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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 22


  Then she met Benny and Nix, and the world changed for her.

  Together they destroyed Charlie and the Hammer. Together they saved other children, kids who would not die in the rain like Annie, or be left to grow strange and wild like herself. Nix, Benny, and Tom took her in, took her to their home. The Chongs welcomed her into their family, treating her like one of their own.

  Now Chong was gone. Lost and probably dead in the woods. And maybe that was her fault. The thought was like a knife in her own head.

  Benny and Nix walked into the east, their bodies seeming to glow with reflected sunlight.

  Lilah thought about what Benny had said, and about her own words—to Benny, and to Chong. The tears would not stop.

  Time rolled on, losing meaning and dimension to her. Then … there was a rustling sound behind her. A day ago she would have turned cat-quick, her senses as sharp as the blades she carried. Now she ignored it—aware but uncaring. If it was a zom, then it was a zom. The most it could do was kill her. Worse had been done to her over the years.

  A figure moved from behind her and walked slowly around her.

  Not a zom. Not Chong or Benny. Not Charlie.

  This figure was dressed all in green. Leaves and sprigs of flowers were stitched onto his clothes. She looked up at him, seeing him indistinctly through the glaze of tears. His face was made of leaves too.

  She knew the face and the clothing. She had seen them a dozen times over the years, though always at a distance. Benny had a Zombie Card with his picture on it. The Greenman.

  Sunlight glittered on the hard length of something the Greenman held in both hands. Her spear. She said nothing.

  The Greenman let it fall to the ground, where it almost vanished amid tall grass and shadows. Then the man removed his mask. It was really a piece of camouflage netting hung from the brim of a green cloth hat. Beneath the mask was a face that was seamed and suntanned. Bald on top and bearded below, the hair as white as Lilah’s. Laugh lines were etched around sad eyes.

  Lilah stared at the man’s face. There were scars, old and new. The Greenman bent and touched the tear tracks on her cheeks. She almost flinched. She could feel it begin inside her muscles, but she didn’t. Maybe because she was too tired from lack of sleep, panic, terror and a night of running. Or maybe because this man did not seem to want to do her harm.

  He rubbed his fingertips together, feeling her tears, working the moisture into his skin.

  “I … I’m sorry,” she said in a pale whisper.

  He smiled at her. “No.”

  Then he crossed his legs and lowered himself down to the grass. He did not ask her to stop crying. He did not ask her any questions. He sat in front of her, the sunlight making his white beard glow, and he smiled. At her. At the birds in the trees and the first dragonflies of spring. Lilah caved forward onto her knees and crawled toward him. She collapsed a few inches away. The Greenman did not touch her. He did not try to pull her out of what she was feeling.

  He allowed, and that was enough.

  PART FOUR

  HIGHWAY TO HELL

  To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

  —BERTRAND USSELL

  48

  LOU CHONG YELPED IN FEAR AND BACKPEDALED AWAY AS THE ZOMBIE tumbled into the pit. He pressed his back against the cold dirt wall and threw an arm up to shield his face. The creature struck the ground with a crunch of brittle bones. The crowd above him laughed like they were watching a clown act. People were calling fresh bets based on whether they thought the zom had broken any bones that would prevent him from attacking Chong.

  Chong hesitated, looking down at the zom as it moaned and tried to get to its feet.

  He wanted to run and hide, but he was in a fifteen-foot-wide pit. Running and hiding were not options. He racked his brain to decide how to survive this. The moment needed action. What was the smart thing to do?

  What would Tom do? Before that thought had even finished forming, Chong was moving. He launched himself off the wall, raised the iron pipe over his head, and brought it down with all his force on the back of the zom’s head.

  Crunch!

  The creature dropped to the ground. The crowd above him went totally silent. A single ration dollar fell downward, seesawing through the humid air.

  The zom twitched. One kick of the leg. A tremble of its fingers. Chong growled deep in his throat and hit it again. Harder. This time the crunch was wetter.

  The zom stopped moving.

  The crowd … went wild. Cheers and applause.

