In this situation, unfortunately, Evelyn couldn't take life with any of those ingredients. The last of the salt was used well over twelve months ago in some cold soup. She hadn't seen a lemon since before the apocalypse. The tequila, not-so-hilariously, was used to disinfect a head wound. It wasn't actually tequila, though. It was a half-filled bottle of some cheap white wine.
"...isn't that right?"
Evelyn tripped over the bump in the road, catching herself almost immediately. A tree root had broken through the surface some time ago.
"I'm sorry, what?" At some point Evelyn had become lost in thought. It was most likely around the same time she had passed what was probably the millionth tree. She, and the group with her, had been walking this path since sun up. Not one thing changed about it except the occasional curve in the pavement. Trees flanked the crumbling road on both sides. For as far as the nearsighted woman could see, there wasn't a driveway in sight.
"In your head again?"
Evelyn couldn't stop herself from dissociating. With someone else leading the group rather than her, it was easier to follow without having to think, especially since the walking period was approaching the seventh hour.
"I'm sorry, Danny." She released an exhausted breath. Last time she dissociated he snapped at her, but they also ran into multiple misfortunes that day. "I don't mean to."
"Don't apologize. I know you're tired. We're all tired. Hungry. Thirsty." He set his arm gently over her shoulders, careful to not put more weight on them. "We'll stop when it gets dark."
Evelyn thought it quite strange Daniel rested his arm around her frame. He has never done something like that before. She decided to blame it on fatigue.
Daniel could sense her change in behavior. "You're shivering." The only logical explanation as to why he'd show her physical affection.
Her left arm hesitantly wrapped around his lower back, gripping onto the coarse material of his winter coat. At least the darkness helped to suppress her uneasiness. Her ribs became all the more warm with his additional body heat. Almost immediately her muscles relaxed. The tension dissipated. She wishes she could share these feelings with her people. Especially the kids. They need it the most.
One of the children, Lily May, tugged on Evelyn's free hand, pulling the woman from her trance. Evelyn and Daniel broke apart.
"Hey, Lily. What's up?"
The child pulled Evelyn down to her level, whispering something in her ear. Evelyn nodded. She turned to Daniel. "I think we should stop for a bathroom break."
Daniel halted the group. Everyone took turns using the forest. Evelyn went last. She walked behind a tree large enough to cover her body. Almost nothing came out. The effort it took to situate her pants back the way they were was signal enough. Sleep beckons, as does food and water.
Once back on the road, Evelyn did a head count. Twenty. Ten children and ten adults, including herself. She met back up with Daniel at the front of the group and nodded. Everyone is here and accounted for.
"Do you still have that map on you?" Daniel pulled out his from his back pocket. Water damage. The colors blended together in some areas. It looked like a Monet. A crunchy, stiff Monet.
Evelyn held up hers. Same condition. "We've got gut instinct to go off now."
Everyone had walked for another hour. Nighttime approached faster than they anticipated. Winter is coming. Trees still flanked either side of them without pause. Would there be an end? Despite the small break they had a while ago, no one felt any better. This seemly endless repetition began to eat away at their resolve.
Every so often, Evelyn would turn around to check on the kids. They appeared to be slowing down. It wouldn't do anybody any good to continue walking, especially with no food or water left. They came upon a fork in the road. Two signs stood erect parallel to the new road. One had an image of a tractor. The second, a horse.
Evelyn told Daniel it was time to stop. As silent as possible, everybody moved to the side of the road. The adults huddled around the children to keep them warm. They only had the clothes on their backs, nothing more. Some chose to lean up against tree trunks. Others preferred the leaf-covered floor. Nobody could be too picky.
Evelyn couldn't get comfortable despite the endless amount of occasions she had to sleep on the forest floor. It was the new norm, but something poked at the back of her brain. The exhaustion that seeped into her bones begged for rest, but her mind felt busy with something else. She peeled her head out of the woods, glaring down the two road signs that caused her to remain wide awake. A feeling of familiarity fluttered in her stomach as she continued to study the signs. It might just be the hunger pains, however her gut wouldn't let her chalk it up to that.
Her eyes moved to the vegetation surrounding the signage. A fairly large tree with half of its limbs missing stood behind them. The moonlight illuminated its eerie stature, but the stature itself appeared almost welcoming. Like arms outstretched for a warm hug. Evelyn wanted to go there. Before she even knew what she was going, her legs were taking her to the tree. The hand on her wrist stopped her.
"Where are you going?" Daniel moved to get up with her.
"There's something about this place..."
They stepped out of the forest, walking towards the fork in the road. Evelyn waited a few paces before saying anything in order to be out of earshot.
