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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 28
“I don’t understand love.”
“Sure you do,” said the Greenman. “Tom told me about Annie, and about George. I met George once, a long time ago, when he was out looking for you. He was a good man. A genuine person, do you understand what I mean?”
“Yes.” Tears glistened in the corners of her eyes.
“He loved you, and I believe—I know—that you loved him. Just as you loved Annie. No, you understand love just fine, Lilah.”
She said nothing.
“Or do you mean another kind of love?” he asked, arching one eyebrow. “Boy-girl love? Is there someone you love? Is there someone who loves you?”
She shook her head, then shrugged. “There is a boy named Lou Chong.”
“Benny Imura’s friend? Tom told me about him, too. A smart boy.”
“He can be stupid, too!” Her words were quick, and she stopped and shook her head again. “In town … Chong is smart. He knows science and books and stars and history. I can talk to him. We talked on his porch, at nights. Every night since I lived there. Seven months. We talked about everything.”
“He sounds nice.”
“He is … but out here … he isn’t smart.” She threw down the tweezers. The cat gave a disgusted grunt, stood up, turned around, and lay back down.
“Tell me,” said the Greenman as he reached over, picked up the tweezers, and handed them to her. After a long pause, she took them.
Lilah told him everything that had happened since Tom led them out of town. By the time she was done, all the flower petals had been plucked and were floating in water.
“If Chong loves you,” said the Greenman, “do you love him?”
“I don’t know!” she snapped, then, more softly, “I don’t know how to.”
The Greenman chuckled. “You wouldn’t be the first to feel that, but maybe the first to admit it. So … what does this have to do with running away from Benny and Nix? Take a breath. Think about it. Answer when it feels right.”
She took the breath. “Benny kept saying that Chong ran away because of me. That I made him because of what I said.”
“What did you say?”
“Back on the road … I told Chong that …” She wiped her eyes. “I told him that he was a stupid town boy and he shouldn’t be out here. I wanted him to go home. I told him to go home. Then, when Benny told me it was my fault … I … it made me forget how to use my spear. Or my gun. My hands wouldn’t think anymore.” She shook her head. “I’m not making sense.”
“Yes,” said the Greenman, “you are.”
“I made Chong run away.”
The Greenman leaned on his forearms and regarded her with a kindly smile. “A wise man once said that we can’t make anyone feel or do anything. We can throw things into the wind, but it’s up to each person to decide how they want to react, where they want to stand when things fall. Do you understand?”
She shook her head.
“It’s about responsibility. Chong felt responsible for what happened. Your words didn’t force him to run away.”
“I wish I could … un-say them.”
“Yep. I’m sure. But it’s still on Chong; it was his choice to run. He could have stayed, no matter what you said. Just as you could have stayed after what Benny said. It doesn’t make it right that hard words were said, but it doesn’t make you or Benny wrong for saying them. That’s yours to settle with yourself. Chong chose his path. Benny chose his when he spoke. You chose yours when you ran.”
“But it was the wrong choice!” she cried.
“That’s your call, honey,” he said. “Do you know why you ran away?”
She shrugged. “Before … I met Benny and the others … I knew the world. How it was. Zoms and bounty hunters and me. My cave, the way of hunting. Quieting zoms. Fighting men. Traps and hunting and all of that. It was just me and everything else. Me. I knew me. I knew what wasn’t me. But after I met them, things became … complicated. I had people. I had to care about them.”
“And that scared you because the last time you cared about someone was with Annie and George? No, don’t look surprised, Lilah. I lost people too. Everyone did. After you lost them, you stepped away from humanity. Not by choice, but out of a need to survive. You became used to being alone and not caring for or about anyone. Then you met Benny and Nix and you started to care.”
“It hurts to care!” she yelled as loud as her damaged voice would allow. Then, more quietly, she added, “It’s scary, and I never used to be afraid. If I lived, I lived. If I died, who would know? Who would care? Annie and George were gone. Without them it was like I had … armor. I don’t understand it.”
“You probably do on some level.”
“Benny said that Chong only came along because he loved me.” She shook her head in amazement at the thought. “I don’t understand that. I mean … I read books about love and romance, but it’s not the same.”
“No,” he conceded. “It surely is not. How does that make you feel, though? To have someone love you?”
She shook her head again. “Annie loved me. George loved me.”
“And you loved them … but now they’re dead,” said the Greenman softly. “And you probably feel guilty about that.” Lilah gave him a sharp look, but he continued. “I’m guessing here, but you probably feel guilty because you had already escaped from Gameland and you didn’t get back in time to save Annie. And George died while he was out looking for you. Are you afraid that if Chong loves you, and if you fall in love with him, that he’ll die too?”
“He’s … already gone.” Her face screwed up, but she forced herself not to sob. “Nothing makes sense anymore. Last night we went outside, and the trip wires were down. All those zoms were there. Too many of them. I—I looked into all those dead eyes. I saw Chong. In my mind … dead. Tom, too. Benny and Nix. I saw them all dead. Everyone I care about. Dead. I felt like I was dead too.”
