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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 26


  “White Bear,” Tom finished, shaking his head. “White Bear is Charlie’s brother. I’ll be damned. That’s why he wants me.”

  “You … and your brother and his friends. He wants you so bad that it’s made him even crazier. When he heard you were leaving Mountainside, maybe for good, he put everyone he has out into the Ruin. There’s a hundred pair of eyes looking for you, man. You won’t make it off this mountain.”

  Tom didn’t comment on that. Instead he asked, “Why’s he killing Charlie’s men?”

  “Not all of them. Just the ones he thinks should have been with Charlie when you hit his camp last year. Blames them, says they should have died protecting Charlie.”

  “That’s crazy.”

  “White Bear is crazy, man. Plays it cool … but he’s totally out of his mind. Makes Charlie look like Joe Ordinary Citizen.”

  “Swell. Okay, now tell me one more thing. Where’s Gameland?”

  “If I tell you … will you do what you promised? Make it easy? Keep me down?”

  “I promise.”

  “Swear it, man. I … I used to be Catholic. Swear on the baby Jesus.”

  Tom sighed and held his hand to heaven. He swore.

  The man told Tom where Gameland was. Tom swore again, much louder.

  The man tried to smile, but he was fading like a setting sun. “You know, man … I almost wish I could see you go up against White Bear and Gameland.”

  “Yeah, I’ll bet you’d like to see me fed to the zoms, too.”

  Redhead gave him a strange look. “No … you … don’t have to believe me, man, but I’d kind of like to see you kick that crazy son of a bitch’s ass. Him and his whole damn family.”

  A terrible coughing fit hit him, and he hacked and coughed until blood mottled his lips and his face turned the color of sour milk. Then his eyes flared wide and his mouth formed a small “Oh” and he stopped moving. His eyes stared upward into the vast blue forever. The forest was silent except for the buzzing of insects.

  Tom’s face and body were as still as the dead man’s, but inside his heart was hammering with fear. “Gameland,” he murmured. “Oh God …”

  He looked down at the dead man and drew his quieting dagger. Reanimation could take as long as five minutes, but not with traumatic injuries. They were always faster. Redhead’s face was slack, his eyes half-closed, and there was no sign at all of the jerks and twitches that signal reanimation. Tom counted out sixty seconds. Then another sixty. The man stayed silent and still. And dead. Inside Tom’s head the pounding was getting louder.

  He was curious, though. After the man he’d found on the road, he needed to know if that was a total fluke or part of a pattern. It was crucial to understand as much as possible about the living dead.

  But Gameland was waiting, and he knew that he had to go, and go now.

  Tom counted out another sixty seconds. And another.

  Go! Go! Go! screamed his inner voice.

  “Damn it,” he snarled, and rolled the man over. He drove the blade in to sever the brain stem. He wiped the dagger clean and got to his feet, thinking, He was going to come back. It was just taking longer for some reason.

  He thought it, but he wasn’t sure that he believed it.

  With that burning in his mind, he turned in the direction of Gameland. There was no need for tracking now. It was no longer a hunt. It was a trap, and he was heading straight into it. But he had no choice.

  He ran.

  58

  THEY FOUND A ROAD WITH A RUSTED SIGN THAT READ “WAWONA HOTEL, six miles.” The sign was pocked with old bullet holes and badly faded, but they could read it, and it filled them with new energy. A line of cumulus clouds swelled out of the west, their bottoms shaved flat by crosswinds and condensation, their tops reaching upward like puffy white mountains.

