Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 4

For an hour after the boys had left in the truck to go to town, Marnie felt her nerves on edge. She was normally very good at this, used to being the sole head of the household in their absence. But the awareness of the thing somewhere near was spooking her. She kept taking a deep breath and letting it out, pausing in her chores, and looking around the interior of the camp at the others.

Mom was rocking slowly in her chair, knitting. She seemed to know how to do that very well, but never knitted anything functional. She produced various-sized, borderless squares of colored material, which everyone had found a use for, but which really weren't anything that could be given a name. That the practice of knitting was both restful and comforting for the woman was plain, and she spent much of her days doing exactly that unless needed to help out elsewhere.

No one begrudged her that. Mom was dealing with the end of the world in her own fashion, just as they all were doing. That her way was silent and withdrawn was accepted by the others.

Bennie, Sherry, Will, and Tina had four-corners duty, watching the world outside from windows at the true compass-points spaced around the camp. They were alert, but it was hard simply to watch, and Marnie had had to remind Will and Tina twice already in just the past hour to talk a little less, and watch a little more. Sherry, at the window above the long drive to the main road, was the most relaxed, leaning on her window sill, her Thompson standing against the wall beside her, her eyes calmly roving the landscape beyond.

It was a sunny, pretty day, warm and comfortable. After the unusually long winter, it was wonderful to have spring at hand again. The trees and grasses had simply exploded into shades of green all about them, all of which waved happily in the mild southerly breeze. The blackened area about the camp looked stark by contrast, even though it, too, was showing new traces of spring green.

After the second hour was up, Marnie had relaxed somewhat. Whatever might come, she felt that she would deal with it as best as she could. There were no other options. She looked around again at the others, and nodded. Nothing was more important to her in the world than these lives, these kids.

Marnie was finishing up the plates from breakfast. As the person in charge, and therefore without a specific duty, she often found herself doing grunt work while the others had window-watch or did chores. She didn't mind - it was just part of the day's routine. She had dried the last plate and put it on top of the stack, and was ready to start drying glasses, when she heard Sherry mumble, "What the hell is that?"

"You see something?" she called, putting down the dishtowel and the glass.

Sherry was silent a moment, squinting out the window, but then nodded. "Yeah. Something...but I don't know what."

The others had turned way from their windows, looking at Sherry, and Marnie snapped her fingers at them. "Watch your field. This could be a diversion."

She crossed to stand behind Sherry, and gazed out over the other girl's shoulder.

She saw it immediately. A hundred yards away, in the one small patch of woods that was inside their clear zone, a tree was waving back and forth, far more than could have been prompted by the wind. It was the one direction that the cleared lands did not extend the full two hundred yards, due to the copse of trees by the drive that led to the main road.

The waving tree was mid-sized, maybe twenty feet tall, and it was gyrating in an ever-increasing arc, back and forth. The base of the tree was clothed in underbrush and smaller trees, and not visible from her perch. She looked at Sherry, and the other girl shrugged. "Don't know what to make of that. If it was a much smaller tree, I'd say someone was shaking it back and forth."

Marnie frowned. A tree that size had a base diameter of maybe four or five inches. A normal person couldn't make it sway like that, probably not in a million years.

"Shit," she hissed, narrowing her eyes at the waving tree. Was a zombie powerful enough to do that?

Almost as if in answer, there was a sharp crack, and the tree toppled, and all but part of the crown disappeared into the lower brush. There followed more snapping noises, and then the crown began to disappear. The tree pulled back, more limbs and branches flew into the air, and then there was no further movement.

Sherry stooped and picked up the Thompson, laid the muzzle on the windowsill. "What do you make of that?"

Marnie shook her head. "I don't know."

Another, much smaller tree, maybe eight feet in height, simply snapped off and disappeared. And then another. The underbrush waved as something energetic happened, to the accompaniment of more snapping and cracking, and then a third small tree disappeared.

By now everyone was getting agitated, and the other kids were asking what was going on. Marnie quietly told them to hush and to stay at their windows, and they did, to their credit. But that did not stop them from continuing to send inquiring glances over their shoulders..

Marnie licked her lips and took a breath. She was about to turn and pick up the Winchester rifle that was her chosen weapon, when the distant underbrush parted and the zombie stepped out into the sunlight. For a moment Marnie was simply frozen, the shock was so deep. This was her first real look at one of the things, and it was difficult to get past the human shape inside the familiar trappings of a business suit, and reconcile that with the purple-blue flesh evident on every exposed body part.

It took a moment for her to realize that the thing was carrying something. She stared, and understood then that it was one of the small trees, picked clean of branches. That fact only just registered before the creature suddenly leaped forward into a run, brought the tree up above its shoulder, twisted, and fired it off like the javelin of all times. The tree lanced towards them as if shot from a cannon, and Marnie's eyes widened as she watched it in the air coming towards them, like a spear.

"Down!" she yelled, grabbing Sherry and pulling her from the window just as the missile impacted.

The aim had not been perfect. The tree hit the outside wall about two feet from the window, delivering a thunderous blow to the stout boards. That the zombie was capable of such a Herculean feet was still coursing through Marnie's mind when Sherry suddenly jumped to her feet, tilted the Thompson forward, braced herself, and pulled the trigger. The camp filled with the roaring chatter of the submachine gun, and Marnie bounced to her knees and peered outside over the window sill in time to see the pattern of rounds tossing up dirt as it headed for the zombie.

