Page 24

We heard a whimper from the corner, and Skeeter immediately trained his shotgun in that direction. I grabbed the barrel and slowly pushed it down, seeing a little boy, alone and huddled into a ball.

Skeeter lowered his weapon. “Hey there, little man.”

Gary let out a breath, glancing at Eric while he covered Annabelle’s face and chest with the only thing he could find: a small rug. “That’s Craig and Amy Nicholson’s boy.”

Skeeter kneeled down, put his gun on the floor behind him, and held out his arms. “I went to school with Amy. You must be Connor. C’mere, buddy. I know you’re scared, but you’re safe here.”

Connor shook his head quickly. He held his knees against his chest, and his chin was resting on his knees as he rocked back and forth.

“Is Annabelle his aunt?” I asked.

Skeeter shook his head. “Annabelle’s the first grade teacher at the elementary school.”

“She saved me,” Connor whispered, “from my mom.” His breath caught, and then he let out a sob.

Skeeter scooped him up into his arms. “Sssh, buddy. You’re safe now. You’re safe, I promise.”

Skeeter walked to the window, opened it further, and then stepped out onto the roof. I followed him. From what I could see, the entire church was surrounded.

“A lot of them followed us here,” Connor said.

Skeeter nodded, noticing the drag marks along the roof and the windowsill, and the trail of blood on the sidewalk leading up to the church. “Annabelle bled out. We’ll probably have them coming from all over town.”

“At least we know they can’t climb,” I said, pointing to the group lifting their arms and scratching at the church’s outside walls.

Connor sniffed. “Annabelle was already on the roof. She saw me running and climbed back down.”

Skeeter gave Connor a squeeze. “She was a sweet lady.”

Connor peaked over Skeeter’s shoulder at the rug covering Annabelle, and then shut his eyes tight.

“We can’t stay here,” I said.

“We can’t leave. Give it a couple of days, Nate. They’ll move on.”

“What if they don’t? We’ll be trapped here.”

Skeeter sighed, pulling the toothpick out of his mouth with his free hand and throwing it down to the growing crowd of undead below. “I can’t move Jill.”

My eyebrows pushed together. “What if she gets worse? What if she turns into one of those things?”

Skeeter looked down, and then back at me, resolute. “You should go. Get Zoe some place safe. She shouldn’t be here when Jill . . . but, I can’t leave, brother. I wouldn’t have anything to live for, anyway.”

My stomach dropped, and goose bumps formed on my arms. Skeeter was going to die in this church, with his wife.

“I’ve gotta get Zoe out of here.”

“I know.”

Skeeter crawled back inside carefully with Connor still in his arms. He walked past Eric and Gary, but stopped in the doorway. “Board up the door.”

“But,” Eric said, pointing to the sheet, “they can’t climb, and Annabelle’s dead.”

“In case she comes back as one of them,” I said, nodding to the window.

Gary frowned. “Maybe we should roll her off the roof. She’ll start stinkin’ before long.”

“No!” Connor cried.

Skeeter patted his back. “The smell might help cover ours. Leave her be. Board the door.”

Gary and Eric nodded, and Skeeter and I walked back downstairs to the kitchen, joining Bob and Evan, Reverend Mathis, and Doris. They had made Jill a pallet on the floor with a rolled-up dish towel for a pillow.

“Oh my Lord in Heaven! Connor Nicholson! Are you all right, sweetheart?” Doris said, taking him from Skeeter.

Connor hugged Doris tight, wildly sobbing all over again. They obviously knew each other, but I wasn’t sure how.

Doris blanched, looking up at Skeeter. “Where is Amy?”

“She’s outside. Annabelle Stephens helped him up to the roof.”

“Well . . . ?” she said, looking past Skeeter. “Where is she?”

Skeeter shook his head. “Upstairs. She didn’t make it.”

About that time the hammering began. Doris held Connor while he cried. Reverend Mathis went to the sanctuary to check on Barb and Ms. Kay, and Skeeter sat on the floor next to his wife. Jill was unconscious, her bloodshot eyes barely visible between the two thin slits of her eyelids. She was nearly panting, and a thin sheen of sweat covered her paling skin.

Zoe was standing in the doorway, her eyes fixed on her aunt Jill. I kneeled beside my daughter and pulled her against my side. There wasn’t really anything I could say; no point in asking if she was all right. None of us were.

Skeeter kneeled down to speak soft, comforting words to Jill. Unable to watch, I walked into the sanctuary. Broken glass lined the carpet next to all three walls. The townspeople of Fairview were clawing and batting at the boards Eric and Gary had nailed across the windows. The boards wouldn’t last forever, just like the small amounts of food Skeeter and a few others had thought to bring along with them.

Reverend Mathis was praying with Barb and Ms. Kay, but paused to watch me approach the windows. I peeked through, trying to gauge how far my car was from the church. I didn’t see any of the sick around Skeeter’s house, or even between there and the church, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any. Still, the hardest part would be walking out the door.

I walked into the kitchen, pulling my car keys from my pocket. “I’m going to make a run for it with Zoe. I have a car down the block. We’ve got two, maybe three empty seats, but we’re going to need a diversion to get outside.”

“But I don’t wanna leave Aunt Jill, Daddy,” Zoe said.

Doris shook her head. “I’m not going out there.”

Bob frowned. “Why don’t you just stay here? It’s as safe as anywhere.”

I covered Zoe’s ears and spoke softly. “Because Annabelle left a trail of blood leading to the church, and it’s smeared on the west wall. Skeeter and I were just on the roof. The church is surrounded, and more are coming. Who knows when they’ll go away, or if they ever will?”

Skeeter nodded. “You’ll need a gun. Something light but with a lot of stopping power. Grab the AR out of my bag there. The two twenty-three. Don’t forget the clips. I’ll cover you.”