Cody put steaks on the grill as Tina and Kelly led the visitors into the pool area. Tim waved a wine bottle.
“Hey, how do you guys like your steaks?” Cody said. Then he saw Sondra and did a double-take.
“Medium-rare!” Max called back.
“Medium,” Charles said.
Sondra walked over to the grill. “I don’t eat much steak,” she said, “so whatever you think is best.”
“Medium, then?” Cody said, looking straight at Sondra, the grill all but forgotten. She was almost as tall as himself, and to Cody’s surprise was looking back at him. She wasn’t pretty, but something in her eyes…
Tina nudged Kelly, who stood in the gate watching the tableau at the grill. “Kelly, what… oh. Those two look like a perfect match, don’t they?”
“I guess,” Kelly muttered, and stepped forward far enough for her mother to pass. She shook her head, as if to clear it, and carried the soft drinks cooler to where Tim was pouring wine for Charles and Max.
“Rebecca Sanchez?” Tim said. Charles and Max shook their heads, and Tim sighed. “I didn’t think so, but it was worth asking.”
“Who is she?” Sara asked, taking the empty wine bottle and handing Tim a new one.
“My ex-girlfriend,” Tim said. “Not that I’d get back with her, ever, but that doesn ’t mean I wanted her driving off, either.”
“I understand,” Sara said. “My husband and I were separated, but even if we’d gone through with the divorce, I wouldn’t have wished that on him. But that’s probably what happened to him, too.”
“Who wanted medium-rare?” Cody yelled. “It’s about ready!” Max broke off, and picked up a paper plate for Cody to drop his steak onto. “Yours will be ready in another minute,” he told Sondra. “That other guy who came up—”
“Yeah. That’s Kelly’s dad? His will be ready too. I think everyone else wanted medium, too. Grab some plates, okay?”
“Sure. Just don’t expect me to be your plate-fetcher all the time.”
“Hey… that’s not what I was about.” Cody took a sudden deep interest in the steaks.
“I was joking,” Sondra said, poking Cody and making him look at her. “You’re kind of a loner, huh?”
“Yeah. I pretty much keep to myself, never could depend on nobody else so I quit trying. But I guess I ought to try again, there’s not many of us left.” He lowered his voice. “You know, I wouldn’t say this to the rest of them, they wouldn’t understand: I’m glad this happened. All the people who hated me because I wasn’t like them, all the jocks and preps, they all drove off. I feel bad about my mom and my sister, but not so much about anyone else.”
“I think I understand,” Sondra said. “When you’re different, you stand out. I had a — a friend who said the nails that stick up are the ones that get hammered back down. If I had the choice, I’d make it go back, but it’s kind of nice to not be hammered on for a change.”
The eight of them crowded around a table meant to seat six, but nobody minded. The coolers were at hand with cole slaw, potato salad, bread, and drinks. As they passed around store-bought apple pie, Charles stood and took the step to the fence. “Sorry,” he said, “I'm used to having a wall behind me when I lecture, even if it’s just to support a blackboard, and I can’t break the habit just yet.
“First, I want to thank all of you for allowing us to visit. I can’t pretend to speak for all 27 of us who have gathered in Atlanta, but I’m pretty sure that when they hear about this place — a sanctuary of sorts, where there’s no trucks — most of them will want to move here. Not just because of that — Sondra has already mentioned setting up barricades — but because of some of the problems we’ve had over the weekend.
“Friday evening, a gang — I’m not sure whether they were gang-bangers, or simply a mob of the moment, and it doesn’t matter — began breaking into houses and apartments, mostly to steal liquor and jewelry or cash. We drove some off, but then others would pop up somewhere else. After we shot at one or two, they finally moved on to other neighborhoods. But we thought it might be best to gather everyone together along one block rather than being scattered around. That turned out to be a good move, because on Saturday a group came down — we think from Marietta — to eradicate anyone they could find in Atlanta. To those guys, we are all either gay, black, or communist. They rode in on motorcycles on Saturday afternoon and started shooting at anyone they saw. We shot back, which I don’t think they expected, and it got pretty messy. Somewhere along the line, when nobody was paying attention, their motorcycles turned into pickups. A couple of them didn’t stop to think, they just jumped in and drove off. The others ran, but we think some of them are still around, looking for a chance or maybe hunting softer targets. We don’t go out alone, and we don’t go out without weapons. You would think that wouldn’t be a problem anymore, but… Well, my partner James jumped into a truck Sunday afternoon. Living under siege is stressful.
“Otherwise, we’re currently living much like you do, raiding abandoned houses and groceries for non-perishable items, cooking over campstoves or grills, running a refrigerator and a few lights with a generator. We tried adopting a few dogs to watch the neighborhood, but they bark at the pickups all the time so they won’t give us much of a warning if we’re attacked again. You’ll have similar problems, but perhaps not so great in scope — your dwelling density is lower, for starters. Out here, former pets going feral may be your biggest hazard. From what Tina and Kelly told me, you’ve begun addressing that problem at least inside your own fences here.
“The question is: would you be willing to take us in?”
“Sure,” Cody said, shoulder to shoulder with Sondra. “I mean, why not? There’s plenty of room, and it sounds like you guys are pretty well armed if we do run into trouble.”
“Safety in numbers,” Sara said.
“I’m new to the community here, but I would have no objections,” Tim said.
“You think I’d turn my own dad away?” Kelly said, crossing her arms and leaning away from Sondra.
“To be honest,” Tina said, “I think it would be a relief to have more people here. So I guess it’s unanimous.”