The signs were clear to see if you knew where to look but those unaware wouldn’t be the wiser. Dale liked it that his future community didn’t make itself known. He had to stop the van for once more some cars were blocking the road. Daryl got out to get them out of the way. Nikki as well as some Stein people went to help him.
Dale suspected that either Drottningville had someone on the lookout near one of these convenient road blocks or that they’d somehow managed to have a camera operational. He glanced at the Elmo doll that was resting against the windshield. On its tummy it said “+6” with a line underneath, for he and his friends believed that the people they’d found were good people.
He slowly drove as far as he thought was needed to allow all cars to pass and then waited for Daryl, who would have made his team reinstall the barrier, to return. Nikki too entered the van. ‘James is rattling along,’ the young woman explained her presence. ‘You think they’ll allow us in?’ she then asked, not for the first time.
‘Maybe you won’t like it there,’ Daryl said.
‘Ha! If you guys left a safe place to live there, I’ll give it more than a try. And it’s not as if we have elsewhere to go.’
‘What happened at your former place?’ Daryl asked.
Dale had heard about it before, from James, and he was keen to compare the stories.
Nikki shrugged. ‘In the first place someone died and turned and bit two others. They were killed but some people went nuts from fear and opened the gate at night. Got run over and only twenty escaped. Second place kicked us out after a couple of months because there was food shortage. In the third place it was just us and a storage room with canned vegetables. Carrots and beans mostly.’
Dale was amused by the way Nikki had made it clear that carrots and beans had gotten of her list of eatable foods.
‘We stayed there for a winter and when we left we run into a scavenger who took us to his place. We stayed there for many months.’
‘Liked it there?’
‘No. Women weren’t allowed to hold weapons or leave the building. White and black people had to work extra hard. We left when a nephew of the Oyabun, the boss, took over control. He was a creep. Liked to humiliate people and scare them. Fortunately he felt we were a burden, with the girls and Seth, so we were allowed to leave though we had to “trade” the FBI-like car we’d arrived in for the Toyota.’
James had more or less said the same, though his version had been more I-centered, as if he had been in charge of the small band. Still, the florist was a decent man: Dale doubted that he or any of the others would be rejected. He preferred not to think of what to do in case he was wrong.
‘Reporting for duty ma’am,’ Michael greeted his stepmother. ‘Though Alex asked me to play ball with him…’
‘Work first, play later,’ Missy said. ‘You’re your grandfather’s grandson - ’
‘Don’t duh me Michael. As Wyatt’s grandson you’ll be one of the future leaders so you must know how to handle things. You took care of the goats?’
‘Of course I did.’
Missy smiled. ‘I know honey. Now, we’re at the attic to do what?’
Michael thought it was obvious what they were going to do, for his stepmother had already told him, but he liked the ‘one of the leaders’ part and he obediently replied: ‘Prepare the bedrooms for the Stein guests.’
Missy got bedding from a closet near the stairs. ‘Right. There will be ten of them staying here. The girl who’s to be a midwife will sleep in Ramona’s room. Why?’
‘Your aunt Leslie? Get a broom and a cloth from the left closet,’ Missy said.
‘Oh yeah. If uncle Randall comes for the doctor, the midwife-in-training will be there too.’
Missy nodded. ‘The attic houses six and the room next to Mrs N is big enough for two beds.’
‘So are these rooms, even without bunkbeds.‘
‘Yes, that’s true. Now start sweeping boy! I want a spotless floor and no cobwebs. Knowing that the Stein farm is crowded, your aunt Penny wants to give our guests the treat of a room of their own.’
‘Except for those who’ll sleep in the room next to –‘
‘It will be Leo Stein’s room and a place for them to store their goods.’
‘Okay. Do I smell lavender?’
Missy confirmed it.
‘Nice. How do you think aunt Penny and the others get all this stuff from the mall?’
‘I haven’t got a clue. When my brother is involved it could be anything.’
