Breakfast was a solemn affair. None of us really spoke, mostly because I think that everyone expected one of us to seriously mess up. Three guesses who.

Once finished, I stacked Abby’s and my trays and carried them to the bins. Mel came with us, his tray left on the table. He led the way out the doors of the restaurant. I knew that if I looked back at the table, I would see everyone staring at me. So I didn’t.

Mel stopped almost directly in front of me, but I already had a plan. I pulled my notebook and pen out as we walked through the doors, then grabbed Abby’s hand in my other. So when Mel turned around, my hands were full. I raised an eyebrow at him, almost daring him to say something. He didn’t. Just turned and led the way down the hill.

“I thought we would do this somewhere around here.” I pointed out.

“We’re going for a ride.” He responded, not looking at me.

I shook my head and stopped walking, Abby automatically stopped beside me. “I don’t think so. I have other stuff to do and this shouldn’t take long.”

“You haven’t been cleared by your mom or the doctor to do any work.”

“I can do light stuff.”

“Working the stables without permission?”

“I didn’t know I needed permission. Tori was fine with it anyway.”

Suddenly, Mel was right in front of me. He didn’t look angry, but then when I tried to read him, I was mostly wrong. “Tori doesn’t run this place. I do. And without guard, you do not leave the main area. If anything gets through the defenses, they may head to the barns.”

I frowned. “What about the girls in the stable? They don’t have a guard.”

He straightened up and looked toward the stable. “They don’t need one.”

“Neither do I.”

“Until I say otherwise, you do.”

“Wait. You want me to go riding right now. Without a guard.” I was glaring at him, but I couldn’t stop it. Abby’s hand tightened in mine and I suddenly knew that she had been sent as my chaperone. A five year old chaperone. Well, why not? The world has already gone south. I glanced down at her to see her solemn eyes fixed on Mel. I tightened my hand.

Mel didn’t seem to notice our interaction. “You will have me.”

“Should you be going around without a guard?” I asked, shifting my weight. “I mean, you are kinda the leader.”

Suddenly he burst out laughing. I stared at him in surprise. “You are a stubborn little hellcat, aren’t you?” He wiped his hands on the legs of his pants. “Let me ask you, what would you do if one of those things came up to you right now?”

“Well, first I would have advanced warning. They won’t just pop up right in front of me or run at me. Since I have no weapons, I would call for help and start looking for something to use to hit it with.”

“There are no weapons in the stable. What if you-?”

I shook my head, interrupting him. “Actually, there are. There may not be any guns, but there are a lot of weapons. Rakes, pitchforks… I even saw an axe, machete, and scythe in there.”

He looked surprised for a moment, then blanked his face out. “You saying you would let one of those things get close enough to use one of those…weapons against it?”

“Yeah. If I had to.” I shrugged. “If I had a gun, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“You are not to go to the barn without an escort.” He said after a moment. “And that is final.”

I was clutching the notebook hard enough that a corner was digging into the skin below my broken ribs, sending sparks of pain through my torso. I released Abby’s hand long enough to shift the book. “Then I am not going riding without an armed guard.”

He frowned at me. “I am armed.”

“What happens if more than one zombie is coming at you?” I asked, trying to look innocent.

His frown deepened. “Are we going to do the interview or not?”

“Not if we are going riding without an armed guard.”

“No one else can ride the horses.” I knew a lie when I heard one. Well, unless it was one of his rules. So I shifted my tactics.

“Then why have them?”

“I rescued them.” He shrugged.

“You will rescue horses but not people?” I asked, my frustration straining my voice.

“We rescue people.”

“Only if they are in close towns and only if they are on the main streets.” I pointed out.

“I’m not willing to risk men to go looking for stray survivors.”

“What if people volunteered?”

He sighed. “Even then. We could lose supplies and people if they were overwhelmed.” He turned and started walking again. “Enough of this, we are going riding. I will show you the defenses.”

I stayed where I was. After a moment, he realized that we weren’t behind him and came back. “An armed guard?” He asked, crossing his arms over his chest as he stopped in front of us.

“I’m not willing to risk Abby or myself.”

