/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

Dust & Decay

Jonathan Maberry

Six months have passed since the terrifying battle with Charlie Pink-eye and the Motor City Hammer in the zombie-infested mountains of the Rot Ruin. It's also six months since Benny Imura and Nix Riley saw something in the air that changed their lives. Now, after months of rigorous training with Benny's zombie-hunter brother Tom, Benny and Nix are ready to leave their home forever and search for a better future. Lilah the Lost Girl and Benny's best friend Lou Chong are going with them. Sounds easy. Sounds wonderful. Except that everything that can go wrong does. Before they can even leave there is a shocking zombie attack in town. But as soon as they step into the Rot Ruin they are pursued by the living dead, wild animals, insane murderers and the horrors of Gameland -where teenagers are forced to fight for their lives in the zombie pits. Worst of all.could the evil Charlie Pink-eye still be alive? In the great Rot Ruin everything wants to kill you. Everything – and not everyone in Benny's small band of travelers will make it out alive.

Jonathan Maberry

Dust Decay

The second book in the Benny Imura series

© 2011

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Special thanks to some real-world people who allowed me to tap them for advice and information, lean on them for support, and in some cases shove them into the middle of the action. My agents, Sara Crowe and Harvey Klinger; my editor, David Gale, and all the good people at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers; experts Dr. John Cmar, of Johns Hopkins University Department of Infectious Diseases, and Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne Books); fellow YA authors Nancy Holder, Michael Northrup, Heather Brewer, and Maria V. Snyder; the King of the Zombies George A. Romero; and cadaverine experts Ellery and John Griswold.

This one’s for Don Lafferty, Arthur Mensch, and Sam West-Mensch.

And-as always-for Sara Jo.

– J. M.

PART ONE. ROAD TRIP

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

– LAO TZU

1

BENNY IMURA WAS APPALLED TO LEARN THAT THE APOCALYPSE CAME with homework.

“Why do we have to study this stuff?” he demanded. “We already know what happened. People started turning into zoms, the zoms ate just about everyone, everyone who dies becomes a zom, so the moral of this tale is: Try not to die.”

Across the kitchen table, his brother, Tom, stared at him with narrowed eyes. “Are you deliberately trying to be an idiot, or is it a natural gift?”

“I’m serious. We know what happened.”

“Really? Then how come you spent most of last summer complaining that no one my age tells anyone your age the truth about the living dead?”

“Telling us is one thing. Essays and pop quizzes are a whole different thing.”

“Because heaven forbid you should have to remember anything we told you.”

Benny raised his eyebrows mysteriously and tapped his temple. “I have it all right here in the vast storehouse of knowledge that is me.”

“Okay, boy genius, then what started the plague?”

“Easy one,” Benny said. “Nobody knows.”

“What are the leading theories?”

Benny jabbed his fork into a big piece of buttered yam, shoved it into his mouth, and chewed noisily as he spoke. It was a move calculated to annoy Tom in three separate ways. Tom hated when he spoke with his mouth full. He hated it when Benny chewed with his mouth open. And it would muffle most of what he said, which meant that Tom had to pay even more attention to the yam-packed mouth from which the muffled words came.

“Radiation, virus, bioweapon, toxic waste, solar flares, act of God.”

He rattled it off so there was no break between the words. Also annoying, and worth at least another point on Benny’s personal Annoy-O-Meter.

Tom sipped his tea and said nothing, but he gave Benny the look.

Benny sighed and swallowed. “Okay,” he said, “at first people thought it was radiation from a satellite.”

“Space probe,” corrected Tom.

“Whatever. But that doesn’t make sense, because one satellite-”

“Space probe.”

“-wouldn’t carry enough radioactive material to spread over the entire world.”

“We think.”

“Sure,” conceded Benny, “but in science class they told us even if one of the old nuclear power plants did a whatchamacallit, there-”

“Meltdown.”

“-wouldn’t be enough radiation to cover the entire planet even though it has more radioactive materials than a satellite.”

Tom sighed. Benny smiled.

“What conclusion can you draw from that?”

“The world wasn’t destroyed by radioactive alien space zombies.”

Probably wasn’t destroyed by radioactive alien space zombies,” Tom corrected. “How about a virus?”

Benny cut a piece of chicken and ate it. Tom was a great cook, and this was one of his better meals. Yams, broiled chicken with mushrooms and almonds, and rich green kale. A loaf of steaming bread made from the last of the winter wheat sat near where Benny could plunder it.

“Chong’s dad says that a virus needs a living host, and zoms aren’t alive. He said that maybe bacteria or a fungus was sustaining the virus.”

“Do you know what a bacterium is?”

“Sure… it’s a bug thingy that makes you sick.”

“God, I love it when you display the depth of your knowledge. It makes me proud to be your brother.”

“Kiss my-”

“Language.”

They grinned at each other.

It had been nearly seven months since Benny’s lifelong hatred and distrust of Tom had transformed into affection and respect. That process had started last summer, shortly after Benny’s fifteenth birthday. On some level Benny knew that he loved Tom, but since Tom was his brother and this was still the real world, the chances of Benny ever using that L word were somewhere between “no way” and “get out of my way I’m going to throw up.”

Not that Benny was afraid of the L word when it came to someone better suited for it, namely the fiercely red-haired queen of freckles, Nix Riley. Benny would like very much to toss that word up for her to consider, but he had yet to do so. Shortly after the big fight at the bounty hunters’ camp, when Benny had tentatively tried to bring up the subject, Nix had threatened bodily harm if he said that word. Benny had zipped his mouth shut, understanding completely why the moment had been so inappropriate. Charlie Pink-eye Matthias and the Motor City Hammer had murdered Nix’s mother, and the insane events of the days that followed hadn’t allowed Nix to properly react. Or grieve.

Those days had been the weirdest mix of absolute horror, black despair, and soaring happiness. The emotions he’d felt didn’t seem to even belong in the same world, let alone the same person.

Benny gave Nix her time for grief, and he grieved too. Mrs. Riley had been a great lady. Sweet, funny, kind, and always a little sad. Like everyone else in Mountainside, Jessie Riley had suffered terrible losses during First Night. Her husband, her two sons.

“Everyone lost someone,” Chong often reminded him. Even though they’d been toddlers, Benny and Chong were the only ones among their friends to remember that night. Chong said that it was all a blur of screams and shouts, but Benny remembered it with a peculiar clarity. His mother handing him through a first-floor window to Tom-who was a twenty-year-old cadet at the police academy-and then the pale, shambling thing that had been Dad coming out of the shadows and pulling Mom away. Then Tom running away, his terrified heartbeat hammering like a drum inside the chest to which he held a squirming, screaming Benny.

Until last year Benny had remembered that First Night in a twisted way. All his life he had believed that Tom had simply run away. That he had not tried to help Mom. That he was a coward.

Now Benny knew different. Now he knew what kind of torment Tom had suffered to save him. He also knew that when Mom had handed him through the window to Tom, she had already been bitten. She was already lost. Tom had done the only thing he could have done. He ran, and in running had given value to Mom’s sacrifice, and that had saved them both.

Now Benny was fifteen and a half, and First Night was a million years ago.

This world was no longer that world. On First Night the old world had died. As the dead rose, the living perished. Cities were incinerated by the military in a futile attempt to stop the growing armies of the dead. The electromagnetic pulses from the nukes fried all electronics. The machines went silent, and soon, so did the whole country. Now everything east of the small town of Mountainside was the great Rot and Ruin. A few other towns littered the foothills of the Sierra Nevada north and south of Benny’s home, but the rest of the old world had been consumed.

Or… had it?

During that adventure in the mountains east of town, Benny and Nix had seen something that to them was as inexplicable and potentially world-changing as the zombie plague had been. Flying high, high above them had been a thing Benny had only ever read about in old books.

A jet.

A sleek jumbo jet that flew out of the east, banked in a slow circle around the mountains, and then headed back the way it had come. Now Benny and Nix were counting down the days until they left Mountainside to find where the jet had come from. The calendar pinned to the wall by the back door had black Xs over the first ten days of this month. There were seven unmarked days, and then a big red circle around the following Saturday. April 17, one week from today. The words ROAD TRIP were written in block letters below the date.

Tom thought that the jet was flying in the general direction of Yosemite National Park, which was due east of the town. Benny and Nix had begged Tom for this trip for months, but as the day approached, Benny wasn’t so sure he still wanted to go. It was just that Nix was absolutely determined.

“Earth to Benny Imura.”

Benny blinked and heard as an after-echo the sound of Tom snapping his fingers.

“Huh?”

“Jeez… what planet were you orbiting?”

“Oh… just kind of drifted there.”

“Nix or the jet?”

“Little of both.”

“Must have been more about the jet,” Tom said. “There was less drool.”

“You are very nearly funny,” said Benny. He looked down at his plate and was mildly surprised that it was empty.

“Yes,” said Tom, “you were eating on autopilot. It was fascinating to watch.”

There was a knock on the door. Benny shot to his feet and crossed the kitchen to the back door. He was smiling as he undid the locks.

“That’s got to be Nix,” he said as he pulled it open. “Hey, sweetie…”

Morgie Mitchell and Lou Chong stood on the back porch. “Um,” said Chong, “hello to you, too, sugar lumps.”

2

BENNY STARTED TO SAY SOMETHING THAT WOULD BE WILDLY CRUDE AND physically improbable, but then a smaller shape pushed her way between the bulky Morgie and the wiry Chong. Even though he saw her every day, seeing her again always made his heart bang around like a crazy monkey.

“Nix,” he said, smiling.

“‘Sweetie’?” she asked. Not smiling.

It wasn’t the sort of thing he ever said to her. Not out loud, and he could kick himself for letting it slip. He fished for a clever comment to save the moment, aware that Tom was watching all this from the table, and Morgie and Chong were grinning like ghouls.

“Well,” he said, “I-uhh…”

“You’re so smooth,” Nix said, and pushed past him into the kitchen.

Chong and Morgie mimed kissy faces at him.

“Expect to be murdered,” Benny threatened. “Painfully and soon.”

“Yes, snookums,” said Morgie as he followed Chong into the kitchen.

Benny took a few seconds to gather the fractured pieces of his wits. Then he turned and closed the door, doing it very carefully even though slamming it would have felt much better.

After her mother died, Nix had first moved in with Benny and Tom, but then Fran Kirsch, wife of the mayor and their next-door neighbor, suggested that a young girl might prefer to live in a house with other females. Benny tried to argue that Nix had her own room-his room-and that he didn’t mind sleeping on the living room couch, but Mrs. Kirsch didn’t buckle. Nix moved into the Kirschs’ spare bedroom.

Nix and the boys crowded onto chairs at the table and were doing a pretty good imitation of vultures with the leftovers. Tom settled back into his chair, and Benny reclaimed his.

“We training this evening?” Morgie asked.

Tom nodded. “Road trip’s coming up, remember? Benny and Nix have to be ready, and you two guys need to stay sharp, Morgie. Who knows what you will have to face in the future?”

“You’ve been working them pretty hard,” said Chong.

“Have to. Everything we do from now on will be about getting ready for the trip. It’s-”

“-not a vacation,” Benny completed. “Yes. You’ve mentioned that thirty or forty thousand times. I just thought we’d have, y’know, a night off.”

“Night off?” echoed Nix. “I wish we were leaving right now.”

Benny dodged that subject by asking, “Where’s Lilah?”

Lilah was the newest member of their pack. A year older and infinitely stranger, she had grown up out in the Ruin, raised for a few years by a man who had helped to rescue her during First Night, and then living on her own for years afterward. She was more than half feral, moody, almost always silent, and incredibly beautiful. The Lost Girl, they called her on the Zombie Cards. A legend or myth to most people, until Tom and Benny proved that she existed. She wanted to go with Benny, Nix, and Tom into the Ruin to find the jet.

Chong tilted his head toward the back door. “She didn’t want to come in.”

Chong sighed, and Benny had to control himself not to seize the moment and bust on him. His friend had developed such a helpless and hopeless crush on Lilah that the wrong word could put him into a depression for days. Nobody, including Nix, Benny, and Chong, thought that Lilah had so much as a splinter of interest in Chong. Or maybe she didn’t have a splinter of interest in anything that didn’t involve blades, guns, and violence.

“What’s she doing?” asked Benny, carefully sidestepping the issue.

“Strip-cleaning her pistol,” said Nix, her green eyes meeting Benny’s and then flicking toward the yard outside.

Lilah treated her handgun like it was her first puppy. Chong said that it was cute, but really everyone thought it was kind of sad bordering on creepy.

Benny refilled his teacup, poured in some honey, and watched Nix pick the last scraps of meat from a chicken breast. He even liked the way she scavenged food. He sighed.

Morgie said, “I’m going to catch the first catfish of the season.”

“What are you going to use for bait?” asked Chong.

“Benny’s brain?”

“Too small.”

It was one of their older routines, and Benny made the appropriate inappropriate response. And Tom gave the expected admonition about language.

Even that ritual, as practiced and stale as it had become, felt good to Benny. Especially with Nix sitting beside him. He fished for something to say that would earn him one of her smiles. Nix’s smiles, which had been free and plentiful before her mother’s death, had become as rare as precious jewels. Benny would have gladly given everything he owned to change that, but as Chong once said, “You can’t unring a bell.” At the time-a year ago, when Benny’s wild attempt at driving in a home run had smashed through the front window of Lafferty’s General Store-he had thought the observation was stupid. Now he knew that it was profound.

So much had happened since last year that he wished could be undone, but it was all written into the past and nothing-not wishing or willpower or nightly prayers-could change it.

Nix’s mom was dead.

You can’t unring a bell.

“What are you attempting to think about?” asked Morgie with a suspicious squint.

Everyone looked at Benny, and he realized as an afterthought that someone had probably asked him a question, but he’d been so deep in melancholy thoughts that it had sailed right past.

“What? Oh… I was just thinking about the jet,” Benny lied.

“Ah,” said Chong dryly. “The jet.”

The jet, and all that it symbolized, was a big silent monster that had followed them around since they’d returned last September. The jet meant leaving, something that Nix and Benny were going to do and Chong and Morgie were not. Tom called it a “trip,” suggesting that they would eventually return, but Benny knew that Nix had no intention of ever returning to Mountainside. The same was probably true of Tom, who still grieved for Jessie Riley. Benny, however, did want to come back here. Maybe not forever, but at least to see his friends. Once they left, though, he was pretty sure that their road trip was going to be permanent.

It was a horrible, heartbreaking thought, and none of them liked talking about it; but it was always there, hiding inside every conversation.

“That freaking jet again?” griped Morgie, and gave a sour shake of his head.

“Yeah. I thought that I’d go to the library tomorrow and see if they have any books about jets. Maybe I’ll see the one Nix and I saw.”

“Why?” Morgie persisted.

“If we know what kind of plane it was,” Nix said, “we might have some idea of its range. Maybe it didn’t come all the way across the country. Or maybe it came from Hawaii.”

Morgie was confused. “I thought you said it came from the east and went back that way.”

“They’re not air traffic controllers, Morgie,” added Chong. “The more they can learn about the jet, the better the chance they’ll have to find it. I think.”

“What’s an air traffic controller?” persisted Morgie.

That allowed Chong to steer the conversation away from the road trip and into areas of pre-First Night trivia. Benny cut a sly sideways look at Nix, and there it was: just the slightest slice of a smile. She reached under the table and gave his hand a quick squeeze.

Tom, who had been watching this performance, hid a smile behind his teacup as he drained it. Then he set it down with a thump that drew all eyes his way.

“Okay, my young Jedi… time to train.”

Everyone jumped up, but as they headed outside, Morgie nudged Chong in the ribs.

“What’s a Jedi?”

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Things We Know About Zombies, Part 1

They are dead human beings who reanimated.

They can’t think. (Tom’s pretty sure about this.)

They do not need to breathe.

They don’t bleed.

They are clumsy and slow.

They can do some things (walk, grab, bite, swallow, moan).

They rarely use tools. (Tom says that some of them pick up stones or sticks to try and break into a house; but he says it’s really unusual.)

They aren’t very coordinated. (Tom has seen a few turn door handles. They only climb stairs when following prey. No ladders, though.)

**They are really scary!

3

“I AM A COLD-BLOODED, EAGLE-EYED, HEAD CHOPPING, TOTALLY BADASS zombie killing engine of destruction,” declared Benny Imura. “And I am so going to-”

Nix Riley batted his sword aside and whacked him on the head.

“Ow!” he yelled.

“Yes, you’re truly frightening,” she said. “I’m going to fall down and faint.”

“Ow,” he said louder, to emphasize the point in case anyone missed it.

Chong and Morgie sat on the picnic table. Tom leaned against the big oak in the corner of the yard. Lilah sat with her back to the garden fence. They were all laughing. At him.

“Oh sure, laugh,” he growled, shaking his wooden bokken at them. “She hit me when I wasn’t looking.”

“So… look,” suggested Chong.

Morgie pretended to cough into his hand but said, “Loser.”

“A little focus would be useful,” said Tom. “I mean… since our road trip’s in a week and you are training to save your life. To survive, you have to be warrior smart.”

Tom had drilled them so relentlessly in his “warrior smart” program that Benny was considering disowning his brother.

Although it was still early April, it felt like midsummer, and Benny was wearing only a sweat-soaked T-shirt and cutoffs. The months of training had hardened him and packed muscle onto his arms and shoulders. He squared those shoulders and gave Nix a steely stare.

Nix raised her sword and in a loud clear voice announced, “I. Am. Going. To. Swing. My. Sword. Now.”

“Hilarious,” said Benny through gritted teeth. He brought his sword up, elbows and knees bent at the perfect angles, weight shifted onto the balls of his feet, the tip of the bokken level with his eyes, his body angled for the best use of muscle in attack and the least display of vulnerabilities for defense. He could feel the power in his arms. With a loud, ferocious yell that would have frozen the heart of an enemy on the battlefields of the samurai era, he charged, bringing his sword up and down with perfect precision.

Nix batted his sword aside and whacked him on the head.

Again.

Benny said, “Ow.”

“That’s not how you do it,” said Lilah.

Benny rubbed his head and squinted at her. “No, really?” he said. “I’m not supposed to block with my head?”

“No,” Lilah said seriously. “That’s stupid. You’d die.”

Lilah possessed many skills that Benny admired-fighting, stalking, almost unbelievable athletic prowess-but she had no trace of a sense of humor. Until they’d brought her back to Mountainside, Lilah’s existence had been an ongoing hell of paranoia, fear, and violence. It wasn’t the kind of environment that helped her cultivate social skills.

“Thanks, Lilah,” Benny said. “I’ll make sure I remember that.”

She nodded as if he had made a serious promise. “Then I won’t have to quiet you afterward,” she said. She had a voice that was soft and rough, her vocal cords having been damaged by screams when she was little.

Benny stared at her for a moment, knowing that Lilah was dead serious. And he knew she would do it, too. If he died and zommed out, Lilah would kill him-quiet him, as everyone in town preferred to say-without a moment’s hesitation.

He turned back to Nix. “Want to try it again? I’ll block better this time.”

“Ah… so you’re going to try the ‘smart’ part of ‘warrior smart’?” observed Chong. “Very wise.”

Nix smiled at Benny. It wasn’t one of the heartwarming smiles he’d been longing for. It reminded him of Lilah’s face when she was hunting zoms.

Benny did block better, though.

Not that it did him much good.

“Ow!” he yelled three seconds later.

“Warrior smart!” yelled Morgie and Chong in chorus.

Benny glared hot death at them. “How about one of you clowns trying to-”

His comment was cut short by a sharp and sudden scream.

They all froze, looking off toward the center of town. The yell was high and shrill.

There was a moment of silence.

Then another yell cut through the air. It was a man’s voice, loud and sharp and filled with pain.

More screams followed it.

And then the sharp, hollow crack of a gunshot.

4

“STAY HERE!” TOM ORDERED. HE RACED INTO THE HOUSE AND CAME out a moment later, a sword in one hand and his gun belt in the other. This was not a practice sword but the deadly steel katana he used in his job as the Ruin’s most feared zombie hunter. He slung the strap over his shoulder as he raced past Benny toward the gate. He vaulted it like a hurdler and was running full tilt while he buckled on the gun belt. “Do not move from the yard!”

The last command floated back at them as he vanished over the hill.

Benny looked at Nix, who looked at Lilah, who looked at Chong, who looked at Morgie.

“Tom said to stay here,” said Nix.

“Absolutely,” said Benny.

And that fast they were off. They grabbed their wooden swords and swarmed through the garden gate, except for Lilah, who jumped it exactly as Tom had done. Then they were running as fast as they could.

5

LILAH OUTRAN THEM ALL. HOWEVER, SINCE LAST SEPTEMBER THEY HAD each put on muscle and built their endurance, so they weren’t too far behind. In a loose pack they rounded the corner by the grist mill and then tore along Oak Hill Road.

Benny grinned at Chong, who grinned back. In a weird way, this was fun. They were warriors, the world’s last group of samurai trainees. This was what they were training for.

Then, just as they reached the top of the hill and cut left onto Mockingbird Street, they heard a fresh set of screams.

They were the high, piercing screams of children.

That sound slapped the grins from their faces.

Benny looked at Nix.

“God,” she gasped, and ran faster.

The screams were continuous. Benny thought they were screams of fear, not of pain. There was a fragment of consolation in that.

They cut right onto Fairview, running abreast, their wooden swords clutched in sweating hands.

Then as one they skidded to a stop.

Three houses stood at the end of a block of stores. The Cohens on the left, the Matthias place on the right, and the Housers in the center. Townsfolk were clustered in front of the Houser place. Most of them had axes, pitchforks, and long-handled shovels. Benny saw at least four people with guns.

“It’s Danny’s place!” said Nix in a sharp whisper.

Benny and his friends went to school with Danny Houser; Danny’s twin sisters, Hope and Faith, were in the first grade.

They saw Tom on the porch, peering into the open doorway. Then he backed away as something moved toward him from the shadows of the unlit living room.

Benny’s breath caught in his throat as he saw the figure emerge from the doorway in a slow, uncertain gait, his legs moving stiffly, his hands out and reaching for Tom. It was Grandpa Houser.

“No!” Benny cried, but Tom was still backing away.

Grandpa Houser’s eyes were as dark and empty as holes, and his dentures clacked together as if he was trying to bite the air.

A deep sadness opened in Benny’s chest. He liked Danny’s grandfather. The old man was always kind, and he told the funniest fishing stories. Now Grandpa Houser was gone, and in his place was a thing that had no conscious thought, no humor or intelligence. No trace of humanity other than the lie of its appearance. It was a zombie, driven by an unconquerable hunger for human flesh. Even from forty feet away Benny could hear the creature’s low moan of endless need.

“He must have died in his sleep,” Nix breathed.

Chong nodded. “And he didn’t lock his bedroom door.”

It was a sad and terrible fact of life that everyone who died came back as a zom, so everyone locked themselves in their rooms at night. It was a rare zom who could turn a doorknob, and none of them could work a padlock or turn a key. Someone dying in their sleep and reanimating was one of the constant fears for people in town.

Because this kind of thing could happen.

Benny caught movement to his right and saw Zak Matthias looking at him out of the side window of the adjoining house. Zak had never exactly been a friend, but for the most part he and Benny had been able to get along. They were the same age and had been all through school and the Scouts together. They played on the same baseball team, wrestled in the same weight class, and even sometimes went fishing together if Morgie and Chong were busy. But all that had been before last September.

Zak Matthias was Charlie Pink-eye’s nephew. Although they didn’t know for sure, Benny and Nix believed that it had been Zak who’d told Charlie what Benny had found in a pack of Zombie Cards: a picture of the Lost Girl.

Lilah.

Charlie had come after Benny and tried to take the card from him. Benny hadn’t understood why at the time, but soon learned that Charlie was afraid that Lilah would tell people what was going on out in the Ruin. About the bounty hunters like Charlie who kidnapped kids and took them to fight in the zombie pits at Gameland so evil people like them could gamble on who would win or lose.

Charlie’s attempt to erase all knowledge of the Lost Girl and Gameland had led to the murders of Nix’s mom and a local erosion artist, Rob Sacchetto-the man who had painted the Lost Girl card.

Zak didn’t go to school anymore. His father, Big Zak, kept him home, and the whole family was mostly shunned by the town. Benny had heard rumors that Zak’s dad knocked him around, somehow blaming him for what happened to Charlie.

In a strange way Benny felt sorry for Zak. He looked so lost as he stood there behind the glass and lace curtains, pale from always hiding in the house. Benny wanted to hate him, but he was sure that Zak had had no idea of the terrible things Charlie Pink-eye would do with the little bit of information his nephew had given him.

“Be careful, Tom!” someone cried, and Benny whipped his head back to see that Tom had retreated to the edge of the porch.

“Shoot him, Tom!” yelled the town postman.

“No!” screamed two voices in unison, and Benny looked up to see the Houser twins at the upstairs window. “Grandpa!” they cried, their voices as shrill as frightened birds.

“Shoot him,” whispered Morgie under his breath, and Benny turned to look at him. Morgie’s face was wet with nervous sweat. “Shoot him.”

Tom’s gun was still in its holster.

Lilah gave him a single cold shake of her head. “No. It’s a waste of a bullet.”

Suddenly there was quick movement on the porch as Tom’s body seemed to blur. He grabbed the zombie’s shoulders and spun him around, then pivoted so that Grandpa Houser flipped over Tom’s hip and hit the porch boards. Tom climbed on top of him, grabbing for the pale wrists, bringing them behind the man’s back, securing them with cord that he pulled from his pocket. The whole thing was over in the blink of an eye.

“Take him,” he barked, and two burly men crept nervously forward to lift the old zom to his feet and drag him away. “Put him in the toolshed. Don’t quiet him yet.”

When Tom said that, he ticked his head toward the upstairs windows.

One of the other men began climbing the steps, but Tom stopped him. “No… we still don’t know where Jack, Michelle, and Danny are.”

Benny swallowed a lump the size of a hen’s egg.

“Should we help?” asked Chong in a voice that clearly showed that he hated his own suggestion.

“Definitely not warrior smart,” said Morgie under his breath.

“I’ll help,” said Lilah in her icy whisper of a voice, and she pushed her way through the crowd. Most of the townsfolk shied back away from her as if she was something wild and dangerous, and Benny realized she was exactly that.

Lilah exchanged a nod with Tom, and they crept cautiously into the house.

“She’s definitely warrior smart,” observed Chong, “but crazy as a loon.”

“Should we go in too?” asked Morgie. “Maybe they could use our help.”

“Tom and Lilah? Need our help? Don’t be stupid,” replied Nix.

Nix, Chong, and Benny turned their heads in unison to face him.

Morgie colored. “Yeah… okay,” he conceded. “Kinda dumb, huh?”

Chong laid a consoling hand on his arm. “No, Morgie,” he said, “not ‘kinda.’”

Benny caught movement again at the Matthias place. He saw Zak turn away from the window, but something about Zak’s face made Benny stare. Zak’s eyes were surrounded by dark rings. As if his whole face looked bruised. Maybe a couple of black eyes. Big Zak?

“Damn,” Benny said under his breath.

Nix caught the direction of his stare. “What-?”

“It’s Zak,” he said quietly. “I think he’s hurt. He keeps looking out here.”

Nix opened her mouth to say something stinging about Zak, but then she clamped her jaws shut.

Benny looked at the front of the Houser place, and everything was quiet. People were starting to edge carefully up to the porch. He turned back to Zak’s house, chewing his lip in indecision.

Then, before he knew he was going to do anything, he was walking toward Zak Matthias’s house.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

First Night

That’s what people call the day the dead rose. According to Tom, it started in the morning in a few places, but by night it had spread all over.

No one knows why it started.

No one knows where it started. Tom says that the first report he heard of was a news story out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

By dawn of the next day it had spread all over the world. A state of emergency was declared. Tom says that it was too little and too late.

By noon of the following day all communication was lost from over sixty cities in the United States, and more than three hundred worldwide. No one was counting how many towns and villages were overrun.

The radios and TV stations stopped broadcasting on the fifth day. Cell phones were already dead by then.

After that there was no way to know how bad things were.

6

BENNY WALKED AROUND TO ZAK’S BACK DOOR. HE KNEW THAT WHEN Big Zak got drunk he usually passed out on the living room couch, so the back of the house seemed like the best place to steal a peek inside.

“Benny!” Nix called as she ran to catch up. “What’s going on?”

“I-,” he began, but he had nowhere to go with it. How could Nix, of all people, understand and accept that Benny wanted to see if Zak Matthias was okay? This house represented everything she’d lost. Benny believed that if their roles were reversed she’d feel the same.

He gave her a meaningless smile-almost a wince-and stepped up onto Zak’s back porch. Nix stayed on the grass by the steps. Benny set his bokken down-no way Zak would open the door if Benny was standing there with a big stick-and cupped his hands around his eyes so he could peer in through the kitchen window. There were no lanterns lit.

The kitchen was empty. No sign of Zak.

Benny gave the door a faint tap-tap.

Nothing. Benny hesitated. What did he really want to say to Zak? Zak’s uncle had murdered Nix’s mom. Benny had killed Charlie. Well, probably killed him. He’d hit him with the Motor City Hammer’s black iron pipe and watched Charlie fall a hundred feet into darkness.

How would any of that open a doorway into a conversation?

Gee, Zak, anyone get murdered today?

He knocked again anyway.

A figure moved behind the curtain and turned the handle. The door opened, and Benny drew a breath, not sure which words were going to come out of his mouth.

It wasn’t Zak.

It was Big Zak.

Not as big as Charlie Pink-eye, but big enough. He wasn’t an albino like Charlie, but he had pale skin and pale blond hair. He was every bit as scary as Charlie, though.

Especially now.

The whole front of Big Zak’s shirt glistened with bright red blood.

“I-I-,” Big Zak croaked, but there wasn’t enough left of his throat to manage more. He took a single trembling step out onto the porch and then fell right on top of Benny. The big man’s weight crushed Benny to the porch boards, driving all the air from his lungs, banging his head hard enough to fill the world with fireworks.

“Benny!” Nix screamed.

He heard his own voice screaming too.

Benny stared up at Big Zak’s face, which was an inch from his. There were scrapes and cuts all over it, and his eyes were wild with pain and terror. Benny struggled to push the crushing weight off of him.

“H-help… me…,” the man croaked. “P-please…”

And then the mad light went out of Big Zak’s eyes. All his weight sagged down, empty of tension, of control. Of life.

Benny panicked, wanting that slack, dead weight off him. He desperately shifted his hip under Big Zak and twisted his hips to move the dead man’s mass. As he worked the wrestling move, he wondered why Nix wasn’t helping. She was right there…

As if on cue, Nix yelled, “Benny! Watch out!”

Big Zak’s body slid partially off him, and Benny kicked his way out. “It’s a little late for ‘watch out’!” he snapped. “I already-”

But Nix was rushing at him with her bokken held high, her face twisted into a mask of mingled hate and fear.

“No!” he yelled. He scrambled backward and collided…

… into Zak.

Benny whirled and looked into the face of his former friend.

Into the pale, dark-eyed, and blood-smeared face of the thing that been Zak Matthias.

With a snarl of insatiable hunger, Zak lunged for Benny’s throat.

7

EVERYTHING SEEMED TO HAPPEN MUCH TOO FAST.

Zak grabbed the front of Benny’s shirt with icy white fingers and pulled. Benny jammed his palms against Zak’s chest just in time. Zak’s teeth snapped together an inch from Benny’s windpipe. Benny shrieked in terror. Zak moaned in hunger and frustration.

“Benny! Down!”

Suddenly there was a flash of brown hardwood and a sound like a watermelon falling off a wagon onto asphalt. Zak and Benny fell in opposite directions. Benny’s head hit the floor again, harder. Zak pitched backward away from him, his face gone, replaced by an inhuman mask of blood and damaged tissue.

Benny felt like his own head was shattered. He heard a voice screaming his name.

Nix?

Benny tried to say her name, but the world spun around him and all his internal lights went dark.

8

“BENNY-GET UP!”

The voice was a million miles away.

“Benny!”

His numb brain gave the voice a name. Nix. And… she was yelling at him. Why was she yelling? He tried to ask her, but it came out as a mumble of soft nonsense words.

Then she was pulling at him. Shaking him.

He cranked open one eye. It was like lifting a hundred pounds of bricks.

“Good morning, Nix,” he said in a completely reasonable tone of voice. “Would you like some toast?”

Nix slapped him across the face. Hard.

“Hey-OW!”

The slap cleared his battered brain, and he realized that Nix was bending over him, screaming right in his face.

“ZOMS!”

That did it.

His brain snapped back to full awareness. As Nix hauled him upright there was movement to his left, and Benny turned to see Big Zak getting slowly to his feet, blood dripping from rubbery lips and a ruined throat. The zom turned his slack face toward Benny and moaned like a lost soul.

More movement made Benny turn, and there was Danny Houser and his mother shambling across the lawn toward the porch. Both of them were mangled by bites. Both of them were dead. Zoms. Beyond them, inside the Houser place, there were shouts and screams and gunshots.

“Catch!” Nix scooped up Benny’s sword and threw it to him. Benny snatched it out of the air as Big Zak took a lumbering step toward him. Nix jumped off the porch and ran to intercept Danny, her sword held high.

Big Zak was too close for a perfect swing, so Benny changed direction and hit him with the heavy handle of the wooden sword. The blow caught Big Zak on the point of his jaw, and the impact sent shocks up through Benny’s wrists. Big Zak staggered backward.

Benny cut a look at Nix just in time to see her swing at Mrs. Houser and knock her sideways, but at the same instant Danny rushed forward and grabbed a fistful of Nix’s red hair. Benny took a reflexive step toward her, but then Big Zak grabbed his sweatshirt and jerked him off his feet. The zom dragged him forward and up, first to his toes and then completely off the floor. Even dead, Big Zak Matthias was a powerful man. Benny dangled from the zombie’s fists and for a moment he stared straight into the unblinking eyes of the dead man.

There was a story kids told one another, that if you looked into a zom’s eyes you would see a reflection of what you would look like as one of the living dead. Benny had stopped believing that after that nightmare adventure last September; but now, staring into the empty eyes of Big Zak, Benny knew exactly how he would look as a zom. Small and washed-out and lost, with all trace of his humanity and personality snuffed out like a match.

“No!” he cried, and as the zom lunged in for a bite, Benny rammed the shaft of the wooden sword into the creature’s gaping mouth.

Big Zak bit down with a huge crunch that chopped splinters off the sword and snapped the tips off the zom’s incisors.

Then Big Zak flung Benny away as he pawed the bokken out of his mouth. The sword clattered to the floorboards. As the zom turned toward him, Benny pivoted on his hip and kicked out with both feet, slamming his heels into the zom’s knees. The impact knocked the zom backward so that Big Zak’s heels caught on Zak Junior’s fallen body, and the monster fell down with a huge crash. Benny scrambled to his feet, raised the wooden sword, and brought it down with every ounce of strength he had.

CRACK!

The wooden sword snapped in half right where Big Zak had bitten into it, but the blow itself shattered the zom’s skull. Big Zak dropped facedown on the boards, moaning and twisting and clutching at nothing. Benny stared at the eighteen inches of jagged hickory in his hands, then reversed it, raised it high in a two-hand grip, and plunged it down at the base of Big Zak’s skull. There is a narrow opening where the spine enters the skull. Tom called it the “sweet spot,” and it was where the brain stem was most vulnerable. Sever that and the zom was dead forever. Quieted.

He put everything he had into the blow.

And missed. The tip of the spike hit the hard back of the skull and skittered off and finally crushed itself flat on the floorboards beside the zom’s ear.

“Oh, crap,” Benny said.

Big Zak’s twitching fingers scrabbled for Benny’s ankles, but there seemed to be no strength left. Benny stepped backward out of reach. The zom moaned softly.

Immediately Benny whirled, looking for Nix. As he leaped off the porch he saw Danny Houser fall, his head tilting on a cracked-but not broken-neck. Nix backed away from him, her chest heaving with fear and exertion.

“Watch out!” Benny yelled as Mrs. Houser rushed at Nix from her blind side. Just as Nix spun, Benny knocked Danny’s mother over with a flying tackle that sent them both into a rolling, tumbling sprawl. The zom twisted and hissed like a cat and buried her teeth in his shoulder. He managed to shift as her jaws clamped shut, and all she bit off was a mouthful of soggy sweatshirt.

There was a sudden muffled thump and a shudder went through the zom; then another and another, and Benny realized that Nix was pounding on the monster with her sword, trying to distract or dislodge her.

“Nix!” yelled a voice. “Get back.”

The thumping stopped, and a second later the zom’s body was lifted off him and Benny looked up to see Tom there. He hooked one powerful arm around the zom’s throat, and though the creature thrashed and fought, she was helpless.