‘Maybe he contacted Mr Spock for help,’ Michael said with a laugh. ‘I’ve been counting. We’re two beds short. Will the last two get to sleep in an RV?’
‘Mr Howard’s room got divided in two remember?’
‘Oh yeah and he’s gonna sleep with Mr Raj.’
Missy had made the first bed and opened a window to air the room.
‘Is it true that there were some heavy weapons in the RV the bad guys brought?’
‘Yes. Their loss, our gain.’
‘Everyone’s talking about who will get it,’ Michael said. ‘Many people think that Mr Daniel and Miss Melody will be the lucky ones.’
For a moment Missy pictured Mel holding a bazooka, but then she realised what Michael meant. She had her thoughts on the subject but she merely shrugged in reply.
‘I forgot: they said the Greenevilles will arrive today too! Where are they to stay?’
‘Your aunt will come up with something. What would you do?’
‘Well… There’s room in house two. But then, aunt Leslie might not like having strangers around when she gives birth. I sure wouldn’t wanna be around her then.’
Missy suppressed a smile. ‘Go on.’
‘They could spend the night in the community room. It’s big enough. And there are showers and toilets on that floor.’
Missy nodded approvingly. ‘You know what? You’re so good at this, I’ll leave you to it. Clean, make one bed per room and open the window. I’m in the kitchen if you need me.’
And with that Missy left. Michael grinned and started humming a tune. From time to time he used the broom as a microphone. ‘I want to break free-hee. I want to brea-ea-eak free.’
‘Penny!’ Charlotte exclaimed when Penny entered the kitchen of house zero. On a chair near her lay a leather motor jacket and a helmet. The woman still wore the motor boots and pants that completed her protective outfit. ‘We didn’t know. We really didn’t. Howard told me what happened. I’m glad those bastards are dead.’
Penny shook the woman’s hand and said that her brother had known. Howard, seated at the table, seemed relaxed and Penny concluded that he’d questioned their guest already. As she sat down she saw the application papers in front of Howard. Ah, Penny thought.
‘He knew that Pete and Hank were inside the RV, true, but he didn’t mention a zombie. He didn’t know about Bill and Nigella either. He thought Pete and Hank wanted to re-negotiate. That’s what they’d told him.’
‘It’s a bit strange that they didn’t do that when we brought our goods, isn’t it? And Moses accepted our every offering instead of re-negotiating himself.’
Charlotte swallowed hard. ‘He just wanted to protect my daughter and myself by making himself of use to them.’
‘What about Bill and Nigella?’
‘They were killed. We’re sure Pete did it. He was the one who told us we couldn’t disturb them. An hour after you left Will went in to ask Bill something and he was attacked by him. He died.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that Charlotte. I really am. But what brings you here?’
‘To see what happened. My brother had been told by Pete to drive back and wait for them at a few miles’ distance. David wanted to know why Moses stopped the car and when he found out, he took the wheel and drove back to us.’
‘Had Pete mentioned contacting his friends to help him re-negotiate?’
‘Like I told Howard we found a damaged walkie-talkie in Bill and Nigella’s RV. We only had one. Bill must have taken it from Pete’s RV to prevent him from reaching his friends. I think he wanted to protect you.’
Penny thoughtfully nodded. Bill had felt bad about not protecting the settlers from being raped and had probably wanted to make up for that.
‘And was killed for it,’ Charlotte emphasized.
‘It was a brave act.’ Penny reasoned that Pete and Hank wouldn’t have contacted their friends before Bill took care of their walkie-talkie: they wouldn’t have wanted to share the profits yet. Still it was best to remain alert.
Elsewhere in the building someone started sewing. Penny wondered what Charlotte was thinking about their “house”.
‘Howard mentioned that Marlene isn’t here?’
So why ask me again, Penny thought. ‘That’s true.’
‘Pete and Hank took her with them when they left to go “scavenging”.’
