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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 7
He walked, hands in pockets, through the streets of town, looking at the familiar buildings and houses. There was Lafferty’s General Store, where Benny and his gang drank sodas and opened packs of Zombie Cards. There were three nine-year-olds sitting on the wooden steps with several packs on their laps, laughing, showing one another cool cards. Heroes of First Night. Bounty Hunters. Famous Zoms. Maybe even one of the ultrarare Chase Cards.
Benny turned onto Morgie’s street and saw the Mitchell house at the end of the block, perpetually in the shadow of two massive oaks. Morgie was sitting on the top step, stringing his fishing pole. His tackle box stood open beside him and his dog, Cletus, drowsed in a patch of sunlight.
Morgie looked up from his work as Benny walked up the flagstone path. “Hey,” he said.
Morgie bent over the rod and carefully threaded catgut through the guides. It was an old rod, made before First Night and beautifully tended to by Morgie. It had belonged to his father.
“Guess this is it, huh?” Morgie said in a voice that was flat and dead.
“We might be back,” Benny began, but didn’t finish because Morgie was already shaking his head.
“Don’t lie, Benny.”
“Sorry.” Benny cleared his throat. “I wish you could come with us.”
Morgie looked up, his face pinched and cold. “Really? You’d really want me to come with you—”
There it was. As quick and sharp as a slap.
“Morgie, c’mon, man. I thought you were over her last year… .”
“You’ve been too busy getting ready for your big adventure … how would you know what anyone else was feeling?” Benny started to reply, but Morgie shook his head in disgust. “Just … go away, Benny.”
Benny stepped forward. “Don’t be like that.”
Morgie suddenly flung his fishing pole away and shot to his feet. His face was red and filled with fury and hurt. “I HATE YOU!” he yelled. Cletus woke up and barked in alarm, birds leaped in panic from the oak trees.
“Hey, man,” said Benny defensively, “what the hell? What’s this crap all about?”
“It’s about you and her ditching me and going off with her on some great adventure.”
Benny stared at him. “You’re crazy.”
Morgie stormed down the steps and shoved Benny as hard as he could. Morgie was a lot bigger and stronger, and Benny staggered back and fell. Morgie took a threatening step closer, following Benny as he fell, fists balled with rage.
“I frigging hate you, Benny. You pretend you’re my friend, but you took Nix and now you’re dumping me and going off together. You and that bitch, Nix.”
Benny stared in total shock, then he felt his own anger starting to rise. He scrambled to his feet.
“You can say whatever you want to say about me, Morgie,” he warned, “but don’t ever call Nix names.”
“Or what?” Morgie challenged, moving in almost chest to chest.
Benny knew that Morgie could take him in a fight. Morgie was always the toughest of the crowd, the one who never backed down. He had tried to stand up to Charlie and the Hammer at the Riley house, and nearly died for it.
Morgie shoved him again, but this time Benny was expecting it, and all it did was knock him back a few steps. As he staggered, his heel came down on the fishing rod, and there was a sharp crack!
They both stared down at it. They had caught a hundred trout with that rod. They had spent thousands of hours sitting on the banks of the stream, talking about everything. Now it lay snapped into two pieces that could never be mended. Benny’s heart sank. As symbolic incidents go, it had too much drama and no comfort at all, and he cursed the universe for making a joke like that at a time like this.
Morgie shook his head and turned away. He walked to the steps, climbed heavily up to the porch, and then stopped. He half turned, and in an ugly growl of a voice he said, “I hope you die out there, Benny. I hope you all die out there.”
He went inside and slammed the door.
Benny stood in the yard for a long time, staring at the house, willing Morgie to come outside. He would rather have fought him and gotten his ass kicked than have things end like this. He wanted to scream, to shout, to demand that Morgie come back outside. To take back those words.
But the door remained stubbornly shut.
Slowly, brokenly, Benny turned and walked back home.
