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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 5


  For Nix, everything that mattered was out there.

  Benny was more than half sure that if Nix actually loved him, then it was because he had agreed to go with her into the Ruin. Maybe not completely, but in a large part. He would have bet everything he had on it.

  So he didn’t dare tell her that he wasn’t really sure he wanted to go.

  Tell her, said the inner voice. Don’t lie to her.

  Benny ignored the suggestion.

  The Ruin was dangerous and it was uncertain, and everyone he’d talked to in town said that no one had ever gone past Yosemite Park and come back. Nix wanted to go all the way across the country, if that was what it would take to find the jet. Tom, too; and Lilah.

  He stared into his brown eyes and studied the doubt and fear that he saw there.

  “Some hero,” he said under his breath. “Some legend.”

  Nix believed that to stay in town was to be stifled and die behind walls, and she wasn’t entirely wrong. Nearly everyone in Mountainside feared the Ruin with a dread that was so profound that they almost never mentioned anything beyond the fence line. A few went out, visiting other towns, but even then they traveled in metal-reinforced wagons with the shades pulled down to block out any sight of the Ruin. Only the drivers and their bounty-hunter guards rode outside the wagons. Benny imagined that even in the early spring those wagons had to be sickeningly hot, but the travelers seemed to prefer that discomfort rather than the fresh air that came with looking out the window at the real world. It drove Benny nuts. He wondered what the passengers thought when they were inside the wagon but outside the fence. Did they just shut down their higher reasoning? Did they drug themselves so they slept through the journey? Or was the denial so deep that they somehow regarded entering and exiting the shuttered wagons in the same way they would passing through a doorway? Maybe to them there simply was nothing in between.

  It was like a plague, but different from the one that had destroyed the world. This was an emotional pandemic that blinded the eye and deafened the ear and darkened the mind so that there simply was no world other than what existed inside each fenced town.

  Most people had long ago stopped talking about First Night; and although no one said it aloud, it was pretty clear that they felt that they were all just waiting for everything else to end. Society had collapsed, the military and government were gone, nearly seven billion people had died, and the zombie plague was still running at full strength. They all knew that their fellow citizens of Mountainside believed that the world had ended and what was left was just the clock winding down to a final and inevitable silence.

  It was a horrible thought, and until the big fight at Charlie’s camp last year, Benny had been as adamant as Nix in wanting to break free of the town and find someplace where people wanted to be alive. Someplace where people believed that there was a future.

  Then there had been that fight. Benny had been forced to kill people.

  To kill.

  People.

  Not just zoms.

  How was that going to open the way to a future?

  There were so few people left. Barely thirty thousand left in California, and no way to know if there were any more anywhere else. How was killing going to increase that number? It was insane.

  Only here, only when he was alone and looking into the eyes of the person he was becoming, could Benny admit the truth to himself.

  “I don’t want to do this,” he said.

  His mirror image and his inner voice repeated that truth, word for word. They were all in total agreement.

  He got dressed and went downstairs and stood for a long time looking at the map of Mariposa County and Yosemite National Park. He heard voices and went to the back door and listened. Tom was in the yard, talking across the rail fence to Mayor Kirsch and Captain Strunk. Benny cracked the door so he could hear what they were saying.

  “It’s not just a few people, Tom,” said the mayor. “Everyone’s talking about it.”

  “It’s not a secret, Randy,” Tom said. “People have known I was leaving since Christmas.”

  “That’s my point,” replied Captain Strunk. “The scouts and traders are saying that a bunch of rough-looking characters have been moving into the area since Charlie died.”

  “Everyone in the Ruin is a rough-looking character. Goes with the territory.”

  “Come on, Tom,” Strunk said irritably, “don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m saying. And don’t pretend that you don’t know what an influence you’ve had on things out in the Ruin. There may not be much in the way of law out there, but while you were going out on regular closure jobs, most of the rough trade tended to behave themselves.”

  Tom laughed. “You’re crazy.”

