Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 6

The conversation at the dinner table that evening seemed unusually rambunctious. The feeling that they had all dodged a particularly deadly bullet that day was prominent among them, and with no further sign of the zombie later, they had decided it probably would need to heal itself before it would be back. The seeming reprieve generated a noticeable euphoria among them, which had everyone smiling and laughing; and even the sense that they were waiting for the other shoe to drop couldn't dull their enjoyment at being together.

For everyone but Richie and Jeremy, this was their first experience with a real zombie. Jack had told them stories of his time in the city; but like many stories, they seldom generated the same impact as the reality itself. The group had been frightened by the tales at the time; but the passage of weeks, and then months, and then a year, without a single problem from the creatures, had dulled that fear to a bearable, and even submerged, anxiety.

Jack's death in Mitersville had rekindled the fear; but the lack of further visitors from the city in the year following that had put them right back to a sense of ease about things. They had been through that cycle of fear followed by relaxation twice, and this new incursion did not seem to bring quite the same level of horror that it had in the past. They were inured to the situation somewhat, and strengthened by two years of surviving on their own. They had gained confidence in their ability to press on, and to deal with things as they happened.

So Richie was less than surprised when Will put down his fork, gave a little sigh, and turned to look at him. "So, what are we gonna do next?"

No one needed to ask his meaning. But the question seemed to be the spark needed to set off the others nodding, and everyone grew quiet as all eyes turned to Richie.

Jeremy took note of the fact, smiled, and put his hand on Richie's wrist and squeezed it. "Not that there's any pressure, mind you."

Richie laughed. "Yeah."

"You said you had an idea," Marnie said, helpfully.

"Well...maybe. I was just thinking about what happened today. And wondering...why?"

"Why?" Mike looked puzzled. "What do you mean?"

Richie nodded. "We've assumed that this thing kills to eat, just like we hunt to eat. We saw ourselves how it can take down even a big buck. And there are just a hell of a lot of deer still left out there."

Jeremy frowned. "What's your point?"

Richie gave a little shrug. "If the deer started shooting back at us, we'd find something safer to hunt, wouldn't we?" He let his eyes circle the table. "So why hasn't this thing just headed off across the range, looking for easier things to hunt? Why is it still after us?"

Bennie gave out an eerie laugh, and leaned towards Richie, rubbing his fingers together in ghoulish delight. "It's a zombie!" he said, in a creepy voice. "Maybe it likes brains!"

Tina squealed a eww!, but most of the others smiled or laughed.

"That's another thing," Richie went on. "We call these things zombies, but that's just because Jack did, and we've all seen the movies and TV shows. But...what are they, really?"

"Something happened to a lot of people the night of the changes," Marnie said. "Almost everyone got turned to stone. Well, petrified. A few people - seems it was mostly kids - didn't. And a few others...got turned into zombies."

Richie nodded, remembering waking up the morning after the changes to find his own family turned into blue crystalline statues of themselves. He squeezed his eyes shut a moment, and pushed away the memory.

"We don't know what happened," Sherry said. "We probably never will."

"Probably not," Richie agreed. "But we still have the question of why these zombie things keep going after people, when there are easier ways to eat. Especially if they have their intelligence intact." He frowned. "I mean...they were people, once. And people don't eat people."

"Do we actually know that they eat people?" Marnie asked. "Even Jack said he never saw that happen. Just that they killed people and tore them apart."

Richie was silent a moment, thinking.

"She's right," Jeremy said. "Jack did say he never saw anyone get eaten."

Richie frowned. "Yeah. And for that matter, we didn't see the zombie eat the buck it got in the field, either." He closed his eyes, remembering. "And..." His eyelids snapped open. "And, when we accidentally made a noise and it looked up at us, I saw its face clearly. It wasn't smeared with blood at all, like it should have been if it was eating."

"So maybe it wasn't eating the buck," Bennie decided. "Then...what was it doing?"

"I saw the zombie pounce on the deer after it brought it down," Jeremy remembered. He turned to stare at Richie. "We...I just assumed it was eating it."

"Me, too," Richie admitted. "Damn. I'd like to go look at that kill to see what happened to it...but it's just not safe."

"It kills for a reason," Bennie said. "Even if it doesn't eat what it kills, it's doing something with it." He frowned. "And they seem to kill everything they see."

"That's my main concern," Marnie said. "That none of us" -- she broke off, and looked over at Tina, and forced a smile --"get in any trouble."

"Agreed." Richie nodded, and smiled around at the circle of faces. "Like I said before, everyone watches out for everyone else."

Sherry tapped her fork on the tabletop restlessly. "At least we seem safe at night. So far, anyway."

Mike turned to look at her. "We can't even count on that, though. Just 'cause nothing has happened to us yet."

"I think if this thing could come at us in the dark, it would," Jeremy said. "The advantage to a night attack would be just too good to pass up."

"I agree with that." Richie nodded at his boyfriend. "But what we don't know is how late this lack of movement starts and how early it ends. We probably need to be more alert at dusk and at dawn than we have been."

"You think it might come at us one of those times?" Marnie asked.

"Maybe. It's tried the broad daylight approach. It may decide to try to catch us when we're still asleep." He considered that. "It would be dawn, I think. An attack just at sunset might leave the thing incapacitated right in the middle of the attack."

"Well, I get up pretty soon after dawn. Mom and I start breakfast early."

Richie smiled, remembering how many mornings he had awakened to the smell of good food cooking. "I know. One of these days we'll let you two sleep in and give you breakfast in bed."

Marnie smiled, looking pleased. "It's a nice thought...but I kind of like my routine. I certainly don't mind what I do, that's for sure."

