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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 11
There were no screams.
After what seemed like five hundred years, Tom repeated what he’d said.
“Yeah,” Benny said again.
His fingernails were buried into his palms hard enough to gouge crescent-shaped divots.
“Girls are stronger than boys,” Tom said.
“Not a news flash,” Benny said.
“I’m just saying.”
They watched the forest.
“If this goes on any longer, Tom?”
Benny looked at him and then over to where Chong still sat in the tall grass.
“Is this all really Chong’s fault?”
“No, tell me.”
“If you really want an honest answer,” Tom said quietly, “then … yes. Chong didn’t listen when he was told to be quiet, and he didn’t listen when he was told what to do when the rhino was chasing us.”
“Sure,” Benny said grudgingly, “but I’ve been out here before.”
“Don’t make excuses for him. You listened to me the first time we came out here,” Tom reminded him. “And that was back when you couldn’t stand me.”
“Not everyone is built to be tough,” said Tom. “Sad fact of life. Chong is one of the nicest people I know. His folks, too. If our species is going to make it back from the brink and build something better than what we had, then we need to breed more people like them. It would be a saner, smarter, and far more civilized world.”
“But … ?”
“But I don’t think he’s cut out for this.”
“It’s better that he’s not coming with us.”
Benny said nothing.
“Do you agree, kiddo?”
“I don’t know.” Benny sighed. “Chong’s my best friend.”
“That’s why he’s here. He only came out here because he’s your friend, and because he doesn’t quite know how to say good-bye,” said Tom. “Saying good-bye is one of the hardest things people ever have to do. Back before First Night, I remember how hard it was just to say good-bye to my friends when I was done with high school. We wrote a lot of promises in each other’s yearbooks about how we’d always stay in touch, but even then we knew that for the most part they were lies. Well-intentioned and hopeful lies, but still lies.”
“That was different.”
“Sure, but things are relative. Just like pain. What Nix is going through is not the worst pain she’s ever felt, which is why she can deal with it. For me, saying good-bye to my friends from high school was terrible. We all were going off to colleges in different parts of the country. The old gang I grew up with was falling apart. It felt like dying. It was grief.”
Benny thought about the way he had left things with Morgie. He nodded.
“I guess I’m having a hard time adjusting to the fact that leaving is so final.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” said Tom.
“For Nix it does.”
“What are we going to do about Chong?” asked Benny.
Tom ticked his chin toward the southeast. “There’s a back road to Brother David’s way station. My friend Sally Two-Knives will be coming through here today or tomorrow. I’m going to wait at the way station until she shows, and then I’ll ask her to take Chong back home.”
Benny had the Zombie Card for Sally Two-Knives. She was a bounty hunter who worked mostly out of the towns farther north. She was a tall, dark-skinned woman with a Mohawk and a matched pair of army bayonets strapped to her thighs. The text on the back of her Zombie Card read:
Card No. 239: Sally Two-Knives. This former Roller-Derby queen has become one of the toughest and most reliable bounty hunters and guides in the Ruin. Don’t cross her or you’ll find out just how good she is with her two razor-sharp knives!
Like most of the Zombie Cards, it didn’t give a lot of information, but Benny always liked the fierce woman’s smiling face. She wasn’t pretty, but there was humor in her brown eyes.
Brother David, on the other hand, was a way-station monk, one of the Children of God who lived out in the Ruin and did what he could to tend to the living dead. Brother David and the others of his order called the zombies the Children of Lazarus and believed them to be the “meek” who were meant to inherit the earth. Benny couldn’t quite grasp the concept, especially after what he and Nix had encountered in the field.
“You and Chong can say your good-byes in the morning.”
“Will Chong be safe? I mean … will Sally Two-Knives be enough protection for him?”
Tom laughed. “More than enough. She doesn’t like killing zoms, so she knows all the routes that are clear and safe.”
They were silent for a while, each cutting looks over at Lilah, who was still working on Nix.
When Tom next spoke he deliberately made his tone light. “If we’re lucky we’ll catch up with Greenman, maybe stay a couple days at his place.”
“Greenman, really? Cool! I can’t wait to meet him,” said Benny. He had the Greenman card too. The image on the card was that of a tall, thin man wearing clothes entirely covered in green leaves, berries, and pinecones. The artist had depicted him wearing a mask made from oak leaves and acorns. The card read:
Card No. 172: The Greenman. Little is known about this mysterious figure seen haunting the forests between Magoon Hill and Yosemite. Is he a myth? A ghost? Or is he a dangerous madman waiting to pounce on unwary travelers? Beware the Greenman!
“Sounds like someone from a story.”
“He’s real enough,” said Tom, “but he is a bit of a character. His real name’s Artie Mensch. Used to be a forest ranger over in Yosemite, but since First Night the Ruin has become a real home to him. Never comes into town, doesn’t talk to too many people. Prefers to be alone.”
“Does he really dress like that?”
“Sometimes. When he has his camouflage on you can walk right past him and not see him. Fools the zoms, too. And he’s been experimenting with mixtures of herbs to get the same effect as cadaverine. Not sure if he’s worked it out yet.”