  “This isn’t a joke,” said Strunk. “People respect you in town, even if most of them don’t say it—”

  “Or can’t say it,” the Mayor interjected.

  “—and out in the Ruin you were a force to be reckoned with.”

  “I’m not the sheriff of these here parts,” Tom said in a comical Old West accent.

  “Might as well be,” said Strunk. “You could have my job anytime you want it.”

  “No thanks, Keith, you’re the law here in town, and you do a great job.”

  “Again, that’s my point,” said Strunk. “You know that I won’t ever step one foot outside of that fence. No way.”

  “The bottom line,” barked the mayor, “is that we both feel that once you leave, this part of the Ruin is going to turn into a no-man’s-land. Traders are going to get hijacked, and if the bounty hunters band together with no one to stop them, then they are going to own this town. Maybe all the towns.”

  There was a brief silence, and then Benny heard Tom sigh.

  “Randy, Keith … I appreciate the problem, but it’s not my problem. If you’ll remember, I proposed a militia for the Ruin. I made very specific recommendations for a town-sanctioned force that would police this part of the Ruin and all the trade routes. Let’s see, how long ago was that? Eight years? And then again a year later. And the following year, and—”

  “Okay, okay,” growled Mayor Kirsch. “Rubbing our noses in it doesn’t help us find an answer.”

  “I know, Randy, and I don’t mean to be a jerk about this … but I’m leaving next week. Leaving and not coming back. I can’t be the one to solve your problems. Not this time.”

  Both men harangued Tom, but he cut them off with a curt wave of his hand.

  “If you bothered to read my proposal,” he said, “you’d have seen that I made several recommendations for how to handle things. Not all the bounty hunters are like Charlie. There are some people you can trust—granted, only a handful, but I trust them completely.” He began counting on his fingers as he ran through some names. “Solomon Jones, Sally Two-Knives …” He counted off twenty names.

  “Oh, please,” said Mayor Kirsch, making a face. “Half of them are psychos and loners who refuse to come into town and—”

  “They don’t need to come into town,” cut in Tom. “Meet them at the fence line and talk business. Deputize them. Pay them. And, here’s a thought, treat them with a little respect and maybe they’ll show some loyalty to you and the town.”

  “Maybe they behave themselves around you,” said Strunk, “but I hear wild tales.”

  “Really? Well, what wild tales have you been hearing about Gameland? It’s back in operation again. Without a militia of any kind, what are you going to do when kids start disappearing? How would you feel about your own kids vanishing off the street and getting dragged off to fight in a zombie pit? Don’t pretend that doesn’t happen in town. Ask Nix Riley.”

  There was more, but the three of them began walking toward the garden gate and the road to town. Benny closed the door.

  Great, he thought, just what we need. Another reason to feel bad about leaving.

  12

  THE NEXT DAY WAS THE VIEWING AND FUNERAL FOR THE HOUSER FAMILY. More than two hundred
people showed up. Benny and Nix went together. She had been sad and quiet since yesterday, and the day suited her mood. Clouds obscured the sun and turned the air wet and cool, but no rain fell. The trees were filled with crows and warblers and grasshopper sparrows. A grackle—scruffy and dark—landed on the closed coffin of Danny Houser and mocked the sermon like an uncouth heckler, until the grave digger chased him away with a shovel.

  Pastor Kellogg wore a black robe and held a heavy and very battered old Bible. There was a rumor around town that the pages of the Bible were stained with blood because the pastor had been forced to use the Good Book to beat the head in of one of his parishioners who had been zommed out and attacked him. It was a lurid story, but Benny believed it was true. There were a lot of stories like that in town. Everyone who had survived First Night had one.

  The mayor and his wife were there, dressed in formal clothes, and even Captain Strunk of the Town Watch was in a suit.

