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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 19
Nix grabbed his arm and pulled him. “Come on,” she said, and they hurried up the hill after the Greenman. However, when they got to the top of the hill and entered the forest path, the strange figure was gone.
FROM NIX’S JOURNAL
Zombies and fire
When some people tell stories of First Night, they say that they used fire to scare off the zoms. They say that zoms won’t cross a line of fire, that they’ll retreat from a torch. They say that if a zom catches fire, it will run away. Tom says this is wrong.
He says that a zom will walk through fire. He says that they are attracted to its light and movement. He says that he’s seen burning zoms walk as far as a hundred yards before the heat did so much damage to muscles and tendons that they couldn’t walk anymore.
And he says that when the army nuked the big cities, waves of radioactive zoms kept coming, and people sometimes died from the intense radioactivity before the zoms could bite them.
What ARE they?
“SOMETHING’S COMING!” WHISPERED SALLY TWO-KNIVES.
Tom Imura got quickly to his feet, his fingers curled around the handle of his sword. They were huddled together under the eaves of an olive tree that grew amid a cluster of tall boulders. As he crept to the edge of the largest boulder, Tom heard the soft hiss of Sally drawing one of her knives. He tuned that out and focused on the darkened woods beyond. Before setting up their temporary camp, Tom had gathered armloads of frail twigs and scattered them along any likely path of approach. The snap of a twig had brought them both to full alertness.
There was a second snap. And a third. Whoever was out there didn’t care about making sound. In this world that meant one of two things. Either the person was traveling with a party that was so heavily armed that he had no fear of attracting the attention of the living dead; or they were the living dead. Tom edged farther out and let himself go still, becoming part of the rock, the shadows, and the forest. He had reluctantly accepted some of Sally’s cadaverine only because it would have been virtually impossible to get her up into a tree for the night. With one injured arm and a bad stab wound, Sally would be lucky if she could walk. Forget climbing.
A moment later a figure stepped out from behind a bushy rhododendron. It was a boy, a teenager, possibly thirteen when he died. Now immortal in the cruelest sense of the word. His eyes roved across the gap between the boulders and the olive tree but did not linger on Tom. The creature’s mouth hung slack, the lips were rubbery. The boy wore a grimy and faded Los Angeles Lakers T-shirt and what looked like swim trunks with a pattern of flaming skulls. The teenager’s feet were bare, and the bloodless skin was so badly torn that Tom could see tendons and bones. He wanted to close his eyes or look away, but the boy was still a zom and he was still a threat.
Tom remained still as the dead teenager staggered along the trail and vanished into the gloom. He was about to go back inside the circle of rocks when he paused and straightened. Was the southeastern sky … red? The canopy of leaves was too thick to allow more than a glimpse of the sky, but it seemed to Tom that there was a reddish glow. Was it a trick of the light? He couldn’t tell.
Tom relaxed and moved back into the protection of the rocks.
“Zom?” asked Sally.
“Zom,” agreed Tom.
“You quiet him?”
She chuckled. “Mr. Softy.”
He shrugged. Everyone who knew Tom was aware that he wouldn’t kill a zom unless it was part of a closure job or self-defense. This zom had not been aware of him or Sally and was therefore no immediate threat.
Tom settled down and passed her his canteen. She drank and handed it back.
“Been a lot more zoms in these woods lately,” she said. “Last week, ten days. Getting so you can’t take two steps without tripping over one.”
“Really?” Tom said, surprised. “This was always a quiet section. It’s why I brought the kids up here. What’s drawing the zoms here?”
“Not sure, but there’s lots of stuff coming out of the east lately. Weird stuff. I saw a small herd of zebras running along the same game trail as some elk. Bunch of monkeys, too. Haven’t seen a monkey since I took my kids to the San Diego Zoo a million years ago, but I’ve seen a slew of them lately.”
“I saw a rhinoceros,” Tom said, and told her about the encounter.
“Wow. A lot of these critters are coming out of the denser parts of Yosemite, but even more are coming from farther east. Don’t know why. Something out there is scaring wild animals enough to drive them here, and maybe the zoms are following the animals.”
Tom chewed his lip for a moment. “Y’know, Sal, I saw something today that really rattled me.” He told her about the man who had been tied to the truck and left for the zoms.
“Damn,” she said. “That’s one of Charlie’s old tricks, Tom, but you’ve seen that before. Maybe somebody’s copying Charlie’s act. White Bear or—”
“It’s worse than that,” Tom said, and told her the rest.
Sally gaped at him. “Are you sure about that? He didn’t have a broken neck? You’re positive no one quieted him?”
“So what the hell does that mean?” she demanded.
“I have no idea,” Tom said. “Part of me hopes that it’s real, that it’s true … that maybe whatever this is … this plague … is finally coming to an end.”
“Yeah, and I keep hoping I’ll wake up and First Night never happened.”
He nodded. “The other part of me is scared by it, Sal.”
“You? Scared? Why?”
