Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 8

  After a half mile Tom slowed from a full-out run to a light trot, and a mile later eased down to a walk; and finally stopped for a rest. Benny was winded and walked around with his hands over his head to open his lungs up. He was sweating, but the exertion felt good. Nix’s face glowed pink, and her skin gleamed with a fine film of perspiration, but she was smiling.

  Chong went over to the side of the road and threw up.

  Leaning on her spear, Lilah watched with unconcealed contempt.

  It was not that Chong was frail—he had trained as hard as everyone else and his lean body was packed with wiry muscles—but he never reacted well to sustained exertion.

  Benny patted Chong on the back, but as he did so he bent down and quietly said, “Dude, you’re completely embarrassing our gender here.”

  Between gasps Chong gave Benny a thorough description of where to go and what to do when he got there.

  “Okay,” said Benny, “I can see that you need some alone time. Good talk.”

  He wandered off to stand with Nix, who was taking several small sips from her canteen. Tom came over to join them.

  “Chong okay?” Tom asked.

  “He’ll live,” Benny said. “He doesn’t like physical exertion.”

  “No, really?” Tom grinned and gestured to a fork in the road. “Soon as everyone’s caught their breath, we’ll go that way. It’s high ground, so we’ll see fewer zoms today. Tomorrow we’ll see about going downland to where the dead are.”

  “Why?” asked Nix. “Wouldn’t it be better to avoid them completely?”

  “Can’t,” said Lilah, who had drifted silently up to join them. “Not forever. Dead are everywhere. Even up in the hills.”

  Benny sighed. “Swell.”

  “Are we going to hunt them?” asked Nix, her eyes wide.

  Tom considered. “Hunt? Yes. Kill? No. I want you to be able to track them, but I mostly want you to be able to avoid them. We can go over theory from now until the cows come home, but that’s not the same as practical experience.”

  “Sounds wonderful,” muttered Chong as he joined them. His color was bad, but better than it had been during the last quarter mile of their run.

  “It won’t be,” Tom said seriously. “It’s going to scare the hell out of you, and maybe break your heart.”

  They looked at him in surprise.

  “What?” Tom said slowly. “Did you think this was going to be fun?”

  They didn’t answer.

  “You see, this is one of the reasons I wanted to bring you out here,” Tom said. “When everything is theoretical, when it’s all discussion rather than action, it’s easy to talk about zoms as if they’re not real. Like characters in a story.”

  “They’re abstract,” Chong suggested, and Tom nodded approval.

  “Right. But out here they’re real and tangible.”

  Benny shifted uncomfortably. “And they’re people.”

  Tom nodded. “Yes. That’s something we can’t ever forget. Every single zom, every man, woman, and child, no matter how decayed or how frightening they are, no matter how dangerous they are—they were all once real people. They had names, and lives, and personalities, and families. They had dreams and goals. They had pasts and they thought they had futures, but something came and took that away from them.”

  “Which is another one of the mysteries,” said Nix under her breath.

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Chong, and nudged her with his elbow. She grinned and nudged him back, harder.

  Tom said, “We don’t know how far we’ll have to go to find the jet. If we find it. We saw it fly east, but it could have landed anywhere.”

  Benny winced. “Ouch.”

  “No, don’t worry about that part. We’ll find some clues. Other people will have seen it too, and there are people out here. We’ll ask everyone we see … but a lot of those folks live in the downlands, and there are large parts of the country that don’t have mountains. So it’s pretty likely we’ll be where the zoms are. No way to avoid it.”

  “So learn how to be with the dead,” added Lilah. It wasn’t an eloquent statement, but they all understood her meaning.

  Tom clapped Chong on the arm. “You ready to go? The next part is a leisurely walk in the country.”

  “That’s better.”

  “No, it’s not,” said Lilah, laying her spear over her shoulder. “Everything out here wants to kill you.”

  She walked along the path, and Chong stared after her. “Honestly,” he said, “I already got the message. That last part? Not necessary.”

  Nix was laughing as she followed Lilah. Benny laid his bokken across his shoulder, and in a fair imitation of Lilah’s whispery voice said, “Everything wants to kill out-of-shape monkey-bangers named Chong. Everything.”

  He strolled off.

  Chong took a deep breath and followed.


  Tools of the Zombie Hunter Trade, Part Two

  LILAH’S SPEAR. The shaft of the spear is made from a six-foot length of three-quarter-inch black pipe. There are brown doeskin leather bands around both ends and on two places in the middle where she usually holds it. The blade is from a Marine Corps bayonet. The blade is black and eight inches long.

  She says this is the fourth spear she’s made. She lost one when she was first taken to Gameland (she was eleven, and that spear was five feet long). She lost the second one while running from the Motor City Hammer three years ago. The third one bent while she was breaking into an old library to get books. The fourth one is a year old.



  Tom gave him a brief look. “What did you hear?”

  “Bunch of stuff. Mostly about trouble out here in the Ruin. About people coming in to take over Charlie Pink-eye’s territory.”


