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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 18


  He whipped the other match from between his teeth and lit it as another wave of zoms closed in on him from behind. He used his forearm to bash aside the grasping hands and jabbed the match into the lace of a wedding gown, the folds of a loose cardigan, the ripped streamers of a halter top, the coattails of a waiter’s jacket. The match burned his fingers, and he dropped it.

  “BENNY!” He heard Nix’s piercing cry and whirled to see flames shoot up behind him. It took him a numb second to understand how the fire could have jumped that far, and then he realized. Nix had seen what he was doing, and she—beautiful, brilliant, and brave as he knew she was—had done the same. He almost laughed out loud. She ducked and snatched up her fallen sword and used it to fend off a burning zom.

  Then Benny drew his bokken and swung with all the force he possessed, hitting a burning zom on the side of the neck so hard that he felt the shock through his wrist as the creature’s neck snapped. The zom fell hard into two others, and they immediately caught fire. A wall of heat slammed into him, and the laugh died in his throat.

  “Uh-oh,” he said aloud. The sound of his voice didn’t matter now. The roar of the fire was immense, the heat like an open furnace.

  “BENNY!”

  He turned and had to squint through the yellow glare to see Nix moving at a dead run toward the southeast. Something touched his shoulder, and Benny screamed.

  The first zom—the one he’d kicked—had just grabbed him with a burning hand. Intense white-hot agony shot through Benny’s shoulder as the fiery fingers ignited the fabric of the carpet coat.

  Benny shrieked in pain and swung the bokken with all his force. The zom’s head exploded into thick flaming pieces and the creature fell away. But its hand still clutched the fabric of Benny’s coat. Benny kicked and slapped and hammered at the zom’s arm until the blackened fingers fell away. He slapped at the flames on his shoulder. The carpet coat was old but not as sun-dried as the rags the zoms wore, but as he beat out the last dancing fingers of fire, he could feel burns on the skin of his shoulder and upper arm. If it hadn’t been for the thick fabric of the coat …

  Then another hand grabbed him and he whirled, raising the sword to strike, but it was Nix. Her face was black from smoke, and her eyes were wild.

  “COME ON!” she screeched, and dragged him away. Heat pounded them like fists on all sides, and the air itself was becoming too hot to breathe.

  “Where’s Lilah?” he yelled.

  “I don’t know. God—we have to go!”

  They ran. The zoms were drawn to the massive flames, and as they crowded toward the commotion, more and more of them caught fire. The breeze caught pieces of burning cloth and burning flesh and whipped them across the field, setting new blazes here and there and soon … everywhere. As they ran it seemed as if the whole world had suddenly caught fire.

  FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

  (Benny: If you are reading my journal, STOP. This part is private. If I find out that you read this, so help me I’ll beat you to death and then when you reanimate I’ll beat you to death all over again.)

  Dear Future Nix:

  I haven’t written for a while. I’ve been too busy collecting zombie information. I tried to talk to Lilah about this, but she doesn’t understand boys. At all. Not even a little bit.

  Benny keeps wanting me to act like we’re a couple. And we ARE a couple, but sometimes I just can’t do the lovey-dovey stuff. It feels weird. I never had a boyfriend before, and even though I’ve liked Benny since—what? Since we were six?—I’m not sure if I want to get totally wrapped up. Not that there’s anyone else. We’re out in the Ruin and there really is NO ONE ELSE. It’s just that ever since last year it feels like there’s stuff wrapped around my emotions. Nothing feels really real. Except being scared. That’s always real. And being angry. I’m ALWAYS angry. Even when we’re all joking, I’m always angry. Benny doesn’t know about that. I’m good at hiding it, and boys aren’t so good at seeing it.

  It’s really confusing. Benny and I are never going back home. We may not meet other kids our age. Do I want to be with him because we don’t have a choice or because that was our choice?

  You’re reading this in the future. You know how it all worked out. I don’t.

  I do like Benny. I probably love him, but it’s hard to tell the difference between the crush I’ve had all these years and real love.

  What does that feel like? Will I ever know?