“Leave her here. I am fully capable of protecting you.”

“She’s my responsibility. I am not leaving her behind.”

“She isn’t even yours.” He snapped.

“It doesn’t matter. I consider her mine.” I snapped back.

He fell silent and I waited for him to speak first. Finally, he rubbed his forehead. “Who do you suggest?”

“Huh?” I asked, confused.

“As an armed guard.”

My first thought was River. But I dismissed the idea. River would have gotten involved if he had been with us the last few minutes. Gabriel would be the same way, so that left him out. Given Mel’s penchant for women, that ruled out any female I would have considered. That left Mr. Jackson. I wasn’t sure if he could ride, but it was the best I had. “Mr. Jackson.” I said, then another person popped into my mind. “Or Andrew.”

Mel thought about it for a moment before nodding. “Fair.” He passed by me and disappeared into the door of the restaurant.

I sagged in relief. It was a minor battle, but I won. At least with someone else there, I would feel better. Plus, they would be able to help keep me out of trouble. Something that I knew everyone wanted.

After a moment, Mel reappeared with Mr. Jackson in tow. Mr. Jackson caught sight of me and said something to Mel. He gave me a tiny thumbs up that I was certain Mel wasn’t supposed to notice. It made me smile.

Together, we made our way down to the stables.

Tori greeted me when we walked up to the stable, handing me the reins to a tall horse that I knew I would have problems mounting. “Hi, Cleo. This is Melody.”

“More like a mountain.” I pointed out to Tori who laughed. Melody may have been the mellowest horse on the property, but she was still huge. At first look, she was pure black with a small white star right between the eyes. But on closer inspection, she had a golden brown undercoat.

Even more surprising was the pony they scrounged up for Abby, who squealed in delight as Tori lifted her into the kids’ saddle. And Tori obviously planned for everything, handing me a long lead that connected to the pony.

Mel mounted a golden brown gelding that was even larger than Melody. Looking down at Abby on her tiny pony made me wonder if the larger horses would outstrip it.

Tori surveyed the group, her eyes landing on Mr. Jackson. “One more?” When we all nodded, she jogged back into the stable shouting orders.

“What do you think, Abby?” I asked. The girl squealed again and kicked the poor pony’s sides. The pony just stood there, looking calmly straight ahead. “Abby, don’t do that. The pony won’t like it.”

“What’s the plan, boss?” Mr. Jackson asked.

“Just around the fields.” Mel said, obviously not happy with having someone else along.

“I thought you wanted to show me the defenses?” I asked.

“You turned it down in favor of an armed guard.” Mel replied without looking at me. I have to admit that since he mentioned it, I was curious about it. I sighed, but I wasn’t about to go into another small battle over something as stupid as the stations at either end of the shelf. Especially with Mr. Jackson there.

Tori led a brown horse out of the stable, fully saddled. It had a white face and two white stockings on one side. “This is Denver.” She told Mr. Jackson. “He always shies to the left.”

It didn’t take Mr. Jackson long to swing himself into the saddle. The horse pranced left as Mr. Jackson’s weight settled on it.

Tori walked by the pony and patted its side. “You be good to Boots, now. He’s a good little man and he will take really good care of you. But not if you keep kicking him.” She told Abby. I turned and really looked at the pony. It didn’t have boots, or stockings. It was a light gray with darker gray splatters covering his entire coat.

“Why Boots?” I couldn’t help asking.

“When he was found, he was mired in the banks of the river. After we pulled him out, he looked like he was wearing boots.” Tori told me. She came up to Melody’s side. “Take it easy and don’t push it with Mel. As far as I am concerned, you are more than welcome here whenever you want.” She patted my leg, whispered, “Good luck,” and wandered back to the stable to do her work.

It was so cold, steam was rising off the ground itself. It sliced through the fabric of my sweater and shirt like they weren’t even there. I think that the only thing keeping my teeth from chattering was the heat radiating from the horse beneath me.

