It can’t be easy living in Lydia’s shadow.”

“Oh, I know that. And he’s so good about it. He really is! And I love him!

If I hadn’t lost her, I wouldn’t have him and it feels so fucked up! And I’m such a hormonal mess!” Katie was half-laughing, half-crying.

Jenni kissed Katie’s cheek firmly, then snuggled her tighter. “I know, I know. If I hadn’t lost my family, I wouldn’t have you and Juan. I’m so grateful to have Jason, and it feels really weird to be happy cause the world is definitely hell right now.”

It did seem weird to Jenni. She found this world almost comfortable compared to the suburban lifestyle she had once lived. Lloyd had controlled every aspect of her life from what she wore to what she ate.

She had been a trophy wife and his punching bag. Her former life was devoted to her children and pleasing Lloyd. He hadn’t even allowed her to have friends. She now had someone who loved her, good friends, and a purpose in life. The only thing that would make it better was if she could have Benji and Mikey with her. Juan would have been such a great dad to them.

Katie nodded and wiped more tears away. “We’re lucky to have each other, aren’t we?”

“Absolutely!” Jenni agreed and held her best friend tightly against her.

“Without a doubt, Katie. You saved me. And I love you.”

Pressing a kiss to Jenni’s cheek, Katie whispered, “I love you, too, Jenni.

You’re the best friend I could ever have.”

Katie burst out laughing and Jenni smiled with relief.

The rest of the afternoon was light and fun. By the time they left, they were both weighted down with baby supplies and Jenni had red lingerie tucked into her back pocket.

* * * * * Jenni loved the aftermath of the lovemaking with Juan. They always lounged around in the bed, naked and tired, grinning at each other. She painted her toenails, one foot propped on his knee as he read a book, buried under the covers. A cold front had finally hit just after dark and the room was cold. The covers were wrapped around her waist, but she enjoyed the coolness on her skin.

“Blanche was giving me shit again today,” Jenni said after a long bit of silence.

“She was clean up crew tonight after dinner and ragged on me for not putting my plate into the proper bin. Then she ragged on me for a bunch of other stuff. I stopped listening after the ‘stupid spic’ comment.”

Juan looked over at her and frowned. “I thought she just called me that.”

“No, no. She calls everyone she thinks is Mexican a spic. Including Rashi, the Indian guy we picked up the other day.”

“That woman is such a bitch,” Juan growled. Putting his book down, he rubbed Jenni’s leg gently as she finished polishing her toenails. “Her husband has just been sulking, but she’s on a fucking warpath.”

“Too much drama,” Jenni said with a frown. “Though, her husband actually did something nice today. He stopped trying to file a claim for the return of their Hummer. Peggy told me.”

Juan laughed and shook his head. “You wonder if they realize what is really going on.”

Flopping back on the pillows piled behind her, Jenni giggled. “Stupid people doing stupid things, huh?”

Juan flipped the book off the bed. “Yeah, but we are keeping them alive for some reason.”

Juan looked at her toes, then said. “Eh, fuck it. You can redo them.” He leaned over and kissed her deeply, pulling her close.

With a grin, Jenni wrapped her arms around him and returned his kiss.

Rune awoke with a start. His hand automatically gripped his Glock as he sat up and pointed at the figure at the end of the bed. As his brain sputtered into wakefulness, he blinked his eyes to focus them. The room was dark, but the figure at the end of the bed was a black blot. He nearly expected it to moan and reach for him, then realized he wasn’t facing a zombie.

Flipping on the lamp next to the bed, he stared blearily at the man standing at the end of the bed. Expect for being transparent, he looked just like any other person living in the fort. Setting the Glock down beside him, Rune sighed softly.

“What do you want, buddy?”

“You need to speak up. I can’t hear you.”

The room grew steadily colder as the apparition tried again. It managed one word.

The figure then lost its tentative hold on the physical world and vanished.

Sliding his legs out of bed, Rune shivered as the room grew steadily colder. His breath turned to mist and he whispered, “Dammit.” Standing, he grabbed up his jeans and boots.

