Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 8

"Marnie? You there?"

"Yeah. I can just hear you, Richie."

"We're still a ways out. How's everything there?"

"Been quiet as a church mouse." There was a brief hiss from the radio. "Are you guys okay?"

"Yeah. We got what we needed, no problem."

The relief in Marnie's voice was evident. "Oh, that's great. Mom and I are going to whip up some supper. We'll have it hot when you get back."

"Mmm. Sounds good to me. Holler if anything happens, okay? I'll call you again when we get to the turn off for the drive."

"Okay. Can't wait to see you guys back here, safe and sound."

Richie smiled as he set the walkie talkie on the seat beside him. "I guess you were right about that zombie still healing. But I think we should still be careful going past that patch of trees, okay?"

Jeremy frowned. "I took part of the top of that zombie's head off in that field when I shot it the very first time. I didn't see that damage when the thing attacked us by the trees, did you?"

Richie closed his eyes and concentrated on remembering. "No. I don't think so."

"That's amazing. That's just...amazing." Jeremy laughed. "I can't begin to imagine how that works."

"Don't know. Just makes them even more dangerous, though."

Jeremy grunted. "We're just damn lucky there aren't millions of them."

Richie suddenly grinned at that. "I just had a weird thought."

"What?"

Richie turned the grin on his boyfriend. "I wonder if the things can have children?"

Jeremy's eyes widened, and then he laughed. "Shit. I can see two of them having sex now. They'd probably beat the crap out of each other in the process."

"Yup. It does give 'banging some pussy' a new meaning, though, doesn't it?"

They both laughed, and Richie felt some of the tension generated by the trip flow out of him. "I'll bet they can't have kids," he decided. "From what Jack said, they don't get along with each other well enough for that to happen, even if it was possible."

"I just had a thought myself," Jeremy said. "Are there even any female zombies? Both the two we've seen were guys."

Richie thrust his bottom lip out at the idea. "Didn't Jack say he had seen some women zombies? I thought he did."

"Maybe." Jeremy shook his head. "I can't remember now." He suddenly looked unhappy. "I'm sure I've forgotten a lot of things Jack said."

Richie reached over and patted his boyfriend's arm. "It's bound to happen. We won't forget Jack, though."

"Yeah." Jeremy brightened again. "Can't see that happening."

They reached the entrance to the drive, and Jeremy turned the truck in and stopped. Richie picked up the walkie talkie and let Marnie know they were back.

"Still quiet here," she said. "And we've been watching, too. But, just to be safe, why don't you guys leave the drive before you get to the trees, and come in through the field?"

Jeremy nodded. "That's a good idea. If I get the truck out of the drive before all those deep ruts near the camp, we can just drive along beside it. Ground's solid enough."

"We'll do that," Richie relayed through the transceiver. "See you in five."

Jeremy started the truck rolling again, watching the drive. It had had gravel on it at one time, but years of travel had pushed a lot of it to the sides, and two worn ruts had developed in the ground. These gave birth to other ruts here and there, where the truck had passed in the rain and slid, or the driver had yanked the vehicle out of one of the other ruts. When it all dried it seemed as hard as a rock, and there had been no rain in five days now.

The drive had been there for more than a hundred years, and wagons had traveled it well before motorized vehicles came along. The level of the drive was a foot lower than the fields on either side, and in some places the offset was abrupt, and too much for the truck to easily climb. In other places the transfer from drive to field was gentle, and Jeremy selected one of those spots to leave the drive and proceed into the field on the opposite side from the copse of trees near the camp. They paralleled the drive, crunching their way through weeds and the remains of ancient cornstalks that time had not completely erased.

The old silo and the camp came into sight, and the copse of trees by the drive. A curl of smoke rose from the iron chimney on the roof of the camp, and they could see some of the others at the windows, and the muzzles of guns projecting outside. The copse of trees looked silent and vacant, and Jeremy did not slow as they came abreast of it. Richie hefted his Thompson, his eyes trying to be everywhere at once.

But they passed the trees without incident, and Richie sighed in relief as Jeremy turned the truck in a big circle and then backed it up near the ladder. He shut off the engine, and they sat in silence, watching, listening, and checking the rear view mirrors.

Nothing.

The radio gave out a hiss, and then Marnie's voice. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah. We were just scoping the place before getting out. Looks like our boy has the day off."

"Holes take time to mend," the girl said, unsympathetically. "And he had a lot of them, the last time I saw him."

Richie chuckled. "Remind me never to get on your bad side, Marn."

"Okay." Now there seemed to be some humor in her voice. "Just rap on the ladder when you're ready to come up."

The two boys both climbed out the driver's side, and stood looking around, their guns at the ready. It was early evening, the sun still well up in the sky, and everything looked as serene as a pretty spring day could get.

They went to the ladder, and Richie rapped on a rung with the steel rod. They heard the dogs being kicked loose, and then then the hatch squeaked open above them.

Marnie gazed down at them. "What's up?"

"Send down the cargo net, will ya?" Richie asked. "We may as well unload and get everything inside while we're able."

That didn't take long. After they had sent up the supplies, they hauled the replacement door out of the truck and set it aside. That left just the explosives to take care of.