“The Zombie Card says that he might be crazy,” Benny said.
Tom shrugged. “Most people are a little crazy, especially since First Night, and doubly so if they live out here. But Greenman’s a good man, and he’s a friend to the right kind of traveler.”
“What’s the right kind?”
“Let’s just say that Greenman wouldn’t have invited Charlie or the Hammer in for tea.” Tom stared into the distance as if looking into his own thoughts. “I’ve spent many a long night with him. Talking about the old days, and learning what he has to teach.”
“You learned from him?”
“Sure. He might be the wisest person left alive. Certainly the wisest I know.”
A few minutes later, Benny nodded toward the forest. “How far have you been?”
“Since First Night? All the way to the far side of Yosemite, but I rarely go that deep. Once we pass through the park, it’ll be as new to me as it is to you guys.”
“And we’ll be roughing it all the way?”
“Nah. I dropped off some supplies at Brother David’s a few weeks ago. Carpet coats, more cadaverine, some weapons, tents, other stuff. Anything else we need we can get from the traders over in Wawona. Roughing it was just for tonight. For the real trip I want us to be as well supplied as we can be.”
Benny looked over and saw that Lilah was applying a bandage. The stitchery was done and Nix still hadn’t made a sound.
“Speaking of crazy,” Benny murmured.
Tom glanced over. “Nix or Lilah?”
“Take your pick.”
Tom snorted. “You ever try to imagine what it’s like being inside Nix’s head?”
?All the time.” Benny shook his head. “I’ve known her my whole life, and we’ve talked about everything … but then I catch a look in her eye when we’re training, or she’ll say something odd, and then I wonder if I really know her at all.”
“How’s that make her crazy?”
“I don’t know. I … can’t quite put it into words. Since last year she’s different. She’s obsessed about this trip. When we talk about it, most of the time she’s really focused and logical, but if I bring up any reservations about it … she either bites my head or acts as if I didn’t say anything.” He looked at Tom. “I know you’ve seen it too.”
“I have,” Tom admitted, “but I don’t know if it makes her crazy. Her last blood ties are gone, Benny. In a lot of ways she feels that she’s all alone.”
“Sure she is. We’re each alone inside our heads, some more so than others. Lilah’s been alone inside her head for years, and she may never come completely out.”
“So you’re saying that Nix is just obsessed and lonely?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m agreeing with you that there are forces at work in her life. I don’t know if she’s truly crazy—as in a danger to herself and others—but I suspect that her sanity is a work in process. Keep your eye on her.”
He clapped Benny on the shoulder, and they walked over to see how Nix was doing. She was pale, almost green, and her face—what Benny could see of it under the bandages—ran with sweat. Lilah sat on a tree stump, carefully cleaning the needle with alcohol.
“World’s dumbest question,” Benny said to Nix, “but how do you feel?”
“Like I was attacked by Mrs. Lafferty’s quilting circle.” Nix’s face was puffy, and she barely moved her lips when she spoke. Her eyes were glassy with pain and the fatigue that comes from enduring pain. “Thanks,” she said to Lilah.
“I don’t want to go back to that town either,” Lilah said, and walked away.
Benny and Nix looked up at Tom.
He sighed, then said, “Okay. We keep going.”
THEY RESTED FOR ANOTHER HOUR, AND THEN TOM TOLD EVERYONE TO get ready.
Benny came over to check on Chong, but his friend didn’t want to talk. Chong put his pack on, adjusted the straps, and didn’t meet anyone’s eyes.
“Let’s go,” said Tom. “I want to make the way station while it’s still light. Nix … we’ll only go as fast as you can manage.”
“No you’re not. You’re hurt, and even though it’s not as serious as it looks, your body has gone through trauma. Be smart about how you feel. Push too hard and you’ll collapse, and then I swear to God I will carry you back to town. Is that clear?”
Tom adjusted the strap that held his sword. “We’re going to be going down the mountain, and that means every step brings us deeper into zombie-infested lands. Everyone keep your eyes open, and everyone follow orders.” He looked hard at Chong, who gave a single tight nod.
They set out. Tom led the way, and for a few minutes Benny walked beside him. A mile into the hike, Benny said, “We screwed it up pretty bad in just a few hours.”
Tom grunted, but aloud he said, “Despite what I said earlier—and despite a legendary series of screwups—this day could actually have been worse. Not much worse … but worse.”
“So Lilah keeps reminding me,” said Benny quietly. “I think she’d enjoy quieting me.”
“I doubt it, but I agree that she can be a bit intense.”
“Is ‘intense’ really a strong enough word?”
“Give her time, kiddo. She’s—”
“Lived alone for six years, yeah, I know. I’m not criticizing her for being weird, Tom. It’s just a little freaky when someone keeps threatening to kill you.”
Tom nodded, but repeated, “Give her time.”
Benny let Tom move ahead of him, and he slowed until Nix caught up, but from the stiff set of her bandaged face, Benny knew that she was in no mood for companionship or conversation. He walked with her for a while, but when he noticed that she kept trying to walk faster, he lagged again to let her pull ahead.
