Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 6

They waited until after dark to have dinner, so that they could all sit together and relax. The conversation at the table seemed unusually lively, the feeling being that they had all dodged a particularly deadly bullet that day. With no further sign of the zombie after the events in the drive, they had decided that it was a correct assumption that the creature needed to lay low a while in order to heal itself before it would be back. That reduced in their minds its seeming invincibility, and gave them confidence in the idea that it was not really indestructible, after all. The reprieve generated a noticeable euphoria among them, which had everyone smiling and laughing; and even the sense that they were far from being done with their ordeal 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. Two years of surviving on their own had given them confidence in their ability to press on, and to deal with things as they happened. No one seemed paralyzed by fear in the least, which was a genuine relief to Richie.

So he 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. It seems obvious now that we can't fight this thing out in the open, unless we are just somehow very lucky. It's just too damn strong and too damn fast. So my first idea is that we just can't afford to go after it. Outside, in the clear, it has all the advantages." He nodded. "So we have to make it come to us, and in a situation where we have some control over the results."

The others looked at each other, digesting that notion.

Richie smiled at the expressions on their faces, but then grew thoughtful. "The other thing I was considering...I was just going over in my head 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. "If this was just about food, 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 I'm pretty sure now that this is not some spooky undead thing, but just as alive as all of us, if in some really different kind of way. It isn't a zombie, not really. So, then...what the hell is it?"

"Something happened to a lot of people the night of the Changes," Marnie said. "Almost everyone got turned to blue stone. Well, or was petrified, or something. A few people - seems it was mostly kids here - 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.

"But this...creature...it used to be a man. It's still as smart as a man, and we've seen now that it can plan and execute an attack like a man." Richie shook his head. "But...it doesn't act like a man."

Jeremy frowned. "How do you mean?"

Richie closed his eyes a moment, seeing again the face of the zombie as it drove the bole of the tree against the side of the truck. "I saw its expression when it attacked us. It was...it looked just about as mad as it could be. Just...crazy mad." He shook his head. "Why? Why does it hate us so much?"

Jeremy sighed. "I still think it's mad that I shot at it."

"Well, I don't." Richie shook his head. "That kind of fury isn't just from revenge. That kind of fury is...insane."

"You think it's crazy?" Marnie asked. "I mean...like psycho ward crazy?"

"Yes, I do. Or something like that. It's entire body was changed in a single night, into something that looks like a man, but isn't really a man anymore at all. It's brain had to be changed, too. I don't want to say it's insane like a psychiatrist might say a regular person was insane; but I do think that whatever has happened to this thing's brain has changed the way it thinks to the point that what motivates it isn't something we might easily understand. The way it acts now...it's like it just can't tolerate anything else to be alive." He sat forward in his chair. "I don't think it sees us as people like itself at all. To the zombie, we're something that resembles it, but aren't really like it. In other words, exactly the same way it seems to us. I think it's sole purpose is to kill us, after which it will just walk away, until it runs into the next deer, or the next person."

"So we aren't food, you're saying?" Jeremy decided.

"No, I don't think we are. I mean...all that junk about zombies eating people is just horror story stuff. People are scared at the idea of being food for something, so it works great in fiction. But there is just too much other food out there for this thing to waste so much energy chasing us. Not to mention that it gets hurt each time it comes after us." Richie frowned. "And...this used to be a man. A person. People don't eat people, right? So why would it suddenly want to do that now?"

"Maybe they don't eat people," Marnie said. "Even Jack said he never saw that happen. Just that they killed people and tore them apart."

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

Richie nodded. "That's my point. And...for that matter, we didn't even see the zombie eat the buck it got in the field, either." He closed his eyes, remembering. "Yeah." 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 it didn't eat the buck, either?" Bennie asked. "Then...what was it doing with it?"

"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." He shook his head then. "It doesn't matter. What I'm saying is that this now seems to me to be about something other than food." He smiled then. "I was wondering if we weren't like spiders to this guy, or something like that."

Everyone laughed, thinking he was kidding. "Yeah, right," Will said. "I left my other six legs in the bedroom."

Richie grinned, and reached across the table and gave the boy a playful poke. "That's not what I meant." He looked around the table. "What do you do if you see a spider?"

"Nothing," Will said, immediately. "They don't scare me."

"Yuck," Tina said. "I step on them."

Richie nodded. "That's it. I'm willing to bet that more people kill a spider when they see it then don't. Even though they're tiny in comparison to us, their creep factor is so high that most people won't have them around. I was just wondering if our friend now saw us regular people as some kind of creepy things that looked like a zombie, but aren't one."

"What about the deer?" Sherry asked. "It doesn't look anything like a zombie."

"So maybe it's even creepier," Richie said. "Maybe this thing is horrified and angered by things that move around, but are different."

Marnie gave a frustrated little sigh. "Does all this really matter, Richie?"

He shook his head. "Nope. Not one bit. I just want all of you to break out of thinking of this thing as a zombie, like in the movies. It's not. It's something new, and something so different from us that we may never know why it does what it does. That makes it very unpredictable, and so we have to go on the assumption that we won't ever know exactly what it might do next."

"Then how do we fight it?"

Richie nodded. "I was coming to that. The one thing that seems consistent with this thing is its aggressiveness. It seems to me that it will keep coming at us until it wins, or we kill it. So we have to use his willingness to chase us to our advantage."

Everyone was silent at that.