"You know you didn't have to come with me. It's only a few yards out." She didn't look at him, only the road ahead.
"Two people is safer than one."
She left it at that, but had a feeling it was because of that one time she went ahead on her own and stepped in a bear trap. The scars on her ankle still look discolored. Daniel remembered that day. Fear numbed his veins seeing her in so much pain. He would never admit to anything, though.
Evelyn couldn't put her finger on it, but her gut was telling her to trust in its instinct. She walked up to the sign, tilting her head as she studied it some more. Most of the color was covered by dirt and grime, but she could see the horse regardless. Her fingers swiped at the dirt on the sign. The original color contrasted with the darkness of the night.
She turned to her left past Daniel who looked at her quizzically. He followed close behind as they walked this road. Why she chose to go this direction he would never know. Her body followed some invisible path in a trance-like state whilst remaining completely self aware. Her eyes drifted down to the road. Roots and potholes decorated it like a Christmas tree, yet Evelyn somehow avoided them all. It didn't occur immediately, but the thought that Evelyn subconsciously knew where she was could be the only explanation. Daniel couldn't think of another reason why she would be out here following this road.
Out of nowhere, Evelyn halted her steps. Daniel ran into her, realizing all too late he stopped paying attention. His hands grabbed onto her hips before she could tumble to the ground.
"Sorry. You okay?" Daniel removed his hands once she caught her footing.
Evelyn nodded, more focused on pulling a memory from the depths of her mind than the ghost of his hands on her hips. Her sight canvased the road to the tree line. It was stuck on the tip of her tongue, whatever this feeling was. It was only when the wind blew slightly, dispersing the light of the moon when it landed on the brightly colored mailbox further down the road.
Flashes of her grandfather's kind eyes traveled before her. Glimpses of her grandmother making dolls from scratch to place in her makeshift cardboard dollhouse pranced around her vision like a fawn in the snow.
She remembered why that tree with half of its limbs missing made her feel so safe and happy, why it made her feel like she would be hugged. It's because she would've been. It was the landmark right before the turn to her grandparents. A hug from them was the first thing she always received when she went to see them.
"I'm home." She held her hands over her mouth, dropping down to her knees in relief. Tears streamed down her cheeks, feeling hot on her chilled skin. Is this a dream? She looked up one more time, blinking her eyes viciously. The mailbox isn't some mirage. It's there as plain as day.
Daniel helped Evelyn up to her feet. She wiped her tears with her sleeve. "We need to go get the others. I've promised you since the beginning I would take you home, so I'm gonna get you there."
Initially, the news didn't sound right. A home? After more than a year of being on the road? There would be no way. How? The tears that pooled in Evelyn's eyes were proof enough. She hadn't cried for many things while on the road with her newfound family, but this is absolutely something to cry about. Not everyone gets the chance to return to something a part of who they used to be. Especially not something this grandeur.
Evelyn's body coursed with adrenaline. Oh, the sweet agony to wait only mere minutes before stepping back in time. She picked up Lily May and carried the child on her back.
As the group made the final stretch to the mailbox, they turned to the left and up the driveway. A white house with blue shutters stood proudly before them. She let Lily May down, this time holding the child's hand.
The driveway was just the way she remembered it, except some grass had found its way through new cracks. Vines climbed up the sides of the house, itching to get in. Evelyn, albeit tempted to take her shoes off and sprint through the grass, refrained for the time being.
A ceiling above the porch gave the group shelter as Evelyn fished the key from the hanging flower basket. Once she felt the cool bit of metal in her palm, she wiped away the dirt. Despite the fact that her soul yearned to be in this home at last, Evelyn couldn't help but feel hesitant. This feeling, however, is meant for another time, another time when her people aren't standing in the cold, waiting to be let in the house. They filed in one by one, all huddled in the entryway as Evelyn closed the door behind her.
"This way." Evelyn remembered everything. She fumbled for the flashlight in her bag, grateful that someone else handed it to her before she let her nerves get the better of her. "There are rooms upstairs, the kids can sleep there."
Despite the fact that there are only four beds, the children made it work. The adults slept downstairs on the couches and the floor. As the last person lie down for bed, Evelyn couldn't help but feel at ease. She walked upstairs to the office, the only available room left for her to sleep. The floor appeared dusty and cold, something she was used to, but something she will change. Her coat sufficed as a pillow despite the chill that coursed through her spine. Just as she got comfortable enough to fall asleep, a voice pulled her from her mind.
"Get off the floor." Daniel reached for her hands, pulling her up from the ground. His face held no emotion. A blank slate.
