Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 4

  “… he attacked his dad,” Benny said.

  Tom nodded.

  Benny thought about mentioning his suspicions that Big Zak had been knocking Zak around, but there didn’t seem much point to it now. Even so, an ugly thought was forming in his mind. What if Zak had been bitten—by Mrs. Houser or Grandpa Houser—and, knowing that he was infected, had gone home to make sure that was where he’d be when he died and reanimated? Would Zak have done that as a twisted way to pay back the abuse?

  Nix reached over and gave his knee a squeeze; and when Benny looked at her he saw a complexity of emotions swirling in her green eyes. She gave him a sad little smile, and he wondered, not for the first time, if she could somehow read his thoughts. Or feel what he felt. What did they call that? Empathy? Benny was pretty sure that was the word.

  “This really sucks,” said Morgie. “Danny and his folks. Man …”

  “Zak, too,” said Chong.

  Morgie gave him a hard look. “We’re better off without any of the Matthias family around here anymore. You did us all a favor by bashing Zak’s head—”

  Nix whirled and grabbed a small fistful of Morgie’s shirt. “Shut up!” she said fiercely.

  “Hey! What’s your problem?” Morgie said, trying to peel her fingers off. “You should be throwing a party. Your mom died because of Zak and his whole loser family. They kidnapped you and you almost died. And I got my skull cracked and I nearly died. What does it take to get you mad enough to—”

  “Shut up.” Nix’s voice was as cold as ice. “Zak didn’t know what Charlie would do when he told him about the Lost Girl card.”

  Morgie sneered. “Yeah? And how do you know that? Did you ask him? Did you ever ask him why he told Charlie at all? How do you know that Charlie didn’t tell him exactly what would happen?”

  Nix said nothing, but her eyes were green fire.

  “How do you know that Zak wasn’t a part of all of it?” Morgie continued. “Tom’s not the only one training kids our age to be bounty hunters. Maybe Charlie was teaching Zak. Maybe Charlie told Zak all about Gameland and the Z-Games and all of it. You don’t know what Zak knew. He could have been as guilty as Charlie and the Hammer.”

  Everyone looked at Nix, and Benny was expecting her to cry or punch Morgie or do something extreme.

  Instead she slowly opened her hand to let go of Morgie’s shirt.

  “You’re right,” she said.

  Morgie blinked in surprise. “I—”

  “I don’t know,” Nix went on, cutting off whatever Morgie might say. “Neither do you and now neither does anyone. Charlie Matthias and Marion Hammer are dead. We killed them up in the mountains. It’s not going to bring my mom back, I know that.” A tear broke from the corner of one eye and burned a silver line down her cheek. “But neither will condemning Zak without proof.”

  Morgie started to reply, thought better of it, and closed his mouth. He looked around for support, but no one would meet his eyes.

  Nix wiped the tear with the back of her hand. “Ever since we got back all I’ve done is hate Zak. And his father, and everyone Zak was ever related to. I wanted them all dead. I wanted them all to pay.” Her words were fierce, but her voice was so soft that Benny had to lean in to hear her. She sniffed. “Today … when I killed Zak today I actually wanted to. I wasn’t just killing the zom that Zak had turned into. I could feel it in my chest. I can still feel it. It’s like …”

  They all waited in silence while she fought to clothe her feelings in words that everyone would understand. Benny put his hand on her knee, just as she’d done to him, but Nix shook her head and gently pushed it away.

  “I don’t want anyone to cheer about it,” she said in voice that was dangerously close to a sob. “And I don’t want anyone to make it all right for me, either. I feel like I’m going crazy … I feel …” She took a deep breath. “I feel polluted.”

  Nix looked around to see if anyone understood. Tom nodded first, and Benny understood why. He’d been doing this longer than any of them, and Benny knew for certain that each and every kill Tom made hurt him. Deeply.

  Chong nodded as well, and he turned his face away to hide whatever might be showing in his dark eyes. Lilah gave a single, short grunt that could mean anything; but it was not a shake of her head.