After a while, Mel started talking. “At first, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t hear much, just some conversations here and there when I came to visit the motel. Then Donny called me and said that the supply truck never arrived.” I thought ahead and had my notebook open in front of me, but I wasn’t writing. The horse’s gait wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t have been able to write if I wanted to. But when Mel glanced back at me, I was pretending to. If he had really paid attention, he would have realized the cap was still on the pen. “Donny is, was, the restaurant manager. We needed some meat for the restaurant and he knew I had a butcher shop in Hills.

“It wasn’t until I pulled into town that I noticed something was wrong. I didn’t really think about it though. I just pulled into the store and ignored the cars abandoned in the road. I don’t know why I didn’t think about it. I guess I was worried about River’s Inn.” He broke off for a moment. “I went into the store but the power was out. It was hard to see so it wasn’t until I was right on top of them that I saw the zombies. One was eating the meat from the display, the other was gnawing on the man who ran the shop. I don’t know where the cashier was, but I didn’t want to either.

“I got out there as fast as I could, but slipped on something before hitting the door and fell through it.” He stopped and looked at a point just beyond the horse’s ears. For a moment, I thought he wouldn’t continue, but then he started talking again. “They came through the doors after me, but… I got to my feet and ran for the truck. I didn’t wait around for them to get to me, but as I was pulling out, more of those things were coming at me. I headed for home.

“I guess there was an accident after we, I, reached the shop. There were cars stopped in the middle of the road and a semi had rolled onto its side blocking the traffic in either direction. There was a family on the side of the road, fighting off a zombie.” He finally looked at me, “I didn’t leave them. I couldn’t. I drove the truck over the zombie and they jumped into the bed of the truck.”

He slowed his horse down until he was level with me. “I didn’t know what else to do, so we came here.” He waved his arm around the motel lands. “I figured that it would be the safest place. The people were ok for the most part when we got here. Only one zombie was wandering around from an accident farther up the road. We took it out and started setting up sentries at either end of the shelf.

“After that, I knew we wouldn’t have enough supplies to last us so we started going into nearby towns. The first two days, we brought in a handful of survivors each trip. Another family joined us, but they wanted to search for their remaining family so we gave them a car and a handful of weapons. We haven’t seen them since.” He shrugged. “That’s basically it.”

I stopped pretending to write and looked at him. “The supply runs… what happens once the towns nearby run out?”

“We go farther out.”

I pretended to jot it down then glanced at Abby. “What about searching the houses in the nearby towns?”

“I told you I won’t risk my men for rescue missions.”

“Not rescue, though I think we would benefit from having more people here. But supplies. The houses would have food, clothing, blankets… the cars would have fuel, or we could bring the cars back.” I pointed out, thinking. Mr. Jackson nodded in agreement, but Mel reined his horse to a stop.

“No.”

“Why not?” I asked, halting Melody.

“I won’t ask the men to commit suicide.” Mel stated, staring at me.

“Fine. What if we drain all the closest towns of supplies?” I asked, returning his stare with one of my own. “Are we going to continue spreading out? That would be just as dangerous as searching the houses.”

Mel shook his head, urging the gelding toward Melody and me. “You really are stubborn.” He said as our horses nickered at each other. “I said no.”

I turned Melody toward the stable. “Fine, then.” Melody was quick into a slow trot, but Boots was almost at a gallop. Abby squealed in surprise, clinging to the pony’s mane. It took everything in me to slow Melody to a walk again. “Sorry, Abby.”

She giggled, apparently not bothered. She threw a happy smile up at me. I glanced over my shoulder to see where Mr. Jackson and Mel were. Their horses were trudging slowly after us.

Suddenly, curiosity stole through me. “Abby, do me a favor.” Her happy smile faltered and faded. “Stay here and wait for Mr. Jackson.” She shook her head. “I promise, everything will be fine. He can take you to River or mom. I will be back as soon as I can.” I dropped the lead.

Boots instantly stopped walking. Abby tried to kick the sides of the pony to get him to move, but he stood there. I watched her for a moment, to make sure the tiny horse wouldn’t run, then kicked Melody’s flanks.