Penny nodded at that. She reasoned that the men had made Moses stop at the turn in the road where it had taken the RV some moments to show up, dumping Marlene there after using her once more and picking up a ready-to-use zombie by way of a weapon.
‘I hadn’t mentioned this,’ Howard said, ‘but you were given excellent directions.’
‘David is waiting in a jeep a mile away.’
‘Make that one of nine RV’s.’
Charlotte blushed. ‘We all came here, thinking… We might live here.’ She gestured at the paperwork in front of Howard. ‘We’ve got skilled people among us and we work hard. If you won’t have us here, we’d like to settle nearby. Work for you in exchange for food. And education for the children. And medical care should we need it. We also brought two spare RV’s in exchange for a supply of food in case you don’t need us to work for you.’
Penny shared a glance with Howard, who was as surprised as she was.
‘To live here, if we admit you, means that everyone has to obey our rules.’
‘Howard said so,’ Charlotte said as she petted her breast pocket. Penny concluded her friend had handed Charlotte a copy of the rules.
Neill walked in: he required Howard’s help regarding a construction issue. The men left and Penny studied Howard’s notes and asked Charlotte for additional information about her family and friends. The question and answer session went accompanied by the sound of muffled hammering.
‘Has Howard clarified the rules yet?’ Penny asked when she’d made her last note.
Charlotte eagerly nodded. ‘I’ll make sure to discuss them with the others.’
‘Pigeon!’ Tom cried out from outside. The hammering stopped and shortly afterwards Howard entered the kitchen carrying a tiny roll of paper. He smiled infectiously but as Penny unrolled the scroll she started to frown.
G (5) + S (-1) arrived. + 6 incl.2 ch. Want to stay.
I could have guessed that, Penny thought. She hoped that in case the Stein party had lost Leo, they wouldn’t be afraid to return home.
‘Bad news?’ Charlotte asked.
‘The field team run into six people who’d like to stay with us,’ Penny improvised. She noticed that her visitor looked upset. ‘Could you find my father and tell him that the travellers want to live with us too Howard?’
Howard, eager to return to the farm, greeted Charlotte and left and Penny pictured his step to be lighter than before.
Charlotte cleared her throat. ‘My people talked about this and should you accept us, we will give you two spare RVs. As a bridal gift so to speak.’
Penny was reminded of Rick Grimes, who’d done his very best to make himself and his people look agreeable to Hershel Greene. She couldn’t help thinking of Daniel too. ‘I’ll come and see you tomorrow morning,’ she told Charlotte.
Charlotte rose. ‘We’re at a half burnt farmhouse with a small windmill in the front garden.’
‘That’s the Van Dijk farm. Your friends might have run into our neighbours from the Wise settlement: they’re decent people. When we visit you there tomorrow morning, I expect that everyone has have made their choice: join us and obey our rules, or not join us. I will propose your request to my father.’
Daniel awaited Penny outside the gate. ‘Penny, concerning our conversation regarding my housing,’ he started. Penny, hoping he’d realized that there was nothing wrong with Caroline’s room, suppressed her longing to greet the Greeneville people.
‘Sarah mentioned something that makes me think you consider house zero to become a permanent basis. Should you not want to grant me the RV, I’d like you to assign me, and Melody of course, to the police station. It has a lot of rooms: we could start our family.’
‘It will be an outpost. Not a place to raise children.’
‘But as long as we don’t have those, we’d like to live there.’
Penny couldn’t imagine that Melody would care to live outside the wall, but then she’d been mistaken about Ramona too. ‘I’ll think about it,’ she said out of politeness for neither bride nor groom were on her list of suitable people for a house zero shift.
They’d passed the gate and found the place buzzing. Dale was the first to spot Penny. They walked toward each other and stepped into each other’s embrace.
‘How wonderful to see you again Penny!’
‘You too Dale. You too.’
T-Dog was the next to hug her.