  Benny did not own a suit, but he wore his best pair of dark blue jeans and a clean white shirt. Nix wore a pretty dress that Fran Kirsch, the mayor’s wife, had sewn for her. The dress was a richer shade of blue than Benny’s jeans, and the bodice was embroidered with wildflowers and hummingbirds. The colors made Nix’s red hair and green eyes look more intense.

  Tom wore a black shirt and jeans and kept his eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses he’d recently bought from a trader. He did not say a word the whole time. Chong and his family stood nearby, but Lilah was not with them. Only when Benny looked around during one of the hymns did he see her standing on the far side of the graveyard fence. She wore a dress made from some charcoal-colored cloth embroidered with tiny white flowers. Lilah’s snow-white hair danced in the light breeze, and her eyes were in shadow. She looked as cold and beautiful as a ghost.

  Benny saw that Chong was staring openly at her.

  Morgie Mitchell came to the funeral too, but like Lilah he stood apart from the others.

  When the burial was over, only a handful of people walked to the other side of the cemetery for the Matthias service. Nix took Benny’s hand as they threaded their way through the tombstones.

  “You know what this feels like?” she asked.

  He shook his head.

  “It’s like we’re at our own funerals.”

  Benny almost stopped, but Nix pulled his hand.

  “Think about it … in a couple of days we’ll be gone too. Nobody in town will ever see us again. Someone else will be living in your house, just like somebody else is living in mine now. By Christmas we’ll be an anecdote. By next year people will start forgetting our names. I’ll be ‘the redheaded girl whose mama was murdered.’ You’ll be ‘that bounty hunter’s kid brother.’” Her voice was soft, pitched for just him to hear. She trailed her fingers over the curved top of a tombstone. “Ten years from now they won’t even remember that we lived here.”

  “Morgie and Chong will remember.”

  “Remember what? That we left them behind? That they weren’t able to escape with us?”

  “Is that what this is? An escape?”

  She shrugged. “Maybe it’ll be like being born into another world. I don’t know.”

  He glanced at her as they walked down the slope to the Matthias plot, but Nix didn’t return his look. Although she was with him, she was wandering somewhere down deep in her thoughts.

  Tom and Chong followed behind. Lilah did not.

  Zak’s family was Catholic, so Father Shannon performed the service. He was an ancient little man with healed-over burns on his face. Like Pastor Kellogg, the little priest carried with him an awful reminder of First Night.

  Father Shannon looked at the sparse gathering and then around at the cemetery, as if hoping more people were coming, but no one was. He sighed, shook his head, and launched into another reading of the same prayer for the dead. Nix still held Benny’s hand, and her grip tightened to an almost crushing force, grinding his hand bones together. It hurt, but Benny would rather have cut that hand off than take it back at that moment. If it would help Nix through this, he’d give her a pair of pliers and a vise so she could do a proper job.

  The priest read the prayers and made the sign of the cross and talked a lot about redemption.

  Benny leaned close to Nix and whispered, “He sounds like he thought Zak and his dad were as guilty as Charlie.”

  “Maybe he’s like some other people around here. They seem to think that the whole Charlie Pink-eye craziness finally died out with the last of his family.” She shook her head. “People can be so blind.”

  Benny nodded. He would have given her hand a comforting squeeze, but there was no feeling left in his fingers.

  Afterward, Benny, Nix, and Tom walked home together.

  At the garden gate, Tom stopped and removed his sunglasses. His eyes were rimmed with red. Had he been crying? For whom? The Housers? Surely not Zak.

  “Change of plans,” Tom said. “We’re leaving tomorrow.”

  They stared at him openmouthed.

  “Really?” asked Nix, a big smile erupting on her face.

  “Why?” asked Benny at the same time.

  Tom looked up at the moody sky for a moment and leaned his forearms wearily on the crossbar between the fence pickets. “I really can’t stand this damn town anymore,” he said. “Sometimes it’s harder to tell which side of the fence the dead are on.”

  Nix rubbed his shoulder, and he smiled sadly and patted her hand.

