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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 6


  “Weird world,” said Nix.

  “You have no idea, sweetie,” said Tom. Benny noticed that he didn’t get the ninja death stare for calling Nix sweetie. Tom gestured to the southeast. “Now … the Greenman has a cabin up there. I got word out to him and a bunch of others that we’re coming. We’ll have friends out there and safe places to rest.”

  “Chong’s mom might go for the overnight thing,” Benny said hopefully. “She’d probably think that it would scare the pants off him and get the whole ‘go and see the world’ thing out of his system.” He thought about it. “Probably will work, too. Chong’s not big on roughing it.”

  “And Morgie?” Tom asked.

  Nix shook her head. “No, Morgie won’t go.”

  Benny and Tom looked at her. “You seem pretty certain,” Tom said.

  “I am.” But she didn’t explain, and they didn’t press the issue.

  “Okay,” said Tom. “If we’re going to get out of here, then I have a week’s worth of stuff I need to get done today. You two better say your good-byes.”

  “There’s no one I need to say good-bye to,” Nix began, but Tom cut her off.

  “That’s not true and you know it. We’re leaving Mountainside, Nix … we’re not discarding the people who live here. The Kirschs, Captain Strunk, the Chongs … they’ve been kind to you, and they deserve the courtesy and respect of a proper good-bye.”

  Nix gave a contrite nod, her face flushed with embarrassment.

  “And both of you are leaving friends behind. If Morgie and Chong aren’t going, then are you planning on walking away from them without saying good-bye? Remember, they think we’re going next week. This is going to be hard on them, too.”

  Benny sighed, and nodded.

  “Leaving is never easy,” said Tom. “Even when you know you have to go.”

  FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

  People in the Ruin

  Traders: They bring all sorts of stuff from town to town in armored wagons pulled by horses covered in carpet and chain mail. You can buy almost anything from a trader, or make a request and he’ll get it for you for a price, and traders’ goods are always expensive.

  Scavengers: These people are nuts. They go into towns and raid houses, stores, warehouses, and other places for all sorts of things: supplies, canned goods, stockpiles of seeds and flour, clothing, weapons, books, and everything else. Sometimes they have bounty hunters go in first and clear out the zoms, but then they have to share their profits with them—so a lot of scavengers prefer to risk going into zombie-infested areas. Tom says that the life expectancy of a solo scavenger is two years, but if they survive, they can make enough money to retire. He says he knows of only three who have retired. He’s quieted over two dozen others who weren’t as lucky.

  Loners: These people scare everyone. They live alone (or in small groups), and once they’ve staked out their territory they’ll kill anyone who comes close—human or zom. There’s a rumor in town that some of them are cannibals.

  13

  Tom went back into town to buy some last-minute supplies. Nix and Benny went into the house and upstairs to Benny’s room and then out of his window to sit on the porch roof. Benny dragged a couple of big pillows out and placed them side by side.

  The gray clouds were dissolving into pale white wisps that looked like wet tissue paper over a blue ceiling. From up there they could see the whole town. To the west, the flat reservoir backed up against the steep wall of mountains and the miles of fence line that framed the town on the north, east, and west. Adjacent to the town, miles upon miles of enclosed farmland vanished over the horizon lines. It had always baffled Benny why the townsfolk had not pushed out the fence line to incrementally reclaim more and more of the Ruin. The traders who plundered warehouses and construction sites in abandoned towns could bring in as much chain link and poles as people wanted, but the town limits hadn’t budged in years. There was Town and there was the Ruin, and that was as far as people seemed able to think.

  As much as it bothered Benny, it nearly drove Nix crazy. She not only wanted to expand the town, she wanted to go to the coast, take boats, and reclaim some of the big islands just off the California coast: Catalina, San Clemente, or any of the other islands big enough to sustain a few thousand people and fertile enough to farm. Nix had a list of islands in the little leather journal she always carried; and detailed plans for how to remove the zoms. She’d copied reams of notes from books on farming and agriculture.

  They lay back on the pillows and looked up at the gulls and vultures soaring high on the thermal winds.

  “I’m really going to miss Chong and Morgie,” Nix said.

  “I know. Me too.”

  “But I have to go.”

  “I know,” said Benny.

  They heard voices down in the yard. Tom and someone else. Nix sat up, but Benny put a finger to his lips and they lay flat on their stomachs and shimmied to the edge of the roof.

  Below them, Tom stood talking with a bounty hunter Benny had met a few times at New Year’s parties. Sam “Basher” Bashman. He was a slim, dark-haired man who carried two baseball bats. Both were old and battered, but from what Tom had said, Basher had owned them since the days when he played second base for the Philadelphia Phillies in a world that no longer existed.

  “So, you’re really bent on taking your brother and his girlfriend out there?” asked Basher.

  “Absolutely,” Tom said.

  “Why? No one’s seen the jet since that one time. And I’ve asked everyone about that.”

  “Still have to look,” said Tom.

  Basher shook his head. “Ruin’s getting weird, man. You haven’t been out there much lately, but people are dying, and it’s not zoms. With Charlie gone it’s an all-out fight to take over his territory. You think this trip’s wise, man?”

