"They have a what?" asked Sarah as she unloaded and examined her rifle.
"It's this big… tractor thing," explained Clementine as she loaded an extra bullet into her gun's magazine. "It just… dices them up and spits out blood. Dilawar called it a mulcher."
"And they park it in the middle of a road and just let the lurkers walk into it?" asked Sarah as she loaded and cocked her rifle.
"Something like that," said Clem as she holstered her gun.
"No it's not." Sarah stared at Clem in response. "Fuck, yes it is. Why didn't we ever think of that?"
"We didn't know," shrugged Sarah. "It would have made clearing out Tulsa a lot easier."
"That took us all day," recounted a weary Clem. "Hopefully that's enough time for Dilawar to get the diesel."
"If he can get to it…" Clem looked over and saw Sarah's rifle was trembling in her hands.
"I know," said Clem as she placed her hand on Sarah's shoulder. "I'm scared too."
"We've never done something like this before," noted Sarah.
"Sure we have," said Clem. "It just never stops being terrifying."
"No, this is different," insisted Sarah. "It's not like Shaffer's of Valkaria, where we sort of knew what those places were like, or that evil man in Kansas and that awful woman in Wyoming. This is a huge group of people, the only thing we know about them is they already want to kill us, there's only six of us, and we're going to try to steal from them and hope they don't notice."
The rifle started trembling more and Clem searched her mind for something reassuring to say.
"I did something like this once, before I met you."
"When I was in Savannah with Lee, there was this big group of awful people who had made their own city. We needed gas then too, and we knew they weren't going to give us any, so we decided we'd try to sneak in and steal it."
"And… you went with Lee?"
"I wanted to," said Clem. "For the same reason I'm doing this, I didn't want to just wait around for the next horrible thing to happen. I wanted to do something, before it was too late."
"So… what happened? What was it like? What… what did those people do to you?"
"They… were already dead," recalled Clem. "Things had gone badly, and by the time we got there what was left of them had turned into walkers."
"So… you really haven't done this before," concluded Sarah. "Not really."
Clem sighed deeply. "No," she admitted. "Not really.
Clem knelt down in front of the bed. She pulled back the curtain and saw Omid inside, still doodling away on his pad of paper. He even moved Elma in close so she could watch. Clem wished she could join them. She never saw him draw anything before today, at least not with a crayon. She remembered when he tried finger painting and just wanted to smear paint on everything in sight. Now he was just sitting quietly while drawing sand, and Clem couldn't stay to enjoy it.
"Be good Omid," whispered Clem. "I love you."
Clem stood up and found herself staring at someone wearing a gas mask.
"What?" asked Sarah as she stared at Clem, at least she thought Sarah was staring at her.
"It's been a while since I've seen you wear that," admitted Clem. "You don't look like yourself when you wear that." Clem picked up her own mask from the bed and examined it. It looked like a small sunken face with no nose, a filter for a mouth, and two round eyepieces, one of which was still cracked from the Vaquero's bullet hitting her binoculars back in Wyoming. "I guess I don't look the same either when I wear this."
"It doesn't make a big difference to me," said Sarah as she stood up.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It just means I'm used to you wearing yours." Sarah headed for the front while Clem stared at her own reflection in the mask's unbroken eyepiece. She didn't like looking at herself, so she put the mask on. Taking her gear, she passed Horatio on the way out. He was laying out his medical supplies on his bed. Clem saw needles, thread, antiseptic, bandages, and gauze. Horatio briefly looked at Clem, and she could see the dread in his eyes at what they were both expecting.
Heading outside with Horatio, Clem was immediately confronted by a Vaquero standing right beside the door. She had nearly pulled her gun before she realized it must have been Dilawar. His face was covered by that blue and gold helmet. She'd never see someone wearing it this close, at least not while still alive. No mouth hole or indent for a nose, just a flat alien face painted right down the middle.
"How do I look?" Even his voice sounded menacing through that helmet.
"Scary," answered Clem.
"Very scary," added Sarah as she stepped out of the bus.
Getting over her initial shock, Clem saw Dilawar was wearing a black coat she recognized as Eskiya's. It wasn't an exact match for the Vaquero's coat she saw up close, that one was a slick leather and this was some kind of polyester. It was also stained with walker blood, although it was hard to see on the dark material. If Eskiya wasn't wearing Dilawar's puffy ill-fitting coat smeared with gore, Clem probably wouldn't have noticed the difference; hopefully the Vaquero don't either.
"If it's any comfort, I can't see worth a shit with this damn thing on my head," said Dilawar. "This is so much worse than my ski goggles."
"Why would that be comforting?" asked Sabriya.
"Means none of them can see too well either," said Dilawar. "Even if I used a gun, I don't think I could shoot straight with this on."
"At least one of them can shoot straight with their helmet on," assured Clem as she tapped the eyepiece on her mask.
"You should really bring a gun yourself," suggested Eskiya.
"I did't see them carrying many guns, except the guy on top of the gas station," said Dilawar. "And a side effect of me not using guns is I wouldn't be able to shoot worth a shit even if you gave me one."
"I wasn't suggesting you carry a gun to blend in or to fight them with," said Eskiya.
"It would give you a way to… avoid capture."
"Jesus Christ," said Horatio. "Are you—"
"I did say I'd kill myself before I let them catch me," recalled Dilawar.
"We're not doing that," dictated Sabriya.
"It's not even an argument, we don't have an extra gun to spare," said Sabriya. "Sarah and I have the only rifles, Clem and Eskiya the only pistols. I've been wanting to find some spare guns for the type of ammo we have left, but—"
"We've been busy," finished Dilawar. "I guess I'll make do."
"Give him the grenade." Everyone turned to Clem.
"No," said Sabriya. "That—"
"If he gets found out, it might help him get away," said Clem.
"How exactly?" asked Horatio.
"Pull the pin but hold onto the handle," explained Clem. "If someone shoots him while he's doing that, they risk blowing themselves up. You could tell them that even, make them afraid of you."
"Good God…" spoke a horrified Sabriya.
"Would… would that actually work?" It took Sabriya a second to notice Dil was looking at her.
"As long as you hold the handle it wouldn't detonate," she explained. "But it's a terrible idea." Sabriya turned to Clem suddenly. "Why would you even think to suggest that?"
"Because I saw my friend do it once, to save us."
"Did it work?" asked Horatio.
"It saved some of us," reported a saddened Sarah.
"Give it to me."
"It gives me a way out."
"But not a good one."
"Yeah, no shit, but I don't think I've got any good outs," said Dil. "Besides, this goes south, maybe I can use it to take out one of their trucks or something, cripple them and give the rest of you a better chance to get away from them."
"Goddammit Dil…" Sabriya removed the hand grenade from her belt. "This is a last resort, you understand?"
"Believe me, I'm not looking forward to using it," said Dilawar as he took the grenade.
"You'll use a grenade but not a gun?" asked Eskiya as Dilawar clipped the grenade to the back of his belt, concealing it from view.
"Don't start with him," answered Sabriya in a harsh tone. "He's risking his life for all of us." Looking closely at Dilawar, Clem noticed his hands were twitching slightly. Sabriya must have noticed too because she looked more worried now than she did a second ago.
"You don't have to do this," she whispered to Dilawar.
"No, I really do," he answered. "We're all screwed if I don't."
Sabriya took a deep breath. "Everyone know what they need to do?"
"Yeah," said Sarah as she took a step forward. "I'll keep watch from on top of the bus."
"I really wish you'd—"
"It was one thing when I thought you were going to check out a city full of the lurkers," interrupted Sarah. "Now that I know the Vaquero are around, I'm not waiting on the bus for them to kill me and Omid. Besides, we need Horatio free in case anyone gets hurt."
"I really don't think I'd lose much time if I was on top of the bus," argued Horatio. "You don't have to keep watch."
"I... I need to do it," insisted Sarah.
"Why?" asked Horatio.
"I just do!"
"Let's just go already," insisted Clem, wanting to avoid the looming circular argument. "It's just gonna get harder the longer we wait."
"Right, you two hang back for now," Sabriya told Horatio and Sarah as she mounted her bike. "Once we get a better handle on what the surrounding area is like, we'll radio you with instructions on how to get closer with the bus, shorten Dil's trips back to us."
"Got it," said Horatio.
"The rest of you, follow me." Sabriya pedaled ahead and everyone fell in behind her. They had followed the north road for a while which led them through a small canyon. After riding it for a while, Sabriya stopped to survey their surroundings from the nearest cliff she could climb, then announced their best route was to cut through a suburb to try to close in on where the Vaquero were working. And they were still working in the area, the group occasionally heard updates from them over the radio.
Eskiya had taken their spare radio and tuned it to their Vaquero's channel so they could listen in on them. Again, Clem was irritated by how little she learned from their occasional chatter. They avoided using names and talking about themselves so much that Clem was starting to think it was deliberate. Recalling how Beth tried to manipulate Sarah with what Clem had told her, she had to begrudgingly admit the Vaquero were being smart.
Most everything they discussed was related to what they were currently doing. There were requests to refuel certain vehicles, help to clear out certain buildings, and switch places with people. That last one was what made Clem suspicious they were avoiding names on purpose since no one ever said who they were. There'd just be one voice saying where they needed someone to take over and another voice would eventually answer it. Maybe Dilawar wouldn't stand out, at least while they were still working.
There were also occasional status reports from the sniper on top of the gas station. His voice was a bit more strident than the others as he'd report thick concentrations of walkers on the move. Clem had no way of proving it, but she suspected he was the one who shot her in Wyoming. She never heard any of the Vaquero's voices before now, but the sudden and forceful way this one announced things often felt like a bullet cutting through the silence; she could only imagine how he used actual bullets.
After leaving the canyon, the group found themselves at an intersection on the edge of the city. Dead trees coated in melting frost blanketed much of the area, making it hard to see very far ahead. What Clem did see told her this area had probably been looted by people already. A nearby parking lot was filled with cars with open doors, a clear sign they had been tossed, and there weren't many abandoned vehicles clogging up road. Survivors had been through here at some point, hopefully not recently.
Following Sabriya, they pedaled deep enough into town to find one of its suburbs, and here Clem saw more signs that this area had already been emptied out. Most of the doors on the houses were left wide open and occasional windows broken, almost certainly by scavengers. They moved slowly, with Sabriya stopping often to examine cluttered parts of the road, gauging if the bus could fit or not. It reminded Clem of her first time scavenging around Titusville; hopefully things would go better than that.
There were some corpses on the sides of the roads and even fewer walkers moving about, many of which could only crawl now. Even the ones that could still walk did so incredibly slowly. They all had been badly ravaged by time, being so worn down over years that they appeared to be little more than spindly skeletons with chunks of flesh barely clinging to their bones, and the cold just seemed to slow them down even further.
