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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 37

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  Nix was the last to leave.

  “He said he was going to try and not come back,” said Benny.

  “I know,” she said, her eyes still streaming with tears. “Benny …”

  “Please, Nix … I need to be with him. Just Tom and me. Now … please, Nix, time’s running out. It’ll happen soon.”

  Nix squeezed her eyes shut in pain, but she nodded. Benny kissed her on the forehead and held the door while she left. Benny sat on the floor and watched Tom. He could almost feel the others outside. Nix would do this for him, Benny knew that. So would Lilah. So would Chong. Chong would do anything for Benny. After everything that had happened, Chong would die for him. Benny knew that.

  Should he hate Chong? Should he blame him?

  He searched inside his heart for hatred, but it simply was not there. Chong had never wanted this. All he had wanted was to go home and to stop being a problem for everyone. Only that. Not this. Benny still loved Chong. There would be wreckage, there would be scar tissue, but Chong was Chong and Benny was Benny. There would always be the two of them, carrying on, moving forward. Growing up.

  The sheet that covered Tom’s body was still. There was no breeze; the fabric did not flutter.

  “Please,” whispered Benny.

  I’ll try not to come back. Benny reached down and picked up the thing Dr. Skillz had left for him. A sliver. It was polished and cool. One end was blunt for pushing, the other sharp for piercing. A pretty thing, well made. An ugly thing, dreadfully intended.

  He held it in his hand while he stood and waited. Seconds fell around him like leaves from a dying tree. Inside his chest he felt something change. His heart dropped from where it had always been, falling to a lower place. A darker place. And there, he knew, it would remain.

  The world itself had become darker.

  I’ll try not to come back.

  Benny pressed the cold, flat blade of the sliver against his forehead and closed his eyes.

  “God,” he whispered, “please …” Others who had died recently had stayed dead. Most had come back, but not all of them. Not all.

  Outside he could hear the first birds of morning. The world was waking up, unheeding of what had happened. Benny stared at the closed windows and wondered how nature could be so stupid, so cruel. How could the day just go on as if nothing had happened? So much was broken now. Time should be broken. Tom was gone. There had been a stopping of him. The world should have stopped then too. And yet it ground on.

  Tears burned in Benny’s eyes.

  I’ll try not to come back.

  I’ll try.

  The sheet lay undisturbed. Slowly, slowly Benny sank to his knees. Holding the sliver in his right hand, he reached out with his left and took the edge of the sheet between his fingers. His tears burned like ice on his cheeks.

  “I’m sorry,” he said in a voice that was almost not there.

  He pulled back the sheet. Tom Imura’s face was slack, his eyelids closed, lips slightly parted. Benny swallowed and tightened his grip on the sliver. Any second now.

  He’ll come back, Benny thought. The world is the world and the plague is never going to end. He knew that what he had to do was going to end him. Not Tom … it would end Benny. He looked into the future and saw that horrible moment and knew that only darkness waited for him afterward.

  “I’m sorry,” Benny said again, and he bent and kissed Tom’s forehead. “I love you, Tom. I wish I’d said that more.”

  Benny turned Tom onto his side to expose the soft spot at the base of the skull. The sweet spot, Tom called it. He cradled Tom’s head in his lap.

  I’ll try not to come back.

  Benny knelt there, holding his brother, holding the sliver.

  Waiting for horror.

  -2-

  FIVE MINUTES LATER BENNY IMURA UNBARRED THE DOOR AND STEPPED out into the morning sunlight. He still held the sliver in his hand. Nix took a step toward him and stopped. Benny was so pale, his eyes rimmed with dark, his mouth slack.

  “Benny … ?”

  Chong stepped forward, but Lilah stopped him. Not by grabbing his arm, but by taking his hand.

  “Benny?” Nix whispered.

  Benny raised his eyes to hers. They were wet and haunted.

  “Benny?” she asked again.

  Benny licked his dry lips. “Tom said that he would try not to come back.”

  Nix came closer, touched his face. “I know, but …”

  He shook his head, and Nix fell silent.

