“We’re all in a cage, anyway,” Lazlo gave a derisive look around.
“It doesn’t mean we belong here, either.”
“Are you guys coming or what?” Harlow asked. She had walked a few feet away from us, and she waited impatiently.
“Come on.” Lazlo took my hand in his, and I let him.
He coaxed me away from Ripley’s cage, and when I looked back at her, she’d flattened her ears and looked confused. We walked around a trailer, out of her sight, and she roared sadly once.
A giant green canvas tent served as the mess hall. At least four or five hundred people were seated at picnic tables or waiting in line for a long buffet of food. I hadn’t been around this many people in a long time, and it was almost overwhelming.
Lazlo saw my deer-in-headlights reaction and squeezed my hand. Harlow adjusted to the situation better than I did and had already grabbed a thin metal tray from the end of the buffet. Lazlo and I stood behind her in line.
I let go of his hand and got a tray. Most of our choices were of the vegetable variety, but that was fine by me. After seeing the way zombies tore into flesh, my appetite for meat had gone way down. I got a few tomato slices, cooked carrots, and some kind of weird freeze dried rice, and then went to find a seat at table.
I ate without saying much, and Harlow started a conversation with a woman sitting across from us. She was here with her niece and a boy they’d found along the way. She pointed at the little boy who had been so awed by my relationship with Ripley, and he hurried over to sit by us. He tried talking to me, and when I only muttered responses, Lazlo made excuses for me.
An excited sound welled through the tent. Pvt. Tatum and a few of his friends walked in, and people immediately flocked to them. Lazlo’s fame became insignificant. The real rock stars here were the soldiers, as it should be.
“I’ll be right back.” I got up and pushed my tray away.
“What?” Lazlo gave me a confused look but didn’t follow when I walked over to Tatum.
I shoved gently through the people gathering around them. Tatum saw me coming, and his expression varied between bemused and annoyed. On the positive side, he parted a few people so it’d be easier for me to get to him.
“You seem to be adjusting well,” he smiled.
“Yeah, I’m adjusting great, thanks,” I said, brushing it off as politely as I could. “Did you hear anything about my brother?”
“You know, I’m actually off duty right now.” Tatum continued with his smile and gestured to his apparel. He had dressed down to a green tee shirt and tan pants. With his helmet gone, his eyes weren’t hidden in the shadows, and I could see something mischievous in them. “Well, as off duty as a soldier a can get.”
“I know, and I appreciate that, but I’m not asking you track him down this second,” I said. “I’m just asking if you know if he’s here or where he might be.”
“I was gonna come find you later.” He ran a hand through his crew-cut blond hair. “Come here.”
“What?” My heart dropped.
“Just c’mere.” Tatum grabbed my arm, not gently but not enough to really hurt, and pulled me away.
My mouth felt dry, and my heart pounded so fast, it hurt. My feet didn’t really seem to want to cooperate either, and I welcomed him dragging me along. I looked over my shoulder just before he led me out of the tent. Lazlo had gotten up from the table in some gesture to protect me, but I just shook my head.
I didn’t want him barging out here and preventing Tatum from telling me something. Whatever he wanted to say, he wanted to do it in private, because even his army buddies weren’t following us.
“What?” I demanded, pulling my arm back when I felt like we’d gone far enough. “What’s going on?”
“I have confirmation,” Tatum said hesitantly. “Your brother’s here. But you can’t see him.”
– 18 –
Intense relief flooded over me, and I wrapped my arms around myself to keep from visibly shaking. Up until the second he said my brother was here, I had been convinced he would tell me Max had died.
“What? Why the hell can’t I see Max?” I asked, relieved that I kept the tremble out of my voice.
“Keep your voice down,” Tatum looked back over his shoulder, but nobody was around us. “I brought you out here so you wouldn’t make a scene.”
“Why would I make a scene?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you anything.” He lowered his voice and leaned in closer to me.
“Why not? What’s going on?” I demanded.
“I don’t know.” Tatum shook his head. “Whatever’s going on with your brother, it’s very classified. He came in the middle of the night on a truck with officers and doctors, but no other civilians. Nobody I know has seen him, and they got very uptight when I started asking about him.”
“But he’s alive?” I rubbed the back of my neck and looked away from his intense stare. The wound on my hip tingled, like some kind of Tell Tale Heart reminder.
“As far as I know.” Tatum narrowed his eyes at me. My lack of bravado about hearing the word classified triggered something. “Do you know what’s going on with your brother?”
“How could I know?” I tried to return his scrutiny evenly. “He’s locked up, like a prisoner even though he’s an eight-year-old little boy! I have no idea what’s happening to him!”
Tatum straightened up and crossed his arms over his chest, the sleeves of his shirt tightening on his biceps. By his stern expression, I knew he didn’t believe me, but I didn’t know what he made of it. He stared at me for a moment, and I swallowed hard. I knew that if I wanted to see my brother, I had to have Tatum on my side.
“Is he infected?” Tatum asked finally.
“No,” I shook my head but didn’t say more.
“You better not lie to me about this,” he warned me. Even though he was probably only a year or so older than me, he was tall, broad, and rather imposing. “I don’t want any of these people in here getting sick because of some kid.”
“No, he’s not… he can’t get anybody sick,” I said as carefully as I could. “I’m just trying to protect him, and I can’t do that if I can’t even see him.”
“I can look into it more.”
“Look into it more?” I scoffed. “I made it all the way here, and you’re gonna try to look into it? I’ve gone all the way across the country, rescued a lion, escaped a cult, killed marauders, and fought dozens of zombies with my bare fricking hands! And you’re gonna look into it?”