He turned and looked back and saw that Lilah was walking side by side with Chong, and they were talking in quiet voices. He grunted in surprise. Lilah was weird at the best of times, and she was usually so unemotional that he wondered what really went on inside her head. When he’d first learned about her from a picture on a Zombie Card, he’d been briefly and intensely infatuated. Now he was just afraid of her. And maybe sorry for her too … though he’d feel much more compassion if she wasn’t so damn fast whipping out her knife every time he got a hangnail.
The forest path wound around and began sloping down toward a road that had once been blacktop and was now cracked and torn by the unstoppable roots of trees. Young trees, some of them a dozen years old, stood in the middle of lanes where once cars had driven.
“Careful now,” Tom cautioned. “Weapons out, eyes and ears open.”
Benny drew his bokken and moved closer to Nix.
They walked through the knee-high weeds, stepping over old bones that might have been human, though Benny didn’t want to stop to examine them. Ahead a brown truck lay on its side. Benny could read the letters “UPS” on the rusted back door. The moldering remains of old boxes tumbled out of the back, and what little cardboard remained was bleached white by fourteen years of rain and snow.
Tom held up a clenched fist, the sign to stop. Everyone froze in place.
He gestured for them to stay where they were, then he silently drew his sword and crept toward the truck on the balls of his feet. The woods were alive with birdsong and the buzz of bees. Benny licked his dry lips, waiting for the moment when everything would suddenly go silent. Would there be another animal like the rhino, or would it be zoms?
Tom came up on the truck at an angle that reduced the likelihood of anyone on the far side seeing him. When he wanted to move quietly, he was silent as a shadow. He slid along the top of the overturned truck, took a brief peek around the end, and then vanished behind the vehicle.
Nix drifted to Benny’s side. She looked scared, and he realized that with her injury and the bandages she was probably feeling pretty vulnerable.
Benny mouthed the words, “It’s okay.”
But it wasn’t. When Tom stepped out from behind the truck, his sword was held loosely in one hand, the blade angled down toward the weeds. Even from thirty feet away Benny could see that Tom’s face was drawn and pale, and his lip was curled in disgust.
Everyone moved forward at once.
“What is it?” Nix asked.
“Was somebody attacked by zoms?” asked Benny.
Tom gave them a bleak stare. “Worse,” he said. He looked old and sad, and he turned away to look at the waving treetops down the road.
Nix, Chong, and Benny exchanged frowns of puzzlement, and as a group they walked around to the far side of the truck. The buzzing was louder, and Benny realized that it wasn’t bees hunting for nectar in the spring flowers.
It was flies. Black blowflies that swirled in a thick cloud around something on the other side of the overturned truck.
It was a man. Or, it had been a man. He stood straight, arms out to his sides and secured by ropes to the axles of the truck. The man wore only torn jeans and nothing else. Not even skin. Most of him was gone. Torn away. Consumed.
Chong spun away and threw up into the bushes.
Nix was a statue beside Benny, her eyes huge and unblinking, and from where her arm touched his he could feel her skin turn cold as ice.
Benny wasn’t sure if he was still standing or sitting. Or dreaming. The world spun drunkenly around him, filling him with sickness, making him want to scream.
This man had not been attacked by zoms.
He had been fed to them.
It was the fourth ti
me Chong had asked the question. Maybe the fifth. Benny couldn’t quite remember. Chong kept walking away and coming back and walking away. Each time he came back he demanded an answer. As if there was one that could explain this.
Benny felt totally numb, but he could not make himself look away. Something deep inside demanded that he stand there and look at every inch of the dead man. It made him count the bites. It made him catalog all the things that had been taken from this man.
No. Within his mind a voice that did not feel like his own rebelled at the use of so weak and inaccurate a word as “taken.” The cold detachment required honesty in evaluation. No, the voice said, don’t lie to yourself. If you hide from the truth behind soft words, then you’ll be soft. Then you’ll be dead.
Nothing had been taken. Parts of this man had been consumed. Eaten.
That’s the truth of what you are seeing. That’s the truth of what zoms do.
As he listened to the voice, he also heard a sound. A sob. He blinked and looked around. Chong had walked away again and now he squatted down by the side of the road, arms crossed over his head, his whole body trembling.
Benny glanced again at the dead man, and then turned to go over to Chong, grateful to have a reason to turn away. It wouldn’t feel like cowardice if he was going to help Chong instead of looking at the corpse.
Be strong, whispered his inner voice, then faded into silence.
Benny sat down next to Chong and put his arm around his friend’s shoulders. He wanted to say something, but his inner vocabulary did not include any words that would make sense out of this moment.
“I—I’m sorry,” murmured Chong. He lifted his head and stared straight ahead. His face was streaked with tears and his nose was running. “I don’t—I mean, I can’t—”
“No,” said a low rasp of a voice, and they both turned to see Lilah standing there. The breeze blew her snow-white hair like streamers of pale smoke. “Tears don’t mean you’re weak.”