Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 9

"I saw two today," Tina said, at dinner two nights later. "They were heading east."

"I saw the same two from the other side," Will acknowledged eagerly. "And another one west of us, looked to be heading south."

"Three in one day," Jeremy mused. "They're getting pretty active, that's for sure."

Once their attentions had been turned to the sky, the passage of the aircraft above them on a routine basis had become noticeable. "This had to have just started, though," Richie pointed out. "No way this could have been going on for long, and we just missed it."

The others agreed. The sky was not something you just never noticed. Until the zombie had appeared, outdoor activities had been the rule. Richie and Jeremy hunted for several hours every third day, and all of them had chores to perform outside every day of the week. They could not have spent so much time outdoors without noticing the visitors in the sky above them.

"I saw the one going south," Bennie told them. "That must have been a heck of a plane."

"Why do you say that?" Jeremy asked.

Bennie frowned. "The higher up they are, the slower they seem to cross the sky. At least, that's supposed to be the rule. But the one I saw was just crazy high up, and it was moving across the sky like it was just a few thousand feet overhead. That means that, as high as it was, it was moving awfully damn fast."

"Military, then," Richie mused. "Is that what you think?"

Bennie laughed. "Wasn't no crop duster, that's for sure."

The idea that the aircraft were military did not ease Richie's worries about them. What were they doing, zipping around up there like that? Where were they going? And why?

Something had caused the Changes to happen. That the very people they were observing in the sky might be in some way responsible was an idea that Richie had considered, but not mentioned to the others, not even to Jeremy. For the moment, the idea of aircraft in the sky had raised everyone's hopes that there were others that had survived the Changes just as they had done. Others, who might eventually be able to offer something better in the way of existence than they had now.

"Keep watching for them, and let's keep a log, okay? Anyone sees a plane, let Bennie know." Richie grinned then. "Do you mind that, Ben?"

The other boy smiled, looking pleased. "Nope. I'll write it all down and keep track of it."

"I wonder if our friend has noticed them, up there?" Marnie asked. "I can't believe if he did, that that's what scared him off."

There had been no sign of the zombie now since the attack at the head of the drive. That the creature might have died of its injuries did not cross their minds, though, as holes, and even missing pieces of the body, seemed not enough to finish them off. Only removing the head, or destroying the whole damn thing, seemed to work.

"Maybe he got smart and took off," Bennie supplied. "Maybe he went looking for people without automatic weapons and a bad attitude."

They all laughed at that, but Richie was not about to give in to the idea that the creature was gone. "I don't think that one scares easily. He's laying low, is all. That probably means he's up to no good. I want everyone to stay sharp, okay? It's when we least expect it that something will happen."

After the meal, they cleaned up, and then they stood at the western windows and watched the sun disappear for the night. The sky was orange at the horizon, and it was hard to think that such a beautiful setting might harbor dangerous things that might harm them.

"I love sunsets," Jeremy whispered to Richie, snuggling closer to him at their window. Richie sighed, feeling utterly safe in the curve of Jeremy's arm, and unwilling to focus on anything that might disrupt that. "Me, too. I used to sit out on the porch at the house and watch the sun go down. I've always loved it."

Jeremy pressed his face against Richie's cheek and closed his eyes. "We'll do that again, someday."

Richie just nodded, and closed his own eyes. Someday.

They stood there, together, until the western horizon was just a faint glow, and the stars were coming out in numbers overhead. Jeremy sighed, his eyes roving among them wistfully. "One evening, after it gets dark, let's open the roof hatch and go up. It may not be safe to lie in the grass and look at the stars, but it should be okay there."

"Okay. It's a date."

They brushed their teeth over a basin bowl and then dumped the water down the drain. Jack had conceived the drain, really just a large funnel that fed into a three-inch pvc pipe that dropped through the floor and angled away from the camp to deliver the spent water into the field out back. One of the chores the kids performed each day was to go to the well out back and bring in enough fresh water to keep the two fifty gallon tanks in the kitchen area full. Jack had been considering an electric pump to bring water from the well directly inside, but that had been another project unfinished at the time of the man's death. Currently, they filled five-gallon plastic buckets, and used the little hoist outside the window in the kitchen area to haul them up to be added to the tanks.

A hundred gallons of water sounded like a lot of water, but it really wasn't - not for nine people, especially in the summer. While everyone had been in the practice of bathing in the creek down at the edge of the woods a couple of times a week, and washing up inside every day, the bathing had been discontinued for the duration of the zombie menace, and the trips to the well conducted under guard by several Thompsons. Everyone still washed up inside, but water use was kept to a minimum.

They were lucky to have the well. It had been drilled back when livestock still were a part of the Kincannon farm, to provide fresh water for the animals. It had an old-fashioned hand-pump type head on it, and there had been a sluice beneath the outlet to carry the water down the slight grade from the silo to the barn for the animal troughs.

It hadn't been used much for a long time before the changes, and Jack had cleaned and rebuilt the pump in order to get it going dependably again. But the well itself was still producing, and the water it gave them seemed clear, and tasted just fine, though Jack had had no way to test its purity. They'd been drinking it for two years, with no apparent ill effects. It had only frozen up twice in the past two winters, and they had gotten by with poking holes in the ice on the creek and getting water there and boiling it, or using fresh snow melt, which didn't even need to be boiled, if collected safely.