  “Not really,” Tom admitted.

  “Then why do it?”

  Tom paused, and Benny and Nix shimmied an inch closer to the edge. “If I don’t take them out there … they’ll find a way to go by themselves.”

  There was more to the conversation, but Tom and Basher were now walking away, heading back to town.

  Benny sat up and stared into the middle distance.

  Nix turned to look at him, and the afternoon sunlight made her hair even redder. And her eyes greener.

  “Benny … ? Can I ask you a question and get a real answer?”

  Depends on the question, thought Benny. There were some questions he’d rather throw himself off the roof than answer.

  “Sure.”

  “Is he right? If Tom wasn’t going to go, if it was just Lilah and me … would you go?”

  “Without Tom?”

  “Yes.”

  He settled back and looked at the clouds for almost a minute before he answered. It was a good question. The crucial question, and he’d wrestled with it and chewed on it since they’d seen the jet last year. Did he want to go?

  Benny weighed his feelings very carefully. The answer was not a thing he could just reach inside and grab. It was buried deep, hidden in the soil of his subconscious and his needs and desires. On some level he knew that he needed to know who he was before he could rationally and accurately answer that question, and since last September he had been constantly trying to explore who he was. Especially in terms of who he was at this moment. If he didn’t know who he was now, how could he know who he would be out there in the Ruin? What if he wasn’t up to the challenge? What if after being out there he realized that he preferred the comforts of Mountainside? What if he wasn’t a crusader for change after all?

  Ugly, troublesome questions, and he had no real answers at all.

  The ugliest part was that the one thing he was sure of was that he could find those answers only out in the Ruin. For good or ill.

  “Yes,” he said eventually. “Yes … I’d go with you no matter what.”

  Nix smiled and took his hand. “I believe you.” She added, “If you’d answered right away
I would have known you were lying. Telling me what I wanted to hear. I’m glad you respect me enough to think it through.”

  He said nothing, but he squeezed her hand.

  “Benny?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Are you scared?”

  “About tomorrow? Yeah,” he said, “I’m freaking terrified.”

  “Me too.” After a moment she said, “It’s so big, you know?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Leaving everything behind. Everyone we know.”

  “Yeah.”

  Five minutes rolled by, and the last of the clouds melted into endless blue. A lone hawk floated high above them.

  Nix said, “I want to ask you one more thing.”

  He tensed, but said, “Okay.”

  Nix took his face in both of her hands. “Do you love me, Benny?”

  Those five words sucked all the air out of planet Earth and left Benny gasping like a trout. His eyes wanted to look left and right to see if there was a way out of this. Maybe he could jump off the roof. Even with everything that had happened since last year, he had never worked up the courage to tell her that he loved her, and she had never even gone within pistol shot of the L word. And now she wanted him to come right out and say it. Not in some romantic moment, not while holding hands as they walked through spring flowers, or while snuggled together watching the sunset. Right here, right now, on his porch roof, with all the exits and doorways to a cowardly retreat nailed shut.

  Her eyes were filled with green mystery and … and what? Challenge? Was this a test that was going to get him fried when he gave the wrong answer? Nix was devious and complicated enough for that sort of thing. Benny had grown up with her; he knew.

  That wasn’t it, though, and on some level he knew it.

  No, when he tried to put a label on what he saw in her eyes, the one that seemed to fit best … was hope.

  Hope. Suddenly his heart started beating again, or at least beating differently.

  God … maybe if he jumped off the roof right now he would fly.

  Benny licked his dry lips and swallowed a dry throat and in a dry voice said, “Yes.”

  Nix’s eyes searched his, looking for a lie.

  Somehow that made Benny feel stronger. He leaned toward her, letting her see everything she could find in his eyes.

  He squeezed her hand. “Nix … I love you so much.”

  “You do?” she asked in a voice that was as fragile as a butterfly’s wing.

  “Yes. I love you. I really do.” It felt strange to say aloud. Enormous and good and delicious.

  But Nix’s brow furrowed. “If you love me, then swear on that.”

  They were back to the question about leaving. Benny bowed his head for a moment, unable to bear the weight of what she was asking. Nix hooked a finger under his chin and lifted his face toward hers.

  “Please, Benny …”

  “I swear it, Nix. I love you and I swear on that.”

  Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she kissed him. Then Benny was on his knees, his arms wrapped around her, and both of them were crying, sobbing out loud under the bright blue sky. Even then, even with the terrible shared awareness of what lay behind them and before them, neither Benny nor Nix would ever be able to explain what it was that was breaking their hearts.

  Benny thought about what Nix had said in the cemetery. That leaving was like dying.

  FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

  Questions:

  Can zoms experience fear?

  Do they know they’re dead?

  Can they feel any emotions? (Do they hate the living?)

  14

  “JUST SO I’M CLEAR ON THIS,” SAID CHONG IN HIS CALMEST AND MOST reasonable voice. “You want to take us camping in the Rot and Ruin?”

  “Yes,” said Tom. “Just an overnight trip.”

  “Out where the zoms are?”

  “Yes.”

  “Out where there are three hundred million zoms?”

