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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 3


  Lilah exchanged a nod with Tom, and they crept cautiously into the house.

  “She’s definitely warrior smart,” observed Chong, “but crazy as a loon.”

  “Should we go in too?” asked Morgie. “Maybe they could use our help.”

  “Tom and Lilah? Need our help? Don’t be stupid,” replied Nix.

  Nix, Chong, and Benny turned their heads in unison to face him.

  Morgie colored. “Yeah … okay,” he conceded. “Kinda dumb, huh?”

  Chong laid a consoling hand on his arm. “No, Morgie,” he said, “not ‘kinda.’”

  Benny caught movement again at the Matthias place. He saw Zak turn away from the window, but something about Zak’s face made Benny stare. Zak’s eyes were surrounded by dark rings. As if his whole face looked bruised. Maybe a couple of black eyes. Big Zak?

  “Damn,” Benny said under his breath.

  Nix caught the direction of his stare. “What—?”

  “It’s Zak,” he said quietly. “I think he’s hurt. He keeps looking out here.”

  Nix opened her mouth to say something stinging about Zak, but then she clamped her jaws shut.

  Benny looked at the front of the Houser place, and everything was quiet. People were starting to edge carefully up to the porch. He turned back to Zak’s house, chewing his lip in indecision.

  Then, before he knew he was going to do anything, he was walking toward Zak Matthias’s house.

  FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

  First Night

  That’s what people call the day the dead rose. According to Tom, it started in the morning in a few places, but by night it had spread all over.

  No one knows why it started.

  No one knows where it started. Tom says that the first report he heard of was a news story out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

  By dawn of the next day it had spread all over the world. A state of emergency was declared. Tom says that it was too little and too late.

  By noon of the following day all communication was lost from over sixty cities in the United States, and more than three hundred worldwide. No one was counting how many towns and villages were overrun.

  The radios and TV stations stopped broadcasting on the fifth day. Cell phones were already dead by then.

  After that there was no way to know how bad things were.

  6

  BENNY WALKED AROUND TO ZAK’S BACK DOOR. HE KNEW THAT WHEN Big Zak got drunk he usually passed out on the living room couch, so the back of the house seemed like the best place to steal a peek inside.

  “Benny!” Nix called as she ran to catch up. “What’s going on?”

  “I—,” he began, but he had nowhere to go with it. How could Nix, of all people, understand and accept that Benny wanted to see if Zak Matthias was okay? This house represented everything she’d lost. Benny believed that if their roles were reversed she’d feel the same.

  He gave her a meaningless smile—almost a wince—and stepped up onto Zak’s back porch. Nix stayed on the grass by the steps. Benny set his bokken down—no way Zak would open the door if Benny was standing there with a big stick—and cupped his hands around his eyes so he could peer in through the kitchen window. There were no lanterns lit.

  The kitchen was empty. No sign of Zak.

  Benny gave the door a faint tap-tap.

  Nothing. Benny hesitated. What did he really want to say to Zak? Zak’s uncle had murdered Nix’s mom. Benny had killed Charlie. Well, probably killed him. He’d hit him with the Motor City Hammer’s black iron pipe and watched Charlie fall a hundred feet into darkness.

  How would any of that open a doorway into a conversation?

  Gee, Zak, anyone get murdered today?

  He knocked again anyway.

  A figure moved behind the curtain and turned the handle. The door opened, and Benny drew a breath, not sure which words were going to come out of his mouth.

  It wasn’t Zak.

  It was Big Zak.

  Not as big as Charlie Pink-eye, but big enough. He wasn’t an albino like Charlie, but he had pale skin and pale blond hair. He was every bit as scary as Charlie, though.

  Especially now.

  The whole front of Big Zak’s shirt glistened with bright red blood.

  “I—I—,” Big Zak croaked, but there wasn’t enough left of his throat to manage more. He took a single trembling step out onto the porch and then fell right on top of Benny. The big man’s weight crushed Benny to the porch boards, driving all the air from his lungs, banging his head hard enough to fill the world with fireworks.

  “Benny!” Nix screamed.