FROM NIX’S JOURNAL
Tools of the Zombie Hunter Trade
BOKKEN: A wooden sword developed by the Japanese. The name combines two words, bo (“wood”) and ken (“sword”). The bokken is used for training and is usually the same length and shape as the katana, the steel sword carried by samurai. Also called a bokuto.
My bokken is thirty-nine inches long and is made from air-dried hickory. It weighs five pounds.
Benny’s bokken is forty-one inches long and made from white oak. (So far he’s cracked three of them, and Tom is getting mad at him.)
WHEN THE FIRST PROMISE OF SUNRISE GLIMMERED BEYOND THE TREE LINE of the forest, Tom had them all rigged and ready at the gate.
Over the last few weeks Tom had gotten the mayor’s wife to sew each of them a vest made from very tough pre–First Night canvas. The vests had lots of pockets and were extremely durable. Benny filled his pockets with gum, all-weather matches, a compass, spools of wire and twine, and a hand line for fishing. He tried not to think about Morgie as he stuffed this last item into its pocket. Tried and failed.
As they checked their gear, Benny kept looking back toward town.
“He’ll be here,” Nix said.
But Morgie never came.
Tom bought each of them three small bottles of cadaverine and a pot of mint gel from a vendor at the gate. The cadaverine was a chemical harvested from rotting flesh—and Benny was almost completely sure that it was made from dead animals and not from other sources … like maybe dead zoms. Dribbling it on clothes and hair made the living smell like rotting corpses. Zoms did not attack other zoms, so the smell usually kept the wearer safe.
Chong sniffed the cadaverine and winced. “Charming.”
Tom handed them the mint gel and said to Chong, “When we use the cadaverine, it’s best to rub this on your upper lip. It overwhelms your sense of smell.”
Chong began unscrewing the cap, but Tom said, “Not yet. We’ll use the cadaverine and the mint as a last resort. We’ll conserve it for now.”
“Why?” asked Chong. “Why not buy a couple of gallons of it and take a bath in the stuff?”
Benny leaned closed and said under his breath, “Yeah, that’d make Lilah want to crawl all over you.”
Without changing expression, Chong murmured, “Feel free to fall over and die.”
Benny grinned. He was surprised he still could. He threw one last look back toward town. No Morgie. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath and tried to let it go. The ache, the betrayal, the memory of Morgie’s last words. When he breathed, it felt like his lungs were on fire. He kept doing it until something in his mind shifted.
We’re leaving, he thought. It’s really happening.
At the same moment that he thought that, a second thought flitted through his mind. There’s no turning back now.
The juxtaposition of the two thoughts was deeply disturbing, and he recalled his musings yesterday when Nix asked him if he wanted to go. Part of him answered, I want to go, but a different part whispered, I am going. They were totally different answers.
Nix, intuitive as ever, caught his eye and with a look asked if he was okay. Without waiting for an answer, she cut a look back to the empty fence, and her shoulders slumped. She looked at Benny and nodded sadly.
Good-bye, Morgie, Benny thought.
“Okay,” Tom said, “here’s the way we’re going to do it. I lead, you follow. When I give instructions, I want you to pay attention. No screwing around.”
bsp; He was looking at Benny and Chong when he said this last part, and they affected to look like angels falsely accused of grievous sins.
“I’m serious,” Tom said. “I know that we’re all armed and you’ve each had some training, but in the Ruin you only get to make one mistake. And then you’re dead.”
Lilah made a noise low in her throat when Tom said that, and Benny unconsciously touched the point on his throat where she’d pressed her blade on the Matthias lawn after the fight with Big Zak and Zak Junior. Nix must have had the same thought, because she took a half step to stand between Benny and Lilah, and there was no trace of a smile on her face.
Tom adjusted the sling that supported his steel katana, then cleared his throat. “Once the fence guards draw the zoms down to the far end, we go out and head straight for the tree line. Single file. I’ll lead, then Nix, Benny, Chong, and Lilah. Got it?”