These were a different story. They were not about to store them inside the camp. Despite Jack's assurances that this form of dynamite was very safe, Richie could not see himself being able to sleep each night knowing that the four sticks were only twenty-odd feet away from him. The risk to the camp and those that called it home was just too great to even consider storing the explosives inside .

"I know a spot," Jeremy said, picking up the plastic container they had used to store the dynamite. "Come on."

Thirty feet from the back of the old silo, the vague outline of a square building remained, with just the blackened foundation visible in the equally blackened stubs of grass around it. Fifty years ago a small smithy had stood there. It had burned to the ground when Richie's father had been a baby, and other than the foundation, all that remained was the massive stone forge and its chimney, which had been against the back wall of the little building, facing away from the silo. They walked around it, and Jeremy nodded at the large, rectangular firepot inside. "Clean that out, and we can store this there."

Richie examined the hearth. The firepot still contained ashes, now rock hard from a half century of being bonded by rain; but he was surprised to find when he pushed at it that the mass, while cohesive, had not bonded to the stone beneath, and seemed able to be easily removed. An old bird's nest hung down from just inside the stone chimney, and the sense of time here was sufficient to say that no one had touched the hearth in a very long time.

They both walked back to the ladder, and had Bennie lower a shovel to them. Then Richie used it to clean out the firepot in the hearth. Most of the ash-mass came out easily, with just a little being stuck to the grate at the bottom, through which air had once been forced by a bellows to enhance the temperature of the burning coke. The empty firepot was more than large enough to accept the plastic box holding the dynamite, and after they had set it there, they covered it over with some of the blackened rubble that lay on the ground all around.

"The blasting caps can stay where they are, in the back of the truck," Richie decided. "At least for now. I don't want them inside the house, either."

Jeremy sighed at that, and clapped Richie on the shoulder. "It is home, isn't it?"

"Yeah. The only one we have." Richie nodded up at the camp, and then turned back and spread a last handful of rubble on top of the box. Someone would have to dig for it in order to find it now.

Jeremy looked slowly around at the fields, and the distant trees. "Now I just hope our friend wasn't spying on us. It wouldn't be funny to come back when we're ready for this stuff, only to find it gone."

Richie shrugged. "There's more where this came from." He glanced at the trees. "This guy doesn't seem to understand the importance of tools, or things in general."

"He made himself some nice spears out of trees from the copse and threw them at the camp," Jeremy pointed out. "I wouldn't put anything past this one."

"Maybe. But...trees are natural things. So much of what Jack told us about these zombies seems to indicate they are largely oblivious to the man-made things around them, other than to break them if they were somehow in the way." Richie turned to smile at his boyfriend. "Can you imagine what these things would be like if they understood the use of guns?"

Jeremy whistled. "That would not be good."

"No, it wouldn't." Richie gazed out at the distant trees once again. "There are so many advantages these things could have if they simply continued to use all the tools and technology they used when they were still human. But they don't do that. So I am betting that's because they can't, for some reason."

There was a sound above them, and both boys turned and stared up at the camp. Sherry was leaning out of one of the windows, smiling at them. "Marnie said to come and get it while it's hot, or she'll throw it to the hogs."

Richie laughed. "We don't have any hogs."

Sherry looked briefly over her shoulder, and then leaned out farther and lowered her voice to a level that was barely audible. "You want me to tell her you said that?"

"Hell, no! We'll be right up."

Sherry gave them a knowing nod, and vanished back inside.

"I'm hungry," Jeremy admitted. "This was kind of a stressful day."

"I know." Richie hefted his Thompson, and put his other arm around his boyfriend. Then he leaned over and kissed his cheek. "I couldn't have handled it without you."

Jeremy sighed, and turned his head so that their lips briefly engaged. "Me, too."

They rapped on the ladder, and were admitted inside. The Thompsons were stowed in the rack, the hatch secured, and everyone met at the long dinner table and squeezed into the space around it.

The spread was nice, with spicy rabbit stew with brown rice, green beans and corn from cans, mashed potatoes from a mix, and biscuits from flower and baking powder. Marnie had had a time learning to bake in the Franklin stove, but nowadays she was an expert, and the biscuits were large and fluffy. It was times like this that Richie had once most missed butter; but they had learned to eat their biscuits with maple syrup, and nowadays it seemed as normal as anything else they had changed in order to make do with their situation.

They talked about their trip while they ate, with Richie and Jeremy taking turns describing the road, and the town of Mitersville itself once they arrived.

"It's pretty grown up and wild, just like Hanford is now," Richie said, between mouthfuls. "But you could tell that nobody had been there in all this time."

"Did you go into any of the houses?" Will asked. "Did you see...anyone?"

Jeremy shook his head. "We didn't go inside any of the houses. We already know what's there."

For a moment, silence reigned at the table.

"We did see something unexpected, though," Jeremy went on. He smiled at Richie. "Go on. You saw it first."

All eyes had turned to Richie by then.

"Um...we saw an airplane."

The others looked at each other, not quite comprehending. "On the ground?" Marnie asked. "Near the town?"