"I'm literally fine." Evelyn followed him downstairs and into the living room. Well, she wasn't following him per say, rather being gently dragged behind him like a small child.
Daniel relaxed into the cushions of the small couch, pulling her down with him. His arms enclosed her like a warm cocoon. Part of her couldn't help but feel weird sleeping next to Daniel. Not even when sleeping on the forest floor or in some other shelter did they rest even remotely close to one another. This is the closest she's ever been to him.
She rested her hand above his chest and laid her head just below his chin. Evelyn hasn't felt this safe since... well, she couldn't remember. She also didn't remember falling asleep either. The sun was mostly blocked by the thick curtains, but it shone through here and there illuminating parts of the living room.
For once, she didn't have to force herself to get up. There is no need. Obviously, the group needs to find food and water, but sleep. Sleep is what Evelyn can't get enough of. She snuggled up closer to Daniel, dreading the moment he'll wake up. He's like a heater. Little did she know he was already awake.
The peacefulness of this nippy early morning ended as soon as the children—all ten of them—trampled down the stairs like a herd of elephants. This sudden burst of noise woke those who had been asleep. Evelyn and Daniel shot up, eyes peeled for danger. He stood behind her, protecting her back.
"How many times have we told you kids to be quiet when someone is sleeping?" Daniel practically collapsed onto the couch. He placed his hand over his chest to try and calm his racing heart.
"I think they're just excited." Evelyn whispered.
Daniel gave her a look.
"C'mon." She held her hand out towards him. "Let's go see if the garden has food."
Everyone followed Evelyn to her grandfather's garden. It appears to be nearing the end of its growing season. However, there should be enough food to last them a few weeks, maybe even a month. Maybe more.
Throughout the morning, everyone split up to collect as much food as possible. Baskets upon baskets were carried up to the house and set on any available surface. Evelyn busied herself in the small orchard behind the garage. Four apple trees, one pear tree, and one plum tree. The kids helped her, mostly. The peacefulness that comes with a task as menial as this made her feel somewhat normal. It gives Evelyn a sense of place. A needed sense of place.
"Do you have any jars we could store some of this food in?" Daniel approached Evelyn with a fairly large basket of corn.
He followed her into the house as she took him through the kitchen, following the dining room, towards a light blue door with a brass knob. Evelyn walked down the wooden stairs behind this door, grabbing a flashlight from the wall. Straight ahead was the basement sink. To her right sat a washer and dryer. On her left was the clothing rack for wet items. The back wall behind the stairwell was lined with a few shelves, some wooden crates, woven baskets, and a few boxes of jars were left on them.
"There's your answer." She pointed the flashlight towards the back wall.
They both walked over to it, pulling down what they were closest to.
"I never thanked you for finding us this place." Daniel followed Evelyn back up the steps, crates and jars in their hands.
She set her things on the counter. "You don't need to."
"I really feel like I should. You're a great leader and I'm grateful for everything you've done for our people."
Evelyn blushed. The darkness of the basement luckily masked the redness of her cheeks. "You're a great leader, too."
He smiled, chest warming due to her compliment. "All four of us are."
Evelyn immediately pictured the other two leaders in her mind. Sebastian and Blair. However, her mind stayed on Blair. "Yeah, we are. I'm concerned about Blair, though."
"I am, too. She's not the same."
They both walked up the cellar stairs into the kitchen, setting the supplies on the kitchen counter. Evelyn's eyes scanned over the kitchen walls, stopping once they saw a portrait of her grandmother and grandfather. She sighed, heartbroken.
"You okay?" Daniel turned towards her. He noticed the grief in her eyes, lips downcast in a frown.
Evelyn shook her head. "I'm so happy to be here, to be home, but I feel so sad."
"Come on." Daniel grabbed her hand, guiding her to a private room upstairs. He chose the one at the end of the hall on the left. "Talk to me."
They sat down on the day bed together, relaxing into the mattress. Evelyn didn't know where to start. Her stomach felt tight, uneasy to feel this free to speak with Daniel.
"Being back here makes me miss my family." She picked at the skin around her thumb. "The smells, the sounds... they're overwhelming. I feel like my heart is going to break."
Daniel grabbed her hands. "I know."
Evelyn didn't want to cry, but her tears fell before she could do something about them. Her body hunched over in pain. She clutched onto Daniel's hands like they are her life line. It was at this moment he pulled her into him, holding her head against his chest. Her tears wet his shirt, but he didn't care. Daniel refused to let her go until she stopped crying.
"Thank you." She wrapped her arms around him, grateful for his presence.