Melody sprang forward and suddenly I was jerking around in the saddle, my hair whipping out behind me. It took several minutes to find a rhythm that was comfortable, matching my movements to the thudding of her hooves. Once I found it, the feeling of her running beneath me was overwhelming. I wanted to throw my arms out, laughing in the freedom of imagined flight.

Remembering my curiosity, I pulled the reins to the left, forcing her to the road. Then her hoofs clattered against the pavement. There we sped along the road, the only sounds hitting my ears were the tapping of her hooves and the wind slapping around me.

It wasn’t long before we reached the end of the shelf, where one edge of the road dropped to the water and the other butted by a cliff face. I slowed Melody to a canter, then a trot, and finally a walk. There were two cars parked in the middle of the road, their noses almost touching. Two men were leaning against one of the cars, talking and smoking. A third spotted me and leveled a rifle, I assumed, aimed at my head.

I reached down and patted her frothy neck. “I don’t think a zombie would ride a horse, just for you to know.” I called out.

The man with the rifle lifted the muzzle to the sky. “I wasn’t told anyone would be coming out this way.” He said as I drew closer.

“I just wanted to see…” I looked further down the road, but it was empty. “Is it the same way back there?” I waved a hand behind me.

He looked in the direction I indicated and nodded. “We don’t want the road completely blocked or we wouldn’t be able to get out.”

Melody pranced slightly, her breath coming in huffs. “You should be careful about running her like that.” Another man stepped forward to grab Melody’s bridle under her chin. “She probably hasn’t been ridden in a while.”

I focused my attention on him. “I’m Cleo.”

All three men were suddenly staring at me. The one with the rifle stepped forward and held out a hand. “I’m Mac, that’s Jim, and he’s Bud.”

I examined each in turn. Jim was probably the heaviest person I had seen at the compound besides Mel. He wasn’t exactly pudgy though. Muscles bulged in every visible area of skin. Jim could have made the cover of bad-guys monthly, or maybe tough guy monthly. He also had the distinctive look of a Neanderthal. Heavy brow, sunken eyes, jutting jaw, the works.

Mac was African-American, though his skin was more mocha coffee than black. Gray littered his close cut black hair. An earring glinted in his right ear and a thick chain dangled around his neck.

Bud was the shortest of the group. Looking at him, I had a feeling I would be taller than him. Being five foot four doesn’t make me very tall in anyone’s book, but if he reached five foot I would eat a tree. Bud was younger than the others, but still older than me. Maybe Andrew’s age.

Looking at them, I realized that I had never seen them at the compound. “Do you guys ever go up to the Inn?”

The clatter of hooves behind me had me cringing in my saddle. The men around me moved to look around Melody.

“Not supposed to be here, huh?” Jim said, still holding Melody’s bridle. I shook my head. “Warning to the wise, don’t piss Mel off.” He stepped back releasing her as Mr. Jackson and Mel drew up next to me.

I looked behind them, but didn’t see Abby anywhere. “Before you freak out,” Mr. Jackson started, “Abby is with Tori, learning how to brush Boots down.”

“What the hell were you thinking?” Mel growled, stopping his horse next to Melody. His leg brushed mine and I resisted the urge to move Melody away.

“You were the one to bring up the-.”

“Cleo.” Mr. Jackson barked. I winced.

“You know.” Mel said, his voice cold. “I think it is time that you were reminded of what it was like to be out there. Maybe then you’d be a little more grateful.”

Ice spread over my skin. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Jackson’s face pale. “No, I was just curi-.”

“You wanted to see what you’re missing.” Mel’s hand raised. I sank into the saddle, certain he would strike me. A second later the reins were jerked from my hands. “Take her.” He snapped holding the reins out to Mr. Jackson. Mr. Jackson did, turning Melody. “Get her out of here. I don’t want to see her for the rest of the day.”

Mr. Jackson led me back down the road, but once we were out of sight, he handed the reins back to me. “Of all the stupid, pig-headed… I shouldn’t be giving those back.” He grumbled from his seat next to me.

“I didn’t think-.” I started, the familiar sensation of tears stinging at the corner of my eyes.

“That’s right.” Mr. Jackson snapped. “You didn’t think. You never do.” The harsh comments felt like a whip tail slashing at my skin. “You became curious and to hell with everyone else.”