Swinging her tomahawk at a walker's head, Clem realized she didn't even need to kneecap them anymore to take them out, and the others likewise had no trouble hacking through the few shambling corpses dotted about. What really slowed them down was stopping to stab every corpse in the head, just to be sure. It took time, but if they were going to drive the bus through here then it was necessary to clear out as many walkers as possible beforehand.
Occasionally, the sniper would announce he was going to fire a few shots into the air and then the group would stop and listen to them. Clem noticed that most of the few walkers remaining didn't react to the very distant gunfire. She wasn't sure if it was because they were too far or if the walkers just couldn't hear it anymore. Most of the ones she saw had heads liked shriveled pumpkins, with no ears or nose remaining, just a kind of a fleshly bald skull waiting for someone to axe it.
Following the road bordering the edge of the neighborhood, it started sloping uphill as the houses on their left were replaced with shallow cliff sides. The neighborhood began to thin out and the group started pedaling faster. Clem could see part of the city on her right between the trees and the remaining houses, and they were still moving uphill. The road eventually ended in a small circle with a few fancy houses that had large gates out front, with a steep cliffside bordering half the area.
"This is good, this can work," Clem heard Sabriya say to herself as she jumped off her bike. She swung her rifle around, scanning the area, then threw it back on her shoulder and pulled out her machete instead. Clem likewise took her tomahawk off her shoulder and followed the others into the house on the very edge of the cliff. It was a large and odd-looking home covered in large windows, complete with a balcony overlooking the area.
Going through the house, it didn't take long to confirm no one was in it although Clem did stop just long enough to confirm if the kitchen was empty; it was. The furniture and decorum were very eccentric and Clem didn't understand them, but she hardly cared either. The important part was when the group emerged on a balcony facing out towards all of Salt Lake City. They had a perfect view of the entire area, and yet all Clem could look at was the big intersection to the south where the Vaquero should be.
"This is perfect," said Sabriya as she immediately walked over to the edge of the balcony and surveyed their surroundings. "This could actually work."
"I think I can see the gas station from here," said Dilawar.
"Barely," added Clem as she looked for herself. She could make out the shape of the big shopping center far off in the distance, and what was probably the gas station, but not much else. Removing her binoculars, she was able to get a better look. Despite their position, this wasn't a good angle for seeing what was happening on the ground, but she could see the top of the semi-trailer, along with the sniper still perched on top of the gas station.
"Sabriya," said Eskiya. "Do you think you could shoot them from here?"
"If I can, it'd be a personal best for me."
"So, does that mean—"
"I can't guarantee it," she clarified. "He'd probably have a harder time shooting us at this distance, especially with us having an elevated position."
"Doesn't mean he won't try it," warned Clem as she watched the sniper carefully. "He wasn't much closer when he shot me in Wyoming."
"How do you know that was the one who shot you?" asked Eskiya.
"It's an educated guess," retorted Clem.
"All right, here's the plan." Sabriya set her binoculars down and moved to the center of the balcony. "Okay, see that little intersection down there, the one shaped like a triangle?" Sabriya pointed down the hill at a section of road flanked by numerous houses. "That can be a rendezvous point. The three of you bike down there and find a building to set up in, like a safe house. That'll bring Dil closer to the Vaquero's base.
"From there, Dil walks over a few streets to avoid being seen on the main road and snakes his way towards the shopping center. He grabs a few cans, brings them to one of you, then one of you bike it back to bus while the other stays behind, in case Dil completes a second trip before the first person returns." Explained Sabriya as she traced out a route with her finger.
"While you're doing that, I'll work on guiding Horatio and the bus further into the area to save Clem and Eskiya time pedaling back. The area is pretty thin with the undead and the gunshots from the Vaquero will distract them. We should be able to shave off most of that mile or so we spent getting here."
"And you can keep us covered from up here too, right?" asked Dilawar.
"Even with no leaves, all the trees in the area make it hard to see the roads," informed Sabriya. "I can't promise I can cover you very effectively if something goes wrong, but this is a much better position than I was anticipating and I'll be keeping watch the entire time. If I notice the Vaquero doing anything suspicious, I'll report it over the radio."
"I guess that's our plan..." Dilawar turned to Eskiya and Clem. "Come on, let's hurry." The trio returned to their bikes and attempted to move down the hill and directly towards the intersection. It went slowly as the area was far too steep to bike down, meaning they had to gradually walk the bikes down the hill. Before long, they arrived at the end of a road bordering a fence overseeing another hill. A pair of wire cutters took care of the fence, and the trio once again was moving closer to danger.
Clem could hear it now, the mulcher. It wasn't close but there was a constant diesel engine running in the distance occasionally followed by a loud whirring sound, likely walkers being diced up. She'd grown to hate the sound of moving vehicles when she wasn't in one. It always meant someone could outpace her if she had to flee. Emerging onto a road again, Clem became fearful they'd be spotted any moment.
"Sab, where to?" asked Dilawar over the radio.
"South," she answered. "You're not far from the intersection."
"How… how close are they?" asked Clem, dreading the answer as she listened to that whirring sound far off in the distance.
"I'd guess about half a mile. It doesn't look like they've moved much from earlier."
"It must take a long time to clear out an entire city," realized Eskiya.
"Yeah, but not forever," added Dilawar. "Let's hurry."
The trio got on their bikes and in short time they found themselves facing a split in the roads that formed the triangle Sabriya mentioned. Clem didn't see any recent signs of walkers, and the houses in the immediate area looked like they probably had already been looted. The disturbing thing was the mulcher sounded closer now. Not a lot closer, but closer.
"All right, which one of these is gonna be our safe house?" asked Dilawar as he examined their surroundings.
"That one," dictated Eskiya as he pointed at a two-story home on their left. "The garage is a good place to store our bikes, and one of us can keep watch of the surrounding area from the second story because its front window looks out towards where the Vaquero are coming from."
"Sounds good to me," said Clem as she pedaled over to the house with the others right behind her.
They quickly dismounted the bikes and took their weapons in hand. They started with the front door, which was left wide open. A quick sweep revealed no walkers or anything particularly useful, likely another place on the edge of town that was cleaned out long ago. Moving down a flight of stairs, the pair arrived inside the garage. Eskiya and Dilawar pulled open one of the doors, then rolled the bikes inside and out of sight.
Looking out the open door, Clem found herself mesmerized by the sound of the mulcher approaching. It was as if there was a monster out there chewing its way closer to them. It wasn't fast but it was coming, and there wasn't anything they could do to stop it.
"Okay, this is it." Clem looked over at Dilawar. Even with the Vaquero helmet on it was obvious he was nervous, which made Clem worry that the Vaquero would notice as well. "Wish… wish me—"
"Hey." The sound of a new voice caused everyone to scatter, Clem was halfway up the stairs before she realized it had come from Eskiya's radio. Inching back down to the garage, she heard one of the Vaquero speak. "Has anyone found any cigarettes?"
"Motherfucker," swore a tense Dilawar.
"No…" answered a voice on the radio, dripping with irritation.
"Didn't that same guy already ask for cigarettes like thirty minutes ago?" asked Dilawar.
"Yeah, and again earlier when Eskiya first found their radio frequency," added Clem.
"It would seem they have a one-track mind," said Eskiya as he put his radio away.
"All right, for real this time," said Dilawar as he removed his radio from his belt. "Sab, I'm going in. Gonna switch my radio over to their channel. Can't risk them hearing any of you talking while I'm out there."
"Don't be a hero, Dil," cautioned Sabriya. "If you start to hear them getting suspicious of anything, you come right back and we leave, understood?"
"Yeah, I understand." Dil sighed, then changed the frequency on his radio. "All right, you two stay out of sight until I get back. Figure about a mile there and a mile back carrying ten gallons of diesel, probably gonna take me at least thirty minutes. If I'm not back in an hour and you don't hear anything from the Vaquero's radio… assume the worst."
"Also, when you return, switch your radio back and tell us you're approaching," instructed Eskiya. "From a distance, we wouldn't be able to tell you from one of them."
"Right, that'd be the way to go," sighed Dil. "I make it all the way back and then one of you shoot me by mistake."
"Exactly," said Eskiya without a trace of concern. "Be sure to signal us so that doesn't happen."
"Yeah, I'll do that…" Even through the helmet, Clem could hear Dilawar's irritation. "All right, wish me—" Clem shot forward and wrapped her arms around Dilawar. "Whoa, Clementine—"
"Take care of yourself," she professed.
"I… I'll do that." Clem felt Dilawar wrap one arm around her and give her a gentle hug. Even while wearing gore-smeared coats and thick gloves, it still gave her no small amount of comfort; hopefully it did the same for Dilawar. "All right, you two stay safe. I'll get back as soon as I can."
Dilawar didn't waste any more time, he hurried out of the garage and started running down the road. Clem was impressed just how fast he could move, hopefully it was fast enough. She kept her eyes on him until he disappeared from view on the horizon, sprinting towards that horrible mulching sound. Clem turned to Eskiya, who was reaching up to close the garage door.
"Do you still think this is a good idea?" she asked him.
"Yes," he answered without hesitation as he shut the garage. "These people won't stop at Salt Lake City, and you said yourself they survey the surrounding areas of where they set up camp. As big a risk as this is, it's our best chance to get away from them."
"Do… do you ever feel anything?" asked Clem, irritated at Eskiya's emotionless monotone. "If Dilawar dies, does that mean anything to you?"
"They're very resourceful," said Eskiya. "Their death would be a great loss to all of us."
"Because he's so useful?"
"Yes." Clem turned away. "What do you want me to say?"
"Nothing," said Clem. "I'll go upstairs and keep watch from the windows." Clem marched off towards the stairs, annoyed she'd be stuck with Eskiya for the whole day.
"If I died, would that mean anything to you?" Clem looked over her shoulder. Eskiya had the same curious look in his eyes he usually had when asking questions, but also he looked off somehow. She couldn't put her finger on it, but that he was even asking her this was unusual for him.
"Probably not," answered Clem. Eskiya looked aside, but he said nothing in response. "Would you rather I lie to you?"
"I'm surprised you said probably." Eskiya turned away while Clem headed upstairs, her footsteps echoing through the empty house. She pulled a chair up to the biggest window and looked out at the road. Checking her watch, it was half-past eleven. Clem took a canteen out of her backpack and peeled back her mask to get a drink of water. There was nothing to do now but wait.
Not much happened for the next few minutes other than Clem checking her watch to find out it had only been a few minutes. She listened to Horatio and Sabriya for a while as they coordinated driving the bus closer. Even with the Vaquero working in the region, the bus was still drawing out occasional walkers that he and Sarah would have to deal with. Clem wanted to talk to Sarah over the radio, but didn't out of fear the Vaquero might start listening in on them any second, assuming they weren't already.
Fifteen minutes in and there was no word from Dilawar. Sick of watching an empty road, Clem went downstairs to consult with Eskiya. She didn't really feel like talking to him but she was curious if he had heard anything over the Vaquero's radio. He confirmed they hadn't said much, and what they had said wasn't anything new. Clem briefly thought about apologizing to Eskiya for what she said, but didn't.