  38

  WHEN LOU CHONG WOKE UP THE FIRST TIME, HE THOUGHT HE WAS in hell.

  When he woke up the second time, he knew he was.

  The first thing he was aware of was pain. The bones of his face ached so deeply that his gums hurt. When he tried to move his head, the strained muscles in his neck flared with darts of searing pain that lanced through him. He tried to touch his face, to see how bad he was hurt, but his hands would not move. Which was when he felt the pain in his wrists and ankles.

  “W-what?” he asked. Except that he could not speak. A thick and noxious rag was tied around his head, a knot of it shoved between his teeth. All he could do was groan. Like a zom.

  He blinked his eyes, trying to clear them. Vision returned very slowly. At first all he saw was dirt and some clumps of crooked grass. At least that helped him orient himself. He was on his side, on the ground.

  And he was bound and gagged. Panic was a trembling thing that fluttered inside the walls of his chest. He wanted to scream out, to attract attention, to be able to say, reasonably and calmly, that this was all a mistake. He wanted to apologize for whatever he must have done to have made someone this mad at him. Had Captain Strunk thrown him in jail? Had he and Benny and Morgie broken someone’s window? Had they been caught stealing eggs from the Lamba Farm again? Or had one of the town watch caught them throwing the eggs at the old Pettit place?

  Pain rolled up and down him like a tide, never pausing, missing nothing. He could not believe that he was capable of hurting in so many places at once.

  “Help!” It came out as a weak grunt of meaningless noise.

  “Well, well,” said a voice. “Look who’s awake.” A booted foot stepped down inches from Chong’s nose. “You was out so long I thought I was going to have to quiet you.” The man had a deep voice that was strangely familiar and at the same time alien. Chong’s head hurt too much to make logical sense of it.

  He tried to crane his neck to look up, but he couldn’t move his head far enough. It felt as if the gag was tied in some way to whatever had been used to bind his ankles and wrists.

  “Please …” It was just noise, but the man chuckled as if he understood.

  “You trying to say something, little man?”

  There was a flash of silver and then the pressure of cold steel against his cheek … and then the ends of the gag dropped away, the tough cloth parting like gossamer as the wicked blade slashed through them.

  Free from the pressure, Chong coughed and spat to force the dirty rag out of his mouth. The corners of his mouth felt stretched, his cheeks were raw and abraded. His arms and legs were still firmly tied and he wriggled around, trying to work free of them, but the knots were too tight.

  “Don’t worry, little man, I’ll cut you loose. In my own time, of course.”

  Chong started to look up, but the man stepped so close that the sour stink of his boot leather filled Chong’s eyes and nose.

  He tried to speak, but his throat was dry as paste. “W-why?” he croaked. “Who are you?”

  The man chuckled again. It was a friendly sound, totally at odds with what was happening. And it was maddeningly familiar. It almost sounded like …

  But … no … that was impossible.

  The man lifted the booted foot and brought it down on the side of Chong’s face. Not a kick … no, the man placed the sole on Chong’s cheek and slowly applied weight and pressure.

  “Shhhh, now. I cut the gag so you could breathe. Wasn’t no invitation to ask a bunch of questions you already know the answer to.”
/>  Chong frowned and tried to tell him that he was wrong, that Chong didn’t know the answers to anything, that this was all some kind of mistake. The force behind the boot increased bit by bit. At first it was only pressure, but soon there was enough weight to make Chong’s jaw creak. Then more, and more, and Chong started to cry out. More and more until he thought he would pass out.

  “I can keep this up all night,” said the man as casually as if he was discussing the weather. “I’ll stop when I don’t hear any more noise coming out of your mouth. Chew on this thought for a minute, little man. A gag ain’t the only way to keep you from talking. I can cut your tongue out too, and nail it to a tree. Don’t think for a moment that I’m joking, ’cause I done it before, and to tougher specimens than you.”

  Chong wanted to scream. Instead he clamped his mouth shut tighter than the gag had been.

  The pressure continued. Chong squeezed his eyes shut and tried to find a place inside his head where he could go and hide. He wanted to be home, up in his room, surrounded by the stacks of his beloved books. Back there, if a monster became too terrifying Chong could always close the book. Not here. Not in the dark with the pain and the ropes and the gag.

