they didn't spent their night away at the church: Sharon's there and she would have been able to find out what's going on,' Alonso said.
'Come on people, we have a wall to finish!'
'Not today we don't,' Duane mumbled, but like the others he continued to work, or, as he thought of it: to grow muscles.
After wheeling her eighth load of goods out Penny was about to take the empty cart from the previous run with her into the mall, but Howard prevented her from going straight back in by pushing a bottle of water into her hands, as well as a sandwich.
'I drank the previous time,' Penny said. And I'm not hungry. Still no word from the tower or the CDL?'
'None: all seems quiet. Now drink and eat.'
Penny removed her nose clip and did Howard's bidding. In between sips and bites she commented the contents of the boxes that Howard moved to the pick-up.
'I'll repeat myself: you already got us what we came here for. All this is very useful, but if you want to quit, that's fine Penny. The storage room as well as most of Raj's room are loaded already,' Howard said as he got sleeping bags from the cart. 'And look: the trunk is nearly full as it is.'
'If you want to return to help the guys, that's fine. Tom can lock himself in the car and –'
'I'm staying here,' Howard interrupted. 'Sheldon wheeled Leonard to the outdoor lab. They won't need me.'
Penny nodded. 'As long as it's still light, I'll keep on going.'
Howard didn't return his friend's fake smile. Penny handed Howard her bottle and made it for the door.
'What do you call a Jewish knight?'
Penny turned around, a quizzical look on her face.
Penny's features relaxed.
Three trips later on Penny took more time than usual between deliveries. Howard had just decided that if she still hadn't returned by the time Tom was back, he'd use the mall-zombie's shirt covered in the mall-zombie's bowels to make a cloak and enter the mall, when the door finally opened and a loaded cart was pushed outside.
'Sorry it took so long. There were some offices near the DIY and garden section. People lived there for a while,' Penny said. She handed Howard a notebook that lay on top of some boxes with rain-boots. 'This is for Cynthia.'
Howard looked at the stained cover marked "survivor's journal" and feared it would make for a hard read. He wasn't sure Penny had paged through the history, but what she had seen near the DIY section was written on her face.
'You're at a Jewish wedding. How can you tell it's orthodox, reform or liberal?' Howard asked while bringing the shoe boxes to the pick-up. Penny shrugged.
'If the bride's mother is pregnant, it's orthodox. If the bride's pregnant it's reform and if the rabbi's pregnant it's liberal.'
Penny's faint smile didn't reach her eyes. She was already pushing the waiting empty card up the slope when Howard quickly said: 'Do you know the one about Sally Goldstein who was granted three wishes?'
Raj was in the stables, inventorying the third load of goods Tom had brought. 'This box contains tooth-brushes,' he told Rachel who was one of the people carrying the goods upstairs to his room. 'It's not heavy.'
'Are you done with that bag? I can carry that along.'
Raj nodded and quickly finished going through the bag. Rachel had only just left when Wyatt entered the stables. 'I'm returning form the land,' the farmer angrily said, 'and I find everyone talking about Santa being early this year?'
Wyatt looked at brand new rolls of barbed wire and shining saws and then focused on the boxes at Raj's feet. He opened one and exclaimed: 'Bloody greeting cards! I heard a shitload of stuff was brought to the outdoor lab too. Where did the scavengers get it?'
'A lot of these goods will help us fight Pete and Hank,' Raj calmly said, thinking that before the apocalypse he would have peeped a reply.
'At the mall.'
Wyatt cursed. 'The zombie invested mall. That mall?'
'Yes. But all is well at the mall.'
Penny manoeuvred her cart around a zombie she'd named Sid, for despite having legs it hadn't moved from its seat on the floor since she'd first spotted it. Sheldon and Leslie had set up theories about why some zombies were more active than others, but Penny, knowing that in the end all zombies were biters, hadn't paid attention to their ideas.
She knew that zombies were dangerous still, if not to herself right now, but after spending hours at the mall and especially after an encounter she'd just had she'd gotten the odd feeling that these mall zombies were hers to protect.
'This was the last run,' she informed Howard while carefully eying her heavy cart. 'It's getting dark. Guess what I saw?'
'Tell me honey.'
'What the fuck Pen?'
Back to the real world zombie queen, Penny told herself.
'Welcome everyone,' Wyatt said. 'We only just had a meeting, but something's up.'
'Loads of stuff are up!' Duane cried out at which Wyatt gave him a dark look. Those who'd wanted to cheer after Duane's exclamation remained silent.
'A lot of goods were taken from the mall yesterday and today. Don't ask me how they did it, it's science stuff and far beyond me. The thing is: it wasn't done to make sure we'd all have a merry Yule. Most of you will have understood by now that there might be trouble ahead. Those who went to negotiate with Martha and Camilla's former group, feel that two men from that group are dangerous robbers. And these two men are in touch with other men who don't trade but take.'
People looked at Martha and Camilla, who paled.
'We gained among others protective gear and fire-arms for we believe they'll attack us.'
'I won't have that!' Caroline cried out.
The idea of the elderly lady battling villains made the tension that had filled the room after Wyatt's last line reduce a bit.
'Go Mrs N!' Duane said to make up for his earlier remark.
Wyatt was surprised to see how people relaxed at that. He didn't doubt that they were in danger and he knew that the team assigned to house zero and the tower and especially those who'd travel to meet Pete and Hank, were risking their lives. The laughing faces he saw around him angered him at first, but then he reasoned that it might be for the best if people didn't worry too much. Once the alarm was raised, they'd know what to do: they'd proven that during the emergency drill.
'At the moment we're being protected by those who will, after being relieved, sleep in house zero to prepare for the arrival of the men I mentioned. Tomorrow we will stay within the walls until the threat is dealt with,' Wyatt added as if he were announcing the weather forecast.