A dozen people came running between the houses and into the yard. Chong and Morgie were with them, and when they saw Benny down on the grass covered with blood, they stopped and froze in place. Nix stood apart, her bokken in her hands, winded and terrified but looking unharmed. Everyone looked at her for a second, and then all eyes snapped back to stare at Benny.

Benny started to get up, but suddenly Lilah was there and she had a glittering dagger in her hand. Before Benny could speak Lilah crouched over him and put the edge of the blade beneath his chin. Benny froze.

“Lilah!” growled Tom.

“Look at his shoulder! He’s been bitten,” she snapped back.

“No…,” Benny croaked. “No!” cried Nix.

Tom handed Mrs. Houser off to Captain Strunk and two other men from the town watch. They gagged and bound her with practiced ease, though their faces were twisted into masks of fear and revulsion. Tom moved to Lilah’s side and touched the arm holding the dagger.

“No,” he said more gently, looking from her to Benny and back. “If he’s bitten, then it’s mine to deal with. It’s a family thing.”

“I didn’t get bitten,” Benny insisted, but no one seemed to be paying attention to him.

Lilah had eyes the color of honey, but at that moment Benny thought they looked as cold as ice. There was no trace of compassion or humanity on her face. All he could see was the hunter, the loner. The legendary Lost Girl who had killed humans as well as zoms in the Rot and Ruin.

The knife felt like a branding iron against his skin.

Then it was gone, and she stepped back.

“Be sure,” she said to Tom. “Or I will.”

Benny sagged back against the grass, more exhausted by the last few seconds than by the fight with the zoms.

Nix edged past Lilah, her eyes hooded and angry, and she moved to stand between them. Morgie crept closer until he was shoulder to shoulder with Nix; after a slight hesitation, so did Chong. Their bodies formed a screen. Lilah looked at them with a calculating stare, as if she was sizing them up and deciding how much-or how little-effort it would take to get past them to Benny.

Benny got shakily to his feet.

“I didn’t get bit,” he yelled. To prove it he pulled off his shirt and flung it on the grass at Lilah’s feet. Anger was rising in him now, replacing his terror inch by inch. “See?”

“I see,” was all Lilah said. She lowered her knife and turned away. Everyone watched as she walked over to the porch, mounted the steps, and without a pause drove the tip of the blade into the back of Big Zak’s skull. Unlike Benny, she did not miss.

“Holy crap,” said Morgie.

“Uh-huh,” breathed Chong, pale and shaken.

Tom bent and picked up Benny’s shirt, examined the bite hole on the shoulder, and handed it back to him. “You sure you’re okay?”

Benny looked over to the porch, where Big Zak lay sprawled a few feet from his son. From the thing that had once been a boy the same age as Benny. A friend once. A victim recently.

“I said I wasn’t bitten,” Benny said, shaking his head slowly as he turned away, “but I’m a billion miles from okay.”

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Before First Night the United States Census Bureau estimated that there were 6,922,000,000 people alive on planet Earth.

Tom said that news reports claimed that more than two billion people died in the first two days after First Night.

By the time the Internet went down, the estimates of the global death toll were at four billion and climbing.

People in town believe that following First Night more than six billion people died. Most people think the whole rest of the world is dead.

We know that the total population of the nine towns here in central California is 28,261 as of last New Year’s census.

9

THEY ALL SAT ON THE PICNIC TABLE IN BENNY’S YARD, DRINKING COLD TEA and eating enormous slices of apple pie with raisins and walnuts in it. The sun was a golden ball in a flawless blue sky, and birds chattered in the trees. However, this rampant beauty did nothing to lighten the mood of sadness and horror that hovered like fog around them.

Lilah sat apart, cross-legged on the grass. She had not spoken a single word since the confrontation in Zak’s yard. No one had, except for some ordinary comments mostly related to the serving and eating of Tom’s apple pie. Benny nibbled at his, but he had no appetite. Neither did Nix, though she poked angrily at the dessert until it was a mangled beige lump of goo on her plate. Chong and Morgie ate theirs, though Chong seemed to be eating on autopilot, his eyes focused on Lilah’s stern but beautiful profile.

Tom sat on a tree stump, looking angry and unhappy.

“What happened back there?” Benny finally asked. “With Danny and Zak… and…”

Tom sighed and ran his hands over his face. “It was Grandpa Houser. Looks like he died sitting on the living room couch, reading the Town Pump. Michelle probably thought he was asleep. Maybe she tried to shake him awake and he reanimated and bit her. Looks like she ran out of the house to get away. Or maybe to get help. The twins said that they were out with their dad all morning, so maybe Michelle went to get Zak or Big Zak to help her. Not sure what happened next. There’s a lot of blood in the kitchen, so it looked like maybe Grandpa attacked them when they came back in. Or maybe Michelle was hurt worse than she thought. Zak must have been bitten there and ran home. I looked inside their house too. There was a lot of blood in the dining room, so Zak must have bled out there, and when he reanimated…”

“… 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.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

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.

10

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 the 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.”

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

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.

11

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 peering 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.

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.

“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.”

“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 preferred 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.

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.

“Hey.”

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-”

“Sure-”

“-and Nix?”

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.)

16

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.”

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?”

Everyone nodded.

“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?”

They nodded.

“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?”

Tom shrugged.

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?”

“Impossible.”

“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.”

“Why not?”

“Because-”

“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 ran 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.

PART TWO. 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.

– HELEN KELLER

17

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.

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.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

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.

18

BENNY WALKED ALONGSIDE TOM FOR A WHILE. “I OVERHEARD YOU talking with Basher yesterday.”

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.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So…?”

“What do you mean? So… what?”

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

“‘We’?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Huh?”

“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.”

“Hey!”

“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…”

“Hey!”

“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.”

“Ouch.”

“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-”

“Freeze!”

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.

It stood its ground, ears swiveling independently to catch all sound, nostrils huffing to gather the smells of the five people crouched in the road.

Benny stared, eyes goggled wide, mouth open.

“Is that a… a… a…?” Nix tried to ask.

“Uh-huh,” said Chong.

The creature turned its head sharply toward them.

“I’m dreaming this, right?” asked Benny.

“Not a dream,” Lilah whispered, but even she looked rattled.

“It’s a white rhinoceros,” declared Chong, a little too loudly. “But how?”

“Shut up!” warned Tom, but it was too late.

The huge animal suddenly gave a loud, wet snort and took a challenging step toward Chong. The massive rhinoceros grunted, a deep sound that was full of meaning and menace. It pawed the ground and blew out its nostrils.

“Okay,” said Tom. “Run.”

There was a beat where they all looked at him.

“NOW!”

The rhino tilted its wicked horns toward them, bunched the gigantic muscles of its back and hindquarters… and charged.

19

“Go! Go… GO!” BELLOWED TOM AS HE GRABBED NIX AND BENNY and Chong and shoved them toward the forest wall. “Into the trees!”

“I’m sorry!” yelled Chong.

“Shut up and run!”

The ground shook as seven thousand pounds of furious muscle rumbled toward them. Despite its size, the animal was incredibly fast. Lilah flung her spear at it, but the blade merely slashed a red groove along its armored shoulder. It did nothing except make the rhino madder.

“Oh,” she said softly, and then she was running too.

Tom lingered a split second longer, sighting along the barrel of his gun at the rhino’s black eye. Then he whipped the gun away, shoved it into its holster, and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He caught up with the others and yelled at them to cut left so that they were running almost parallel to the road.

The rhino tried to turn sharply to intercept, but the angle was too sharp. Its huge feet skidded on the dried mud of the road. Then, with a roar, it headed straight into the forest. The rhino’s shoulders slammed into a pair of slender pines, snapping them at the base.

“Use the trees,” yelled Tom. “Circle around the big ones.”

Nix was in the lead, and she shifted her angle to head toward a gnarled old sycamore. She dodged behind it, then spun and pulled Benny and Chong in behind her.

The rhino spotted them and charged. It veered at the last second, so instead of hitting the tree full on, its horns slashed a deep gouge in the wood and shook the old sycamore from roots to leaves. The rhino whirled and rammed the tree again, and Benny threw his arm up to shield his eyes from the spray of splinters the impact blew out of the gouge. The animal tried to chase them around the tree, but they were more agile. It snorted and trotted away, then cut left and rammed again, and this time there was a crack! and the sycamore canted sideways and crashed down on the grass with a huge leafy whumpf!

“Now what do we do?” whispered Chong in a strangled voice. Benny shot a look at him and saw that his friend’s eyes were wide and jumpy with fear that was very quickly going to overwhelm him.

The beast galloped forty feet away and then cut right into a tight circle. This time it didn’t attack the tree but instead began angling to come around the trunk and go straight for Chong. The rhino came at them like a thunderbolt.

“HEY!” Nix yelled as she stood up and waved her arms over her head. Instantly the rhino changed the angle of its charge and came straight for her. “Come on!” she cried to Benny, and then she was racing away from the fallen tree.

“What are you doing?” Benny yelled in panic, but as soon as he said it he understood. Nix tore across ten yards of open field toward a line of massive oaks. The rhino could never hope to knock one of them over.

Benny turned to pull Chong over the trunk so they could follow, but Chong was gone. Benny caught a glimpse of him running away from the oaks, heading toward a cluster of pines.

“Chong, no! Not that way!”

The rhino slowed to a trot and looked from Benny to Nix and then at Chong. Nix was vanishing behind the trunk of a monstrous oak. Benny was still partly covered by the huge bulk of dark roots from the overturned sycamore. Chong had a longer run ahead of him, and the only protection he had was a line of pines. Their bushy branches would hide him, but the soft pines offered no protection at all.

The rhino charged after Chong.

Benny broke from the side of the sycamore and began shouting as Nix had. “Hey! Big and ugly! Over here!”

But if the rhino heard him, it didn’t care. Chasing Chong was a straight run and an easy kill. It thundered after Chong, crushing huckleberry bushes and saplings under its ponderous bulk.

Benny made it to Nix’s oak and kept running. She was right with him, and they sprinted down the corridor of old oaks, heading for a gap that looked like it might have been either a country lane or a firebreak. Benny pointed as he ran, and Nix nodded. There was a chance they could turn left at the last oak, dash across the break, and enter the grove of pines. Benny figured they could come up behind Chong, pause long enough to beat some sense into him, then grab him and race back to the oaks.

At the break they paused for a moment, looking around for Tom and Lilah. Benny spotted them, but they were on the other side of the rhino. Lilah was climbing into a cottonwood tree. Tom was circling to try and cut the animal’s line of approach to the wall of pines.

“Hey!” Tom yelled. “Here!” He jumped up and down, waving his arms. When he got no reaction, he fired a shot into the air. That did it. The rhino skidded to a stop and turned its vicious eye on this new target. Benny was hoping that the animal would be getting tired by now, chasing one thing and then another. No such luck.

“It looks really, really mad,” said Nix.

The rhinoceros snorted a challenge, pawed the ground like a bull, tensed, and then launched itself straight for Tom.

“Oh, crap,” said Benny, but he wasn’t talking about the danger Tom was in. Tom apparently had a plan. Tom always had a plan. No, he caught movement from the pines and saw Chong break cover to watch what Tom and the rhino were doing. The rhino twitched its head as it noticed Chong.

“Oh for the love of-,” Benny began, then saved his breath for running.

Chong was smarter than Benny, but in his panic he wasn’t using that brain. Rhinos were not like people, cats, dogs, and hunting birds. They weren’t predators. Despite the creature’s formidable strength and size, it was built for protection. Predators have eyes that look forward. Prey animals have eyes on the sides of their head. Usually that was to allow them to see threats creeping up from all sides. In this case…

Once more the rhino wheeled and circled back toward Chong, who screeched, wheeled, and ran back toward the screen of pines.

“Why does it keep going after Chong?” asked Nix as they ran.

“’Cause he keeps heading for those pines,” grunted Benny.

“Yeah, but why?”

Tom fired another shot. The rhino ignored him this time and kept charging toward Chong. Tom yelled louder and jumped up and down, but the rhino had its eyes fixed on Chong. “Not that way!”

Chong either couldn’t hear or was too scared to pay attention.

Benny and Nix headed into the overgrown firebreak, crashing through the chest-high weeds, heading at a sharp angle to cut into the pines behind Chong so they could lead him out. The edge of the pine screen was fifty yards away. Benny saw that the shrubs and plants around here were already flattened down by the rhino’s massive feet, as if it had passed that way a hundred times.

Benny was only a half step behind Nix. Then she screamed and suddenly pitched forward into the grass five feet in front of him. Benny had no way of stopping himself in time, and his foot caught on something and he was falling too. He landed on her legs, the impact punching a yelp of pain out of her.

“Oooof! Sorry!” he said as he rolled quickly to his left.

And looked right into the eyes of a zom.

20

BENNY SCREAMED.

Nix looked up. She saw the zombie… and screamed.

The zom lay in the tall weeds inches from them. It did not scream. It snarled.

Then it lurched forward and tried to bite Benny’s face.

Nix grabbed his shoulder and hauled him back, and the creature’s teeth bit only empty air where Benny’s cheek had been. Benny flung himself backward, pushing Nix and himself away from the rotting teeth of the zom and the reaching white hands, but he wasn’t fast enough. One hand closed around his left sneaker, and the teeth chomped down on the rubber toe. Benny howled in agony as his toe was crunched between the zom’s jagged teeth.

God! Am I bit? Am I bit? Am I bit? The litany of dread played over and over in his head.

He swung his right foot and kicked the zom in the face, once, twice, again and again. The creature was dressed in farmer’s coveralls and had huge hands and shoulders. Even crippled and dead, it was immensely strong. Benny kept kicking, putting all his weight and fear into it, feeling the shock of each impact shoot like hot needles up his shin. Old bone cracked and rotted teeth snapped and then he was free.

He pushed Nix away from the monster. She got to her feet and started to run, and immediately she screamed and fell. Benny scrabbled backward and turned to see a sight that threatened to tear the soul out of him. A second zom had crawled out of the weeds and attacked Nix. It had once been a huge woman, and it wore the black-and-white rags of a nun’s habit. There were two bullet holes in its cheeks, but they were ancient and the bullets had missed spine or brain. The zom had Nix pinned to the ground by the shoulders and was bending to take a bite that would destroy everything good and wonderful in Benny’s world.

Nix’s face was covered in bright red blood. A black snake of terror reared up inside Benny’s chest. But his rage was bigger than his fear.

“NIX!”

He bellowed louder than a bull, louder than the rhino. He screamed a great unintelligible shriek of denial as he launched himself at the zom. His bokken lay forgotten in the weeds. He did not even think of pulling his knife. He crossed his arms over his face and slammed into the zom, hitting it like a thunderbolt.

“Get away from her!”

The impact knocked the zom backward, and they fell together in a hissing, snarling tangle, rolling over and over as Nix’s scream filled the air.

The creature was desiccated, however; its arms were strong, but as they rolled Benny felt the dead-weight thump of its torso and legs. The zom’s spine must have been shattered below the shoulder blades so that its legs truly were dead.

Its mouth, however, was not.

The zom moaned in desperate hunger as it snapped at him. Their roll ended with Benny on his back and the zom atop him-not at all the way he wanted this moment to end. He shoved a forearm under its chin to keep those teeth from his flesh. He saw movement over the zom’s shoulder and there was Nix, her face running with blood and her eyes wild with fear, but she had her bokken in her small, tanned fists.

“Now!” she screeched, and with a grunt of effort, Benny shoved his arms straight up, raising the snapping zom as Nix swung her wooden sword.

CRACK!

The top half of the zom’s head seemed to disintegrate, and the creature immediately went limp. With a snarl of disgust Benny threw it to one side.

“Thanks-,” he began, but then he felt Nix stiffen beside him.

“Oh my God!”

Benny scrambled to his feet and looked around, and he could feel the blood drain from his face as he beheld a scene out of his darkest nightmares.

The whole field of tall grass in which they stood was filled with zoms. Dozens of them. They lay between the weeds and snarls of wisteria, empty eyes fixed on them, hands reaching, mouths working. Their moans filled the air.

But they were all broken. Shattered legs and hips. Shattered spines. Missing limbs. Huge holes torn through their chests and stomachs. Benny and Nix were surrounded by a legion of crippled zombies. They wriggled forward on broken limbs or grabbed tufts of grass to haul their twisted wrecks of bodies toward the fresh meat.

“What is this?” Nix breathed, horrified.

Benny drew his bokken, and they stood back to back with no clear way out. There had to be two dozen of the monsters. No… more than that. Much more. Others were climbing like gray slugs over fallen logs or out of depressions in the ground. Fifty of them. Sixty. More. All those dusty eyes and black mouths and rotted teeth. The dead cried out in rusted voices as they pulled themselves toward the smell of fresh meat and flowing blood. The terrible need, the awful hunger in that moan made Benny’s blood turn to ice water in his veins. It was such an ancient sound, old as all the pain and misery in the world.

“We have to get out of here,” Benny whispered. He knew that the words were pointless, their meaning obvious, but there was a need in him to hear a human voice amid the dreadful wails of the dead.

A few hundred yards to their left, Benny and Nix could hear the shouts of Tom and Chong and the indignant snort of the huge animal that had chased them all from the road.

And then he understood. “God!” he gasped. “The rhino!”

“What?” Nix asked, and then she got it. “Oh!”

“Let’s get out of here.”

She dragged her forearm over her face to clear the blood from her eyes. “How?”

Benny licked his lips and took a firmer grip on his sword. “Fast and hard,” he said.

He swung his sword and smashed the closest of the zoms, cracking the hardwood edge of the bokken against its temple. It flopped to one side, and Benny jumped over it. A dozen withered hands grabbed at his sneakers and pants cuffs, but Benny kicked and stamped as if he was being swarmed by cockroaches.

“Come on!” he shouted, but Nix was already running past him. Her sword swished down and cracked and another zombie spun away, its jaw crushed.

They ran and struck and ran. The blood on Nix’s face scared Benny so much his heart felt like ice.

Had she been bitten?

His toe hurt terribly.

Are we bitten?

Are we dead? “Benny!” Nix screamed. “Fight!”

He bit down on his fear and swung the sword. It cracked against a reaching hand and shattered the wrist. He swung again and a zom who looked like he might have been a soldier flopped over on his back, his neck knocked askew. Benny swung and hit; Nix swung and hit; and all the time they screamed and moved and fought.

“That way!” cried Nix, shoving him with her shoulder. Benny pivoted to see a narrow gap in the sea of crawling monsters. He pushed her in front of him.

“Go!”

She went, running and jumping, her sword flashing in a brown blur, the crack! against old bone sounding like gunshots.

A pair of zoms-a grocery store clerk and a man in the tattered remains of a business suit-grabbed at him at the same time, each one clamping on to one of his ankles.

Benny staggered and fell. But as he landed he twisted as Tom had shown him, rotating his shins so that the angles of his bones exerted leverage on the thumbs of the grabbing hands. The businessman lost his grip, and Benny pivoted hard to shake loose the clerk, emphasizing his need with a crushing downward blow with the flat end of the sword handle. The zom’s skull shattered, and his hand opened with a dying twitch.

Benny scrambled to his feet and ran. Nix was fifty yards ahead of him, but he ran so fast that he’d nearly caught up by the time she reached the narrow gap.

“Go! Go!” he yelled, and together they crashed through the circle of broken zombies and into the trampled area where Chong had run. It felt like escaping from the arms of Death itself.

But the problem was far from over.

There was still the rhinoceros.

Chong was there, dodging in and around a stand of oaks as the rhino lunged between the trunks, trying to gore him with its horns. Only the lucky chance of the trees having grown so close together was keeping Chong alive.

Then they saw Tom standing with his pistol in a two-handed shooter’s grip.

“Shoot it in the eye!” Benny yelled as they closed in on where he stood.

Tom ignored him and called out to Chong, “I’m going to fire twice, and then I want you to run behind the trees. Head to your left and go as deep into the forest as you can.”

“No!” cried Nix.

Tom cut her a sharp look. “Why not?”

“We just came from there,” she panted. “Zoms!”

“Damn.”

“Tom! I need to get out of here!” begged Chong as he twisted away from the horn. This time it missed him by inches.

“Benny, Nix… head back to the road. Cross it and go into the other side. Find a tree you can climb and wait for me.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just do it!”

Benny and Nix obeyed, but they ran only a dozen yards and then slowed to watch as Tom took a few steps toward the enraged rhino and aimed his gun.

“Sorry about this, old girl,” Tom said aloud.

The sound of the shot was strangely hollow. A pok! Benny expected it to be louder. The bullet hit the rhino in the shoulder. The creature howled, more in anger than in pain, but a second later it lunged at Chong.

Tom fired again, aiming at the creature’s muscular haunch. The rhino shrieked, and this time there was pain in its cry.

It turned with mad fury in its eyes… and charged Tom.

“Why doesn’t he shoot it in the eye?” demanded Nix, but Benny shook his head.

As the rhino rumbled past where they stood, Benny and Nix waved with silent urgency at Chong. He saw them, hesitated, looked at the retreating back of the rhino, and did nothing.

“Crap!” growled Benny. “He’s too scared to move.”

Then something pale rose up out of the weeds behind Chong.

“Lilah!” gasped Nix.

“Why didn’t you idiots climb a tree?” she demanded. “What was all that running around?”

She didn’t wait for an answer, and instead grabbed Chong’s shoulder and fairly dragged him along behind her. The four of them ran through the grass and shrubs toward the trees and then out onto the road.

“In here,” Lilah commanded, pointing, and the four of them plunged into the woods on the far side of the road. They ran through sticker bushes and hanging vines and leaped a gully and then broke into another clearing. At the far side was a squat and solid tree with a stout limb that dipped low. “Go!”

They raced to it and one by one jumped for the limb. Lilah shoved their butts upward, and when it was her turn she crouched and sprang, caught the limb as nimbly as a monkey, and climbed to safety.

Far away they heard two more hollow gunshots.

And then nothing except the triumphant roar of the rhinoceros.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Tools of the Zombie Hunter Trade, Part Three

Tom Imura’s sword is a katana. That kind of sword was developed in ancient Japan by the samurai-the elite warrior class. The katana originated in Japan’s Muromachi period (1392-1573). Samurai sometimes wore a second, shorter sword called a wakizashi with it, but that one was used for committing suicide if the samurai felt his honor had been lost.

(When I asked Tom why he doesn’t carry the short sword, he said, “I believe in survival, not suicide. Besides, aren’t there already enough dead people in the world?”)

The katana is known to be the sharpest sword in the world.

His sword is called a kami katana. He says it means “spirit sword” or “demon sword.” Kind of cool, but a little freaky, too.

His kami katana has a twenty-nine-inch blade and a ten-and-three-quarters-inch handle. The handle was originally wrapped in black silk, but when that wore down, my mom covered it in silk and leather with some Celtic knots worked into the design.

(Mom really loved Tom.) I miss her. So does Tom.

21

THEY CROUCHED LIKE FRIGHTENED BIRDS IN THE TREE, WATCHING THE forest and seeing only trees. There was no sign of Tom or the rhinoceros. Benny peered at Nix. Her red hair was pasted to the right side of her face by a film of drying blood. Her cheek was bruised, and she didn’t meet Benny’s eyes. When he reached out to push her hair from her face, she batted his hand away. “Don’t.”

“I want to see how bad it is.”

“It’s not bad. Don’t worry about it.”

The others went instantly silent. Nix looked at them and then glared at Benny.

“It’s not a bite,” she said. “I hit my head on something when I fell.”

“Show us,” demanded Lilah, and when Nix hesitated, she snapped, “Now.”

With a trembling hand, Nix touched her forehead, and then slowly pushed the hair back. It wasn’t nothing, and it was still bleeding… but it wasn’t a bite, and Benny breathed a vast sigh of relief. Then his face clouded with concern. There was a jagged cut that ran from Nix’s hairline down her cheek almost to her jaw. It wasn’t bone deep, but like most head wounds it had bled furiously.

“Oh, man.” Benny hastily dug some clean cotton squares from his first aid kit. He tried to apply them, but Nix snatched them from him and pressed them in place.

“I know,” she snarled. “It’s ugly.”

Benny smiled at her. “No,” he said, “it’s not that. I’m just sorry you got hurt.”

Her eyes were hard to read in the shadows under the leaves. She turned away without saying anything.

“We have to go find Tom,” whispered Benny.

Nix touched her face. “When he sees this, he’s going to make us go back home.”

“That doesn’t matter, Nix. Right now we have to find him and-”

“He said to stay here,” she insisted. “If he’s looking for us and we’re looking for him, we might never find each other.”

“Yes,” agreed Chong hastily. He was green with sick fear and sweating badly. He clutched the trunk of the tree as if it was trying to pull away from him. “Staying here is good.”

Lilah nodded. “Tom is a good hunter. He’ll find us.”

“But what if he doesn’t?” demanded Benny.

“He will.”

“What if he can’t?”

“He will.”

A voice said, “He has.”

Benny whipped his head around so fast that he nearly fell out of the tree. “Tom!”

Tom Imura stood in the waist-high grass at the base of the tree. He was covered with mud and streaked with grass stains. His black hair hung in sweaty rattails, but he didn’t even look out of breath, and he held Lilah’s spear in his hands.

“Come on down,” he suggested with a grin.

One by one they crawled down to the lowest limb and then dropped. Chong was last, and his legs were visibly trembling.

Benny ran over to Tom. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, and then gave his brother a quick, fierce hug. He abruptly let Tom go and pushed him back like he was radioactive. “Okay, we’re done.”

Nix came in for a hug too.

“Heck of a start,” Tom said. It was meant as a joke, but Nix’s eyes flashed with concern.

“Tom… I don’t want to go back!”

“I do,” said Chong.

She wheeled around, and Benny saw that she was about to fry the flesh from Chong’s bones with an acid comment, but then she saw the look of complete despair on his face. Her own expression softened and she left her comment unspoken. Instead she turned back to Tom and reinforced her earlier comment. “I do not want to go back.”

“We’ll talk about that in a minute,” Tom said gently. “Let’s catch our breath first.”

“The animal?” asked Lilah, accepting her spear back from Tom. There was no blood on it. “Didn’t even pierce the skin.”

“Yeah, well, for what it’s worth, my bullets didn’t seem to do her much harm either.”

“You could have shot it in the eye,” said Benny.

“I would have if I couldn’t get Chong and the rest of you out of there. Otherwise it would have been wrong to kill her.”

Lilah grunted and then nodded. Nix was less certain. “Will it come after us?”

“It won’t. This is her territory. She has a calf hidden back beyond the clearing.”

“A calf?” Benny asked. “That thing’s a mother rhino?”

“So she was just protecting her baby?” asked Nix.

“Seems so.”

“And you never saw it before? I thought you were up in these mountains all the time.”

“I haven’t been in this particular pass for a while. That calf can’t be more than three or four months old. I don’t know much about rhinos, but my guess is that Big Mama came looking for a quiet place to have her baby and settled here. Nobody else lives on this side of the mountain.”

“Where’d she come from?” asked Benny.

“A zoo, I guess, or a circus. People used to have private collections, too. And animals were used in the film industry. Must be a lot of wild animals out in the Ruin. My friend Solomon Jones saw a dead bear over in Yosemite that looked like it had been mauled by something that had big teeth and claws. And there’s that guy lives out at Wawona-Preacher Jack-who swears he’s seen tigers. If the zoo animals got out, it could have been anything. Lion or tiger…”

“Maybe they’ll be cowardly lions,” said Lilah under her breath.

Benny laughed. It was the first time he’d ever heard her make any kind of joke.

Tom nodded back the way he’d come. “Before First Night, there were more tigers in America-in zoos, circuses, and private collections-than in all of Asia. As for Big Mama, she was simply doing what any mother does. Protecting her young.”

“Not just from us,” said Nix.

Tom nodded. “I know. I saw all the zoms. Bottom line… don’t mess with Big Mama.”

Benny nodded and told the others about it. “It was really weird,” he concluded. “All those crawling zoms. Scarier than the walking ones.”

“No,” said Lilah, “it’s not. You haven’t faced enough of the walkers.”

Benny thought back to Zak and Big Zak, and to the zoms he’d faced last year while looking for Nix. “I’ve had my moments.”

Chong cleared his throat. “Zoms couldn’t hurt that rhino, could they?”

“Not a chance.” Tom laughed. “Maybe the baby, though. I didn’t get a good look at it, but if it is still vulnerable, it won’t be for long. Those things are like tanks.”

He saw the blood on Nix’s face and brushed her hair back to examine her. She nodded and pulled her face away from his touch.

“That looks nasty. It needs to be cleaned off.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“That isn’t a request, Nix. Out here we don’t have Doc Gurijala and we don’t have antibiotics. Infection is as much our enemy as the zoms. So, you’ll clean that off now, and then I’ll take a closer look at it. You might even need stitches. If so, either I’ll do it or we’ll go back to town. Either way, all wounds will be tended to with the utmost care. End of discussion.”

Nix heaved a great sigh, made a big show of pulling out her first aid kit and canteen, and trudged away to sit on a fallen tree and do as she was told.

“I’ll help,” Benny said, and limped after her, but Tom snaked out a hand and caught his shoulder.

“Whoa, hold on, sport… you’re limping and there’s blood on your shoe. Where are you hurt?”

Benny swallowed, shooting a wary look at Lilah, whose attention had sharpened and was now focused on him. Her fingers tightened on the haft of her spear.

“Hey-don’t even think about it,” Benny said, pointing a finger at her. “One of the zoms tried to bite through my sneaker, but he-”

“Take your shoe off.” Lilah and Tom said it at the same time.

“I-”

“Now,” said Tom. His voice was heavy with quiet command. Benny looked at Nix, who had paused in the act of sponging blood from her face. Her eyes flashed with sudden concern.

“Crap,” Benny said acidly, and sat down on the grass to pull his shoe off. His sock was soaked with blood.

“Oh no,” breathed Chong. “This is all my fault.”

Benny made a face. “Oh, please. You didn’t bite me.”

“The rhino chased us because I startled it. Then I ran the wrong way and made everything worse.”

Tom started to say something but Lilah cut in. “Yes. You were stupid.”

“She’s got your number,” said Benny with a grin.

Chong gave him an evil stare. “You’re the one whose toe got bitten off by a zom.”

Benny muttered under his breath as he pulled his sock off. His big toenail was cracked and bleeding, and the toe was swollen, but there was no bite. Lilah snatched up his shoe to examine it, but Tom took it out of her hands and peered at the toe.

“It’s a pressure injury.” He blew out his cheeks and handed the shoe back to Benny. “That’s twice you dodged the bullet.”

“That’s a metaphor, right?”

Tom’s smile was less reassuring than it could have been.

“Right?” insisted Benny.

“Rinse your sock out,” said Tom as he turned away.

“Hey… right?”

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Some of the traders and bounty hunters claim that the zoms on the other side of the Rocky Mountains are faster than the zoms we have here. There’s a girl in my grade-Carmen-who says that her uncle, who is a trader, saw zombies running after people during First Night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A couple of other people from back east said the same thing, but most people don’t believe them.

I hope this is not true!!!

22

“WELL… GO AHEAD AND SAY IT,” NIX DEMANDED.

Tom squatted in front of her, gently touching the edges of the long gash on her face. His lips were pursed, and he made a small downbeat grunting noise. “You’re going to need stitches.”

“I know. Go ahead.”

He shook his head. “No… I can stitch a wound well enough, but this needs fine work. Otherwise-”

“I’ll look like a hag.”

“I wouldn’t go that far… but a deft hand with a needle will reduce the scar to a pencil-thin line. Doc Gara-”

“No!” She brushed his hand away. “I’m not going back to town.”

“Nix, c’mon,” prodded Benny, who hovered over Tom’s shoulder like a worried aunt.

She gave him two seconds of a lethal green stare and then refocused on Tom. “You’re not my dad, Tom, and I-”

Tom made a face. “Oh, please, Nix. You’re not a petulant little kid, so don’t try that act on me. Benny still tries it and it never works.”

“It works sometimes,” Benny said. They ignored him.

“We can be home in four hours,” Tom said. “The doc can stitch you up, we rest up a day or two, and-”

“No.”

“Would you rather have a bad scar?”

“If it’s a choice between going back and that, then I’ll take the scar.”

“Why?”

It was Chong who asked the question, and they turned to look at him. He was pale and still looked badly shaken by what had happened. His eyes were dark and filled with guilt.

“Look,” Nix said slowly, “if we go back because of this, then what will be the next thing that takes us back? I know how things work with people. If something stops us this soon, then all we’ll find out here are reasons to stop and start over.”

“No way,” said Benny.

“No,” agreed Tom.

She picked up the first aid kit and thrust it toward Tom. “You do it.”

“Please,” whispered Chong. “Don’t. This is my fault. I… I can’t be responsible for you being all messed up.”

“Let’s not add more drama,” said Tom. “I’m not that bad with a needle.”

“Nix is beautiful,” said Chong. “She should always be beautiful.”

Benny held up a hand. “Um… going out on a philosophical limb here, but scar or no scar, Nix is always going to be beautiful.”

“No doubt,” agreed Tom.

Nix flushed, but her expression was still hard.

Chong gave a stubborn shake. “Please. I can’t deal with it knowing that it’s my-”

“As God is my witness,” snarled Nix, “if you say it’s your fault one more time, Chong, I will beat you unconscious and leave you for the zoms.”

Chong’s mouth remained open, the sentence half said but now dead on his tongue.

He turned away and stalked to the edge of the clearing, then squatted down in the grass and laced his fingers over his bowed head.

The first aid kit was still in Nix’s hand. Tom hesitated, but then Lilah suddenly leaned in to snatch up the kit.

“She will die of old age before you make up your mind,” she said coldly. “I’ll do it.”

“Whoa,” yelped Benny, making a grab for the kit. “Do you even know how?”

Instead of answering, Lilah pulled up her shirt to show her midriff. There were three healed-over scars, one at least nine inches long. The scars were as thin as threads. Benny stared. Lilah had a flat, tanned stomach and the curved lines of superbly toned muscles. She was also holding the shirt a little too high for comfort, and Benny could feel his hair starting to sweat.

Tom, quietly amused, reached up and pushed Lilah’s hand down a few inches.

Nix gave Benny another of those deadly green stares and fired one at Lilah, who was oblivious to it. Her understanding of personal modesty was entirely from books and not at all from practical experience.

“You stitched those?” Tom asked.

“Who else?” She dropped the hem of her shirt and turned to show other scars on her legs. Benny hoped that an asteroid would fall on his head at the moment. It wasn’t that he wanted to look, but he didn’t know how not to look, because he thought that would be even more obvious.

“That’s very good work,” said Tom. “Better than I can do.”

“I know,” Lilah said bluntly. She squinted up at the sun. “Better to do it now. Light’s good but careful takes time.”

Nix turned to Tom. “If she can do it, then can we stay out here?”

Tom sighed and stood. “One step at a time. Let’s see how you feel when she’s done.”

“I feel fine.”

“We don’t have anesthesia, Nix,” Tom murmured. “It’s going to hurt. A lot.”

“I know.” Her eyes were hard.

Benny tried to read her expression and all the unspoken things it conveyed. Over the last year Nix had learned nearly every kind of hurt there was. Or at least every kind of hurt Benny could imagine.

Without saying another word to Tom, Nix turned to Lilah.

“Do it,” she said.

23

BENNY COULDN’T BEAR TO WATCH, BUT HE COULDN’T LEAVE NIX ALONE, either. However, she threatened him if he didn’t leave, so he slunk away to stand in the shade of a tree with Tom.

“Heck of a start,” Tom said softly.

“I’d say ‘could be worse,’ but I’m kinda thinking that it couldn’t. So… basically this blows,” observed Benny.

“Yes it does,” agreed Tom.

They stared out at the endless green of the forest.

“She’s strong,” said Tom after a while.

“Nix? Yeah.”

Minutes passed, and Benny tried to think about anything instead of how it must feel to have a curved needle-like one of Morgie’s fishhooks-passed through the skin of your face, followed by the slow pull of surgical thread. The tug at the end to pull the stitch tight. The tremble in the flesh as it waited for the next stitch. And the next.

Benny was pretty sure he was going to go stark raving mad. He kept listening for Nix’s scream. And with each second he could not understand why she didn’t scream. He would have, and he made no apologies for it. Screaming seemed like a pretty good response to what Nix was going through.

There were no screams.

After what seemed like five hundred years, Tom repeated what he’d said.

“She’s strong.”

“Yeah,” Benny said again.

His fingernails were buried into his palms hard enough to gouge crescent-shaped divots.

“Girls are stronger than boys,” Tom said.

“Not a news flash,” Benny said.

“I’m just saying.”

They watched the forest.