  Tom smiled. “I doubt there are that many of them left. I doubt there’s more than two hundred million zoms left.”

  Chong peered at him with the flat stare of a lizard. “That’s not as much of a comfort as you might think, Tom.”

  “Hundred million fewer things that want to eat you,” said Benny. “Put it in the win category.”

  “Hush,” said Chong, “there are grown folks talking.”

  Benny covertly offered a rude gesture.

  They were in Benny’s yard. Nix sat nearby, wiping down her wooden sword with oil and trying not to smile. Lilah sat cross-legged on the picnic table, strip-cleaning her Sig Sauer automatic pistol. Again.

  “Are you going?” Chong asked her.

  Lilah snorted. “Better than staying here. This town is worse than the Ruin. If they go,” she said, indicating Tom, Benny, and Nix, “why would I want to stay here?”

  Benny caught Chong’s wince.

  Damn, he thought, that’s got to hurt.

  It was clear from the frank look on Lilah’s face that she had no idea that her words had just jabbed into Chong’s flesh. Benny doubted she had a clue as to Chong’s feelings.

  “So that’s the plan,” Benny said brightly, trying to lighten the mood. “A last blast for the Chong-Imura Gang of Badasses.”

  “Language,” said Tom, more out of reflex than anything else.

  “‘Chong-Imura’?” echoed Nix with a roll of her eyes. “Gang? Oh, please.”

  “Why camping?” asked Chong gloomily. “Why not just rub us all down with steak sauce and send us running into a herd of zoms?”

  “I’m not actually trying to get you killed,” said Tom.

  “Oh, of course not. Our safely is clearly your first concern.”

  Tom sipped his iced tea. “We’re going to be out there for months. We have to provide for ourselves. Besides, it’s a good way to learn woodcraft.”

  “Woodcraft?” asked Benny. “What, like making chairs and tables and stuff? How’s that—”

  Chong elbowed him. “No, genius. Woodcraft is the art of living in the wild. Hunting, fishing, setting traps, finding herbs. That sort of stuff.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “Because,” Chong said with raised eyebrows, “when you open those things called ‘books,’ there are words as well as pictures. Sometimes the words tell you stuff.”

  “Bite me.”

  “Not even if I was a starving zom.” To Tom he said, “We learned some of that in the Scouts.”

  “Camping out in McGoran Field is hardly the same as surviving in the Rot and Ruin,” chided Tom. “Lilah already knows how to do that. So do I. Benny and Nix learned a little when we were out in the Ruin, but they don’t know enough.”

  “And I don’t know any,” concluded Chong. He sighed. “And I guess I don’t really need any. You know what my parents think about your trip.”

  “You don’t have to come camping with us,” said Nix.

  Chong sighed again. “No, I guess not.”

  “The thing is,” said Tom, “the stuff Mr. Feeney taught you in the Scouts was all well and good, but it’s old world. That’s the problem with a lot of what you kids have been taught, and it’s the problem with a lot of the books they make you read in school. They’re good in themselves, but they aren’t part of this world. It’s important to know the past, but your survival depends on knowing the present. I mean … has Mr. Feeney been outside the gate recently?”

  “Not since a few weeks after First Night,” said Nix. “He got here around the same time as my mom, and I don’t think he ever left again.”

  Tom nodded. “Right, which means that his knowledge is all based on camping in vacation spots and national parks as they were before the dead rose. He has no idea what it’s like out there in the wild.”

  “The wild,” echoed Chong, and looked a little pale. Of his friends, Chong was the smartest and most well-read, but he was by far the least physical. Benny had to bully him into a game of soccer, and even then Chong preferre
d to be the goalie.

  “When do we start?” Nix asked with enough enthusiasm to make Chong wince.

  “First light,” said Tom. He narrowed his eyes at Benny. “And that means we are up, washed, dressed, packed, and at the fence by first light … not hiding under your pillow pretending that I haven’t been calling you to get up for two hours.”

  Benny made a show of innocence unfairly attacked, but no one bought it.

  “Dress for hiking,” Tom told them all. He pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Chong. “Here’s a list of what you’ll need.”

  Chong’s eyes flicked down the list. “There’s not a lot of stuff here, Tom.”

  “You won’t want to carry a lot.”

  “No … I mean, there’s stuff missing. Like … food.”

  “We’ll forage and hunt. Nature provides, if you know how to ask.”

  “No tents?”

  “You’ll learn to build a basic shelter. All you need is a sleeping bag. We’ll be roughing it.”

  “No toilet paper?”

  Benny grinned. “That’s what ‘roughing it’ means, Chong.”

  “We’ll use bunches of grass or soft leaves,” explained Tom.

  Chong stared at him. “Please tell me you’re joking.”

  “Early man didn’t have toilet paper,” said Benny. “I’ll bet it even says so in one of your books.”

  “Early man, perhaps,” Chong said icily, “but we did evolve.”

  Tom laughed. “Go pack.”

  15

  THE HARDEST PART WAS SAYING GOOD-BYE.

  Benny didn’t have a lot of close friends in town, but there was Morgie. Nix had already said good-bye to him. Now it was Benny’s turn.