“Keep your weapons slung. Right now speed is more important than anything. The guards will try to keep the zoms distracted until we’re clear. After that, we’re on our own.”
“What if we run into a zom?” asked Chong.
“If we do, I’ll see it first. Let me handle it. If it comes at you from the side, Lilah will take care of it.” Tom gave them all a hard look. “I don’t want any heroics. I’m still pissed at you guys for going up on Zak’s porch. You should have called me or Captain Strunk. That’s not exactly the way to be warrior smart. I know you think you’re hotshots, but you are a long way from being real samurai. A skilled fighter doesn’t take needless risks. Do you understand?”
“No,” Tom said sternly, “say it.”
They said it.
The glimmer of light at the tree line had brightened enough for them to see the zoms wandering in the field or standing like statues. Most zoms only moved to follow prey but would otherwise stop walking and stand still. Benny had seen zoms out in the Ruin with years’ worth of creeper vines tangled around their legs. He still wasn’t sure if that was sad or terrifying.
Tom finally gave a grudging nod. He stepped up to the gate.
“Get ready,” he said quietly, then waved to the sergeant in charge of the night shift. The sergeant whistled, and his men immediately started banging on drums and steel pots as they walked quickly north along the fence line. The zoms in the field stiffened for a moment, drawn through whatever senses they possessed by the noise and movement. One by one they turned, moaning softly, their gray-lipped mouths working as if practicing in anticipation of eating a grisly meal, and began shambling up the field. Benny and his friends watched with awful fascination.
“It’s so strange,” said Nix quietly. “How can they be dead and do that? React to sound? Follow? Hunt?”
“No one knows,” said Tom. “They don’t need to eat. They get no benefit from killing. They can go years and years without decaying any more than they already have. No one understands it.”
Chong shook his head. “There has to be an answer. Something in science.”
“As far as we know, all the scientists are dead,” said Tom. “Except for Doc Gurijala, and he was a just a general practitioner.”
“Has he ever examined one?” asked Nix.
“No,” said Tom quietly, so as not to attract the shuffling zoms. “I suggested it to him a hundred times. I said that it might help us understand what they are and what we’re up against. That was not long after First Night, when we still thought there was a way to win. He called me crazy for even suggesting it. I tried him a couple of other times since, but Doc says that science ends at the fence line.”
“What does that mean?” asked Nix.
“It means,” Tom said, “that Doc Gurijala believes that whatever makes the dead do what they do isn’t science. It’s something else.”
Nix cocked an eyebrow. “Magic?”
Chong said, “Magic is fairy-tale stuff. If this is happening, then there has to be an explanation. Maybe Doc Gurijala doesn’t know enough science to understand what’s happening. I mean … this has to be a specialty.”
“Like …?” Nix asked.
“I don’t know. Physics. Molecular biology. Genetics. Who knows? Just because we don’t have anyone here who understands it doesn’t mean that we have to jump right into a supernatural answer.”
Tom nodded at this.
“What about something else?” asked Nix. “What about something evil? What if it’s demons or ghosts or something like that? What if this is something … I don’t know, biblical?”
“Oh boy,” breathed Chong. “What—there was no more room in hell, so the dead started walking the earth?”
She shrugged. “Why not?”
“Why?” she challenged. “Because you don’t believe in anything?”
“I believe in science.”
Nix pointed to the creatures in the field. “How does science explain that?”
“I don’t know, Nix, but I believe there’s an answer.” Chong cocked his head to one side. “Are you saying that you don’t believe in science? Or are you saying that there has to be a religious answer? And since when did you get religious? You skip church as much as I do.”
Benny gave Tom an Oh boy, here we go look.
Nix shook her head. “I’m not saying anything has to be anything, Chong. I’m saying that we should keep an open mind. Science may not have all the answers.”
“I keep a very open mind, thank you very much … but I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere looking for answers outside of science.”
“Enough!” Lilah’s ghostly voice cut through their debate and silenced them. “Talk, talk, talk … how does that get anything done?”