“If this goes on any longer, Tom?”

“Yeah?”

“Shoot me.”

Tom smiled.

Benny looked at him and then over to where Chong still sat in the tall grass.

“Is this all really Chong’s fault?”

Tom shrugged.

“No, tell me.”

“If you really want an honest answer,” Tom said quietly, “then… yes. Chong didn’t listen when he was told to be quiet, and he didn’t listen when he was told what to do when the rhino was chasing us.”

“He’s scared.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Sure,” Benny said grudgingly, “but I’ve been out here before.”

“Don’t make excuses for him. You listened to me the first time we came out here,” Tom reminded him. “And that was back when you couldn’t stand me.”

“I know.”

“Not everyone is built to be tough,” said Tom. “Sad fact of life. Chong is one of the nicest people I know. His folks, too. If our species is going to make it back from the brink and build something better than what we had, then we need to breed more people like them. It would be a saner, smarter, and far more civilized world.”

“But…?”

“But I don’t think he’s cut out for this.”

“I guess.”

“It’s better that he’s not coming with us.”

Benny said nothing.

“Do you agree, kiddo?”

“I don’t know.” Benny sighed. “Chong’s my best friend.”

“That’s why he’s here. He only came out here because he’s your friend, and because he doesn’t quite know how to say good-bye,” said Tom. “Saying good-bye is one of the hardest things people ever have to do. Back before First Night, I remember how hard it was just to say good-bye to my friends when I was done with high school. We wrote a lot of promises in each other’s yearbooks about how we’d always stay in touch, but even then we knew that for the most part they were lies. Well-intentioned and hopeful lies, but still lies.”

“That was different.”

“Sure, but things are relative. Just like pain. What Nix is going through is not the worst pain she’s ever felt, which is why she can deal with it. For me, saying good-bye to my friends from high school was terrible. We all were going off to colleges in different parts of the country. The old gang I grew up with was falling apart. It felt like dying. It was grief.”

Benny thought about the way he had left things with Morgie. He nodded.

“I guess I’m having a hard time adjusting to the fact that leaving is so final.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” said Tom.

“For Nix it does.”

Tom nodded.

“What are we going to do about Chong?” asked Benny.

Tom ticked his chin toward the southeast. “There’s a back road to Brother David’s way station. My friend Sally Two-Knives will be coming through here today or tomorrow. I’m going to wait at the way station until she shows, and then I’ll ask her to take Chong back home.”

Benny had the Zombie Card for Sally Two-Knives. She was a bounty hunter who worked mostly out of the towns farther north. She was a tall, dark-skinned woman with a Mohawk and a matched pair of army bayonets strapped to her thighs. The text on the back of her Zombie Card read:

Card No. 239: Sally Two-Knives. This former Roller-Derby queen has become one of the toughest and most reliable bounty hunters and guides in the Ruin. Don’t cross her or you’ll find out just how good she is with her two razor-sharp knives!

Like most of the Zombie Cards, it didn’t give a lot of information, but Benny always liked the fierce woman’s smiling face. She wasn’t pretty, but there was humor in her brown eyes.

Brother David, on the other hand, was a way-station monk, one of the Children of God who lived out in the Ruin and did what he could to tend to the living dead. Brother David and the others of his order called the zombies the Children of Lazarus and believed them to be the “meek” who were meant to inherit the earth. Benny couldn’t quite grasp the concept, especially after what he and Nix had encountered in the field.

“You and Chong can say your good-byes in the morning.”

“Will Chong be safe? I mean… will Sally Two-Knives be enough protection for him?”

Tom laughed. “More than enough. She doesn’t like killing zoms, so she knows all the routes that are clear and safe.”

They were silent for a while, each cutting looks over at Lilah, who was still working on Nix.

When Tom next spoke he deliberately made his tone light. “If we’re lucky we’ll catch up with Greenman, maybe stay a couple days at his place.”

“Greenman, really? Cool! I can’t wait to meet him,” said Benny. He had the Greenman card too. The image on the card was that of a tall, thin man wearing clothes entirely covered in green leaves, berries, and pinecones. The artist had depicted him wearing a mask made from oak leaves and acorns. The card read:

Card No. 172: The Greenman. Little is known about this mysterious figure seen haunting the forests between Magoon Hill and Yosemite. Is he a myth? A ghost? Or is he a dangerous madman waiting to pounce on unwary travelers? Beware the Greenman!

“Sounds like someone from a story.”

“He’s real enough,” said Tom, “but he is a bit of a character. His real name’s Artie Mensch. Used to be a forest ranger over in Yosemite, but since First Night the Ruin has become a real home to him. Never comes into town, doesn’t talk to too many people. Prefers to be alone.”

“Does he really dress like that?”

“Sometimes. When he has his camouflage on you can walk right past him and not see him. Fools the zoms, too. And he’s been experimenting with mixtures of herbs to get the same effect as cadaverine. Not sure if he’s worked it out yet.”

“The Zombie Card says that he might be crazy,” Benny said.

Tom shrugged. “Most people are a little crazy, especially since First Night, and doubly so if they live out here. But Greenman’s a good man, and he’s a friend to the right kind of traveler.”

“What’s the right kind?”

“Let’s just say that Greenman wouldn’t have invited Charlie or the Hammer in for tea.” Tom stared into the distance as if looking into his own thoughts. “I’ve spent many a long night with him. Talking about the old days, and learning what he has to teach.”

“You learned from him?”

“Sure. He might be the wisest person left alive. Certainly the wisest I know.”

A few minutes later, Benny nodded toward the forest. “How far have you been?”

“Since First Night? All the way to the far side of Yosemite, but I rarely go that deep. Once we pass through the park, it’ll be as new to me as it is to you guys.”

“And we’ll be roughing it all the way?”

“Nah. I dropped off some supplies at Brother David’s a few weeks ago. Carpet coats, more cadaverine, some weapons, tents, other stuff. Anything else we need we can get from the traders over in Wawona. Roughing it was just for tonight. For the real trip I want us to be as well supplied as we can be.”

Benny looked over and saw that Lilah was applying a bandage. The stitchery was done and Nix still hadn’t made a sound.

“Speaking of crazy,” Benny murmured.

Tom glanced over. “Nix or Lilah?”

“Take your pick.”

Tom snorted. “You ever try to imagine what it’s like being inside Nix’s head?”

“All the time.” Benny shook his head. “I’ve known her my whole life, and we’ve talked about everything… but then I catch a look in her eye when we’re training, or she’ll say something odd, and then I wonder if I really know her at all.”

“How’s that make her crazy?”

“I don’t know. I… can’t quite put it into words. Since last year she’s different. She’s obsessed about this trip. When we talk about it, most of the time she’s really focused and logical, but if I bring up any reservations about it… she either bites my head or acts as if I didn’t say anything.” He looked at Tom. “I know you’ve seen it too.”

“I have,” Tom admitted, “but I don’t know if it makes her crazy. Her last blood ties are gone, Benny. In a lot of ways she feels that she’s all alone.”

“She isn’t!”

“Sure she is. We’re each alone inside our heads, some more so than others. Lilah’s been alone inside her head for years, and she may never come completely out.”

“So you’re saying that Nix is just obsessed and lonely?”

“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m agreeing with you that there are forces at work in her life. I don’t know if she’s truly crazy-as in a danger to herself and others-but I suspect that her sanity is a work in process. Keep your eye on her.”

He clapped Benny on the shoulder, and they walked over to see how Nix was doing. She was pale, almost green, and her face-what Benny could see of it under the bandages-ran with sweat. Lilah sat on a tree stump, carefully cleaning the needle with alcohol.

“World’s dumbest question,” Benny said to Nix, “but how do you feel?”

“Like I was attacked by Mrs. Lafferty’s quilting circle.” Nix’s face was puffy, and she barely moved her lips when she spoke. Her eyes were glassy with pain and the fatigue that comes from enduring pain. “Thanks,” she said to Lilah.

“I don’t want to go back to that town either,” Lilah said, and walked away.

Benny and Nix looked up at Tom.

He sighed, then said, “Okay. We keep going.”

24

THEY RESTED FOR ANOTHER HOUR, AND THEN TOM TOLD EVERYONE TO get ready.

Benny came over to check on Chong, but his friend didn’t want to talk. Chong put his pack on, adjusted the straps, and didn’t meet anyone’s eyes.

“Let’s go,” said Tom. “I want to make the way station while it’s still light. Nix… we’ll only go as fast as you can manage.”

“I’m fine.”

“No you’re not. You’re hurt, and even though it’s not as serious as it looks, your body has gone through trauma. Be smart about how you feel. Push too hard and you’ll collapse, and then I swear to God I will carry you back to town. Is that clear?”

“Fine.”

Tom adjusted the strap that held his sword. “We’re going to be going down the mountain, and that means every step brings us deeper into zombie-infested lands. Everyone keep your eyes open, and everyone follow orders.” He looked hard at Chong, who gave a single tight nod.

They set out. Tom led the way, and for a few minutes Benny walked beside him. A mile into the hike, Benny said, “We screwed it up pretty bad in just a few hours.”

Tom grunted, but aloud he said, “Despite what I said earlier-and despite a legendary series of screwups-this day could actually have been worse. Not much worse… but worse.”

“So Lilah keeps reminding me,” said Benny quietly. “I think she’d enjoy quieting me.”

“I doubt it, but I agree that she can be a bit intense.”

“Is ‘intense’ really a strong enough word?”

“Give her time, kiddo. She’s-”

“Lived alone for six years, yeah, I know. I’m not criticizing her for being weird, Tom. It’s just a little freaky when someone keeps threatening to kill you.”

Tom nodded, but repeated, “Give her time.”

Benny let Tom move ahead of him, and he slowed until Nix caught up, but from the stiff set of her bandaged face, Benny knew that she was in no mood for companionship or conversation. He walked with her for a while, but when he noticed that she kept trying to walk faster, he lagged again to let her pull ahead.

He sighed.

He turned and looked back and saw that Lilah was walking side by side with Chong, and they were talking in quiet voices. He grunted in surprise. Lilah was weird at the best of times, and she was usually so unemotional that he wondered what really went on inside her head. When he’d first learned about her from a picture on a Zombie Card, he’d been briefly and intensely infatuated. Now he was just afraid of her. And maybe sorry for her too… though he’d feel much more compassion if she wasn’t so damn fast whipping out her knife every time he got a hangnail.

The forest path wound around and began sloping down toward a road that had once been blacktop and was now cracked and torn by the unstoppable roots of trees. Young trees, some of them a dozen years old, stood in the middle of lanes where once cars had driven.

“Careful now,” Tom cautioned. “Weapons out, eyes and ears open.”

Benny drew his bokken and moved closer to Nix.

They walked through the knee-high weeds, stepping over old bones that might have been human, though Benny didn’t want to stop to examine them. Ahead a brown truck lay on its side. Benny could read the letters “UPS” on the rusted back door. The moldering remains of old boxes tumbled out of the back, and what little cardboard remained was bleached white by fourteen years of rain and snow.

Tom held up a clenched fist, the sign to stop. Everyone froze in place.

He gestured for them to stay where they were, then he silently drew his sword and crept toward the truck on the balls of his feet. The woods were alive with birdsong and the buzz of bees. Benny licked his dry lips, waiting for the moment when everything would suddenly go silent. Would there be another animal like the rhino, or would it be zoms?

Tom came up on the truck at an angle that reduced the likelihood of anyone on the far side seeing him. When he wanted to move quietly, he was silent as a shadow. He slid along the top of the overturned truck, took a brief peek around the end, and then vanished behind the vehicle.

Nix drifted to Benny’s side. She looked scared, and he realized that with her injury and the bandages she was probably feeling pretty vulnerable.

Benny mouthed the words, “It’s okay.”

But it wasn’t. When Tom stepped out from behind the truck, his sword was held loosely in one hand, the blade angled down toward the weeds. Even from thirty feet away Benny could see that Tom’s face was drawn and pale, and his lip was curled in disgust.

Everyone moved forward at once.

“What is it?” Nix asked.

“Was somebody attacked by zoms?” asked Benny.

Tom gave them a bleak stare. “Worse,” he said. He looked old and sad, and he turned away to look at the waving treetops down the road.

Nix, Chong, and Benny exchanged frowns of puzzlement, and as a group they walked around to the far side of the truck. The buzzing was louder, and Benny realized that it wasn’t bees hunting for nectar in the spring flowers.

It was flies. Black blowflies that swirled in a thick cloud around something on the other side of the overturned truck.

It was a man. Or, it had been a man. He stood straight, arms out to his sides and secured by ropes to the axles of the truck. The man wore only torn jeans and nothing else. Not even skin. Most of him was gone. Torn away. Consumed.

Chong spun away and threw up into the bushes.

Nix was a statue beside Benny, her eyes huge and unblinking, and from where her arm touched his he could feel her skin turn cold as ice.

Benny wasn’t sure if he was still standing or sitting. Or dreaming. The world spun drunkenly around him, filling him with sickness, making him want to scream.

This man had not been attacked by zoms.

He had been fed to them.

25

“WHY?”

It was the fourth time Chong had asked the question. Maybe the fifth. Benny couldn’t quite remember. Chong kept walking away and coming back and walking away. Each time he came back he demanded an answer. As if there was one that could explain this.

Benny felt totally numb, but he could not make himself look away. Something deep inside demanded that he stand there and look at every inch of the dead man. It made him count the bites. It made him catalog all the things that had been taken from this man.

No. Within his mind a voice that did not feel like his own rebelled at the use of so weak and inaccurate a word as “taken.” The cold detachment required honesty in evaluation. No, the voice said, don’t lie to yourself. If you hide from the truth behind soft words, then you’ll be soft. Then you’ll be dead.

Nothing had been taken. Parts of this man had been consumed. Eaten.

That’s the truth of what you are seeing. That’s the truth of what zoms do.

As he listened to the voice, he also heard a sound. A sob. He blinked and looked around. Chong had walked away again and now he squatted down by the side of the road, arms crossed over his head, his whole body trembling.

Benny glanced again at the dead man, and then turned to go over to Chong, grateful to have a reason to turn away. It wouldn’t feel like cowardice if he was going to help Chong instead of looking at the corpse.

Be strong, whispered his inner voice, then faded into silence.

Benny sat down next to Chong and put his arm around his friend’s shoulders. He wanted to say something, but his inner vocabulary did not include any words that would make sense out of this moment.

“I-I’m sorry,” murmured Chong. He lifted his head and stared straight ahead. His face was streaked with tears and his nose was running. “I don’t-I mean, I can’t-”

“No,” said a low rasp of a voice, and they both turned to see Lilah standing there. The breeze blew her snow-white hair like streamers of pale smoke. “Tears don’t mean you’re weak.”

Chong sniffed and wiped his nose and said nothing.

Lilah sat down in front of Chong, laying her spear in the dusty weeds. “Benny,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“Go away.”

Benny started to say something, but he did not. Instead he nodded and got to his feet. He had no idea what Lilah was going to say, or what she could say. Compassion, tenderness, and most other human emotions seemed to be beyond her. Or was he wrong about that?

Benny nodded to himself and walked back to where Nix and Tom stood.

“Tom… do you know what happened? Who did this?”

“No,” Tom said, but there was something in his tone that made Nix give him a sharp look.

“What?” she asked.

He hesitated.

“Come on, Tom,” Benny insisted. “If we’re going to be traveling out here, then you can’t treat us like this. You can’t protect us from stuff.”

“It’s not that,” Tom said slowly. “But… tell me something first.”

“Okay,” said Benny.

“That night last year, when we rescued the kids from the bounty hunters… how sure are you that you killed Charlie Pink-eye?”

If Tom had punched Benny straight in the face he could not have stunned him more.

“W-what?” he gasped.

“What are you saying?” demanded Nix.

“I’m not saying anything yet. Answer the question, Benny.”

Benny closed his eyes and the memory of that terrible fight was right there. Believing that Tom was dead, Nix, Benny, and Lilah had taken it upon themselves to rescue a group of children who had been kidnapped by Charlie Matthias and his bounty hunter cronies. It had been a foolishly risky plan, with more ways it could have gone wrong than right. The skies had opened and lashed Charlie’s mountaintop camp with heavy rains and shocking lightning. At Benny’s suggestion, Lilah had freed hundreds of the zoms that Charlie had tied to trees in the Hungry Forest. Using her own living flesh as bait, the ghost-voiced Lost Girl had enticed the legions of dead to follow her up the mountain and into the bounty hunters’ camp. Tom had showed up around the same time, having escaped a terrible death by a stroke of luck. During the ensuing battle, all the bounty hunters had died. Lilah had killed the Motor City Hammer-a cold revenge she had ached for since that horrible day years ago when her sister, little Annie, had died trying to escape from Gameland.

Charlie Matthias had slipped away from the slaughter in his camp and had come upon the fleeing children. He’d beaten Lilah and Nix to the ground and was seconds away from killing them all. Benny had managed to recover the length of black pipe that the Hammer had used to bash in Morgie’s head-and that Charlie and the Hammer had used to beat Nix’s mother to the point of death.

As Charlie went for him, Benny had faked him out and hit him with the pipe. The image, even the feel of the blow, were scorched into his memory. Benny wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“He fell all the way down the mountain, Tom.”

“But you never saw him land? Or heard him land?”

“No…,” Benny said dubiously.

“Damn.”

Nix grabbed Tom’s sleeve. “Why, Tom?”

Tom sighed. “I’ve seen two other men killed like this. Years ago, over by Hogan Mountain. Both of them were bounty hunters who tried to cut a slice of this territory.” He walked over to the dead man and looked at his bloodless face. “I never knew for sure who did it, but rumor had it that both men had been killed by Charlie Pink-eye.”

26

“THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!” BENNY AND NIX SAID IT AT THE SAME TIME.

“I hope you’re right,” said Tom.

“Charlie’s dead,” insisted Benny. “Unless he broke his neck when he fell, he’s a zom. He can’t be alive.”

Tom said nothing. He drew his knife and began cutting the corpse down.

“Tom,” said Nix, “Charlie’s dead. I know he is.”

“Okay,” said Tom. He slashed the ropes that held the man’s arms in place and let the body slide to the ground.

“Tom!” snapped Nix. “He’s dead.”

Tom pulled the man’s torso away from the truck and laid him out straight. “I’m not arguing with you, Nix.”

“But you believe us, don’t you? We saw him fall.”

“I believe you.”

“Then…”

“But you didn’t see him land.” He folded the man’s hands together over his stomach, then straightened and went to peer inside the truck. He rummaged for a moment and came back with a large piece of stained plastic sheeting. Without comment he wrapped the body in it and used rocks to weight down the corners.

“Tom!” barked Benny.

Tom turned angrily. “What do you want me to say, Benny? We didn’t stop to examine that side of the mountain. There could have been a slope or a ledge. There might have been enough thick brush to have slowed his fall. Or he could have fallen a hundred feet and been smashed to junk. I don’t know. We don’t know, and that’s the point. I’ve lived this long without giving in to assumptions.”

“But-,” Nix began, but Tom cut her off.

“No.” He sighed. “Now listen to me, both of you. You want to keep going, right? You don’t want to go back to town.”

“No!” snapped Nix. Benny, less sure about that, shook his head slowly.

“Okay,” said Tom, “then you have to learn to keep an open mind. Assumptions will get you killed. If Charlie is dead, then he’s dead. If he’s alive, then he’s alive. We don’t know for sure, but if we don’t allow the possibility of it, then we could get blindsided. Would either of you like it if Charlie was alive and got the drop on us? If he was willing to torture people and feed them to zoms just for cutting into his trade routes, try to imagine what he’d be willing to do to us. We killed his best friend, we led a zombie army against his crew, we made him an outlaw all through this part of the Ruin, he can’t ever come back to town… and you, Benny, beat him in a fight. You really want to wake up and find him grinning at you in the dark? Do you, Nix?”

They said nothing. Neither was able to.

“I’ve managed to stay alive out here in the Ruin because I’m a realist. I allow the truth to be the truth, no matter how much I might want it to be something else.” He waved his hand at the forest. “This might as well be hell itself out here. That line about everything out here wanting to kill you? It’s true.”

They kept silent. Nix grabbed Benny’s hand and was squeezing it harder than she had during Zak’s funeral.

“I want you both to learn to think and act-and react-the way I do. I want you to survive. You have to be ready for this to be your world too. You’re teenagers now, but out here you’re going to grow up fast. That’s only going to happen, though, if you’re smart and careful and honest with yourself.”

Nix said, “Tom… do you think there might be other people out here like Charlie?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “Or worse.”

“Worse?” She shuddered. “God.”

Benny nodded. “Then I guess we have to be realistic about that, too.”

“I wish I could say otherwise.” He looked up at the sun. “We need to move. I don’t want to sleep outside tonight. Not after a day like this. Brother David will let us bunk down with him, but we have miles to go and…” His words slowed and stopped and for a moment he seemed to stare into the empty air. Then he wheeled around toward the dead man. “Damn! You idiot!”

“What is it?” Nix asked.

Tom didn’t answer. Instead he jerked the sheeting back from the dead man and bent close and examined the corpse’s neck. He rolled him onto his side and peered close at the skull from all angles. Then he sat back on the ground. “Huh…,” he said, looking perplexed.

“What is it?” Nix asked again.

He’s been dead for days, whispered Benny’s inner voice. “Days,” he said aloud.

Tom gave him a sharp look, and then nodded.

Nix still didn’t get it.

“His neck isn’t broken, is it?” Benny asked.

Tom shook his head.

“No bullet in the head?”

Another shake.

“No sliver?”

Nix caught up with what they were saying, and her eyes were wide. “No one quieted him,” she said softly.

“No,” murmured Tom.

“So why didn’t he… come back?”

Tom shook his head slowly. He considered for a moment and then called Lilah to come and examine the body. She stalked over with a pale and silent Chong in her wake.

“Look at this man, Lilah,” Tom said. “Tell me how he died.”

He didn’t explain. Lilah studied Tom’s eyes for a moment, then shrugged and knelt by the corpse. Benny noticed that her examination was almost identical, step by step, with Tom’s. Her reaction, however, was different. She hissed and whipped out her knife and without a moment’s pause drove it into the base of the dead man’s skull.

“Yeow!” cried Benny, lurching backward from the flashing blade.

“Whoa now!” said an unfamiliar voice. They all whirled as a stranger stepped out of the woods right behind Lilah.

27

“LITTLE GAL’S FAST WITH A PIGSTICKER.”

The stranger seemed to have stepped out of nowhere and was in the gap between the rear bumper of the truck and a game trail that vanished into the shadowy woods. He was a tall, broad-shouldered but very thin man in a dusty black coat and wide-brimmed black hat. Long white hair hung like strands of spiderweb from under the brim of his hat, and he wore a smile that twitched and writhed on his thin lips like worms on a hot griddle.

Lilah was so startled that out of pure reflex she snatched up her spear and swung the blunt end toward him. The man was at least sixty, and he looked dried up from the hot sun and bitter winters of the Sierras, but he moved like greased lightning. He tilted out of the swing of the spear, snaked out his left hand in a movement that was so fast Benny could not follow, snatched the spear from her hand, and flung it into the woods. Without pausing, the man shoved Lilah on the shoulder with the flat of his palm and sent her crashing into Nix and Chong. Before Benny could even grab the handle of his bokken, Tom was up from where he had been kneeling, and his glittering katana was in his hand. But then the man did something Benny would have thought to be completely impossible. Before Tom could complete his cut, the man in the black hat had stepped into the arc of his swing, blocked the elbow of Tom’s sword arm, and put the wicked edge of his own knife against the bulge of Tom’s Adam’s apple.

“My, my, my,” said the man softly, his smile never wavering, “ain’t we all in a pickle?”

Instantly Tom pivoted, slapped the knife away from his throat, spun like a dancer, and swung the blade in a lightning-fast circle that stopped a hairbreadth from the man’s nose.

The man looked cross-eyed at the tip of the blade and gave a comical chuckle. He slowly raised his knife and gave the sword a small tap. The ping! of metal against metal lingered in the still air.

“Let’s call it one-all and say the rest of the game was rained out,” suggested the stranger. Without waiting to see if Tom agreed, the man rolled the handle of his knife through his fingers like a magician and slid the ten-inch blade into a sheath that hung from his belt.

Tom did not lower his sword. He cut his eyes left and right to check the woods, then said to Lilah, “You okay?”

She snarled something low and unintelligible and got to her feet, placing her fist threateningly on the butt of her holstered pistol. Nix helped Chong up, and they looked scared and uncertain. Benny had his sword out now, and he shifted to Tom’s right to prepare for a flanking attack.

“Okay,” said Tom, still holding his sword out, “who are you?”

“Would you mind lowering your katana, brother?” The white-haired man held his hands up and kept smiling. The smile did not quite reach the man’s ice-blue eyes. “We’re all friends here.”

Benny noticed that not only had the man avoided Tom’s question, but he knew what a katana was. Interesting.

Tom said, “‘Friend’ is a funny word for someone who attacks a teenage girl.”

The man looked-or pretended to look-shocked. “As I recall it, brother, she tried to rearrange my dentures with the butt end of yonder spear. I gave her a little shove by way of increasing our distance and decreasing the likelihood of my having to eat my dinner without teeth henceforth. Then you and t’other youngster here set to drawing swords on me. I drew my knife only to calm things down.” His look of shock gradually drained away, and his mouth again wore that twitchy smile. He patted his sheathed knife. “And see… I stood down.”

Tom did not lower his sword. Not one inch.

“I asked you your name,” he said quietly.

“These days people seem to have a bunch of names, don’t they?”

Tom said nothing.

“Okay, okay.” The man chuckled. “You’re being serious here ’cause you’re the grown-up and there are kids watching. I respect that. Like a shepherd with his little flock.”

“Name,” prompted Tom.

“When I came yowling into the world I was called John. Biblical name. Means ‘God’s grace,’ which is a kindly thing to name a babe who ain’t yet done a thing worth being remembered for.” He removed his black hat and looked at Nix and Lilah. “I’m happy to make your acquaintance, ladies, and at the same time I beg forgiveness for my rudeness and gruff ways. Please accept my apology, which is earnestly and humbly given.” He bowed low, almost sweeping the ground with his hat. As he rose, he caught Tom with a grin and a wink. “You look like a traveling man, and that sword of yours marks you as a trade guard or a bounty hunter. So you’ve probably heard the name I go by.”

“Which is?”

The man straightened and opened the flap of his coat to reveal the worn black cover of a Bible tucked halfway into an inner pocket. “Preacher Jack.”

Tom’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You’re Preacher Jack?”

“Yes sir, I am, in both flesh and spirit. You have heard of me, then?”

“We know some of the same people,” murmured Tom. “J-Dog, Solomon Jones, Dr. Skillz. Lot of people in my trade pass through Wawona.”

A light suddenly seemed to ignite in Preacher Jack’s blue eyes, and it seemed to Benny as if the man went pale. The preacher looked at Tom, giving him a thorough up-and-down appraisal, and then turned to look at Benny, Lilah, and Nix. Each time his eyes shifted to another person, Benny thought he could see that strange light flicker in the old man’s eyes. All of this happened in the space of a few seconds, but the whole temperature of the day seemed to change. The only thing that stayed the same was the preacher’s wriggling smile.

“Well, well, well. What a blessed day, sir, and if you ever put that meat skewer down I’d like to shake your hand, because I do believe I know who you are. Yes, sir. Tough-looking man, early thirties with black hair and black eyes. Japanese sword and Japanese face to go with it. I would bet my last ration dollar that you are none other than Tom Imura. Tom the Swordsman. Tom of the Woods. Fast Tommy. Tom the Killer.”

Tom slowly lowered his sword. “I don’t use nicknames,” he said softly.

“No, not like most folks,” said Preacher Jack, pushing a strand of white hair from his face. “After First Night, most of the folks who live out here were more than happy to shed their family names the way a serpent will shed its skin. Gave them a chance to stop being who they were. Gave them a chance to be reborn as different people. Sometimes much better people. Sometimes not, but you’d know all about that, Brother Tom.”

Tom merely grunted as he resheathed his sword. Everyone else seemed to let out a breath at the same time, and Benny lowered his bokken. Not that he could have done much. It still amazed and baffled him how this grizzled old man could be as lightning fast as Tom. And besides that, why was a preacher able to handle a knife like a professional fighter?

“Most of those nicknames,” Tom said, “were hung on me by people who don’t really know me.”

Benny caught the careful way his brother was speaking. Tom may have put his sword away, but he was still on guard.

“I’ll call you whatever name pleases you, brother,” said Preacher Jack, holding out his hand. “I’ve heard so many interesting and fabulous things about you that I would like to shake you by the hand, yes sir I would.”

Tom ignored the hand and used his chin to point to the dead man. “You know anything about this?”

Preacher Jack looked at his own hand as if surprised to find it hanging out there in the air. He gave a rueful shrug and used that hand to adjust his broad-brimmed hat. The preacher walked slowly past Benny and looked down at the corpse. Nix and Lilah stood on the other side of him, giving him guarded glares. Chong had his hands dug into his pockets and was staring at the dirt between his shoes.

“The Children have been at him?” said Preacher Jack.

“Children?” Nix blurted. “We didn’t-”

“No,” Benny said, “he means the Children of Lazarus. Zoms.”

Preacher Jack winced as if Benny had squirted him with lemon juice.

“Ooooh… you’re right and you’re wrong, young sir. Right, in that it was the Children of Lazarus who did for this poor man; but wrong in that ‘zom’ is an ugly word that decent folk won’t use.”

“It’s just short for zombie,” said Benny.

“I know what it’s short for, little brother,” said Preacher Jack, “but no part of that word should be bandied about. The word comes from Nzambi, the name of a West African snake god. Do you say that you speak that word to worship a pagan animal spirit? Or do you use it as a twist on sombra, the Louisiana Creole word for ghost? Because that would be like acknowledging the power of the devil himself here on earth.”

Benny was confused. Preacher Jack’s voice was as charming as an ice cream seller, but his eyes were as cold as winter frost.

“I-,” Benny began, but Nix cut him off.

“My mother taught me that words only mean what we want them to mean, mister.” Her voice was cold and precise.

“Oh, that’s a nice sentiment, but it’s a crooked mile from the truth. Reality is that words are full of power. The good clean power of the Lord and dark, twisted magic.”

“Everybody uses the word ‘zom,’” said Benny, though he knew that wasn’t true. Brother David never used it and didn’t like to hear it, and Benny had no problem editing himself around the monk… but now he felt like yelling “Zom-zomzom!” at the top of his lungs.

Preacher Jack’s dark eyes twinkled. “The word is offensive to many, and to the-”

Tom cut him off. “No offense is intended. We can’t speak for anyone else, but if offense is taken from what my brother and his friends say, then that burden is on the listener.”

“Is it indeed?” Preacher Jack’s smile never wavered. “That’s a no harm, no foul way of seeing things, Brother Tom, and I respect it. However, it is in the nature of free will that we can agree to disagree.”

Tom ignored that, and instead said, “Do you know anything about what happened to this man?”

The preacher knelt beside the dead man. He made some indistinct humming sounds for a moment, then cocked an eye up at Tom. “What in particular do you want to know, Brother Tom? The man has received the ministrations of the Children of Lazarus and has gone to his maker. He’s been quieted courtesy of the white-haired young miss’s knife. I’m not sure there’s more of this story to tell.”

“Lilah didn’t quiet him,” blurted Nix. “He never reanimated.”

Preacher Jack swiveled his head like a praying mantis to look at her. “Now is that a fact, girlie-girl?”

“Don’t call me that,” Nix snapped.

“Oh, I am sorry. Is that phrase offensive to you?”

Oh boy, thought Benny. He wanted to brain this guy with his bokken.

Before Nix could serve up an acid reply, Tom said, “When we found this man, it was clear he’d been dead for at least a day, and he did not reanimate. I’m asking if you know anything about that.”

“No, Brother Tom,” said Preacher Jack as he stood, “I can’t say as I do.”

“Any idea who fed him to the dead?”

Benny noted that Tom used “dead” instead of “zoms.”

“That is also a mystery to me,” said Preacher Jack. “Why on earth would anyone do such a thing?”

“Any idea who he was?” Tom asked. “I hear you’re living out at Wawona. Did he come through there?”

“I never laid eyes on this poor sinner before.”

Tom almost smiled. “Sinner? If you haven’t seen him before, then how do you know he was a sinner?”

“We’re all sinners, Brother Tom. Each and every living, breathing resident of this purgatory. Even humble men of the cloth such as my own self. Sinners all. Only the Children of Lazarus are pure of heart and immaculate of soul.”

“How’s that work?” asked Benny skeptically. “They eat people.”

“They are the meek raised up from death to inherit this new Garden of Eden.” He opened his arms wide to include the green and overgrown expanse of the Rot and Ruin. “They have been reborn in the blood of the old world, washed clean of their sins, and they now walk in the light of redemption. It is only us, the dwindling few, who cling to old ways of sin and heresy and godlessness.”

“Um…,” Benny began, but realized that he was no candidate for a religious debate.

Lilah stepped forward. Her eyes looked a bit jumpy, and Benny realized that she was probably unnerved by having her weapon taken away from her so easily. The only other person who had defeated her was Charlie Pink-eye. “You are saying that we are all sinners? That we deserve whatever happens to us?”

“It’s not what I am saying, little miss; it’s what the Good Book says.”

“Being eaten by zoms is in the Bible?” Nix asked, giving him a frank stare; and Benny liked that she leaned on the word “zoms.”

“Not in words that crude.” He patted the book inside his coat. “But yes… the fate of all mankind is laid out in chapter and verse.”

“Where?” demanded Lilah. “Where does it say that in the Bible?”

Something shifted in the preacher’s eyes. Benny thought it was like a snake looking out through the eyeholes of a mask.

“It’s in there for those who read the scriptures,” the preacher answered quietly. “But I bet that you’ve never taken the time to-”

“You’d lose that bet, mister.”

Everyone turned. It was Chong who had spoken up. He had retrieved Lilah’s spear from the bushes and handed it to her. She accepted it without glancing at him.

Preacher Jack gave Chong an up-and-down evaluation with his eyes and dismissed him with a twitch of his smiling mouth. “I doubt that, son. From what I heard, this young lady’s been living hard and wild in these mountains, far from any church or congregation.”

“How does that matter? Does a sheepdog stop being a sheepdog if there’s no herd or shepherd?” Chong gave his dry lips a nervous lick. “Don’t raise theological questions unless you’re prepared to debate them.”

Preacher Jack’s smile still did not dim. “Well, well, well… what have you stumbled upon, Jack? A Sunday School class trip all the way out here in the Rot and Ruin?”

“Hardly that,” said Tom quietly.

“Then what?”

Chong, Lilah, Nix, and Benny all started to speak, but Tom snapped his fingers, a sound as sharp and urgent as a pistol shot. He gave a hand gesture, a palms-down press as if he was patting the air. It was one of the warrior hand signals he had taught them over the last seven months. Be silent but be ready.

“We’re out here on personal business,” said Tom mildly. “Family business. We don’t discuss that business with strangers.”

“Is that what we are, Brother Tom?” asked Preacher Jack with a hint of reproach in his voice. “Are we strangers?”

Tom said, “If we’d met in town or at Wawona, or in the sanctuary of one of the way stations, then I suppose I’d feel comfortable enough to swap stories. That’s not the case. I find a man tortured and fed to the dead. That’s suspicious. Then you step out of nowhere.”

“I-”

Tom stopped him with a raised hand. “Let me finish. I offer no hostility and mean no disrespect, but I am not in a position to trust a stranger.” He nodded toward Benny and the others. “Manners are going to have to take a backseat to common sense and safety.”

“So I see.”

“I’m going to ask one more time… do you know anything about who this man is, why he was killed, or why he didn’t reanimate?”

Preacher Jack hooked his thumbs into his belt, and Benny noted that this put the heel of his right hand on the pommel of his knife. Having seen how fast the man could draw that knife, Benny had no illusions that the gesture was accidental. He carefully tightened his grip on the bokken.

“I don’t believe that I have any of the answers you seek,” murmured the man in the dusty coat.

“Then I think we’re done here.”

“Done with me or done with this poor sinner?”

“With both.” Tom took a small step back.

Preacher Jack nodded. “Perhaps we’ll meet again under more pleasant circumstances, Brother Tom.”

“That would be nice, sir, but unlikely. You see, we’re heading east.”

For the first time Preacher Jack’s smile flickered. “What? You’re leaving these mountains? When will you be coming back?”

“I don’t expect that we will.”

That wiped the smile completely from the preacher’s face. He looked disappointed and even a little bit angry at this news, and Benny watched Tom as his brother watched the change in Preacher Jack’s expression.

“Something wrong?” asked Tom, his own face and voice neutral.

