Chapter 23 - Family

We proceeded through the woods on foot, Troy leading with Bonnie and the two other men from Carver's temporary campsite. When we were close enough to hear the shooting, Carver didn't even flinch, but kept walking, his hand on my shoulder, like we were strolling through the goddamn park on a breezy Sunday afternoon. It wasn't until we approached the treeline and the dark, monumental outline of the lodge came into view, that he drew his gun.

As always, we heard the walkers before we saw them. A small herd had crept up on my comrades and was surrounding the lodge with the threat of taking them all down one by one. I heard Carlos shouting and strained my eyes looking for Clementine in the dim red glow of the wind turbine's lantern. It had stopped spinning. I saw Walter, running toward the rest of the group, and Carver yanked me back to his side.

"You stay right behind me," he ordered, brooking no room for argument.

"Yes, sir," I breathed, knowing it was the one and only response he would find acceptable. No one ever said I was a slow learner.

"Let's go."

The five of us moved past the edge of the treeline into the open air of the lodge's yard. I could see the gazebo in the distance 'round the other side but the field was strewn with walkers. Bonnie, Troy, and the two other men flanked Carver and I, raising their guns and firing. I shut my eyes and turned my back to Carver's, and considered running right back into the woods. But only briefly. Take note: it's always a bad idea to hightail it off on your own with no supplies or weaponry.

And anyway, I reminded myself, I belonged wherever Carver was.

The shooting slowed, and then came altogether to a stop. Carver ordered us forward in our diamond formation. Carlos, Nick, Sarita, and Walter slowly lowered their weapons. Carlos's eyes found me and widened in fear. I knew he couldn't have suspected I was with Carver, not having known the man before. I was, for all intents and purposes, a hostage. This was Carver's design.

"Howdy, folks," Carver grinned, circling the group like a lion herding its prey. I looked around for Clem, straining my eyes against the darkness. Carver stopped in front of Carlos. "Where's Rebecca?"

The good doctor spat in his face. Carver didn't flinch, wiping his cheek with the back of one hand and managing a sly smile before clocking Carlos across the jaw so hard his waist buckled. The back door to the lodge burst open then and Sarah came careening out into the scene, rushing into her father's arms, but Carver was done. His focus was fixed on the lodge, on Rebecca.

"Inside," he ordered.

xxxxxx

Carver's brigade ushered the group through the glass doors and into the lobby. The lodge was completely dark, save for the pitiful wisps of orange still glowing beneath the logs of the fireplace. Bonnie and the men spread out while Troy seated the hostages against the kitchen bar. I thought of how, just a few hours ago, Walter was whipping up dinner and the boombox was playing soft piano. It wasn't a home now. It would be laid to waste, like everything else.

Carver placed his hand in the small of my back and pushed me toward the bar. I went, getting down on my knees and locking my hands behind me as Troy knelt and zip-tied them together. Then, as Carver's attention was stolen from us, Troy grabbed a subtle fistful of my hair, yanking me back into him. I felt his breath on my neck. "Let's see you get out of these," he threatened, quickly releasing me and tightening the zip-ties with an almighty yank.

He stood and resumed his post behind Carver. Carlos leaned toward me. "Are you alright?"

My fingers tingled. I was losing circulation. I looked at the doctor, Sarah beside him – petrified. "Where are they?"

Carlos shook his head as one of Carver's men began to speak.

"Bonnie, you see the size of this place? Fuckin' huge! How are we gonna cover these guys and look for the other ones, too?"

"Johnny," Bonnie ordered, "cover that window." She gestured to the floor-to-ceilings near the fireplace and Johnny headed for the living room. So Clem wasn't over there. No, she would have taken the high ground. I forced myself not to look up, not to give Carver any ideas. No, I kept my head down, stared at the floor beneath me. Until his boots came into view. I looked up, wincing as my hands chafed inside the zip-ties.

"Where are they?" Carver demanded, his countenance so dark it was as though he were in character, not the same man I sat by the fire with. But I was not in on the charade, and so I could only guess that part he wanted me to play. I felt Carlos' eyes on mine, begging me to stay silent. It was unnecessary – no force on earth could compel me to give Clementine over. I trusted Carver with my life, but not hers.

