Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 1

© 2018 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

Richie Kincannon squatted atop the rocky outcrop and trained his binoculars on the field of waving grass below, watching with a grim sense of fascination the drama unfolding in the reddened evening sunlight.

A buck - a big 10-pointer, at the very least - was in full flight across the landscape, froth flying from its nose as it charged across the fields where Ben Johansen had once upon a time grown sugar beets and oats. Those fields were now covered in foxtail, which offered an almost surreal view of what was happening. Only the buck's back, head, and neck - and that impressive rack - were visible in the tall grass, making it look almost like the animal was on wheels as it charged ahead at a far faster rate than any man could run.

Any normal man, that is.

For behind the buck, and gaining fast, was a man in a tattered gray business suit, looking equally eerie, as he was only visible from the mid-chest-up. His dark hair was a wild mop above the purple bruise of his face, which blended his features into an unrecognizable mass save for the startling white of his bared teeth. The filthy patterned tie still around his neck flapped wildly over his shoulder, and the shreds of once fine Armani jacket sleeves whipped about his pumping blueish forearms as he ran. Ran with a speed that any Olympic runner in the Old World would have killed to possess. It was an incredible speed, an unnerving speed...an inhuman speed.

"Fucker's goddamn fast," whispered Jeremy Campbell, down on one knee next to Richie, his own binoculars tracking the weird chase below them. "That buck's a goner, for sure."

Richie barely had time to nod in agreement before the pursuing man put on a burst of speed, and literally leaped up alongside the buck. And then he simply reached out with both hands and grabbed the rack, and twisted the head backwards and to the side with a speed and power that the boys could almost feel, even from an easy two hundred yards away. A sharp crack like the sound of a large tree branch snapping reached their ears, and at the same time the buck simply disappeared into the grass. There were a few brief glimpses of the animal's hooves as it rolled a few times, and then the grasses shuddered and waved furiously above the spot where the animal came to rest.

The man in the business suit, who had run on twenty or thirty feet beyond the fallen buck, stopped now with a suddenness that left the boys tracking beyond him with their binoculars. They both whipped them back in time to see the man turn back and pounce down in the grass. And then there was...nothing.

The grass waved lazily in the evening breeze, and all the world, everywhere they could see from their height, seemed quiet.

Dead quiet.

Richie lowered the binoculars, even as Jeremy was dropping his. The two boys looked at each other, and Jeremy shook his head slowly. "That's one less deer for us to eat, goddammit. I don't know how that thing got out here so far from the city, but it can't stay here. The way they kill, it'll starve us out before winter."

"They've probably killed everything in the city by now," Richie pointed out. "It was just a matter of time before they came lookin' around out here."

"Yeah, well, this is our territory. No friggin' zombies allowed. It's got to go, and that's all there is to it." Jeremy slid the bolt-action M1903 Springfield rifle off his shoulder and patted the Vortex Diamondback scope mounted in the rings. "I'd like to get a clear shot at it."

Briefly, Richie considered the weight of the Winchester Model 70 parked on its sling against his own backside. They had the range on the thing, but surely not the firepower.

"You'd need the Thompson," Richie countered, finally. "That thirty-aught-six you got there would just make it mad." A grim smile appeared in the boy's eyes, but didn't quite make it to his lips. "And with the Thompson we would need to be a whole lot closer, and I don't intend for that to happen."

The farms in the area had yielded an amazing variety of weapons, some of them surely not legal to own back in the day. They had collected a fair arsenal in the last two years, and enough ammo to last them for a very long time. Jeremy was awesome with the Springfield, and could down a buck on the run at three-hundred yards with a single well-placed shot.

But a deer was a mortal, living thing, qualities not seemingly shared by the new breed of human stalking the lands these days.

"We need to get rid of it," Jeremy repeated, softly.

"Uh huh." Richie frowned. "Got any ideas on how to kill it?"

Jeremy looked surprised. "It's already dead, isn't it?"

"We don't know that." Richie nodded his head at the field below. "It takes a lot of force to stop one of those things. We know Jack Castle blew one up, and that damn well stopped it. They can't come back from being in pieces, at least."

Jeremy's eyes widened. "Jack also blew himself up, 'member? I don't think we can afford that kind of trade off."

"No. You're right about that." Richie sighed, and glanced up at the setting sun. "Let's call a pow wow with the others, and figure something out. We should be getting back now, anyway. I don't want the others wandering about outside, now that we've actually seen that this thing's out here with us." He started to get to his feet.