  “So … ?”

  “What do you mean? So … what?”

  “Well,” Benny said, “aren’t we going to do something about it?”


  “Yes, ‘we.’ You, me, Lilah, Nix … I mean, before we leave the area?”

  Tom shook his head. “No.”

  “Why not? These are your woods, man. You spent years out here cleaning them up and stuff.”

  “No, I spent years out here as a bounty hunter and closure specialist. It was never my job or my intention to ‘clean things up.’ Not then and definitely not now.” He paused and looked back at the others, who were a hundred yards down the road. Nix and Chong were talking together—probably continuing their argument about the mysteries of the zombie plague; Lilah was bringing up the rear, content to keep company with herself. “Look at them, Benny. Lilah’s not even seventeen. Nix just turned fifteen. You and Chong will be sixteen in a few months. You’re tough, but let’s face it … you’re not an army. I can’t even say with total conviction that you’re all tough enough to do what we’re attempting, and it scares me green to think that I might be leading you to your deaths. I’m not going to make that a certainty by taking you into a pitched battle with fifty or sixty armed bounty hunters.”

  “But what about Gameland? If they’ve moved it somewhere closer to town, then they might be grabbing more kids from town. Like they tried to do with Nix. We can’t just—”

  “I’ve been trying to get the town to do something for years.”

  “I know. I also heard you talking to Mayor Kirsch and Captain Strunk.”

  “What are you, the town snoop?”

  “Dude, you were talking in the yard. My window’s right there.”

  “Okay, okay. Point is, the town has to take responsibility for itself. I showed them that it could be done, and I did what I could for a while … but it’s not one man’s job. And it’s not the job of children.”

  “Teenagers, thank you very much.”

  “Teenagers. Fine. It’s not your job either.”

  Benny looked hard
into his brother’s eyes. “Are you sure?”


  “I’m not. This is our world too. We’re going to inherit it. What do you want us to do—wait until it gets worse, maybe totally out of control, before we do something about it? How’s that going to help us have a better future?”

  Tom stared at him as they walked, and after a dozen steps his frown turned into a small smile. “I keep forgetting how smart you are, kiddo. And how mature.”

  “Yeah, well, this last year hasn’t exactly been about kid stuff.”

  “No, and I’m sorry about that … but in all seriousness, Benny, this is a conversation we should have had before we left.”

  “So … it’s too late to make a difference?” Benny challenged.

  Tom shook his head. “It’s not that … it’s just that this isn’t our town anymore. We’re moving on. Others will have to step up to take responsibility for Mountainside.” He pointed down the road. “Your future is somewhere out there, and no doubt there will be plenty of opportunities to make a difference, if that’s what you want to do.”

  Benny glanced at him, then back the way they’d come, then up ahead. He sighed.

  Tom clapped him on the shoulder, and they kept walking. Eventually Tom pulled ahead, and when Benny looked back, he saw that Nix was now with Lilah and Chong was alone, so he drifted back to walk beside Chong.

  As they walked through the tall grass under the burning eye of the sun, Benny kept glancing at Chong. Without turning his head, Chong said, “What? Do I have a booger in my nose?”


  “You keep looking at me. What’s up?”

  Benny shrugged.

  “Quick! Tell me before I lose interest.” Chong said it with mock excitement.

  Benny took a breath. “Nix.”

  “What? The fight about science and religion?”

  “No … it’s about us. You know … dating and stuff.”

  “God!” Chong laughed. “The oath!”

  When he and Chong were nine, they had sworn a blood oath that they would never date any of the girls they hung with. Since getting back from rescuing Nix last year, they had been together, and Benny had never asked Chong how he felt about it.

  “Yeah … the oath,” Benny said. “I feel kind of bad about breaking it.”

  Chong stopped and turned to him, his eyes roving over Benny’s face. “Wait … hold still.”

  Benny froze. “What? What is it? Do I have something—”

  Chong whacked him on the head with his open palm.

  “Ow! What was it? Was it a bee?”

  “No. I just wanted to see if I could slap some of the stupid out of you.”


  “Jeez, Benny, we made that oath when we were nine.”

  “It was a blood oath.”

  “We’d cut our fingers baiting fishhooks. That oath was spur of the moment, immature—and dumb. Mind you, we’ve both had dumber moments. You more than me, of course …”


  “But it didn’t really matter much then, and it doesn’t matter at all now.”

  They walked about a hundred paces in silence. “We gave our words, Chong,” said Benny.

  Chong grunted. “You never cease to amaze me,” he said. “Though seldom in a good way.”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, if you’re so wise and insightful, O Mighty Chong, then how come you’ve never told Lilah that you have a crush on her?”

  “Ah. I’m wise and insightful, but not brave.”

  “Have you tried?”

  Chong colored. “I … wrote a note.”

  “What did it say?”

  “It … um … had some poetry. And some other stuff,” Chong said evasively.

  “Did she read it?”

  “I left it where she could find it. Next day I found it in the trash.”