Martha raised her hand. 'And if it isn't?'
'Then they might find us. They will have to fight a wall and those on it.'
The tension returned. Caroline turned in her seat to pat Martha's knee. 'You don't know us that well yet, but Tom can shoot a wing of a fly from a thousand feet away, Penny is tough as a nail and her friends, well, they are so smart, no one can beat them.'
Leslie was tired and very worried but she forced herself to cheerfully cry out: 'Hear, hear!'
Amid the general merriment Wyatt and his daughter-in-law shared a meaningful glance.
Penny climbed up the church's tower where Tom watched the road via his night sight sharpshooter's weapon.
'I like it here,' the corporal said. For a moment Penny pictured them being in Jane Austen's England.
'The stars are beautiful. And it's nice and quiet,' Penny agreed, while dropping her overnight bag on the floor. And there aren't any zombies up here, she thought. Zombies I once knew. Zombies whose last weeks were hell.
Tom was silent for a moment. 'I recall when I first saw your fortress. I thought: either these are military men or they are very well prepared American nutters. I never told anyone, but I could have sang when finding sane people behind that magnificent wall.'
'I've been thinking about what you've asked. Howard could do it. Randall. Missy. Sharon. Neill. You of course. Leslie. Leo. And there's your father, but he has the farm. And Sheldon, but I can't picture him away from civilisation. And I can do it. In future I think Sarah N can handle it too.'
Penny smirked. 'The people from Greeneville could do it too, but we have the half a year rule. Thanks Tom. Any of the Torsviks who might be suitable?'
'Bert. Marit. Lars. Hans. Astrid. When do you want to start?'
'A.s.a.p. I want these buildings claimed as ours. Give me a shout at 0500, I'll relieve you of duty then.'
At the change of guard Tom noticed the imprint of a strap on Penny's chin and when he settled himself on the landing, he could make out the shape of a helmet in Penny's bag. There'd be a fight of sorts, of that he was sure. He relied on his abilities as a soldier and he knew that the people he'd work with were capable enough. His commander he'd trust with his life. She'd get them through. Tom yawned and fell soundly asleep.
Q – How did you experience the ZO?
I often wake up from a nightmare about zombies only to realize that they are for real, says Margrethe Torsvik (born in 1988). We had a world with electricity and films and shops and fashion and travel and internet and hot showers and then we had nothing. My cousin Olav and his wife Amanda had a son last year and I keep thinking how he will grow up. For Kristian this world is normal. For my nephew Frederik, who's four now, it will be normal too. For me it's a downfall. I used to be a model and a hostess. My twin Astrid was a blacksmith and still is and frankly I'm jealous of her. The ZO deprived me of my jobs and the skills I had are useless here. Zombies scare me, so I barely leave the grounds. I help out in the orchard and I hate it. I really do. I pluck apples and pears and tend to the trees and I just know that that's what I'll do for the rest of my life. That and helping in the kitchen and cleaning. I wish dad and uncle Trond would listen to aunt Marit and start making a safe route to the Drottning farm. The children can go to school full-time then and we adults can enjoy what civilization is left and the men there aren't related to me. (extract of written statement, 2012-7)
Q – Are there things you regret doing regarding the ZO?
Doing things differently… I wish I had, but I would have needed a different personality for that, says Alonso Suarez (born in 1973). Several months into the ZO Frances [Irving] got bitten while scavenging. Later that day we run into a road block. Maud and the children hid themselves in the back of the truck and Frances and I faced the men who'd stopped us. They were heavily armed and demanded a tribute. I handed them some canned food, but their leader had set his eyes on something 'more appetizing'. His words. If it wasn't clear what he meant it became obvious from the rough language the other men used. They were about to enter the truck when Frances, pretending to be my partner, said she was tired of boring old me. She told the leader of the gang that he seemed more of a man than I. I let her go where a different man would have… I don't know. Given her a knife a least. I didn't think of that back then. I knew she'd die, and so did she. It feels wrong that she couldn't die with us, in peace. But if she hadn't sacrificed herself, the men would have entered the RV and found the children and Maud. They would have raped Maud too and killed Duane, Sansa and me. Frances saved her daughter and by doing that she saved us too. It was the best outcome for all of us but it feels wrong. (interview CB, 2010-5)
Q – Can you tell me about your journey here?
It sucked, says Leslie Winkle (born in 1977). I'd given my sister instructions: she was to go to a remote holiday cabin I'd rented and she was to bring a list of goods. [I ask her why she'd instructed her sister.] Back before it started Leonard Hofstadter and I were dating. He told me about the zombie threat and of course I laughed in his face. He kept insisting though and I figured it wouldn't hurt to visit Leonard's flat and learn more. I still thought he was pulling me a prank but it would be laughably easy to get even with him. The guys provided their evidence and Penny, Leonard's neighbour who seemed like a no-nonsense country girl, was in their team, and more importantly that whack-a-doodle Sheldon didn't have any of the facial tics that reveal he's lying: I got convinced that their fears were justified. Leonard offered that I'd travel with them, but I wanted to go north first to get my sister, who lived near Helena, Montana. So I went there by plane and I arrived at my sister's hide out on 11 July. I ordered plane tickets for Sioux City, thinking it would be less crowded than Omaha, but of course the next day all air travel was forbidden. We set off for Nebraska and with Livia's moped being stolen after a week, and the two of us held captive for a while by some beasts, it took us seven months to reach our destination. I don't plan on leaving. (interview CB, 2012,3)
(From chapter 8b 'Three questions' in The histories of the people of Drottningville, as recorded by Cynthia Böhr, first edition April 2025 CE)