Jeremy nodded, and climbed upwards, too. But his leg muscles, slightly cramped by his former position, briefly failed him, and he stepped quickly to one side to regain his balance. As he did so, the toe of his boot connected with a loose rock and sent it skittering across the outcrop and over the edge, where it clattered down the rocky face with a sound that seemed startlingly loud in the still warmth of the evening.

Both boys dropped back flat automatically, and reflex brought the Springfield's scope to Jeremy's eye even as Richie raised his head just enough to point his binoculars at the field below.

Down in the waving grass, that purplish face was raised and looking their way. Richie had a glimpse of the shine off of dead-black eyes as they stared upwards at them, and the gaze met his own through the lenses of the binoculars just long enough for him to grasp the life and the intelligence...and the ravenous need...in them, before the Springfield roared at his side. Jeremy had also seen that face through the scope, as the thing listened and its eyes tried mightily to search them out. Listened, unmoving.

A perfect target.

Through his binoculars, Richie saw a large chunk of hair and purple scalp leap away from the top of the zombie's head, and the creature immediately catapulted back into the grass. But it barely seemed to have landed before it was up and running, away from them, moving even faster, if that was possible, than it had moved when pursuing the buck.

Jeremy cursed, and Richie heard the quick snap-snap of the rifle's bolt, and then the Springfield spoke again. Part of the dirty suit on the thing's left shoulder disintegrated amidst a hurricane splatter of dark liquid, and the creature briefly lurched to one side. But then it straightened, and seemed to move even faster, and disappeared into a stand of small trees at the edge of the field before Jeremy could fire again.

Richie let his binoculars circle the distant mass of trees, but the zombie did not emerge from the other side. He lowered them from his eyes, and turned to look at his friend. "You shouldn't have fired. Now it knows we're here."

Jeremy's face set into a stubborn grimace. "I had a shot, and I took it."

Richie nodded, and turned back to the field below, returning the binoculars to his eyes. Nothing moved in the trees, nothing moved in the field. Nothing moved, anywhere, save the eternal grasses, uncaring in their dance upon the wind. It was as if all the mobile life of the world had gone to ground, hiding from the new predator - or the new variation on an old predator - that now roamed, unchecked, across the face of the world, killing everything it encountered.

Richie swallowed hard, the feeling of safety he had slowly built within himself in the last year evaporating in a single instant. The horrible blight that had fallen over the world of cities and towns had finally reached them here, in the away-lands, once the domain of working farms surrounded by planted fields, and ranges wandered by grazing herds.

And now, in the present, the last refuge of a handful of survivors, staving off the night settling hard upon the world.

"I don't think I stopped it," Jeremy admitted, in a whisper.

Richie gazed a last time at the far trees, seeing no movement at all; but then he had to agree. "No. But it will stay put for now, while it grows itself back together." He looked over at his friend. "We need to get back and talk to the others. They'll have heard the shots. I'd better let them know we're okay."

Even as Richie reached for the little walkie-talkie clipped to his belt, it gave off a faint squawk, and Marnie's voice issued forth. "Guys? You there?"

"Yeah," Richie answered. "I was just about to call in."

"Everything okay?" Richie did not fail to miss the slightly worried tone to the girl's voice, carried clearly over the airwaves.

"Yeah, Jeremy and I are both good. Listen, Marn...is everyone inside?"

"Yes."

"Okay, keep 'em there until we get back. We're on our way, okay?"

Marnie knew better than to ask a lot of questions over the air. "Okay. We'll watch for you."

Richie clipped the device back to his belt. "Come on. Let's go, before anything else happens. It'll be dark in an hour."

Jeremy licked his lips, and looked again at the distant trees. "Those things don't move in the dark, I thought."

"Only so far as we know," Jeremy agreed. "But it killed the buck, and I know it didn't have time to eat much, so it will be back for that, at least. I want to be home before that thing stirs from the trees again."

"Probably stay there all night. Jack said they went to sleep at night. Or...something like sleep."

"Maybe. But Jack's dead, and so all we know is what he told us. And Jack didn't know everything."

Jeremy nodded, and gave a small, contrite sigh. "I'm sorry. I just...I had such a good shot. I wanted so bad to take that thing's head off."