  The pressure stopped increasing as the man listened for sounds from Chong.

  “That’s the ticket,” he said, and removed his foot … but not before giving it a last little extra pressure. Somehow that made Chong feel more frightened, that last little bit of pressure. It was unnecessary. The man had already defeated Chong, already proved his power and dominance. That last twist spoke of a deeper, less evolved kind of evil. A sneaky pettiness. Sly and dirty. It made Chong very, very afraid.

  For several long minutes there was nothing. No new pain, no sign of the man, no sound of him moving around. Was he standing there, out of sight? Just watching? Chong knew that he was. And that made him even more afraid.

  Then the man spoke. “I’ll bet your mommy and daddy told you that there are bad people out here in the badlands. People who will do bad things to you. Bad things to stupid little boys running around in the great Rot and Ruin. Bad men doing bad, bad things.”

  There was a rush of sound and suddenly the man was on his hands and knees, bending low so that his face was inches from Chong’s. It was a face out of a nightmare. The skin was a horror show. Every inch of that face was twisted and melted. One eye was completely gone, just a black pit in the lumpy pink and red moonscape. Hair as white as snow framed the man’s terrible face. He whispered four words.

  “I’m the bad man.” Then he laughed and stood up. “You know what we’re going to do now?”

  Chong did not dare answer. He closed his eyes, not wanting this to be real. Begging the universe to make this a dream.

  “I’m going to cut your feet loose so you can walk, and by God you will walk. We got miles and miles to walk, halfway into the night. You’re going to walk every inch of it, and you’re not going to say anything. Not a word, and by God not a whimper. If you so much as cut a fart I’m going to cut pieces offa you. Nod if you believe me.”

  Chong nodded. Emphatically.

  “Then, oh say round about midnight—the witching hour, as they useta call it back before the zoms—we’re going to get somewhere. You know where that is, little man?”

  Chong shook his head. Just a tentative little shake. The man knelt again, and his breath was hot and whiskey soaked against Chong’s ear.

  “I’m taking your skinny ass to Gameland, little man. Now … ain’t that a world of fun?”

  Chong did not dare scream. But oh, how he needed to.

  39

  THE WORLD SEEMED TO BE MADE OF FLAME AND WHITE FACES AND DEATH. Benny and Nix ran into the night, pursued by inferno heat. They had no clear direction, but there were too many zoms to allow them a straight line of flight.

  “How many are there?” Benny gasped. However, it was the last thing he said aloud for a long time, because those four words nearly got him killed. The fire down on the field drew the attention of most of the zoms, but his voice came out unnaturally loud. All the pale death-mask faces around them turned suddenly toward them.

  Benny and Nix stopped, shifting to stand back-to-back, swords ready.

  I killed us, Benny thought; but immediately his inner voice retorted, No. Think your way through it. What resources do you still have?

  Benny thought about the matches and almost laughed. If he had, it would have been his last laugh, and it would have been an insane cackle. The fire had saved them in the short term, but if the winds veered, then the blaze would chase them up the mountain—and fire burns upward. There was no lowland path open to them.

  Nix took a slow sideways step, and Benny shifted with her. The zoms came closer, but their dark eyes shifted back and forth between them and the blaze. Without more sound to attract them, they were losing interest.

  But not quickly enough. Soon some of them would be within grabbing distance. Benny could already smell their dead, dusty, decayed stench… .

  And that fast he had it. He shifted his bokken to a one-handed grip and slid his hand slowly into his pocket. Not for the matches, though. Instead he pulled out one of his remaining bottles of cadaverine. It was a risk. If they survived this terrible moment, then they would need the chemical to help them get to …

  To where? Home? Back to the burning way station? Into the endless forest to look for Tom and Chong? East toward Yosemite and wherever the jet went?

  Solve one problem at a time, warned his inner voice.

  Nix took another step, going slowly so that Benny could keep pace. He didn’t dare take the time to look to see if she was merely moving or if she saw a way out. Benny put the cap between his teeth to hold it steady while he unscrewed the bottle. Instantly the sickly sweet stink of rotting meat filled the air. It wasn’t until that moment that he realized how much the smoke had blocked the cadaverine smell.