The wait became unbearable around noon, and Clem wasn't the only one who felt that way. Sabriya called to ask if they had seen any signs of Dilawar yet, and they confirmed they hadn't. Talking to Sabriya, she hadn't seen much from her perch except the mulcher had stopped moving for now. Eskiya added the Vaquero were talking about a problem with it, but they didn't sound particularly worried. Apparently, they weren't the only ones with engine troubles.
Sitting in place, staring out the window, Clem wondered if this is why Sarah had offered to take her place today. Anytime Clem went out she was worried it would be her last, but at least if something did happen she might have a slim chance to save herself. Here, everything was out of her control, and there was nothing anyone can do but wait. And the longer it went on the worse it got.
Every little fear she could imagine took root in her mind and began to grow in the deafening quiet. Images of the Vaquero ripping off Dilawar's mask and torturing him constantly flashed before her eyes. She envisioned their entire fleet of vehicles running them down one after another. She could see them marching into the bus, pulling Omid out from under the bed, and throwing him headfirst into that mulching machine.
"It's been too long," Sabriya announced suddenly. Clem checked her watch and realized it had been an hour now. "Something's gone wrong."
"We have no reason to suspect that," stated Eskiya calmly.
"Don't we?" asked Clem as she felt the despair wash over. "He said if he didn't come back in an hour, then assume the worst."
"He said that?" asked a shocked Sabriya.
"Dilawar said if they don't come back in an hour and we don't hear anything from the Vaquero's radio, then assume the worst," corrected Eskiya. "Nothing the Vaquero have said suggests they've discovered them, and they're having to travel a mile there and back over unfamiliar territory, infiltrate a hostile faction we know little about, and come back carrying more than they left with. There's a lot of unknown variables that could slow them down."
"Or kill him," said Sabriya, her voice trembling.
"If they had found an intruder, I'm pretty confident one of them would have said something," insisted Eskiya.
"What if they got another radio frequency?" suggested Clem. "They clearly know someone could be listening to them, that's why they never say their names out loud. Did you keep checking for other channels after you found the one we've been listening to?"
There was a pause. "No," answered Eskiya.
"Or they could be using walkie-talkies for anyone saying something important they don't want others to hear," added Sabriya. "Or some other form of communication, because we don't know the first damn thing about these people!"
"Sabriya," said Horatio. "Just give Dilawar some time."
"He's had an hour!" said Sabriya. "We never should have come here. There were too many unknowns and now…" Sabriya trailed off before the radio cut out.
"It's taken me and Sarah an hour to get the bus half-way towards you guys," said Horatio. "We're jumping at shadows because we're afraid everything could be a Vaquero, and Dil's walking right towards these people's base. He's probably taking a long time because he's being as careful as he can be.
"We haven't heard any gunshots except the ones the sniper calls out to attract the undead, nor has there been an explosion which means he hasn't used that grenade. So what could have possibly happened besides him taking his time and being cautious?"
There was a short silence before the radio clicked again. "The undead could have gotten him," suggested Sabriya, her words strained with guilt.
"He has my coat which is covered in their smell," reminded Eskiya.
"And the undead moving around here are pathetic," added Horatio. "I kind of doubt Dilawar came all this way just to get killed by one of them now."
Clem found herself staring at her left hand after Horatio said that. "It can happen," she said into the radio. "You're tired, or you're bleeding, or both, and you make one mistake and… that's it."
"Exactly," added a distressed Sabriya.
"I don't think that's helping." Horatio's words were clearly directed at Clem, and she felt overwhelmed by guilt. Just replaying the last thing Sabriya said in her head, Clem imagined her crying quietly as she envisioned her brother being eaten alive.
"I suppose… we do need to consider the possibility of Dilawar not returning," admitted Eskiya as Clem looked out the window again. "We—"
"I see something!" Clem shot to her feet as she watched a dark figure moving in the distance.
"What is it?" asked Horatio.
"What do you see?" asked Eskiya immediately after.
"Everyone quiet," ordered Sabriya. "Clem, what do you see? Is it Dil?"
"Give me a minute." Clem took out her binoculars and tried to get a better view of the distant figure, her hands shaking the entire time. She suddenly found the mystery person in her sight. It was a lone Vaquero, and they were carrying a large gas can in each hand.
"It's him!" announced Clem happily.
"Yes, I can see him now," added Sabriya.
"Wait, how do we know it's Dilawar?" asked Eskiya.
"He's carrying gas cans and he's heading right towards us," said Clem.
"Thank God," said Horatio.
"How do we know that's them though?" asked Eskiya.
"Who else could it be?" asked Clem.
"What if they did catch Dilawar?" asked Eskiya. "If they learned about our plan, they could have sent one of their own back with the gas to try and infiltrate us."
"He's got your coat on!" insisted Clem as she studied the Vaquero. "It's got to be him."
"Or someone wearing my coat after they took it from Dilawar," said Eskiya. "Dilawar is supposed to call us on our radio to let us know it's them before they come in. Until then, Clementine should watch this person very carefully, and Sabriya, you should look for any movement nearby, in case this is a trap."
"I…" Sabriya stopped suddenly. "I will. Clem, call out everything this guy is doing."
"Well, he's just walking towards us for now."
A minute ago, Clem was sure this was Dilawar, now she wasn't so certain. This person looked like they were about Dilawar's height and build, but as he pointed out, the Vaquero they captured was roughly the same size as him. She was pretty sure that was Eskiya's coat, but then they picked that one because from a distance it looks like the kind of jackets the Vaquero wear. They had jeans on and Clem tried to identify them as the one Dilawar wore earlier, but she honestly didn't remember what his pants looked like.
"What's he doing?" asked Sabriya.
"He's… looking for something." The Vaquero stopped at the triangular intersection and started slowly examining his surroundings.
"Didn't I tell you three to pick a safe house to meet in?" asked Sabriya.
"We did," reported Eskiya. "Dilawar wouldn't forget that."
"We picked a random house none of us had seen before," argued Clem. "Give him a minute."
The Vaquero finally looked in Clem's direction and started walking again.
"He's coming our way," said Clem with a smile. She watched carefully as the Vaquero approached the garage, then kept walking. "Wait, he's going past us."
"It's not Dilawar," concluded Eskiya.
"Are you hearing anything on their radio?" asked Sabriya as the Vaquero wandered further away.
"No. In fact, they've been very quiet lately."
"I don't like this," said Sabriya.
"Just give him a minute, he—" Clem froze as the Vaquero stopped suddenly. They looked over their shoulder at the house Clem was in. In fact, she was certain they were looking at her through the window. "Shit!" Clem dove onto the floor and out of sight.
"What's going on?" asked Sabriya.
"I think he saw me."
"Dilawar?" asked Sabriya.
"The Vaquero," corrected Eskiya. "They've found us!"
"It's probably just Dil remembering where we were," insisted Clem.
"Then why haven't they signaled us yet?" asked Eskiya. "Why didn't they call us if they forgot which house we're in?"
"We…" Clem froze as she could hear footsteps approaching from outside. "They're coming in," she announced, her voice trembling.
"Come down to the garage, now." Eskiya's order forced Clem into action, she grabbed her mask and went racing down the stairs. She hurried over to where Eskiya was standing by the garage door. He had his hand firmly inside his jacket, ready to strike. Clem put her hand on her pistol and very slowly removed it from the holster.
"Be still," whispered Eskiya as the pair listened to footsteps approaching. They came right up to the garage, then there was a soft thud. Clem wondered what they were waiting for, then there was a loud creaking as the garage door slide upwards. Clem drew her gun and aimed it at the door, and the door stopped moving. The garage had only been opened half way, and Clem found herself staring at the intruder's legs.
"Hey, you guys in there?" Clem breathed a sigh of relief; it was Dilawar.
"Yes, we're here." Eskiya took a step back as the door was pulled open. The Vaquero stood there for a minute before removing his helmet, Clem was never happier to see Dilawar's face.
"You were supposed to call us on the radio first," reminded an annoyed Eskiya.
"I just hiked a mile while carrying ten gallons of gas," griped Dilawar as he picked up the fuel can he set down. "And I got five more trips ahead of me. Give me a fucking break, I'll get it right next time." Dilawar stepped inside and Eskiya quickly closed the garage door.
"How the fuck do these people work in these things?" mumbled Dilawar as he tossed the Vaquero helmet onto a workbench.
"So what happened?" asked Clem. "What took you so long?"
"First, I had to find a spot to cross the main road where they hopefully didn't see me," recalled Dilawar. "Went a block further north and used a couple of abandoned cars for cover. Then after that was a very long walk guess working my way south. They may have cleared out the way into the city from the interstate but it's a fucking mess once you leave the main road, filled with the undead getting stuck on everything chasing after those damn gunshots. That ate up a lot of time…"
"What about the Vaquero themselves?" asked Eskiya as he picked up one of the gas cans. "How did you get this away from them without noticing?"
"I walked up, took them, and then walked away."
"Are you serious?" asked Clem.
"Yeah," said Dilawar with a nod. "It took me a while to work up the nerve once I found the shopping center, but I just walked right in and grabbed a couple of cans from the gas station."
"And no one saw you?"
"The people filling them briefly looked up at me, but that was it."
"You're sure?" asked Eskiya.
"Yeah, they had like a hundred empty cans they were working to fill up, so I don't think they were paying too close attention."
"But there wasn't a guard or anything like that?" asked Clem.
"I briefly looked over at the Wal-Mart they mentioned. The big semi-trailer and the school bus had a few of them standing around it, probably keeping watch."
"How many is a few?" asked Eskiya.
"Two on top of the trailer, one inside the trailer taking things handed up to him by two more guys, and another standing in front of the school bus. Counting the two at the gas station and the guy on top with the rifle, that's nine people right there."
"If there's still two guarding the one inside the mulcher, that makes a dozen that we know of," said Eskiya.
"And there's probably more of them we don't know about," added Clem.
"Hey!" called Sabriya. "What's going on? Eskiya? Clem?"
Dilawar took out his radio and adjusted a knob on it. "It's okay Sab," he said. "Like I was just telling them, it was a long-ass trip there and back. My arms are killing me."
"Oh thank God you're all right," spoke a relieved Sabriya.
"You guys were quiet for so long I was worried the worst had happened," said Horatio.
"We should go," said Sabriya. "This is taking too long and you can't expect to get lucky five more times."
"I'm not depending on luck," answered Dilawar. "I know the route there now and no one batted an eye when I picked up those two cans."
"How would you know? They were all wearing masks!"
"Point is, this is working and listening in on their radio, they're gonna be at this until sundown. We've got a few hours and I can shave off a lot of time now that I know how to get there and back."
"I… I don't like this," said Sabriya.
"Eskiya, have you heard anything at all that suggests they've noticed something's wrong?"
"No, I—" Dil gestured to the radio, and Eskiya picked up his.