Richie smiled, leaned forward and closed his eyes, and pushed his face against the other boy's. "I know, I would probably have done the same thing."

Jeremy sighed again. "Love you."

"Me, too." Richie opened his eyes, delivered a quick kiss to his boyfriend's cheek, and then pushed himself back from the edge of the outcrop. "Come on. Let's get back."


The sun had dropped to the horizon by the time they reached the camp. The red light made it harder to see, and both boys swept the place with their binoculars first, and were relieved to spy the others through the windows of the platform. Richie was relieved to see no smoke visible curling up from the iron-pipe chimney in the center of the roof, the smell of which would be as sure a draw as anything to something with the amazing senses that zombies seemed to possess. He should have warned Marnie not to start the evening cook fire before he got back; but she had evidently decided against it on her own, waiting for their return.

The boys started across the grassy field towards the camp, their eyes moving alertly about them, not daring to lower their guard, even within site of home. They had carried their rifles at the ready all the way back from the outcrop above the old Johansen place, reasonably sure that the zombie that Jeremy had shot would be unable to follow until it healed, but not knowing for sure whether or not the creature was alone on its foray into new territory.

They entered the clean lands about the camp, and were able to breathe easier. The group had burned the field down to bare ground for two hundred yards in every direction around the camp, to deprive anyone or anything approaching from having even the slightest chance at concealment. The still-blackened ground had an eerie, almost lunar quality to it - but safety these days often precluded the luxury of beauty, and everyone was used to the way things now looked. Used to it, and even put at ease by it.

Richie gave a small, pleased laugh, relief at being home evident in his eyes. "Place looks pretty good, doesn't it?"

Jeremy nodded. The construction was a little rough, the materials a little old; but it was also neatly done, and quite serviceable. They'd created plans, measured everything carefully, and even used levels to ensure that the floor and roof had come out straight and even. Jack had been a fine carpenter, in addition to his seemingly endless list of other talents. Despite referring to the structure as the camp, the place was much more a stronghold than some simple fire pit with a collection of tents around it. It was a defensive position as much as it was a home, and they had placed a lot of effort into making it secure.

The gray bones of the old silo resembled a rural Stonehenge standing in the late evening light. Once tall and cylindrical, with a rounded cap, only about a forty-foot height of the circular base structure remained, jutting upwards from the field like ancient Roman ruins standing on one of the fabled seven hills. The skin of the remains was long-gone, leaving behind just the supporting base and outer frame; steel beams with a light coating of rust, still unaccountably strong even after fifty or more years of disuse.

Nearby the dead silo stood the even more ancient barn, that had once housed the Kincannon family's livestock back in the day when the property had been a living farm. Its once glorious red coating of paint now a worn and quite forlorn shade of brown, it reposed at the edge of the field in all its tumbledown splendor, a source of building materials simply too rich to be wasted. Once it had become clear that locked doors and windows were no source of refuge from the new scourge that now troubled the land, the small group of survivors once led by Jack Castle, but now led jointly by Richie and Jeremy, and Marnie Fletcher, had sought out more secure accommodations.

Only there hadn't been more secure accommodations. The houses in the area had been built in a different time, when large and rambling was the order of the day. And while genuinely sturdy in the old-fashioned way, all seemed to possess far too many doors and large windows to properly secure. They needed a safe place that could be defended from possible assault by creatures with superhuman abilities, who could come through doors and windows as if they were scarcely there at all. So, not finding such a place already in existence, they had put their heads together, and built their own.

It had been a simple enough matter to cannibalize the still-sturdy oak planks used to build the barn, and then carry them over to the framework of the silo, there to be hoisted aloft. The group had designed and built a very solid deck on the steel beams, thirty feet in the air, and walled and roofed it with the heavy one-by six planks, leaving small, window-like openings at regular intervals, which could be covered in winter from within by clear plexiglass sheets that swung shut on hinges. Materials had been abundant, with every property for miles around, and the tiny town of Hanford itself, six miles to the west, offering up all sorts of things they had found useful.

The inside of the silo's outer wall still bore an inspection ladder, that had once climbed within a steel tube up through the inside of the silo to the domed roof far overhead. The tube and the ladder now terminated at the support members the group had used to carry their deck, making it the perfect secure access to the platform. Jack, who had been wonderfully handy with a torch, had designed and installed a hatch fabricated from a strong steel plate, which swung down on massive hinges, and which could be locked down over the access tube, denying entry to anyone not armed with a missile launcher or a tank. Zombies were strong beyond all human understanding, but steel was even stronger.