  A distant part of him wondered if the zoms would attack one another in the smoke. If they couldn’t smell the odor of death, would they attack anything? There was no way to know, and he wasn’t about to go back and turn this into a science experiment.

  “Benny,” murmured Nix in a voice so soft that it was a shadow of a sound.

  He didn’t answer. Instead he sprinkled some of the cadaverine on his chest and hair. The first of the zoms were within arm’s length now, the hands lifting, reaching. And pausing.

  Benny jerked the open bottle over his shoulder, splashing Nix’s red curls.

  “Wait,” he whispered. “Give it a sec.”

  “Benny …”

  “Shhh.”

  “No,” she insisted. “Look.”

  He turned the wrong way first, and then faced her and followed the line she indicated with her outstretched bokken.

  They were on a slope that led up to a shadowy mass of trees that he could barely see by starlight. There were far fewer zoms up there, the lines of them visibly thinning. However, that was not what Nix was pointing to. A figure stood at the top of the path. Benny had to blink the stinging smoke out of his eyes to make it out. At first it looked like a tall shrubbery, but then it moved to stand more fully in the starlight, and Benny gasped.

  From the height, he judged the figure to be a man, but otherwise it was impossible to tell. It seemed like he was wearing a small tree, but then Benny realized that the man wore a long coat onto which leaves and pinecones had been sewn. His face was entirely covered by a round mask made up of oak leaves. Benny knew who it was, even in the dark. He knew him from Tom’s description and from his own Zombie Cards.

  It was the Greenman. Zoms walked past him, staggering out of the forest; a few even bumped into him as they stumbled down the grassy path. The Greenman did not move except to raise a slender finger to the “lips” of his mask.

  Benny and Nix fell silent and stood as still as statues. Below them the wind was blowing the fire toward the fall of rocks. It was not spreading into the hills, and Benny was grateful for small mercies. He didn’t want to
cause even more problems for Tom, and he certainly didn’t want to start a forest fire.

  It took a long time for the zoms to pass. Benny tried to count off the seconds and minutes just to keep from going crazy. He wanted to gather Nix in his arms and hug her hard enough to make them both scream. He wanted noise and peace at the same time. Anything but what was all around them.

  Then it was over. The last of the zoms—a sad-faced man wearing the stained rags of a house painter’s coveralls—tottered past. He had a butcher knife buried in his chest, but the blade was pitted with rust. The creature turned an empty face toward Benny for a long moment, and despite all the terror that still crouched in his chest, Benny felt sorry for him. He almost said as much. Then the zombie vanished into the smoke and gloom down on the field.

  Nix tugged his sleeve, and Benny looked up to see that the Greenman was beckoning them with slow movements of his hand. Then he turned and walked toward the woods without waiting to see if Benny and Nix were following.

  “Who is that?” Nix asked. “Is that Lilah? What’s she wearing?”

  Benny shook his head. “It’s the Greenman.”

  “Why’s he dressed like that?”

  “Tom says that he found some way to blend into the forest. Even the zoms don’t see him.” He lowered his sword and reached out his hand. “Come on.”

  Nix sniffed back tears and took his hand, giving him one of her fierce squeezes. “Where’s Lilah?” she asked.

  “I don’t know. I saw her run … but then I lost her.”

  “Do—do you think she got out?”

  “Absolutely,” he said carefully. “Lilah’s used to taking care of herself.” Though as he said it he was remembering the mad, desperate look in her eyes. He wondered about his own sanity. After all, he had just set an enormous fire and was pretty sure he had seen Charlie Pink-eye standing alive but unharmed in the middle of a field of zoms. Benny debated for less than half a millisecond about whether to tell Nix about this now, and realized that it was something best saved for daylight. At the moment they needed safety and time to check for injuries. The burn on Benny’s shoulder felt white hot, and he was not 100 percent positive that the carpet coats had saved them from the teeth of the living dead. They could both be infected, and that thought nearly dropped Benny in his tracks.