"I've been listening to these Vaquero very closely," he explained to Sabriya. "Their tone hasn't changed at all in the last hour. I severely doubt they suspect anything yet."
Everyone listened to Sabriya sigh over the radio. "Then we should hurry."
"I plan to." Dilawar picked up the Vaquero helmet as Eskiya moved his bike up to the garage door.
"I'll take the fuel back to the bus," reported Eskiya into his radio.
"Give us a minute," answered Horatio. "Sarah's clearing out a few of the undead in the area."
"Sarah?" asked Clem. "I thought she was just going to be the lookout?"
"We've had some problems of our own," reported Horatio. "Nothing severe but we've both had to pitch in to sort them out."
"I'll do my best to guide Eskiya back to you," said Sabriya. "I can see most of the road leading back towards where we entered the city from here."
"Here, take this." Eskiya handed Clem a radio with red tape wrapped around it; he insisted on marking it so no one talked into it by mistake. "While I'm gone, you'll need to listen to the Vaquero."
"And I'll be sure to radio you next time I come back," said Dilawar as he opened the garage door.
"As will I when I get back," said Eskiya as he rolled his bike out the door, the fuel cans nestled in the saddlebags they had cobbled together in Ogden.
"I'll be waiting." Clem watched as the two men went off in different directions. Dilawar started running back to the south while Eskiya pedaled to the north. Before long, they were gone, and Clem was all alone. She tried to close the garage door, then groaned as she needed to move a box to stand on to reach it. Clem then walked back upstairs, sat down on the chair and settled in for a lonely wait.
She didn't see anything through the window, and didn't expect to. It was quiet now, with not even so much as the distant sound of the mulcher to fill the silence. While she was waiting, Clem took her time to reexamine the house, hoping to find some food, but there was nothing to eat, not even stale condiments. It had become a disturbingly common trend to find nothing in her searches, but it was a little surprising that even this close to a big city the homes appeared thoroughly picked clean.
Listening in on the Vaquero just made things worse. They started talking about preparing lunch and people were actually calling in their requests. Not all of them were heeded but that they had any choice at all just made Clem bitter with jealousy, as well as hungry. Worse yet, Clem felt useless just sitting around waiting for others. It was different from the time she was injured, here she could be doing something but just wasn't. The longer she waited the more worthless she felt, and it made her wonder if this was another reason why Sarah wanted to come out today in her place.
"Clem, heads up," called Sabriya from the radio. "I see Eskiya heading back your way. He should be there in just a minute."
"All right." Clem went over to the window and waited. Sure enough, Eskiya came charging into view on his bike. He was moving very fast, so fast it worried Clem as she hurried downstairs. She grabbed hold of the garage door handle and yanked on it, and was annoyed the door didn't budge. She struggled with all her might and the door rolled upwards slightly, then no further; it was harder to open than close.
"I'm here," called Eskiya over the radio. "I… do you need help opening the garage?"
Clem groaned loudly before she picked up her radio. "Yes." Clem watched as Eskiya's hands appeared under the door and then the door finally moved.
"Everything okay?" asked Clem as Eskiya rolled his bike into the garage. "You've been gone almost half an hour," noted Clem as she checked her watch.
"It took me a while to find the bus, even with Sabriya's help," said Eskiya as he closed the door. "After I got there, I talked with Horatio for a second, realized it'd be easier to just put the diesel right in the bus, save us the trouble of finding space for fuel cans in the storage bin."
"How is Horatio, and Sarah?" asked Clem.
"Fine, from what I can tell," said Eskiya. "They stopped after they heard I was bringing back the fuel so I wouldn't miss them, plus they keep having to deal with the undead."
"There's still more walkers?"
"Not many. Horatio said every time they were getting ready to leave, another one stumbles in and has to be killed. They acted like it was more of an annoyance than anything. I stayed long enough to double-check the area for them, to make sure it was secure."
"For now." Clem found herself unsettled by that answer.
"Clem, Eskiya, heads up," said Sabriya. "I think Dilawar is coming back."
"That was fast," noted Eskiya.
"You're sure it's Dil?" asked Clem over the radio.
"A lone Vaquero carrying two fuel cans is heading your way," she reported. "You haven't heard anything from the Vaquero over the radio, have you?"
"Guys… I'm back," spoke Dilawar over the radio, sounding out of breath. "Open sesame."
Clem and Eskiya pulled open the garage and Dilawar came in and set two more fuel cans down.
"How'd you get back so fast?" asked Eskiya.
"Ran most of the way there," said Dilawar as he sat down on the box near the door. "Then headed back as fast as I could while carrying forty fucking pounds in each arm." Dilawar took off his helmet; he was sweating heavily
"Clementine, you should go back this time," said Eskiya as he secured one of the fuel cans to her bike. "We can alternate to conserve our strength."
"That must be fucking nice," mumbled Dilawar in between deep breaths.
"Are you gonna be okay?" asked Clem as she approached him. "Maybe you should take a break."
"No way," said Dilawar as he stood up. "The last thing I heard over their radio was they're gonna break for lunch soon. They'll all be distracted eating and that means I can probably move quicker this time without worrying about someone seeing me. They'll just think I'm coming back for a meal."
"Here." Eskiya wheeled Clem's bike up to her. "And I'll need the other radio back."
Clem handed it over before turning back to Dilawar. He looked more tired than he was letting on. He was hunched over and clearly trying to slow his breathing as he rubbed his forehead.
"Someone, report," ordered Sabriya.
"I'm back, but I'm not staying long," explained Dilawar. "Four more trips, and we can get out of here."
"You're sure you want to keep us up?" asked Sabriya.
"We've got twenty gallons now," added Clem.
"Yeah, enough to get us back to Ogden if we're lucky," argued Dilawar before pushing the talk button on his radio. "Sixty is already less than ideal, that's the bare minimum we need."
"All right, I'm gonna change positions then. The cliffs bordering this house should give me a better view of the area," said Sabriya. "Everyone stay sharp."
Clem got on her bike and moved to the edge of the garage. "Hey," said Dilawar as he grabbed Clem's shoulder. "Do me a favor, bring me back something to eat would ya?"
"What do you want?" asked Clem.
"Doesn't matter, I just need some extra calories to keep running this marathon." Dilawar took a deep breath. "And some extra water too."
"Here," said Clem as she handed Dilawar her canteen. "Go ahead and drink it. I'll fill it back up at the bus."
"Fill this one up too if you could." Dilawar handed Clem his own empty canteen. "I'm gonna need it."
Dilawar took a very long swig from Clem's canteen, handed it back to her empty, then put the Vaquero mask back on. He took off running again while Eskiya closed the garage door, and Clem was alone again. She turned her bike north and started pedaling up the road. Not long after that, Sabriya contacted her and gave her directions: go to the second four-way and turn left, go to the end and turn right, then turn left, then left again.
It was a long and convoluted route through unfamiliar territory made longer by how much harder she had to pedal with the gas cans on her bike. It just made Clem think about how much worse it was for Dilawar to carry these things so far on foot. Worse yet was the walkers constantly causing her to grind to a sudden halt. There weren't many of them, they were very slow, and Clem had her coat on, but every time she spotted one she skidded to a sudden stop, fearful it was actually a Vaquero instead.
After far too many false alarms and a few stops to kill lingering walkers if just so she didn't mistake them for living people on the way back, the bus finally came into sight. Pedaling up to it, she saw Horatio standing outside, rapping an aluminum bat on the pavement. Clem stopped to watch as a walker approached him. He cocked the bat back and swung it with such force it knocked the head clean off the walker and sent it flying.
"Hey!" Horatio pivoted on the spot and raised his bat with surprising speed after Clem called to him. He was way too far to ever hit Clem from this distance, but just the gesture was a little intimidating.
"Oh good, you're back," he said as his expression softened. "Over here, we'll just put the diesel right in the tank." Clem pedaled over to the back of the bus; the two empty cans made it easy to see where to stop. Clem got off her bike while Horatio picked up a little nozzle. He unscrewed a cap from one of the gas cans and put the nozzle on in no time, then plugged it into the bus.
"I can take it from here," he assured. "Why don't you go rest for a second in the bus? Sarah will be glad to see you." Just hearing Sarah's name was enough to get Clem moving. She hurried onto the bus, tossing off her mask, backpack, tomahawk and coat as she hurried back to her bed.
"Come on, it's good," said Sarah as she fed Omid a spoonful of tomato soup. The expression on his face made it clear Omid didn't think it was good, but after Sarah held up another spoonful he reluctantly opened his mouth. "There you go, it's not that—Clem!"
"Hey," she said with a big smile as she sat down next to Sarah and immediately nuzzled up to her. "I missed you."
"Me too." Sarah's words were followed by Omid crawling across the bed, eager to be closer to Clem. "So did Omid," said Sarah as Omid hugged Clem.
"Is everything okay here?" asked Clem.
"Mostly," assured Sarah.
"Omid keeps wanting to go back out," explained Sarah. "Every time Horatio and I came back to the bus, he was waiting right at the door."
"Omid." Saying his name made Omid look up at Clem with expectations, and Clem just sighed. "I'll be glad when this is over."
"Me too," said Sarah. "You just got here, so that means… four more?"
"Yeah." Clem sighed as she stood up, much to Omid's protest. "I need to get some water." Clem walked to the end of the bus. They kept a water cooler near the bathroom since the sink didn't work. They'd normally fill it up with boiled water and place it in the bus shortly after waking up. However, this morning's events had disrupted their routine, so the cooler was only half full, and even less than that after Clem filled both her and Dilawar's canteen.
"You're going back already?" asked Sarah as Clem walked by the bed. "You don't want to stop and eat first?"
"Don't have time," said Clem as she shook her head. "That reminds me, I need to bring back something for Dilawar."
"Is he okay?" asked Sarah.
"He's getting hungry from having to run around so much," said Clem as she moved to the front. "We got anything other than tomato soup?"
"Not really, at least not anything better," said Sarah. "That's why I wanted Omid to eat some, I figure he'll have to get used to it for the next few days."
"It'll do." Clem knelt down by a case of tomato soup left near the front of the bus, the only notable stash of food they found in Ogden. "Dilawar said it didn't matter," said Clem as she tossed a can into her backpack.
"If it doesn't matter, I might have one other thing you can take." Sarah came down the aisle and placed a small thin metal container in Clem's hand.
"Roasted eels?" read Clem off the label.
"While we were stuck waiting for lurkers, I checked out a few houses while Horatio guarded the bus, thinking I could get a little food while we're at it."
"And you found this?"
"It was all I found," said Sarah. "Not only that, I had to pull out every drawer in a cupboard to find it. I thought about trying it but… I don't think I'm hungry enough to eat old eels, at least not yet."
"Dilawar might be," said Clem as she tossed it into her pack.
"Maybe after we move the bus again we'll have more luck," said Sarah, not sounding like she believed it. Clem put her coat and backpack on while grabbing her mask and tomahawk. As she stood up, she found Omid pulling on her pant leg.