Richie could agree with that. Every member of the group had found a niche where they could contribute, yet everyone also chipped in where needed. So far, it had all worked out well. There had been few complaints that could not be credited to tiredness or boredom, and arguments and personality clashes were few and far between. Jack had always smiled about that, and said that it was really odd for a bunch of kids to get along so well.

Richie had privately decided that each of the group had come to the conclusion that the others were all they had in the world, and all that they were likely to ever have. That was the way that Richie himself felt, at least. That they had found each other after the Changes had been nothing short of a miracle, and all of them remembered that brief period of aloneness after first waking to find that the world they knew - and the people they knew - had vanished. To ever feel again that sense of having no one at all - it even made Richie shudder to consider it. So the group was simply the most important thing that there was, and each of them did their very best to preserve that.

Richie's eyes strayed to Jeremy, who was grinning at something Bennie had said. After waking to find the world he had known gone away, and his own family turned to stone, Richie had gone immediately to Jeremy's house, dreading what he would find. But instead of a blue crystalline corpse, he had found his boyfriend sitting quietly in the living room of his home, in a state of shock. Richie had cried out his boyfriend's name and run to him; but Jeremy had been oblivious, his eyes vacant and his mind totally unresponsive.

So Richie had sat next to him, and pulled him close, and held him all through that next dark night. That incredibly silent, distant night, where dreams of wandering through mute crowds of people made of blue stone had taunted Richie back to wakefulness every time he found the peace of sleep. And yet, despite all fears, he had finally slept.

He'd wakened to find Jeremy holding him tightly, aware again, and they had cried together over the sadness of losing the world, and the joy of finding each other still in it. The sheer odds against the two of them surviving the Changes together was not lost on them, and the knowledge had so strengthened the notion that they were meant to be together that no power on earth could now pull them apart. Richie counted his blessings every day now, and did his best to keep the group safe. For as long as the group was safe, Jeremy was safe.

Jeremy turned his head and caught Richie looking, and for a moment their gazes locked, and they both smiled. But then Jeremy's eyes grew slightly mischievous, and he leaned closer and put his hand on Richie's. "So...anyway. You had an idea?"

"A couple of them, actually." Richie sighed slowly. "It depends on whether we want to kill this thing...or capture it."

"Kill it," Marnie said immediately, her expression going grim. "It's too dangerous to have around."

Richie nodded, but gnawed briefly at his lip. "It was a person, once," he said quietly.

"But it's not now," Sherry pointed out. "I say get rid of it, too. Permanently."

Mike stared at him a moment, his head cocked slightly to the side. "Are you thinking it's still a person, but like...sick?"

Richie looked briefly at Jeremy, whose expression seemed so far to be neutral...waiting...before nodding at Mike. "I was considering that idea, maybe."

"If it's sick, we have no way to cure it," Marnie pointed out. "We aren't doctors, or scientists. We wouldn't even know how to start." For a moment she looked like she couldn't believe they were even discussing that matter. "Richie, this thing is dangerous. It's a killer."

Richie nodded, as much to himself as to the others. "I know. I do know. But..." He let his eyes circle the group slowly. "We are talking about a killing of our own here. Ending the life of a person; a sick one, a crazy one, or whatever it has become. But still, a person. I just want to make sure everyone is aware of that fact."

Jeremy's fingers squeezed gently against Richie's hand, and Richie looked over at him.

"It's a big thing we're talking about," Jeremy said slowly. "I know what you mean, about the zombie once being...one of us." He closed his eyes a moment, remembering. "But I'll never forget the way that other zombie came after us at the hardware store in Mitersville, the day we lost...the day that Jack died." Jeremy opened his eyes, and Richie could see the sadness in them. "If I could have killed that zombie to save Jack, I would have done it in a heartbeat. What we are talking about here is a trade, Rich." He looked around the table at each face, before coming back to settle his eyes on Richie. "The safety of these people, for the life of that zombie. I don't think it's a hard decision at all."

Richie swallowed, feeling an uncomfortable dryness to his tongue. He was starting to feel the burden of being a decision-maker now, and finding that he didn't particularly like the taste it sometimes left in his mouth. But...he needed to know that this was the right thing they were doing. In his own heart, he already knew the answer: the survival of the group came first.

But he could not help to wonder about the man the zombie once had been. Had he had a family? A wife and children that loved him? A dog, a cat...even a hamster, that he had loved and been kind to? Could he even have been gay, and even now, in some tortured twist of his changed mind, be mourning the loss of a different sort of lover?

The questions were big, even if the answer appeared to be small and obvious.

But...the decision seemed to be made. "Okay. So we need to get rid of this thing." He finally let loose a relieved smile. "Honestly, if I thought we could safely capture this thing, tie it up and throw it in the truck, and then drive it a couple of hundred miles away and dump it someplace, I'd think about it. But it's not a troublesome bear, or a wild animal of any kind. It's a monster that's as smart as we are, and ten times as dangerous." He took a deep breath, let it slide out slowly, feeling some of his tension go with it. Then he grinned. "So it's toast."

Marnie also sighed, and rolled her eyes. "You'll be the death of me, Richie Kincannon." But she smiled, and her relief was plain. "I don't know whether to smack you, or kiss you."

Richie laughed. "A kiss is always nicer."

Jeremy squeezed his hand again, but only smiled.

"So we're gonna fry this thing, right?" Mike asked, looking a little relieved himself.

"Yeah. In fact, that's probably exactly what we'll have to do to it, too."

"You mean burn it?" Jeremy asked, interest showing again in his eyes. "Gonna ask it to crawl into an oven?"

Richie nodded. "That's not so far off the mark."

Everyone looked around, as if trying to figure out from the expressions of the others if Richie was having fun with them.

"You're serious," Jeremy decided, frowning.

"Uh huh."

Marnie leaned closer, and all the others followed suit. "What have you got in mind?"

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