“Ah,” said the Greenman gently. “That’s called terror. It’s confusion and a little paranoia and a nice big dose of panic. Everyone has those moments. Everyone. Even heroes like Tom.”
“But I ran away. I can’t take that back. I ran away and left Benny and Nix there. I didn’t help them, and I didn’t go looking for Chong. He left because of me. Because of how I treated him. Because of what I said to him. Benny said so.”
“Benny’s just a boy,” the Greenman said, “and I’ll bet he’s just as confused and scared as you. Sometimes people say terrible things when they’re scared. They don’t mean to, but they can’t help it. They lash out because if they can see that their words hurt someone else, it makes them feel as if they aren’t completely powerless.”
“No, it’s unfair, but for the most part it’s unintentional. If Benny’s anything like Tom, he’s probably kicking himself for what he said. He’d probably give a lot to roll the clock back to yesterday and make it right to you.”
“He can’t! He said it.”
“That’s true. He said it, and it hurt you, and with everything else that’s going on, all of you are probably in the same place. Confused, scared, and doing things you wish you could undo.”
Lilah wiped her eyes again. “I’m sorry for what I said to Chong. I do wish I could take it back.”
The Greenman stopped working for a moment. “Let me tell you a truth, little sister. No matter what choice you make, it doesn’t define you. Not forever. People can make bad choices and change their minds and hearts and do good things later; just as people can make good choices and then turn around and walk a bad path. No choice we make lasts our whole life. If there’s ever a choice you’ve made that you no longer agree with, you can make another choice.”
“I can’t undo it, though.”
“That’s not what I said. I’m pretty sure undoing it would involve time travel, and I don’t happen to have a time machine.”
She almost smiled at that.
“Everyone’s been there,” said the Greenman. ??
?First Night wasn’t the only crisis. We’ve all had our moments of weakness and failure. All of us. We’ve all suffered through dark nights of the soul.”
“So is that it? Will I have to live the rest of my life like this? Not doing the right thing? Not saying the right words?”
“That’s your choice. You can’t change the past. Ah, but the future … you own the future.” The Greenman smiled. “So, you tell me … what choice do you want to make now?”
DIGGER AND HEAP HERDED BENNY AND NIX INTO THE HOTEL, GUIDING them with slaps and kicks. Preacher Jack walked behind them, humming to himself. Benny was sure it wasn’t a hymn.
They entered the main lobby, which was piled high with crates of goods scavenged from local towns. Sturdy shelves had been erected on every inch of wall space, and these were crammed with canned goods, sacks of grain, jars of spices, and bottles of everything from extra-virgin olive oil to Kentucky whiskey. One wall had a rack of guns running from floor to ceiling: shotguns, rifles, automatic weapons, rocket launchers, and every kind of handgun. Most of these Benny had seen only in books. And there were barrels filled with bayonets, machetes, swords, spears, axes, and clubs. Against one wall were six crates labeled C4. Benny had never heard of it, but on each case, in big red letters, three words were stenciled: DANGER: HIGH EXPLOSIVES. He swallowed.
There were enough weapons to start a war … or to reclaim the wastelands from the living dead. Benny saw Nix staring longingly at the collection.
Digger noticed and slapped the back of her head. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Nix said under her breath.
Benny ground his teeth and swore on the graves of his parents that he would make these men pay for touching Nix.
They pushed Benny and Nix through the hotel and up several sets of stairs until they stood in the doorway of a dusty attic. The room was empty except for cobwebs.
“Make yourselves comfy,” said Heap as he shoved them into the room. “Call room service if you want anything.” The men were laughing as they slammed the door shut and locked it.
Benny pressed his ear to the door and listened until he couldn’t hear their footfalls on the steps anymore. Then he tried the door handle. It jiggled, but the lock was tough and the door was too solid to kick open. With a sigh of resignation he turned to Nix.
“We’ll get out of this,” he promised.
She looked dazed and small in the dusty light. “How? Benny—they’re going to put us in the zombie pits! They did that to my mom!”
“I know … but she survived, Nix … and she wasn’t a fighter. We are. Warrior smart, remember?”
Nix sniffed. “I don’t feel like a warrior right now.”
Benny forced a grin. “Then we’ll have to concentrate on being smart. Remember what Tom said. ‘When you’re in a dangerous situation’—”
“—‘immediately assess your resources.’”
They looked around. The room was completely empty. Bare floor, bare walls with cracked plaster that had crumbled in places to reveal the thin wooden bones of the walls, a light fixture that hadn’t worked in fifteen years hanging from the ceiling, and a cracked window that looked out into the horse corral.
“Okay,” Benny said, “so … we’re not big on supplies.” But when he looked at Nix, she was smiling. “What?”
She told him. Then he was smiling too.
TOM IMURA STOOD JUST INSIDE THE SPILL OF SHADOWS CAST BY THE TALL willows that bordered the old hotel. Anyone standing three feet away would not have seen him. He might have been a ghost, or a layer of the deepening twilight shadows. Only his mind was in motion, and that was a howling firestorm of rage and frustration and self-hatred. Despite all logic to the contrary, his mind kept shrieking out that he was responsible for this. For all of this. For Chong. For Benny and Nix. For Gameland. All of it.