  For a while they walked hand in hand, but as each of them drifted into their own thoughts they let go, content to be in their own space. They topped a rise and paused, watching a spectacle that was both funny and sad. Over the rise, the road wound like a snake through farm fields that had long since grown wild. A horse stood in the middle of the left-hand field, head down to munch the sweet grass, tail swishing at flies. Fifty yards away a lone zombie staggered awkwardly toward it. The zom wore a soiled pair of overalls with one torn shoulder strap. It marched unsteadily yet with clear purpose toward the horse, but when it was within a dozen yards the horse calmly lifted its head to regard the zom, then trotted out of the field and across the road before stopping a hundred yards into the middle of that field. The horse passed almost within grabbing distance of the zom, and the creature flailed at it, but the animal moved in a way that demonstrated an understanding of the danger. Once it was well into the next field—now a total distance of three hundred yards from where it had originally been—it flicked its tail and then lowered its head to continue eating. The zom began walking toward the road and the opposite field, arms reaching, legs carrying it along with the same awkward gait.

  “I’ll bet that’s been happening all day,” Benny said to Nix.

  She nodded, but her eyes were sad. There was a bit of comedy in the staging of all this: the patient, clever horse and the untiring, mindless zom—the two of them moving back and forth between the fields all day in a freakish pas de deux. A dance for two, probably played out on countless days here in the dust and decay of a broken world.

  They did not speak at all for the next few miles. Not until the black peaked roof of the Wawona Hotel rose above the endless trees.

  59

  THE GREENMAN’S VOICE WAS QUIET, GENTLE. “I KNOW WHO YOU ARE,” he said. “Do you know who I am? I think you’ve seen me a few times. Here and there. People call me the Greenman, or just Greenman. No ‘the.’ Doesn’t matter. You can call me whatever you want. Or not.”

  They were in the Greenman’s cabin, deep in the woods. When Lilah did not respond or even lift her head, he got up and walked into the small kitchen. A moment later there was the aroma of brewing tea.

  Lilah sat curled into a large rattan chair, knees drawn up, arms wrapped around her shins. After the Greenman had found her in the woods, he’d sat with her for over two hours, mostly in silence, occasionally singing old songs that Lilah had never heard. Except for one, a song that George used to sing when he was cleaning the small house where he and Lilah and Annie had lived for the early years following First Night.

  “California dreamin’ … on such a winter’s day …”

  Lilah had started to cry, and the Greenman had not said anything to her. He kept quietly singing the song. When it was done, he sang another song. And another.

  Now they were in his house. It was filled with plants of all kinds. They hung in baskets from the ceiling and stood in pots along the walls. Boxes of them hung on both sides of the open windows. Birds sang and chattered in the trees outside, and a squirrel came in and sat eating nuts from the bowl on the table. The Greenman did not chase it away.

  He returned from the kitchen with two steaming mugs that he placed on a small table. Then he went and loaded a wooden tray with seedcakes, homemade granola bars, and little pots of jelly and butter. The first time Lilah had ever tasted butter was at the Chongs’ house. She stared at the tray and the food and the tea and did nothing.

  The Greenman drank his tea, but he didn’t say anything about hers. She would drink it or she wouldn’t, and he seemed to be content with either outcome. A large cat came in through the kitchen window, cast a wary eye at Lilah, then a longer look at the squirrel, but strolled across the room toward Lilah. For a moment it peered up at her with luminous eyes. Then it hopped up into her chair and rubbed itself against her, its purr louder than the larks in the trees. Lilah unwrapped her arms and the cat stood on its back legs, resting its front paws on her knee, leaning its face toward hers. Lilah cut a quick look at the Greenman, who gave a single small nod; then she gathered the cat up in her arms and held it to her chest as if it was the most precious thing in the world. Or as if
it was the one thing that tethered her to the moment.

  The cat meowed softly and continued to purr. Lilah bent her head until her forehead touched the cat’s cold nose. It gave her a single raspy lick.

  Lilah closed her eyes and wept.

  60

  BENNY AND NIX PASSED THROUGH THE SOUTH ENTRANCE OF YOSEMITE National Park and walked along a road that was virtually weed free—the first clear road they had ever seen out in the Ruin.

  They encountered the first fence two miles up the road. It was a heavy chain-link affair similar to the one that surrounded Mountainside, but it was hidden between two rows of thick evergreen hedges that acted as screens.