On two sides, angled pipes three-eighths of an inch in diameter penetrated the floor around the hatchway, positioned just so that any liquid flowing through them would thoroughly douse anyone on the ladder beneath. The ends of the pipes each had a nozzle that would focus the liquid into a jet, and ensure a good coating on the unwelcome guest. At the top of each pipe stood a five-gallon drum of Coleman camp fuel, connected to a lever-action hand pump. Even the youngest kid in their group, Tina Stemple, at ten years of age, could pump the lever fast enough to ensure that anyone on the other side of the hatch was going to get very wet.

The hatch had a small hole directly above the ladder, which served as an eye-hole, and into which the nozzle of Jack's trusty welding torch could be inserted. Two big cylinders of oxygen and acetylene stood in a vented closet at the end of the hoses. Jack had demonstrated to them how to get a small flame going with the igniter, and then to push the nozzle into the hole, and then how to turn the valves to create a three-foot long jet of fire, which would react most unfavorably with the coating of camp fuel anyone beneath happened to be wearing. It was very much a last-ditch defense, he had warned, because the possibilities of danger to the occupants of the camp were very real. But everyone had trained at using the equipment until it was second-nature, and each of them secretly agreed that being blown up was preferable to becoming lunch for one of the zombie-things.

There were other built-in measures, such as gun ports in the floor, with the base of the ladder tube quite within the line of fire, through which the Thompsons could be fired to maximum effect. Gun ports in the walls, and even a tiny turret in the roof, allowed for fire to be directed, hopefully, at all possible comers. And the entire metal framework beneath the deck, right down to the ground, had been coated with axle grease, for even a zombie needed to be able to get a hold on to climb. Jack had said that he had seen zombies able to jump to catch the sills of second floor windows in the city, but that the thirty feet to their deck would be too far for them to reach. Their height above ground was their main defense.

But these 'static' defenses, as Jack had termed them, were designed to gain time to bring to bear the real weapons they had found in their searches of the surrounding farms. They had several of the Thompson forty-five caliber submachine guns, which fired a large, heavy, fairly low-velocity bullet that tended to roll along in its trajectory, and which tore great holes in anything it impacted with at fairly close range. Jack had seen automatic weapons put to good use in the city, and their stopping power against zombies was very real. The creatures could heal even incredible wounds that would instantly kill humans, but their abilities at reconstruction ended when they were reduced to pieces scattered across the ground.

Jeremy and Richie could see faces in the windows above them now. A watch on all four quarters of the camp was routine, ending only at dark, when human vision failed, and, it had long been assumed from the evidence, zombies ceased to move about. Moonlit nights were no exception to the rule; zombies seemed to go dormant when the sun went down, period.

As they neared the base of the old silo, Will Conlon waved from the window directly above them. Even so, the two teens stopped at the base of the ladder, and Richie grabbed the short iron rod hanging by a string from one rung of the ladder and used it to tap three times on another rung before calling out, "Richie and Jeremy, coming up!" And then both boys looked up the access tube, waiting.

In the darkness of the tube above them a spotlight lit, its bright LED beam aimed down at them. Powered by the solar array and storage batteries that Jack had cannibalized from atop the chicken house of a farm down in the valley, it was part of the low-voltage lighting system that could also throw bright spots on the land beneath and around the deck with just the flick of a few switches. The boys knew there would be an eye at the torch hole in the steel hatch, looking down at them and ensuring that they were alone.

"Come on up," Marnie's voice called to them.

Richie went first, and Jeremy followed. Richie got all the way to the hatch before there was a grating sound, and then it lifted. Mike Halperen and Sherry Thorne gazed down at them, one on each side of the opening, Thompson's cradled in their arms, the muzzles pointed down at them. They were fourteen and fifteen, respectively, although one look at their steady gazes would have caused anyone to think they were much older.

It always made Richie just a little nervous, those potent muzzles pointed down at them, and he gave a small sigh of relief as he scrambled up onto the deck. Despite the amount of training the group had engaged in, chance was still a factor that Richie tried never to overlook.

Jeremy came right behind him, and then a tall girl with brown hair and solemn eyes leaned over Sherry's shoulder and gazed down the still-lit access tube. "All clear. Close up."