  Chong lowered the pipe and looked up at the crowd. The Burned Man crouched on the edge of the pit, grinning like a ghoul.

  “Well, well … I’ll be double damned,” he said. “Folks, it looks like we got us a bona-fide zombie killer. Yes sir, that’s what we have here.”

  The crowd cheered. Fistfuls of money flashed back and forth. “Give him another!” someone shouted, and instantly the chorus was picked up until everyone was yelling it.

  “Okay, okay!” laughed the Burned Man. “Customer’s always right. Nestor? Crab? Bring us another gladiator. Let’s have something really fresh.”

  The two assistants wore wicked smiles as they vanished. Betting ramped up until the oddsmaker had to yell at the crowd, “Give me a bloody chance to count, damn you!”

  Chong tried not to shiver. In truth he was no longer cold, but he trembled from hair to toes as he waited for the next monster. A shadow obscured the opening, and he looked up sharply to see the long boom of a wooden crane swinging out over the edge. A figure dangled from the pulley, thrashing and twisting. A rope had been looped under its arms, and once it was down, the rope would fall away and the zombie would be free.

  The Burned Man leaned over the edge. “We don’t want to damage the goods a second time,” he said, and the comment drew a fresh wave of harsh laughter.

  Nestor and Crab turned the winch, and immediately the thrashing zom began descending into the fighting pit. Chong backed to the wall. This zom was massive. Burly, like a bull wrangler or one of the pit throwers back home. Huge chest and stomach, massive arms, almost no neck, and eyes that blazed with dark fire. His skin showed no signs of putrefaction. He hadn’t been dead for very long.

  What had Tom told him about the newly risen? They seemed smarter. They were stronger and a little faster. More coordinated. The decay of their motor cortex hadn’t yet reduced them to staggering scarecrows.

  Chong gripped the pipe and licked his lips again. “Warrior smart,” he muttered.

  “Let ’er go!” ordered the Burned Man. Crab and Nestor jerked the rope from around the big man’s body and whipped it up and through the pulley. The zom dropped the last few inches and landed heavily on its feet.

  The creature was immense. Maybe six foot five and at least three hundred pounds, even with no blood left in its veins. Chong was five-eight and weighed 130.

  The zom landed facing the opposite side of the pit. Chong had one chance to rush in and bash it with the club. He surged forward, but before his first step touched down he was struck full in the face by a bucketful of icy water. It was so shocking, so surprising, that it stopped him like a punch to the face. Coughing, sputtering, gasping, Chong dropped the pipe and staggered backward, thumping hard into the wall. He pawed water out of his eyes and looked up to see the Burned Man holding an empty bucket.

  “Got to make things fair, little man,” he said amid shrill laughter and catcalls.

  The splash of the water and Chong’s own confused sputtering made the zombie turn around. It stared at him with those bottomless black eyes. Pale lips curled back from teeth that were still white and strong.

  The pipe lay on the ground five inches from the zombie’s feet. Six feet away from Chong.

  The zom uttered a moan of hunger that was newly awakened and that could never be satisfied. The monster raised its massive hands and then lunged for Chong.

  49

  SALLY TWO-KNIVES FOUND HER HORSE DRINKING FROM A STREAM. SHE clicke
d her tongue and the big Appaloosa—Posey by name—raised her speckled head and stared. Then she whinnied happily and trotted up the hill to meet Sally.

  Sally sheathed her knife, patted the horse’s cheek, and kissed her. “You big goof!” she scolded. “You ran off and left Mama out here all alone. What were you thinking?”

  “Probably thought you were dead,” said a voice from behind her. Sally whirled around, grabbing for her knife. The blade whipped out of its sheath, but the movement tore a cry of pain from Sally.

  Despite the pain, she smiled as a man stepped out of the shadows beneath a tall spruce.

  He was medium height, built like a wrestler, and bald as an egg, with chocolate-brown skin and a small goatee shot through with streaks of white. He had a pair of machetes slung over his back and a .45 automatic in a Marine Corps web belt strapped to his waist.

  “Damn!” said Sally. “As I live and breathe!”