"I don't know," I replied hoarsely, and he said nothing. Instead, he reached down, grabbing Carlos by the arm and dragging him to the center of the room, standing him on his feet and punching him in the stomach. Carlos grunted in pain, buckling to all fours. I heard a crack of unknown origin, and Sarah cried out, fighting her bonds.

"Listen," Carver threatened, addressing us. "I'm only gonna ask you once. Where's Rebecca?"

"Sarah," Carlos rasped, pressing his hands to his thighs. "Look at me... it's gonna be okay. Agh!" Carver grabbed him by the hair, making him reach up, and when he did, Carver took his right hand in his own and without hesitation, snapped his middle finger back. Carlos howled in pain and Sarah screamed.

"Rebecca!" Carver shouted. "Our baby deserves to be raised in a place of safety. I know you're out there. And Alvin, and Luke, and the girl."

I felt sick, but it wasn't good enough. I couldn't look at Carlos. He was nothing to me.

"This is real simple," Carver continued. "You want this over quick, you all play nice and show your faces."

"Don't hurt my dad!" Sarah cried out, squirming like a stuck pig. "Please!"

But Carver was unmoved. He waited a few more seconds, seconds I pictured Clem and the rest of the group hiding somewhere above us, trying to decide what to do, and then he broke another of Carlos' fingers. The screams echoed to the highest beams.

"F-fuck you," Carlos breathed angrily, staring weakly up at him. "Shoot him! Somebody just shoot him!"

Carver withdrew a knife and put it to Carlos' throat, halting his words there. I stilled. The air in the room shifted. No, not metaphorically. I felt the hairs on my neck stand up. A draft – someone had opened a window. Only the windows on the second floor opened. Clem. If she'd gone it would be to find someone, which meant there was at least one group member not in the lodge. And if Clem was gone, she was out of Carver's reach for now. I felt no qualms about it – I met Carver's eyes and pointedly looked up.

I saw the knife loosen against Carlos' neck and I nodded, craning my neck toward the balcony. Carver snarled, dropping Carlos to his side and gesturing to Bonnie, who disappeared up the stairs and soon after escorted Rebecca and Alvin down. Carver went to her, pressing his hand to her cheek and smiling in a way I'd never seen.

"Fuck you, Bill," she spat, but nothing could damper that smile, even as Rebecca took her seat with us.

Except maybe Johnny crumpling, his rifle lost at his side, dead before he hit the floor. The window didn't even shatter, it was such a clean shot. But Carver would trade lives like pawns in a chess game. And though he thought of his group as his flock, as his family, there were two among us no more friend to him than strangers. Perhaps it was better he chose Walter over Sarita. Kenny's rage, I feared, would have gotten us all killed then.

"Now here's what's gonna happen," Carver ordained. "I'm gonna march another one of your friends out here and I'm gonna put a bullet in the back of their head. Or you can give up now. Your choice."

Another shot rang out, and I saw the column splinter near Carver's head. Carver paced back to us, grabbing Alvin by the lapel and pulling him up. It was enough. Kenny was no man of reason but Clementine must have convinced him. It was only logical – eventually Carver would run out of people to shoot, and would end up on Sarita.

Bonnie escorted them through the glass doors, Troy bound them at the wrists, and they joined us on their knees. All of us but Rebecca. Rebecca stood, and I knew it was because Carver would never be seen to be cruel to her. Clem spotted me and I saw her breath hitch. It hadn't occurred to me that I'd been gone from them as long as I had. Or that soon enough, it would require an explanation. And I cursed myself for continuing to scheme and plan and think strategically. I felt inhuman, cold, though the burn inside my eyelids professed otherwise. I had accepted this for myself. But I could not maintain clarity with Clem now wrapped up in Carver's web. Attempting to separate my interests and hers was like asking the heart to work when cleaved in two.

"Where's Luke?" Carver snapped, jolting us back. "Finally cut and run, huh? Why am I not surprised? I warned you," he approached Carlos, thrusting a finger in his face. "I warned you not to follow him. Look where he's led you. But you're safe now. We're going home. As a family."

Sarah whimpered, and Carver's surviving men circled us like vultures, snatching us up one by one to begin the long trek back to camp. I felt the blood dripping from my wrists, warm and familiar.