  “Maybe she misunderstood. After all, it’s not like she’s been around the dating scene. All she knows about romance is what she’s read in books.”

  “Maybe, but why not just cowboy up and ask her? Worst she can do is say no.”

  Chong gave him a withering stare. “Really? That’s the worst you think she can do?” He sighed. “Besides, it doesn’t much matter anymore. You guys are leaving tomorrow and I’ll never see her again.”

  “Yeah,” Benny said softly. “Sorry, man.”

  They looked covertly over their shoulders to where Lilah padded along like a fierce hunting cat. She caught them looking at her and growled, “Pay attention to the woods before something bites you!”

  They snapped their heads around forward, but Benny was laughing quietly. Chong made a pained face.

  “You see what I mean? She lived with us. You should see her before she’s had her morning coffee.”

  “Mmm … does that mean that if you two crazy kids had managed to make a go of it, you’d have been the girl in the relationship?”

  “How about you go stick a baseball bat up your—”


  Tom’s sharp whisper cut through the air and rooted everyone in place.

  Thirty yards up the path Tom stood in a half crouch, his right hand raised to grip the handle of his katana. Fifty yards behind them Nix and Lilah were in the middle of the road. Nix had her bokken out; Lilah held her spear ready in a two-handed grip.

  “What is it?” Benny whispered, but Tom held up a finger, cautioning him to be silent. On either side of them trees rose in dark columns to form a canopy that obscured most of the sunlight, allowing only stray beams to slant down. At ground level the shrubs and wild plant life clustered so densely around the tree trunks that they formed an impenetrable wall; Benny could see nothing of what might be coming toward them. He and Chong drew their bokkens and shifted to stand with their backs to each other, just as Tom had taught them.

  Lilah came running along the path on silent cat feet, with Nix a few yards behind. The Lost Girl had a fierce light in her eyes as she slowed to a stop beside Tom, making sure to stand well clear of his sword arm.

  “What is it?” she hissed. “The dead?”

  Tom shook his head but said nothing.

  Nix joined Benny and Chong, and the three of them shifted into a three-sided combat formation.

  “You see anything?” Nix whispered.

  “No,” said Chong. “Don’t hear anything either.”

  It was true; the forest was as silent as the grave, an image that did not make Benny feel very good. He sniffed the air. The forest offered up a thousand scents. Flowers and tree bark and rich soil and …

  And what?

  There was a smell on the air. Faint but getting stronger.

  “Can you guys smell that?” Benny murmured.

  “Uh-huh,” said Nix. “Smells weird. Kind of familiar … but not really.”

  Lilah raised her spear and pointed into the woods with the gleaming blade. “There,” she said. “It’s coming toward us.”

  “What is it?” Nix asked in a frightened whisper.

  Tom drew his katana. “Get ready.”

  “To do what?” demanded Benny. “Fight or run?”

  “We’re about to find out,” said Tom.

  “Please,” murmured Chong, “don’t let it be zoms. Don’t let it be zoms.”

  “No,” said Tom, “it’s not the dead. Whatever’s coming is very much alive.”

  Benny and the others heard it then. A crunch as something heavy stepped down on fallen twigs, the sound muffled by the nearly decayed carpet of last year’s leaves. A moment later there was another sound, different, low and strange. Benny and Nix exchanged a look. She raised her eyebrows.

  “Sounds like a bull,” she said.

  Benny frowned. “Out here?”

  “Lots of animals running wild out here,” said Tom. “This was farm country before First Night.”

  The sound came again, deeper and louder.

  “Awful big bull,” Chong said.

  There was more of the twig
crunching, and each time the sound was louder and closer.

  “Shouldn’t we, um … run?” suggested Chong.

  “Sounds like a plan to me,” said Benny.

  Lilah hissed at them to be quiet, adding, “Running makes you prey. It’s better to fight than be hunted.”

  Tom opened his mouth to say something, possibly to counter her absolute viewpoint, but then there was a loud snort and grunt as something gigantic crashed through the wall of shrubs and vines. Creeper vines snapped like spider-webs as it shouldered its way out of the forest and onto the road. It lumbered into the middle of the path not thirty feet from where Benny, Nix, and Chong stood, and it paused, sniffing the air.

  It was a monster. Slate gray and black-eyed, standing on four short legs, each with a three-toed foot that was bigger than Benny’s head. Immense, with a massive chest and shoulders that were unlike anything Benny had seen in the flesh. In books, sure, but he had thought that creatures like this belonged to a different age of the world.

  “Oh my God!” whispered Nix, then immediately clapped a hand to her mouth as the creature turned its enormous head toward her.

  This was easily three times bigger than the largest bull in Mountainside. Benny remembered reading about it. The second largest land mammal in the world after the elephant. The whole thing had to be fourteen feet long and over six feet at the shoulders. Thick humps of muscle stood out on its neck to support the long head with a vast snout, from which sprouted two deadly horns, the longer of which was a thirty-inch spike that could have punched right through Benny’s body.