“Because right now I know how things are. A zom is a zom, and I know the rules of that. But if the game has changed, then nothing I know is certain.” He paused. “I’ve been teaching Benny the way things work … but what if everything I’m teaching him is wrong? What if he—”
“Stop,” she said, touching her fingers to his lips. “You’re talking like a parent now, and that’s my territory. Tom … the world is always changing. Always. We can’t give the next generation a set of guarantees. Best we can do is help them be smart enough and tough enough to deal with whatever comes. You know as well as I do that we’re not going to be there forever for them.”
“I know, but things are changing just when we’re leaving home.” Tom gave a moody grunt and sipped from his canteen. “I’m worried about Chong, too. At least Benny’s been out here before. Chong hasn’t. I have to find him.”
“You will,” she assured him, then added, “I wish I could go with you. But at least I can get to Brother David’s and tell Benny and the girls how things are. If I see J-Dog and Dr. Skillz, I’ll draw them a map so they can find you.”
“Backup. They’d like to see Gameland burn down as much as I would.”
Tom shook his head. “This is just a rescue mission, Sally. A snatch and grab, and then I’m out of there. I’m not going out there to assault Gameland.”
“Again,” she said with a wicked grin.
“Again. I burned it down once and Charlie rebuilt it. Now someone else is running it. Maybe White Bear … maybe Charlie, if he’s still alive. If I burn it down again, they’ll simply keep rebuilding it. There are too many corrupt people out here and in the towns to expect a moneymaker like that to stay closed. I can’t spend my life burning it down.”
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“I’m serious. I have kids to protect. Soon as there’s enough morning light to see, I have to find Chong and get him home, and then I’m going east with my brother and his friends.”
“Whatever you say, Tom.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I’m sure you’re going to do whatever you think is best.”
“That’s right, and right now that means getting Chong back from whoever took him.”
Sally kept smiling. “And God help anyone who gets in your way.”
Tom Imura said nothing.
NIX AND BENNY WERE EXHAUSTED, SCARED, HUNGRY, AND HEARTSICK. The forest was too vast and too dark for them to mount a search for the Greenman.
Behind them, far below on the field, the fire was burning itself out. They were too far away to see much, though. Had the zoms all burned? Had the fire killed them, or would there be a legion of charred zombies haunting this mountain pass forever? It was a grotesque thought.
Now that the fire was fading, the sky was less intensely red. Benny wondered if Tom had seen the blaze. If so, what would he do? Was he already on his way back to the way station, or was he on the far side of the mountain with the massive forest and tall hills acting as a screen? The wind was blowing to the south, so Tom could not have smelled the smoke. He might not even know.
“Tomorrow,” said Benny, loosening the belt of the carpet coat to allow cool air to soothe him, “we’re going to have to try and go back. Tom will come back to the way station looking for us.”
Nix didn’t answer that. Even if Tom returned to the way station, the ashes of a zom and the ashes of two teenagers would look about the same.
“There’s a good tree,” said Nix, pointing to a crooked cottonwood. It had very strong lower branches and lots of other stout limbs reaching out in all directions. Benny scrambled up first to test it. Tom had taught him how to pick the right tree. The rule of thumb was that if a branch was as thick as your bicep then it should be able to take your weight. Benny had tested this on dozens of trees and found it to be a reliable guide. Tom had cautioned against some trees, such as sycamores, because they had a nasty tendency to split; and dead trees were to be avoided at all costs.
Benny shimmied up the trunk, letting his legs do the work and saving his arm muscles until he reached the lowest limb. After he tested the limbs and found a couple of good resting spots, he paused to catch his breath and control the impulse to scream. The burn on his shoulder hurt so bad it felt like he was still on fire. But every time he felt that he could not keep the screams inside, he thought of Nix sitting in silence on the tree stump as Lilah stitched her face. He decided that he would die before he dishonored her by caving into his own pain.
Once he had found a measure of self-control, he scrambled down and helped Nix. Though she was a good climber, her injuries had taken a toll on her, and the horror and stress of the past hour had drained her last reserves. It took a lot for her to climb up, and she was totally spent when she finally reached the spot Benny had picked—a nook formed by four limbs growing outward from almost the same point.
Benny crawled down to the lower branch for a last comprehensive observation of the surrounding forest. There were no zoms, which was a huge relief; but also no sign of Lilah or the Greenman.
He removed his carpet coat and threaded his bokken through one of the sleeves and Nix’s through the other. The effect was to create a kind of sling that, while probably not strong enough to serve as a hammock, would at least give them some protection if they started to fall. He and Nix positioned it under them, and they settled back against the trunk of the tree. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was safe, and that was all that it needed to be to get them through this night.
They drank greedily from their canteens. Benny asked how Nix’s face was, and she said that it was okay; however, when he held his wrist to the line of stitches, he thought he could feel some heat. Was it from exertion or the fire? Or was the ugly monster of infection coming to haunt them?