“Lilah,” began Chong, “we were just—”
“No,” she barked. “No talk. Now is the time to run. You want answers? Both of you? Find them out there!”
With that she turned and walked to the gate and stood with her back to them, her spear held loosely in her strong hands.
“Lady has a point,” said Tom. “Not really the time for this kind of debate. Let’s roll.”
He clapped Benny on the shoulder and then walked over to join Lilah. The field in front of the gate was almost clear of zoms now, and the last stragglers were lurching along the field.
Benny gave Nix and Chong a crooked grin. “You two need a referee. Jeez.”
Nix smiled a cold little smile and walked briskly away. The two boys lingered a moment longer. Chong said, “So, where do you stand in all this?”
“Where I usually do,” said Benny. “Without a freaking clue. And right now that feels like a safe place to stand. C’mon, Mr. Wizard … let’s go.”
The last of the zoms was fifty yards along the fence line now, and Tom nodded to the gateman, who quietly lifted the restraining bar. The hinges were always well-oiled to allow for silence. Tom leaned out and peered through the gloom.
Benny stood beside him, watching the shadowy figures move away. In a weird way he felt sorry for the monsters; even sorry that they were being so easily tricked. It felt like taking advantage of someone with brain damage or a birth defect. It felt like bullying, even though that wasn’t at all what it was.
Tom glanced at him. “What’s wrong, kiddo?”
Benny nodded toward the zombies, but he didn’t try to explain. If anyone would understand, it would be Tom. His brother placed a hand on his shoulder.
“I know,” he said, but added, “But don’t let compassion for them trick you into making a mistake.”
“I won’t,” Benny assured him, but his voice lacked conviction, even in his own ears.
Tom gave his shoulder a squeeze, then turned to the others.
“Okay—remember what I said. Keep low, move fast, and don’t stop until you’re in the trees. Ready? Let’s go!”
One by one they slipped out through the gate and r
an at full speed to the bank of purple shadows beyond which the morning sun was rising.
Benny turned once more as they ran. The guards had closed the fence, and the town of Mountainside was locked on the other side. Everything he knew, nearly everyone he had ever met was behind that fence. His home, his school. Morgie. All of it was back there. There had been no teary farewells. If Tom had said good-bye to Mayor Kirsch or Captain Strunk or any of the others, Benny hadn’t seen him do it, and no one had come to the fence line to see them off.
It was everything that was wrong about Mountainside in a nutshell. Just as the people inside acted as if there was no world beyond the chain-link wall, they would probably write Tom, Nix, and Benny off as people they once knew. Like the people who died on First Night. The people in town would deliberately forget them; it was easier than imagining what might be happening out here in the Ruin.
In a way, Benny and the others would be dead to the people in town. Would the townsfolk become dead to Benny? Would their memory die in his heart?
He hoped not.
He slowed a little as he ran, searching the span of the fence, willing Morgie to be there. Just to wave good-bye. It would heal everything, fix everything.
The fence line was the fence line, and nobody waved good-bye.
Benny turned away and made himself run faster.
The five of them made no sound, and within a few minutes even the sharpest of the tower guards could not see them. The forest appeared to swallow them whole.
DOWN THE ROAD AND GONE
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.
To keep our faces toward change and behave like
free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
THEY RAN DEEP INTO THE WOODS, FOLLOWING A PATH THAT WAS ALWAYS kept clear for the traders who brought in wagons of goods scavenged from warehouses and small towns throughout that part of Mariposa County—or what had been Mariposa County before First Night had invalidated all the old maps. As the sun rose it was easier for Benny to avoid stepping in the wheel ruts. Chong, who was much less coordinated, tripped several times. Lilah helped him up each time, but instead of it being an act of kind assistance, she growled at him, and each time she shoved him forward a little harder. Nix caught up to run side by side with Benny, and they both grinned back at Chong. He mouthed some words at them that made them laugh and that would have shocked Chong’s parents and earned a sharp rebuke from Tom.