  Then he took a breath and turned to give them both a long, appraising stare. “There are conditions. We’ll go out for an overnight trip and camp up in the mountains. Not down in the lowlands where all the zoms are, but not in the clearer zones up high. Minimal protection, no luxuries. We’ll try some roads we haven’t been on together—roads I haven’t been on in a couple of years. If you can handle that, then we’ll just keep going toward Yosemite and points east.”

  Tom had planned the trip very carefully, or at least as carefully as a journey through largely unknown territory can be planned. There were a few rest stops along the way, places Tom called “safe houses.” The first was Brother David’s way station, and the next was an old hotel in Wawona; once they passed that, they’d be on their own.

  “If anything weird happens and we get separated,” Tom said, “I want you guys to head for the way station or Wawona, depending on where you are.”

  Wawona was likely to be the safest place along the route. Before First Night, the small town had been home to about 170 permanent residents and a few thousand campers during the tourist seasons. Tom had told them a wild story about the Battle of Wawona, in which a small group of uninfected fought off the rest of the town as the zombie plague swept through the population. The siege of the hotel lasted four months, and when it was over there was a mass grave with more than two hundred living dead in it along with sixteen of the initial uninfected. The only survivors were a grizzled old forest ranger, his two young nephews, and a couple of women scientists visiting from the San Diego Zoo. The ranger still lived up there, and Tom often referred to him by his nickname, the Greenman. The others had gone to live in the towns. Apparently the ranger had become something of a deep-woods mystic.

  Nowadays the old Wawona Hotel was a traveler’s rest and temporary storehouse for scavenged goods, and there were always a dozen people at the hotel. Rumor had it that a fire-and-brimstone evangelist named Preacher Jack had taken up residence as well. He was happy to share his version of the word of God with everyone who passed through, and was even reputed to have tried to convert and baptize some zoms.

  When Benny asked what Tom thought about Preacher Jack, his brother shrugged. “I haven’t met him yet, though I think just about everybody else out there has. A bit eccentric from what I hear, but I guess he’s harmless enough. A guy doing what he believes is the right thing. Nothing wrong with that.”

  Nix sighed, and Tom asked her what was wrong.

  “What if we don’t find the jet?” she said cautiously.
r />  “We’ll keep trying until we get it right.” Tom smiled at the looks of alarm on their faces. “Understand me, guys, we are going, let’s not kid ourselves about that. The only question is whether you’re ready to go now.”

  Nix nodded. “I’m ready,” she said grimly.

  Tom gave a noncommittal grunt, which Benny interpreted as I’ll be the judge of that.

  “One more thing,” Tom said. “You can ask Chong and Morgie if they want to go with us. Not all the way, just overnight. If so, I can arrange to have Brother David or one of my friends out there take them back to town. J-Dog and Dr. Skillz are always working that part of the Ruin.”

  “I met them once,” Benny said, “at the New Year’s party year before last. They’re goofy.”

  Tom shrugged.

  “I couldn’t understand a lot of what they said,” Benny said.

  “I can’t either.” Tom laughed. “They were just breaking into the professional surfer scene when First Night hit. Surfers have their own lingo, and those two use it like a personal language. I don’t think they want people to understand them.”

  “Why not?”

  “It’s a defense mechanism. Remember that story about Peter Pan and the Lost Boys?”

  “Sure, the kids who never grew up.”

  “They’re like that. On one hand they work the bounty trade and they can fight like demons, but on the other they don’t really want all this to be real. For them it’s like living inside a video game. Remember when I told you about video games?”

  “Sure,” Benny said, though the concept was incredibly alien to him. “With Dr. Skillz and J-Dog … they don’t actually think they’re at the beach, do they?”

  “Hard to say,” said Tom. “Everything’s a big game to them. They can be ankle deep in blood or fighting a hundred zoms with their backs against the wall and they’re cracking jokes in their surfer lingo. It’s their way of surviving, and I guess it works for them. Don’t ask me how.” He paused and smiled. “Lot of people can’t stand them. I like them a lot.”