  Chong went quickly past him, pulling Lilah with him. They entered the shed and were in there for almost a full minute. Then they came back out into the sunlight, both of them wearing frowns of confusion.

  “Benny,” said Chong softly, “what does it mean?”

  “What happened?” asked Nix.

  Lilah had her knife in her hand, and she slowly slid it into its sheath. “Tom … he …”

  Benny looked up at the clean sunlight and slowly lifted the hand that held the sliver. The others looked at it, mouths open, eyes wide. Benny opened his fingers and let it fall. The sliver struck the flagstones with a musical clang. Nix stared down at it. The metal gleamed in the bright light, the blade smooth and polished.

  And totally unmarked.

  “My brother kept his word,” Benny said.

  -3-

  MORGIE MITCHELL WALKED THROUGH THE SUN-DAPPLED STREETS OF Mountainside, hands deep in his pockets, shoulders slumped, head down. He barely noticed the other people. He was sunburned from hours spent at the fishing hole, but beneath the red there was a paleness that made him seem ghostly and insubstantial to the people who passed him on the street. He seldom met their eyes, and when he did his gaze was wet and dark and filled with shadows.

  “How you doing there, Morgie?” asked Captain Strunk, but Morgie walked past him without comment. He headed out of the main part of town and down a country lane to a small cottage surrounded by a rail fence and lush bushes. Morgie stopped at the garden gate and looked into the yard. The grass was worn down to the dirt in places where Tom Imura had led them through hundreds of hours of drills with wooden swords and practice knives. He leaned on the fence rail and closed his eyes. The memories of wood clacking on wood and grunts of effort were as clear as if he could hear them right now.

  Morgie sighed.

  He opened the gate and walked up the garden path and around to the front porch. He sighed, mounted the front steps, and stopped at the door. Morgie knew that if he knocked there would be no one home. There couldn’t be. Benny and Tom, Lilah and Chong … and Nix … they were all gone. Far away, and with every second they were going farther. Gone forever.

  Knocking on the door was stupid. It was a futile act, and he knew it.

  He knocked anyway.

  The house was small, but he could hear the three knuckle raps echo off the wooden walls.

  No one answered.

  Morgie turned around and leaned his back against the door. He slowly slid down to the floor. Larks sang in the trees and dragonflies chased each other through the grass. Morgie Mitchell bent forward as if caving in over physical pain. He laced his fingers over the back of his head and sat there as the world turned and turned. His lips moved, saying two words over and over. They might have been I’m sorry, but there was no one there to hear him.

  -4-

  They buried Tom in the field and built a cairn of rocks over him. No one read a service. They were no preachers among them. Most of them prayed, some of them just wept. Benny endured it all, and Nix was at his side.

  When it was over, Sally Two-Knives came over with Tom’s sword in her hands.

  “This is yours now.”

  Benny took the weapon. With it Tom had killed zoms and evil men. And with it Benny had ended the reign of terror that was the Matthias clan. He held it out with both hands and bowed to it in the old samurai fashion; then he slung it the way he had seen Tom do a thousand times.

  Seeing this made Sally cry, and she kissed Benny and turned
away.

  Benny walked over to the wall of the building where he had sat with Tom. He took off his sword and laid it on the grass and went inside. He emerged a minute later with a can of black paint and a brush. He used his knife to pry open the lid.

  “What’s that for?” asked Chong.

  Benny dipped his brush into the paint. “I want to leave something behind.” He used the brush to write on the wall.

  GAMELAND IS CLOSED.

  THAT IS THE LAW.

  —T. IMURA

  He considered what he had done, and then added his own name below Tom’s.

  Dr. Skillz took the brush from him, dipped it in the can, and wrote his name below that. Then J-Dog, Chong, Lilah, Solomon Jones, and everyone else did the same. When they were done, they looked at the wall.

  “Someone else might try it again,” said Lilah. “Somewhere else.”

  “No,” said Sally, “not when we tell what happened here.”

  “Will it make a difference in Mountainside?” asked Nix.

  “Yeah,” said Solomon, “it will. After this … I think it’ll make a difference everywhere this story is told. Tom just became a legend. That’s the only thing more powerful than a hero.”