The smile returned, tentatively at first and then with all its twitchy vibrancy. “Wrong? Why, no, except that it would surely have been a blessing to sit down, break bread, and try this whole meeting again in a more civilized way. I fear we got ourselves off on the wrong foot here. Knives and hard words and all.”

Now Tom smiled, and it looked genuine, at least to Benny.

“Yeah.” Tom laughed. “I guess this wasn’t the most genial encounter.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, it could have been worse.”

“Yes,” said Preacher Jack with a glitter in his eyes, “it surely could have.”

They stood there, eight feet apart with a dead man lying on the ground between them, and Benny had the impression that there were all sorts of conversations going on at the same time. Words that were not being spoken but that were mutually understood. Except to Benny and, from the look on her face, Nix as well.

Preacher Jack bowed to Nix and Lilah. “If by word or deed I have done anything to offend you fine ladies,” he said, removing his hat and bowing low once more, “then I am truly sorry and most humbly beg forgiveness. The Ruin is not a charm school, and in hard times we often forget who we are and where we came from.”

Lilah said nothing, but her honey-colored eyes lost some of their intensity. Nix gave a single curt bob of her head.

Preacher Jack turned to Benny. “Peace to you, little brother.”

“Um… yeah, sure. Back atcha.”

Preacher Jack ignored Chong altogether, but he fixed Tom with a knowing smile. “I won’t offer my hand again, Brother Tom, for fear that it will once more be left hanging in the wind. So I’ll tip my hat and bid you all a farewell. May the Good Lord keep you from snakes and snares and the evil that men do.”

With that the preacher replaced his hat, tugged his lapels to adjust the hang of his jacket, and walked back into the woods, where he vanished so quickly into the shadows that the whole encounter might have been a dream. Tom and the others stood where they were for a full five minutes, listening first for Preacher Jack’s soft footfalls and then to the forest as the ordinary sounds one by one returned.

Benny let out a chestful of air and turned to Tom. “What was that all about?”

“I really don’t know,” said Tom.

Benny could see that Tom was troubled. He followed his brother over to the edge of the road, and they both squatted to study the dirt of the game trail along which Preacher Jack had gone. Benny watched as Tom used a twig to measure the man’s shoe impressions. “Good-quality hiking shoes,” murmured Tom. “Pre-First Night, which means they’re either scavenged or purchased for a tidy stack of ration dollars.”

Benny nodded and bent low to study the pattern of the shoes, just as Tom had taught him. The tread was pretty well worn, and there was a crescent-shaped nick out of the right heel.

“That nick is pretty distinctive,” Benny said, earning him an approving nod from Tom.

“It’s as good as a fingerprint. Remember it.” Then Tom called the others over to look at it too, pointing out the unique elements of each sole.

“Why bother?” asked Chong. “Is he our enemy?”

“I don’t know what he is,” admitted Tom, “but out here it’s a good idea to observe as many details as you can. You never know what’s going to be useful.”

“Was that really Preacher Jack?” asked Nix.

Tom rose and squinted down the game trail. “Well… he fits the description Dr. Skillz gave me. At least physically.”

“Is it okay if I say that he was the single creepiest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been face-to-face with decaying zoms?”

Tom nodded. “Yeah, Nix, you can say that and mean it.”

“I don’t like him,” growled Lilah, her fists clenched tightly around the shaft of her spear. “If I see him again…” She let the rest hang in the air.

“I think it’s a good idea if we all watch our backs,” suggested Tom.

“Are you sure he’s really a preacher?” asked Chong.

Tom shook his head. “I’m not sure of anything about him. Not one thing.”

He looked up at the sky.

Benny started to ask something, but Tom shook his head.

“We’re burning daylight,” Tom said. “We need to get to the way station, and I need to think while we’re doing it. We’ll talk then. For now, we’ll go at Scout pace. That means we walk two hundred paces, run three hundred, walk two hundred. It’ll chew up the miles.”

And it’ll keep us too busy to ask questions, whispered Benny’s inner voice. Smart.

“Nix-this is up to you. Can you handle the pace? No screwing around: yes or no?”

“Yes,” she said with real fire. “And I promise to tell you if I can’t keep up.”

Without another word, Tom turned toward the southeast and set off.

The others followed. Running and walking and running. They didn’t have time to ask questions, but about ten thousand of them occurred to Benny, and he knew that the same questions would be occurring to Nix.

Who was Preacher Jack?

Was he connected to the dead man? Who had killed the man? And why? Could Charlie Pink-eye still be alive? Was he out in these same hills? Did he know they were out here?

And, maybe more important than any of those questions: How come the dead man had not reanimated? Since First Night, everyone who died, no matter how they died, came back to life.

Why hadn’t he?

What did it mean?

The questions burned in Benny’s mind as he ran.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

How many people are still alive out there?

Tom says that there’s a network of about five hundred bounty hunters, traders, way-station monks, and scavengers in central California. And maybe as many as two hundred loners living in isolated and remote spots. Sounds like a lot, but it’s not. Our history teacher said that California used to be the most populous state and that there used to be almost forty million people living here.

28

THEY LEFT THE OLD ROAD AND FOUND WHAT USED TO BE A HIGHWAY, so they turned and followed that. Despite the fact that his toe was hurting like crazy and his clothes were thoroughly soaked with sweat, Benny still mustered the energy to look left and right, left and right, checking every shadow under every tree for some sign of movement that could be either zoms or worse.

Charlie’s dead, he told himself, but his inner voice-the less emotional and more rational aspect of his mind-replied, You don’t know that.

He cut looks at Nix, who was also sweating heavily and yet seemed able to keep going, despite the pain and the injury. It wasn’t the first time that her strength amazed and humbled him.

They ran and walked, ran and walked.

During one of the walking times, Benny leaned to Nix. “What the heck was that?”

“Preacher Jack,” she said, and shivered. “I feel like I need a bath.”

Benny counted on his fingers. “We know-what-seven religious people? I mean people in the business.”

“You mean clerics? There’s the four in town, Pastor Kellogg, Father Shannon, Rabbi Rosemann, and Imam Murad…”

“… and the monks at the way station: Brother David, Sister Shanti, and Sister Sarah. Seven,” finished Benny. “Except for the monks, who are a little, y’know…” He tapped his temple and rolled his eyes.

“Touched by God,” Nix said. “Isn’t that the phrase Tom uses?”

“Right, except for them, everyone else is pretty okay. I mean the monks are okay too, but they’re loopy from living out here in the Ruin. But even with different religions, different churches, they’re all pretty much the kind of people you want to hang with during a real wrath-of-God moment.”

“Not him, though,” said Nix, nodding along with where Benny was going with this. “He’s scarier than the zoms.”

“‘Zoms’ is a bad word, girlie-girl,” Benny said in a fair imitation of Preacher Jack’s oily voice.

“Eww… don’t!” Nix punched him on the arm.

They walked another few paces as the road bent around a hill.

“Weird day,” Benny said.

“Weird day,” Nix agreed.

Around the bend were dozens of cars and trucks that had been pushed to the side of the main road, which left a clear path down the center. Some of the cars had tumbled into the drainage ditch that ran along one side. Others were smashed together. There were skeletons in a few of them.

“Who pushed the cars out of the way?” asked Chong.

“Probably a tank,” said Tom. “Or a bulldozer. Before they nuked the cities, back when they thought this was a winnable war.” He gestured to the line of broken cars, many of them nearly invisible behind clumps of shrubbery. “This is a well-traveled route. Traders and other people out here. All these cars have been checked for zoms a hundred times.”

Nix wasn’t fooled, and she gave Tom a sly smile. “Which doesn’t mean they’re safe. We have to check them every time, don’t we?”

Tom gave her an approving nod. “That’s the kind of thinking-”

“-that’s going to keep us alive,” finished Benny irritably. “Yeah, we pretty much get that.”

To Tom, Nix said, “He’s cranky because he didn’t think of it first.”

“Yes, I did,” Benny lied.

They moved on.

As the sun began edging toward the western tree line, they crested a hill and looked down a long dirt side road to where an old gas station sat beneath a weeping willow.

“Take a closer look,” suggested Tom, handing Benny a pair of high-power binoculars.

Benny focused the lenses and studied the scene. The surrounding vegetation was dense with overgrowth, but there was a broad concrete pad around the cluster of small buildings. An ancient billboard stood against the wall of trees. It had long ago been whitewashed, and someone had written hundreds of lines of scripture on it. Rain had faded the words so that only a few were readable.

“This is Brother David’s place?” asked Chong in a leaden voice. Between the catastrophe with the rhino and finding the dead man, and then the weird encounter with Preacher Jack, Chong seemed to have lost his humor and virtually all trace of emotion. He barely spoke, and when he did his voice lacked inflection. It was like listening to a sleepwalker.

Tom caught the sound and cut a look at Benny, who nodded.

Tom mouthed the words, “Keep your eye on him,” and Benny nodded again.

“Yup,” said Benny. “He was the first monk I ever met out here. It’s him and two girls. Sister Sarah and Sister Shanti.”

“And Old Roger,” added Nix.

“Who?” Chong asked.

“He’s a zom they take care of. Remember I told you?”

Chong nodded but didn’t comment.

They descended along a path that ran beside a mammoth line of white boulders dumped there ages ago by a glacier. A thin stream of water trickled between the rocks, but it was so small that it made no sound. Chong lagged behind the rest, and Benny slowed to keep pace with him. When Benny caught a look at Chong’s face, he almost missed his step.

There were tears at the corners of Chong’s dark eyes.

“Hey, dude. What’s-?”

Chong touched Benny’s arm. “I’m really sorry, man.”

Benny shook his head and started to protest.

“No,” Chong interrupted, “I should never have come. You guys are better off without me.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Benny said, though his voice lacked total conviction. “Besides, this way you get to spend a couple of days with Lilah-”

Chong dismissed that with a derisive snort. “Ever since the rhino thing, I’m less than dog crap to her.”

“C’mon, dude, she’s like that with everyone. I mean, she’s been trying to quiet me for a coupla days now.”

Chong merely shook his head. “I spoiled everything.”

“No way. Don’t even go there.”

“I’m sorry I came,” Chong insisted, but this time he said it more to himself. Benny was fishing for something encouraging to say when Tom stopped them all with a raised fist.

He scanned the terrain for a moment, then waved everyone over.

“Is everything okay?” Benny asked.

“Let’s find out,” Tom said guardedly.

Tom headed down the slope and the others followed. For Benny this was the first moment today that wasn’t wrapped in tension. He thought Brother David was halfway to being crazy, but he was one of the nicest people Benny had ever met, and the two girls with him were sweet-natured and pretty. All three of them were good cooks, too, and even after everything he’d seen, Benny was sure he could eat a full-size rhinoceros.

They came down onto the concrete pad, on which the single gas pump stood like a great rusted tombstone to a dead culture. Tom knocked loudly on the pump’s metal casing. The echoes bounced off the hills and came faintly back to them before melting into silence.

There was no response. Tom narrowed his eyes. “Stay here.” He walked carefully to the front door of the station and knocked. Nothing. “Brother David?” he called.

Absolutely nothing.

Scowling, Tom waved the others over and they approached with great caution, their weapons in their hands.

“Be ready,” Tom said as he reached for the door handle. It turned easily, and the door swung inward. Tom drew his pistol and moved silently inside. The others crept after him. Lilah broke to Tom’s right. Benny slipped in next, with Nix at his back, and they shifted to Tom’s left.

However, there was no need of caution.

“Where is everyone?” whispered Nix.

Tom shook his head and took a few tentative steps into the room.

Most of the front part of the station was set up for trading and an attempt at comfort. There were folding chairs, a wood-stove, and a table for meals. Benny, Tom, and Nix had stayed here several times and eaten the modest but well-cooked food offered by the Children of God; and Tom always brought some supplies as gifts.

The rest of the way station had been converted into living quarters for the monk and the two female disciples. There were bedrolls and plastic milk crates that served as bureaus and night tables. Sheets were strung on clothesline to provide marginal privacy. Garlands of flowers and herbs were hung from pegs set into the walls.

“Where are they?” Nix asked again.

“Lilah,” Tom said, “check the sheds.”

She nodded and slipped out the door without a word. It annoyed Benny a bit that Tom never asked him to do something like that, but this wasn’t the time to start an argument.

Nix crossed to the stove and looked into the pots, then held her hand above the burners. “It’s cold, but there’s food in the pots. Hasn’t gone bad yet.”

“Teacups on the table, too,” said Benny. “And it looks like all their stuff’s back there. That’s Sister Shanti’s traveling bag on her bed. Think they went out for a walk? A day trip or something?”

Tom shook his head. “No… looks like they just got up and walked out.” He knelt and picked up a pair of reading glasses. One of the lenses was cracked from side to side. “Brother David’s.” He frowned. “And there’s more. I sent a load of supplies here. Carpet coats, tents, cooking gear, extra rations, and some weapons. I don’t see any of it here.”

The door opened and Lilah came in. “Someone broke the lock on Old Roger’s shed. He’s gone… tracks lead east.”

“How long?” asked Tom.

“Late morning.”

Tom nodded again. “I think that’s when everyone left.”

They stood in the dusty sunlight, thinking that through, silently letting the implications shout at them.

“Okay… we don’t have enough daylight left to get back to town,” said Tom, “and I sure as hell don’t want to sleep up in the hills tonight. Too many weird things going on.”

“I’ll second that,” mumbled Benny.

“So we have two choices. We hole up here and fortify this place, or we push on to Sunset Hollow. If we run most of the way, we can make it by full dark.”

Benny was already shaking his head. Sunset Hollow was where he and Tom had lived before First Night. It was where the zombies of their parents had been kept by Tom for fourteen years; and it was where they were buried now. On one hand it had a high wall and a fence they could lock; on the other hand, Benny was sure that if he went back there he would go totally ape crazy.

“Nix can’t do all that running,” he said, fishing for a reasonable excuse. “And Chong has to go home tomorrow.”

“Don’t make this about me,” said Nix defiantly. “I’ll outrun your narrow butt any day of the week, Benny Imura.”

Benny winced.

“Stay here,” voted Lilah. “Five of us can hold this place.”

“There’s no back exit,” Tom replied.

Lilah considered that and said nothing. She turned and looked at the others, then frowned. “Where is Chong?”

They all turned to the door, each of them realizing that Chong had not come inside with them.

“Was he outside when you checked around back?”

She nodded but immediately rushed outside. Tom was a half step behind her.

Chong was nowhere in sight.

29

“THIS DAY CANNOT GET ANY WORSE,” TOM SAID UNDER HIS BREATH.

Benny shot him a look. It was the kind of statement that he would never dare make because the universe always seemed to take it as a challenge. He cupped his hands and called Chong’s name.

The echoes bounced around and came back empty.

“Oh, come on,” growled Tom with mounting frustration. “Somebody that smart can’t possibly be this dumb.”

“Maybe he went somewhere to go to the bathroom,” suggested Benny. “Chong’s pretty shy about that stuff… so maybe he-”

“Went to the bathroom where? In his damn parents’ house? There’s an outhouse twenty feet away, and there are bushes everywhere he could squat behind.”

“He was pretty upset,” said Nix. “Maybe he just wanted to be alone.”

Tom turned to her and gave her a long, withering stare. “Alone? In the Rot and bloody Ruin?”

She flushed bright red and immediately started calling Chong’s name again. Tom did too. Only Lilah stayed silent. Her damaged larynx made it impossible for her to shout loud enough to do any good; but her honey-colored eyes missed nothing as she turned in a full circle and surveyed the surrounding forest.

Lilah shot Nix an evil look. “Are all boys this stupid?”

“Hey!” said Benny.

Nix didn’t answer. She called Chong’s name again, shouting it as loud as she could, even though it hurt her injury to do it. If he could hear the shouts, Chong did not answer.

Tom cursed with great vehemence for several seconds. “I am so going to kill him. I’m going to drag him back to town and chain him to his own front porch.”

“I’ll help,” offered Benny, who was as angry as he was scared.

Tom looked from the tree line to the sun and back again. “Damn it.” He turned to the others. “Okay, everyone spread out. Find Chong’s footprints. He has those wedge-soled boots. Keep your weapons in hand and stay in sight with at least one other person. You find anything, call out. Go!”

The four of them moved away from the front of the station as if they were propelled outward by an explosion.

He’s gone, whispered Benny’s inner voice. Be prepared for that.

Benny didn’t want to believe it, but his mind was replaying his last conversation with Chong, and Chong’s last words: “I should never have come.”

“Come on, you monkey-banger,” Benny muttered aloud as he scanned the dusty ground and picked his way through the broken concrete. “Stop screwing around.”

Then he found something that froze the blood in his veins. He straightened and yelled as loud as he could.

“HERE!”

Everyone came running. Benny saw the flash of sunlight on Tom’s sword as his brother ran up from his left, and the glitter on the wicked edge of Lilah’s spear as she closed in from the right. Nix came puffing up behind him. They all stopped and stared. No one said a word. The words had already been said.

They were scraped onto the side of a slab of concrete pushed almost vertical by tree roots. Chong had left them a message. Two words.

I’M SORRY.

Benny looked at what lay beyond the slab of concrete. Miles of white rock left by a glacier. White rock baking in the sunlight. The row of rocks split off into five separate threads that led high into the mountains and vanished into the gloom gathering under the forest canopy.

Benny remembered a basic fact of tracking that Tom had taught him: Rubber-soled shoes don’t leave tracks on rock.

There were five possible trails, and there were four of them. The sun was already behind the treetops, and it would be dark in two hours.

With a feeling of sinking horror, Benny realized that Chong, smart as ever, had picked a path away from them that was impossible to follow. In grief and shame, he had run away.

And there was nothing they could do about it.

30

LOU CHONG RAN AS FAST AS HE COULD OVER THE ROCKS. HIS HEART pounded, but it also ached. Benny would hate him for this. So would Nix and Tom. Lilah, however… well, Chong figured that Lilah would be happy to have him gone. Lilah despised weakness, and Chong felt that “weak” had quickly become his defining characteristic. At least out here in the Ruin.

He felt stupid and ashamed. He should never have agreed to come, and though he briefly thought that Tom was just as much to blame for even suggesting this trip, Chong believed the stuff that had gone wrong was all his own fault. He was fairly certain that Tom was on the verge of turning back, which meant that Chong would be responsible for screwing up what Nix and Benny really wanted. And for denying Lilah the freedom that she craved.

That was the process of logic that had spurred him to run, though now, deep in the woods, he could see that the logic was as thin as tissue paper and filled with holes. He remembered one of his father’s countless lessons about logical thinking: “When you add emotion to any equation, you can’t trust the results.” Shame and guilt were emotions, and the sum at the end of his logical calculations was as untrustworthy as his actions back on the road when the rhino first appeared.

“I’m not cut out for the Ruin,” he told himself as he ran. “I’m nobody’s idea of Mr. Adventure.” His words were pitched to sound funny, but his heart was breaking.

As he ran he made himself remember everything that Mr. Feeney had taught them in the Scouts and what he had read in books about the forests of the Sierra Nevadas. All the tricks about tracking and stalking. And about how to foil pursuit. There was a lot of that in books. The Leatherstocking Tales and old Louis L’Amour novels from long before First Night.

Chong knew about doubling back and leaving false trails. He knew how to circle around and cut his own trail. He knew how to keep from scuffing the rocks. Several times he jumped down from the rocks and ran into the tall grass, then carefully walked backward in his own footprints so that anyone following would think he ran into the field. When he reached the forest, he found a broken branch that still had some leaves on it, and as he ran he whisked the ground behind him to wipe out his trail.

Maybe Tom or Lilah could find him, but he didn’t think so. If they were alone and had all the time in the world, sure… but they had to watch out for Benny and Nix.

Chong even smiled to himself with how clever he was being. It felt good to do something right, even if the others would hate him for it. Better that than having them hurt again because of him. Especially if Charlie Pink-eye was still alive. It would be better for Benny and the others to keep going east, to get far beyond the reach of that maniac.

Chong knew enough about orienteering to know which way was northwest. And even though he hated physical exertion, he could climb a tree and lash himself to the trunk to wait out the night.

As it grew dark he slowed to a walk. The canopy of leaves was so dense he could catch only glimpses of the sky. Sunset couldn’t be more than an hour and a half away. It was time to find shelter.

He saw an upslope and took that, reasoning that high ground would give him a better view to help him pick a likely tree for the night, and allow him to see if he was indeed alone in this section of the forest. Chong was sure he could outrun a zom, but if one came after him, the creature would simply follow him to whatever tree he chose and stand there until the world ended. It could outwait him.

“No thanks,” he told himself, and almost jumped at the sound of his own voice. He drew his bokken. He was not as strong a swordsman as Benny, or as fast as Nix, but Chong knew that he was far from helpless, and holding the weapon recharged his confidence.

At the top of the hill he turned in a full circle. Shadows clustered around the base of each tree, and every time the wind blew Chong imagined he could see a ghastly shape lumbering his way. But he saw no zoms.

He spotted a stately cottonwood tree with a couple of branches low enough to grab and many more high up among the leaves. He ran down the hill and began climbing the slope atop of which was the cottonwood. He looked left and right, checking his surroundings, filling his mind with data, being smart and careful.

But he walked right past the two figures standing in the dense shadows beneath a massive old spruce. They, however, saw him.

Tom, Lilah, Nix, and Benny were miles away. Much too far away to hear Lou Chong’s screams.

31

BENNY STOPPED AS MOVEMENT CAUGHT HIS EYE FAR TO THE NORTH. A flock of birds leaped out of the distant trees like a cloud of locusts. They swirled and eddied in the air and then gradually settled back down among the dark green leaves.

“What was that?” asked Nix, catching the sudden jerk of Benny’s head but missing what he was looking at. She was kneeling among the rocks sixty yards from the way station, trying to determine if a smudge could be one of Chong’s footprints.

“Just some birds,” he said. Even so, Benny continued to stare.

Lilah climbed up on the rocks from the other side. “Where?”

Benny pointed. The trees were still for a five count, and then the birds jumped up again. As a swarm they moved a hundred yards south and settled in different trees.

“Lilah,” Benny asked, “d’you think-?”

Before he could finish, Lilah turned and clapped her hands over her head several times to attract Tom’s attention. He was on the far side of the station, but he came at a run.

“What is it?”

Benny described what they’d seen. Tom didn’t immediately reply. He looked at the sun again and the long shadows cast by the western line of trees, then he turned and studied the area where Lilah had pointed.

“It’s got to be Chong,” decided Tom. “Direction’s right. Could be heading for the northern trade route.”

“Yeah,” Benny agreed. Tom had made them study every route and path in the Ruin.

Nix chewed her lip. “Tom, do you think Chong’s trying to go back home?”

“Sure. Where else would he go? The question has always been how. There are fifty ways to get to Mountainside from here, and all we know for sure is that he isn’t going the way we came.”

“Preacher Jack’s out there too,” said Nix.

Tom didn’t reply, but the muscles at the corners of his jaw bunched and flexed.

“C’mon,” cried Benny, grabbing at his bokken. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go.”

“Sorry, kiddo,” said Tom, “but you and Nix would slow me down too much. It’s going to be dark soon, and I’m a lot faster alone.”

It was true, but Benny tried to come up with an argument to get around it.

“I’ll go,” said Lilah.

Tom shook his head. “No. You’re tough, Lilah, but I can’t allow it.” Lilah stiffened at the word “allow,” but Tom didn’t back down. “I admit that you’re good. You survived out here for years… but I’m still better at this. I’m bigger and faster, and I’ve been hunting these mountains for fourteen years. Besides, the Chongs left their son in my care. This is my fault, and it’s mine to make right. I also don’t want to argue about this. I want you to stay here with Nix and Benny. You can help them fortify this place. Remember, Sally Two-Knives is due through here tonight, and J-Dog and Dr. Skillz are in the area. Wait for them. Are we agreed?”

Nix, Benny, and Lilah all began yelling at once, telling Tom why they thought the plan was bad, arguing why they should all go, and growling at him for treating them like they were helpless. Tom took about five seconds of it before his face darkened.

“Okay-enough!”

Silence dropped over them like a net.

“This isn’t a debate. The three of you will damn well stay here and do as you’re told. That means you, too, Lilah.”

Three sets of hostile eyes glared raw heat at him. However, what Tom said next changed their looks from hostility to fear.

“If I’m not back in twenty-four hours, Lilah… I want you to take Benny and Nix back home.”

“What?” demanded Nix.

“Hold on a frickin’ minute,” snapped Benny.

“Okay,” said Lilah.

Benny and Nix whipped their heads around and looked at her liked she’d just betrayed them. Lilah’s face was a mask of stone.

Into the silence, Tom said, “Good.” He patted his pockets to reassure himself that he had everything he needed, then fished out two of his three bottles of cadaverine and handed them to Benny.

“I don’t plan to be gone long enough to need this much,” said Tom. “You might.”

“Tom, I-,” Benny began, but Tom cupped him around the back of the neck and pulled him forward. He kissed Benny on the forehead.

“Stand tough, little brother. You’ve learned a lot in the last seven months. Use it. Be warrior smart.”

Benny nodded. “Warrior smart.”

Tom hugged Nix and patted Lilah’s cheek. “All of you,” he said, “warrior smart.”

They nodded.

Tom turned and began running along the line of glacial rocks. He moved with an oiled grace that was deceptively fast. Within seconds he was nearly to the tree line; within minutes he was gone, swallowed up by the darkening forest as the sun tumbled over the edge of the world.

PART THREE. HARD LUCK AND TROUBLE

It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love.

This is how the whole scheme of things works.

All good things are difficult to achieve;

and bad things are very easy to get.

– RENÉ DESCARTES FRENCH MATHEMATICIAN

PHILOSOPHER, AND SCIENTIST, 1596-1650

32

AFTER TOM LEFT, LILAH TURNED TO BENNY AND NIX. “IF WE’RE GOING to spend the night here, let’s make this place secure.”

“Tell us what to do,” said Nix.

The first thing they did was find string and lengths of rope and construct a network of lines around the gas station. Lilah set Benny to work gathering cans from the rubbish heap out back and buckets full of small stones. Nix used a hammer and awl from Brother David’s tools to punch holes through the cans. Then Lilah strung the cans on the taut lines and filled each one with a few stones. She strung the lines at various heights so that any zom would walk right into them, and the sound of the stones rattling in the cans would be clear and loud. The strings of cans would also hopefully trip up a human sneaking up in the dark. There was some starlight but no moon, and the tripwires were virtually invisible once the sun was down.

They hung towels and sheets over the window to block out any light. Lilah gathered wood for the stove.

There wasn’t much else they could do, and so they settled down to wait.

At first it was merely tense. Benny worried about Chong and worried about Tom. But as time wore on he began to feel irritable and jumpy.

“I wish Tom was here,” he complained.

Lilah, who was cleaning her pistol again, shot him a look. “He would be if Chong had not been stupid.”

“Okay,” Benny snapped, “so Chong made a few mistakes… how about laying off him?”

“Why? He has caused every problem since we left town.”

“Chong’s just scared, okay? You going to tell me you never made any mistakes because you were scared?”

Something seemed to move behind Lilah’s eyes, but her voice was cold and steady. “Yes, I made mistakes. But they never put anyone else in danger.”

“That’s because you never had anyone else,” Benny said savagely, and immediately regretted his words as he saw the hurt register in Lilah’s eyes. “Oh, crap. Look, Lilah, I didn’t mean-”

She gave him a murderous look, flung open the door, and went outside. The sun was a fiery dragon’s eye peering through the trees.

Benny stared at the stiffness of her retreating back until Nix came and stood over him, blocking the view. The disapproval on her face was eloquent. Benny closed his eyes.

“What was that all about?” she asked.

“I can’t believe I said that to her.”

Nix punched him in the chest. Not hard, but hard enough to make her point. She turned and walked away.

Benny’s inner voice said, Smooth.

“Shut up,” he muttered.

It was nearly full dark before Lilah came back into the house. She ignored Benny completely and went to the table and continued with the process of cleaning her gun as if nothing had happened. Nix locked the door and pulled the curtains over the window.

They built a small fire in the stove. They made and ate some food. They drank water from their canteens.

They slowly went crazy from waiting.

Lilah and Nix barely spoke to Benny. At first he felt bad about that, but as the evening wore on he began to resent them for it. An hour crawled by. Outside crickets pulsed in the grass, and a dry wind began to disturb the treetops.

They listened to it as they ate more of the beans and rice. Nix was the cook, and she added some onions, garlic, and spices from Brother David’s meager stores. Lilah could cook, but no one alive wanted to eat what she prepared; Benny could cook too, but he had no sense for seasoning. To him spices began and ended with salt and hot sauce.

Another half hour limped by them. Lilah gathered up every knife in the way station and began cleaning them. She placed them in a neat row.

“Are we just going to sit here?” Benny griped as he glared across the table at Lilah.

Nix gave him a cold look and flapped her hand. “There’s the door. No one’s forcing you to stay here.”

“Very funny.”

Lilah kicked the table very hard. “Nix is right. You are welcome to leave if you think you can do something useful.”

“Maybe I should.”

“Maybe you should,” Lilah agreed, getting in his face.

“Maybe you should,” Benny fired back. “We probably wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’t for you.”

Lilah looked totally perplexed. “What?”

“Oh, come on. You think this is all Chong’s fault, and maybe a lot of it is, but he wouldn’t even have come along on this dumb camping trip if it wasn’t for how he felt.”

Lilah blinked in surprise. “What?”

“You heard me. If you weren’t here, then there’s no way Chong would have come along. He’d be home safe.”

“Benny!” warned Nix, but Lilah cut in.

“Me? Why? What do I have to do with what he does?”

“Because he’s head-over-freaking-heels in love with you, Lilah. How can you be so freaking observant and not know-”

“Benny!” Nix jumped to her feet. “Cut it out.”

Shut up! snarled his inner voice. Benny ignored both warnings. “It’s the truth.”

Lilah stared at him with a mixture of confusion and anger. “You should shut up.”

He pointed a finger at her. “And you should open your damn eyes, Lilah. He’s been mooning over you since you moved in with him. He can’t take his eyes off you.”

“Shut up!”

“You talked with him back on the road. I’ll bet he told you how he feels and you just threw it back in his face.”

“Shut up!” Lilah yelled.

“Are you denying it? Didn’t he say anything back there?”

“Go away.”

“What did you two talk about?”

Lilah glowered. “He asked me if this was all his fault and I told him the truth. I told him that he was a town boy… he isn’t strong enough to be out here.”

“You told him that? Were you trying to make him run away?”

“No!”

“What did he say to you?”

“It’s none of your business, so shut up!” barked Lilah, banging her fist on the table hard enough to make one of the knives roll off and clatter to the floor. In the ensuing silence she bent and picked it up.

Benny knew that he should shut up, that he should leave this alone, but he couldn’t keep the words from spilling out. “What happens if I don’t shut up? You going to threaten me again? I’ll bet you can’t wait for the chance to quiet me. And Chong. And maybe Nix, too.”

Lilah’s face went dead pale. Tears, as small as chips of diamonds, glistened in the corners of her eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but Nix beat her to it.

“Benny,” yelled Nix, “so help me God-”

THUD!

Something hit the front door. They froze, mouths open but silent, eyes staring at the door, ears straining to hear. The wind tossed the treetops. There was no other sound, not even the crickets.

“What was that?” demanded Benny.

Nix held a finger to her lips. Lilah tightened her grip on the knife.

Benny licked his lips. “Oh, crap,” he said softly.

Nix picked up both bokkens and handed one of the swords to Benny. They listened to the night. The crickets had stopped. They did that when they were startled, Benny knew. When they were afraid. When there was something there.

They waited, listening for sounds. Hoping to hear Tom call out. Or Chong.

Thud!

Another blow against the door. The sound was both heavy and soft. Muffled. Like a fist wrapped in a towel. Or…

Thud! Thud-thud!

Or a hand flung loosely, without purpose or conscious control.

Thud-thud-thud.

Whatever was beating on the door was not Tom. Or Chong. Or anyone alive.

Then they heard the moan.

33

“THERE’S A ZOMBIE OUT THERE,” WHISPERED BENNY.

“I know,” murmured Lilah is her ghostly voice. She used her free hand to wipe the tears from her eyes. “It must have heard you.”

“Heard us,” answered Benny, but his defense was weak and he knew it. Lilah snorted.

Thud.

“What’s it doing?” Nix asked in a horrified voice. “Is it knocking to get in?”

Lilah shook her head. “Not knocking. Pounding. It wants to get us… the door is in the way.”

Somehow that chilled Benny more than the thought that the creature was knocking. Even though he couldn’t see the zom, the thought of its limp, dead hand striking over and over again, following some impulse that existed in a brain that had otherwise died was intensely creepy. How could science ever explain that? How could anything make sense of it?

The pounding continued. There was no rhythm to it, but each blow carried the same dead-weight force.

“What should we do?” asked Nix.

Lilah’s answer was as cold as the flesh of the monster outside, and there was a weird light in her eyes. She looked more than a little crazy. “We kill it.”

They gaped at her.

Benny pointed at the door. “You want us to go out there? To open the door and actually go out?”

“If you’re afraid,” she sneered, “stay here.”

Benny suddenly felt like an idiot. “Look… about before-”

“Shut up,” warned Lilah. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Benny felt humiliated, so he tried to stand straighter, and he put what he hoped was a tough-guy, bounty-hunter, zombie-killer glare in his eye.

“What’s wrong with your face?” Lilah asked. “Are you going to throw up?”

“No, I-”

Lilah pushed him out of the way. “When you open the door, I’ll shove him back. Close the door behind me. When he’s quieted I’ll knock. Be ready to let me in.”

“We will,” promised Nix, “but shouldn’t you at least put on a carpet coat?”

Lilah sneered at the suggestion. “For one zom?”

Benny cleared his throat. “Look… Lilah… are you sure you want to do this?”

The Lost Girl gave him a funny look. “What does ‘want’ have to do with anything? The dead will keep trying to get us. Pounding can be heard.”

As if to punctuate her remark, the limp hand struck again. And again.

“Now,” she said softly. She held her knife with the easy competence that only came with years of practical experience.

“Now,” Lilah said again, and Benny jumped.

“Sorry,” he said, and reached for the handle. Lilah gave him a disgusted look.

“Wait!” snapped Nix. She looked at Lilah. “The cans.”

Lilah stiffened. “Oh,” she said softly.

“Oh, man…,” Benny breathed. “How could a zom get through them without…” He didn’t finish the sentence because there was nowhere to go with it.

“We’re in trouble,” whispered Nix. “Someone else is out there. Someone alive.”

“I know.” Lilah stepped back from the door.

Nix closed her eyes for a second. “Brother David and the Sisters didn’t just walk away.”

“I know,” Lilah said again. She slid the knife into its sheath and reached for her spear.

“Wait,” said Benny, shifting to block the door. “You’re not actually going out there, are you? Not now!”

“Yes.”

“Look… I’m sorry for what I said, but you don’t have to-”

She cut him off by suddenly leaning so close that they were nose to nose. Her golden eyes were fierce and hurt at the same time. “I want to throw you out there.”

That shut Benny up.

Thud! Thud!

“Right now, though,” Lilah said, turning away from him, “we need to stop the zom from making so much noise. Noise carries at night.”

“Lilah,” said Nix, “maybe you shouldn’t go out there. It could be something a lot more dangerous than a zom.”

Lilah’s voice was cold. “I’m a lot more dangerous than a zom. Open the door.”

“Lilah,” whispered Benny, “it could be Charlie Pink-eye out there.”

Lilah showed her teeth in a deadly smile. “That would be perfect.”

Outside, the zom continued to pound and pound and the endless wind blew like a black ocean. Nix closed the door on the stove and blew out the candles, plunging the room into total darkness except for a faint outline around the door etched by starlight. Benny fumbled for the door handle. He counted down from three and then pulled the door open as he leaped back out of the way.

The zombie was right there, framed by starlight. Tall, thin as a stick, and pale as wax, with black eyes and a gaping mouth. It lurched forward, reaching for Benny, but Lilah suddenly jump-kicked the zom in the chest, driving it backward out of the doorway. She went through the door like a flash of lightning. She caught up with the zom before it could fall, pivoted and slashed at the back of its knee with the bayonet at the end of her spear. It was her signature move, taught to her as a child by George, the man who had raised her after Lilah had been orphaned on First Night. With the tendon cut, the zom immediately dropped to its knees. Lilah kicked it between the shoulder blades, and as it fell face-forward onto the ground, she whirled her spear and bent forward in a powerful two-handed thrust that drove the spear point unerringly into the narrow opening at the base of the skull. The zombie instantly stopped thrashing and twisting and became completely still. Dead… for real and forever.

