“Whole world is full of the dead. Nobody, living or dead, ain’t getting no peace,” Rune answered.

A boy in his teens entered the dining room, closely followed by a big German Shepherd. Something about the boy made Rune take notice and he felt a strong premonition hit him. “That boy is special. Real special.

“You’re weirding me out again,” Dale grinned. He folded his big arms over his wide chest. “All creepy and mysterious. That’s Rune.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t have the name Rune for nothing,” Maddie said, laying her delicate hand on Rune’s arm. A huge moonstone glimmered on her finger and Rune covered it gently with his hand. He could feel the energy in it and he smiled.

“My mama nicknamed me that when she found me making my own set when I was three. Got a bunch of rocks from the backyard and was trying to draw on them with a marker. We got old Nordic blood in our veins.”

Rune looked around the dining room again, feeling the energy of the living filling it and pushing away the presence of the dead. It felt fantastic.

Maddie peered up at him. “Stay until you need to go, Rune. Everyone deserves a little rest.”

Rune nodded and looked at Dale. “Maybe we can rustle up a bike for you somewhere and get you back to riding.”

“You have no idea how happy that would make me, dude.”

A young, black woman and young man with his hair tipped with gold walked by, both clutching trays heaped with steaming food. The young man gave Dale a flirtatious smile and slightly waved with his fingers. Dale waved back.

“That boy is so sweet on you,” Maddie teased.

“Yeah, but I’m sweet on her.” Dale pointed across the room at a grumpy looking woman.

Rune shrugged. “She ain’t much to look at but she’s got that vibe.”

“Oh, yeah. She does. That hellcat vibe.” Dale grinned even more.

An older, black gentleman stepped into the center of the dining room and loudly cleared his throat. “Before we start tonight’s dinner, I would like to say grace and thank God for the blessings we have received. We have new people among us and a bounty of new supplies in our storeroom. I would also like to commend the soul of our brother, Bob, into the hands of God.

He lost his life yesterday and was laid to rest today with the others who died trying to make it to the fort. Let us thank God for our lives and our safe home.”

There was a round of amens, and then the Reverend pitched into a prayer that boomed through the room. Rune lowered his gaze, staring at the tips of his motorcycle boots. They were pretty battered and probably needed new soles. He listened to the prayer in silence, taking peeks around the room as it continued. He saw the pretty woman that had hitched a ride with him hugging the tall teenage boy as the German Shepherd leaned against her legs. Behind her, the tall Mexican in the cowboy hat had his eyes closed, his arm around an older Hispanic woman. The leader of the fort and his pregnant wife were last in line. They were hugging each other, her head on his chest, and they looked so happy it made Rune’s heart twist in his chest.

The community around him felt unified and strong. He yearned to be a part of it. But he knew it would only last so long before he would have to move on. It was moments like these that reminded him that he was not a lone survivor and that there was a bit of hope left in the world.

“Amen!” the voices chorused around him, then someone shouted, “Let’s tear this chili up!”

Laughter filled the room and Rune slightly smiled. Maybe staying around a bit longer would be a good thing.

Travis yawned as he joined the rest of the fort council on top of the hotel for a planning meeting. Another cold front had blown in during the night, dropping temperatures, but not bringing any dreaded ice, rain or snow. It would probably warm up by ten o’clock. He shoved his hands into his leather coat to keep them warm. The wind was fierce and blew his curls into disarray. Behind him, Juan cursed as he held his cowboy hat down on his head.

“I just love how it teases us with the promise of good weather before crushing our enjoyment with a nice cold front,” Eric, the fort’s engineer, said in a disgruntled tone.

“Men. You’re so cranky,” Nerit chided them. She slung her sniper rifle over one shoulder and headed over to where Peggy and Bill sat waiting for them.

Katie and Jenni stepped out into the cold air, both bundled up in heavy coats, knit caps, and gloves. Per the usual, Calhoun was taking up the rear, determined to film what he regarded as a secret city council meeting.

Jenni and Juan stood nearby, snuggled up to each other.

Travis slid into a patio chair and tried to ignore the cold emanating out of the metal frame. Katie sat next to him and he took her hand in his.

“Okay, let’s get this meeting going. It’s freaking cold out here, but I think if we can actually view what we want to alter, we will have a better understanding of the task at hand.”

“I’m all for it. Let’s hurry though. I’m dying for some coffee.” Juan finally gave up trying to hold his hat on his head and took it off. His long hair was ruffled by the wind as Jenni tucked her head under his chin.

Calhoun was already filming, muttering in a low voice to himself. Travis tried not to pay attention to the crazy, old coot. “Okay, we have already expanded outward, taking in a block on the west and enclosing it with new walls. That is our planned entertainment and recreation area. Our attempt to help morale. We have the main fort centralized on this block.

We have the Panama Canal, the garage, the hotel, city hall, and the construction site blocked off from the rest of the expansion. To the north, we have the Dollar Store and empty buildings that we are now using as a storage depot.”

“We definitely need to reinforce the back of those buildings,” Eric said in a grim voice. “I still think it’s a weak point.” He still dressed like he was going to the office. He was wearing a red sweater with khakis under his long wool coat and leather loafers. His girlfriend, Stacey, had worked hard to get him into jeans and a t-shirt. It hadn’t lasted long.

Peggy quickly scribbled down everything that was being said, her face pale, her jaw tensed.

“We got the windows and doors all bricked up,” Juan pointed out.

“But those structures are old. Rot has set in. I firmly believe we should build a new wall behind those stores that connects with the wall we have going across Main Street.” Eric shoved his glasses up on his nose and looked at Travis for support. “We need to reinforce that area.”

“Nerit, what do you think?” Travis looked toward their head of fort security.

“We haven’t had the amount of zombies that we had in the first days, so we know it’s secure for the level of threat we’ve had recently. But if we end up with a larger horde descending on us, we may have issues.

Especially if our engineer fears for the structural integrity of the buildings,” Nerit answered.

“We’ll have to find more building supplies. More rebar, more bricks, more cement,” Juan said. “Construction supplies are low after the last wall we built.”

“We may have to go further out and risk bringing a crowd of those things our way to get those supplies in,” Bill said in a somber tone. “Every time we go out, it gets harder to come back with everyone alive.”

“We don’t have a choice though, do we? If we’re to be safe,” Katie pointed out.

Travis felt her hand tighten on his, and he gave it a reassuring squeeze.

“The interior walls to the main area of the fort are pretty solid. We can always fall back to the main area if there if there is a breach.”

“I say reinforce the interior walls behind the Dollar Store before starting on the outer perimeter,” Bill said.

“We need to make sure the internal walls will stand no matter how large the onslaught.” Nerit chimed in.

Travis wondered if she was playing all sorts of terrible scenarios in her mind. “The zombie population has been really low. We need to take advantage of that.” Travis tucked his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket and gazed over the dead town toward the hills. “We should work on the outer walls. The expansion.”

“We need to build outside while we have the chance,” Juan agreed.

“We don’t need to expand so far that we don’t have the resources to support it though,” Eric said. “We should reinforce the walls we have up now.”

“And we need to be able to defend it,” Nerit added. “We’re working on bows and arrows, catapults, and fire pits, but we still need more time to make sure people understand how to use them.”