  Nix turned to Benny, and there was such pain and such hope warring on her face.

  “Yeah,” Benny said. “You know that I know.”

  One by one they all turned to Morgie. His eyes were fierce, his jaw set.

  He stood up and without a word turned and walked away.

  “Morgie!” Nix called, starting to rise, but Tom stopped her with a shake of his head.

  “Leave him be,” Tom said. “He needs some time.”

  But Nix didn’t leave it. She ran after Morgie and caught him as he slammed the gate behind him. Nix pushed it open again, but Morgie kept walking, almost running. Nix ran to stand in front of him. Benny couldn’t hear what she said, or what Morgie said back. At first they were shouting, but their words were muffled by distance. Then Nix was hugging Morgie and for a moment there was no response, then Morgie wrapped his arms around her and they stood there, heads buried on each other’s shoulders. Benny could see the hitch of their bodies as they cried.

  “Don’t go over there, Benny,” said Chong softly.

  “No,” Benny agreed.

  They watched for a while, then one by one they turned away.


  People in the Rot and Ruin

  Bounty Hunters: This is the biggest group of people who go into the Ruin, or sometimes live out there. They do jobs for pay, like clearing zoms out of a town, hunting specific zombies for pay, clearing the trade routes, finding lost people, and other work.

  Tom says that most of them are dangerous and not very nice, but that “nicer people generally won’t do that kind of work.” Mayor Kirsch calls them a “necessary evil.”

  People in town have been talking about a new bounty hunter moving into the area to take over Charlie Pink-eye’s territory. They call him White Bear, but that’s all I know about him … except that he’s supposed to be just as mean and tough as Charlie. Oh … great.

  Charlie Pink-eye and the Motor City Hammer were bounty hunters, and the people who worked with them were all bad.

  Closure experts are a different kind of bounty hunter. They’re hired by people to look for family members or friends who have been zommed. This is what Tom Imura does.

  Tom finds them if he can (zoms usually don’t wander far from where they reanimated), reads them a last letter from the family, and then “quiets” them as humanely as possible.

  Other closure experts Tom introduced me to: Old Man Church, Solomon Jones, and Lucy Diamonds.

  Bounty hunters Tom trusts: J-Dog, Dr. Skillz, Hector Mexico, Sally Two-Knives, Basher Bashman, Magic Mike, LaDonna Willis and sons, and Fluffy McTeague.

  What would my name be if I was a bounty hunter? Reds Riley? Li’l Killer?

  I’ll have to think about that.


  BENNY FELT HORRIBLE AND HELPLESS. MORGIE HAD ALWAYS HAD A CRUSH on Nix and had been on his way to her house to ask her out the night Nix’s mom was killed. Morgie had tried to defend Nix and her mom, but the Hammer had struck him on the back of the head with his iron club.

  The same club Benny had used to take down Charlie.

  Now Morgie and Nix were deep inside the pocket of a shared experience, and the intimacy of it made Benny feel deeply insecure. But when he realized that he was feeling insecure and jealous, Benny wished he could drag his own stupid mind behind the house and kick the crap out of it.

  They ate the last of the leftovers from supper and more big slices of pie. They sat in silence, trying not to look at the road. After fifteen minutes Nix and Morgie came back. They each accepted plates of pie and glasses of tea from Tom.

  Morgie sat in the empty gap between Tom and Chong, and there were dried tear tracks on his face. Nix sat on t
he picnic table, but not as close to Benny as she had been before.

  As if there had been no interruption, Tom picked up the conversation where his narrative of the events at the Houser place had left off.

  “… and you know the rest,” Tom concluded.

  “What about Danny’s dad?” asked Nix. “And the twins?”