He held her for a little while longer until she caught her breath. Her cheeks dried after a few more minutes, and then her face calmed from its puffiness.
"C'mon." Daniel nodded towards the door. "Let's go finish our job."
All of the food from the small garden and orchard was carried up to the kitchen where it was prepped and stored into the jars Evelyn and Daniel found. The food able to be left out sat in the baskets on the kitchen counters, appearing as if they had all come back from a farmer's market. The rest was prepared to eat, it would be their first meal in almost two days.
The children ate first, nearly falling into naps once their meal ended.
"It's okay if you guys wanna go rest." Daniel noticed the dark circles underneath their eyes. "We've got nothing else to do today."
Evelyn listened to the receding footsteps of ten children. After finishing her meal she realized how thirsty she had become. She completely forgot to tell them about the water source on the property.
"There's also a creek here. I think we should start boiling some water." An uncomfortable dryness took over her mouth. She had no doubt everyone else felt parched, too.
That's exactly what they did. It took hours to boil and bottle enough water for the whole group. By the time they had finished, it was already night. Everybody had a special glow about them. There's something about having a full belly and clean water that creates a pleasurable high.
Thinking about the water they took from the creek reminded her of the summer. Whenever she could, Evelyn would walk down to the creek barefoot and climb down the bank to the water. For hours she would try to catch minnows with a red solo cup. When she had her fill of that, she'd move on to picking up every crawfish she could find.
"Hey, Eve." A shorter woman with pale features and dark hair approached from the living room. "I just wanted to say thank you for finding us a place to stay."
"Autumn, hey." Evelyn jumped slightly, having been in her own mind. "Don't worry about it. I'm just glad I recognized where we were."
"Well if it weren't for you we wouldn't be here right now." Just before Autumn turned to leave, she quickly wrapped her arms around Evelyn's shoulders.
"Goodnight." Autumn smiled briefly before walking back to the living room.
Evelyn walked up to a small group of the younger kids and kneeled down to their level. "I just wanted to thank you guys for helping out today. I know that you've all worked so hard and I'm incredibly proud of you."
"Are we going to live here for a while?" Esma asked. She is the oldest of the children; almost twelve years.
"We are." Evelyn made sure to give the child a bright smile. "Hopefully you'll all be getting new clothes soon, and if we're lucky, new beds."
The kids grew ecstatic almost immediately. It's not comfortable sleeping in the same bed as another person, let alone four, but they had not slept in a nice bed for a while. The idea of clean clothing was also a winner. Some new shoes, too, maybe. Evelyn decided to leave a piece of paper and a pencil with the kids, letting them write down what they think they need.
Evelyn made her way up the stairs to the office and sat in the computer chair. Her Grandpa used to sit in this chair. Pushing that very thought from her head, she pulled a yellow notepad from the shelf above her and began writing a list of items the group needed. Another list was made to use when counting the food stores. There was so much to do in what felt like so little time. Sometimes it was easy to forget that she has help.
It was an hour before Evelyn moved from her chair. List after list she made of things they needed to survive their first winter as an entire group. Was there a way to find it all? Maybe. Evelyn found it somewhat humorous to write, as she hadn't done so for as long as she could remember. The penmanship surely isn't as neat as it used to be, but it got the job done.
"Evie?" A fairly tall and lanky young man knocked on the doorframe. Evelyn dropped her pencil.
"What's up, Seb?" Evelyn smiled kindly. She hadn't seen Sebastian in what felt like days.
"So I was wondering if there are any stores or places nearby that you think might have something that we need?"
She thought for a second. It's been a whole year. There wouldn't be one place that hasn't been exploited by someone. Every Walmart, sporting store, and pharmacy within a ten mile radius would most likely be cleaned out. Of course there are other houses but there is a large chance they would be empty as well. It was a miracle that this house was left untouched.
"Maybe a K-Mart, a BJ's—"
"That's it!" Evelyn jumped from her chair and threw her arms around Sebastian's shoulders. Before she knew it, her exclamation gained her a small audience. "So about a week before the war, the BJ's in this town closed because of the pandemic. It was going out of business anyway. The workers boarded the windows and doors due to some of the break-ins that happened. There's a possibility that it wasn't hit as hard as other stores. It's in a weird location in the middle of undeveloped land and we're only a few miles from it."
Daniel's head popped up from behind the doorway. "Tomorrow at first light we will check out this place and see if it has what we need. We have a lot to do to prepare for winter this year."
"What will we do with the kids tomorrow?" Autumn stepped into the office with her question, knowing the children couldn't go with the adults the next day.
"Lets have a meeting about it after we put the kids to bed." Daniel suggested. "I know it's late, but right now we need to focus on dinner."