“I didn’t mean-.” I tried again, trying to ignore the tears that raced down my cheeks.

Mr. Jackson finally turned black eyes on me. “If you were my daughter, I would bend you over my knee. Do you realize what you have done, now? What you have done to Abby? Your mom?”

I thought my chest would collapse. Everything inside me was sucked into an invisible vacuum.

We rode the horses back to the stable in silence. Tori took one look at me and her face hardened. She didn’t say anything to me, just led Melody away. She stopped next to Mr. Jackson and said something to him before taking the reins of his horse and leading both into the stable.

Mr. Jackson didn’t wait or check to see if I was following. He had to know I was there though. “There is one thing you need to know.” Mr. Jackson said as we walked up the hill. “Mel’s wife was in the car with him when he went to the butcher shop.”

“What?” The information startled me from my sinking depression.

“She was killed by the zombies. When he came out of the shop, he tripped. She came to help him and they grabbed her. That’s why they didn’t attack him when he fell.” He turned to head for the cabins.

I stopped where I stood and stared after him. I couldn’t help but wonder what else Mel had lied about as I stood there. Mr. Jackson didn’t seem to mind the fact that I stopped, vanishing into one of the farther cabins.

I glanced at the restaurant but knew I wouldn’t go there or to my cabin. I wasn’t about to get yelled at more for my stupidity. I couldn’t change the fact that I was being thrown from the compound. I would be lucky if Abby was allowed to stay. Finally I made my way into the thick copse of trees near the cabins. When I couldn’t see the cabins, I sank down next to the trunk of a tree and stared at nothing until it was almost too dark to see.

I staggered back through the copse, tripping a few times over branches or rocks I couldn’t see. But once in view of the cabins, I stopped. I couldn’t go back there. I knew I earned the words they would speak, but I didn’t want to see the looks on their faces. Anger I could handle, but I wouldn’t handle it if they looked at me with pity.

I ended up at the stable. After standing outside for a while, I knew no one but the horses were inside. I slipped into the shadowy mouth of the stable and made my way to the nearest stall, unable to remember what horse was inside. I let myself into it, ignoring the started snorts and whinnies of the horses in the stalls around me.

I sat down to one side of the gate and prayed.

A while later, people came into the stable with flashlights. They called my name as they worked their way through, shining the lights into the stalls as they walked past. I stiffened, but didn’t answer, the board behind me creaking with my movement.

“Cleo?” One of the voices called, the light flashing over the walls.

“That was probably one of the horses.” Another voice stated. The group finished their search of the barn and left. I relaxed slightly, sure that someone would come back any second.

They were kicking me out, why would they look for me? I wondered. Whiskers brushed my face and the horse I shared the stall with snorted at me. I jumped, startled. The board behind me creaked again.

I held my breath, trying to listen for the sounds of someone coming back, as the horse brushed the top of my head and lapped at my hair. Was that a footstep? Chills raised the hair on my skin. The horse’s head jerked up as something grabbed the gate. There was a shuffling sound and something thudded into the stall next to us.

I clapped my hand over my mouth to keep from crying out. The horse backed away shouting an alarmed whinny. Something brushed my arm and I launched to my feet.

“Calm down.” River’s voice hissed, a hand snapping around my wrist. “Cause any more noise and they will come back.”

The horse whinnied again, prancing in the back of the stall. “You scared the horse.” I whispered back, not sure if I was relieved or angry. I pulled my arm from his hand and stepped away. It took a little work to reach the horse, since I couldn’t see it. Cloud cover took away whatever ambient light there would have been to see by.

Once I settled the horse down, I turned back to where I thought River was. “What are you doing here?”

“Get over here and be quiet.” River whisper-snapped. I sighed and stumbled to the place his voice came from. Again, he grabbed my arms, this time to guide me down to sit next to him. “Why are you hiding?”

“You don’t know?”

He grumbled something. “Everyone knows what you did, Cleo. What I want to know is why you are hiding?”

“I’m getting kicked out, tomorrow.” I whispered.