Richie shook his head. "No. In the air. Flying. Going...somewhere."

For another moment there was silence as everyone stared; and then everyone was talking at once, except for Mom. But even she seemed more attentive than usual.

Richie laughed at the sudden eruption of noise, and he and Jeremy gazed knowingly at each other. They had expected this to be a bomb, and it had gone off just they had thought it would. What was funny was that everyone was both speculating and asking questions at once, and of each other, even though none of them could possibly have an answer.

Finally, Jeremy rapped on the tabletop. The conversation tailed off, and seven sets of brightly inquisitive eyes turned their way.

"It was really high up," Jeremy said then. "We couldn't see what kind of plane it was."

"But it was fast," Richie added, nodding. "It had to be a jet. That means there is an airport somewhere that is still capable of putting such a plane into the sky. That means people with skills and organization."

"Maybe it's the air force," Bennie said immediately. "There's a base up at Minneapolis."

Richie nodded. "Ah. Neither Jeremy nor I knew where the closest one was." He frowned, remembering the image of the plane as it crawled rapidly across the sky. "That plane was traveling east, as I remember."

"That's right," Jeremy affirmed. "And Minneapolis is north and east of us here. So if it was going to the base, it should have been going northeast instead of due east."

Bennie shrugged. "It could have come from Iowa, or South Dakota. And it could have been going anywhere." He rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "And even if it was military, it didn't have to come from a military airport. They could be operating out of anywhere with a long enough runway, now."

Jeremy turned and grinned at Richie. "I think we have a plane freak among us."

Bennie laughed. "My uncle Marty flew cargo from the heavy-airlift base in Minneapolis for six years. I learned a lot from him."

Richie nodded. "I doubt we'll ever know where the plane came from or where it was going. Not unless we can contact these people somehow."

"Should we watch for other planes?" Bennie asked. "We could do that easily from the windows. Just have anyone on window watch look at the sky every now and then, as well as the ground."

"It's an idea," Richie decided, thoughtfully. "It would be good to know if this was a fluke, or if there are planes flying over us regularly."

Bennie nodded. "If we saw one going over, we could light a fire or something." He snapped his fingers then. "I know...a mirror! We could use a mirror to reflect the sun at them, and they'd be sure to see that."

"Maybe." Richie looked over at Jeremy, who simply gave a little shrug. I'll support whatever you say, love.

Richie tried not to smile as he sent his eyes back to Bennie. "Let's just watch for now, and hold off on the signaling. I'd rather have an idea of what we're dealing with, first."

"How can we do that, short of talking to these people?" Sherry asked.

"A lot of planes flying around means a lot of people, a lot of support, and a lot of supplies. One plane flying around every now and then could mean...well, something else."

"Like what?"

Richie just shook his head. "I don't know. But I'd still rather have an idea of their numbers, than not."

"Isn't that being a little too cautious?" Marnie suggested. "Any people able to fly would have to be doing better than we are."

Richie bit at his lip for a second. "Do you remember the stories that Jack used to tell, of what it was like in the city right after the changes? What people were there didn't just have zombies to worry about, they had other people to worry about, too. Some of them were willing to kill to get the things they needed to survive."

Marnie nodded. "I remember."

"Well, I just don't want to hurry into anything. All I am saying is that we tend to think of the zombies as the enemy now. I don't want to forget that people can be just as dangerous to us, if they're the wrong kind of people." He spread his hands. "That's all."

"I say do what Richie says," Bennie offered immediately. "He's been doing pretty good so far."

Marnie smiled at him. "He has, hasn't he?" She nodded at Richie, and then looked around the table at the other kids. "So everyone, when you're on window duty, watch the skies, too. But don't do anything if you see a plane, except let one if us know, you hear?"

There was a slow nod of heads. "You think these people could hurt us?" Will asked, staring at Richie as if the idea horrified him.

"I don't think they would," Richie said immediately. "This is just being careful, okay?"

"Okay."

As they finished eating, Richie wondered if he wasn't just being silly. People! And people that could still put planes into the air, too. They would have to be doing better than eight kids and an old lady living in a converted silo, wouldn't they?

Wouldn't they?

But somehow, Richie could not forget something Jack had told him once while they were exploring the hardware store in town. They had come across some larger animal traps, the kind with jaws full of teeth and chains to hold them in place. Richie had suggested taking some and setting them out near the camp, in the hopes that they might catch small deer that way.

Jack had nixed the idea. "There's too many of our own feet moving around there for that, Rich. Someone steps in the wrong place, he'd not only be caught, but we might just have a medical emergency on our hands. We can't handle that. So the best thing to do is not to tempt fate in the first place."

And that was Richie's thinking now. Not that he worried about tempting fate, which was something he rarely considered, if at all. But the idea of stepping into the wrong place at the wrong time and getting caught seemed a very real problem to him, and Jack had been absolutely right about them not wanting a medical emergency just now. They could not afford to endanger even one of the precious lives here through a rash act or an impatient one. Not on my watch, Richie decided.

Look before you leap, the old saying went. Richie simply wanted to look, and look damn good, before making what could turn out to be a very dangerous leap for them all.

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