  Tom sighed. “The girls told me that they and their dad got home about two hours ago. The girls went upstairs to play, and Jack went into the kitchen. Danny must have come home sometime after Michelle was attacked but before Jack. From the way I read it, Danny, Grandpa, and Michelle attacked Jack when he went into the kitchen. He got away, but he was badly hurt. He got the girls into their room and told them to barricade the door. Then he got his gun.”

  “He fired that first shot?” asked Benny.

  “Probably. Maybe he was planning on quieting Michelle and the others, but he was too badly torn up. I think he realized that he was about to die, and he did what he thought was best to try and protect the girls.”

  “He shot himself?” asked Nix, horrified.

  Tom nodded. “Right at the top of the stairs, so his body would block the others from getting at the girls. Jack must have been too weak to hold the gun right; his bullet missed the motor cortex and the brain stem. All he did was speed up how fast he came back. When we came in, he was just about to break into the girls’ bedroom.”

  Nix sniffed and wiped tears from her eyes.

  “All those people,” Benny said softly. “And those two little girls.”

  “More orphans.”

  It was Lilah who spoke, and everyone turned to her. Her stern expression had softened, and it was clear that she was looking into her own memories. Like Nix, Lilah was an orphan. And like Nix and the little girls, Lilah had lost her sibling as well: Annie, a little sister who was born on First Night and who had died trying to escape the zombie pits at Gameland.

  Chong said, “What will happen to them?”

  “The girls?” Tom asked. “I think there’s an aunt somewhere. In Hillcrest, maybe.”

  That town was four days’ ride to the north, and the route went through some of the worst zombie-infested lands. It was a terrible thing. The girls would go off to another town—and as travel between the few towns left in the Ruin was rare, usually only the bounty hunters and traders risked the journey. Benny knew that people here in Mountainside would never see Faith and Hope again. Probably never even hear about them again, as if they had been erased from the world as so many other people had been erased.

  The thought of so much death and loss hit him like a punch to the heart.

  Nix, however, was furious, and she pounded her thigh with a small, hard fist. “God! I can’t wait to leave this place. I want to get out of here and never come back.”

  Tom looked at her and then turned his face to the east and gave a slow nod.

  “I wish we could leave now,” Nix growled, then elbowed Benny. “Right?”

  “Absolutely,” he said, though he had to force the enthusiasm. At the moment all he wanted to do was go lock himself in his room and sleep until the horror went away.

  “I still can’t believe you’re really going,” said Chong softly, but although he spoke to Benny and Nix, his eyes kept darting toward Lilah. “I wish I could go.”

  “Me too,” muttered Nix. “We should all leave. God, I hate this town. I hate the way people think here. No one talks about First Night. Everyone’s afraid to even discuss the possibility of reclaiming the world. They won’t even expand the town.”

  “They’re scared,” said Morgie.

  “So what?” she snapped. “There’s always been something to be scared of. Between wild animals, earthquakes, volcanoes, viruses, wars … Yet look at what people did! They built cities and countries. They fought off their enemies. They stopped being scared and started being strong!”

  “No,” said Lilah. “Even the strong are afraid.”

  Nix turned to her. “Okay, then they learned how to be brave.”

  “Yes,” said Tom. “They also learned how to work together. That mattered then and it’ll matter now. None of us could do this alone. I know I couldn’t. Not going across the whole country.”

  “I thought you liked being alone,” said Benny, half joking. “The Zen master and all that.”

  Tom shook his head. “I can handle loneliness, but I don’t like it. Every time I was out on a long job I even looked forward to coming home to you. An ugly, smelly, bratty little brother.”

  “Who will smother you in your sleep,” suggested Benny.

  “Point taken.”

  “I want to go,” said Lilah abruptly. “Being alone … being lonely …” She didn’t finish and simply shook her head.

  Since she’d first come here last year, Lilah had gone back into the forests and up into the mountains dozens of times, and often to the cave where she used to live, bringing back sacks filled with her precious books. Benny, Tom, and Nix had gone with her several times. However, no one commented on her statement. None of them understood loneliness a tenth as well as the Lost Girl.