"I'm sorry Omid, but I have to go," told Clem as Sarah pried him away. Omid mumbled something and for a minute Clem thought he was trying to speak, but he didn't. He just looked up at her in disappointment, and it broke her heart to see him look so sad.
"Go on Clem," said Sarah. "I'll take care of him. Just be careful."
Clem headed out of the bus and found her bike parked by the door. Horatio was luring another walker to its death so Clem didn't stop to say goodbye. She got on her bike and started pedaling back. Recalling the directions in reverse was a bit tricky, and nearing the safe house she heard Dilawar's voice over the radio saying he was back. She also heard something else, the mulcher. It was working again and as she came down the road, it sounded closer than ever before.
Clem skidded her bike to a sudden stop outside the garage and grabbed her radio, but the garage door was pulled open before she could say anything.
"It's about time," said Eskiya as he moved his bike outside. "Listen in on the Vaquero." Before Clem could say anything he thrust a radio into her hands and then took off down the road on his bike.
"Don't worry about it Clem," called Dilawar from inside. "I needed the break anyway." Clem came into the garage and tried to close the door, but Dilawar was sitting on the box she used to reach it.
"I need to borrow that," she said as she pointed at the box.
"Don't worry about it… I got it." Dilawar stood up and grabbed the door's handle, then groaned loudly as he forced it closed. Looking at him in the low light as he sat back down, Clem was worried about how much pain he was in. He wasn't just tired now, something was clearly hurting him.
"What's wrong Dil?" asked Clem. "What happened?"
"Nothing, it's just…" Dill massaged his own hand while stifling another groan. "My fucking arms are killing me."
"Maybe… maybe we should get closer," suggested Clem. "We can go down the street and find another safe house, one closer to them. Horatio and Sarah are probably gonna move the bus soon so…" Clem just noticed Dilawar shaking his head at her. "Why not?"
"Because, they started up that mulcher thing again." After he said that, Clem thought it sounded louder than it did just a second ago. It was like a chorus of chainsaws that occasionally gnawed on something before going back to humming their frightening tune. "At the rate I'm going, they're gonna be a lot closer to here than I would like. No need to make it worse by bringing you and Eskiya closer to them."
"Still, there's gotta be something we can do."
"Well, if you brought me something to eat, that would be super helpful."
"Oh yeah, here." Clem unpacked her bag and passed Dilawar a can of tomato soup and her can opener. As Dilawar was cracking it open, Clem found the other piece of food she brought in her bag. "Here, if you're still hungry."
"Roasted eels?" he read off the label.
"Sarah found it."
Dilawar examined the label more closely. "What the hell, it's only been expired for a couple of years," said Dilawar as he grabbed the can opener. "And hunger is the best spice." Dilawar hurriedly cut open the can and peeled back the metal. Inside were little brown strips of flesh attached to long bones. Dilawar leaned in close and smelled it, then grimaced.
"What's it smell like?" asked Clem.
"Like wet cat food." Dilawar groaned. "Fuck it, beggars can't be choosers." Dilawar pulled a piece of eel out of the can, groaned, then bit into it. He chewed on it for a second, and it didn't entirely look like he wanted to throw up.
"Well?" asked Clem.
"It's not as bad as I would have thought," he said as chewed it. "It mean it's bad but… I've had worse." Dilawar practically wolfed down the eels, even dipping them in his tomato soup as he ate quickly. When Clem passed him his canteen back he must have drunk half of it in a single gulp.
"Seriously," spoke a Vaquero from the radio. "Any news on the cigarettes?"
"For the last time," spoke another. "We'll tell you when we find some. Stop asking!"
"I feel for that guy," mumbled Dilawar between bites.
"Well, I used to be a smoker," said Dilawar he spooned some soup out of the can. "Quitting after high school was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."
"Really?" asked Clem. "You mean, before things changed?"
"Even afterwards, it's pretty high up there. Hell, hearing the guy keep asking for cigarettes makes me wish I had a smoke right now." Dilawar looked over at Clem. "I guess that doesn't make much sense to you."
"No I get it; it helps take the edge off."
Dilawar's eyes widened with surprise when he heard that. "Yeah… how do you know that?"
"I used to have a friend who smoked," explained Clem. "She told me never to try it myself though."
"Listen to her," said Dilawar. "Once you start, that hook digs itself in deep and it never really comes out." Dilawar took a deep breath and only now had Clem realized he'd eaten both the soup and the eels already. "I need to get going. Thanks a lot for the meal Clem, another couple of hours and we can get the hell out of here and not look back." Dilawar picked up his helmet and then grabbed his radio.
"Sabriya, can you see anything?"
"There's a lot of them behind the mulcher right now."
"How many's a lot?"
"Six, working in three groups of two, then two more covering the mulcher's sides," she explained. "It looks like the ones behind it are tossing the buildings for supplies."
"Nobody's ahead of it, right?"
"No, and it hasn't moved much lately. I think they're just leaving it there as a barrier while they search the area."
"I'll be sure to avoid them."
"Dil," said Sabriya. "I don't see anyone at the gas station anymore. I think they're packing up their fuel cans in fact."
"Not a problem," announced Dilawar with a smirk. "When they were all busy with lunch, I went ahead just hid a whole eight cans far away from the shopping center. I still gotta run there and back to get the other six, but I don't even have to go near the gas station anymore."
"You would have a made a good solider, Dil," complimented Sabriya.
"Nah, then I'd need a gun," said Dilawar as he picked up his mask. "I'm switching back to their radio, talk to you in a little bit."
"God willing," said Sabriya.
Dilawar fiddled with his radio's knob, then put the Vaquero mask back on. He gave Clem a nod then headed outside, closing the garage door behind him. With that, Clem was alone again. She returned to her post upstairs and resumed her watch while she listened in on the Vaquero as instructed.
Clem actually found it disheartening as it sounded like they weren't doing much better. She only got snippets over the radio, but the bits she heard painted a stark picture. Despite them tackling an area much thicker with walkers, there were constant gripes about only finding scraps. At one point someone said the only thing worth coming here for was the diesel, which just made Clem nervous what would have happened if Dilawar didn't have the foresight to move the cans they were stealing earlier.
After a while, Clem called Sabriya to ask what she was seeing. She reported they had moved the school bus onto the main road and were carrying supplies over to it. When Clem asked her what kind of supplies, she said occasional armfuls of cans and boxes, but not often. She thought back to the one Vaquero who said they were sure they were going to find something here, and how it was looking increasingly likely he was wrong. If their group couldn't find much food anymore, what chance did Clem's have?
"I'm coming back," reported Eskiya.
"You're not already back?" asked Sabriya. "What took you so long?" Looking at her watch, Clem realized it was already past two o'clock now.
"I decided to stay and help Horatio and Sarah clear out some of the undead after they moved the bus," explained Eskiya. "Along with check out some of the surrounding houses for food."
"Did you find anything?" asked Clem.
"Two cans of corn, and a small bag of rice."
"How many houses did you check?" asked Clem.
"I gave up after eight."
Clem sighed. "I'll meet you by the garage." Clem hurried down the stairs, her footsteps echoing loudly through the emptiness as she did. She pulled the garage up as much as she could and Eskiya opened it the rest of the way. He moved his bike inside and closed the door behind him.
"Here." He handed Clem a can of corn. "I left the other for Horatio and Sarah to split."
"Thanks." Eskiya used the empty tomato can for a bowl and Clem poured half the corn into it. They sat and eat in silence, listening to occasional Vaquero report their findings: two cases of old cola, an unopened package of croutons, three jars of pickled cauliflower, and exactly zero cigarettes. As Eskiya finished eating, he put his can aside and looked over at Clem.
"I'll take over listening to the radio, you can keep watch from upstairs," he instructed.
"All right." Clem was done eating herself, so she gave Eskiya the radio. He took it and Clem headed for the stairs. Moving away, she looked at Eskiya just sitting there by himself and felt a sudden swell of guilt come over her.
"I'm sorry for earlier." Eskiya looked over his shoulder at Clem. "If you died, it would mean something to me."
"Because I'm useful to you," he concluded.
"Not just that," Clem struggled to think of anything else to say; nothing came to mind.
"You don't have to pretend to like me," said Eskiya as he turned away. "In fact, I'd prefer it if you didn't."
Clem wasn't sure what to make of that. Eskiya clearly didn't like people lying to him, even if he wasn't very forthcoming himself, but something about the way he said that made her think it was deeper than that. She swore he sounded sad for a split second, like he was telling her he didn't deserve to be cared about. But now he was silent, and Clem had nothing to do but go upstairs and took her position as watch; it wasn't long before Dilawar returned again.
"Don't have time to stay and chat," said Dilawar as he dropped the fuel cans inside and hastily rubbed his forearms.
"Why, what's wrong?" asked Eskiya.
"Nothing yet, but that mulcher is moving up again," said Dilawar as he massaged his hands. "It doesn't move fast but I got two more trips and… we'll I don't want to cut it any closer."
"Okay, so—Dil!" Dilawar immediately sprinted away before either Eskiya or Clem could say anything. Eskiya just looked at Clem, and all she could do is shrug. Eskiya grabbed Clem's bike from the back of the garage and loaded the fuel cans into it.
"Follow the same route you did last time," instructed Eskiya. "You'll find the bus about half-way there. Can't miss it."
"All right, see you—"
"I just noticed something," announced Sabriya.
Eskiya picked up his radio. "What?"
"That little race car is gone."
"What?" repeated Clem in a less collected tone. "How did you just now notice it's gone?"
"I'm a mile away and constantly watching to see if anyone is eyeing your safe house or if their sniper has noticed us," argued Sabriya. "It could just be somewhere else at the shopping center out of my line of sight, but I know it's not at the edge of the parking lot like it was earlier."
"Shit," swore Clem.
"You're sure you don't see it?" asked Sarah suddenly over the radio.
"Sarah, be ready to move the bus if you hear it coming," instructed Clem.
"I didn't say anything about moving the bus," said Sabriya.
"I didn't either," argued Clem. "I said be ready, it's better if they don't notice us."
"But they've attacked the bus once before," noted Horatio.
"Exactly." Clem put away her radio. She looked up at Eskiya; even he looked concerned.
"Stay alert," he warned.
Clem got on her bike and started pedaling. It was a shorter trip back, both because the area wasn't quite as alien as before and she didn't have as far as to travel. As the bus came into view, she saw Horatio parked on its roof, Sarah's rifle in his hands. Horatio hurried down the ladder as Clem pulled her bike up to the gas tank.
"Where's Sarah?" asked Clem.
"She had to lie down," explained Horatio as he tossed the rifle over his shoulder.
"She just wore herself out and needed a break, so I volunteered to keep watch for a while," explained Horatio as he knelt down to pick up the nozzle for the gas cans.
"Is it okay if I go check on her?" asked Clem.
"Yeah, I'll take care of the diesel," assured Horatio as Clem leaned her bike against the bus. She hurried in through the door, tossing off her gear again. She found Sarah lying on their bed, her arm covering her eyes.