‘Hello Theodore. I’m glad you made it!’
T-Dog just beamed at her.
‘Penny!’ Carol exclaimed from a distance. She run to Penny and embraced her.
‘You look well!’ Carol complimented Penny, who thought that Carol looked tougher than she had four years ago.
‘So do you Carol. Glad that the journey is over?’
Carol sighed. ‘Very!’
Daryl, who’d followed his lady-friend, shook Penny’s hand.
‘Good to see you Daryl.’
Daryl grumbled something nice while Carol waved at someone Penny couldn’t see. It resulted in Sophia coming over to greet her, taking Howard with her. She’d grown to be slightly taller than her mother. Her freckles made her look girlish, but her bright eyes showed that she was mature. The girl kissed Penny’s cheek, never letting go of Howard’s hand. Penny noticed that her friend had seen chance to remove the few grey hairs that had appeared on his temple these past months. Howard was beaming with joy and Penny felt a pang. A good pang, she reassured herself. Perhaps in the future Cynthia would write down the story of the girl who met a man she couldn’t forget. As she grew into a young woman, she reached out with her voice and made him fall in love with her. Wanting to be with him, she undertook a heroic journey to make that happen and on the day they reunited, they didn’t let go of each other. If that wasn’t romance with a capital R Penny didn’t know what was.
Penny asked the Greeneville people where the six people they’d run into were.
‘My father brought them to the community room to question them. School’s cancelled for the day,’ Daniel said. Penny didn’t show that she was startled by him being so near her.
‘What can you tell me about them?’ she asked the arrivals.
‘Nikki and Eric are good fighters,’ Daryl said.
‘Seth’s … special,’ T-Dog delicately put it.
‘Not nearly half as smart. But as harmless as a lamb.’
‘What about the children?’
‘Lindsay is streetwise,’ Dale said. ‘Vanessa’s shy.’
‘Good kids,’ Daryl offered.
‘And grown-up number four?’ Howard asked Sophia.
‘He’s the father of Seth and Eric. Not much good with zombies, but he won’t starve in a forest: he knows his plants.’
Others joined them and Howard introduced them to the newcomers. Wyatt gestured Penny to come over. He was the centre of a group containing all Stein people.
‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ Penny said after greeting her guests.
Leo Stein nodded. ‘We were attacked by creeps. We lost Philip Neuvel.’
‘He saved my life,’ two of the Stein-people said. Edward and Cate, Penny recalled.
‘Now friends, my wife is preparing you all some snacks. Michael!’
Michael came over and his grandfather introduced him to the arrivals after which he asked him to show all guests to the meeting room, so they could eat and drink some. The boy led the visitors into the farmhouse.
‘Missy and Gareth are entertaining the six people Sophia’s people brought,’ Wyatt told his daughter. ‘They’re in the community room. Ready to join them so we can question them?’
Penny, having gotten over the shock of her father describing Lydia as his wife, popped out: ‘Yep.’
‘Now what about those travellers? You trust them?’
‘Most of them. I don’t know whether they want to make a unanimous decision on joining us. They have a back-up plan: settle nearby and trade labour – they’ve got some skilled construction workers among them – or two RVs for food. They offer two RVs as a bridal gift in case they’re allowed in.’ Wyatt whistled. ‘Could we afford feeding eighteen more people than we’d planned dad?’
Penny knew the answer already and farmer Wyatt didn’t have to think long: ‘Yes. We could feed thirty-five more people. We’ll have less in storage and less to trade. But with your trips to the mall, we’re wealthy Slugger.’
‘We’ll have more expertise, more people for construction work,’ Penny said as if to convince herself.
‘What a timing,’ Penny mumbled.
‘I guess they all heard about the fair,’ Wyatt said. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have spread flyers.’
Penny laughed and Wyatt felt pleased with himself. By the time they reached the community room Penny had found a way to house six extra people if need be.