  “Smart,” said Nix.

  A sign told them that the hotel was two miles along the road.

  The road led through a complex network of trenches. There were rows of trip wires, and deadfall pits covered by camouflage screens. Directions for navigating the road safely were written on large wooden signs. Benny appreciated the strategy. Zoms couldn’t read. Instead of building defenses that were based on the way people used to protect towns and forts against attacks, these were specifically designed against an unthinking and yet unrelenting enemy. Subterfuge was unnecessary. Benny and Nix peered into some of the trenches and saw heaps of old bones—eloquent proof that the defenses worked.

  “The way this is laid out,” Benny observed, “ten people could hold off a zillion zoms.”

  “This is the kind of thing I’ve been talking about,” Nix said excitedly. It was true; since last year she had been making journal notes about how people could take back the zombie-infested lands while at the same time protecting themselves from the dead.

  The winding path was lined with hundreds of trees, ancient oaks and many younger trees planted in the last decade or so to reduce visibility. In the distance they could see much larger trees rising up above the forest—monstrous sequoias that towered more than 250 feet into the blue sky. Then the forest opened up and the big Wawona Hotel rose above them like a promise of warm beds, country breakfasts, civil conversation, and stout locks.

  “Finally,” breathed Nix, exhausted.

  The Wawona Hotel had a double row of verandas—one on the ground level at the top of a short flight of steps, and the other built directly above it on the second floor. Whitewashed columns rose to the pitched roof, which was covered in gray shingles that, though weathered, looked to be in good repair. Tall willows blocked most of the view of the upper floor and roof, and these softer trees lent the place a quiet and rustic appearance that was as calming in its way as were the fortifications and weapons. Because of the trees, all they could read of the hotel’s name was a large black W painted just below the edge of the roof.

  Beside the hotel was a corral filled with horses, most of them standing with heads down as they munched the green spring grass; a few stood by the rails, watching with browneyed curiosity. Beyond the corral stood more than two dozen armored trade wagons. In the distance, off behind the big building, were party sounds. Loud voices and laughter.

  “If I’d known what this place was like,” said Benny, “I’d have tried to get a job here instead of apprenticing with Tom.”

  “Really?”

  “Sure. I’ll bet everyone out here talks about the way things are, instead of always going on about how things used to be. You’d have enough stuff to fill up your journal in a week.”

  She nodded, smiling at the thought. “There seem to be a lot of people here. Maybe we can get together some kind of search party.”

  They were still sixty yards from the front steps when they heard a sound behind them. A soft footfall, and they turned to see three men standing on the grass verge behind them. Benny realized that he and Nix had been so focused on the hotel that they must have walked right by them. Two of the men were strangers with the hard faces of bounty hunters—one was a brown-skinned brute with a flight of ravens tattooed across his face and down his throat; the other was a hulk of a white man with no neck and mean little pig eyes. They studied Benny and Nix with unsmiling faces. The third man, however, was smiling, and he was known to Benny and Nix.

  “Well, well, if this ain’t cause to say hallelujah,” said the man. He had eyes the color of deep winter ice, cold and blue. As if conjured by the dark magic of the man’s smile, a chilly wind whipped past them, rustling the leaves and sending the birds shrieking into the air.

  “God!” Nix gasped, and took Benny’s hand, squeezing it with her usual bone-crushing intensity.

  Preacher Jack’s pale eyes sparkled with pleasure, and when his lips writhed into their twitchy smile it revealed teeth stained with chewing tobacco and black coffee. “Now,” he said softly, “how is it that I’m blessed with the company of two such fine young people here on my own humble front lawn?”

  “What are you talking about? What do you mean your front lawn?”

  Preacher Jack chuckled and lifted his chin toward the house. “Funny, you being Tom Imura’s brother, and him supposed to be so smart, I’m downright surprised you ain’t figured things out yet.”