She tried to sit up in a hurry, but struggled. "Clem!"
"Hey," said Clem with a smile. "Where's Omid?"
"Resting under the bed," said Sarah. "Could you check on him real quick?"
"Sure." Clem knelt down and stuck her head under the bed. She saw Omid bundled up in his blanket and leaning in close, she could hear him breathing softly. Elma was gone meaning he probably wrapped her up with him. The pad of paper was sitting there, so Clem took it and stood back up.
"He's just sleeping," said Clem as she sat down.
"That's good," said Sarah. "He started crying after I wouldn't let him go outside. It's so unfair. He's wanted to stay inside all this time and now, when he finally wants to come out, we won't let him."
"Yeah," said Clem as she studied the drawing. It was nothing but big brown circles, but it was clear what it represented. "Take a look at this."
Clem handed Sarah the paper. She studied it for a second, seemingly uninterested, then her eyes widened in surprise. "Wait, did Omid draw this?"
"Yeah," said Clem, unable to stop herself from smiling.
"Oh we gotta keep this," said Sarah as she very carefully tore the page out of the pad. "It's his first drawing."
"Hopefully not his last."
"Clem, can you put it in my bag? It's just next to the bed."
"Sure." Clem took the drawing and knelt down, taking great care to slip it into Sarah's backpack. Standing up, Clem was disturbed by the uneasy look on Sarah's face; she was smiling just a second ago.
"Are you okay?" asked Clem as she sat down.
"I'm just resting. Although I can't fall asleep, not without thinking about that… car being out there."
"It's even worse where I'm at," said Clem. "That stupid mulcher thing is getting so loud I'm not sure if I'd even hear it coming at this point."
"I hate all of this so much," said Sarah. "We should just go already. We've got enough diesel to get some distance."
"Dilawar is still out there," reminded Clem.
"Well when he gets back you should tell him to just go already," insisted Sarah. "He'll have brought us fifty gallons. That isn't great, but it's a big improvement and we just need one gas station that's not empty to make up the extra ten we'd leave behind today."
"I… I'll tell him that," said Clem as she realized Sarah's argument made a lot of sense. "So, Horatio told me that you wore yourself out?"
"Oh that, it's stupid," groaned Sarah. "I was just checking out a house, and… I got dizzy for a minute. It's stupid, it's just because I had my mask on and it was hot and…" Sarah trailed off as she started burying her heard in her pillow. "I'm useless."
"I mean right now, because I'm pregnant." Sarah sighed. "I really didn't want to believe it, that I couldn't do something just because I'm pregnant… but it makes everything so much harder."
"I know how you feel."
"No, you don't, and I hope you never have to."
"I mean about feeling useless," clarified Clem. "Sitting at that house and waiting for Dilawar to come back… it's like torture. That's the other reason you wanted to go out today, isn't it? You're sick of staying here all the time and just worrying about what's happening, right?"
Sarah didn't answer. Clem couldn't even get a good look at Sarah's face right now since she was hiding it with the pillow.
"I… um… oh, you know, what you said just now reminded me of something Christa said once."
"That evening after we left the cabin, she told me she didn't want to think she was 'too pregnant' for this kind of thing. Before we met you, we had been planning to go looking for supplies, and I think it really bothered her how much harder it was than she thought. I think it really bothered her."
Clem watched Sarah carefully. She lay there for a minute, then finally unburied her head from the pillow. "Really?"
"Really," said Clem with a smile.
"Huh, I never would have guessed that," admitted Sarah. "She was like, one of the strongest people I ever met."
"I know," said Clem with a weak smile.
"She… she should be here right now," lamented Sarah.
"I know," sighed Clem. "There are so many things—"
"She only got to spend like an hour with her own her son," continued Sarah. "He's beautiful and she never got to see it."
"It's not fair…" Clem looked over and was shocked to see Sarah crying. Clem moved in to comfort her but she turned onto her side and buried her head in a pillow.
"It's just a little bit longer," assured Clem. "Then we're leaving."
"And then what?" mumbled Sarah.
"I… have no idea," admitted Clem with a tired shrug. She couldn't think of anything to comfort Sarah, or herself, so she just left. Horatio had finished putting the gas in the bus and Clem figured she was due back soon. She biked back through the abandoned suburbs and towards the safe house. All the while she did she heard that horrible mechanical humming get louder with every push of the pedals.
Arriving at the garage, Clem knelt down and pulled on the door. It only came up slightly, and Clem grew very annoyed with it. She grabbed the door from underneath with both hands and gritted her teeth. Pulling as hard as she could, the door began to slide up. As soon as she could duck under it, she pushed up with a mighty heave and sent the door rolling up into the track. Satisfied with her small victory, Clem stepped inside, only to feel a hand clamped over her mouth.
Someone strong pulled her in close while she tried to pull her gun. It was ripped out of her grasp in an instant and Clem felt panic shoot up her spine as struggled in vain to break free.
"Clementine?" Feeling herself freed, Clem spun around to see Eskiya looming over her.
"What the hell?" she asked.
"You just barged in, I thought you were one of the Vaquero," said Eskiya. "You didn't signal me over the radio first."
"I forgot," grumbled Clem in frustration as she rubbed her head. "Why are you down here and not keeping watch from the window while I'm gone?"
"I thought I saw something moving a minute ago and came down here to listen in on the Vaquero's radio out of sight."
"Moving?" repeated Clem. "Where?"
"Just down the road, where Dilawar has been coming from." Clem found herself looking over her shoulder and eying the road after he said that. "Besides, I figure Sabriya would radio me when they saw you coming back."
"She should have." Clem and Eskiya exchanged a look of concern, then Eskiya pulled out his radio.
"Sabriya, are you there?" There was no answer and Clem felt the panic creeping through her nerves. "Sabriya, respond." Clem moved back outside the garage and started looking around, terrified she'd see the racer streaming up the road at them any minute now. "Sabriya, answer me." Clem took a step down the road and swore she could see something moving off on the edge of the horizon.
"What's going on?" asked Horatio over the radio.
"Sabriya's not answering," said Eskiya. "Something's wrong."
"No, I'm okay," answered Sabriya suddenly.
"Where were you?" asked Eskiya. "Why weren't you answering your radio?"
"I thought that guy on the gas station spotted me so I had to move," she explained as Clem took out her binoculars. "I switched over to their radio for a while, to see if they mentioned seeing me. Eskiya, you didn't hear anything about them spotting anyone, did you?"
"No, nothing like that," he answered as Clem trained her binoculars on the horizon.
"It's all this waiting," said Horatio. "It's driving us crazy."
The distant figure came into focus; a tattered flag flapping in the wind. Just another remnant from the people who once lived here.
"What choice do we have," grumbled Clem as she walked past Eskiya into the garage. "We're all on edge." Clem took off her mask and scratched her head. "We're all just waiting for someone to jump out at us."
"I supposed I didn't help with that just now." Looking at Eskiya, she caught the slightest look of regret in his eyes. He handed her pistol back to her, and Clem put it in her holster. "I figured it couldn't be you though since you can't open the garage without help."
Clem groaned as she stared down at her feet.
"I can go upstairs and keep watch this time," suggested Eskiya. "Leave you alone. Would that make you feel better?"
Clem looked out at the buildings around her. "No, but you know what would? There might still be a little food left somewhere around here. You did find some earlier, right?"
"Barely," said Eskiya.
"But you did," said Clem. "It's better than nothing."
"So you want to look for food while I keep watch for Dilawar?"
"Actually, I'd rather keep watch while you look."
"Really?" asked Eskiya. "I thought you were tired of waiting around?"
"I am, but I don't want to risk missing Dilawar when he gets back," asserted Clem.
"Why not?" asked Eskiya.
"I've got something to tell him."
"Just that we need to leave already, and not risk getting those last two cans." Eskiya stared at her in response. "You don't agree?"
"Actually, I think that might be for the best," he said.
"But you'd rather talk to him?"
"Yes," he said. "But, Dilawar would probably listen to you more than me."
"Don't act so surprised." Eskiya looked out at the surrounding area. He retrieved his bike and handed Clem the extra radio. "I'll be nearby." Eskiya then reached up to close the garage door.
"Don't," said Clem. "Leave it open."
"I don't think that's wise."
"I'll keep watch from down here," insisted Clem as she stared off down the road. Eskiya let go of the garage door and headed out. He told Sabriya he was going to scavenge for food in the surrounding area and she instructed him to only look north of the safe house. The mulcher was just a block away now, and it was obvious.
Clem prepared herself for a hasty exit, moving both the remaining bikes outside of the garage, then hung her mask on her bike's handlebars. She didn't want anything obstructing her vision as she kept watch for Dilawar, or threats. Sarah was right and Eskiya agreed, it was time to go and Clem wouldn't take no for an answer when Dilawar got back, assuming he came back at all.
Sitting there, watching the sun wane in the distance and the clear blue sky turn orange, Clem grew increasingly nervous. They were so close to escaping, yet still there was no end in sight. She hung off every word of every Vaquero's broadcast, not wanting to miss any subtle clues to what's happening. The Vaquero she heard all sound agitated and tired, but not frightened or suspicious; this day was getting to them as well it would seem.
Occasionally she'd hear the others on the other radio. Sabriya reported the Vaquero's school bus was returning to the shopping center; still no signs of the racer. Eskiya said he wasn't having any luck in the nearby houses, neither was Horatio back near the bus. Clem kept scanning the neighborhood, carefully studying every window, every abandoned car and every tree in case someone else was out there watching her. If they were, she hadn't found them yet.
The worst part was the mulcher. She couldn't see it from where she was sitting, but the noise made it clear it was just across the street now. That horrible mechanical chewing sound, like some monster who was hungry but could never be satisfied. She envisioned the Vaquero like a swarm of locust descending upon what remained of the world, gobbling up what little there was left and chewing up anyone that got in their way. Then she saw one of them coming up the road.
"I see Dil!" announced Clem as she shot up suddenly. He was barely visible in the distance, even with Clem's binoculars, but the big red dots by his side made it clear it was him.
"Yes, I see him now too," said Sabriya.
"I'll start heading back," reported Eskiya. "I just need to finish with this house first. I managed to find a few things buried in its pantry."
"Like what?" asked Horatio.
"Some old canned goods and a bottle of alcohol."
"What type?" asked Horatio.
"I don't really know," said Eskiya. "The label says cinnamon schnapps."
"That sounds good," commented Clem, eager to celebrate.
"There might be a little more buried here," said Eskiya. "I'll be quick."
"You've got some time," said Sabriya. "Dil is moving pretty slowly."
"Why?" asked Clem. "He's not hurt, is he?"
"I can't rightly tell from this far away," said Sabriya. "But if I had to guess, I'd say he's really tired."