The hatch settled with a thud, and then the grating sound repeated as the dogs were kicked home on all four sides. Mike squatted and flipped the toggle switch to turn off the spotlight in the access tube. Despite the solar array on the roof, and the ready availability of power from the sun during the day, the system ran on batteries after dark, and as Jack had been fond of pointing out to them, nothing lasts forever.

"No dinner, I see," Marnie said, coming around to face Richie and Jeremy. She was sixteen like they were, and the three of them constituted the oldest fully-functional members of the group, now that Jack, who had been twenty-seven, was gone. "Thought you might have shot a deer." The questioning tone of her voice was plain.

"No meat," Richie agreed. "Some trouble, though."

Marnie frowned. "What kind of trouble?"

Jeremy shook his head. "Pow wow. Everybody needs to hear."

Marnie's frown deepened, but she nodded. "Front and center, everybody. Pow wow!"

The deck was twenty-eight feet across, with a few sections separated by sheets hung from the ceiling for what small bit of privacy they could offer. But there was no place to really hide, and certainly no place that was out of earshot of the rest. The others gathered quickly, and the room began to darken as Bennie Osborne circled around, pulling the blackout curtains over the windows, cutting off the remaining light from the twilight outside. Marnie waited until the outer light had disappeared totally, and then turned on the little LED lamp on the table. It's warm yellow-white glow filled the room, bringing smiles to most of the faces around it. This one reminder of the old world meant more to them than they could say, keeping the night at bay, and filling the room with the sense of safety that one usually found only at home. Everyone pulled up a stool or a chair and sat in a circle around Richie and Jeremy, their expressions attentive.

The last person to arrive was Mom. She settled herself in her rocker, and began a slow back and forth movement, her gaze distant, but something in her body language still managing to convey attentiveness. Jeremy smiled at her, and patted her hand where it lay on the rocker's armrest.

"We were over by Johanson's place today," Richie began immediately, his eyes moving slowly among his watchers. "And we saw...we saw one of them."

"I knew it," Marnie said softly, nodding. Her eyes turned to Jeremy. "You took two shots at it, didn't you?"

Jeremy nodded. "Uh huh. Got two solid hits on it, but we didn't stop it. It got away, for now."

Mike looked at Sherry, and raised one eyebrow pointedly. "Told ya."

Jeremy couldn't help turning to look at him. "Told her what?"

"That something was up. You don't need two shots to bring down anything. When we heard 'em, close-spaced like that, we thought something funny was going on." Mike looked pleased that his deduction had been an accurate one.

Marnie smiled at him, and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. "We all knew something strange had happened, Richie," she said, turning back to him. "We're used to the sounds of the way you guys hunt. This wasn't it."

It was Richie's turn to smile. "But you weren't worried?"

"Not terribly. We heard Jeremy's Springfield, but not your Winchester. Now if both of you had fired a few shots..." Marnie let the scenario hang, and the whole group nodded.

Jeremy laughed. "You can tell the sound of my rifle from Richie's?"

Marnie tsked at him. "Well, yeah. Do they sound the same to you?"

"Well...no, now that you mention it. I guess I never thought that much about it."

The entire group started talking excitedly, and Richie held up a hand. "Hold it a second." He looked around at the others. "I just told you we got a zombie close by. We need to worry about that right now."

Tina shook her head solemnly. "Worryin' won't stop the bad stuff from happenin'. It just keeps you from enjoyin' the good stuff."

Richie and Jeremy smiled at each other. "Well, we have to be worried," Jeremy returned, with a small laugh. "Mostly about you guys, though."

Will shook his head. "I ain't lettin' no zombie get in here. This is our house!"

Mike, who had settled onto a stool with the Thompson across his knees, patted the wooden stock fondly. "Me, neither."

Sherry, beside him, reached down to where she had laid her Thompson on the floor, and lifted it to her own lap. "Shoot first, count zombie parts later."

Two years ago, after Jack had arrived and started them searching all the farms in the area, they had turned up a number of the submachine guns. Firing one was a handful for a kid, even though the low recoil made them easy to use for an adult. The twenty-round stick magazines made them fairly heavy, and neither Mike nor Sherry had been strong enough at first to really handle the weapons well. But this new life instilled strength into those that survived it, and now both kids were so good with the weapons that it was almost scary to watch the way they handled them. Even with the new, even larger drum magazines they had found, both Mike and Sherry carried the weapons easily.