  He heard his own voice screaming too.

  Benny stared up at Big Zak’s face, which was an inch from his. There were scrapes and cuts all over it, and his eyes were wild with pain and terror. Benny struggled to push the crushing weight off of him.

  “H-help … me …,” the man croaked. “P-please …”

  And then the mad light went out of Big Zak’s eyes. All his weight sagged down, empty of tension, of control. Of life.

  Benny panicked, wanting that slack, dead weight off him. He desperately shifted his hip under Big Zak and twisted his hips to move the dead man’s mass. As he worked the wrestling move, he wondered why Nix wasn’t helping. She was right there… .

  As if on cue, Nix yelled, “Benny! Watch out!”

  Big Zak’s body slid partially off him, and Benny kicked his way out. “It’s a little late for ‘watch out’!” he snapped. “I already—”

  But Nix was rushing at him with her bokken held high, her face twisted into a mask of mingled hate and fear.

  “No!” he yelled. He scrambled backward and collided …

  … into Zak.

  Benny whirled and looked into the face of his former friend.

  Into the pale, dark-eyed, and blood-smeared face of the thing that been Zak Matthias.

  With a snarl of insatiable hunger, Zak lunged for Benny’s throat.

  7

  EVERYTHING SEEMED TO HAPPEN MUCH TOO FAST.

  Zak grabbed the front of Benny’s shirt with icy white fingers and pulled. Benny jammed his palms against Zak’s chest just in time. Zak’s teeth snapped together an inch from Benny’s windpipe. Benny shrieked in terror. Zak moaned in hunger and frustration.

  “Benny! Down!”

  Suddenly there was a flash of brown hardwood and a sound like a watermelon falling off a wagon onto asphalt. Zak and Benny fell in opposite directions. Benny’s head hit the floor again, harder. Zak pitched backward away from him, his face gone, replaced by an inhuman mask of blood and damaged tissue.

  Benny felt like his own head was shattered. He heard a voice screaming his name.

  Nix?

  Benny tried to say her name, but the world spun around him and all his internal lights went dark.

  8

  “BENNY—GET UP!”

  The voice was a million miles away.

  “Benny!”

  His numb brain gave the voice a name. Nix. And … she was yelling at him. Why was she yelling? He tried to ask her, but it came out as a mumble of soft nonsense words.

  Then she was pulling at him. Shaking him.

  He cranked open one eye. It was like lifting a hundred pounds of bricks.

  “Good morning, Nix,” he said in a completely reasonable tone of voice. “Would you like some toast?”

  Nix slapped him across the face. Hard.

  “Hey—OW!”

  The slap cleared his battered brain, and he realized that Nix was bending over him, screaming right in his face.

  “ZOMS!”

  That did it.

  His brain snapped back to full awareness. As Nix hauled him upright there was movement to his left, and Benny turned to see Big Zak getting slowly to his feet, blood dripping from rubbery lips and a ruined throat. The zom turned his slack face toward Benny and moaned like a lost soul.

  More movement made Benny turn, and there was Danny Houser and his mother shambling across the lawn tow
ard the porch. Both of them were mangled by bites. Both of them were dead. Zoms. Beyond them, inside the Houser place, there were shouts and screams and gunshots.

  “Catch!” Nix scooped up Benny’s sword and threw it to him. Benny snatched it out of the air as Big Zak took a lumbering step toward him. Nix jumped off the porch and ran to intercept Danny, her sword held high.

  Big Zak was too close for a perfect swing, so Benny changed direction and hit him with the heavy handle of the wooden sword. The blow caught Big Zak on the point of his jaw, and the impact sent shocks up through Benny’s wrists. Big Zak staggered backward.

  Benny cut a look at Nix just in time to see her swing at Mrs. Houser and knock her sideways, but at the same instant Danny rushed forward and grabbed a fistful of Nix’s red hair. Benny took a reflexive step toward her, but then Big Zak grabbed his sweatshirt and jerked him off his feet. The zom dragged him forward and up, first to his toes and then completely off the floor. Even dead, Big Zak Matthias was a powerful man. Benny dangled from the zombie’s fists and for a moment he stared straight into the unblinking eyes of the dead man.