Looking at Dilawar through her binoculars, it was clear that tired was a gross understatement. He was barely shuffling at this point, the cans in his arms swaying back and forth wildly as he moved. Even with a mask on, it was clear he was suffering. He stumbled into the intersection and reached for his radio, fiddling with it for a minute and raising it, only to notice Clem was waving at him. As he put his radio down, Clem darted out of the garage.
"What the hell are you doing?" whispered Dilawar as Clem grabbed one of the cans.
"Speeding things up," she said as she hefted it off the ground. It was heavier than she thought, and Clem was even more impressed Dilawar had been carrying two of these things all day long. "Come on, quickly." The pair hurried over to the garage where they dropped the cans.
"Finally," groaned Dilawar as he sat down on the box. He took off his mask and started gasping for air. Sweat was beading down his face while his hands were noticeably shaking. "Sorry it took so long. Had to be careful when I crossed over the main road now that the mulcher is so far along," explained Dilawar before taking a deep breath.
"You know, I don't think these guys know about the smell," said Dilawar. "I watched one of them take out a few undead while I was looking for my moment, and it looks like they came right up to them."
"Really?" asked Clem. "They're taking on this many walkers without knowing about the smell?"
"I didn't get close enough to see if they had anything smeared on their clothes, but it looks like it." Dilawar looked around. "Where's Eskiya?"
"Looking for extra food. He's on his way back though."
"All right, that's fine," said Dilawar as he wiped his face, his hand trembling as he did. "It'll give me an extra minute to catch my breath. Then I can head back for the final trip."
"No, Dilawar, let's just go." Dilawar looked over at Clem suddenly. "You're exhausted and—"
"Look, I know what this looks like, but I also know what I'm capable of," assured Dilawar. "I've had to work longer days before things changed for the worse and I know I got enough in me to make this last trip."
"It's not just that," said Clem. "The mulcher—"
"They were just bringing up the school bus again," argued Dilawar. "They'll be tossing the buildings behind the mulcher for probably an hour, but not in front of it, which is where we are."
"But you'll have to go all the way back again," argued Clem. "And carrying the gas will slow you down even more."
"It's not far," assured Dilawar. "It took me a little longer to get back because I moved all four cans up several blocks to get a jump on this. This will only take a fraction of the amount of time, ten minutes tops, even with me being worn out."
"It's not worth it," stated Clem. "And if we ask the others—"
"Don't even think about that," said Dilawar as he stood up suddenly and put the Vaquero mask back on. "The last thing I feel like doing right now is arguing with everyone else about this."
"Well too bad," retorted Clem. "Because Sarah told me to tell you that fifty gallons isn't great, but we just need one gas station to make up the extra ten we'd leave to behind," asserted Clem as she put herself in front of Dilawar as he tried to leave the garage. "The Vaquero are just down the road now and we're all on edge and tired."
"We could barely scrape together ten gallons in Ogden and we'll be a lot more tired if we have to bike across a damn desert because we ran out of gas," argued Dilawar as he moved past Clem. "Those last ten gallons of gas could be the difference between life and death."
"Everything these days can be the difference between life and death!" yelled Clem as she grabbed his wrist with both hands. "But you've done enough to give us another day alive together, so take it!" Dilawar stopped resisting Clem and looked at her. "We might not get that chance tomorrow... or even today if you go back there."
Dilawar just stood there for a second, staring at Clem; she wish she could see his face right now. "You're right."
"Yeah, fuck it, I wanna go home," professed Dilawar as Clem let go of him. He picked up his radio. "Let me just—"
"Dil, where are you?" asked Sabriya before Dilawar could press the talk button.
"By the garage with Clem, we're about to head back. I don't want to risk the sixth trip," he said. "Why do you ask?"
"Then that's not you."
"Wait," said Clem. "Who—"
"A Vaquero is coming up the road."
"Shit," swore Dilawar as panic shot through Clem's body like a bolt of lightning.
"I can have the bus there in just a few minutes," announced Horatio.
"I'm close," said Eskiya. "I'll be right there."
"I've got a shot, but not for long," added Sabriya.
"Sab, how far this guy?" asked Dilawar.
"Less than a block from where you're standing," she announced. "He's running your way."
"Fuck!" swore Dilawar.
"I'm taking the shot."
"No, there's a bunch of them just down the road, they'll hear the rifle, even over the mulcher!" insisted Dilawar as he hastily pushed his bike away from the garage, causing it to flop onto the front yard. "I've got an idea," he announced as he pushed Clem's bike into the yard next. "I'll try to get rid of the Vaquero. Eskiya, stay away; Clem, hide; everyone else stay off the damn radio."
Clem sprinted back into the garage and hastily looked for an escape route. She was going to head up the stairs but she could hear the Vaquero's rapidly approaching footsteps just outside. Fearful the squeaky wooden stairs would give her away, Clem hastily slipped under them instead. Pawing at the junk piled up around her, Clem found something fabric in her grip and ended up pulling a moldy quilt over herself. She put her hand on her gun and tried to lay as still as she could as she heard the Vaquero ran up to the garage.
Listening closely, Clem expected a fight to break out any second, or worse, a shooting. Slowly moving her hands to shut off the spare radio, Clem noticed the quilt was sheer enough she could almost see through it. Pulling it as close to her face as she could while turning her head slightly, Clem could make out Dilawar standing next to a lone Vaquero, although she wasn't immediately sure which one was which. Watching one of them examine the gas cans lying on the pavement, she figured that one wasn't Dilawar.
"What the fuck are you doing out here man?"
"I could ask you the same thing." Dilawar was pitching his voice a little deeper than he normally talked, but Clem wasn't sure why.
"Don't smartass me," refuted the lone Vaquero, sounding incredibly annoyed. It was just now Clem noticed he was holding a pistol in his hand. "I saw you with the gas cans, then next thing I hear the shredder still doesn't have any gas and realized you were going the wrong way. What the hell are you doing up here?"
"Jesus, relax." Clem was shocked at how calm Dilawar sounded right now. "I was just getting a jump on tomorrow."
"What does that mean?"
"I was getting sick of running diesel out to shredder so often, so I brought some cans out to a safe spot further up the road. That way we got a little stash nearby for when we get started tomorrow morning. I mean, we're obviously not getting a lot further today." Dilawar wasn't just pitching his voice, he was putting on an accent as well. The more Clem listened to him talk, the more she thought he sounded familiar somehow.
"The fuck are you talking about?" questioned the Vaquero, sounding baffled. "You're running around on your own out here where you can eaten just to… save time tomorrow morning?"
"I'm not stupid, I scouted this road out first before I came here to be sure it was safe," said Dilawar. "Then I brought up a couple of cans of diesel."
"Why though? We need them at the shredder now," said the Vaquero, sounding agitated.
"I thought someone else already topped it off."
"And you didn't think to check?" asked the Vaquero. "You just… ran off with two cans of diesel because of this… weird idea?"
"I told Jim about it," shrugged Dilawar. "He told me it was okay as long as I was careful."
"When did this happen?"
The Vaquero stood there for a second, then he raised his gun. "What are you really doing out here?"
"All right, you want to know the truth?" asked Dilawar with a sigh. "I was really hoping to find some fucking cigarettes, and this was an excuse to get away from the others long enough to look for them, at least for a little while."
"Oh my God… really Joe?" The Vaquero immediately lowered his gun. "You out here risking getting killed because you're a fucking addict?"
"Fuck you." Clem suddenly realized who's voice Dilawar was imitating; it was the one Vaquero who kept asking for cigarettes over the radio. "You have no idea what this feels like."
"Yeah, lucky me."
The Vaquero looked down at the gas cans. "So did Jim really want you to bring these out?"
"Yeah... but I think he only said yes because he was sick of me asking about cigarettes."
"Joe, we're all sick of it."
"Doesn't mean you gotta point a gun at me."
"You were acting squirrelly than usual and then you run out here and for a minute, I don't know…" The Vaquero shrugged as he holstered his pistol. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm on edge today."
"You know what would help with that?" asked Dilawar. "A cigarette."
"Jesus dude, you got a one-track mind." The Vaquero took a breath as turned around. "Just… get back before sundown. I don't want to have explain why you…" The Vaquero stopped as he left the garage.
"I'll be back in a minute," promised Dilawar. "Just let me toss this house real quick. I got a good feeling about this one."
Clem tensed up as the Vaquero just stood there quietly. It was like he shut down all of a sudden. His head was turned slightly to the right, but with the mask on she had no idea what if anything he may have been looking at.
"It'll take me like two minutes," pleaded Dilawar. "I know where I'd stash my smokes if I lived here."
The Vaquero turned to look at Dilawar suddenly and Clem found herself pulling her gun in response.
"You're not Joe."
Clem leapt out from under her quilt and drew her gun before the Vaquero could even unholster his. She lined up a shot and squeezed the trigger, just as Dilawar darted in front of her.
"No!" A gunshot sounded as Dilawar lurched forward suddenly. The Vaquero tried to aim his gun, then Eskiya appeared from nowhere and grappled him. Dilawar just stood there as Eskiya wrested the pistol out of the Vaquero's hand in an instant, kicked his shin and forced the man to his knees while wrapping his other arm around the Vaquero's throat. He looked up suddenly, a cold fury in his eyes as he glared at Dilawar, who Clem was relieved to see was still standing.
"Dilawar?" barked Eskiya. "Is that you?"
"Yeah," he confirmed. "Thanks—"
Eskiya slashed a knife across the Vaquero's throat in a single quick motion, then shoved the man forward onto the pavement. "Leave them to bleed out." The Vaquero made a horrible gargling noise as he pulled a radio from his belt, but Eskiya easily plucked it from his grasp. "They'll turn and create more confusion for the others, hopefully buy us some time to get out of here."
Before either of them could say anything, Eskiya grabbed the fuel cans and left the garage. Dilawar and Clem turned to each other; he had the grenade in his hand with his finger in the pin. They put their weapons away and grabbed their bikes, Clem scooping up her mask off the grass as she did. Turning around, Clem saw the dying Vaquero. He had one hand around his throat while trying to crawl across the pavement with the other, a trail of blood forming behind him as his knees shuffled across the pavement. Before she could watch any longer, a strong hand pulled on Clem's wrist.
"Sabriya, it's time to go," said Eskiya as he dragged Clementine towards the road.
"What happened?" she asked as Clem hastily slipped her mask back on.
"A Vaquero followed Dilawar. I got them before they could call anyone, but there could be more on their way right now."
Clem grabbed the spare radio and switched it back on, fearful she'd immediately be greeted with a chorus of Vaquero asking about a stray gunshot.
"God dammit. Is Dil all right?"
"I'm okay," he said, his voice trembling. "Sab, do you see any more of them coming?"
"I… no, I don't see anyone else, at least on the road you're on," she reported with more than a hint of panic.
"Good, let's get the hell out of here."
"Horatio, ready the bus," ordered Sabriya. "Everyone else, move!"