Marnie understood the need for guns, but was wary of them in the house. She gave off a little concerned sigh, got to her feet and went to the two kids, and pointed at the machine guns they cradled. "Safeties on?"

Mike made a face. "You think we're stupid?"

"No. But shit happens." She gently removed the weapon from the boy's lap, and then confiscated the other gun from Sherry. Together, the submachine guns were a fair load, but Marnie didn't even bend as she walked away with them. "We'll just put these away for now, okay?"

The older girl carried the guns to the heavy wooden rack on the floor near the hatch, and stood the weapons upright in their slots. Gun safety had been drilled mercilessly into each of them, and all of them were comfortable with weapons at hand. But...shit did happen. Better safe than sorry.

Richie frowned. "Guys...this is a zombie we're talking about."

No one said anything for a moment. Will looked around at the others, and then back at Richie. "We all heard you. What do you want us to do, be scared? Well, I am scared. We've been scared of this day comin' for a whole year now. Ever since Jack died. That's a long time, and we're used to it." He sighed. "I'm glad it's finally here. I'm tired of waiting."

Marnie patted him on the shoulder as she returned to her seat, and then looked at Richie. "We all feel that way." She licked her lips, and then firmed her expression. "You guys go out every day, Richie. You and Jeremy. Sometimes some of the others go with you. But I stay here, to watch the camp, and anyone that's here with me. I'm sick of waiting, too."

Richie nodded, his expression concerned. "I told you more'n once that one of us would stay back if you wanted to go. You need to get out more often."

"No. I know you did, but...no." She looked around at the other kids, and smiled. "I have something important here to do, too."

Jeremy made a face that conveyed his surprise at the group's reaction. "I thought this would be harder."

"We knew this was coming," Sherry reiterated. "I'm glad we can finally do something about it now." She shook her head grimly. "We built this place. It's all we have. And our families are gone, and we are all the people we have, too. I'll fight for that."

There was a chorus of agreement from the others, and Richie held up a hand to quiet them. "Okay." He nodded around at them, and smiled. "But we have to think about this, and talk about this, and make sure we do this right. Because...we can't have anyone getting hurt. There's no hospitals anymore, and no doc in town." He leaned forward, and let his eyes settle on each one of them. "Everyone has to be careful, you got me?"

He didn't say that it would break his heart to lose any of them. Losing Jack had been bad enough. But the others? He had come to love all of them like his own kin in the past two years, and that was the way all of them seemed to feel about the others. Daily arguments aside, the sense of being a family was what drove them to survive.

Bennie looked up at him. "There's stuff we have to do every day, Richie. Me'n Will and Tina have to tend the garden. Mike and Sherry have to empty the poop tray and bring water from the well. We can't just stop doing that."

"I know that." Richie nodded. "We still have to do what we have to do. But now, anytime anyone goes out, there needs to be at least one Thompson goes out with them. Someone has to always be on watch above, too. And anyone on the ground outside needs to stay alert. These zombie-things are damn fast, and one could get from the woods to here so fast you might not all get up the ladder, even if you spotted it right off." He looked about at the circle of faces. "Everyone watches everyone else."

"I don't know if we have enough people for that," Marnie said. "What with you and Jeremy out hunting."

"Jeremy and I won't be out hunting," Richie countered. "We're damn lucky we got all that canned food back here, because we all need to stay close to home until we take care of that thing."

Jeremy blinked at him. "We won't be hunting?" But then the answer dawned on him. "Oh, hell, 'course we won't. The way that thing moves, there's no way we'd be safe on foot."

"I thought about me taking a Thompson while you carried the Springfield, but even that doesn't strike me as good odds against one of them. Too many places we'd need to walk through where there's underbrush and trees. It just couldn't be safe, no matter how we did it."

"There's my traps," Mike suggested. "A few of them are close enough it would be safe to check 'em and bring in anything I caught." He grinned. "That rabbit stew that Mom and Marnie makes is pretty good eatin'!"

"We'd have to build a fire in the stove for that," Richie pointed out, frowning.

"We have to build a fire for most anything we eat," Marnie countered. "You really think that thing won't find us just because we don't make a fire?"

Richie looked at Jeremy, who nodded. "I'm with you, Richie. I agree that our best defense is to stay home for now, 'cause we can't compete with that thing out in the open. But since it knows we're around, anyway, it will find us no matter how much we try to hide." He shrugged. "We may as well eat good while we wait."