The whole process, from jumping kick to final thrust, had taken less than four seconds.

Benny and Nix crowded the doorway, stunned as always by how fast and efficient Lilah was. And how ruthless. They understood it, but it left them breathless.

“God…,” breathed Nix.

“I know,” said Benny.

“No,” Nix said, rising and pointing. “LOOK!”

Benny squinted to see what she meant. Lilah whirled, bringing her spear up as if expecting a sudden attack. She, too, stared in that direction.

There was plenty of starlight. More than enough to bathe the swaying trees in an eerie blue-white glow. Enough to see the lines of tin cans lying on the ground, the ropes cut and the cans carefully placed upright in neat rows. Somebody else was out here. Somebody smart and careful enough to disable the booby trap. But that was not the worst of it. Not by a long shot. What was truly eerie… no, truly terrifying… was how that cold moonlight reflected on the pale white faces of the living dead.

On the hundreds of living dead.

“God…” Benny’s mouth was too numb to say anything more. They were everywhere, an army of lifeless killers that shambled and limped and twitched as they emerged from the utter blackness of the forest. Benny spun and looked left and saw more of them, some walking, a few crawling, all of them moaning louder than the wind. He looked right, going as far as the edge of the station. He could see the long, pale line of tumbled glacial rocks. They were black with the crawling bodies of zombies. The closest of them was a hundred yards away, but they were advancing steadily toward the way station. Benny could not count the dead. They were coming. In minutes they would be here, and there was no way out.

“Please tell me I’m not seeing this,” said Benny. “This can’t be happening.”

“We’re dead,” whispered Nix. “Oh God… oh God…”

Lilah turned to them, and in the moonlight Benny and Nix could see that her iron self-confidence had crumbled to reveal a face as bloodless and empty of emotion as the monsters who closed in on all sides. She lowered her spear and it hung from her fingertips, ready to fall.

“We’re dead,” Nix said again, her voice rising to a hysterical pitch.

“Yes,” said the Lost Girl. “We’re dead.”

34

TOM IMURA WAS AT HOME IN THE ROT AND RUIN. HE LOVED THE WOODS, even as night came cascading down to turn the green world into an almost impenetrable black gloom. Ever since that terrible night fifteen years ago, Tom had spent nearly a third of his life in these woods. Unlike Mountainside, with its stifled boundaries and pervasive fear, the Ruin was a simpler place. You knew where you stood.

Tom reckoned that it was no different than the way the world had been before humans settled the first cities. Back then there had been predators of all kinds, and life was hardscrabble at best. Every day was a fight for survival, but it was that struggle that had inspired humans to become problem solvers. The inventiveness of the human race was one of the most crucial tools of survival, and it was the cornerstone of all civilization. Without it, man would never have turned fire into a tool, or carved a wheel from a piece of wood.

Tom knew that there were zoms out here, but didn’t fear them. He respected and accepted them as a physical threat the way he respected and accepted the bears and cougars and wolves that roamed these hills. His philosophy was based on the natural order of things. If a problem came up, he would use every resource to handle it. So far he’d been successful with that strategy, which included saving Benny during First Night, burning the first Gameland to the ground a few years ago, and giving closure to many hundreds of zoms. If, on the other hand, a problem arose that was beyond his mental and physical abilities, and if he died as a result of it, he was at peace with that. It was the way of things. Survival of the fittest, and no one was “the fittest” all the time.

He ran lightly, ducking under branches, leaping small gullies, running no faster than his ability to perceive what the forest had to tell him. Tom had stopped calling out Chong’s name. The boy had clearly wanted to run, and calling him might make him hide. In this gloom the best hunter in the world couldn’t find someone deliberately hiding. It was getting hard enough to follow Chong’s trail. Luckily, the boy had tried that old trick of using a piece of brush to wipe out his footprints. Sure, it wiped out the prints, but it left behind very distinct striations in the dirt and moss. Tom almost smiled when he saw it.

Eventually he reached the point where Chong had stopped trying to cover his trail and his distinctive waffle-soled shoe prints were clear in the fading light.

There were other prints along the path too. Most were animal tracks that were of no concern to Tom. He found some human-or perhaps zom-prints, but most of these were days old, and Chong’s tracks overlaid them. One set of tracks made him freeze in place and even touch the butt of his holstered pistol. Old-world hiking boots with worn treads and a crescent-shaped nick out of the right heel.

Tom bent low and studied the prints. Preacher Jack’s without doubt, but it was clear that these had been made on his way to the encounter that had happened a few hours ago.

Tom continued his hunt. The forest was growing quiet, and he moved only as fast as he could go silently. It was a tracker’s trick: Never make more noise than what you’re tracking.

Crack.

There was a sound, soft and close, and within three steps Tom slipped into the shadows between two ancient elms. He listened. Sound was deceptive. Without a second noise it was often difficult to reliably determine from which direction the sound had come. Ahead and to the left? Off the trail?

A rustle. Definitely off to the left. Tom peered through the gloom. The second sound had been like a foot moving through stiff brush. A long pause, and then another crunch.

Tom saw a piece of shadow detach itself and move from left to right through an open patch. It was a quick, furtive movement. Something that walked on two legs. Not a zom, though, he was sure about that.

Preacher Jack? If so, Tom was determined to have a different kind of chat with him than they’d had back on the road.

The figure was coming his way, but from the body language it was clear the person had not seen him. The head was turned more toward the north, looking farther along the game trail.

Judging where Tom should have been if he’d kept moving.

Tom nodded approval. A pretty good tracker, he guessed.

“Tom!” called a voice. A very familiar voice. “Tom Imura. I know you’re up there behind one of those trees. Don’t make me have to walk all the way up the slope.”

Tom stepped out from behind the tree with his pistol in his hand. The shadowy figure emerged into a slightly brighter spot of light. From the soles of her boots to the top of her orange Mohawk, the woman was tall and solidly built, with knife handles and pistol butts jutting out in all directions like an old-time pirate. In her right fist she carried a huge bowie knife with a wicked eighteen-inch blade.

Something black gleamed on the blade, and though it looked like oil in the bad light, Tom knew that it was blood. The woman’s face and clothes seemed to be smeared with it. She tottered into view, and Tom saw that her left arm hung limp and dead at her side.

Tom stepped out from behind the tree. “Sally?”

Sally Two-Knives grinned at him with bloody teeth. “You alone, Tom?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” she said, and pitched forward onto her face.

35

“BACK… BACK!” CRIED NIX IN A FIERCE WHISPER. AS SHE SAID IT she walked backward, herding Lilah and Benny toward the open door. Lilah stumbled along as if her brain had shut itself off. Benny had to push her into the way station. Nix was last in. She tossed down her bokken, grabbed Lilah’s pistol, and stood for a moment in the doorway, tracking the barrel left and right, but she did not fire. There was no point. If she had a barrel filled with bullets it would not be enough. Nix lowered the pistol and retreated inside.

“We’re dead,” Lilah said again, and her voice already sounded dead.

Benny closed and locked the door. “It won’t hold for long,” he said quietly. “Same with the windows. That glass is old. It might last if a couple of them beat on it… but there are hundreds of them out there.”

“Thousands,” said Nix. “There had to be five hundred of them just coming down over the rocks. It’s insane.”

It was insane. Last year Benny had seen three thousand of them in the Hungry Forest, but the seething mass of the living dead outside had to number twice that many. It was an army of rotting flesh-eaters. “Where did they come from?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” said Nix. “It doesn’t make sense. We weren’t that loud. And I don’t think they could see our cooking fire from outside. Not all the way into the forest and up the mountains.”

“Doesn’t make sense,” said Lilah in a hollow voice.

“What about the cans? Zoms couldn’t do that,” said Benny.

“I know, Benny,” said Nix. She scraped a match and lit the little oil lantern.

“Don’t!” gasped Benny.

“Why?” she said softly. The flaring match revealed a crooked smile. “Are you afraid it’ll attract zoms?”

Her voice was way too calm. Benny had heard people talk like that right before they went off the deep end. And yet, what could he say? He turned to Lilah for help, but the Lost Girl truly looked lost. She stared at the pistol and knife she still held and then numbly put them into their holsters.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Lilah said, repeating the phrase in a lost whisper.

Benny shook his head. “No, it doesn’t. If this was something normal, Tom would have told us about it. Besides, Brother David’s lived here for over a year, and he said there were never more than a few wandering zoms in the area. This is… this is insane.”

“Insane,” echoed Lilah.

Benny did not like what he was seeing in her face any more than he liked what he heard in Nix’s voice. Not one little bit. It made him wonder how crazy he looked and sounded.

Crazy or not, they had to do something. Benny looked at the three carpet coats that hung from pegs by the door. He grabbed the coats belonging to Sister Shanti and Sister Sarah and tossed them to the girls. “Put these on!”

Nix immediately slipped into hers, but Lilah let hers drop to the floor. Benny picked it up and pressed it to her.

“Put it on!” he yelled.

Lilah took it but did nothing with it. Finally Nix took it and put it on Lilah the way a mother dresses a child.

“We have to get out of here,” Benny said as he belted on Brother David’s coat. He lifted the blankets and peered outside. The closest of the zoms was still about fifty feet away. “We can still run.”

That made Lilah’s face twitch. “Run where?”

Nix said, “She’s right, Benny. They’re coming from every direction. We’re safer here.”

“This isn’t safety.” Benny waved his hands around at the way station. “This is a freaking lunch pail. They’re going to close in around us, open this place up, and-”

“Stop!” hissed Lilah, pressing her hands to her ears.

“If we run, at least we have some chance.” Benny fished in his pocket and pulled out the bottles of cadaverine. “We have these.”

Nix chewed her lip, caught in the terrible trap of indecision.

Then abruptly Lilah’s hand darted out fast as a snake and snatched a bottle out of Benny’s hand. She opened it and began dribbling the thick liquid onto her sleeves. When Benny and Nix simply stood there staring at her, Lilah growled, “Now!”

It was a freakish moment, as if there had been no disconnect in Lilah, as if she had been strong and in charge all the time. Benny and Nix shared a covert, worried look.

Don’t say anything, warned Benny’s inner voice. She’s ready to break. Push now and she’ll shatter.

Benny tossed his second bottle to Nix and dug the extras out of his pocket.

“Will it be enough?” Nix asked as she smeared the noxious chemical on her coat.

Benny didn’t answer. They each used a full bottle. The inside of the way station reeked as if it was stuffed to the rafters with rotting flesh.

“Weapons and water only,” said Benny.

“Good,” agreed Lilah.

Nix nodded, but she grabbed her journal off the table and stuffed it into a big pocket inside her vest. Then she belted the carpet coat tightly around her. The coat protected her body and arms and had a high, stiff collar to shield the throat, but it was not a suit of armor. Even the fence guards back home said that enough zoms could eventually chew through one.

Benny slung his canteen over his neck and pulled his bokken from its sheath.

At the door, Lilah paused, took a deep breath, and without turning said, “We go slow. Don’t fight unless you have to. Run only if you have to.”

“What if we get separated?” asked Nix.

There was only one answer to that question, and Benny’s inner voice whispered it to him. Anyone who gets lost in the dark… is dead. Aloud he said, “We won’t.”

It was somewhere between a lie and a gamble.

Thump! A dead fist struck the window, rattling it in its frame.

“Me, Nix, Benny,” whispered Lilah. “Ready?”

Nix and Benny both lied. They both said they were. Lilah opened the door.

A zombie stood there, arm raised to strike the glass. He was broad-shouldered, his once brown skin bleached to the color of milky tea. Most of his face was gone, and gnawed edges of white bone jutted from the bloodless flesh. The creature took a shambling step forward. It did not sniff the air-Benny had never seen zoms do that-yet through whatever senses it did possess, the creature took the measure of the pale girl with the white hair… and then shuffled past her into the room. For the moment it did not judge her as prey. She reeked of the dead, and the dead passed her by.

Benny could see that Lilah’s whole body was trembling. This wasn’t like that time when she’d freed the zoms in the Hungry Forest. Back then she was on her home turf, and she’d known a thousand paths through those woods. No… this was beyond Lilah’s experience, and maybe that was what crippled her. She had no plan and lacked either the imagination or optimism to believe that some line of escape would present itself.

Or maybe you screwed her up with what you said about Chong. Benny wished with all his strength that he could step back in time and unsay those cruel and stupid words.

Lilah drew a ragged breath and stepped cautiously outside. Nix went next, turning to squeeze by a lumbering fat man with bullet holes in his stomach. As Benny stepped into the doorway his shoe scuffed the floor, and the fat man turned sharply, gray lips pulling back from green teeth. The zom snarled at Benny, then just as suddenly, the look of hunger and menace dropped away as if a curtain had fallen. Its dusty eyes slid away from Benny, and the monster turned awkwardly and trundled inside, followed by another zom, and another.

Holding his bokken to his chest as if it was a magic charm, Benny slipped outside. Lilah had not waited for him. She was already thirty paces away, walking straight into the sea of shambling corpses. Nix was much closer, her steps slower and uncertain. Nix kept looking back for Benny. Lilah never looked back at all-she kept going. Did she see a way out? Benny wondered. She was moving faster and faster, and soon he couldn’t see her at all.

Move or die, growled his inner voice. Benny began walking, moving disjointedly, trying to imitate the artless shamble of the zoms so as not to attract attention.

Don’t stop.

He didn’t… until he reached the edge of the concrete pad by the gas pumps. From that angle he could see almost all the land around the way station. What he saw punched the air out of his lungs and nearly dropped him to his knees. There, in the thick of a seething mass of zoms-an army that numbered uncountable thousands-stood a tall figure with hair even whiter than Lilah’s, massive chest and shoulders, gun butts sprouting from holsters at hips and shoulder rigs, and a three-foot length of black pipe clutched in a nearly colorless hand. It was too far away to see his eyes, but Benny was sure-dead certain-that one would be blue and the other as red as flame.

The figure stared right at him. It was smiling.

The zoms shifted and shuffled around the figure. They did not attack him. They surged past him, heading toward the gas station, toward Lilah and Nix. Toward Benny. Then the sea of zoms closed around the figure, obscuring him from Benny’s sight.

It didn’t matter. Benny had seen it.

Seen him.

“No…,” he whispered to himself. “No.”

He turned and ran. Not walked, not shuffled like a zom. Benny Imura ran for all he was worth. He ran for his life. As he ran he could feel those eyes upon him, burning like cold fire into his back. God! Where was Tom? Benny thought he heard a sound threaded through the moan of the thousands of walking dead. He thought he heard the deep, rumbling, mocking laughter of the man he was positive he had just seen standing amid an army of the dead.

Charlie Pink-eye.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

When I was real little, Mom was having a hard time earning enough ration dollars. Before First Night she’d been a production assistant in Hollywood (a place where they made movies, back before they nuked Los Angeles). She didn’t know how to farm or build stuff, and she tried to make a living doing sewing and cleaning people’s houses. It was hard, but she never complained and she never let me know how hard she had to work. Then she was sick for a few weeks and fell behind on all the bills.

Then she met Charlie Matthias. He tried to get Mom to go out with him, but she wasn’t interested. AT ALL. Then Charlie told her there was a way for her to make a month’s worth of ration bucks in one day. It wasn’t sex stuff or anything like that. He said all she had to do was quiet a zom.

Of course, he didn’t tell her that she would be thrown into a big pit with a zom with only a broom handle as a weapon. It was at a place called Gameland, hidden up in the mountains. People came from all over to bet on what they called Z-Games. Zombie games.

Mom was desperate to earn the money, so she went into the pit.

She never told me about this, and I don’t know the details. All I know is that Charlie kept Mom in the pit for a week. I was real little, and Benny’s aunt Cathy took care of me.

Then Tom brought Mom home. Tom was all cut up and burned, from what the neighbors told me later. He smelled of smoke and had bloodstains on his clothes. I learned a lot later that Tom had rescued Mom and destroyed Gameland. I think he had to hurt some people to do it. Maybe kill some people. Shame Charlie wasn’t one of them.

When Charlie Matthias killed my mom last year, he was going to take me to Gameland. The new Gameland.

God… how can people be so cruel?

36

TOM WAS FAST, BUT SALLY TWO-KNIVES WAS DOWN BEFORE HE GOT to her. He knelt beside her and checked her pulse, found a reassuring thump-thump-thump. Then he examined neck and spine before he gently eased her onto her back and brushed dirt and leaves from her face.

“Oh boy, Sally,” he said, “you’re a bit of a mess here.” Her eyelids slowly fluttered open. Even in the bad light Tom could see that her face was taut with great pain. “Where are you hurt?” he asked.

“Everywhere.”

“Can you pin it down for me or do I have to go looking?”

Sally snorted. “Since when did you become a prude?” Then she winced and touched her abdomen. “Stomach and arm.”

Tom opened the bottom buttons of her shirt, saw what was clearly a knife wound. She wasn’t coughing up blood, so he didn’t think she had any serious internal injuries. Or he hoped she didn’t. He removed a small bottle of antiseptic and some cotton pads from a vest pocket and gently cleaned the wound and applied a clean bandage. He used his knife and cut open her sleeve to reveal a ragged black hole. Tom gently raised her arm and leaned to take a look at the back of it, saw a second, slightly smaller hole.

“A through-and-through,” he concluded. “Bullet hit you in the back of the arm and punched out through the biceps. What they’d shoot you with?”

“Don’t know,” she said through gritted teeth. “Something small. Twenty-two or twenty-five caliber, though it felt pretty darn big going in and coming out.”

“Missed the arteries. Didn’t break the bone,” Tom said. “You always were a lucky one, Sally.”

“Lucky my ass. I got shot and stabbed. If that’s your idea of good luck, then give me the other kind.”

“Don’t even joke,” he chided as he cleaned the entry and exit wounds, placed sterile pads over them, and began wrapping a white bandage around her arm. “I’ve seen my share of bad luck already today.”

Tom tied the ends of the bandage with neat precision, but inside he was beginning to feel a slight edge of panic. It was now too dark to track Chong. Tom helped Sally sit up and let her drink from his canteen.

“Don’t suppose you saw my horse anywhere, did you?” she asked. “I left her tied to a tree, but she must have spooked.”

“No,” said Tom. “Look, Sal, what happened and who did this?”

“It’s complicated,” she said. “I ran into a couple of the White Bear crew. You know White Bear?”

He nodded. White Bear had once run with Charlie Pinkeye’s gang but had dropped out of sight years ago. “Heard of him but never met him. Big guy from Nevada. Used to be a bouncer at one of the Vegas casinos before First Night, right? Tells everyone that he’s the reincarnation of some great Indian medicine men, though from what I heard he doesn’t have a drop of Native American blood in him. What’s he doing here?”

She hissed in pain as Tom began stitching her stomach wound. He wished Lilah was here.

“OW-damn, son! You using a tree spike to sew that up?” she snarled.

“Don’t be a sissy.”

She cursed him and his entire lineage going back to the Stone Age. Tom endured it as he worked. Curses were better than screams.

“What about White Bear?” he prompted.

She took a breath. “Since Charlie’s gang got chomped by those zoms last year, there’s been a lot of talk about who was going to take over his territory. Charlie always had prime real estate. Mountainside, Fairview, couple of other towns, and the trade route all through these mountains. White Bear wants it all. Brought a bunch of his guys with him. Most of them are jokers who don’t know which end of a rifle goes bang! But he has a lot of them.”

“How many?”

“The two I saw tonight, and maybe twenty more. Maybe twice that number if the rumors are true… and he’ll probably try to scoop up any of Charlie’s guys who are still sucking air.”

Tom tied off the last stitch and began applying a fresh dressing. “Why’d they attack you?”

“They didn’t. I, um, kind of attacked them.” She touched Tom’s arm. “Tom… I think they have your brother, Benny.”

“What?”

“I saw them slapping the crap out of a Japanese-looking kid. Your brother’s, what, fifteen, sixteen?”

“Fifteen. What was this kid wearing?”

She thought about it. “Jeans. Dark shirt with red stripes and a vest with a lot of pockets.”

Tom exhaled a burning breath. “That’s not Benny. That’s his friend, Louis Chong. He’s Chinese, not Japanese. Besides, Benny’s half Irish American.”

“What do I know? It’s dark, he’s a kid, I’m shot for Pete’s sake.” She squinted at him. “That who you’re looking for? The Chinese kid?”

Tom filled her in on what he was doing.

“So… you’re really going to leave?” she asked.

“That’s the plan, but we seem to be off to a bad start.”

“So-asking me to meet you at Brother David’s… that was what? A good-bye?”

He nodded.

“Damn,” said Sally. “Things won’t be the same around here without our knight in shining armor.”

Tom snorted. “I’m a lot of things, Sally, but I’m no one’s idea of a shining knight.”

Sally didn’t laugh. “If that’s what you think, Tom, then you’re a bigger damn fool than I thought. There’s no one in this whole chain of mountains who doesn’t know who you are and what you do. And I mean before you served Charlie and the Hammer to the zoms on a silver plate.” She paused. “A lot of people look up to you. No… they look to you. For how to act. For how to be.”

“Come on, Sal, let’s not-”

“Listen to me, Tom. You matter to people. During First Night, and in the years after, a lot of us did some pretty wild things to survive. You don’t know. Or… maybe you do. Maybe you did some wild things too, but the thing is that since then you’ve been the kind of guy people can look at and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how people are supposed to act.’ There aren’t a lot of examples around since the zoms, man, but you…” She smiled and shook her head.

Tom cleared his throat. “Listen, Sally, I’m thinking that this is pain and shock talking here, so let’s get to the point. Where did they take Chong and how’d you get hurt?”

Sally laughed. “Modest, too. Real shame you’re leaving town. Jessie Riley was the luckiest woman in California, and strike me down if that’s a lie.”

“Chong…,” Tom prompted.

“Okay, okay. It was about two hours ago. I was heading to Brother David’s when I heard someone yelling. I snuck up and saw this kid trying to fight off a couple of goons. Kid was doing okay at first. Had a wooden version of that sword you carry. The goons were trying to take the sword away from him barehanded, making a game of it. Pretending they were zoms and that sort of stuff. You’ve seen it before.”

“Yes,” he said coldly, “I’ve seen it. What happened?”

“Kid managed to land a good one on one of the guys. Hit him on the shoulder, and I could hear the thwack all the way up the hill. Then the guys stopped playing and laid into the kid with a will. Whipped the sword out of his hands and beat the living crap out of him.”

“Damn.” Tom thought about the ascetic and intellectual Chong fighting for his life. How brave he must have been, and how terrified.

“By that time I’d had enough, and I’d pretty much figured that the kid must have been your brother. So I came down the hill with a war whoop and sliced myself a piece of those two butt-wipes. Wasn’t all girly about it either. Would have just messed them up some and let the pair of them limp out of here, but they tried to get all fancy on me. It didn’t end well for ’em, and no loss to the world.”

“Wait… you said you took them out?”

“Two freaks like them against me? I coulda done that back in my Roller Derby days, and that was before I learned how to ugly-fight.”

“No, I mean, if you nailed them, then who-?”

“Must have been a third guy. Never saw him coming. I was about to quiet the two freaks when suddenly something hit my arm from behind and knocked me into a tree. Tried to shake it off, but someone came at me from my blind side, spun me and stabbed me. All I saw was a big man with white hair, and then I blacked out.”

“White hair? Sally-could it have been Preacher Jack?”

“The loony-tune from Wawona?” She thought about it. “No, this guy was way bigger. Anyway… I passed out, and when I woke up, the kid was gone and so was the big guy.”

“What about the other two?”

“Still there. Whoever shot me must have quieted ’em and left ’em for the crows.”

Tom sat back and thought about it. “Could the big man have been White Bear?”

She shrugged. “Maybe. This guy was as big as Charlie Pink-eye and his face was all messed up. Burned and all nasty-lookin’.”

“Could it have been Charlie?”

Sally narrowed her eyes. “Charlie’s dead. You killed him.”

“Not exactly,” Tom said. He told her about what had happened after Benny hit Charlie with the Motor City Hammer’s pipe.

“Well, hell… that’s not the kind of news a gal wants to hear when she’s already feeling poorly. You think Charlie’s alive?”

“I don’t know. Did the guy who attacked you do it to avenge the men you killed, or was he after the boy?”

“I… don’t know. But wouldn’t Charlie know this kid’s not your brother?”

Tom nodded. “He knows Benny and Chong both.”

Sally took another swig from the canteen and chewed her lip for a moment. “Before I attacked them, I heard some of what the two punks said to the kid. I heard where they said they were taking him.”

Tom knew what she was going to say and he closed his eyes as if he, rather than she, was in physical pain. “Say it.”

“Gameland,” said Sally Two-Knives. “They were going to try and sell him to the people running that place. Put him in the zombie pits.”

“But you don’t know if the man who shot you is taking him there?”

“No idea.”

“Terrific,” Tom said sourly. “They’ve moved Gameland twice since we took down Charlie’s crew. I’ve been trying to find it… and I don’t have a damn clue where it is. It could be all the way over in Utah for all I know.”

“I don’t think so, Tom,” she said with a cold smile. “When those boys were taunting the kid, one of them told him that he’d be fighting in the pits by dawn’s early light. His words.”

Tom looked out at the darkness. “Damn,” he said softly.

37

BENNY RAN RIGHT INTO A ZOM. THE CREATURE TURNED WITH A SNARL, and white fingers scrabbled for his face. He could feel the edges of broken fingernails scratch him, the dry pads of dead fingers slide over his nose and mouth; and then Benny shoved the zom aside with a cry of disgust. It fell against a second zom and they went down. Others tumbled over them in what could have been comedy if the world was not broken and insane. Zoms snarled and bit at him as he ran.

Slow down, warned his inner voice. He tried to slow himself; he ordered his feet to walk instead of run, but they disobeyed. Nix was sixty paces ahead. Fifty.

Lilah was nowhere in sight. Had she run out on them? Had the zoms gotten her? No… there would have been screams if they’d attacked her. First her war cries, and then… other screams. These thoughts tumbled through his head as he ran. He ducked under white hands, jinked and dodged around zombies who tried to wrap their arms around him. The whole crowd of them was becoming agitated, their awareness drawn to the running meat.

Slow down!

Nix heard him coming and turned to see Benny collide with another zom and have to bash his way out of its embrace. Other zoms turned at the motion, their moans rising in pitch as their worm-white fingers clawed the air for him.

Slow DOWN!

“Benny!” cried Nix in a fierce whisper. “What are you doing?”

He jerked to a stop by the gas pump. The zoms that had been turning toward him suddenly turned to Nix as she began heading toward Benny. You’re going to get Nix killed. He didn’t need his inner voice to tell him that. The zoms nearest to her were already starting to close in. Nix tensed to run.

“Nix-stop!” Benny hissed. “Just stop. Stand still.”

Nix looked absolutely terrified as all around her hungry mouths worked as if already devouring her. “Benny…”

“Shhh,” he soothed, the sound as soft as a whisper, and then mouthed the words, “Keep perfectly still.” If she stopped moving, would the cadaverine do its job? Would the zoms closing in on her lose interest?

It’s not going to work. Milling zoms closed around her, the ragged shreds of their clothes brushing her like insect wings in the dark. Nix shivered. The wooden sword in her hands trembled. As the zombies came closer still, she began to raise the sword.

No! Benny almost screamed it aloud, but he clamped his control into place. It’s your fault she’s in trouble. Be smart… find a way.

Benny nodded, but in truth he was at the threshold of panic. One wild idea after another flashed through his mind, and he slapped each one away. Brash heroics, a suicidal charge… plans that were filled with romantic heroism or tragic sacrifice, but empty of practicality. Consider everything. The place. The time. The light. The breeze.

Benny edged toward Nix, moving with the breeze, swaying, becoming part of the movement of the crowd of dead. You have everything you need. You have tools. You have resources.

He wanted to tell the inner voice to shut the hell up and let him think. Charlie Pink-eye was back there somewhere. Maybe aiming a pistol at him right now. Or at Nix. Don’t make assumptions. See only what is there.

He took one hand off the bokken and slowly, lightly patted his pockets. His fingers touched the remaining bottles of cadaverine. Should he use those? Would more smell help?

No.

He touched a small oblong shape that rattled softly. Use what you have. Benny suddenly had an idea. It was a crazy, insanely dangerous idea. Around him a sea of zoms moaned as they shuffled toward the gas station, toward him, toward Nix.

He shot a look at Nix. She was trembling so badly that her bokken was visibly shaking. A couple of zoms pawed at it. One of them suddenly grabbed it and pulled. Nix began to resist, but Benny shook his head and mouthed, “Let it go.” Her eyes flared in horror at the suggestion, but her small hands opened and the zom tore the wooden sword away from her. It took the bokken in both hands, holding it like an ear of corn, and bit down on it. There was a crunch and a crack and the zombie snarled and cast the sword away, one of its teeth still buried in the hardwood.

Moving in ultra slow-motion, Benny slid his free hand into the front pocket of his jeans. The cadaverine bottles clinked, and then he found the oblong box he was looking for. It was made of stiff paper, and it rattled dryly as he removed it.

The zom closest to him turned sharply and peered at him with dust-covered eyes. Benny wondered how it could see with dead eyes. Another mystery that he thought would never be solved. Don’t waste time sightseeing.

The zom moaned.

Benny moaned back and shuffled a few feet to the left. The zom stood there and watched him go. The dead could not show confusion on their slack faces, but Benny could almost feel the creature’s conflict. The impulse to hunt only the living was at war with the stench of decay. It swayed there in indecision as Benny took another shuffling sideways step. The gray eyes never left Benny’s face.

Hurry. Moving with infinite slowness, Benny thumbed open the little cardboard box. Twenty-five pale stick matches lay in tight rows. He used his thumbnail to separate one of them. He was about to close the box when his inner voice hissed at him to make a smarter choice.

The zom was still watching him. So were two others. Watching? Or just standing?

The carpet coat was hot, but ice-cold sweat ran in rivulets down the back of Benny’s shirt. His heart was pounding so hard he could not understand why it didn’t sound like a bass drum. He turned his head slightly and saw that Nix was still there, and he wondered how much time had just passed. Was it three seconds? Ten? An hour? Or no time at all? He couldn’t tell. Nothing felt real.

Hurry!

He paused, then placed the first match between his teeth and removed another. He thumbed the box closed and turned it between his fingers, exposing a dark strip on one side. The matches were of the “storm” kind, coated with wax to keep them waterproof, with a chemical mix that would keep them burning in rain or wind.

“God… let this work!” He said it aloud, and he said it too loud. The watching zom suddenly lurched forward, its rubbery lips twitching. The abruptness of its movements made the creatures around it twitch and turn and move in Benny’s direction. Had they focused on him, or were the others following the first one?

There was no time to sort it out. Benny put the white tip of the match against the strike board and flicked his wrist. The fire was small, but in the darkness of the field it flared like a tiny sun. The snap of ignition and the hiss as the flames consumed the chemicals were shockingly loud.

“No!” Nix cried, and some of the zoms turned toward her.

But many, many more of them were entirely focused on Benny. Holding the match out in front of him, he stared for a moment in nearly brainless shock as the light revealed the full horror of the moment. Hundreds of white faces had turned toward the sound and the flare of light. Their awful moan split the air. The closest zom grabbed his arm, and before Benny could pull away it bit down with savage force on his wrist. Two others closed on him and grabbed at his other arm. Teeth closed around his forearm. The pain was instant and terrible.

Benny bit down on a scream, praying that the carpet coat was protecting him from the disease carried by the bites of the living dead. He kicked out with all his force, catching the closest zom with a flat-footed thrust to the thigh that sent it lurching away. It lost its hold on his wrist, but immediately another zom lumbered past it, reaching for the prize.

Now! NOW!

Benny tore himself free of the other zoms and darted forward as the zom closed on him. He prayed with all his might that the match wouldn’t go out. It puffed and flickered in the breeze. He had the stick of the other clamped between his teeth just in case. The zom reached for him, and Benny ducked under the pale hands, thrusting the match into the tattered folds of its clothes. In a flash the dry shreds of tie and suit jacket caught and flames shot up into the night. With a grunt of effort powered by rage and fear, Benny shoved the burning zom into the other creatures who had been closing in. They were all dry as kindling, and fire leaped from one to the other with frightening speed, sparks carried by the night wind.

Within seconds a half-dozen zombies were burning like giant candles. They did not beat at the flames, they did not scream… and that was deeply disturbing to Benny. Somehow it was worse that they were so ignorant of pain than if they shrieked and howled, though he could not grasp why. It was unnatural and wrong in more ways that he could count.

He whipped the other match from between his teeth and lit it as another wave of zoms closed in on him from behind. He used his forearm to bash aside the grasping hands and jabbed the match into the lace of a wedding gown, the folds of a loose cardigan, the ripped streamers of a halter top, the coattails of a waiter’s jacket. The match burned his fingers, and he dropped it.

“BENNY!” He heard Nix’s piercing cry and whirled to see flames shoot up behind him. It took him a numb second to understand how the fire could have jumped that far, and then he realized. Nix had seen what he was doing, and she-beautiful, brilliant, and brave as he knew she was-had done the same. He almost laughed out loud. She ducked and snatched up her fallen sword and used it to fend off a burning zom.

Then Benny drew his bokken and swung with all the force he possessed, hitting a burning zom on the side of the neck so hard that he felt the shock through his wrist as the creature’s neck snapped. The zom fell hard into two others, and they immediately caught fire. A wall of heat slammed into him, and the laugh died in his throat.

“Uh-oh,” he said aloud. The sound of his voice didn’t matter now. The roar of the fire was immense, the heat like an open furnace.

“BENNY!”

He turned and had to squint through the yellow glare to see Nix moving at a dead run toward the southeast. Something touched his shoulder, and Benny screamed.

The first zom-the one he’d kicked-had just grabbed him with a burning hand. Intense white-hot agony shot through Benny’s shoulder as the fiery fingers ignited the fabric of the carpet coat.

Benny shrieked in pain and swung the bokken with all his force. The zom’s head exploded into thick flaming pieces and the creature fell away. But its hand still clutched the fabric of Benny’s coat. Benny kicked and slapped and hammered at the zom’s arm until the blackened fingers fell away. He slapped at the flames on his shoulder. The carpet coat was old but not as sun-dried as the rags the zoms wore, but as he beat out the last dancing fingers of fire, he could feel burns on the skin of his shoulder and upper arm. If it hadn’t been for the thick fabric of the coat…

Then another hand grabbed him and he whirled, raising the sword to strike, but it was Nix. Her face was black from smoke, and her eyes were wild.

“COME ON!” she screeched, and dragged him away. Heat pounded them like fists on all sides, and the air itself was becoming too hot to breathe.

“Where’s Lilah?” he yelled.

“I don’t know. God-we have to go!”

They ran. The zoms were drawn to the massive flames, and as they crowded toward the commotion, more and more of them caught fire. The breeze caught pieces of burning cloth and burning flesh and whipped them across the field, setting new blazes here and there and soon… everywhere. As they ran it seemed as if the whole world had suddenly caught fire.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

(Benny: If you are reading my journal, STOP. This part is private. If I find out that you read this, so help me I’ll beat you to death and then when you reanimate I’ll beat you to death all over again.)

Dear Future Nix:

I haven’t written for a while. I’ve been too busy collecting zombie information. I tried to talk to Lilah about this, but she doesn’t understand boys. At all. Not even a little bit.

Benny keeps wanting me to act like we’re a couple. And we ARE a couple, but sometimes I just can’t do the lovey-dovey stuff. It feels weird. I never had a boyfriend before, and even though I’ve liked Benny since-what? Since we were six?-I’m not sure if I want to get totally wrapped up. Not that there’s anyone else. We’re out in the Ruin and there really is NO ONE ELSE. It’s just that ever since last year it feels like there’s stuff wrapped around my emotions. Nothing feels really real. Except being scared. That’s always real. And being angry. I’m ALWAYS angry. Even when we’re all joking, I’m always angry. Benny doesn’t know about that. I’m good at hiding it, and boys aren’t so good at seeing it.

It’s really confusing. Benny and I are never going back home. We may not meet other kids our age. Do I want to be with him because we don’t have a choice or because that was our choice?

You’re reading this in the future. You know how it all worked out. I don’t.

I do like Benny. I probably love him, but it’s hard to tell the difference between the crush I’ve had all these years and real love.

What does that feel like? Will I ever know?

38

WHEN LOU CHONG WOKE UP THE FIRST TIME, HE THOUGHT HE WAS in hell.

When he woke up the second time, he knew he was.

The first thing he was aware of was pain. The bones of his face ached so deeply that his gums hurt. When he tried to move his head, the strained muscles in his neck flared with darts of searing pain that lanced through him. He tried to touch his face, to see how bad he was hurt, but his hands would not move. Which was when he felt the pain in his wrists and ankles.