  The man grinned. “I thought that crazy horse was yours. I tried to ride her but she tried to eat me, so we were both letting things calm down before we had another go at it.”

  Sally Two-Knives gave him a charming, coquettish smile. “Solomon Jones … why are you trying to steal my horse?”

  Solomon opened his arms. “Give us a hug, girl.”

  Sally did, but gently, hissing a little as Solomon gathered her in his powerful arms. When he heard the hiss he let her go, ranging his eyes up and down and finally taking in the sling and the bandages.

  “Whoa, now … what’s wrong?”

  “Well,” said Sally, “the old girl ain’t what she used to be.” She told him everything. Solomon listened with great interest. Like Sally, he was an unaffiliated bounty hunter, mostly working the kind of closure jobs that Tom Imura took and doing some occasional cleanups and guard work. He’d come west from Pennsylvania after First Night with his two kids and a ragtag collection of refugees he picked up during the three-thousand-mile trek through what was becoming the Rot and Ruin. Solomon lived in Fairview, where, also like Tom, he had tried and failed for years to get the town to organize a militia to patrol the part of the Ruin that ran along the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

  By the time Sally was done telling her story, Solomon was nodding. “This all fits,” he said, “but it’s worse than you know. White Bear’s got more than seventy goons in his crew, and some of them are real gangsters. Actual gangsters from before First Night. There’s two I know will be trouble. Heap Garrison and Digger Harris. Digger used to be a leg-breaker for the Mob in Detroit, and wasn’t Heap with the Russian Mafia? Or that’s what people say.”

  Sally made a face. “Nice.”

  “I was looking for Tom,” said Solomon. “Ran into Fluffy McTeague over by Coldwater Creek, and he said that Tom was bugging out. Looking for that jet. I thought that wasn’t until next week.”

  “He changed his mind. Wanted to get out of Dodge. Why were you looking for him?” she asked.

  “To talk him the heck out of going,” said Solomon. “I’ve been hitting the wall trying to get the militia idea to go anywhere.”

  “So has Tom.”

  “So has everyone who’s tried to do it alone. I wanted to get Tom to agree to be the spokesman for a committee. Make a case to the towns, one after the other. Campaign for it.”

  “Might have worked, Sol,” she said, “but it’s about two days too late. Besides, Tom’s got enough to worry about right now.”

  “With Gameland, you mean? Is he really going to tear it down again?”

  “Don’t know about tearing it down, but he’s going to get that kid back. His brother and the other kids are waiting for him back at Brother David’s and—”

  “No, they’re not,” said Solomon firmly. “I just came through there. Somebody torched it. Turned a couple thousand zoms into crispy critters. No trace of Brother David or the girls.”

  Sally swore. “God … you don’t think Tom’s brother was burned up, do you?”

  “Hope not, but I don’t think so. There were tracks leading off into the field, off toward Wawona. The kids probably went that way. If I’d known that it was only kids, I’d have gone after them. Bad stuff’s happening in the east.”

  “I know.” Sally narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “You said you saw Fluffy? Anyone else around?”

  “With all that’s going on? Everybody’s around, and I have half a dozen people out looking for Tom.”

  Sally narrowed her eyes. “How fast could you get them together?”

  “Pretty fast. But it’d have to be for a good reason. Why?”

  “I’m starting to have a thought here.”

  “What kind of thought?”

  “A dangerous one.”

  He grinned. “Tell me, girl.”

  FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

  Why do zoms eat only living creatures?

  Firsthand accounts of zoms say that they will attack and eat any living creature. Humans, animals, birds, insects, and reptiles. No one knows if they will attack fish.

  It has been speculated that it is warm, living flesh that attracts the zombies’ appetites, but then how do you explain zoms who eat insects? Insects don’t have much body heat.

  Heat alone can’t be what attracts them, because if that was the case they’d continue to feed on the recently dead. But they don’t. Once something has died, zoms lose interest pretty quickly. (It takes hours for a body to cool to room temperature.)

  If zombies are attracted to warm flesh, then they should logically be compelled to feast longer on victims in warmer climates and less so on victims in cooler climates.

