“So many lived. Trust yourself. Trust what you have learned. Trust Travis and the others. You are all strong.”

She reached out and her hand gripped his chin. Leaning very close to him, her eyes seemed to burn with light. “Then you must understand that you must go on and win this battle. The fort must survive and this world must go on. This is Eden and the snake attacks from without. Do not let it in.”

Kevin struggled to speak, then he nodded. “I won’t let it in. I will go on.”

Nerit smiled and dropped her hand. “Do not give into despair now, Kevin.

It is not the time nor the place.” She slid to her feet and Kevin rose with her.

“Nerit,” he said, taking her arm.

“I just want to say-”

“Shh,” she said again and laid a finger on his lips.

Kevin pulled her close and stared into those brilliant eyes. “Nerit, if only-”

He woke up with a start. The hand resting in his felt too cool to his touch and he panicked. Sleepily, he searched for Nerit’s pulse. Tears filled his eyes as he tried to find it, his fingers trembling.

“Nerit, please, don’t go,” he whispered fervently to the older woman resting on her bed.

Then he found it. That steady, faint little pulse in her wrist.

“Oh, God,” he whispered and fell back in his chair.

Before him, Nerit slept on.

“Bring it in! Keep moving,” Juan called out as the fort gates yawned open to let in more supplies.

For the last two days large trucks with heavily armed contingents had been raiding every supply store within a hundred miles in the opposite direction of the zombie horde. The fort seemed to be bursting at the seams with all the new stacks of wood, cement bags, razor wire and various other building materials.

Outside the walls, small Bobcat construction vehicles were busy clearing away the last of the brush from around the fort. In the distance large bulldozers stacked the remains of houses and trees into high barriers.

Volunteer workers toiled endlessly outside the fort on a variety of traps.

Large signs were posted all around the fort, directing people as to where not to go.

As one of the trucks rumbled past Juan, his cousin, Linda, leaped down off the back and walked over to him. She had been persistent about going out on the salvaging runs despite the protests of her family.

“How’s it going out there?”

Juan nodded, his cowboy hat perched far back on his head. “Mom was going nuts with you being out there again. Bette didn’t seem too happy either.”

“Can’t stop working just cause of the other day,” Linda answered crossly.

“Yeah, I know.” Juan sighed, shrugging. “You know Mom. And Grandma ain’t much better.”

“I gotta do what I gotta do. Your Jenni knew that, too.”

“How do I have so many damn bullheaded women around me?”

A huge military truck rolled in crammed full of more razor wire and other supplies.

“Her arm is seriously messed up. They aren’t sure how much use she’ll have when it heals.” Linda tucked her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and furrowed her brow. “And things feel weird now with us. I dunno why. I just...”

Juan looked down at her, his arms crossed over his chest. “What do you mean?”

“I dunno” Linda shrugged. “Like I keep feeling I should have died back there and now when I’m around Bette it feels fucked up. I love her. But it’s like...”

Juan reached out and gently rubbed her shoulder. “It’s okay, Linda. It was rough out there.”

“Lenore and I are the only survivors of the run to the hospital, Juan,”

Linda said softly. “Felix, Dale, Ken, Bill, Roger, Jenni...all gone now. Only Lenore and I are still here.”

Juan winced at the mention of the hospital run. It had saved his life, but he had lost Jenni because of it. “Linda, that is just how this fucked up world works. Don’t let it get you down.”

“Hey, I got no regrets about going there. That medicine and stuff is helping a lot of people. It helped you. But it freaks me out. I seriously feel I should have died out there.” Linda’s gaze was intense.

“Is that why you keep going out there?”

Juan and Linda’s heads both jerked up. The inner gate was still closed.

Above them on the walls, two people were trying to aim at something down in the holding area.

Running up the stairs, Juan reached back to grip her hand and despite herself, Linda felt comforted by it. Reaching the top, they looked down to see a woman in a red sweater moving swiftly around the truck, banging on it with slim hands. Long black hair obscured her face, but her growls revealed her true nature.

“She dropped off the back of the truck when it got into the lock,” one of the guards shouted.

Juan felt like he couldn’t breathe. Something about the figure reminded him of Jenni. The sweater, the long dark hair, the slim build. Beside him, Linda squeezed his hand.

“It’s not her. Katie put her down. It’s not her,” Linda’s voice whispered.

A sniper finally got a good shot and the creature’s head exploded, then it fell back. Despite the shot through its forehead, its face was still reasonably intact. It bore no resemblance to Jenni whatsoever.

“It’s okay,” Linda said once more.

Juan nodded slowly then turned and took his cousin into his arms and held her tight. “We’re both okay. You’re supposed to be here. Don’t think about being dead. You got Bette. Don’t forget that. It’s okay.”

They clung to each other as the all-clear signal was given. The large inner doors opened and the truck rolled on leaving the dead zombie alone in the lock.

It was sheer chaos in the suite. Three little kids were scampering around screaming and laughing as they were chased around by Juan. Troy was only in his undies while Margie was in her nightgown with her hair soaking wet. Holly was half-way into her pajamas sporting the topless look.

“Okay, now be nice to Daddy One and do what I say,” Juan ordered.

Margie managed a feat worthy of an Olympic gymnast to get over the sofa and looked at him. “No!”

Holly and Troy stopped on the other side of the sofa and laughed like little hyenas.

Juan frowned and put on his most authoritative voice. “Get your PJs on or you are all in big trouble.”

The three hellions looked at each other, then took off running again, laughing like the evil little fiends they were.

Clutching Holly’s top in one hand, Juan pursued them, finding it damn hard to catch the little ones. Troy was especially good at evasive maneuvers. Juan couldn’t help but think he’d make a great football player.

Despite his frustration with them, he knew most of this was them craving his attention. He had been gone all day working on the fort defenses and when he had come home, his beleaguered mother and grandmother had quickly dumped the kids off on him.

“They need their father. We’re done,” Rosie had said as she rolled her mother to out of the room. With that he had been on his own with the little terrors.

To his surprise she froze in her tracks, giving him her big-eyed look of surprise. Slowly, he approached her, holding her pajama top in his grip, readying to put it over her head. Just when he got close, she took off again.

“You said a bad word!” Troy popped up from behind the recliner. “I’m gonna tell.”

“Yeah? Who are you going to tell?” Juan asked.

Well, Juan thought, at least Troy didn’t waste time with the middleman, but went straight to the top.

The door opened behind him and he turned to see Jason walk in. Covered in dirt and grime and reeking of gasoline, the teenager shut the door, then leaned back against it.

“Hey, kid,” Juan said, ignoring the little scamps rushing around him, trying to egg him into a game of catch again.

“Hi, Dad,” Jason answered. He disengaged from the door and walked over to hug Juan. He was stopped by the trio of terror leaping on him. Clinging to him like monkeys, the three began to talk his head off and Jason slowly smiled from beneath his long hair.

Juan walked slowly toward the kids. “You’re just in time for the nightly roundup.”

“Yeah?” Jason looked down at the little ones yammering away at him, then grabbed all three of them up in his arms.