  There was a story kids told one another, that if you looked into a zom’s eyes you would see a reflection of what you would look like as one of the living dead. Benny had stopped believing that after that nightmare adventure last September; but now, staring into the empty eyes of Big Zak, Benny knew exactly how he would look as a zom. Small and washed-out and lost, with all trace of his humanity and personality snuffed out like a match.

  “No!” he cried, and as the zom lunged in for a bite, Benny rammed the shaft of the wooden sword into the creature’s gaping mouth.

  Big Zak bit down with a huge crunch that chopped splinters off the sword and snapped the tips off the zom’s incisors.

  Then Big Zak flung Benny away as he pawed the bokken out of his mouth. The sword clattered to the floorboards. As the zom turned toward him, Benny pivoted on his hip and kicked out with both feet, slamming his heels into the zom’s knees. The impact knocked the zom backward so that Big Zak’s heels caught on Zak Junior’s fallen body, and the monster fell down with a huge crash. Benny scrambled to his feet, raised the wooden sword, and brought it down with every ounce of strength he had.

  CRACK!

  The wooden sword snapped in half right where Big Zak had bitten into it, but the blow itself shattered the zom’s skull. Big Zak dropped facedown on the boards, moaning and twisting and clutching at nothing. Benny stared at the eighteen inches of jagged hickory in his hands, then reversed it, raised it high in a two-hand grip, and plunged it down at the base of Big Zak’s skull. There is a narrow opening where the spine enters the skull. Tom called it the “sweet spot,” and it was where the brain stem was most vulnerable. Sever that and the zom was dead forever. Quieted.

  He put everything he had into the blow.

  And missed. The tip of the spike hit the hard back of the skull and skittered off and finally crushed itself flat on the floorboards beside the zom’s ear.

  “Oh, crap,” Benny said.

  Big Zak’s twitching fingers scrabbled for Benny’s ankles, but there seemed to be no strength left. Benny stepped backward out of reach. The zom moaned softly.

  Immediately Benny whirled, looking for Nix. As he leaped off the porch he saw Danny Houser fall, his head tilting on a cracked—but not broken—neck. Nix backed away from him, her chest heaving with fear and exertion.

  “Watch out!” Benny yelled as Mrs. Houser rushed at Nix from her blind side. Just as Nix spun, Benny knocked Danny’s mother over with a flying tackle that sent them both into a rolling, tumbling sprawl. The zom twisted and hissed like a cat and buried her teeth in his shoulder. He managed to shift as her jaws clamped shut, and all she bit off was a mouthful of soggy sweatshirt.

  There was a sudden muffled thump and a shudder went through the zom; then another and another, and Benny realized that Nix was pounding on the monster with her sword, trying to distract or dislodge her.

  “Nix!” yelled a voice. “Get back.”

  The thumping stopped, and a second later the zom’s body was lifted off him and Benny looked up to see Tom there. He hooked one powerful arm around the zom’s throat, and though the creature thrashed and fought, she was helpless.

  A dozen people came running between the houses and into the yard. Chong and Morgie were with them, and when they saw Benny down on the grass covered with blood, they stopped and froze in place. Nix stood apart, her bokken in her hands, winded and terrified but looking unharmed. Everyone looked at her for a second, and then all eyes snapped back to stare at Benny.

  Benny started to get up, but suddenly Lilah was there and she had a glittering dagger in her hand. Before Benny could speak Lilah crouched over him and put the edge of the blade beneath his chin. Benny froze.

  “Lilah!” growled Tom.

  “Look at his shoulder! He’s been bitten,” she snapped back.

  “No …,” Benny croaked. “No!” cried Nix.

  Tom handed Mrs. Houser off to Captain Strunk and two other men from the town watch. They gagged and bound her with practiced ease, though their faces were twisted into masks of fear and revulsion. Tom moved to Lilah’s side and touched the arm holding the dagger.

  “No,” he said more gently, looking from her to Benny and back. “If he’s bitten, then it’s mine to deal with. It’s a family thing.”

