A knock on the window, followed by two quick knocks on the boarded up door, a six second pause, and one final kick to the bottom of the door. That’s the secret knock that signals to my parents that I’m not an attacking zombie. I take a deep breath of the cool night air and slowly walk to the side of the little hut just in time to hear the last dead-bolt being unlatched from the cellar entrance. One of the doors swings wide and I climb into the dark and shut it quickly behind me, allowing my mother to redo all the bolts and locks before I’m finally able to hug her. It’s been nearly two weeks since I’ve been able to venture a trip outside of the castle walls. Tonight Princess Cornelia is on a date with Knight Nesband, she probably only gave me the night off because she was worried I might spy on her for the king. But I don’t really care about motives right now, I’m just glad to see my family has survived the latest zombie attacks.
Mother guides me through the short tunnel and we emerge in the kitchen. Papa quickly boards up the door to the cellar and then turns to me with his aging eyes.
“Hey kiddo,” he bites his lip and gives me a long hug. I struggle to hold back the tears, and I have a feeling he’s doing the same. “Let me fix you some tea,” he says quietly and turns to the stove where he stares at the wall for a few seconds before filling the tea kettle with water.
“Honey,” ma says holding both my hands and looking straight at me with her concerned mom-face, “how did you get out this time?”
“Got the night off actually. How many of those have I had in the past six years?” I let out a small laugh, it’s not the most genuine, but it feels good. I used to laugh all the time, around my family anyway. But there’s not much to laugh about now.
“Not many. Do you remember when you got sick a few years ago and they let you have the whole week off because they didn’t want their little princess getting sick?” She smiles at me; a brief glint of a happy memory allows her to forget the past ten months, and it reminds me that I’m not the only one who misses laughing. “That was the best week I can remember having in a long time. We had so much fun I didn’t want you to ever go back,” her smile breaks and a tear streams down her cheek. I don’t want to start crying too, so I look over into the sitting room and see something that makes me smile.
“Phillip! Come over here and say hi,” I joke as I walk toward my brother.
“Hey sis,” he says as he stands from his spot on the old sofa where he was reading. We do our goofy secret handshake that we’ve had since we were just kids.
“Watcha reading this time?” He’s reading a different book every time I come over. I think he misses school, since the king closed the entrance to the castle only those living within have been able to continue with school.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he says grabbing the book and stuffing it between the sofa cushions. I stifle a laugh at his clumsy attempt to be sly, but I don’t push him because I know he’s just embarrassed for some silly reason.
“Come on then, let’s go have some tea.” I sit with my family for hours slowly sipping tea and talking. We discuss the zombie situation for a while, who’s been turned, who’s heard news from neighboring kingdoms, when everyone is expecting the next attack. But then the conversation turns lighter, and we begin to push the approaching doom to the back of our minds. We are able to actually laugh and smile, almost like we could before this whole thing started. It feels so good: sitting in this tiny kitchen with the three people who mean everything to me, having a good time and acting like we don’t all know this might be the last good-time we all have together.
At midnight I reluctantly leave, I would spend the night and sneak back before the sun rises in the morning, but mother says it’s too risky. If someone realizes I’m not in the castle I could be in a lot of trouble. So I give everyone one last hug and take an extra moment to memorize their faces before the happiness fades away. Then I climb through the cellar and out the door into the startlingly cold night air. As the cellar doors close I catch one last glimpse of my mother’s face, she looks at me and smiles briefly and I know she’s hoping for the same thing I’m hoping for: that this isn’t the last time we smile at each other.
I pin myself against the hut door and wait for my eyes to adjust to the dark before scanning everything around me and listening intently for the sound of zombies. When I’m sure I’m alone I make a run for the nearby castle wall. I stop briefly to pick up my long sturdy stick, right where I left it. I sprint toward the moat, shoving the stick into the ground and pushing off with its help to clear the ten foot, alligator filled moat. I land surefooted on the other side and quickly kneel to move the slightly out of place pile of rocks that camouflage a whole just big enough for me to squeeze through. I crawl on my belly until I’m within the castle walls, emerging behind a large, thorny bush. By the time I make it to the castle I’m sweaty, covered in mud, and a bit scratched up, but no one is around to care. So I quietly climb the four flights of stairs till I reach the servants bathroom, where I wash off before heading to my tiny room to sleep.