Eskiya didn't wait for Sabriya to finish talking, he immediately took off on his bike and Clem and Dilawar followed after him. While they pedaled forward, dusk began to settle over the land, with shadows spreading out in front of them, chasing them almost. Clem could still hear the Vaquero on the other radio, and she was terrified any minute now they'd announce one of them was missing or that several cans of gas were gone, but they didn't.
Nobody mentioned a stray gunshot, meaning they probably didn't hear her pistol over their mulcher, despite Dilawar's protest. There was no roll call or anything else that suggested they knew someone was missing. There was nothing but the usual chatter, and someone asking for cigarettes, which Clem guessed was Joe. They had seemingly gotten away with stealing from the Vaquero, and yet all Clem could think about was the man crawling through a puddle of his own blood.
Even though it was their enemy, that image haunted Clem as she tried to pedal harder, desperate to get away. It festered in her mind as she envisioned the Vaquero doing the same to her. She expected to see that race car charging at them any moment now. Instead, she saw the bus rushing up to meet her. The trio wasted no time, skidding to a stop at the end of the bus while Sabriya came clambering down the ladder, apparently having beaten them back.
"Jesus, you're still wearing that damn thing?" asked Sabriya as she rushed up to Dilawar.
"Bad habit..." gasped Dilawar as he took off the Vaquero helmet and the pair just stared at each other awkwardly for a second, then Sabriya moved in and hugged Dilawar.
"Thank God you're all right," she professed.
"I'll feel better when we're back on the road," announced Clem.
"We all would." Eskiya finished putting the last bike on the rack and headed for the front. "Let's go, while we still can."
Everyone followed him inside as he carried the gas cans onto the bus. Horatio was seated in the driver's seat with Sarah sitting in the chair just behind him.
"Sarah." Sarah leapt out of her seat and the pair hugged as Eskiya pulled the door closed.
"Horatio, drive," ordered Sabriya.
"On it." The engine roared to life and the bus started moving forward.
"We'll drive back to Ogden first," explained Dilawar as he immediately sat down behind the driver's seat. "We'll put the rest of the fuel in when we get there, then keep driving west all night until we find a gas station to stop at or the damn Nevada border."
"I'll keep watch from the back window, in case they followed us," said Sabriya as she charged down the aisle, her rifle tightly clutched in her hands.
"Follow us?" Sarah asked Clem.
"I don't think they know we were there," said Clem. "But…"
"All right," spoke a voice from the radio. "One last volley of shots to bring in some more dead, then after that we call it day." As soon as Clem had taken the spare radio off her belt, Sarah had wrapped her fingers around it.
"I'll listen in on them," asserted Sarah with as much confidence as she could muster. "That's one thing I can do." Sarah marched back towards their bed before Clem could say anything. Standing there, still shaking from what happened, Clem took off her gear piece by piece. She piled it up neatly by the door, ready to be taken at a moment's notice. Laying her mask on top of her pack, she was going to join Sarah when she got a good look at Dilawar.
He looked utterly miserable, his face and shirt drenched with sweat as he kept gasping for air even now. He was meekly rubbing his own arms as if he didn't have any feeling in them, all the while his hands were visibly shaking. Walking up to him, Clem couldn't turn away as he struggled to get his breathing under control, feeling obligated to stay with him until he felt better.
"It's… it's been a while… since my exam," he said as he looked at her. Clem didn't know what he meant by that, but she responded by putting a hand on his shoulder. "It was a good thing… you talked me out of… going back again. I clearly wasn't up for it… even if that guy wasn't following me."
"I'm just glad we're all still here," she professed as he breathing finally settled. She smiled at him, but he didn't smile back. In fact, Dilawar suddenly looked very upset. "What's wrong? Are you okay?"
"I just watched someone get their throat slit for a measly ten gallons of gas," mumbled Dilawar as he stared at the floor. "Okay isn't the word I would use."
"They've tried to kill us for nothing," reminded Clem.
"Yeah, I'm aware of that." Dilawar sighed deeply. "It's just… it was weird, walking by them so many times I almost forgot they were our enemy. With the mask on, they just act… normal around each other."
"Only because you had that mask on. Even then, you had trick that one who followed you." Clem noticed the sullen look creeping over Dilawar's face. "You were amazing Dil. Your plan worked, and pretending to be the guy looking for the cigarettes was so smart. I don't even know how you thought to try that with everything that was happening."
"I was in drama club in high school," mumbled Dilawar with shrug. "Who thought two years of improv would almost save my life. Maybe if I was a better actor, Eskiya wouldn't have had to kill that guy…"
Clem took a deep breath. "It could have been a lot worse."
Dil gave Clem a concerned look. "You say that like you know from experience," noted Dilawar. "That's a distressing thing to hear from a... what are you, twelve?"
"I know," said Clem. "I'm just glad we're all still alive. I really wasn't expecting that."
"Me neither," admitted Dilawar. "I thought that guy had me for sure."
"I was about to shoot him."
"Yeah, I heard a gunshot. Did you miss?"
"I had him in my sights, but then you moved and… I almost killed you." Clem had forgotten that until just now, and the terror of seeing Dilawar lurch forward and assume it was because she just shot him in the back came rushing back into her mind. Looking at Dilawar, she found her eyes tracing their way back to where the gun had been aiming, and she made a disturbing discovery.
"What?" asked Dilawar, clearly aware of the fear in Clem's eyes as she reached out. She pulled on the edge of his coat, revealing a small almost perfectly shaped hole. Dilawar's eyes went wide with shock upon seeing that. He pulled at the fabric only to discover a second hole on the back of the coat right behind it. Dilawar started feeling his side and Clem was expecting to see a bloody mark on his shirt any second now.
"Holy shit," he said in disbelief as he pawed at his own side. There was no blood, or any indication the bullet hit Dilawar himself. "It… it must have gone through the edge of the coat while I was moving, like it flapped a little bit and…" Dilawar trailed off as his eyes went wide with shock. "If I had moved a split-second faster, it would have gone through me instead."
"I am so sorry," professed Clem as a look of utter dismay formed on Dilawar's tired face. "It… it all just happened so fast. That guy was about to shoot you and I had to stop him and…" Clem trailed off as Dilawar just stared off into space, bewildered by what had happened. "I'm so sorry. It won't ever happen again, I promise."
"You can't promise something like that," answered Dilawar in a quiet voice. "None of us can."
"Is… this is why you don't carry a gun, isn't it?"
Dilawar didn't answer her right away. "It could have been much worse." Clem lowered her head in shame upon hearing her own words repeated to her. "Look, just… don't worry about it. We'll keep this between you and me," insisted Dilawar as he put his hand on Clem's shoulder. "I'm okay."
"You almost weren't, because of me."
"I just spent all day worrying about masked freaks finding me out and gutting me. I'm not gonna hold a grudge against the person who talked me out of walking into certain death." His tone made it clear he wasn't angry at Clem, yet she couldn't help feeling like he should be. "Just go rest, it's been a long day for all of us."
"All right." Clem shuffled off silently, guilt making her every step feel heavy as headed down the aisle. She noticed Eskiya was sitting on his bed, cleaning the blood off his knife with a rag.
"Are… are you okay?" asked Clem, more out of obligation than anything. Eskiya looked up at her, wearing the same vacant expression he usually had.
"I'm fine." The disturbing part was he sounded like he meant it. "Are you okay?"
"Okay isn't the word I would use."
"Why not? Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm not hurt."
"Then what's the problem?" asked Eskiya, sounding genuinely confused. "We got almost all the gas we needed, there's one less Vaquero out there to attack us, and now we have an extra pistol." Eskiya held up the gun he had taken off the Vaquero he killed and popped open its chambers. "This was a success."
Clem didn't answer him, she just turned away and kept walking. She hadn't moved more than a few steps when Clem was suddenly overcome with a strange urge. She removed her gun from its holster and stared at it. She hastily ejected the magazine, then cycled it to remove the last bullet in the chamber. Even after pocketing the bullets, she didn't like the sight of her own pistol and hastily put it back in its holster.
Looking up, she could see Sabriya at the very back by the bathroom, peering out the window next to it. She'd probably be there for at least the next hour, so there was little use in talking to her right now. Finally, Clem came to her own bed, where Sarah was sitting anxiously. She was staring at the radio, almost like she was expecting it to speak directly to her instead of relaying someone else's voice.
"Hey Clem," said Sarah as Clem sat down. "Are—"
"Don't ask if I'm okay."
"All right… I won't." Sarah looked away awkwardly and turned her attention back to the radio.
"They… they say anything?" asked Clem.
"Not much," said Sarah. "One of them was asking about dinner, and they started talking about different canned stews and… now I'm hungry."
"Me too," said Clem. "Did… did they say anything about that race car… thing?"
"I think they did actually," said Sarah. "A minute ago, someone said the 'speedster' is back."
"Back?" said Clem. "That means, we won't run into it."
"I hope not." Sarah leaned forward after she said that and eyed the front of the bus, as if she was expecting the speedster to arrive suddenly just to spite her; Clem wouldn't be surprised if it did.
"Wait, I think they're saying something."
Clem edged in close and listened carefully. "The beef stews are too heavy, they give me a stomach…" The words faded in and out. "You just… easy… and…" The words were enveloped by static, then the static faded to nothing. There was only silence from the radio now.
"I guess we're out of range now," said Sarah as she set the radio aside and looked over at Clem. "So, now what?"
"I guess we... hope we find somewhere to get food or gas on the way to Nevada."
"That sounds…" Sarah trailed off as a look of defeat fell over her face. Eskiya was right, this was a success, yet it didn't feel like one. They had risked their lives just to hope beyond reason they would find something in Nevada that could sustain them. Looking around, Clem tried to think of anything that would cheer her up, and then she spotted the blank pad of paper sitting on the bed.
"Wait here." Clem knelt down and peeled back the curtain running around the bottom of the bed. Omid was just curled up in his blanket, like he usually was.
"Come here Omid," said Clem as she grabbed the blanket and pulled Omid closer. He started fidgeting as she moved him, whimpering loudly. "It's okay, it's okay. I just want to show you something." Clem carefully hoisted Omid onto the bed and set him by Sarah. "Hold him still for a second."
"Why, what are you doing?" asked Sarah as Omid tried to pull free from Sarah's grip.
"Giving him something to look forward to." Clem knelt down and grabbed the tub of crayons. She picked up the pad of paper and held it out in a way Omid could see it.
"You like sand right?" asked Clem as she took a tan crayon from the tub. "Well, where we're going there's a lot of sand." Omid kept fidgeting and whimpering, until he saw Clem draw a straight line on the paper. "Lots and lots of sand, since it's a desert." Clem colored in the lower half of the page, and not long after she finished Omid reached out and touched it.
"We're not there yet," said Clem with a chuckle as she grabbed a brown crayon. "But once we are, you can play in the sand again," said Clem as she drew a tiny stick figure on the pad. "You, me, and Sarah," said Clem as she drew two more figures. "And then…" Clem's mind became blank as she tried to think of something else to draw; what would they find in Nevada?