  “I didn’t get bitten,” Benny insisted, but no one seemed to be paying attention to him.

  Lilah had eyes the color of honey, but at that moment Benny thought they looked as cold as ice. There was no trace of compassion or humanity on her face. All he could see was the hunter, the loner. The legendary Lost Girl who had killed humans as well as zoms in the Rot and Ruin.

  The knife felt like a branding iron against his skin.

  Then it was gone, and she stepped back.

  “Be sure,” she said to Tom. “Or I will.”

  Benny sagged back against the grass, more exhausted by the last few seconds than by the fight with the zoms.

  Nix edged past Lilah, her eyes hooded and angry, and she moved to stand between them. Morgie crept closer until he was shoulder to shoulder with Nix; after a slight hesitation, so did Chong. Their bodies formed a screen. Lilah looked at them with a calculating stare, as if she was sizing them up and deciding how much—or how little—effort it would take to get past them to Benny.

  Benny got shakily to his feet.

  “I didn’t get bit,” he yelled. To prove it he pulled off his shirt and flung it on the grass at Lilah’s feet. Anger was rising in him now, replacing his terror inch by inch. “See?”

  “I see,” was all Lilah said. She lowered her knife and turned away. Everyone watched as she walked over to the porch, mounted the steps, and without a pause drove the tip of the blade into the back of Big Zak’s skull. Unlike Benny, she did not miss.

  “Holy crap,” said Morgie.

  “Uh-huh,” breathed Chong, pale and shaken.

  Tom bent and picked up Benny’s shirt, examined the bite hole on the shoulder, and handed it back to him. “You sure you’re okay?”

  Benny looked over to the porch, where Big Zak lay sprawled a few feet from his son. From the thing that had once been a boy the same age as Benny. A friend once. A victim recently.

  “I said I wasn’t bitten,” Benny said, shaking his head slowly as he turned away, “but I’m a billion miles from okay.”

  FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

  Before First Night the United States Census Bureau estimated that there were 6,922,000,000 people alive on planet Earth.

  Tom said that news reports claimed that more than two billion people died in the first two days after First Night.

  By the time the Internet went down, the estimates of the global death toll were at four billion and climbing.

  People in town believe that following First Night more than six billion people died. Most people think the whole rest of the world is dead.

  We know that the total population of
the nine towns here in central California is 28,261 as of last New Year’s census.

  9

  THEY ALL SAT ON THE PICNIC TABLE IN BENNY’S YARD, DRINKING COLD TEA and eating enormous slices of apple pie with raisins and walnuts in it. The sun was a golden ball in a flawless blue sky, and birds chattered in the trees. However, this rampant beauty did nothing to lighten the mood of sadness and horror that hovered like fog around them.

  Lilah sat apart, cross-legged on the grass. She had not spoken a single word since the confrontation in Zak’s yard. No one had, except for some ordinary comments mostly related to the serving and eating of Tom’s apple pie. Benny nibbled at his, but he had no appetite. Neither did Nix, though she poked angrily at the dessert until it was a mangled beige lump of goo on her plate. Chong and Morgie ate theirs, though Chong seemed to be eating on autopilot, his eyes focused on Lilah’s stern but beautiful profile.

  Tom sat on a tree stump, looking angry and unhappy.

  “What happened back there?” Benny finally asked. “With Danny and Zak … and …”

  Tom sighed and ran his hands over his face. “It was Grandpa Houser. Looks like he died sitting on the living room couch, reading the Town Pump. Michelle probably thought he was asleep. Maybe she tried to shake him awake and he reanimated and bit her. Looks like she ran out of the house to get away. Or maybe to get help. The twins said that they were out with their dad all morning, so maybe Michelle went to get Zak or Big Zak to help her. Not sure what happened next. There’s a lot of blood in the kitchen, so it looked like maybe Grandpa attacked them when they came back in. Or maybe Michelle was hurt worse than she thought. Zak must have been bitten there and ran home. I looked inside their house too. There was a lot of blood in the dining room, so Zak must have bled out there, and when he reanimated …”