The first two houses had been mostly taken by fire, only ruined shells and foundation left. The third was pristine, untouched. There were no other structures within sight: they were well out of town here.
Mickey said, in a low voice, "Check it out or wait for the others?"
"Wait." There was a car parked on the street in front of the first house, and Ron put his shotgun down on the hood and leaned against the grill. "You know this area at all?"
"Not really. Used to come out to the shopping center back there some when there was still a video store. Only place you could get porn, local." He grinned. "Been years, though."
It was a distractingly pleasant day, clear, not too hot. Ron could see the others — all six of them — coming up the road on foot, excepting of course the old lady in the wheelchair, whose head lolled to one side as the only other man in the group pushed her along.
"Mrs. Willis is asleep again."
"At least she ain't talking. I think she's wearing on Dwayne's nerves."
Ron waited until the group was close enough that he could be head without shouting. "We're going to check the house for food."
Dwayne nodded and locked off the chair's wheels; Mrs. Willis didn't wake. The others, seemingly grateful for the break, sat along the curb or laid in the grass between the road and the sidewalk.
The front door was unlocked, and Ron locked eyes with Mickey for a good long second before stepping in, silent, gun at the ready. Mickey followed in kind.
"Smell that?" Ron whispered.
They proceeded as they always did. Ground floor first: there was no basement. It took less than a minute, a house this size. Mickey saw boxes of food in the open pantry, but didn't stop to look closely. They met back at the bottom of the stairs. "Clear."
Ron started up first, since he had the shotgun. Mickey waited at the bottom until Ron could see around the corners, then followed. The smell was stronger at the top of the stairs; the air was warmer as well. They took each bedroom in turn.
A little boy's bedroom, race car bed, planets hanging from the ceiling: empty. A teenaged girl's bedroom, canopy bed, three posters of pop stars and one of a kitten licking a puppy's ear: also empty.
The master bedroom. Laid out on the bed were the corpses of the little boy and the teenaged girl. They were too far decomposed for the cause of death to be obvious. Probably the only reason the stench was bearable was the pair of open windows.
Mickey was holding his shirt up over his nose. Through it, he said, "Bathroom."
Ron went around the foot of the bed and looked into the master bath. He heard the stirring before he saw it: a zombie, sitting in the bathtub. One wrist was handcuffed to the bottom fixture. Resting on the edge of the tub was a small pistol, likely a twenty-two. The zombie hissed and reached ineffectually for Ron with its free hand.
Mickey was behind him. "Should we kill it?"
"What's the point?" Ron considered trying to get the pistol, but decided against it. "Back up."
Ron locked the door from the inside and stepped out, closing the door behind him. "Help me with the dresser." It was heavy, but they had little trouble moving it to block the door.
"And them?" Mickey gestured to the bodies on the bed with the barrel of his rifle.
"Not our job."
They sent the women in for the food in the pantry, after warning them about what was upstairs. Dwayne was sat on the curb by Mrs. Willis. "Anything good?"
"Some cans, a boxes of dry goods, crackers, you know."
Mrs. Willis' head moved; she looked around. "Boys?"
"Anyone in there?"
"A couple bodies and a handcuffed zombie."
"How on Earth did that happen?"
"Who knows? Maybe they were all sick, and he did the kids but chickened out when it was his turn. Maybe the wife was immune, and handcuffed him but couldn't bear to leave the kids like that."
"We should bury them."
Ron and Mickey exchanged a glance. Mickey said, "Ma'am, that's really not our job."
"It's the right thing to do—"
Ron interrupted, "Mrs. Willis, there are bodies in half the houses we search, or zombies we turn into bodies. If we buried them all, we'd spend all our time digging." His voice had finality to it, and Mickey nodded in agreement. "We're not the coroner. It's not going to happen."
The old lady fell silent; the other women were coming back out of the house carrying now-full backpacks.
"I understand how you feel, but we've got to keep moving."
Her reply was icy. "Fine."
Dwayne, behind her, shrugged as if to say: there'll be no convincing her, best to leave it.
They moved on. The sun was well down, the glow on the horizon almost gone when they found the service station. Three entrances, even without the garage doors, still some food on the shelves of the convenience store, and empty of the dead.
They laid bedrolls and sleeping bags in the aisles between displays. Ron rolled Mrs. Willis behind the counter, and brought her a blanket.
"I want you to promise me something, Ronny."
"When I go, I need you to take the time to put me in the ground."
He shook his head. "Now, don't talk like that, it's not going to come to—"
"I'm eighty-three years old, Ronny. And Dwayne has more sense than to let himself get bit trying to push me out of harm's way. I'm going to go, one of these days, one way or the other. I need you to promise me."
He sighed and looked her in the eyes.
She offered, "It doesn't have to be deep. Just enough that some varmint won't dig me up. You can say some words and be on your way in no time. Promise me, dear."
The others would probably insist on it anyway. "I promise, Mrs. Willis. We'll bury you. I don't know what words to say, though. I'm not good with—"
She produced a small Bible from one of the chair pockets, held it out so he could see it, and then returned it to its place. "There, now, that's decided. You sleep tight, dear."
He smiled. "I have first watch. But I'll see you in the morning, ma'am."
"Good night, Ronny."
Service stations always had a ladder laying around somewhere. He made his way up to the roof. There was already a folding chair set up by some previous occupant, and he settled into it.
They'd have to look for a garden supply store, or a hardware store. Someone would have to carry the shovel. Or they could tie it to the back of Mrs. Willis' chair: Dwayne wouldn't mind the extra weight, as long as it was on wheels.