  Benny turned to look at the hotel. The chilly wind was blowing through the weeping willows, lifting the leaves to reveal the upper story, and they could now see with terrifying clarity the words that had been painted there. The black W was not the first letter of Wawona Hotel. It was the first letter of “Welcome.”

  Benny’s could feel his insides turn to icy mush. Even Nix’s hand lost its crushing force as the two of them read the three words painted across the front of the hotel.

  WELCOME TO GAMELAND.

  61

  CHONG SAT HUDDLED AGAINST THE DIRT WALL. THE TWO ZOMS WERE STILL with him. Silent and still, and yet the horror of what they represented was much worse than if they were still moaning and reaching for him.

  Blood still seeped sluggishly from the bite on his shoulder. He had done nothing to dress the wound. He had not done anything at all except to lean his back against the wall and slide down to the floor. Above him the crowd was gone. Even the Burned Man was gone. There had been some rude jokes about him “winning and losing” at the same time; and one of the bettors had told him to “relax.” The crowd had left laughing.

  If he turned his head, Chong could see the bite. His skin had been caught between the zom’s strong teeth, and as the creature had fallen away the pressure had popped the skin, leaving a ragged flap that had bled profusely at first but had now almost stopped.

  Chong stared across the pit to the far wall. The hard-packed earth was cold and dark and lifeless. It seemed to present an eloquent window into his own future. The pipe lay on the ground between his bare feet. The weapon of the Motor City Hammer. A killer’s tool. Caked with blood, old and new. A weapon to murder humans and quiet zombies.

  He picked it up. It was cold and heavy. Could such a weapon be used to kill oneself? he wondered. What would happen if he tried to bash out his own brains, and failed? What would happen if he did nothing? He could not feel any changes inside. He was sick to his stomach, but the nausea had started with the beating he’d gotten yesterday. Would he be able to tell when the infection took hold? What would it feel like? How sick would he get?

  The pipe felt very solid in his fist, and Chong thumped the ground with it, wishing that he could get out of the pit and use what time he had left to avenge his own death. To go down fighting.

  Would Lilah admire that, at least? A warrior’s last stand, taking as many of his enemies with him as possible?

  But he knew that the Burned Man would never let him have that chance. Chong knew that he would be left down here until he zommed out or was made to fight one more time. Anger flared in his chest, and he hurled the pipe as hard as he could. It flew across the pit and struck tip-first against the wall, chunking out a lump of dirt half as big as Chong’s fist. Dirt and pipe fell to the ground.

  So much for being warrior smart, he thought bitterly. He wrapped his arms around his head and tried not to be afraid of dying.

  And that las
ted for about fifteen seconds. Then he raised his head and looked at the pipe, at the clod of dirt he’d knocked out of the wall. Then at the divot in the wall.

  Despite everything, despite a future as dark as that cold wall, he smiled.

  62

  BENNY WHEELED AROUND TO GAPE AT PREACHER JACK.

  “That’s impossible! This place can’t be Gameland!” Benny shouted.

  “Nothing’s impossible in this world of wonders, young Benjamin Imura,” said Preacher Jack with a soft chuckle.

  “I don’t understand! Tom said—”

  “Tom ain’t been out here for a long time, boy.”

  “Good thing, too,” groused the black man with the raven tattoos. “Used to be a man couldn’t piss in these woods without Fast Tommy giving him a ration of crap for it. Your brother’s a pain in everyone’s butt out here, kid.”

  “Was,” corrected Preacher Jack, holding up a slender finger. “Tom Imura’s day is over. None of our fellowship need fear that sinner or his violent ways. A bright new day has dawned out here in the Lord’s paradise. Believe it, for it is so.”

  Nix curled her lip in distaste. “Really? What I believe is that when Tom gets here he’s going to kick your ugly—”

  Preacher Jack suddenly stepped forward and struck Nix across the face with an open-handed slap that was so shockingly fast and hard that it spun her around and dropped her to her hands and knees.