The room began to fill with shimmers of light and shadow. He felt the whispery touch of the dead as they gathered around him.

“I can’t help you,” he said shortly. “I can’t hear you. I can’t help you.

Stop pestering me. Either talk to me or leave me alone.” Frustration and despair filled him as he shrugged on his leather vest and reached for his heavy jacket. The delicate touches of the dead fluttered over his skin. He tried to shrug them away, but they were persistent.

The room was unbearably cold. Cussing under his breath, he grabbed his motorcycle bags and headed toward the door of his hotel room. He had never unpacked, anticipating this moment.

Striding down the hall, he saw the air rippling around him. A few of the spirits drew enough energy to actually grab his arm, but he shrugged them off.

In the beginning, he had tried to help the ghosts he encountered. Slowly, he realized that the spirits were simply trapped. Nothing he said to guide them helped. The whole world had been filled with death, altering everything beyond the world of the living.

Ignoring the elevator, he headed down the stairs. His boots heels sounded like thunder rolling through the stairwell. The spirits were losing energy quickly, basically burning themselves out trying to hold onto him.

He hit the bottom floor, cut across the lobby, and headed toward the door exiting to the construction site.

As he entered what had once been a janitor’s closet, he was startled when a hand grabbed his arm in an iron grip. Yanking his arm away, he was hit with a gawdawful stench. His Glock was already in his hand and coming up for a killing shot when he heard Old Man Calhoun mutter, “I can’t remember!”

“What the hell, Calhoun?” Rune shoved his Glock back into his holster, frowning at the old codger. He had given him a terrible fright.

“I can’t remember something important. And it’s eatin’ at me!” Calhoun let go of him and shoved open the door to the construction site. “I saw something long ago and then again a few days ago, and I know it was something important. It’s important because...” He faltered, obviously struggling to grasp a flitting thought. Plunging into the night, the old man seemed to be chasing after that thought.

Rune sighed and followed. He headed toward the stairs that would lead him over the wall into the area where the fort secured all its vehicles.

Calhoun ran back and forth in front of him, hands outstretched, grasping at the air.

He didn’t feel the ghosts anymore, but they would catch up. His only real hope for any peace of mind was to head out into the deadlands and keep changing his location. Leaving the fort so soon was an annoyance. He had allowed himself the luxury of becoming a part of the community for a few days. Maybe he had even deceived himself into believing he could stay. It was a damn shame he had to go. He would miss Maddie and Dale.

Calhoun suddenly came to a stop and turned around. “The Whore of Babylon. That was what it was about. She was cohorts with the one that ended up killed in a woman’s dress. She..she...” He faltered, his eyes rolling wildly in their sockets. Clutching his hands to his face, Calhoun wailed. “I can’t remember. It was...it was...”

In the distance a rooster crowed, long and loud.

Rune blinked, then shook his head. The old guy was in a tizzy and there was nothing he could do for him. It had to suck to have lost your mind.

He climbed up over the wall and entered the huge parking area from which the teams were launched. His bike was in one of the old newspaper garages. The doors were open and he headed inside to uncover his bike.

As he pulled the tarp off, he heard a noise behind him and quickly turned.

It sounded like a door opening, but he didn’t see anything through the gloom.

There was no response and he shook his head. The damn ghosts had him spooked. Securing his bags to the bike, he took a deep breath. It was that time again and that was all there was to it. No time for regrets or fear. He rolled his bike out into the open air, noting that the sun had began to slowly peek over the horizon.

It was the old guy named Ed.

Ed stared at him thoughtfully. Behind him, the sentries were charging out on the wall; the early morning crew was arriving to work on the wall reinforcements. In Ed’s gnarled hand was a steaming cup of coffee. Rune would kill for a cup right now, but he didn’t feel like stirring up the ghosts anymore than he had. It was hard enough keeping focused when he had to deal with one or two. He couldn’t deal with a whole town’s worth.