Authors: K.D. McEntire
iotr hefted the newest box of loot and hauled it to the back of the mill floor, wrestling it into their makeshift pantry with effort. It had been good scrounging this week, their cubby was filled to overflowing, and Piotr was grateful to finally be done. On top of the closest box was a portfolio, battered but blank inside, and underneath a grocery bag bulging with Prismacolor colored pencils. Piotr collected the pencils and the portfolio, leaving the pantry. There was no light to turn off behind him.
It was late and the mill was silent. Poking his nose into various nooks and crannies, Piotr checked on the kids he was watching over. Snoring quietly, Specs lolled in his recliner, glasses askew, with a tattered copy of
hanging from the tips of his fingers. As he'd done every night for over fifty years, Piotr saved his place and covered Specs with an army blanket, tucking aside the thick, black glasses on the windowsill.
The tangle of GI Joe blankets Tubs normally nested in was empty. Piotr found him asleep in Dora's corner; Tubs was curled under her blanket and an old duster Piotr had discarded months before. The soles of his footie pajamas were filthy and his chubby thumb was thrust in his mouth, lips smacking around it. Dora, still awake, glanced up as Piotr poked his head behind the beaded curtain that sectioned off her part of their den.
“Nightmare,” she said, jerking her thumb towards Tubs. “How'd scavengin' go?”
“Decent overall.” Piotr eased into Dora's room, careful to not jar Tubs as he joined Dora at the warped closet door balanced on cinderblocks, which she was using as an improvised desk. Making a mental note to see if he could scavenge a better tabletop for her, Piotr set the portfolio and pencils on top of Dora's dwindling stack. “How's your landscape?”
“The bark ain't right.” Dora held up a sketch of the overgrown courtyard outside the mill, skeletal branches of the lone tree yearning towards the sky. “It's junk! It's all just junk.” Scowling, Dora tossed down her pencil and wiped a hand across her forehead, leaving dim charcoal smudges behind. “This pencil stinks.”
It didn't. The Prismacolors were the best Piotr could scavenge, but Pandora's death had left her eternally at the age where every artist's block was a major disaster, and Piotr'd long since learned to ignore her hysterics. He mussed her hair. “Keep trying. It'll come.”
“Yeah, yeah. You stayin' in?” Dora smoothed the ruffled strands of her white-blonde hair back behind her headband.
“At least for a while. I might walk the perimeter later.”
“'Kay. Thanks for the supplies. I know they ain't easy to rustle up.”
It was no problem.
She waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah. You too. G'Night.”
Resisting the urge to ruffle her hair again, Piotr left Dora to her sketchpad and, rather than walking the long way around, gathered his will and drifted through the half dozen walls that separated her cubbyhole from his own. Some days, he thought, there were definite benefits to being dead.
Outside the night smelled of metal and salt, the scent drifting in through the rotting boards nailed over remnants of shattered windows. His corner was on the far side of the floor, away from the kids, giving them privacy. Piotr would have liked to be closer for safety's sake but he knew they needed their space.
Once the entire San Francisco area had been filled with little groups like theirs—ghost children, nicknamed the Lost, eternally protected by teens like Piotr—but now there were darker things preying the streets, and Piotr's makeshift family had become a rarity. It had gotten to the point that Piotr was considering leaving the dilapidated steel mill they'd taken as a home and relocating either north to the city or south into Silicon Valley. San Francisco was teeming with the living, however, as was the valley, and abandoning the relative safety of the mill was a very big decision; one Piotr was unwilling to make just yet.
Too tired to want to think further on the subject, Piotr stripped to his boxers and a tee shirt, crawling gratefully into his pallet. His window, one of the few in the deserted mill with glass still intact, gave Piotr a breathtaking view of the surrounding city and a hint of the bay stretching out beyond. Clouds drifted across the moon as Piotr sank into sleep.
Minutes or hours later, a shrill, high scream yanked him from uneasy dreams. At first Piotr thought he was in the living world again, where the sky was blue and bright and the sounds insistent, but the room was dark, and through his window clouds now rolled swiftly across the sky, obliterating the pale moonlight in shades of dark shale.