Everyone agreed and followed through with Daniel's order. Some more discussion was had at dinner over how the sleeping arrangements would be and who would take inventory the next day. It wasn't foreign to have discussions like these, but it was unfamiliar to have a roof over their heads and full bellies. Meaning it is unfamiliar to have this discussion in the safety of a home. It feels nice, though.
Each child was soon after put to bed with the understanding that they would be joined by someone after their guardians had their meeting.
"Evelyn, how are we going to go about tomorrow?" Daniel asked. His stoic face practically stared into her soul while his frame towered over her. "You know this area better than any of us."
She does. Half of the town is engrained into her memory. Maybe this could be a new beginning for everyone. A fresh start.
"Most importantly, the kids need to stay here and I think five or six of us should stay behind." Evelyn pulled the lists she made earlier from her coat pocket. "We need a ton of stuff to survive this winter and we need to get a lot of stuff done before the first frost. Tomorrow on our run we can talk about the specifics of the things we need to find, but right now we need to focus on the overall game-plan.
I need one leader to stay here with three or four others to watch over the kids, gather food, and collect water. Myself and three or four others will walk roughly two to three miles to get to BJ's." Evelyn held everyone's attention as she described what needed to happen the next day.
"What about in the long run?" Autumn played with the ends of her dark hair. "What will we need to do here to survive through the winter?"
"Well," Evelyn started. "Someone needs to be assigned to making more shelves to put in the basement and we need to build an addition to the house for more bedrooms. We need a few outhouses and maybe even a shower."
"I could build the shelves for tomorrow." Blair spoke up. "I could also draw up some designs for the other amenities if you'd like?"
"That would be greatly appreciated, and you're welcome to use any of the tools in the garage. There's a ton of extra wood in the room attached to the garage you can use as well. Key is on the wall in the kitchen." Evelyn felt like things were finally coming together.
Everyone had so many questions, it felt as if the meeting went on for hours. Little did they know that the "sleeping" kids caught every word. In remembering the past year had been the hardest any of them had ever faced, they each felt obligated to help their guardians out. Especially after everything their guardians had done for them.
The day had passed by quicker than Evelyn could comprehend. Again, she shares the couch with Daniel, except this time they both lay on their sides, her back against his chest and his arm around her waist. Don't get her wrong, she loves cuddles, but there's something spectacular about having one's own bed.
Of course, she shouldn't complain. If they had continued walking for much longer—in the opposite direction—they probably wouldn't have found a home. Not many people, of those that are left, are able to experience something like this nowadays. A roof over their head. Food. Water. Family.
Her eyes closed, but her brain remained wide awake. Memories colored themselves in her mind, showing distinct people or places brought to light by what she experienced today. She could see her parents, her siblings. Her old pets made an appearance or two. Hopefully, wherever they are, they're okay. That's all Evelyn could hope for. Hot tears dripped over the bridge of her nose, wetting the fabric of the couch against her cheek. She wouldn't dare move either, best not to disrupt anyone.
It was the shakiness of her body that pulled Daniel from his sleep. It was the one thing she couldn't control. His hand moved down her arm, finally lacing his fingers through hers. She stopped moving.
Daniel then nudged Evelyn to turn and face him. She moved as quietly as possible, knowing that the springs in this old couch can be unforgiving. They lay chest to chest now, foreheads touching, staring at each other with the help of the slivers of moonlight not held at bay by the curtains. He couldn't do much in the way of words, so he opted to pulling her head into his chest. He felt her arm wrap around his side, the other clutched into her chest.
Evelyn cried silently for her family until her body could no longer stay awake. Daniel held onto her even in his own sleep. They didn't move for the rest of the night.
Early the next morning Evelyn prepared herself. Not only for the run she was about to lead, but for the future of her people. To her it feels like so much rests on her shoulders. Sometimes that weighs her down, but not today.
As she finished tying up her shoelaces, her peripheral caught the figures of Daniel and Sebastian. She stood from her seat and approached them.
"Do you two wanna come with me today?"
Sebastian nodded, a large grin on his lips. "What kind of question is that? Of course I want to come with you."
Daniel only raised an eyebrow. His arms crossed in front of him. "I mean someone has to make sure you don't step in a bear trap again."
"Dude..." Sebastian glared at Daniel. He remembered that day like no other. Evelyn's scream pierced his soul and shattered his heart. The cold of the metal stung his skin when he freed her from the trap. Talk about a core memory.
"It's okay, Seb." Evelyn smiled gently. "Be ready in ten. I have to speak with Blair before we leave."