  Zoms don’t attack people who are wearing cadaverine. Is it smell that attracts them? That doesn’t make sense, because a freshly killed person or animal doesn’t smell like decaying flesh, but zoms stop eating it.

  THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE, AND IT’S DRIVING ME CRAZY!

  50

  “HOW FAR IS IT TO YOSEMITE?” BENNY ASKED, PEERING AHEAD TO the hazy mass of dark green in the distance.

  Nix fanned a cloud of gnats away from her face. “Not sure. How far do you think we’ve come?”

  Benny glanced at the sun. “We’ve been walking for three hours. With this terrain, figure about three miles an hour. Maybe a little less. Call it two and a half, which means we’ve come about seven to eight miles since we left the way station.”

  Nix tugged her journal out of its pocket and flipped open to one of the pages of maps she’d painstakingly copied. There was one map that showed the eastern side of Mariposa County, with the town of Mountainside circled. A strip of cardboard with incremental mile marks measured onto it was clipped to the page. Nix removed it and found another circled spot marked BD/WS. Brother David’s way station. “Tom said he wanted to take us to Wawona, over near the Merced River.” She did some math in her head and announced, “We could be as close as eight miles to Wawona.”

  The thought of the big hotel, with its frequent travelers and patrolled woods, was comforting. Maybe if they regrouped there, they could actually make a decent start on the trip to find the jet. “Someone at the hotel might have seen the jet,” Benny said. “Tom says that there are travelers through there all the time.”

  “Like Preacher Jack,” Nix reminded him, then added under her breath, “Freak.”

  Benny nodded and pulled out his canteen for a drink. “We’ll be careful. Besides, Tom will know that’s where we went.”

  She took the last of the Greenman’s strawberries and gave Benny half of them. “I would love one of Tom’s Sunday dinners right about now. A big steak so rare it would moo when I stuck my fork in it. Spinach and sweet corn. And those honey biscuits he makes from my mom’s recipes. And one of his apple pies with raisins.”

  “With raisins and walnuts,” corrected Benny. “It’s important.” They walked, thinking about a feast. “They’ll have plenty of food at the hotel.”

  “If they don’t, I’m going to bite your arm off.”

  The joke conjured an image of her from his dream. “Come on, Nix
,” he said quickly. “We can be there in a couple of hours.”

  She looked back the way they’d come. “They will find us, won’t they?”

  “Sure,” he said, and for the first time today he actually meant it. “And we’ll be okay until they do.”

  The fields, valleys, and meadows through which they’d walked had been clear of serious threats. They’d spotted a few zoms, but each time, Benny and Nix circled around them and kept moving. Neither of them felt any desire to attack zoms unless there was no choice. Last year, on his first trip into the Ruin, Benny and Tom had spied on a trio of bounty hunters who were beating and torturing zombies for fun. The men were laughing and having a good time; however, Benny was instantly sickened by the sight, and the memory was like an open wound in his mind.

  “Let’s go,” Nix said, and they began walking again. Even though it was early April and they were in higher elevations, the sun was hot. Most of the clouds had burned off, and neither of them had a hat.

  “Wow,” gasped Benny, reaching for his canteen again, “we should sit some of this out and start again when the sun’s not four inches from the top of our heads.”

  “I’m for that,” Nix agreed glumly, then brightened and pointed. “Look! Apples.”

  They left the road and cut through a field to an overgrown orchard. They collected an armload of apples and settled down with their backs to a bullet-pocked stone wall. The stones were cool, and the apples were sweet. There was a burned-out farmhouse nearby, and beyond that was a barn that had once been painted bright red but that fourteen years had faded to a shade of rust resembling dried blood. A line of crows stood along the peaked roof, dozing in the afternoon heat.

  Benny and Nix took off their sweltering carpet coats, and both of them were soaked with sweat. Benny was so exhausted that he was almost—almost—too weary to notice how Nix’s clothes were pasted to her body. He quietly banged his head on the stone wall. Then he closed his eyes and tried counting to fifty million. Eventually he opened his eyes and busied himself slicing apples for them. After a while, Nix pulled out her journal again and started writing.