Richie's eyes moved to Marnie, who smiled encouragingly. "Hot food is better."

Richie slowly smiled. "Yeah, it is." He turned the smile on Mike. "Me and Jeremy will take a couple of Thompsons and go with you to check the nearer traps each day. Every little bit will help."

"You could check them at night," Tina offered. "Jack said zombies don't move at night."

Jeremy immediately shook his head. "No. Most of what Jack told us was good stuff. But even he said he wasn't positive zombies stayed put all night. We'd have no chance at all against one in the dark."

"Do we keep a watch at night now?" Mike asked. He looked like he was a little excited by the idea, and ready to be the first to volunteer.

Richie couldn't help laughing, just a little. "I don't think we need to do that. For one, we can't leave the outer lights on all night to see, both because it would run the batteries down, and because all that light at night would make the place visible for miles. We might wind up attracting more trouble than not. So it would be dark, and you wouldn't see anything coming until it was banging on the hatch, and we'd hear that, anyway. And for the other, anyone up all night will need to sleep all day, and we'll be better off with everyone awake and alert during the daylight hours." He leaned forward, and gave the other boy a pointed look. "Besides, we need you to show us where your traps are, right?"

If Mike was disappointed, he didn't show it. "Oh, yeah." He smiled, then. "It'll be cool just checking the traps. We might have a big gun battle with this thing, or something."

Richie scratched his head, wondering how anyone could be excited by the prospect of a gun battle with one of the things he and Jeremy had seen in the field. But then, he wasn't fourteen anymore, like Mike was. So he just smiled at the younger boy's excited look. "We might."

"Richie?" Will looked thoughtful. "How do you think the zombie got this far out?"

Richie traded glances with Jeremy, and both boys shook their heads. "Don't know." Richie admitted. "How did the one that got Jack get to Mitersville? Unless it was...well, unless it started from there, it had to have walked from the city."

"That's sixty-four miles, just to get from the city to Mitersville, and another fourteen miles to get here," Marnie pointed out. "That's a heck of a walk."

"Maybe for us, it is" Sherry offered. "Those things just walk and kill. Probably took it months to get out here."

"Probably," Jeremy agreed. "They'd have to leave the cities at some point, just to keep eating. This one probably just started out in a random direction, and wound up here." He sighed. "I'm just glad it isn't three or four of them."

"That we know of," Sherry pointed out.

"There aren't very many of them, Jack said," Richie reminded. "Maybe even less than the number of people that's left. And they don't work together, or even much tolerate each other, from what he said. Two of 'em out this way in two year's time isn't much, really."

"It's two too many," Mike immediately replied.

"I just had a scary thought," Bennie announced. "What if this zombie was a person last week, and just made the change? Could have been some guy already living out this way, and maybe not from the city at all."

Richie had had the same thoughts before, but discounted them. "No evidence of that," he reassured. "If people were still changing, I think we'd already know." He thought about that, and then smiled. "Plus, our boy has a really nice suit on, or what was a really nice suit, once. He's a little better dressed than the guys down at the hardware store, if you know what I mean."

"Definitely a city boy," Jeremy agreed, nodding. "And the way that suit looked, he's been wearing it a whole lot longer than just a week or two."

Bennie gave a small sigh, looking relieved. "Good. I was worried that...that changes might still be able to happen."

"Yeah...like one of us," Will said, with just a hint of anxiety in his voice.

Richie swung around and put a hand on the boy's shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. "It's not gonna happen, so stop right now. It's been more than two years now since the Changes. If there was gonna be more, we'd know by now."

"I'm wonderin'," Jeremy said, a little loudly, and obviously intent on changing the subject, "if we shouldn't make another run to town for more canned food? The store isn't half empty yet, and we have room for more. We could wind up under siege here, and we'd better have enough to eat if it lasts a while. Maybe we should go in the morning, while that thing is still healing itself."

"I hate to go and leave the others," Richie murmured, unhappy at the prospect.

Marnie smiled. "We'd be okay for the few hours it would take."

"We could all go," Tina suggested.

"No, I don't want to leave the camp undefended," Richie immediately countered. "What would we do if we got back and that thing had broken in while we were gone...or even other survivors? We'd really be in trouble then." He lowered his voice. "And Mom won't go outside, remember?"