“W-what?” he asked. Except that he could not speak. A thick and noxious rag was tied around his head, a knot of it shoved between his teeth. All he could do was groan. Like a zom.

He blinked his eyes, trying to clear them. Vision returned very slowly. At first all he saw was dirt and some clumps of crooked grass. At least that helped him orient himself. He was on his side, on the ground.

And he was bound and gagged. Panic was a trembling thing that fluttered inside the walls of his chest. He wanted to scream out, to attract attention, to be able to say, reasonably and calmly, that this was all a mistake. He wanted to apologize for whatever he must have done to have made someone this mad at him. Had Captain Strunk thrown him in jail? Had he and Benny and Morgie broken someone’s window? Had they been caught stealing eggs from the Lamba Farm again? Or had one of the town watch caught them throwing the eggs at the old Pettit place?

Pain rolled up and down him like a tide, never pausing, missing nothing. He could not believe that he was capable of hurting in so many places at once.

“Help!” It came out as a weak grunt of meaningless noise.

“Well, well,” said a voice. “Look who’s awake.” A booted foot stepped down inches from Chong’s nose. “You was out so long I thought I was going to have to quiet you.” The man had a deep voice that was strangely familiar and at the same time alien. Chong’s head hurt too much to make logical sense of it.

He tried to crane his neck to look up, but he couldn’t move his head far enough. It felt as if the gag was tied in some way to whatever had been used to bind his ankles and wrists.

“Please…” It was just noise, but the man chuckled as if he understood.

“You trying to say something, little man?”

There was a flash of silver and then the pressure of cold steel against his cheek… and then the ends of the gag dropped away, the tough cloth parting like gossamer as the wicked blade slashed through them.

Free from the pressure, Chong coughed and spat to force the dirty rag out of his mouth. The corners of his mouth felt stretched, his cheeks were raw and abraded. His arms and legs were still firmly tied and he wriggled around, trying to work free of them, but the knots were too tight.

“Don’t worry, little man, I’ll cut you loose. In my own time, of course.”

Chong started to look up, but the man stepped so close that the sour stink of his boot leather filled Chong’s eyes and nose.

He tried to speak, but his throat was dry as paste. “W-why?” he croaked. “Who are you?”

The man chuckled again. It was a friendly sound, totally at odds with what was happening. And it was maddeningly familiar. It almost sounded like…

But… no… that was impossible.

The man lifted the booted foot and brought it down on the side of Chong’s face. Not a kick… no, the man placed the sole on Chong’s cheek and slowly applied weight and pressure.

“Shhhh, now. I cut the gag so you could breathe. Wasn’t no invitation to ask a bunch of questions you already know the answer to.”

Chong frowned and tried to tell him that he was wrong, that Chong didn’t know the answers to anything, that this was all some kind of mistake. The force behind the boot increased bit by bit. At first it was only pressure, but soon there was enough weight to make Chong’s jaw creak. Then more, and more, and Chong started to cry out. More and more until he thought he would pass out.

“I can keep this up all night,” said the man as casually as if he was discussing the weather. “I’ll stop when I don’t hear any more noise coming out of your mouth. Chew on this thought for a minute, little man. A gag ain’t the only way to keep you from talking. I can cut your tongue out too, and nail it to a tree. Don’t think for a moment that I’m joking, ’cause I done it before, and to tougher specimens than you.”

Chong wanted to scream. Instead he clamped his mouth shut tighter than the gag had been.

The pressure continued. Chong squeezed his eyes shut and tried to find a place inside his head where he could go and hide. He wanted to be home, up in his room, surrounded by the stacks of his beloved books. Back there, if a monster became too terrifying Chong could always close the book. Not here. Not in the dark with the pain and the ropes and the gag.

The pressure stopped increasing as the man listened for sounds from Chong.

“That’s the ticket,” he said, and removed his foot… but not before giving it a last little extra pressure. Somehow that made Chong feel more frightened, that last little bit of pressure. It was unnecessary. The man had already defeated Chong, already proved his power and dominance. That last twist spoke of a deeper, less evolved kind of evil. A sneaky pettiness. Sly and dirty. It made Chong very, very afraid.

For several long minutes there was nothing. No new pain, no sign of the man, no sound of him moving around. Was he standing there, out of sight? Just watching? Chong knew that he was. And that made him even more afraid.

Then the man spoke. “I’ll bet your mommy and daddy told you that there are bad people out here in the badlands. People who will do bad things to you. Bad things to stupid little boys running around in the great Rot and Ruin. Bad men doing bad, bad things.”

There was a rush of sound and suddenly the man was on his hands and knees, bending low so that his face was inches from Chong’s. It was a face out of a nightmare. The skin was a horror show. Every inch of that face was twisted and melted. One eye was completely gone, just a black pit in the lumpy pink and red moonscape. Hair as white as snow framed the man’s terrible face. He whispered four words.

“I’m the bad man.” Then he laughed and stood up. “You know what we’re going to do now?”

Chong did not dare answer. He closed his eyes, not wanting this to be real. Begging the universe to make this a dream.

“I’m going to cut your feet loose so you can walk, and by God you will walk. We got miles and miles to walk, halfway into the night. You’re going to walk every inch of it, and you’re not going to say anything. Not a word, and by God not a whimper. If you so much as cut a fart I’m going to cut pieces offa you. Nod if you believe me.”

Chong nodded. Emphatically.

“Then, oh say round about midnight-the witching hour, as they useta call it back before the zoms-we’re going to get somewhere. You know where that is, little man?”

Chong shook his head. Just a tentative little shake. The man knelt again, and his breath was hot and whiskey soaked against Chong’s ear.

“I’m taking your skinny ass to Gameland, little man. Now… ain’t that a world of fun?”

Chong did not dare scream. But oh, how he needed to.

39

THE WORLD SEEMED TO BE MADE OF FLAME AND WHITE FACES AND DEATH. Benny and Nix ran into the night, pursued by inferno heat. They had no clear direction, but there were too many zoms to allow them a straight line of flight.

“How many are there?” Benny gasped. However, it was the last thing he said aloud for a long time, because those four words nearly got him killed. The fire down on the field drew the attention of most of the zoms, but his voice came out unnaturally loud. All the pale death-mask faces around them turned suddenly toward them.

Benny and Nix stopped, shifting to stand back-to-back, swords ready.

I killed us, Benny thought; but immediately his inner voice retorted, No. Think your way through it. What resources do you still have?

Benny thought about the matches and almost laughed. If he had, it would have been his last laugh, and it would have been an insane cackle. The fire had saved them in the short term, but if the winds veered, then the blaze would chase them up the mountain-and fire burns upward. There was no lowland path open to them.

Nix took a slow sideways step, and Benny shifted with her. The zoms came closer, but their dark eyes shifted back and forth between them and the blaze. Without more sound to attract them, they were losing interest.

But not quickly enough. Soon some of them would be within grabbing distance. Benny could already smell their dead, dusty, decayed stench…

And that fast he had it. He shifted his bokken to a one-handed grip and slid his hand slowly into his pocket. Not for the matches, though. Instead he pulled out one of his remaining bottles of cadaverine. It was a risk. If they survived this terrible moment, then they would need the chemical to help them get to…

To where? Home? Back to the burning way station? Into the endless forest to look for Tom and Chong? East toward Yosemite and wherever the jet went?

Solve one problem at a time, warned his inner voice.

Nix took another step, going slowly so that Benny could keep pace. He didn’t dare take the time to look to see if she was merely moving or if she saw a way out. Benny put the cap between his teeth to hold it steady while he unscrewed the bottle. Instantly the sickly sweet stink of rotting meat filled the air. It wasn’t until that moment that he realized how much the smoke had blocked the cadaverine smell.

A distant part of him wondered if the zoms would attack one another in the smoke. If they couldn’t smell the odor of death, would they attack anything? There was no way to know, and he wasn’t about to go back and turn this into a science experiment.

“Benny,” murmured Nix in a voice so soft that it was a shadow of a sound.

He didn’t answer. Instead he sprinkled some of the cadaverine on his chest and hair. The first of the zoms were within arm’s length now, the hands lifting, reaching. And pausing.

Benny jerked the open bottle over his shoulder, splashing Nix’s red curls.

“Wait,” he whispered. “Give it a sec.”

“Benny…”

“Shhh.”

“No,” she insisted. “Look.”

He turned the wrong way first, and then faced her and followed the line she indicated with her outstretched bokken.

They were on a slope that led up to a shadowy mass of trees that he could barely see by starlight. There were far fewer zoms up there, the lines of them visibly thinning. However, that was not what Nix was pointing to. A figure stood at the top of the path. Benny had to blink the stinging smoke out of his eyes to make it out. At first it looked like a tall shrubbery, but then it moved to stand more fully in the starlight, and Benny gasped.

From the height, he judged the figure to be a man, but otherwise it was impossible to tell. It seemed like he was wearing a small tree, but then Benny realized that the man wore a long coat onto which leaves and pinecones had been sewn. His face was entirely covered by a round mask made up of oak leaves. Benny knew who it was, even in the dark. He knew him from Tom’s description and from his own Zombie Cards.

It was the Greenman. Zoms walked past him, staggering out of the forest; a few even bumped into him as they stumbled down the grassy path. The Greenman did not move except to raise a slender finger to the “lips” of his mask.

Benny and Nix fell silent and stood as still as statues. Below them the wind was blowing the fire toward the fall of rocks. It was not spreading into the hills, and Benny was grateful for small mercies. He didn’t want to cause even more problems for Tom, and he certainly didn’t want to start a forest fire.

It took a long time for the zoms to pass. Benny tried to count off the seconds and minutes just to keep from going crazy. He wanted to gather Nix in his arms and hug her hard enough to make them both scream. He wanted noise and peace at the same time. Anything but what was all around them.

Then it was over. The last of the zoms-a sad-faced man wearing the stained rags of a house painter’s coveralls-tottered past. He had a butcher knife buried in his chest, but the blade was pitted with rust. The creature turned an empty face toward Benny for a long moment, and despite all the terror that still crouched in his chest, Benny felt sorry for him. He almost said as much. Then the zombie vanished into the smoke and gloom down on the field.

Nix tugged his sleeve, and Benny looked up to see that the Greenman was beckoning them with slow movements of his hand. Then he turned and walked toward the woods without waiting to see if Benny and Nix were following.

“Who is that?” Nix asked. “Is that Lilah? What’s she wearing?”

Benny shook his head. “It’s the Greenman.”

“Why’s he dressed like that?”

“Tom says that he found some way to blend into the forest. Even the zoms don’t see him.” He lowered his sword and reached out his hand. “Come on.”

Nix sniffed back tears and took his hand, giving him one of her fierce squeezes. “Where’s Lilah?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I saw her run… but then I lost her.”

“Do-do you think she got out?”

“Absolutely,” he said carefully. “Lilah’s used to taking care of herself.” Though as he said it he was remembering the mad, desperate look in her eyes. He wondered about his own sanity. After all, he had just set an enormous fire and was pretty sure he had seen Charlie Pink-eye standing alive but unharmed in the middle of a field of zoms. Benny debated for less than half a millisecond about whether to tell Nix about this now, and realized that it was something best saved for daylight. At the moment they needed safety and time to check for injuries. The burn on Benny’s shoulder felt white hot, and he was not 100 percent positive that the carpet coats had saved them from the teeth of the living dead. They could both be infected, and that thought nearly dropped Benny in his tracks.

Nix grabbed his arm and pulled him. “Come on,” she said, and they hurried up the hill after the Greenman. However, when they got to the top of the hill and entered the forest path, the strange figure was gone.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Zombies and fire

When some people tell stories of First Night, they say that they used fire to scare off the zoms. They say that zoms won’t cross a line of fire, that they’ll retreat from a torch. They say that if a zom catches fire, it will run away. Tom says this is wrong.

He says that a zom will walk through fire. He says that they are attracted to its light and movement. He says that he’s seen burning zoms walk as far as a hundred yards before the heat did so much damage to muscles and tendons that they couldn’t walk anymore.

And he says that when the army nuked the big cities, waves of radioactive zoms kept coming, and people sometimes died from the intense radioactivity before the zoms could bite them.

What ARE they?

40

“SOMETHING’S COMING!” WHISPERED SALLY TWO-KNIVES.

Tom Imura got quickly to his feet, his fingers curled around the handle of his sword. They were huddled together under the eaves of an olive tree that grew amid a cluster of tall boulders. As he crept to the edge of the largest boulder, Tom heard the soft hiss of Sally drawing one of her knives. He tuned that out and focused on the darkened woods beyond. Before setting up their temporary camp, Tom had gathered armloads of frail twigs and scattered them along any likely path of approach. The snap of a twig had brought them both to full alertness.

There was a second snap. And a third. Whoever was out there didn’t care about making sound. In this world that meant one of two things. Either the person was traveling with a party that was so heavily armed that he had no fear of attracting the attention of the living dead; or they were the living dead. Tom edged farther out and let himself go still, becoming part of the rock, the shadows, and the forest. He had reluctantly accepted some of Sally’s cadaverine only because it would have been virtually impossible to get her up into a tree for the night. With one injured arm and a bad stab wound, Sally would be lucky if she could walk. Forget climbing.

A moment later a figure stepped out from behind a bushy rhododendron. It was a boy, a teenager, possibly thirteen when he died. Now immortal in the cruelest sense of the word. His eyes roved across the gap between the boulders and the olive tree but did not linger on Tom. The creature’s mouth hung slack, the lips were rubbery. The boy wore a grimy and faded Los Angeles Lakers T-shirt and what looked like swim trunks with a pattern of flaming skulls. The teenager’s feet were bare, and the bloodless skin was so badly torn that Tom could see tendons and bones. He wanted to close his eyes or look away, but the boy was still a zom and he was still a threat.

Tom remained still as the dead teenager staggered along the trail and vanished into the gloom. He was about to go back inside the circle of rocks when he paused and straightened. Was the southeastern sky… red? The canopy of leaves was too thick to allow more than a glimpse of the sky, but it seemed to Tom that there was a reddish glow. Was it a trick of the light? He couldn’t tell.

Tom relaxed and moved back into the protection of the rocks.

“Zom?” asked Sally.

“Zom,” agreed Tom.

“You quiet him?”

“No.”

She chuckled. “Mr. Softy.”

He shrugged. Everyone who knew Tom was aware that he wouldn’t kill a zom unless it was part of a closure job or self-defense. This zom had not been aware of him or Sally and was therefore no immediate threat.

Tom settled down and passed her his canteen. She drank and handed it back.

“Been a lot more zoms in these woods lately,” she said. “Last week, ten days. Getting so you can’t take two steps without tripping over one.”

“Really?” Tom said, surprised. “This was always a quiet section. It’s why I brought the kids up here. What’s drawing the zoms here?”

“Not sure, but there’s lots of stuff coming out of the east lately. Weird stuff. I saw a small herd of zebras running along the same game trail as some elk. Bunch of monkeys, too. Haven’t seen a monkey since I took my kids to the San Diego Zoo a million years ago, but I’ve seen a slew of them lately.”

“I saw a rhinoceros,” Tom said, and told her about the encounter.

“Wow. A lot of these critters are coming out of the denser parts of Yosemite, but even more are coming from farther east. Don’t know why. Something out there is scaring wild animals enough to drive them here, and maybe the zoms are following the animals.”

Tom chewed his lip for a moment. “Y’know, Sal, I saw something today that really rattled me.” He told her about the man who had been tied to the truck and left for the zoms.

“Damn,” she said. “That’s one of Charlie’s old tricks, Tom, but you’ve seen that before. Maybe somebody’s copying Charlie’s act. White Bear or-”

“It’s worse than that,” Tom said, and told her the rest.

Sally gaped at him. “Are you sure about that? He didn’t have a broken neck? You’re positive no one quieted him?”

“Positive.”

“So what the hell does that mean?” she demanded.

“I have no idea,” Tom said. “Part of me hopes that it’s real, that it’s true… that maybe whatever this is… this plague… is finally coming to an end.”

“Yeah, and I keep hoping I’ll wake up and First Night never happened.”

He nodded. “The other part of me is scared by it, Sal.”

“You? Scared? Why?”

“Because right now I know how things are. A zom is a zom, and I know the rules of that. But if the game has changed, then nothing I know is certain.” He paused. “I’ve been teaching Benny the way things work… but what if everything I’m teaching him is wrong? What if he-”

“Stop,” she said, touching her fingers to his lips. “You’re talking like a parent now, and that’s my territory. Tom… the world is always changing. Always. We can’t give the next generation a set of guarantees. Best we can do is help them be smart enough and tough enough to deal with whatever comes. You know as well as I do that we’re not going to be there forever for them.”

“I know, but things are changing just when we’re leaving home.” Tom gave a moody grunt and sipped from his canteen. “I’m worried about Chong, too. At least Benny’s been out here before. Chong hasn’t. I have to find him.”

“You will,” she assured him, then added, “I wish I could go with you. But at least I can get to Brother David’s and tell Benny and the girls how things are. If I see J-Dog and Dr. Skillz, I’ll draw them a map so they can find you.”

“Why?”

“Backup. They’d like to see Gameland burn down as much as I would.”

Tom shook his head. “This is just a rescue mission, Sally. A snatch and grab, and then I’m out of there. I’m not going out there to assault Gameland.”

“Again,” she said with a wicked grin.

“Again. I burned it down once and Charlie rebuilt it. Now someone else is running it. Maybe White Bear… maybe Charlie, if he’s still alive. If I burn it down again, they’ll simply keep rebuilding it. There are too many corrupt people out here and in the towns to expect a moneymaker like that to stay closed. I can’t spend my life burning it down.”

“Uh-huh,” she said.

“I’m serious. I have kids to protect. Soon as there’s enough morning light to see, I have to find Chong and get him home, and then I’m going east with my brother and his friends.”

“Whatever you say, Tom.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“I’m sure you’re going to do whatever you think is best.”

“That’s right, and right now that means getting Chong back from whoever took him.”

Sally kept smiling. “And God help anyone who gets in your way.”

Tom Imura said nothing.

41

NIX AND BENNY WERE EXHAUSTED, SCARED, HUNGRY, AND HEARTSICK. The forest was too vast and too dark for them to mount a search for the Greenman.

Behind them, far below on the field, the fire was burning itself out. They were too far away to see much, though. Had the zoms all burned? Had the fire killed them, or would there be a legion of charred zombies haunting this mountain pass forever? It was a grotesque thought.

Now that the fire was fading, the sky was less intensely red. Benny wondered if Tom had seen the blaze. If so, what would he do? Was he already on his way back to the way station, or was he on the far side of the mountain with the massive forest and tall hills acting as a screen? The wind was blowing to the south, so Tom could not have smelled the smoke. He might not even know.

“Tomorrow,” said Benny, loosening the belt of the carpet coat to allow cool air to soothe him, “we’re going to have to try and go back. Tom will come back to the way station looking for us.”

Nix didn’t answer that. Even if Tom returned to the way station, the ashes of a zom and the ashes of two teenagers would look about the same.

“There’s a good tree,” said Nix, pointing to a crooked cottonwood. It had very strong lower branches and lots of other stout limbs reaching out in all directions. Benny scrambled up first to test it. Tom had taught him how to pick the right tree. The rule of thumb was that if a branch was as thick as your bicep then it should be able to take your weight. Benny had tested this on dozens of trees and found it to be a reliable guide. Tom had cautioned against some trees, such as sycamores, because they had a nasty tendency to split; and dead trees were to be avoided at all costs.

Benny shimmied up the trunk, letting his legs do the work and saving his arm muscles until he reached the lowest limb. After he tested the limbs and found a couple of good resting spots, he paused to catch his breath and control the impulse to scream. The burn on his shoulder hurt so bad it felt like he was still on fire. But every time he felt that he could not keep the screams inside, he thought of Nix sitting in silence on the tree stump as Lilah stitched her face. He decided that he would die before he dishonored her by caving into his own pain.

Once he had found a measure of self-control, he scrambled down and helped Nix. Though she was a good climber, her injuries had taken a toll on her, and the horror and stress of the past hour had drained her last reserves. It took a lot for her to climb up, and she was totally spent when she finally reached the spot Benny had picked-a nook formed by four limbs growing outward from almost the same point.

Benny crawled down to the lower branch for a last comprehensive observation of the surrounding forest. There were no zoms, which was a huge relief; but also no sign of Lilah or the Greenman.

He removed his carpet coat and threaded his bokken through one of the sleeves and Nix’s through the other. The effect was to create a kind of sling that, while probably not strong enough to serve as a hammock, would at least give them some protection if they started to fall. He and Nix positioned it under them, and they settled back against the trunk of the tree. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was safe, and that was all that it needed to be to get them through this night.

They drank greedily from their canteens. Benny asked how Nix’s face was, and she said that it was okay; however, when he held his wrist to the line of stitches, he thought he could feel some heat. Was it from exertion or the fire? Or was the ugly monster of infection coming to haunt them?

He took his little bottle of antiseptic and a cloth and dabbed at her stitches as gently as he could. He knew that he was clumsy, but Nix endured it. Then he soaked a piece of clean bandage in water and placed it inside his shirt over the burn. It was too dark to see how bad it was, but it hurt worse than anything he could remember. When she asked how it was, he lied and said that it was nothing.

Gradually their panic seeped away. As it left, it was replaced by a wave of deep exhaustion. Nix leaned her head on Benny’s good shoulder and said, “How ridiculous is it that after everything that’s happened, we can actually say that this wasn’t the worst day of our lives?”

Benny knew that she was thinking of those three terrible days last year. The day her mother had been murdered, and the following days when Nix had first been a captive of Charlie and his men, and then had helped Benny, Lilah, and Tom lead an attack on the bounty hunters’ camp. Nix and Benny had both killed people that day. Even though there had been no choice at all, those dreadful actions haunted both of them. It had marked them, scarred them inside and out.

“I know,” Benny murmured, trying to keep the sadness out of his voice.

Nix found his hand in the dark and laced her fingers through his. “I guess,” she said, “that this does qualify as the worst camping trip in history, though.”

He laughed. “No question.”

They sat and listened to the woods. There was a constant and comforting trill of crickets.

“Lilah’s out there,” Nix said. “She’s somewhere safe. Right?”

“Absolutely,” said Benny.

“Tom, too. I’ll bet he found Chong and they’re in a tree somewhere up the mountains, waiting for dawn.”

“Yup.” The forest pulsed with the crickets and the soft swish of branches in the breeze. “Look, Nix,” Benny said, “I’m sorry about how I acted back at the way station. I guess I was freaking out, you know?”

“No kidding.”

“I was being a total jerk.”

“Yes you were.”

“And a major butt-wipe.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Jump in any time now and stop agreeing with me.”

“Ha!” she snorted. “You ought to have your butt royally kicked.”

He sighed. Then Nix nudged him with her shoulder. “You’re pretty good in a crisis, Benny,” she said, “but you can’t take waiting at all, can you?”

“It’s not the waiting, Nix… it’s the not knowing. Drives me buggy.”

“Me too.”

“Doesn’t show,” he said. “You and Lilah were doing pretty good until I opened my big fat mouth.”

“You’re going to need to make it up to Lilah,” she said.

Nix was kind. She didn’t point out how easy a target Lilah was or how much Benny had probably hurt her. Somehow her kindness made Benny feel even more like a creep.

Sometime later Nix said, “It’s not how it’s always going to be.”

Benny wasn’t sure if that was a statement or a question. Either way, his answer was the same. “No.”

She squeezed his fingers. He squeezed back. Then her hand relaxed, and Benny realized that Nix had drifted off to sleep. Just like that. Even though he could not see her in the dark, he listened to the slow, deep rhythm of her breathing. He settled back and listened to the night and began to deconstruct the day in order to make a plan for tomorrow, but three seconds later he was asleep too. Above and around them the night spun its web of darkness as the world ground on its axis toward dawn.

42

LOU CHONG WOKE UP.

He was still in hell… though he was immediately certain that he was now in one of the darkest rings of hell. They had taken his vest and shirt and shoes, leaving him shivering only in jeans. The ground on which he lay was hard-packed dirt. Cold and damp and smelling of decay. Chong sat up and wrapped his arms around his body. He had a lot of wiry muscle but no body fat at all, nothing to keep him warm down here in the clammy darkness.

There was enough light to see, but it was shadowy and gloomy. The walls were also made from dirt that had been pounded smooth. Chong raised his head and saw that the walls rose twenty feet above him, with no ladder, handholds, or rope.

He started to get to his feet but immediately cried out in pain and dropped to his knees. His whole body seemed to be composed of different kinds of aches stitched together into a tapestry of searing pain. The worst hurts were where he had been punched in the jaw, rammed in the stomach with the wooden stock of a shotgun, and kicked in the groin while he lay gasping on the ground. Chong tried not to cry.

Even as he huddled there, fighting the tears and fighting the pain, Chong’s mind was working. He knew where he was. Gameland. In a zombie pit.

He had never been here before, nor had he ever seen a zom pit before. It didn’t matter. Tom had described them to him and Benny and Morgie many times over the last few months. Tom had used the zom pit scenario as part of their training. One of Tom’s many worst-case scenarios. Part of the process of being warrior smart.

“So be warrior smart,” he told himself, speaking the words in a fierce whisper through gritted teeth. “What would Tom do? What would Lilah do?”

They wouldn’t take whatever was coming on their knees, he was certain of that. He thought about Nix having her face stitched without painkillers and without screams. Nix had to have dug deep to find the strength to deal with that. Just as she, Benny, and Lilah had found the courage to attack Charlie’s camp last year, even when they thought Tom was dead.

“Get up,” he snarled at himself.

The pain was enormous, and he dropped back onto his knees. A sob broke from his chest. Then another. While he knelt there, his mind did terrible things to him. It conjured images of Lilah standing over him, watching him kneel in sobbing defeat, and laughing.

Laughing at the weak, skinny kid. At the “town boy” who thought he could be a warrior.

At the fool who dared to think that he could ever in a million years win the love of someone as magical and powerful as the legendary Lost Girl. At the loser who had endangered the lives of his friends. At the coward who had run away. The images and the implications were like nails driven into his flesh.

But sometimes shame is a more powerful engine than rage. Like rage, it burns hot; and like rage it tends to consume its own furnace. He bit down on the pain, devouring it, accepting the hurt as something he deserved, and fueled by its energy he planted a foot flat on the ground, pressed the knuckles of his two balled fists into the cold dirt, and pushed himself up off his knees. It took a million years to get all the way to his feet. Straightening his body made it feel like every bruise was being stretched to the ripping point, but the shame would not let him stop until he was up and straight and at his full height.

“Warrior smart,” he said, but he loaded the words with scorn.

“Now ain’t that just a stirring sight?”

The words were like a bucket of cold water over Chong’s head. He jerked backward as if pushed, and he snapped his head upward to see three men looking down at him from the lip of the pit. One was the big one-eyed man with the flowing white hair who had brought him here. The man whose face was a melted ruin. The other two were strangers. They were smiling in ways that leached all the strength from Chong’s limbs.

“Who are you?” Chong demanded. It would have sounded better if his voice hadn’t cracked.

“’Who are you?’” mocked the big man. His voice made Chong’s skin crawl. It almost sounded like Charlie Pink-eye.

Could this be Charlie? When Benny had hit Charlie, had the bounty hunter survived and gone back into the burning camp? Or had the fires from that battle caught up to Charlie as he tried to crawl away? Was this Charlie Matthias? Or had some other monster descended into this already troubled and dying world?

“I’ll bet you have a lot of questions, little man,” said the Burned Man, as if reading Chong’s thoughts. “Well, think on this.”

He tossed something down into the pit that struck the dirt between Chong’s bare feet. It was a length of black pipe. One end was wrapped with black leather. There was old blood caked on the whole length of the weapon. Chong bent and gingerly picked it up.

“That there used to belong to a friend of mine,” said the Burned Man. “He used that there club to kill a thousand zoms. And near half that many folks who wasn’t zoms. Yeah… that piece of pipe’s got some history. It made my buddy famous all across the Ruin and in every town from Freehold to Sanctuary.”

The other two men laughed at this, giving each other high fives.

Chong gripped the object that had given the Motor City Hammer his nickname.

“My friend’s long since dead,” said the Burned Man, “but he’d be right pleased to know that his legend lives on.”

“I didn’t kill him,” said Chong, and then cursed himself for how cowardly and defensive that sounded.

“Maybe not,” conceded the Burned Man. “And then again, maybe you did. Or maybe you’re friends with those who did. Tiny Hank Wilson was one of the few who survived what happened at the camp last year. He said he saw what happened to the Hammer. Said it was a girl who killed him. That white-haired slut who’s been running these hills the last few years. But I don’t believe a little girl could take down the Hammer. No sir, I do not believe that. But a strapping kid like you, sneaking up behind him? Maybe clubbing him down when he wasn’t looking? That I can believe.”

Chong wanted to throw the club at him, but he held on to it. It was all he had.

“So, I think it’d please the Hammer all to hell to know that his favorite little toy wasn’t going to be forgotten. That it was still doing some killing.” The big man squatted down. “It won’t matter to him, or to me, if you live or die, little man. You live and you get to hold on to the hammer. Maybe one day you’ll be the Hammer. Wouldn’t that be something?”

Chong shook his head but said nothing.

“On t’other hand, if you die… well then, we got lots and lots of other kids who’d kill to have something like a nice piece of black pipe for when it comes to be their turn.”

Chong finally managed to squeeze three words through his gritted teeth. “Go to hell.”

The men all laughed, and the big man hardest of all. “Hell? Boy-ain’t you been paying attention? We’re already in hell. The whole world’s been in hell since First Night.”

He stood up and nodded to the other men. They vanished, but almost immediately other faces appeared around the edges of the pit. Men and women. Hard faces with hard eyes and mouths that smiled with icy cruelty. A small rat-faced man and a boy who was clearly his son shoved their way to the edge of the pit and started calling numbers and taking money.

Bets, Chong knew with growing horror. God… they’re taking bets.

The crowd fell into an expectant hush, and every eye turned in the direction where the two companions of the Burned Man had disappeared. When they came back, both of them were wearing carpet coats and football helmets with plastic visors. Between them was a pale figure that snarled and twisted and tried to bite the air.

“Welcome to Gameland,” said the Burned Man.

And then they pushed the zom into the pit with Chong.

43

BENNY WAS CHASED OUT OF HIS DREAMS BY MONSTERS.

From the moment he’d fallen asleep, he had gone running through a nightmare landscape where gigantic trees rose on black trunks that towered a thousand feet above him, their leaves burning with intense yellow fire. Benny ran through a field of blackened grass, and with every step a withered white hand would shoot up through the soil to grab him. He dodged and jagged and stumbled as hand after hand burst through the charred topsoil to claw at him.

No zoms emerged… just the reaching hands with their broken nails and bloodless skin.

As he ran he called Nix’s name, but the hot wind snatched her name away and tore it to soundless fragments. He could not see her anywhere. He ran and ran.

He saw Tom walking slowly away from him among the sea of clutching hands. Benny ran to him and grabbed his arm and spun him around. Tom stared at him with dusty black eyes. Tom’s face was the color of old wax, and his teeth were broken stumps. When Tom opened his mouth to speak, all that escaped was the starving moan of a zombie.

“NO!” Benny yelled, and backed away. Pale hands grabbed his ankles and held him as Tom took one unsteady step toward him, and then another. And another. Benny screamed again and kicked his way free just as Tom’s dry fingers brushed his face. Benny ran as ash drifted down from the burning trees.

“NIX!” he cried, but still his voice had no volume. No power.

There was movement and color off to his left, a flash of red, and Benny cut that way. He saw Morgie Mitchell sitting cross-legged on the hood of a burned-out car, his face screwed up with concentration as he tried to repair the broken pieces of his father’s fishing rod. Lying slumped against the side of the car was a slender figure covered with bright red blood.

Chong!

Benny hurried to him and knelt down, trying to figure out where his friend was hurt. “Chong! Chong… can you hear me? C’mon, talk to me, you skinny monkey-banger.”

Chong’s eyelids fluttered and slowly opened. There was still life in his eyes, a wet glimmer deep in the brown irises. Chong tried to smile. He began speaking very slowly and softly, and Benny had to bend close to hear.

“Everything out here wants to kill you, Benny,” Chong said.

“Chong! Where are you hurt?”

Chong lifted a hand, and with one bloody finger he tapped his temple. “It hurts in here, Benny. Nothing in here works anymore.” Then the hand fell limply away, and Chong slumped over sideways, his last breath rattling from his throat.

Benny fell backward, kicking himself away from Chong. More hands burst through the dirt and clamped around his wrists.

“No!” Benny bellowed, and he twisted and kicked and bit the fingers until they broke apart and became hot ash. He spat out the ashes and scrambled to his feet. Tom was still coming toward him.

“You should have stayed home,” Morgie said without looking up from what he was doing. “’Cause you know that you’re all gonna die out here.”

“Where’s Nix?” Benny demanded.

Morgie looked up. Instead of eyes he had two empty black holes in his face.

“She’s gonna die too, Benny… and it’s your fault.”

Anger and revulsion warred in Benny’s heart, but he backed away. Suddenly hands grabbed him. Not the cold hands of the buried dead, but two small, warm hands. They touched his back, then his shoulders, and finally the sides of his face. Benny turned slowly, gratitude and relief flooding his heart.

“Nix… God! Where were you?”

His voice trailed away. Nix Riley was a withered thing. Her red hair hung like limp red strings from a scalp that was patchy and blotched. Her skin was leached of color and there were clear signs of bites on her cheeks and shoulders and arms. Worst of all, her eyes… her beautiful green eyes… were wrong. They were a diseased confusion of green and gold and black. The effect was dreadful, the eyes of a thing rather than a girl.

“Benny,” she said, and then she smiled. Rotting lips peeled back from jagged teeth. “Kiss me.”

• • •

Benny screamed himself awake.

He sat up, gasping, heart pounding, his body drenched in sweat. Cold starlight filtered through the leaves, casting the world into a blue-white strangeness, as alien as the dreams-cape from which he’d just escaped.

Benny turned to Nix, surprised that his scream hadn’t startled her awake. Or had the scream been part of the dream too? He touched her arm to gently shake her.

But her skin was as cold as ice.

“W-what…?” Benny’s voice was hollow and brittle.

He turned her over and she moved stiffly, her limbs already freezing into the rigidity of rigor mortis.

“No!” He fumbled at her throat, trying to find her pulse, needing to find at least the thread of it. All he found was slack skin beneath which nothing moved. “NO!”

Benny grabbed her and pulled her to him, a new scream rising like volcanic lava in his chest. How could this be? How was it possible? Was it the cut on her face? No… that was just a cut. Had she been bitten? Where? When?

And that fast he knew the answer. On the field. In the dark. As the fire raged and the smoke obscured everything, one of the shambling monsters had bitten her. In their panic and flight, maybe Nix hadn’t known. Or maybe she had and didn’t dare tell him.

She was like a block of ice in his arms, and Benny cried out her name over and over again. It was impossible. The world could not allow this. It could not be true.

Nix stayed cold and dead in his arms.

Until she moved.

Benny recoiled from her, staring at her, his splintering mind scrabbling for that last bit of hope. Please… let her be okay! Maybe she’s just sick. Please… please… please!

Nix Riley opened her eyes.

They were the green and gold diseased eyes of a zom.

With a snarl of impossible hunger, she lunged at him.

44

AND HE WOKE UP.

The forest was as black as death. The crickets pulsed and the night owls hooted. The girl in his arms was a soft, warm reality.

Benny Imura held her. His heart hammered and hammered. Sweat poured down his face, mingling with his tears.

“Nix,” he said gently. She moaned softly in her sleep, lost in her own dreams, and snuggled against him. He held her as tightly as he could without waking her. Benny did not sleep again the rest of the night.

He did not dare.

45

TOM IMURA WAS UP LONG BEFORE DAWN. HE FIXED A QUICK MEAL FOR himself and Sally, refilled their canteens from a small stream, and was ready to go by the time there was enough light to be able to distinguish shadows from substance.

It took Sally Two-Knives a little longer to climb out of the well of sleep, but after she’d eaten something and had her fill of water, she looked and sounded much better than she had the night before. “You’ll live,” Tom said with gentle humor.

“I’ve actually had worse,” she said, carefully probing the knife wound beneath the bandage. “So have you.”

He shrugged. “Fact of life.”

Sally reached out a hand. “Help me up.”

He did. They were both very careful about it, and Sally micromanaged the process with a lot of curses and complaints until she was on her feet and leaning against one of the rocks that formed their shelter. “Well,” she said, “that was interesting.”

“You shouldn’t be up.”

“Can’t stay here. Besides, my horse is out there somewhere. I find her, I’ll be okay.”