The creature saw it coming, and dived back into the woods. It's movements were fluid, powerful, and unbelievably swift, and Marnie's throat tightened at the sight. No human should be able to move like that. No human could move like that.

"Dammit!" Sherry cursed, and the Thompson went silent. "He's too far away." The submachine gun was surprisingly accurate out to fifty yards, but after that it became a little bit of a pot luck affair.

Marnie looked over her shoulder at the other kids. Mom had ceased her rocking and knitting, and was simply quiet, her eyes staring at nothing in particular. "Tina and Will, go to thirds. Bennie, bring your rifle over here."

The two youngest kids each moved over one window. The camp was round; three people could easily cover its circumference from the correct windows. With the two younguns now repositioned, the thirteen year-old was free to join the girls. Bennie was a fine shot, and knew his scope well. He was almost as good as Richie, and, with continued practice, might one day surpass even Jeremy's marksmanship skills.

The boy crouched at the window and laid the Winchester on the sill. "Where is it?"

Sherry pointed to where the zombie had dived into the woods. "There, by the drive. You can see where my rounds dug up the dirt."

Bennie nodded, and fixed his eye to the scope.

Suddenly, in the distance, a much larger tree shuddered, one of the tallest in the copse, in the forty-foot range in height. They heard a sequence of incredible sounds, indescribable sounds, and the big tree shuddered again, leaned slightly towards the drive, and then stopped.

"What the hell is it doing?" Sherry asked.

Again, the zombie was suddenly just there at the edge of the field, another smaller tree held in its grasp. Again it launched forward into a run, brought up the tree, and fired it off. Marnie was just stunned at the incredible quickness of the thing. They could see immediately that it was not their window that had been targeted, but the next one over. But again the missile was off the mark, and crashed into the thick planks of the side wall with an enormous bang!

Bennie's Winchester fired, and the zombie lurched to one side and dived back into the woods. Sherry followed it with a short burst of fire; but the Thompson was hard to place on target at that range, and all she did was chew up the ground in the creature's wake.

Marnie pulled the walkie-talkie from her belt and pressed the send button. "Richie? Jeremy? Can you hear me?"

There was only silence for an answer. The manual for the sets claimed that they had a range of about three miles, but Jack had laughed at that and said yeah, maybe, under ideal conditions, across a fairly flat, open range. Hanford was six miles away, and down in the valley on the other side of the hills. Past experience had already shown them that the walkie-talkies became undependable beyond a range of about a mile or so over the rolling terrain between the camp and the town.

Obviously, the guys had not left the town yet, or if they had, they were still out of range.

For the next ten minutes, nothing else happened. Every now and then a small tree would suddenly pop up out of the underbrush and wave fiercely, and Sherry would loosen a burst of fire in that direction. But that they weren't hitting anything seemed obvious. Sherry had Bennie bring her another magazine, worked it into the Thompson, and made ready to fire again.

And then, just as before, the creature was just suddenly there, a small tree picked clean of branches in its grasp. It ran forward, cocked its arm, and once again a missile was winging its way towards the camp. Again, it was the window down from theirs that seemed to be the target, and again the tree impacted about two feet from the edge. Sherry leaned back into the window and fired again, but the zombie was simply too quick, and once again disappeared into the copse.

Suddenly, a creeping feeling came over Marnie. Something wasn't right about this. She turned and looked over her shoulder at Will and Tina. "You see anything?"

Both kids shook their heads, and said no.

Marnie sent her eyes back to the distant patch of woods. Again, a tree popped up and waved, and Sherry sent a five round burst to say hello. Marnie frowned. It was almost...it was almost as if the thing was deliberately drawing their fire for some reason.

"If another tree pops up, don't shoot," she suddenly said, patting the younger girl on the back. "It's a waste of ammo," she added, before Sherry could ask why. That was not the real reason; the sense of some purpose as yet unknown, which they were unknowingly accommodating, was the reason.

Twice more in the next few minutes, small trees popped up and waved fiercely. But the kids held their fire, and simply watched.

Then, there was a sudden hiss, and the walkie-talkie at Marnie's belt spoke. "Richie calling the camp. Marnie, are you there?"

Marnie grabbed the set and brought it to her lips. "I'm here. Where are you guys?"

"We're still a few minutes away from home. We heard gunfire. Are you guys okay?" There was a mixture of worry and relief in the boy's voice.

"The zombie is out at the edge of the field. It's been throwing small trees at the camp, and making a commotion. Just acting really weird."

For a moment the radio was silent. Then: "But it hasn't come any closer?"

"When it does, we set the Thompsons on him."

"Okay. We're on our way in."

Marnie breathed a sigh of relief. But then, a new sound came to her ears, a distant growl. It took a moment to recognize because it was uncharacteristically loud; but when she did, a sense of shock overcame her. Her eyes jerked back to the window, and realization struck home. The truck! It was already coming, and it would have to come along the drive, right past the point where the zombie was hiding!

"Ohmigod!"

"What?" Sherry cocked an ear, and then suddenly looked panicked. "Is that the...?"

"Yes!" Marnie hissed.

The truck suddenly came into view in the distance down the drive, bouncing along at an insane clip over the rutted landscape. The large tree, the one that had shuddered and waved to the accompaniment of the strange sounds, suddenly emitted a terrifying crack, and slowly, almost majestically, toppled over into the drive ahead of the truck, blocking the roadway with its leafy crown.

"It's a trap!" Marnie hissed, jumping to her feet. "It's after the guys!" She brought the walkie-talkie back to her lips and yelled frantically into the mic, "Richie! Stop!"
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