He snorted. “Actually, you’re not.” His arm draped over my shoulders. The heat that radiated from it reminded me how cold I was and I shivered. It took a moment for what he said to actually register.

“What?”

“You’re not being kicked out.” He repeated, rubbing my arms through my sweater. “That’s the reason you hid?”

“No.” I shifted. “I didn’t want to… everyone is mad at me.” I couldn’t get what Mel said out of my mind. “But he said that I needed to be reminded of what’s out there.”

“No offense, but I agree with him.” River said softly, pulling me tighter against him. “I can’t say no one is mad at you, you pissed a lot of people off. Why do you have to push everything, Cleo?”

“I don’t-.”

He gripped my chin and forced me to look at him, only I couldn’t see anything in the blackness of the stable. “Cleo, you can’t keep acting on your whims. You have other people to think about as well.”

“What’s going to happen to me?”

“You mean punishment?” He hadn’t released my chin, but his grip loosened. I nodded. “You’re going on a supply run. He thinks that seeing what needs to be done and fighting off a few zombies will pull you together.”

I listened in startled silence. “That’s my punishment?”

River shifted, his breath fanning my face. “Yeah.”

A rush of relief slipped over me, causing me to sag into him. “I thought-.” I whimpered, starting to cry again.

“I know.” He held me tighter. “But you had everyone scared. We need to get back to the cabins.”

“Are they gonna yell at me?” I asked through my tears.

He laughed softly. “Definitely.” He used his hands to wipe my tears away. “But you know you need to take it. You deserve whatever they hand you.”

I shuddered. “I was so stupid.”

He was silent for a moment. “Not stupid, Cleo. Never stupid. But curiosity killed the cat. Try not to be the cat.”

We sat still for a moment and I had the distinct impression he was thinking something. Then suddenly he was on his feet and pulling me off the ground. I stopped him from climbing the gate and unlocked it after searching a few minutes for the string attached to the latch.

He made me go to the restaurant first, where everyone turned to stare at me with worried faces. Mel was leaning over a crudely drawn map of what looked like all the land of the shelf. My mom was the first person to reach me, wrapping her arms around me and sobbing into my shoulder. “Cleo, I swear.” She groaned. “You are going to end up killing me.”

Abby appeared from nowhere to cling to my legs, her face a mask of tears. When my mom stepped back, I picked Abby up and hugged her.

Gabriel stepped up next to River and I heard him ask, “Where’d you find her?”

River responded before I could do more than stiffen. “She was down by the river.”

I glanced over my shoulder at him. Why hadn’t he told them where I really was? But I wasn’t about to complain. It left the stable as a potential hiding place if I pissed people off again.

I stood around for the usual lectures of responsibility, scaring everyone, and a new lecture about zombies and my remains being found, or having to shoot me if I became a zombie. I was also told that I needed to be up early in the morning to join a run, though I wasn’t allowed a weapon.

Then we went to bed. I couldn’t help feeling a little excited that I would finally be able to get out  of the compound so it took me a while to fall asleep. It didn’t even bother me that Mel posted a guard outside my cabin.

After I finally fell asleep, I had a dream. I don’t want to call it weird because after everything I had gone through, it was pretty normal.

In the dream I was sliding down a cliff. All the sudden, I would stop, clinging to a rock until my arms and legs shook. Then I would be sliding down again. I could feel the rock digging into my fingers, my arms, my chest. Dust filled my nose and clung, making it hard to breathe.

As I fell, my fingernails would break from trying to cling to any surface I could. Eventually, my shoes came off and the rocks were slicing through my clothing. I could feel blood seeping out of various cuts on my body.

It seemed to take hours to slide down the cliff. Maybe even days. Then I was close to the bottom and zombies were gathered below me, arms reaching. A couple would throw their curious shrieks into the air.

I clung to my last perch, knowing if I slid from this one, they would get me. I look down to see my blood dripping onto the things below me. The blood only seemed to agitate them.

I sat up in bed, my heart in my throat and the feeling of hands brushing the bottoms of my feet.

Go Back to Day 12 – or – Go to Day 14

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