This is my fault. I should have seen this coming.
No, that wasn’t quite right. He had seen this coming. He had been warned. By Basher and Sally, by Captain Strunk and Mayor Kirsch. Warned that he could not just walk away, that perhaps it was his destiny to stop Gameland once and for all.
He was sure that Benny and Nix were being held inside. After he’d left the dead bounty hunters, he had gone racing back to the way station, found it in ashes, then saw footprints leading toward Wawona. Benny and Nix’s shoes, no doubt about it. And Preacher Jack’s following them. Tom had raced along the path and only paused a moment when he saw that Preacher Jack’s prints veered away from a straight pursuit and took a shortcut toward the hotel.
Tom had found the scene of slaughter by the barn, had read the tale in the scuff marks and knew that J-Dog and Dr. Skillz had been with Benny and Nix for a time. But he also saw that the two surfers had turned and gone back into the hills. Their path must have missed Tom’s by no more than half a mile.
Now Tom was at Gameland, and now he knew the full horror of things. White Bear had taken over the old hotel and transformed it into a killing ground. There were single zombie pits all around the building, and a cluster of larger ones out back in an enclosure made from a line of trade wagons and a circus tent. There were dozens of guards and hundreds of people—traders and others—so Tom had backed away and now stood watching from the edge of the woods.
Preacher Jack was here. The footprints had led right to a spot where they had encountered Benny and Nix again. There were clear signs of a struggle and drops of blood. Tom’s mind ground on itself, lashing him for not seeing this sooner. For not acting preemptively instead of going off on this road trip.
Any innocent blood that falls is on me, he told himself.
The Matthias clan was moving in because of Charlie’s death and because Tom was leaving. It was a double power vacuum, and White Bear was making his bid to fill it. Tom didn’t yet know how Preacher Jack fit into this, but he and White Bear would make a formidable team. The people of Mountainside were not going to do anything to stop it. That was obvious, but who else was there? Sally? J-Dog and Dr. Skillz? Basher? Solomon Jones? There were plenty of fighters who could make a serious stand against White Bear, but only if they were a unified front, and that was a million miles from likely.
Rage was building in his chest, and he could feel his body start to tremble. He wanted to scream. He needed to give a war cry, draw his sword, and go charging into the hotel and kill White Bear, Preacher Jack, and as many of their people as he could. That would feel good. It would feel right. It would also be suicide … and it probably wouldn’t save Benny, Nix, or Chong. Rage was sometimes a useful ally in the heat of a fight, but it was a trickster. It made everything seem possible.
He needed to go in there cold. So he closed his eyes and murmured the words he had drilled into his brother and the others. “Warrior smart.” He breathed in and out slowly, letting the rhythm vent the darker emotions from him. Guilt and rage, hatred and fear were pathways to weakness and clumsy choices. With each inhalation he made himself think of happier times, of things that had filled his heart with peace and hope and optimism. Benny and his future. That day last year when Tom realized that Benny no longer hated him, that maybe his brother understood him. Rescuing Nix. Finding Lilah. Training the teenagers. Laughing with them in the sunlight. Eating apple pie in the cool of the evening.
They were simple memories, but their simplicity was the source of their power. As Tom remembered smiles and laughter and Benny’s goofy jokes, the rage began to falter within him. As he recalled watching from afar as Benny and Nix fell in love, the reckless anger cracked and fell apart. And as he remembered the promise he’d made to Jessie Riley as she lay dying in his arms—that he would protect Nix—his resolve rose up in his mind like a tower of steel.
He stood in the shadows and found himself again. He found the Tom Imura that he wanted and needed to be. He took another breath and held it for a long moment, then let it out slowly. He opened his eyes. Then he made himself a promise. “I do this one thing
and then I’m done. I do this and then I take Benny and the others and we go east.”
Tom adjusted his sword and checked his knives and his pistol. If there had been anyone there to see his face, they would have seen a man at peace with himself and the world. And if they were wise, they would know that such a man was the most dangerous of all opponents—one who fights to preserve love rather than perpetuate hatred.
When he moved, he seemed to melt into the darkness.
LOU CHONG HEARD A SCREAM. NOT A WARRIOR’S CRY. IT HAD BEEN high and wet and filled with pain; and it had ended abruptly. Laughter and shouts rose up immediately and washed the scream away. Chong knew what it meant. Someone else had been fighting a zom, and had lost.
The thought threatened to take the strength out of his arms, but he set his jaw and held on. Literally held on. For the last two hours he had been using the Motor City Hammer’s black pipe club to chop divots out of the packed earth walls of the pit. It was grueling work, and to do it he had to gouge divots deep enough for his feet so he could stand in them and reach high to chop fresh holes. His muscles ached. Sweat poured down his body. His toes were numb with cold from standing in the holes, and his arm trembled between each strike.
He never stopped, though. Every time pain or exhaustion or fear tried to coax him down the wall and away from what he was doing, he held a picture in his mind. It wasn’t a picture of himself fighting another zom. It wasn’t even a picture of running free from this place. Chong knew that he had been bitten. He knew that he was going to die.