“Riding a horse with a stab wound is-”

“-going to hurt, no kidding. Better than walking.”

“You should try and rest for most of the-”

“Don’t even try, Tom. It’s kind of you to be nice to a lady-if we can suspend disbelief long enough to use that word for me-but you need to go find that boy, and I need to go find your brother and the girls.”

Tom had no argument for that. “Thanks, Sally. Can I do anything for-”

“Get your ass in gear, boy. You’re burning daylight.”

He smiled. It was only barely bright enough to see the path. Tom nodded and was about to step back when Sally grabbed him by the front of the shirt with her good hand and pulled him in for a whopper of a kiss. When she finally pushed him back, he gasped and blinked like a trout on a riverbank.

“Wow!”

“In case I don’t ever see you again, Tom,” she said, giving him a wicked little smile. “I don’t want you to forget me.”

“Um… not a chance. Wow.” He gave her a last smile, turned, and vanished into the forest.

Sally watched him go. In the brief moment between his smile and his departure, as he turned away, she saw the smile fall away from his handsome face to be replaced by the face of the hunter. She repeated what she’d said the night before.

“God help anyone who gets in your way.”

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Zom 101

Zom: What just about everyone calls the living dead.

Zom: Nomadic zoms. Ones that walk around but aren’t actually following prey. (Most zoms don’t move unless they are following something.)

Walker: Another name for a Nom, though some people call all zoms walkers.

Sliver: A thin piece of metal with a sharpened tip used to “quiet” a zom. It’s inserted at the base of the skill in order to sever the spinal cord.

Quieting: What people call it when a zom is “killed” permanently.

46

BENNY LET NIX SLEEP UNTIL THE WHOLE FOREST WAS INFUSED WITH A pink light. He studied the woods, looking for any signs of zoms. Or of Lilah. Or Tom. No sign of the Greenman, either. For the moment it appeared as if they had the forest all to themselves.

Benny touched Nix’s face with his thumb, caressing her cheek very gently. He lifted the edge of the bandage and studied the long cut and the delicate stitchery. The wound was a little red and puffy, but it wasn’t bad.

Nix made a soft sound and opened her eyes. Green eyes. Not green and gold and black.

“Hey,” she said almost shyly, smiling up at him.

“Hey yourself.”

“What time is it?”

“Half hour past dawn.”

Nix stretched against him and then sat up and yawned so hard her jaws creaked. Then she held her palm up and breathed against it. “Gak! I have monkey breath.”

“Mine’s closer to one of the great apes,” he said.

Their backpacks and gear were back at the way station.

Or in the ashes of it. All they had was what they’d carried in their vests and jeans pockets. Matches, first aid kit, sewing kit, knives, cadaverine. No toothbrushes. Nothing to eat.

Benny handed her his canteen and she rinsed and spat. Then she told him to take off his vest and open his shirt. He was shy about it-not from modesty but because he didn’t really want to know how bad the burn was. It hurt less this morning, but his mind conjured images of charred ends of bone sticking out of gangrenous flesh.

The actual wound was almost disappointing. Three lines of blistered skin, each no wider than a pencil and each less than an inch long. The skin around the burns was puffy, but there was no sign of infection.

“You’ll live,” Nix declared as she finished cleaning the burns with a piece of bandage.

“Doesn’t even hurt,” he said, but he was sure she didn’t believe him.

His stomach suddenly growled as loud as a hungry zom. “We need to find some food.”

They removed the bokkens from Benny’s carpet coat and climbed carefully down from the tree. It was a slow and painful process; they were both stiff and sore. As they dropped to the grass they both froze.

There was something at the base of the tree. Someone had placed several fist-size stones in a tight circle to act as a base on which was placed a large hand-carved wooden tray. Large, clean leaves covered the tray, and a wonderful aroma drifted out from beneath them. Nix lifted the leaves and gasped. Benny’s mouth fell open. The wooden plate was piled high with fat yellow mounds of scrambled eggs, thick fried potatoes, and a mound of fresh strawberries.

“What?” Benny asked, looking around. “Who-?”

“Who cares?” Nix said as she scooped a handful of eggs off the plate. “God… there’s enough here for ten people.”

“We are awake, right?”

Nix laughed and shoved eggs into his mouth. He chewed. It was cold but delicious.

“Does this make any sense?” he asked as scooped up more eggs with his fingers.

Nix shook her head, then shrugged. “Maybe. Possible sense, anyway. Think about it.”

It took two mouthfuls of eggs and three potatoes before he caught up with her. “Man, I’m slow!”

“Gee, that’s a news flash,” she said, her cheeks filled like a squirrel.

“The Greenman!”

“Question is,” Nix said, swallowing, “why?”

“He’s a friend of Tom’s.”

She nodded. “Wonder why he didn’t hang around to say hi?”

“No idea. Wish I knew where he lived. Tom said it’s around here somewhere. Probably pretty well hidden, though. Guy’s not supposed to be very social.”

They ate for a while, then Nix said, “God… there are so many questions. What’s happening with Tom and Chong? Where’s Lilah? Who took the cans down last night? Why did all those zoms attack us? And what’s with that freak Preacher Jack?”

Benny smiled. “Since when did you think I knew what the heck was going on?”

“Always a first time.”

“Maybe,” he said, “but today isn’t that day.” He rubbed his hands briskly over his face. “Okay… so, what’s the plan?”

“Plan?” she replied. “Don’t you have one?”

“Um… what makes you think the ‘no answer’ guy is the ‘I have a plan’ guy?”

“’Cause I don’t have a plan either,” she said.

“Ah.” They looked around, watching the woods as if answers would magically appear. “We could wait here and see if the Greenman comes back.”

Benny shook his head. “I don’t think he will. He didn’t wait for us last night, and he didn’t stick around to have breakfast with us this morning.”

Nix sighed. “Maybe we should go back and take a look at the field and the way station. From a distance, I mean. See what’s what.”

“Sure,” he said, brightening. “That’s very plan-like.”

They shared the last of the eggs and potatoes and stuffed their pockets with the strawberries. They wiped the plate clean with leaves and left it at the base of the tree. Benny wrote “Thanks!” in big letters in the dirt.

He turned and caught her watching him, her smile faint and her eyes distant.

“What?” Benny asked.

She blinked, and he thought he saw shutters close behind her eyes. “Nothing.”

Back in town Benny would have let that go, but in a lot of ways he felt like he had left behind the version of himself who was afraid to ask these kinds of questions. So he said, “No… there was something. The way you were looking at me. What is it?”

Birds sang in trees for almost five seconds before she answered. “Back in town… on your roof… I asked you if you loved me. Did you mean it?”

Benny’s mouth went dry. “Yes.”

“You haven’t said it since.”

A defensive reply leaped to his lips, but instead he said, “Neither have you.”

“No,” she admitted, her voice small. She squinted into the morning sunlight. “Maybe… maybe if leaving town had been easier…”

He waited.

“… it would be easier to say,” Nix finished. “But out here…”

“I know,” he said. “I feel it too.”

“Do you understand it?” she pleaded. “I’ve been trying to, but I can’t put it into the right words.”

Go for it, whispered the inner voice. Tell her the truth.

Benny nodded. “I think so. At least… I understand why I haven’t said it. Since we left town, we’ve been in trouble. Our ‘road trip’ hasn’t exactly been a load of fun. Saying ‘I love you’ out here… don’t laugh, but it would feel like taking off my carpet coat and walking out into a crowd of zoms. Saying it out loud just makes me feel vulnerable. Is that stupid?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s not stupid.”

“My turn to ask a question,” Benny said, and even though Nix stiffened, he plowed ahead. “Do you wish I hadn’t said it? At all, I mean?”

Strange lights flickered in the green depths of her eyes. “When you think the time is right,” she said, “try it again and see what happens.”

Benny’s insecurities wanted to read her comment in all the wrong ways, but his inner voice whispered a different suggestion to him. He said, “Count on it.”

She held out her hand. “So… want to go for a walk?”

“Well… it’s that or clean my room, but since my room is a tree…”

He took her hand, and they walked under the canopy of cool green leaves. Birds sang in the trees, and the grass beneath their feet glistened with morning dew. The first of the day’s bees buzzed softly among the flowers, going about their ancient and important work, collecting nectar and taking pollen from one flower to another. Cyclones of gnats spiraled up from the grass and swirled through the slanting sunlight. The loveliness of the forest was magical and fresh, but it was also immense. Neither of them spoke, unable to phrase their reactions to the rampant beauty and unwilling to trouble the air with the horrors that haunted their hearts.

Despite the warm reality of each other’s hands, they felt incredibly alone. Desolate. Even though they knew that Tom and Lilah and Chong were somewhere in this same forest, it was as if everyone else was on a different planet. Mountainside-home-was a million miles away. The jumbo jet could well have been on the far side of the world, or something from an old dream.

The rocky path wound down among trees and shrubs, and most of the way there was no evidence of what had happened last night except the smell of ash on the breeze. Then they rounded a bend, and all that changed.

“God…,” Nix said in a hollow whisper.

The field was a massive ruin. Trees had burned to stumps, bushes had been reduced to ash. The way station was nothing more than a blackened shell.

However, that was not the worst of it. Not by a long shot. Everywhere-on the field, collapsed over the glacial boulders, twisted into bony knots on the concrete slab by the station-were corpses. Last night they had been the living dead; now they were merely dead, the life force burned out of them by the conflagration Benny had set loose with a tiny match.

It was all so still. A blasted expanse of ash and cracked bones. Nix turned away.

Benny lowered his head. “I’m sorry,” he said.

Nix touched his arm. “This isn’t your fault. You didn’t mean-”

“Yes I did, Nix.” He turned to her and brushed a strand of curly red hair away from her face. “I started the fire because I didn’t know what else to do. I killed all those…”

“Zoms, Benny. They’re zoms. You can’t kill them.”

“I know… but…”

She looked puzzled. “What?”

“They were people once.”

“I know.”

“What if…” He stopped and took a breath, thinking of the terrible heat and of the flames spreading so rapidly on dry skin and old clothes. “What if they could feel it?”

“They can’t, Benny,” said Nix softly. “They’re dead.”

“We don’t know what they are. The dead are dead, they don’t move, they rot and turn to dust. The zoms… they move around. Sure, they attack people, but that’s the point. Dead people can’t do that… so what are they really? Why do they moan? Are they trying to communicate somehow? Are they trying to say something? Or… does being a zom hurt?”

“Hurt?”

“From what’s happened to them, and what’s still happening. The wounds that killed them, the decay… can they feel it?”

“They’re rotting, Benny. Their bodies move around, but there’s no intelligence.”

He shook his head. “We don’t really know that, Nix, and don’t pretend we do. Tom’s seen them turn door handles and climb steps. He says that some of them pick up stuff to use as weapons. Sticks and stones. The one last night beat on the door. That says something. That says there’s something going on inside.”

“Benny, a squirrel will pick stuff up. A cat will swat at stuff. It doesn’t mean-”

“That’s just it!” he cried. “Even if they’re only like a squirrel or a cat, or even if they’re only as smart as a bug, Nix… even bugs feel pain.”

She shook her head and looked at the twisted wreckage of zombie corpses lying in the ash. “No,” she said. “You’re going to drive yourself crazy thinking like that. Tom’s quieted thousands of zoms. He never said anything about them feeling pain.”

“How would he know?”

“Tom would know,” she said firmly. Benny listened to her words, but he also heard something in her voice. A tremor of doubt.

Let it be, whispered his inner voice. Now’s not the time.

He nodded and Nix looked relieved, thinking that he was agreeing with her. Benny stepped onto the ash and walked slowly over to the way station. The building was a total loss. Only the front wall still stood; the rest lay in heaps. Benny touched a finger to the outside wall. It was almost cool and covered with a thin film of soot. He nodded again, considering things very carefully, and then used his finger to write a message.

T / L / C

WE’RE FINE. HOPE YOU ARE TOO.

HEADING ON. YOU KNOW WHERE TO

LOOK FOR US.

W.S.

B / N

“W.S.?” Nix murmured. “Warrior smart?”

“Yeah. I want him to know we’re using what he taught us.”

“So… we’re heading east?”

“I guess,” he said. “To Yosemite. It’s that or go back to town. I sure don’t want to wait around here. I don’t know what drove all those zoms down here last night, and I don’t want to find out.”

He hadn’t yet told her about the man he’d seen standing among the zoms. The man he was pretty sure was Charlie Pink-eye. How could he tell Nix that her mother’s murderer was still out here, still roaming the world free?

Benny knew he would have to tell her soon. But not here and not now.

Nix touched the wall below the first line. T for Tom. L for Lilah. C for Chong. “It’s funny, but Mom used those letters to mean ‘tender loving care.’” She turned away. “That was a different world.”

“Yes, it was,” he agreed.

“We don’t belong there anymore.”

“No.”

She narrowed her eyes and surveyed the way ahead. Past the blackened ruins, toward the green expanse of the forest and the mountains in the east. “It’s funny,” she said. “I actually thought this part-getting started, I mean-would be the easy part. I expected it to get harder later, but I thought that this would be… I don’t know… kind of ordinary. We’ve been out to Brother David’s a million times… but we’re not even twenty miles from home.”

“I don’t know if anything’s going to be easy, Nix.”

She glanced at him, her lip caught between her even white teeth. She said, “Benny… if you say, ‘Let’s go back,’ I will. Right now. So help me, God… I’ll go back.”

He looked into her eyes and then turned and stared across the charred field of bones to the path that led up into the northwestern slopes. Then he drew a breath and let it out before he turned back. “You already said it, Nix,” he said. “We don’t belong there anymore.”

Doubt darkened her face. “Do we belong here?”

“I don’t know.” He knelt and used a handful of withered grass to wipe the soot from his finger. “Maybe we don’t belong anywhere. But I got to tell you, Nix, it cost us too much to get this far to go back now. We have to keep going.”

“We don’t have to prove anything, Benny.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I kind of think we do.” Then he smiled. The first real smile he’d worn since they left the tree. “Don’t ask me what it is, though.”

Then he kissed her. First, very lightly on the line of stitches that crossed her brow, and then more firmly on the lips.

She kissed him back, and it wasn’t merely reflex. She kissed him like she meant it. Then she stepped back and looked him with green eyes that were filled with a thousand mysteries. For once Benny felt like he understood some of them.

He smiled and held out his hand, and Nix took it. Together they turned away from the charred graveyard of the dead and headed east. The road before them was tangled in weeds, but the sun glimmered like a promise on every blade of grass.

As they walked away they did not see the figure that stepped from behind a stand of fire-blackened pines. It was a tall man. Thin as a scarecrow in a black coat, with white hair that fluttered in the hot wind. He watched the two teenagers as they walked along the road.

The man moved as silently as a shadow as he crossed the field to the way station. He stopped and those cold eyes read the message written in the soot. His lips moved as he read the words, and then he chuckled softly to himself.

He stood for a long time with his lips pursed, considering the words. Then he used the hard, flat palm of his hand to wipe them out. All that remained was a smear of soot. The figure turned and looked at the road. Nix and Benny were tiny dots now, and as he watched they vanished into the far woods.

The man smiled and, quiet as death, followed.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Tom on Quieting Zoms

Tom Imura: “Put a bullet through the brain stem and you switch off your zombie. The same holds for a sword or ax cut, or sufficient blunt force trauma. However, if you inflict minor damage to the brain stem, you may remove some of the zombie’s functions… he might be unable to bite or unable to maintain balance. The bottom line here is that the real off buttons for a zombie are the brain stem and the motor cortex.”

47

LILAH CROUCHED BENEATH THE SHELTERING ARMS OF A MASSIVE OAK TREE. Cool green darkness wrapped around her. Her white hair was tangled with moss and bits of leaves. There were long rips in her shirt. She had no memory of what had torn the fabric. Sharp branches or broken fingernails. Her pistol was gone. Her knife was gone. She’d left her spear buried in the chest of a zom back at the edge of the burned field. It was hours before she realized that she was no longer carrying it.

She had no memory of most of the night. Her head felt broken. As broken as her heart. When she touched her face she was surprised to find fresh tears, but an hour later the surprise turned to panic when she realized that she was still crying. That she could not stop crying. There were no sobs. Just tears. Cold against the fevered heat of her skin.

From where she crouched she could see Benny and Nix enter the field. She saw what Benny wrote on the wall, and she watched them walk away to the east. She saw the tall man with the snow-white hair follow them. Three times she almost rose to her feet, almost waved. Almost called out their names.

Each time she did not. Each time she felt that her whole body was one lump of useless muscle. Nothing seemed to work, none of the muscle and bone seemed to be connected to her brain. Her body squatted there under the tree, and her mind merely looked out through the prison windows of her eyes.

Tears broke and rolled and fell in a terrible silence.

Lilah had barely known her mother. She had been a toddler on First Night. She remembered screams and pain. She remembered being carried. Sometimes by a woman-probably her mother-and sometimes by other people. She remembered her mother dying as she gave birth to Annie, Lilah’s sister. Those memories were a million years ago. Lifetimes ago.

It had not been her mother who raised Lilah and Annie. It had been George Goldman. He wasn’t her father. Lilah never knew who her father was. George was another survivor of the zombie plague, the last of the adults to survive out of a group that had fled from Los Angeles. George hadn’t known Lilah’s mother except for a few desperate hours. They hadn’t swapped life stories. Lilah’s mother had died, and then she’d come back. As everyone came back. George and the other survivors had done what was necessary.

Lilah remembered that. She’d seen it, and she’d screamed and screamed and screamed until her throat had been torn raw, leaving her with a whisper of a voice.

For years after that George had been the only adult Lilah and Annie knew. He raised them. Taught them to read. Fed them, and protected them, and taught them to fight. Then Charlie Pink-eye and the Motor City Hammer had found them. They beat George and took the girls to Gameland.

Lilah never saw George again. He had looked for the girls. Looked everywhere he could. He went a little crazy, Tom said; and somewhere out in the Ruin, Charlie or the Hammer had murdered him and made it look like suicide.

In the fighting pits at Gameland, Lilah and Annie had been forced to fight for their survival. Annie was little, but she was tough. Lilah had been older. On one rainy night she had escaped from the locked cabin where they kept her. She stole some weapons and came back to the camp to find Annie, to free her so they could both escape. But Annie had also tried to escape, and the Hammer had chased her. Annie fell, hit her head, and died; and she’d been left there in the mud like trash.

When Lilah found her, little Annie was just coming back from that dark place where the dead go and from which only zoms return. Lilah almost let Annie bite her. Almost.

It had come down to that, to a moment when the only pathway that seemed to lead out of hell was the one where she would become a thing like her sister. It seemed so easy. To simply stop fighting, stop struggling, and give in. Then she looked into Annie’s eyes… and Annie was not there. Her eyes were not windows into her sister’s soul. They were dusty glass through which the only thing that could be seen was the emptiness where Annie had once been.

Lilah had done what she had to do. She had quieted little Annie.

For years she lived alone in the woods. She had no conversations. She spoke to no one. She didn’t even speak aloud to herself. She found books and read them. She learned the art of making weapons. She became a hunter and a killer.

Then she met Benny and Nix, and the world changed for her.

Together they destroyed Charlie and the Hammer. Together they saved other children, kids who would not die in the rain like Annie, or be left to grow strange and wild like herself. Nix, Benny, and Tom took her in, took her to their home. The Chongs welcomed her into their family, treating her like one of their own.

Now Chong was gone. Lost and probably dead in the woods. And maybe that was her fault. The thought was like a knife in her own head.

Benny and Nix walked into the east, their bodies seeming to glow with reflected sunlight.

Lilah thought about what Benny had said, and about her own words-to Benny, and to Chong. The tears would not stop.

Time rolled on, losing meaning and dimension to her. Then… there was a rustling sound behind her. A day ago she would have turned cat-quick, her senses as sharp as the blades she carried. Now she ignored it-aware but uncaring. If it was a zom, then it was a zom. The most it could do was kill her. Worse had been done to her over the years.

A figure moved from behind her and walked slowly around her.

Not a zom. Not Chong or Benny. Not Charlie.

This figure was dressed all in green. Leaves and sprigs of flowers were stitched onto his clothes. She looked up at him, seeing him indistinctly through the glaze of tears. His face was made of leaves too.

She knew the face and the clothing. She had seen them a dozen times over the years, though always at a distance. Benny had a Zombie Card with his picture on it. The Greenman.

Sunlight glittered on the hard length of something the Greenman held in both hands. Her spear. She said nothing.

The Greenman let it fall to the ground, where it almost vanished amid tall grass and shadows. Then the man removed his mask. It was really a piece of camouflage netting hung from the brim of a green cloth hat. Beneath the mask was a face that was seamed and suntanned. Bald on top and bearded below, the hair as white as Lilah’s. Laugh lines were etched around sad eyes.

Lilah stared at the man’s face. There were scars, old and new. The Greenman bent and touched the tear tracks on her cheeks. She almost flinched. She could feel it begin inside her muscles, but she didn’t. Maybe because she was too tired from lack of sleep, panic, terror and a night of running. Or maybe because this man did not seem to want to do her harm.

He rubbed his fingertips together, feeling her tears, working the moisture into his skin.

“I… I’m sorry,” she said in a pale whisper.

He smiled at her. “No.”

Then he crossed his legs and lowered himself down to the grass. He did not ask her to stop crying. He did not ask her any questions. He sat in front of her, the sunlight making his white beard glow, and he smiled. At her. At the birds in the trees and the first dragonflies of spring. Lilah caved forward onto her knees and crawled toward him. She collapsed a few inches away. The Greenman did not touch her. He did not try to pull her out of what she was feeling.

He allowed, and that was enough.

PART FOUR. HIGHWAY TO HELL

To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.

– BERTRAND USSELL

48

LOU CHONG YELPED IN FEAR AND BACKPEDALED AWAY AS THE ZOMBIE tumbled into the pit. He pressed his back against the cold dirt wall and threw an arm up to shield his face. The creature struck the ground with a crunch of brittle bones. The crowd above him laughed like they were watching a clown act. People were calling fresh bets based on whether they thought the zom had broken any bones that would prevent him from attacking Chong.

Chong hesitated, looking down at the zom as it moaned and tried to get to its feet.

He wanted to run and hide, but he was in a fifteen-foot-wide pit. Running and hiding were not options. He racked his brain to decide how to survive this. The moment needed action. What was the smart thing to do?

What would Tom do? Before that thought had even finished forming, Chong was moving. He launched himself off the wall, raised the iron pipe over his head, and brought it down with all his force on the back of the zom’s head.

Crunch!

The creature dropped to the ground. The crowd above him went totally silent. A single ration dollar fell downward, seesawing through the humid air.

The zom twitched. One kick of the leg. A tremble of its fingers. Chong growled deep in his throat and hit it again. Harder. This time the crunch was wetter.

The zom stopped moving.

The crowd… went wild. Cheers and applause.

Chong lowered the pipe and looked up at the crowd. The Burned Man crouched on the edge of the pit, grinning like a ghoul.

“Well, well… I’ll be double damned,” he said. “Folks, it looks like we got us a bona-fide zombie killer. Yes sir, that’s what we have here.”

The crowd cheered. Fistfuls of money flashed back and forth. “Give him another!” someone shouted, and instantly the chorus was picked up until everyone was yelling it.

“Okay, okay!” laughed the Burned Man. “Customer’s always right. Nestor? Crab? Bring us another gladiator. Let’s have something really fresh.”

The two assistants wore wicked smiles as they vanished. Betting ramped up until the oddsmaker had to yell at the crowd, “Give me a bloody chance to count, damn you!”

Chong tried not to shiver. In truth he was no longer cold, but he trembled from hair to toes as he waited for the next monster. A shadow obscured the opening, and he looked up sharply to see the long boom of a wooden crane swinging out over the edge. A figure dangled from the pulley, thrashing and twisting. A rope had been looped under its arms, and once it was down, the rope would fall away and the zombie would be free.

The Burned Man leaned over the edge. “We don’t want to damage the goods a second time,” he said, and the comment drew a fresh wave of harsh laughter.

Nestor and Crab turned the winch, and immediately the thrashing zom began descending into the fighting pit. Chong backed to the wall. This zom was massive. Burly, like a bull wrangler or one of the pit throwers back home. Huge chest and stomach, massive arms, almost no neck, and eyes that blazed with dark fire. His skin showed no signs of putrefaction. He hadn’t been dead for very long.

What had Tom told him about the newly risen? They seemed smarter. They were stronger and a little faster. More coordinated. The decay of their motor cortex hadn’t yet reduced them to staggering scarecrows.

Chong gripped the pipe and licked his lips again. “Warrior smart,” he muttered.

“Let ’er go!” ordered the Burned Man. Crab and Nestor jerked the rope from around the big man’s body and whipped it up and through the pulley. The zom dropped the last few inches and landed heavily on its feet.

The creature was immense. Maybe six foot five and at least three hundred pounds, even with no blood left in its veins. Chong was five-eight and weighed 130.

The zom landed facing the opposite side of the pit. Chong had one chance to rush in and bash it with the club. He surged forward, but before his first step touched down he was struck full in the face by a bucketful of icy water. It was so shocking, so surprising, that it stopped him like a punch to the face. Coughing, sputtering, gasping, Chong dropped the pipe and staggered backward, thumping hard into the wall. He pawed water out of his eyes and looked up to see the Burned Man holding an empty bucket.

“Got to make things fair, little man,” he said amid shrill laughter and catcalls.

The splash of the water and Chong’s own confused sputtering made the zombie turn around. It stared at him with those bottomless black eyes. Pale lips curled back from teeth that were still white and strong.

The pipe lay on the ground five inches from the zombie’s feet. Six feet away from Chong.

The zom uttered a moan of hunger that was newly awakened and that could never be satisfied. The monster raised its massive hands and then lunged for Chong.

49

SALLY TWO-KNIVES FOUND HER HORSE DRINKING FROM A STREAM. SHE clicked her tongue and the big Appaloosa-Posey by name-raised her speckled head and stared. Then she whinnied happily and trotted up the hill to meet Sally.

Sally sheathed her knife, patted the horse’s cheek, and kissed her. “You big goof!” she scolded. “You ran off and left Mama out here all alone. What were you thinking?”

“Probably thought you were dead,” said a voice from behind her. Sally whirled around, grabbing for her knife. The blade whipped out of its sheath, but the movement tore a cry of pain from Sally.

Despite the pain, she smiled as a man stepped out of the shadows beneath a tall spruce.

He was medium height, built like a wrestler, and bald as an egg, with chocolate-brown skin and a small goatee shot through with streaks of white. He had a pair of machetes slung over his back and a.45 automatic in a Marine Corps web belt strapped to his waist.

“Damn!” said Sally. “As I live and breathe!”

The man grinned. “I thought that crazy horse was yours. I tried to ride her but she tried to eat me, so we were both letting things calm down before we had another go at it.”

Sally Two-Knives gave him a charming, coquettish smile. “Solomon Jones… why are you trying to steal my horse?”

Solomon opened his arms. “Give us a hug, girl.”

Sally did, but gently, hissing a little as Solomon gathered her in his powerful arms. When he heard the hiss he let her go, ranging his eyes up and down and finally taking in the sling and the bandages.

“Whoa, now… what’s wrong?”

“Well,” said Sally, “the old girl ain’t what she used to be.” She told him everything. Solomon listened with great interest. Like Sally, he was an unaffiliated bounty hunter, mostly working the kind of closure jobs that Tom Imura took and doing some occasional cleanups and guard work. He’d come west from Pennsylvania after First Night with his two kids and a ragtag collection of refugees he picked up during the three-thousand-mile trek through what was becoming the Rot and Ruin. Solomon lived in Fairview, where, also like Tom, he had tried and failed for years to get the town to organize a militia to patrol the part of the Ruin that ran along the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

By the time Sally was done telling her story, Solomon was nodding. “This all fits,” he said, “but it’s worse than you know. White Bear’s got more than seventy goons in his crew, and some of them are real gangsters. Actual gangsters from before First Night. There’s two I know will be trouble. Heap Garrison and Digger Harris. Digger used to be a leg-breaker for the Mob in Detroit, and wasn’t Heap with the Russian Mafia? Or that’s what people say.”

Sally made a face. “Nice.”

“I was looking for Tom,” said Solomon. “Ran into Fluffy McTeague over by Coldwater Creek, and he said that Tom was bugging out. Looking for that jet. I thought that wasn’t until next week.”

“He changed his mind. Wanted to get out of Dodge. Why were you looking for him?” she asked.

“To talk him the heck out of going,” said Solomon. “I’ve been hitting the wall trying to get the militia idea to go anywhere.”

“So has Tom.”

“So has everyone who’s tried to do it alone. I wanted to get Tom to agree to be the spokesman for a committee. Make a case to the towns, one after the other. Campaign for it.”

“Might have worked, Sol,” she said, “but it’s about two days too late. Besides, Tom’s got enough to worry about right now.”

“With Gameland, you mean? Is he really going to tear it down again?”

“Don’t know about tearing it down, but he’s going to get that kid back. His brother and the other kids are waiting for him back at Brother David’s and-”

“No, they’re not,” said Solomon firmly. “I just came through there. Somebody torched it. Turned a couple thousand zoms into crispy critters. No trace of Brother David or the girls.”

Sally swore. “God… you don’t think Tom’s brother was burned up, do you?”

“Hope not, but I don’t think so. There were tracks leading off into the field, off toward Wawona. The kids probably went that way. If I’d known that it was only kids, I’d have gone after them. Bad stuff’s happening in the east.”

“I know.” Sally narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “You said you saw Fluffy? Anyone else around?”

“With all that’s going on? Everybody’s around, and I have half a dozen people out looking for Tom.”

Sally narrowed her eyes. “How fast could you get them together?”

“Pretty fast. But it’d have to be for a good reason. Why?”

“I’m starting to have a thought here.”

“What kind of thought?”

“A dangerous one.”

He grinned. “Tell me, girl.”

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Why do zoms eat only living creatures?

Firsthand accounts of zoms say that they will attack and eat any living creature. Humans, animals, birds, insects, and reptiles. No one knows if they will attack fish.

It has been speculated that it is warm, living flesh that attracts the zombies’ appetites, but then how do you explain zoms who eat insects? Insects don’t have much body heat.

Heat alone can’t be what attracts them, because if that was the case they’d continue to feed on the recently dead. But they don’t. Once something has died, zoms lose interest pretty quickly. (It takes hours for a body to cool to room temperature.)

If zombies are attracted to warm flesh, then they should logically be compelled to feast longer on victims in warmer climates and less so on victims in cooler climates.

Zoms don’t attack people who are wearing cadaverine. Is it smell that attracts them? That doesn’t make sense, because a freshly killed person or animal doesn’t smell like decaying flesh, but zoms stop eating it.

THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE, AND IT’S DRIVING ME CRAZY!

50

“HOW FAR IS IT TO YOSEMITE?” BENNY ASKED, PEERING AHEAD TO the hazy mass of dark green in the distance.

Nix fanned a cloud of gnats away from her face. “Not sure. How far do you think we’ve come?”

Benny glanced at the sun. “We’ve been walking for three hours. With this terrain, figure about three miles an hour. Maybe a little less. Call it two and a half, which means we’ve come about seven to eight miles since we left the way station.”

Nix tugged her journal out of its pocket and flipped open to one of the pages of maps she’d painstakingly copied. There was one map that showed the eastern side of Mariposa County, with the town of Mountainside circled. A strip of cardboard with incremental mile marks measured onto it was clipped to the page. Nix removed it and found another circled spot marked BD/WS. Brother David’s way station. “Tom said he wanted to take us to Wawona, over near the Merced River.” She did some math in her head and announced, “We could be as close as eight miles to Wawona.”

The thought of the big hotel, with its frequent travelers and patrolled woods, was comforting. Maybe if they regrouped there, they could actually make a decent start on the trip to find the jet. “Someone at the hotel might have seen the jet,” Benny said. “Tom says that there are travelers through there all the time.”

“Like Preacher Jack,” Nix reminded him, then added under her breath, “Freak.”

Benny nodded and pulled out his canteen for a drink. “We’ll be careful. Besides, Tom will know that’s where we went.”

She took the last of the Greenman’s strawberries and gave Benny half of them. “I would love one of Tom’s Sunday dinners right about now. A big steak so rare it would moo when I stuck my fork in it. Spinach and sweet corn. And those honey biscuits he makes from my mom’s recipes. And one of his apple pies with raisins.”

“With raisins and walnuts,” corrected Benny. “It’s important.” They walked, thinking about a feast. “They’ll have plenty of food at the hotel.”

“If they don’t, I’m going to bite your arm off.”

The joke conjured an image of her from his dream. “Come on, Nix,” he said quickly. “We can be there in a couple of hours.”

She looked back the way they’d come. “They will find us, won’t they?”

“Sure,” he said, and for the first time today he actually meant it. “And we’ll be okay until they do.”

The fields, valleys, and meadows through which they’d walked had been clear of serious threats. They’d spotted a few zoms, but each time, Benny and Nix circled around them and kept moving. Neither of them felt any desire to attack zoms unless there was no choice. Last year, on his first trip into the Ruin, Benny and Tom had spied on a trio of bounty hunters who were beating and torturing zombies for fun. The men were laughing and having a good time; however, Benny was instantly sickened by the sight, and the memory was like an open wound in his mind.

“Let’s go,” Nix said, and they began walking again. Even though it was early April and they were in higher elevations, the sun was hot. Most of the clouds had burned off, and neither of them had a hat.

“Wow,” gasped Benny, reaching for his canteen again, “we should sit some of this out and start again when the sun’s not four inches from the top of our heads.”

“I’m for that,” Nix agreed glumly, then brightened and pointed. “Look! Apples.”

They left the road and cut through a field to an overgrown orchard. They collected an armload of apples and settled down with their backs to a bullet-pocked stone wall. The stones were cool, and the apples were sweet. There was a burned-out farmhouse nearby, and beyond that was a barn that had once been painted bright red but that fourteen years had faded to a shade of rust resembling dried blood. A line of crows stood along the peaked roof, dozing in the afternoon heat.

Benny and Nix took off their sweltering carpet coats, and both of them were soaked with sweat. Benny was so exhausted that he was almost-almost-too weary to notice how Nix’s clothes were pasted to her body. He quietly banged his head on the stone wall. Then he closed his eyes and tried counting to fifty million. Eventually he opened his eyes and busied himself slicing apples for them. After a while, Nix pulled out her journal again and started writing.

“What are you doing?” Benny asked, munching on a slice of apple.

“Making a list.”

“Of?”

“Things I don’t understand about what’s been happening.”

“That’s going to be a long list. What do you have so far?”

She chewed the end of her pencil. “Okay, I get the rhinoceros. Zoos and circuses and all. That one makes sense… but what about the guy we found tied to the truck? Who was he and why was he fed to the zoms? And by whom? And worse… why didn’t he reanimate?”

Benny glumly shook his head.

“What does it mean?” Nix asked. “What could it mean? Is the plague or radiation or whatever it is wearing off? Or are we just now discovering that some people are immune to it?”

“Wouldn’t we know that already?” Benny asked.

“With three hundred million zoms in America? How would anyone know, especially if it was rare?”

“The bounty hunters would know,” insisted Benny. “Tom would have known. He’s all over the place. He hears all sorts of stuff. If that’s been happening, then he knows about it.”

“Okay,” she said, nodding thoughtfully, “I’ll buy that… but wouldn’t that mean the other idea is more likely?”

“That whatever caused the zoms to rise in the first place might be coming to an end?” Benny thought about it. “That would be pretty amazing.”

“If it’s true…,” Nix said dubiously. “Then there’s the big weirdness at the way station. Brother David, Shanti, and Sarah missing. And all the stuff Tom sent for our road trip.”

“And the zoms,” Benny added. “Tom told me that sometimes a bunch of zoms would follow something, like a herd of wild horses or a running bear. He called it ‘flocking.’ Is that what we saw last night?”

“No way,” Nix said firmly. “Last night was no accident. It felt like a planned attack. I think someone drove them down out of the mountains like Lilah did with the zoms from the Hungry Forest.”

They ate their apples in silence for a while.

“Nix,” Benny said tentatively, “there’s… something I have to tell you. Something I didn’t want to say last night.”

“Is it about Lilah?” Nix said quickly.

He turned and looked at her.

“Lilah? What about her? Because she ran off?”

Nix colored. “No, never mind. Go ahead… what were you going to say?”

He took a breath. “Last night… when we were in the field with all those zoms? Before I started the fire? I… um… saw someone.”

“Who?”

Benny cleared his throat. “It was dark. I was scared. There were a million freaking zoms, so I can’t be sure and I’m probably wrong, but… I think I saw Charlie Pink-eye.”

She whipped around and grabbed his sleeve with her small, strong fists. She shook him. “What?”