Stumbling to the window, Piotr scrubbed his eyes and squinted down at the street. Below, amid the trees, a luminescent figure, lean and white, loomed over a smaller shape, clearly one of the Lost. The kid screamed again and Piotr, snapped from his haze, shoved back from the window and pounded down the emergency stairs, leaping over rotted risers in bounds.
He was too slow. By the time he reached the ground floor both the Walker and the kid were gone; only the ice-frosted ground where the Walker had lain in wait remained. Panting heavily, Piotr glanced left and right, hoping to catch some flash of white, a telltale glimpse of the Walker's cloak to guide him in a rescue attempt.
Cursing, Piotr turned to go back inside…and found himself face to face with a second Walker. The Walker, hunched over and slavering, leaned in close so that Piotr could smell the rot of its face, the black decay eating away at the skin of its cheeks. “Rider,” it hissed. “Meat.”
Stumbling, Piotr fell back, his teeth clicking painfully together as he thumped to the ground. Foolishly he'd run downstairs without a weapon, hoping to snag the child and race to safety before the Walker knew what'd hit him. Walkers were lone wolves—Piotr never expected a second one to be waiting nearby.
Fingertips sharpened to brutal spikes arced across Piotr's upper arm, slashing his shirt into ribbons in four parallel lines of stinging pain. Hissing under his breath, Piotr grabbed his upper arm, and felt a gush of essence pour over his hand as he tried to stop the bleeding. The cuts were deep.
“Bastard,” he groaned and kicked at the Walker's robed legs, hoping to at least push the monster back a few paces and give himself some space to scramble to his feet. Luck was with him. The Walker's knees buckled at his kick, slamming the monster face first to the ground. Lifting his leg as high as it would go, Piotr kicked again, aiming for the head, trying to ignore the wet rip of his heel breaking the thin layer of skin covering the Walker's skull. “Stay down!”
“Piotr!” Dora shouted from her window. “Here!” Balancing her hips on the windowsill, Dora leaned forward and flung her arm out in a wide arc. There was a whistling noise and a brief flash of moonlight on silver as a butter knife from the pantry clattered to the sidewalk mere feet from Piotr's outstretched and grasping hand.
“Fight to the death,” Piotr grumbled, darting forward and snagging the blade with the tips of his fingers, “and she tosses me a dull knife. Great.” Still, he knew what he was doing and even a dull knife was better than no knife at all.
The Walker, either sensing danger, or simply tired of the fight, flung a handful of pebbles and dirt into Piotr's face, blinding him. Cursing, Piotr swiped his free hand across his eyes, scrabbling to see, but the Walker had used his momentary blindness as a chance to flee. The courtyard was empty once again.
Groaning, Piotr struggled to his feet. He sniffed the air but his scuffle with the Walker had left a dense smell of rot clinging to his clothing. There was no way he could track the beast by smell alone.
Trudging back inside, Piotr hid a bitter smile. It looked like the decision whether to stay or go had been stripped away. Thanks to his clumsy fighting, the Walker had gotten away and now it knew where some Lost could be found. It would be back. They had to leave.
Inside, Piotr was met with anxious, pale faces. Tubs, clinging to Piotr's duster, huddled behind Dora, and Specs peered past splintery boards to the courtyard below. Piotr wanted to soothe them, to swear they were safe, but he didn't want to lie. Instead he remained silent.
The silence grew too long. Abruptly Specs turned from the window, pushing his round frames up on his nose. His hair, dark with grease, fell over one eye. “That was the third time this week, Piotr. We should pack.”
Piotr sighed. “We should.” He knelt down and Tubs flung himself into his arms, sobbing into his shoulder. Piotr stroked the back of Tubs' hair and let him cry.
“It spotted me,” Dora said. “I saw it watchin' me.”
“Most likely.” Piotr stood, Tubs resting on his hip, and hugged the little boy close. Life seeped into Piotr from Tubs' skin in blue arcs, dulling his pain. The wounds on his arm began to slowly seal shut, itching like fire. “I am unsure but, yes, most likely.”