He took his little bottle of antiseptic and a cloth and dabbed at her stitches as gently as he could. He knew that he was clumsy, but Nix endured it. Then he soaked a piece of clean bandage in water and placed it inside his shirt over the burn. It was too dark to see how bad it was, but it hurt worse than anything he could remember. When she asked how it was, he lied and said that it was nothing.
Gradually their panic seeped away. As it left, it was replaced by a wave of deep exhaustion. Nix leaned her head on Benny’s good shoulder and said, “How ridiculous is it that after everything that’s happened, we can actually say that this wasn’t the worst day of our lives?”
Benny knew that she was thinking of those three terrible days last year. The day her mother had been murdered, and the following days when Nix had first been a captive of Charlie and his men, and then had helped Benny, Lilah, and Tom lead an attack on the bounty hunters’ camp. Nix and Benny had both killed people that day. Even though there had been no choice at all, those dreadful actions haunted both of them. It had marked them, scarred them inside and out.
“I know,” Benny murmured, trying to keep the sadness out of his voice.
Nix found his hand in the dark and laced her fingers through his. “I guess,” she said, “that this does qualify as the worst camping trip in history, though.”
He laughed. “No question.”
They sat and listened to the woods. There was a constant and comforting trill of crickets.
“Lilah’s out there,” Nix said. “She’s somewhere safe. Right?”
“Absolutely,” said Benny.
“Tom, too. I’ll bet he found Chong and they’re in a tree somewhere up the mountains, waiting for dawn.”
“Yup.” The forest pulsed with the crickets and the soft swish of branches in the breeze. “Look, Nix,” Benny said, “I’m sorry about how I acted back at the way station. I guess I was freaking out, you know?”
“I was being a total jerk.”
“Yes you were.”
“And a major butt-wipe.”
“Jump in any time now and stop agreeing with me.”
“Ha!” she snorted. “You ought to have your butt royally kicked.”
He sighed. Then Nix nudged him with her shoulder. “You’re pretty good in a crisis, Benny,” she said, “but you can’t take waiting at all, can you?”
“It’s not the waiting, Nix … it’s the not knowing. Drives me buggy.”
“Doesn’t show,” he said. “You and Lilah were doing pretty good until I opened my big fat mouth.”
“You’re going to need to make it up to Lilah,” she said.
Nix was kind. She didn’t point out how easy a target Lilah was or how much Benny had probably hurt her. Somehow her kindness made Benny feel even more like a creep.
Sometime later Nix said, “It’s not how it’s always going to be.”
Benny wasn’t sure if that was a statement or a question. Either way, his answer was the same. “No.”
She squeezed his fingers. He squeezed back. Then her hand relaxed, and Benny realized that Nix had drifted off to sleep. Just like that. Even though he could not see her in the dark, he listened to the slow, deep rhythm of her breathing. He settled back and listened to the night and began to deconstruct the day in order to make a plan for tomorrow, but three seconds later he was asleep too. Above and around them the night spun its web of darkness as the world ground on its axis toward dawn.
LOU CHONG WOKE UP.
He was still in hell … though he was immediately certain that he was now in one of the darkest rings of hell. They had taken his vest and shirt and shoes, leaving him shivering only in jeans. The ground on which he lay was hard-packed dirt. Cold and damp and smelling of decay. Chong sat up and wrapped his arms around his body. He had a lot of wiry muscle but no body fat at all, nothing to keep him warm down here in the clammy darkness.
There was enough light to see, but it was shadowy and gloomy. The walls were also made from dirt that had been pounded smooth. Chong raised his head and saw that the walls rose twenty feet above him, with no ladder, handholds, or rope.
He started to get to his feet but immediately cried out in pain and dropped to his knees. His whole body seemed to be composed of different kinds of aches stitched together into a tapestry of searing pain. The worst hurts were where he had been punched in the jaw, rammed in the stomach with the wooden stock of a shotgun, and kicked in the groin while he lay gas
ping on the ground. Chong tried not to cry.
Even as he huddled there, fighting the tears and fighting the pain, Chong’s mind was working. He knew where he was. Gameland. In a zombie pit.
He had never been here before, nor had he ever seen a zom pit before. It didn’t matter. Tom had described them to him and Benny and Morgie many times over the last few months. Tom had used the zom pit scenario as part of their training. One of Tom’s many worst-case scenarios. Part of the process of being warrior smart.
“So be warrior smart,” he told himself, speaking the words in a fierce whisper through gritted teeth. “What would Tom do? What would Lilah do?”
They wouldn’t take whatever was coming on their knees, he was certain of that. He thought about Nix having her face stitched without painkillers and without screams. Nix had to have dug deep to find the strength to deal with that. Just as she, Benny, and Lilah had found the courage to attack Charlie’s camp last year, even when they thought Tom was dead.
“Get up,” he snarled at himself.
The pain was enormous, and he dropped back onto his knees. A sob broke from his chest. Then another. While he knelt there, his mind did terrible things to him. It conjured images of Lilah standing over him, watching him kneel in sobbing defeat, and laughing.