"Wow." Jeremy shook his head. "You really have been thinking about this." He grinned then. "It opens up all sorts of new areas to consider, I have to say. I'm kind of focused right now on what this thing eats, if it's not deer or us. Something that operates like this thing does would have an enormous daily energy requirement. I mean, he would probably need to eat as much as all of us combined. He'd have to hunt all day to do that, and it's kind of obvious that he doesn't do that." He shook his head. "So where the heck does he get his energy?"

"I don't know," Richie admitted. "Other than his color, he still looks like a human being. But he doesn't operate like one in any way I have seen, so maybe he no longer eats like we do for his energy. There may be some totally new force at work here we can't even imagine. Energy from air, or something even weirder."

"Maybe sunlight?" Bennie suggested. "That would explain why they don't move after dark."

Richie was briefly stunned by the idea. A being that got its energy from sunlight would basically never go hungry. The sun delivered energy at a lot of different wavelengths, and only visible light was really dampened by cloud cover. And even on a cloudy day, the energy of sunlight was still everywhere. There would just need to be a way to store some of that energy, in order to make it through the hours of darkness. Sleep, or hibernation, or some form of reduced activity might be just what was required.

Richie blew a little air through his lips to signify his amazement at the idea. "That's a scary notion. It just tells me we don't know a damn thing about how this creature works."

"It doesn't matter that much what it eats," Marnie said then. "What's important is that we don't let it hurt us. That means we have to get rid of it before it can."

For a moment no one said anything, and Richie nodded as he looked around the circle of faces. "Yeah. I agree. I just wanted to start everyone thinking differently about our friend out there. It's not a zombie at all. We don't really know anything about it, beyond what Jack told us, and all the things he said about how violent they are, and that they seem to sleep at night, seem to be right." He spread his hands on the tabletop. "But that really is all we know."

"I'm used to calling it a zombie now," Sherry said, grinning. "It's still as scary as a movie zombie. Even scarier, really."

Richie laughed. "It's okay to keep calling it that, just so long as we focus on trying to understand what it really might be."

"It was a man, once," Will said. "It must be terrible to be changed like that."

Richie nodded, thinking again. "You know, that brings to mind another thing. We have no idea what kind of man this was before the Changes. He's wearing a business suit, and he looks like he might have been doing okay in life. But...who was he? What was he like?"

Mike cocked his head and eyed Richie, as if suddenly understanding what he was driving at. "Oh. You mean...how it thinks now might be related to how it thought before the Changes?"

Richie laughed. "Well...I guess that's what I mean. We think of this guy as a man turned into a monster, and so we kind of think that he was a good man now turned into a bad monster. But that might not be the case." Richie shrugged. "I mean, the guy could have been a serial killer, or a drug dealer, or a hit man--"

Mike laughed at that, and Richie grinned. "I'm serious. The guy could have been any kind of evil bastard, and not have had all that far to go to get where he is now."

Jeremy frowned. "The zombie that got Jack acted the same way. Was he an evil bastard, too?"

"He could have been. There was certainly more than one evil bastard in the world before the Changes. All I'm saying is, we don't even know what this zombie was like before he changed. He may not have been exactly a people person to begin with."

"It doesn't matter what he was," Marnie said, patiently. "All I care about is what he is now."

Richie frowned a moment, but nodded. "Well, yeah. But the more I think about this, the more comes to mind. It just scares me that we don't know anything about what these creatures really are."

"He could have been a nice guy, once," Tina argued. "And what happened to him just made him crazy."

Richie nodded, seeing that she wanted to believe that. "Yes, you're right. We just don't know what the Changes did to these guys."

"We probably never will," Sherry said.

"No," Richie agreed. "Okay, then let's forget about what kind of man he was, and focus on what kind of zombie he is now. I still say he's an evil bastard."

Everyone smiled, and a few of the kids laughed.

"He's a rough son of a bitch, there's no question about that," Jeremy agreed. "I'll bet he's even up there when it comes to zombies. It stands to reason that not all zombies are created equal, either. Some are just going to be smarter and tougher than others."

"Agreed." Richie nodded, and smiled around at the circle of faces. "So now we know that we can't think of this thing as just a zombie. We have to be careful, and alert, and take notice of everything that happens outside. And, 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. "I think Jack was pretty clear on that, too, and he was the one that had the experience in the city. But what we don't know exactly 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 just after dawn, I think. An attack just at sunset would not have us asleep yet, and it might leave the thing incapacitated right in the middle of the attack when the sun set."

"Well, I get up at dawn. Mom and I start breakfast early. And everyone else is up not long after. It would be hard to take us by surprise, even then."

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.

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? I mean, another idea, on how we may be able to handle our friend?"

"A couple of them, actually." Richie sighed slowly. "But first...I want to make sure that everyone thinks we need to kill this thing."

"Oh, come on," 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 a person now," Sherry argued. "I say get rid of it, too. Permanently."

"Whatever it is, it's not a man now, and we have no way to change that," 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, it was a person. I just want to make sure everyone is aware of that fact."

"Kind of late to consider that, isn't it?" Mike asked. "We've only shot at this thing a few hundred times, already."

"That was in self-defense," Richie returned. "What I am talking about now is the purposeful execution of this guy. This thing. I just want to know that everyone is in agreement on it."

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. "I just wanted to make sure everyone understood what we were talking about doing. 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 killer 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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