“Perhaps we might bunk down with Miss Elle or Miss Lily,” Specs offered, hesitant to bridge the topic of Elle to Piotr. “Or perhaps Mister James.”
The thought of begging his fellow Riders for a place to stay made Piotr laugh roughly. “James? I'd rather leave you on your own.” He set Tubs down and smoothed the wispy blond hair back from his forehead. “You okay now? Yes? Go wash your face.”
When Tubs had toddled off, Piotr reached out and enfolded both Dora and Specs into a hug. Specs clung tighter than Dora, trembling lightly, the remaining unspent years of life flowing into Piotr in small, sharp spikes. The itching on his arm faded, replaced with smooth, blessed coolness.
Piotr squeezed them both and then stepped back, alert and wary, listening for intruders. “
.” He gestured to his upper arm. “Thank you. For the aid.”
Uncomfortable, Specs shrugged. “It is the least we can do, Piotr. You're welcome.”
“They, the Walkers, are getting closer.” Piotr crossed his arms over his chest.
“And smarter.” Dora chewed her thumbnail. “Remember, Specs? When we saw one of ‘em grab that kid right outta a tree last week? They ain't ever done that before.”
“Do you think it's because of the White Lady?” Specs asked, pushing his glasses higher on his nose.
“White Lady or no, so long as you three are safe, I don't care the reasons why.” Piotr ran his hands through his hair. He was still shaking, his mouth sour with adrenaline. The mill had been in a safe zone for years, but with the coming of the White Lady almost no place was safe anymore. The Walkers were everywhere.
“Honestly, I don't know what to do. Walker territory is spreading and the mill is stuck between them.” Piotr leaned against a nearby wall, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes. They felt gritty with lack of sleep.
“We ain't strong enough to fight ‘em.” Dora drummed her fingers along the kitchen countertop. “Ain't stupid enough, neither.”
“Since we are running, we should decide where to go,” Specs said. “Which shall it be? Move closer to the bay or the valley?”
“I thought of that before, but there are too many of the living,” Piotr said, rubbing his hands across his cheeks, feeling the light rasp of hair that would never grow past a certain point, brushed by calluses that would never fade. Piotr pushed away from the wall. “You should weigh in. What do you want to do?”
Hesitantly, after several seconds, Dora hunkered down into a squat and, wrapping her arms around her knees, murmured, “I don't mean to start no fuss, Piotr, but I wanna stay with Elle for awhile.” Before Piotr could protest, she hurried to say, “I know we're safe with you, but there's been a lotta Walkers ‘round lately and you can't be with us 24/7. We gotta be somewhere more, I dunno, more castle-like, you know? With a moat or somethin’. Def…dev…dependable.”
“Defensible?” Much as he hated to admit it, Dora had a point. “Specs?”
“Staying with Miss Elle does indeed appear to be the best course of action.” Specs took off his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt. Like Dora, Specs was too thin and gangly, caught in an early growth spurt by a death that had come too soon. Eternally eleven. “No offense.”
Sighing, Piotr rubbed his hand along the wall, feeling the spots spongy with decay crumble away under his fingertips. Elle was not going to like this.
, there is none taken. Fine. Go pack up then and we'll go in the morning. Pandora, please pack for Tubs?”
“Gotcha.” Dora and Specs drifted towards their quarters, leaving Piotr alone by the window. Lost in thought, he stared down at the empty courtyard and watched the swirling fog drift in from the bay. With a Walker down there somewhere, he knew there'd be no more sleep for him tonight. None at all.
Dawn came, lightening the sky to a pale grey, and Piotr carried Tubs piggyback as they made their way through the shriveled remains of the world. Picking a path through crumbling brick streets, they followed the whisper of surf breaking against the piers in the bay, leaving the mill behind. At first the going was slow; Piotr's turf was around fifteen miles from where Elle and her own Lost squatted dangerously near the tourist zone, amid the life and heat of Pier 39 and North Beach, wading through the press of humanity that eddied like the tides.