  “I really wish I could go,” repeated Chong wistfully, still looking at Lilah while trying not to appear that he was.

  “Parents won’t cave?” Benny asked.

  “Parents won’t even talk about it. They think the idea is suicidal.”

  “They could be right,” observed Tom.

  “And that’s why I don’t want you talking to them about it anymore, Mr. Positive Energy,” growled Chong. “After the last time you talked about it, Mom wanted to handcuff me to the kitchen chair.”

  “You could just go,” suggested Lilah.

  Chong made a face. “Very funny.”

  “I am serious. It’s your life … take it.”

  “You sure that’s how you want to phrase that?” murmured Benny.

  “You know what I mean,” Lilah snapped irritably.

  “Yes,” said Tom, “and it’s a bad suggestion. Chong is a minor, and he has a responsibility to his family.”

  “First responsibility is to here,” she retorted, tapping herself over the heart. “To self.”

  “Fine, then maybe you should go talk to the Chongs,” said Tom.

  “Maybe I should.”

  “But,” interjected Benny, “don’t bring your weapons.”


  Things We Don’t Know About Zoms

  Why they stop decaying after a certain point.

  Why they attack people and animals.

  Why they don’t attack each other.

  Whether they can see or hear the way living humans can.

  Why they moan.

  If they can think (at all).

  If they can feel pain.

  What they are.


  THE REST OF THE DAY WAS QUIET. NIX WENT FOR A LONG WALK WITH LILAH, and Chong trailed along like a sad and silent puppy. Morgie went fishing and Benny slouched around the house, looking at all the familiar things, trying to wrap his brain around the idea that he wasn’t going to see any of this stuff anymore. Even the beat-up chest of drawers in his room seemed wonderful and familiar, and he touched it like an old friend.

  Say good-bye to this, whispered his inner voice. Let it all go.

  He took a long, hot bath and listened to a voice speak to him from the shadows in his mind. For months now Benny had heard that inner voice speaking as if it were a separate part of him. It wasn’t the same as “hearing voices,” like old Brian Collins, who had at least a dozen people chattering in his head all the time. No, this was different. To Benny it felt like the inner voice he heard was his own future self whispering to him. The person he was going to become. A more evolved and mature Benny Imura, confident and wise, who had begun to emerge shortly after the events at Charlie’s camp.

  The current Benny didn’t always agree with the voice, and often wished it would shut up and let him just be fifteen.

  After his soak, Benny stood for a while peer
ing into the mirror, wondering who he was.

  After seven months of Tom’s insane pre-trip fitness regimen, he was no longer the skinny kid he’d been when he had first ventured out into the Rot and Ruin. He actually had muscle definition and even the beginnings of six-pack abs. He made sure that he took his shirt off in front of Nix as often as he could reasonably justify it, usually after hard training sessions. He worked hard to make it look casual, but it was disheartening how often Nix giggled or didn’t appear to notice instead of swooning with lust.

  Now he looked at his arms and chest, at the muscles earned through all those hours of training with swords and jujitsu and karate; at the tone acquired from endless repetitions with weights, from running five to ten miles five times a week, from climbing ropes and trees and playing combat games. He bent closer, wondering how much of that face belonged to the man he was becoming or to the boy he still believed himself to be. The face seemed to fit more with his inner voice than with Benny’s perception of his current self.

  That was the problem, and it was at the core of everything. On one hand he wanted to be fifteen and go fishing and play baseball and get in trouble swiping apples from Snotty O’Malley’s orchard. On the other hand, he wanted to be a man. He wanted to be as strong as Tom, as powerful as Tom. He wanted people to show him the fear and respect they showed Tom.

  Benny knew that once they left Mountainside he would have to become tougher. There would be challenges that would toughen him and strengthen his “legend,” just as Tom’s many adventures as the region’s most feared zombie hunter had built his legend. No doubt Nix would find him irresistibly sexy the farther from town they got and the tougher he became.