  “He never wanted to be a hero,” said Benny softly.

  “It’s not a matter of what he wanted, little dude,” said Dr. Skillz, “it’s a matter of how it is. The big kahuna is riding a permanent wave.”

  Benny nodded. He understood that.

  At noon the bounty hunters began preparing to leave. They tried to get Benny and the others to come with them back to Mountainside, but that was a fight they were never going to win.

  “What about you?” asked Sally as she stroked Chong’s scarred and bruised face. “This wasn’t even your journey.”

  “It’s my journey now,” Chong said, glancing at Lilah, who looked confused. The Lost Girl blushed and turned away, but she was smiling as she did so.

  “What am I supposed to tell your folks?”

  As he thought about that, Chong touched the line of stitches Sally had sewn across his chest. “Tell them that I love them … and tell them that I’m alive.”

  “They won’t understand. They’ll be devastated.”

  “I know … but this is something I have to do.”

  Sally sighed and nodded and limped away to find her horse. The other bounty hunters made their good-byes. Before they left, each of them gave some supplies to Benny and his friends. Weapons, food, tools, and advice to help them on their journey. Nix thanked them. Benny said nothing. He stood facing the east.

  When the others were gone, Nix came and took Benny in her arms. She hugged him and kissed him. “I love you, Benny.”

  Benny gently touched her lips with his fingertips. “I love you.”

  It was only the second time she had said those words to Benny. Hearing them, and saying them back, made Benny feel truly alive. It made him feel powerful.

  He bent and picked up Tom’s sword. Tom had used that weapon to save them both on First Night. He felt Nix watching him. “Tom told me that samurai believed these swords carried their souls. I don’t know if that’s true … but I think for Tom it was. He didn’t leave us, Nix. He’s always going to be with us.” He cut a look at her. “Sounds corny, I know, but …”

  “No,” she said honestly. “It’s beautiful. And I think it’s true.”

  Benny nodded and slipped the sling over his head and tied the sword in place the way he had seen Tom do every time he prepared for a journey into the Ruin.

  He turned to Nix, Lilah, and Chong. “Tom kept his word,” he said in a strong, quiet voice. “I’m going to keep mine.”

  Each of them nodded.

  “Warrior smart,” said Chong, meaning it.

  “Warrior smart,” agreed Lilah.

  Nix sniffed back the last of her tears. Her red hair was tied back in a ponytail, and her freckles were like bright fireworks on her face. Her eyes, though, were older than Benny remembered. “Warrior smart,” she said.

  Benny looked into the east, and Preacher Jack’s words came floating back to him. I might be doing you a kindness to keep you from that path. Only thing you’d find east of here is horror and heartache.

  Then he looked back at the cairn. Could anything out there be more horrible or heartbreaking than this? He could almost hear Tom’s voice. Keep your eyes and mind open. Always be ready.

  “Warrior smart, Tom,” he promised aloud.

  They set out together, walking abreast down an overgrown road under the bright morning sunlight. Not even Tom knew what was on the other side of the forest. No one did. Maybe the jet and maybe not. Maybe something else. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be this place. Not Mountainside with its fear and fences. Not these mountains with blood and pain soaked into every acre of dirt.

  Despite everything, they walked with their heads up, tall and proud. Warriors who had come through fire and pain. The last samurai of the old world. Or perhaps the first of the new.

  Benny paused only once at the top of the next rise. He looked back and saw the thin column of smoke that still rose from the ruins of Gameland. He believed that it was closed for good now. Tom would be happy. And thinking that, he smiled again, and faced the east. He and Nix, Lilah and Chong walked over the crest of the ridge, heading toward the unknown, leaving only their footprints behind in the dust and decay.

  Jonathan Maberry is a multiple Bram Stoker Award–winning author, magazine feature writer, playwright, Marvel Comics writer, and writing teacher/lecturer. His works include Patient Zero, They Bite!, and DoomWar. He lives in Warrington, Pennsylvania. Visit him at jonathanmaberry.com.

 


 

  Jonathan Maberry, Dust & Decay

 


 

 
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