“Whoa! Ow, you’re banging my head against the stones.”

Nix abruptly stopped shaking him, but her fists stayed knotted in his sleeve. “You saw him?”

“No, I said I wasn’t sure. The dark and the zoms and all-”

“Was he alive or a zom?”

“I… don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me, Benny Imura!”

“I’m not-I don’t know. It was just a second. I-I think he might have been alive, but the zoms weren’t attacking him.”

“He could have had cadaverine on, Benny, just like we did.”

“I know. But something wasn’t right about it. It might not even have been him.”

Nix stared into his eyes for a long time and then let him go with a little push. She suddenly got up and walked a dozen paces away, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest as if she stood in a cold wind. Benny got up more slowly but stayed by the wall.

He watched her as she worked it through. Every angle of her body seemed jagged and sharp, her posture charged with tension. Benny could only imagine what horrors were playing out in Nix’s mind. The man who had beaten and murdered her mother and then kidnapped her. The thought that somehow Charlie had orchestrated the zombie assault on the way station was horrible. It also made a queer kind of sense, since a swarm of zombies had been used to destroy Charlie’s team. An eye for an eye?

“Nix?”

She ignored him, standing stiff and trembling under the unrelenting sun. Benny waited for her. Three minutes passed. Four. Five. Gradually, by slow and painful degrees, the harsh lines of tension drained from Nix’s shoulders and back. When she turned around, Benny could see unshed tears in the corners of her eyes. She looked at him blankly for a moment, and then her eyes snapped wide.

She screamed.

Her warning was a half second too late, as cold hands clamped onto Benny from behind and dragged him backward over the stone wall. Benny twisted wildly around and saw the face of the zom who had him. A tall, thin man dressed in a tunic that looked like it had been made from an old bedsheet.

“No!” Benny cried.

It was Brother David.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Notes from Mrs. Griswold’s science lecture on how cadaverine is made:

The cadaverine used in the Rot and Ruin is actually a mixture of cadaverine, putrescine, spermidine, and other vile ptomaines. The pure compounds are caustic, toxic stuff although they can be easily diluted in water or ethanol (but not really diluting the aroma).

Making these compounds is not a project for a home basement chem lab or even a high school lab. The glassware, equipment, and chemicals are usually found in college level or industrial labs, and that equipment has been scavenged and brought to Mountainside.

The original method comes from a German journal dating back to about 1890. This method for reacting dichloropropane with sodium cyanide (a deadly poison) followed by reaction with zinc powder and hydrochloric acid. This gives cadaverine. Yuck.

51

TOM KNELT BY A COLD CAMPFIRE AND STUDIED THE GROUND. THIS WAS the second place where he’d found Chong’s footprints and signs of violence. The first time had been the spot where Sally Two-Knives had tried to rescue Chong. There were indeed two dead men there, and Tom recognized them. Denny Spurling and Patch Lewis, bounty hunters of the low-life variety who usually ran with a third man named Stosh Lowinski. These were two of the three men Benny had seen torturing and brutalizing zoms on their first trip into the Ruin. Stosh, a beefy man who used a replica Arabian scimitar to kill zoms, was not here. Sally had given them a little taste of their own medicine. Rough justice, but justice of a kind.

Tom knew Sally’s history. She’d been a rough, hard-edged Roller-Derby blocker with one of the Rat City Rollergirl teams out of Seattle when First Night changed the world. Sally had been the mother of two little kids, and she’d fought her way across Seattle to her small apartment where her mother was minding April and Toby. By the time Sally got to the apartment building, the lobby was splashed with blood. It took her a couple of years to tell Tom the whole story. It came out in broken fragments, and none of it was pretty. There were no happy endings, and when she reached her tenth-floor apartment, all she found was heartbreak.

Broken and more than half-crazy from loss, Sally headed south in a Humvee she took out of a used car lot. The salesmen at the dealership were long past caring. Sally made it as far as Portland before the electromagnetic pulses released by the nukes killed her car. She raided a sporting goods store for weapons. Previous looters had already taken the guns, so she loaded up with knives, including the two bowie knives that eventually became her trademark and her name.

It was nearly two years before she made it into Mariposa County, where she met Tom and discovered that there were towns filled with survivors. Tom remembered the Sally he’d first met: filthy, wild-eyed, almost feral, and more than half-dead from a bacterial infection she’d picked up from drinking bad water. He had gotten her first to Brother David’s and then into town.

Tom knew that Sally felt she owed him a debt, but in his view, if she helped someone else, then a different kind of infection would spread. Generosity could be as contagious as the zombie plague as long as enough people were willing to be carriers.

Tom rose from where he’d been crouching as he studied the scene.

The two men had indeed been quieted and left to rot. Tom wasted no sympathy on them. However, something caught his eye, and he parted some weeds and saw Chong’s bokken lying there. He picked it up. It was undamaged. Tom rigged a sling and hung the sword across his chest. As he did so he walked slowly around the clearing, looking at the prints. There were five distinct sets. Chong’s waffle-soled shoes. Sally’s cross-grained hiking boots. Prints that matched the shoes of the two dead men. And a fifth set that entered the camp from upslope. Tom placed his foot into one of the prints, and it dwarfed his. Tom was not a big man, and he wore a size nine-and-a-half shoe. This print had to be at least a fourteen extra wide, and the impression was ground well into the topsoil. A big man. Tall and heavy.

Like Charlie. Charlie Pink-eye had worn size fourteens.

Tom continued to walk the edges of the clearing until he found an even deeper set of footprints leading away. Same shoes, but clearly a heavier footfall. The answer was there to be read. There were no traces of Chong’s waffle soles, which meant that the big man had carried the boy off.

That gave Tom some hope. If Chong was dead, he would have been quieted and left for the crows. If he was alive and being carried, then even a big man could not move at top speed. And it was virtually impossible to cover your tracks while carrying a burden.

Tom was not carrying a burden. He could move very fast, and even a blind man could follow those tracks. He set out, moving quickly. He had the kind of lean and wiry body that was built for running, and he knew how to run. Two hours later he found the remains of a campfire and the clear and distinct marks of Chong’s waffle soles. The campfire was almost cold. Dirt had been kicked over the small blaze, and it had cooled more slowly than if it had been doused with water. Tom judged that he was now no more than four hours behind the big man. He was making up the time he’d lost by tending to Sally last night; and the big man had stopped to rest. When they’d started out again, Chong was walking instead of being carried. Good.

“Hold on, Chong,” he murmured aloud. “I’m coming for you.”

52

CHONG FLUNG HIMSELF TO ONE SIDE AS THE BIG ZOMBIE LUNGED. He hit the ground in a sloppy roll, coming up too fast, slamming into the opposite wall. He’d tried to snatch the pipe as he rolled, but his fingers merely brushed the cold length of it, sending it rolling away from him.

The crowd cheered, though Chong couldn’t tell if they were in favor of his attempt or its failure.

The zom turned, much faster than Chong thought it could, and instead of a dead moan, the creature hissed at him. The sound was full of hatred. Chong’s mind stalled. Hatred was an emotion. Zoms didn’t have any. But he could see the menace and malevolence etched into the snarling face of the living dead thing.

“No…”

The crowd must have heard him. They burst into raucous laughter.

“Surprise, surprise, little man!” taunted the Burned Man. “Bet you never seen a freshie like Big Joe.”

The zom-Big Joe-took a lumbering step toward Chong. However, its foot came down on the pipe and it rolled under the creature’s weight. Chong seized the opportunity and jumped forward, trying to land one of the kicks Tom had taught them. A jumping front thrust, intended to slam the flat of the foot against the opponent’s center of mass and knock him backward.

That was the plan.

Chong’s foot missed the big zom’s stomach and struck him in the left hip. Instead of knocking the zombie backward, it spun his mass, and with his weight already unstable from stepping on the pipe, the creature toppled off balance and fell. The pipe went skipping off the ground and struck the wall with a dull thud. Chong fell hard on his butt, and pain shot from his tailbone all the way up his spine and ignited fireworks in his brain. This new hurt, stacked on top of all his other aches, made Chong feel like he was toppling into a world where nothing but hurt existed.

Even through the pain and disorientation, he knew that if he just sat there, he’d be dead. With sparks still flashing in his eyes, he twisted around onto his hands and knees and fished for the pipe.

The roar of the crowd blocked out the moan of the zombie and the sounds it made getting back to its feet. Just as Chong’s fingers closed around the cold iron, the icy hand of Big Joe closed around the back of Chong’s neck. The zom plucked him off the ground as if he weighed nothing. Cold spittle splattered on his naked shoulders as he was pulled toward that awful mouth.

Chong shrieked in pain and fear and swung the pipe with both hands up and over his head. It struck the big zom’s forehead hard enough to send a jarring vibration down through the metal and into Chong’s hands.

The zom did not let go.

“Uh-oh!” jeered the Burned Man, sparking more laughter.

Chong felt the rough edges of the zom’s teeth begin to close around his shoulder. He screamed and swung the pipe again and again and again. The teeth pinched him, and the pain was unbelievable. But with the next swing of the club the zom lost its grip on him, and Chong dropped to the floor. He landed hard and instantly scuttled away like a spider, craning his neck to look over his shoulder as the zombie staggered backward, its eyes becoming dull with confusion. The front of its skull had a grooved look where the pipe had hammered it.

But there was bright, fresh blood on its lips!

Chong went crazy. He rushed the monster, swinging the pipe with so much force that he could feel his own muscles pulling and tearing. Spit flew from his mouth; the world seemed to vanish behind a red haze as he brought the Motor City Hammer’s black pipe club down over and over again.

The zom fell against the wall and still Chong hammered it. The creature’s feet slipped out from under it, and Chong beat on it as it slid down to the dirt floor. Its hands fell limply to the ground, and Chong never let up. Only when the creature slumped and fell sideways, his head a lumpy mass that no longer resembled a skull, did Chong pause, the gory club held high.

Big Joe was dead. The crowd cheered. Chong dropped the pipe and twisted his head to look at his shoulder. The flesh was raw and puckered and torn. Blood poured down his chest and back.

“Oh God,” Chong whispered.

He had been bitten.

53

BENNY THREW HIS WEIGHT FORWARD JUST AS NIX BROUGHT HER BOKKEN down with all her strength. The white fingers shattered under the impact, and Benny was free. He fell onto hands and knees but got to his feet in a heartbeat and ran.

Nix backed away, still holding the wooden sword out in front of her.

“Come on!” yelled Benny, clumsily snatching up their carpet coats.

Brother David was trying to climb over the broken stone wall. Two other zoms shambled around the sides. Sister Shanti and Sister Sarah.

Nix’s face went pale with horror and grief. “Oh… Benny… no.”

“We can’t help them,” cried Benny. “Nix, come on… there’s nothing we can do.”

“We can’t just leave them.”

“Yes, we can. Come on!”

The zoms were coming toward them, but they were slow and awkward. Nix kept backing up until she stood with Benny near the wall of the old barn, a hundred yards away from the three zoms. Behind them the road unrolled into the distance toward Yosemite. Here… there was nothing left but tragedy.

And more questions.

“Nix,” Benny said softly. “Please…”

She lowered her sword. The zoms were picking their way through tall weeds and stones. The faces of the two young women were empty of all the light and peace that had been there the last time Nix and Benny had seen them. All the vitality and personality and joy that had made these women what they were, that had brought them a measure of contentment even out here in the Rot and Ruin, were gone. Stolen from them.

“Someone did this to them,” Nix said, her eyes fierce with hurt and anger.

“I know.” He handed over her carpet coat. They quickly put them on, looking at each other, their eyes speaking volumes. So much would have to be left unsaid for now. And if they kept going east, so many things might remain unanswered. Unanswered and unpunished.

Tom had said that the Children of God believed that zoms-the Children of Lazarus-were the meek who had been intended to inherit the earth. Benny did not know if that was true. At that moment he hoped so, because at least it meant that Brother David, Sister Shanti, and Sister Sarah were where and what they had always wanted to be.

That did not make the hurt any less for Benny and Nix. It did not make the rage burn any less hot.

The three zoms continued to lumber toward them. Benny and Nix kept backing up, moving past the rust-colored wall of the barn. Then they froze when they heard the squeal of ancient hinges as the barn door swung outward. Benny whirled, but he was a second too late as a zom lunged at him from the shadows. Waxy lips pulled back to reveal rotting teeth. Benny and the monster crashed to the ground, rolling over and over in the weeds. Two more zoms rushed at Nix. She swung her bokken, catching one across the face; but the second crowded past and grabbed Nix’s red hair.

It was all so fast. Even as Benny fought with the zom, a part of his mind was trying to understand what was happening. The zoms weren’t slow. They were rotted and decayed, but they weren’t slow; and the burly creature trying to tear his throat out was strong. Far stronger than any zom Benny had fought; stronger than any zom he had heard about.

It was impossible.

Gray teeth snapped at the neckline of his carpet coat. Benny drove his knee into the zom’s groin, not that he thought he could hurt it, but because Tom had taught him to always try and lift his opponent’s mass. The zom’s hips bucked up from the impact, and Benny tried to turn, but then he felt cold fingers wrap tightly around his ankle.

Another zom.

More of them were staggering out of the barn. Farmers and women dressed in nurses’ uniforms and men in logger’s shirts. Kids, too, one of whom still clutched a stuffed bear to her chest. It was horrible and heartbreaking and absolutely terrifying.

“Benny!”

He heard Nix scream his name, but there were three zombies clawing at him now-the big one on top of him, the one holding his ankle, and the little girl with the stuffed bear, who had dropped to her knees and was trying to chew through the sleeve of his carpet coat.

Benny thought, We’re going to die. His inner voice could offer no argument.

And then a sound split the air.

“WOOOOOOOOOOO-HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

It was a huge, barrel-chested war whoop. The kind Morgie let loose when he hit a homer out past the line on McGoran Field. Benny could hardly see past the growling, biting zom, but he caught a flash of movement as something came from his left and slammed into the burly monster. The zom flipped off him. The figure kicked and stomped and then the other two zoms were rolling away and Benny was free. He spun around on the ground, coming up on all fours, the name rising to his mouth.

“Morgie!”

But as soon as he said it, even before he saw who it was, Benny knew that it wasn’t Morgie. It couldn’t be Morgie. The man who stood over him grinned through the grille of a New Orleans Saints football helmet. He was tall, thin, but wiry, with a carpet coat augmented with metal cut from license plates, each from a different state. He had a spear almost like Lilah’s, except that on the end opposite the blade was a round metal ball as big as Benny’s fist. He wore a pair of cheap black sunglasses and a good Cheshire cat grin.

Benny knew him from the Zombie Cards. Dr. Skillz.

There was a yell and a grunt, and Benny turned to see another man in similar garb taking the head off a zom with a powerful two-handed stroke of a heavy logging ax. J-Dog.

The two bounty hunters grinned at Benny. They were a little younger than Tom, so Benny figured that they had been teenagers during First Night. Tom had said they’d been surfers and beach bums once upon a time, but Benny had only a vague idea what a “surfer” was, and he’d never seen a beach except in books.

“Far out,” said Dr. Skillz. “Benjamin Imura and Phoenix Riley. Wassssabi?”

Dr. Skillz nodded. “Seriously, brah, and Jessie’s daughter’s gone all aliham.”

“Babelini!” agreed J-Dog, though he was smiling, not leering, when he said it. The surfers gave Benny the thumbs-up. “Good call, dude.”

“Huh?” asked Benny.

Dr. Skillz nodded. “Where’s the big kahuna? And… besides that, what are you Menehunes doing out here?”

“Trying not to die,” grunted Nix as she swung her bokken at a zom who charged at her from J-Dog’s blind side. The zom went flying backward with a shattered jaw.

“Dudette’s no Barbie, brah,” said J-Dog, and his partner nodded.

“I know, right? Kahuna was on when he said little cat’s hyper-fierce gnar gnar.”

Nix turned to Benny. “What language are they speaking?”

“Surferese, I think.”

She made a face. “Guys?” she warned. “Zoms?”

J-Dog turned, and if he was concerned about the ten zoms circling them, he managed not to show it. In fact, he managed to look bored. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Good point.” He turned to Dr. Skillz. “Dude?”

“Dude,” he agreed, as if his partner had just said something profound. To Benny he said, “You and the crippler chick hang back. We’ll jack these land-sharks.”

“What?” Benny and Nix asked at the same time.

Dr. Skillz pointed and in plain English said, “Stand over there. Out of the way. Dig?”

Nix pulled Benny to a safe distance.

“Watch out!” warned Benny. “These zoms are different.”

“Different how, brah?” asked J-Dog.

Two of the zoms suddenly rushed at him. J-Dog’s smile flickered for a moment, but even in the presence of zoms moving with nearly human speed, he wasn’t stunned to immobility.

“Whoa,” said Dr. Skillz. “That’s new.”

J-Dog stepped toward the rushing creatures and swung the ax low and wide. The big blade sheared through the knee of the first zom and the calf of the second, and they both went down in a snarling tangle. Dr. Skillz darted past him and with two lightning-fast swings crushed their skulls with the iron ball on the end of his spear.

“Dog,” said Dr. Skillz, adjusting his shades, “these land-sharks are seriously truckin’.”

“Chyeah,” snorted J-Dog. “What’s that all about?”

There were eight zoms left.

“Dude-four on the left,” said J-Dog. “Go agg.”

Dr. Skillz grinned. “Always aggro.”

They waded in, ax and spear whirling and striking and smashing and cleaving. Benny and Nix stumbled backward from the carnage as pieces of desiccated flesh and brittle bone pelted them.

“Dude!” called Dr. Skillz, and J-Dog pivoted as one of the zombie children jumped at him, trying to bite his thigh. J-Dog twisted out of the way and quieted the little zom with a stomp of his steel-reinforced boot. And then, suddenly and inexplicably, it was all over. Not one of the zoms was moving, and not one of them was whole. J-Dog and Dr. Skillz stood in the center of a circle of gory detritus. Dr. Skillz looked around, nodding to himself. “Dude,” he said.

J-Dog nodded in agreement. “Totally, dude.”

They turned to Nix and Benny, pulling off their helmets. Dr. Skillz had long brown hair and a soul patch under his lower lip; J-Dog had long black hair and a goatee. They were both very tan, and when they smiled, their teeth were eye-hurtingly white.

Benny cleared his throat.

“Dude?” he suggested.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

My mom said that everyone who survived First Night has PTSD-post-traumatic stress disorder. Chong says it should be called PFNSD, post-First Night stress disorder, which he insists is PTSD plus something called “survivor’s guilt.”

Some people pretend like everything is okay with them, as if they aren’t messed up from what happened. Mom said that this is just a symptom of damage. There has never been a trauma as bad as First Night. Even if you combined all the wars and plagues together, they wouldn’t be as bad, so everyone has to be affected.

Other people seem to know that they’re supposed to be a little crazy, so they take the craziness and make it work for them. Tom says that’s why so many people, especially those who deal with zoms out in the Ruin all the time, took weird nicknames. He says, “It’s easier to be like a character in a story than the star of your own tragedy.” It took me a long time to understand that.

Tom’s friends J-Dog and Dr. Skillz are like that. After I met them, I could see in their eyes how hurt they are. And how scared. But they play a kind of game. The “surfer dude” game, and that insulates them against reality. It’s like wearing a carpet coat. A bite will still hurt, but it won’t kill you.

It makes me wonder in what way I’m crazy.

54

THE TRAIL OF PRINTS LEFT BY CHONG AND HIS CAPTOR WAS EASY FOR TOM to follow, but the direction was confusing. Instead of heading straight to high ground, where bounty hunters preferred to make their camps, this trail was circling around to head almost due east. That troubled Tom. Could Gameland have been moved to Yosemite? Or was this man taking Chong somewhere else?

Tom heard male voices farther up the path, and he cut quickly behind a line of thick brush and crept toward them in silence. The men spoke with the uncaring loudness of people who were not afraid to be heard. There were three of them, standing in a clearing formed by the crossroads of two well-used trails.

Tom recognized one of them: Stosh-the surviving partner of the two men Sally had killed. His fashioned Arab scimitar was slung from his waist. The others were strangers; big, brutal-looking men. One was a redhead who wore a necklace of finger bones; the other was brown-skinned and wore matched.45 automatics in shoulder holsters. Tom edged closer to listen to their chatter.

“I still don’t get why you want to try and sell him to the Bear,” said the gunslinger.

“Yeah, why risk it?” agreed the redhead. “Bear don’t want to make deals with you, Stosh. He wants to feed you to the zoms and be done.”

“Nah, you guys got it wrong,” insisted Stosh. “If I bring him Fast Tommy, then it’s gonna be forgive and forget. You’ll see.”

“We’ll see the Bear nail your scalp to a tree with you still wearing it,” said Gunslinger, and Redhead laughed with him.

“Seriously, man,” said Gunslinger, “you ought to cut your losses and head north. Go up to Eden or Fort Snyder. Get outside of Bear’s backyard, ’cause even if you managed to bring in Fast Tommy or his puke brother, Bear’d just take them from you and do to you what he did to Bobbie Talltrees. Stake you out and feed you to the swarm. We tried to tell Bobbie the same thing-but did he listen? Nope. Now look what happened.”

“I know,” said Stosh softly. “That was ugly. Bobbie wasn’t a bad guy. And it’s not fair for White Bear to blame us for what happened to Charlie. Me and my crew were all the way the heck up Hillcrest when that happened. Nothing we could have done.”

“Uh-huh. Bobbie tried to run that by the Bear, and look what it got him,” agreed Gunslinger. “The same thing you’re gonna get if you don’t put a lot of gone between you and the Bear’s territory.”

“No way,” said Stosh stubbornly. He produced a piece of paper from a pocket and shook it at them. “I know how much the Bear wants Tom. You see the prices on this thing? You ever saw bounties like that? No! The Bear wants the whole bunch of them, and he’ll kiss my butt if I bring them in. All of ’em. Tommy, that skank Riley chick, the Lost Girl, and Tom’s rat-meat brother.”

Redhead took the paper and read it, nodding. “Yeah… a man could retire off of this.”

“If you’re lucky,” said Tom as he stood up from behind the bush, “it’ll cover your funeral expenses.”

The three men spun toward him. The black gunslinger made a grab for his twin.45s, but Tom drew and fired in a single smooth move that was too fast for the eye to follow. Gunslinger pitched backward, a neat round hole punched into his forehead above the left eyebrow. It was the kind of kill the bounty hunters called a “one and done.” Head shot, no need to quiet the body later.

That left Stosh and Redhead standing on either side of the corpse, both of them gaping in wide-eyed horror. “Holy jeez,” whispered Stosh. “Tom!”

Redhead sneered. “I know who it is.” He narrowed his eyes to feral slits. “You just shot an innocent man, pardner. You don’t know what kind of trouble you’re-”

Tom put a bullet in the dirt between the man’s feet.

“Save it for someone who cares,” he said quietly. “Lose the hardware.”

The smoking barrel of the gun offered no option for debate. Weapons clanked as they fell to the ground.

“All of it,” warned Tom.

They looked disgusted but began removing knives, two-shot derringers, strangle-wires, and brass knuckles from hidden pockets.

“Kick them away. Good. Now, listen to me,” said Tom, his eyes flat and hard. “You guys have one chance to walk out of this alive.”

“What are you offering?” demanded Redhead warily.

“Straight exchange. You answer my questions and I let you walk out. If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I’m a hard guy to lie to, but you’ll also know I keep my word. You walk out and go somewhere else. I don’t see you again. You don’t work these hills ever again.”

Stosh snorted. “What’s it to you where we work? Heard you were leaving town.”

“Says who?”

“Says everyone. People are talking about it all through the Ruin. Fast Tommy Imura’s leaving town for good. Going on some kind of quest to find that jet plane, or at least that’s the cover story.”

“Way I heard it,” said Redhead, “is that you lost your nerve, that you’re running from White Bear. White Bear says this whole area is his now. He’s bringing in more muscle than you can handle, so you’re cutting out to save your butt. The jet thing is just a cover story to save face.”

“Anyone really believe that?” Tom asked, amused.

“Doesn’t matter. With you gone, the Bear will own the whole Ruin, and folks will believe what he wants them to believe. Bear’s like that.”

“Everyone needs a hobby,” said Tom neutrally.

“What is it you want to know?” asked Stosh. “To let us walk?”

“First, I want that piece of paper,” demanded Tom. “It’s a bounty sheet, right? Give it to me. Don’t get cute about it either. Put it on the ground, weigh it down with a rock. Then step back.”

Redhead did as he was told. He backed up until Tom ordered him to stop. Tom stooped and plucked the paper from under the rock and glanced at it. There were four sketches on the sheet. The text read:

Reward for Four Murderers

Payment on Delivery at G

Nix Riley: ALIVE (one year’s ration dollars);

DEAD (one month’s ration dollars)

Benny Imura: ALIVE (one year’s ration

dollars); DEAD (one month’s ration dollars)

Lilah (aka the Lost Girl): ALIVE (two years’

ration dollars); DEAD (one month’s ration

dollars)

Tom Imura: ALIVE (five years’ ration dollars);

DEAD (one year’s ration dollars)

Tom stuffed it in his pocket. “Who’s looking?”

“Everyone’s looking,” said Redhead. “Whole Ruin’s filled with hunters working your trail.”

“You’re the first I’ve seen. Except for Stosh’s dead friends.”

“Then you’re looking in the wrong place. Everyone knows the routes you usually take, and we got word from town that you were heading out yesterday. Everybody-and I mean everybody-knows that White Bear’s got a stack of cash on this.”

Tom considered. He’d taken Benny and the others out on a route he hadn’t used in months. His intention had been to keep the kids away from the areas of heaviest zombie infestation, but now it seemed as if that decision had saved all their lives. At least so far.

“Paper says ‘payment at G.’ G for Gameland?”

“Yeah. This is all off the record, so to speak,” said Stosh, grinning at Tom with uneven yellow teeth. “From what I heard, they’ll pay double if the young’uns are brought to Gameland with some spunk left in ’em. People say you’ve been training ’em a bit. That means they’d last a whole week, maybe two in the pits. There’s serious money in the Z-Games.”

“This is a lot of money. What’s White Bear’s stake? Especially if I’m leaving?”

Both men looked momentarily confused. “What do you think, man?” asked Stosh, totally perplexed.

“If I knew, I wouldn’t ask,” said Tom. “And you’re wasting my time.”

“Oh man,” said Redhead, “this is great. This is like those old comedy shows from back in the day. This is fricking hilarious!”

And suddenly Redhead made his move. He kicked a baseball-size rock at Tom and charged forward in a powerful tackle. They must have shared some kind of signal, because Stosh was only a half step behind him. Redhead caught Tom around the chest, and Stosh slammed his shoulders into Tom’s thighs. The three of them crashed backward into the bushes in a cloud of torn leaves, dust, grunts, and yells.

And then a single male voice let loose a high-pitched scream.

A death scream.

FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

Information on bites (zombie and human) that I’ve collected.

I copied some of this from notes Tom put together for us to study before we leave.

Male adult humans bite with more force than adult females.

Adult humans bite with more force than human children.

Zoms do not bite as hard as humans, because their teeth ligaments have decayed.

A “fresh” zombie will be physically stronger in both limb and bite-capability than a weak one, but still less than a human. So the more the zoms decay, the weaker they’ll get.

Dr. Gurijala said (after I bugged him about it fifty times), “Teeth are not fused to bone but rather are attached to the bone by a ligament system. As decomposition occurs, this ligament breaks down and releases the teeth. Morphology of the tooth root will sometimes cause them to be retained in skeletal remains, but the cone-shaped roots of the incisors tend to make them more prone to postmortem loss.”

The act of biting through skin and actually avulsing or tearing out a piece would require forces at the high range of the human biting force. So zombies aren’t likely to tear out large chunks of a person, as people claim in their First Night stories. If they do tear off something, it’s probably from a weak and vulnerable piece of anatomy (e.g., an earlobe).

EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!

55

BENNY, NIX, J-DOG, AND DR. SKILLZ STOOD IN THE ROAD AND WATCHED the three zoms shuffle toward them. Sister Shanti was out in front, with Brother David and Sister Sarah close behind. They were still sixty yards away.

“They’re still moving slow,” said Benny. “Not like the ones from the barn.”

“Totally,” agreed J-Dog.

Benny looked at him. “So how come the others were fast? I never heard of fast zoms before. Have you?”

“Tall tales out of the east,” said Dr. Skillz. “No one I know’s put goggles on ’em, though.”

“That’s crazy. How can zoms be fast?” demanded Nix.

J-Dog grinned. “Dudette… how can they be zoms?”

Dr. Skillz pulled down his sunglasses and peered over the dark lenses at the monk and the sisters. “That’s a bummer. Brother David’s trippy but totally boglius.”

“I can’t understand anything you’re saying!” grumbled Nix irritably.

“Yeah, okay,” Dr. Skillz chuckled, “busted. Let’s see if you grok this. The Dog and me are friends with Brother Dave. Between you and me, cutie, I think Dog’s sweet on Shanti.”

“She’s bootylicious-,” began J-Dog.

“English,” insisted Nix.

“She’s fine.” Then J-Dog looked down the hill, and his goofy surfer grin drained away to reveal genuine sadness. “She was fine. Sweet, too.”

“They were friends of ours,” said Dr. Skillz. Benny caught a look in his eyes that was miles from the sun and fun of a beach. In that unguarded moment, he could see the hurt in the hunter’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” said Benny. “I liked them too.”

The four of them stood and watched the three zoms struggle up the hill. Even though he knew they were beyond feeling anything, it seemed to Benny that each step looked painful. It made his heart hurt.

“Who would do something like that?” demanded Nix.

“A real monster,” said Benny.

Dr. Skillz nodded. “For sure. There’s killing and then there’s murder. Brother Dave and the girls never hurt no one.”

“What… should we do?”

“Quiet them,” said J-Dog. “Put ’em to rest.”

“No,” said Nix and Dr. Skillz at the same time.

“It’s not what they would want,” said Benny.

J-Dog sighed, and under his breath muttered, “Son of a bitch must pay.”

“Word. But dude, we’d better roll,” suggested J-Dog. “Or we won’t have a choice.”

They turned and hurried away at a light jog, putting a mile of crooked road between them and the zoms. Soon Brother David, Sister Shanti, and Sister Sarah were out of sight. Benny knew that without prey to follow, the zoms would stop pursuing them. He wondered if they would stand in the road for years like so many zoms did.

They slowed and walked under the shade of a line of young white oaks. “Story time,” said J-Dog. “The kahuna said-”

“Who?” interrupted Benny.

“Tom, man. Tom’s the big kahuna. He’s a crusher, he’s the legend.”

“Okay… but can we just call him ‘Tom’?”

Dr. Skillz grinned. “You guys are rough.”

“We don’t speak surfer,” said Nix. “We’ve never even seen the ocean.”

“Yeah.” Dr. Skillz sighed. “And we ain’t seen it since First Night. Sucks.”

“Tom,” prompted Benny.

“Right… Tom said you guys were heading east to find the jet. Said to meet you at the way station, but we just came from there and it’s mosty-toasty. Someone had a luau supremo and roasted a lot of zoms.”

“That would be us,” said Benny uneasily. He and Nix explained what happened.

Dr. Skillz grinned. “Way to think outside the box, duderman.”

“We lost Lilah, though,” said Nix. “She ran away.”

“Spook girl got spooked?” J-Dog shook his head. “Lot of forest to get lost in. Anyway… Tom said you’d be hitting Brother Dave’s first and then cruising to Wawona, so we caught a wave and here we are.”

“Nice timing,” said Benny appreciatively. “Thanks.”

“Hey, our pleasure,” Dr. Skillz said with a grin. “Fast Tommy’s saved our butts enough times.”

“Totally,” said J-Dog. “Wawona’s not far from here. Good place to kick back.”

“Is that where you were coming from?” asked Benny.

Dr. Skillz removed his shades to clean them. “Nah. We ain’t been there in almost three months. Been doing a lot of guard work for the scavenge team way over at Lushmeadows Estates. Got hired to clear out all the zoms and then babysit the scavenger team.”

J-Dog gave an enthusiastic nod. “Yeah… made some nice green, too. We ran into Tom last week and told him we’d be crashing at Wawona, though. Still some snow high up, so we were gonna rest up, then go high and snowboard. It’ll be a powwow for sure. Saaaa-weeeeet!”

“Um. Okay,” said Benny uncertainly, not sure what a “snowboard” was.

“We were heading to Wawona,” Nix interjected, “but we don’t have to. I mean… there’s four of us now. Shouldn’t we go try and find Tom and Chong?”

Dr. Skillz put his shades back on. “No doubt. Kind of surprised Tom isn’t already back.”

“Wait,” yelped Benny, “what are you saying? That Tom’s in trouble?”

“I didn’t say he was in trouble,” said Dr. Skillz. “It’s just that a lot of weird stuff’s been happening in the last few weeks. We missed most of it ’cause we were over at Lushmeadows. Bunch of animals coming out of the east, and an upsurge in the zom head count.”

“And now we got fast zoms,” said J-Dog. “Weird times.”

“It’s weirder than you think,” said Benny, and he told them about the man who hadn’t reanimated.

“Whoa,” said J-Dog. “You sure?”

“Tom was sure,” said Nix.

The bounty hunters looked at each other, then turned and looked back the way they had come, as if some kind of answer was painted on the forest.

“For the record, dude, I do not dig this,” murmured Dr. Skillz.

The four of them walked in silence for almost five minutes as they considered their next move. Nix asked, “Have you met anyone who saw the jet?”

“Sure,” said J-Dog. “Lots of people. Us too. Kinda wild.”

Dr. Skillz nodded. “Tom said that’s where he was taking you guys. A quest thingy to find whoever has that jet.”

“Yes,” said Nix firmly. “Whoever fixed and fueled that jet is trying to bring civilization back.”

“You sure?” asked Dr. Skillz. “Bad guys and freaks can fly jets too.”

Nix either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore the remark.

Dr. Skillz abruptly stopped. “Dog,” he said, “I think we’re making a mistake here.”

“Why? Tom wanted us to lifeguard these guys and-”

Dr. Skillz cut him off. “Wawona’s only six or seven miles. They can do that without us. But that dead guy bothers the crap out of me. The way he was killed? That’s got Charlie’s tag on it.”

“Totally,” said J-Dog.

“Charlie or White Bear. They used to run in the same pack; they got a whole lot in common.”

“Yeah, and I don’t like the idea of the kahuna running those hills.” Dr. Skillz glanced at Benny and Nix. “You guys said that Tom took you out on a back road, right? A route he doesn’t use much?”

“Yes, he wanted to-”

“I see where you’re going, brah,” said J-Dog.

“I don’t,” snapped Nix. “And who’s White Bear?”

Dr. Skillz made a face. “White Bear is a very big and very bad hombre. Mucho bad mojo. Even over in Lushmeadows they’re talking about him rebuilding the Matthias Empire. Got people all over the place. We saw a dozen of them today, though we steered clear.”

“We’re peace-lovin’ citizens,” said J-Dog.

“The Matthias…? God…,” breathed Nix, putting her hand to her mouth.

“White Bear’s no friend to Fast Tommy, and that’s for sure,” continued Dr. Skillz. “What I’m thinking is that Tom might not know that the Bear’s got his goons out. Not if he came out a back way. He’d have missed the traffic. But if he’s dogging your boy Chong, then…”

“We have to go find him!” declared Benny, taking a decisive step toward the west.

“Whoa! Not a chance, duderino,” said J-Dog with a grin. “You two are going to Wawona just like your brother told you to. Skillz and I will find the kahuna.”

“No way!” snapped Nix. “You don’t expect us to-”

“-stay out of trouble? Yes, we do. If we drag you into a fight with White Bear, Fast Tommy’ll fry us for it.”

“We can handle ourselves,” Nix insisted. “Tom’s been training us, and-”

Dr. Skillz gave her a toothy grin. “I’ll bet you’re fierce as a tiger shark, Reds, but this is about speed, too. We’re gonna boogie like banshees. We got tricks for this, and believe me, you don’t know ’em.”

J-Dog nodded. “We got to catch a monster wave, dig?”

“But-,” Benny began, but left the rest unsaid because without a single additional word, J-Dog and Dr. Skillz turned and began running down the road. They ran with the easy grace of athletes. Benny knew that he and Nix could never match their speed.

Nix took a few steps after them, but it was more out of frustration than any hope of catching them. Then she turned to Benny, fists on hips. “Now what do we do?”

Benny sighed and adjusted the sling that held his bokken. “I guess we go to Wawona. At least it’ll be safe there.” Then he added, “Dudette.”

Nix giggled, and that laugh was worth more to Benny than all the homespun comforts in the world. They turned and headed down the road to Wawona.

FROM NIX