All eyes briefly turned to the old woman slowly rocking in the chair, who seemed oblivious to the sudden attention.

"Oh, right," Tina said softly.

Richie smiled at Mom. Despite what they called her, she wasn't actually related to anyone in the camp. Jack had found her and brought her back with him from the city. She didn't talk, and seemed to live mostly in her own little world. But she was functional despite her detachment, and could care for herself, mostly. And she could cook, and do other practical things, and she more than earned her keep.

Plus...everyone loved her. She was the only true adult left in their world now that Jack was gone, and her presence among them was reassuring in a way that nothing else could quite provide. The younger kids, especially, often sought her out for an ear to express their doubts to about something, and for the comforting hug she always seemed ready to offer.

"We could gas up the truck while we're there, and maybe get some more fuel for the hatch jets," Jeremy continued. "I counted six more drums of that Coleman fuel in the storeroom at the hardware store last time we were there."

"Maybe. Probably wouldn't hurt." Richie hated the idea of going off and leaving the others at this time...but he also understood that they had grown a little lax because of the length of time that had passed without trouble. They had been meaning to get back to town and add to their supplies again, planning for three trips but only making one of them for the canned food the other day. He kicked himself now, mentally, for not being more aggressive about that. They needed to get as much of the remaining supplies from Hanford as they could, before something happened to them, or some other group showed up and claimed them.

He became aware that Jeremy and Marnie both were watching him. That the other two teens often followed his lead on things was becoming apparent to him now, and he grinned. "Want me to make the decision, huh?"

"You're the boss," Marnie said, smiling.

Jeremy simply puckered his lips briefly, grinned, and let it go at that.

"Okay. " Richie nodded. "We'll go in the morning. Mike, you want to bring your Thompson along for the ride?"

"Do I!" The boy looked excited, and Richie frowned.

"Just remember this is not a zombie-hunt, okay? We need to be fast, and quiet, and careful. Get some supplies and then get our butts back here. The others will have less protection while we're gone. Understand?"

Mike looked around at the others, and his grin faded. "Yeah. I get it."

"What about me?" Will asked. It was plain that the younger boy wanted to go, too.

But Bennie spoke up before Richie could. "We have to guard the camp, Will. We'll be the only men here while the others are gone."

Will brightened, and Richie nodded at Bennie. "That's right. We're depending on the two of you to hold down the fort until we get back."

Marnie and Sherry both smiled and nodded, but didn't say anything dissenting. The truth was, the girls needed no protecting. Marnie and Sherry both could shoot the whiskers off a squirrel at a hundred paces, and Sherry was particularly effective with the Thompson. Even little Tina could blast away accurately, two-handed, with the Colt .357 Magnum she kept by her bedside.

For a moment Richie was amazed at how far they had come. Their parents would be horrified to see how proficient they had become with guns of all kinds, and knives, and axes, and...everything. Jack had drilled into all of them the idea that the new world would kill them if they didn't hold it at bay, and all of them had taken that idea to heart. Survival could be a deadly business, these days.

Richie sighed. "Good. That's settled, then." He smiled at Marnie. "Uh...what's for dinner?"

Mike's grin returned. "Rabbit stew, of course."

Marnie laughed, and nodded. "We just have to heat it." She stood and crossed to the rocker, and patted the old woman's wrist. "Come help me with dinner, Mom."

The woman looked up at her a moment, and then slowly got up out of the rocker. Sherry jumped to her feet and began gathering kindling together, and the departure of the three effectively signaled the end of the pow wow. The other kids immediately got up and moved the chairs and stools towards the kitchen table conscripted from the Kincannon house kitchen, and fell to talking and playing around together. The mood seemed light; incredibly so, considering the recent turn of events.

"What do you think?" Jeremy asked quietly, moving to stand next to Richie.

Richie watched the others for a moment before replying. He could detect no undercurrent of new fear in the other kids. All of them had come to accept the way the world was now, and seemed well able to get along with it. After so many had died, death was not the stranger it once had been. It was heartening for Richie to see them intent on dealing with this thing...even if they really had no idea what that entailed.

"I think...if we're lucky...we'll get through this."

Jeremy slid an arm around Richie's waist and pulled him closer. "You'll get us there, I'm sure."

Richie nodded, only hoping that the confidence his boyfriend seemed to place in him would be born out in the days to come.

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