But in an emergency where they could not go outside at all, and where water would need to be rationed, a hundred gallons just would not last that long. They could go to rations on the food and stop using water for cooking, but they needed to drink a certain amount each day, plain and simple. The two tanks in the kitchen area weighed over eight hundred pounds when full, and Jack had balked at adding another tank, both because of the weight and because of the amount of work it would take to keep three of the tanks full.

"If it comes to that, we'll just go out in a blaze of glory," he had always said, smiling. Richie had never thought the man meant it, but now he could see how it could actually happen.

It was a cool spring evening, but as summer came on that would change, and as Richie settled himself on the mattress that he and Jeremy shared, he thought once again how much he missed air-conditioning. Sleeping on a warm night wasn't easy, and while they had gotten used to it, it would never be something they enjoyed. There were four tiny 12-volt fans inside the camp, that Jack had positioned to create a sort of cross-draft, and which they ran when the weather got hot. The sheets hung to provide some privacy interfered with that process, but no one was willing to give up their small sense of personal space just for the tiny comfort the lazy breeze had to offer. Just now it didn't matter much, as the nights were still cool enough to need a sheet for covering. But once summer grew long, it would be a different story.

The walls, floor, and roof of the camp were insulated, and in the winter the small stove was almost enough to run you out of the place. Their sole remedy to temperature regulation was to open or close a window or two, and several had stops on the plastic panels so that they could be held at varying degrees of ajar. That was needed, anyway, to provide ventilation, and draft for the stove. In the summer the insulation kept much of the heat of the sun at bay, but it also kept the heat generated by nine bodies inside, and the heat of the day, and so nights were not appreciably cooler unless there was a good breeze through the windows. So air conditioning was still a fond memory for most of them.

"Another day done," Jeremy said, cuddling against him under the sheet. They slept in their underwear, so the sheet and body heat were more than enough to keep them comfortable, in anything short of a cold winter night. With the windows open there was movement of the air, and cuddling was the perfect way to deal with the chill the night air brought inside to them.

Richie closed his eyes and nuzzled his face against his boyfriend's. "I'm so glad I still have you," he whispered. "I can still remember waking up the morning after the Changes and finding everyone turned to blue crystal. When I came looking for you, I was so afraid of what I would find."

"I'm so glad you came and found me. I was sure the whole world had come to an end, and left me all alone."

They held each other, drawing comfort from the contact. Richie was tired, and it just felt good to be in his boyfriend's arms. It had been a long day, and they spent most of it cleaning the interior of the camp. That entailed moving a lot of things around, and then returning them to their places once the cleaning was done. It was a necessary function, however, as nine people living in so small a space generated a terrific amount of dust, and despite the tightness of the structure, they were always finding that bugs of some sort had found their way inside. Jack had instilled in them the importance of keeping a clean 'cave', and it was simple habit at this point.

As they snuggled together they both got hard, and they rubbed and caressed each other, and kissed. On any other night it might have gone further; but both of them were drowsy, and the last thing that Richie remembered was smiling and kissing Jeremy, before he faded out.

At some point he dreamed, but it was not a story dream, where events played out in even a semi-coherent fashion. Instead there were just images, and snatches of conversation, in no way connected, and with no meaning to the part of Richie's sleeping mind that observed such things.

He woke suddenly, to find a hand over his mouth. The camp was quiet, and still dark. Only the faintest of new light at the windows suggested that dawn was coming soon, and Richie took in all these facts even as he realized that Jeremy's arms were against him, and that it could not be his hand upon Richie's mouth. Richie turned his head slowly, and the hand pulled away.

"Shh. Be quiet, Richie."

"Who's that?"

"Bennie. Something's going on."

Richie realized then that Bennie had had his other hand over Jeremy's mouth. Jeremy shrugged it off, awake now. "What's up?" he whispered.

Richie could make out the darker blob that must be Bennie, down on his knees by their heads. "Just listen a minute."

Richie closed his eyes, concentrating. There must be a morning breeze coming up, as he could hear the faint swish of air against the side of the camp. He could also hear slow breathing nearby, signaling that at least some of the others were still asleep. Mom always slept with the tiniest of buzzing sounds - not a snore, thankfully, but a tad more than just breathing. Richie tried to tune all those sounds out, seeking anything else that might be there.

For a long moment he heard nothing else...and then he did. Faintly, a creaking sound came to him, as if someone had pushed open a door with slightly rusty hinges. It was a tiny creak, though, a long way from haunted house in scope, scarcely noticeable above the other sounds. But it was there. It lasted for maybe a few seconds, and then stopped. And then, a few seconds later, it came again.

Richie sat up slowly, and Jeremy came up with him. They sat and listened again, and once more the faint creak came to them.

"What the hell is that?" Jeremy asked, keeping his voice low.

Richie shook his head. "I don't know. Be quiet a moment and let's see if we can hear where it's coming from."

They listened again, and the noise repeated. Richie turned his head, tracking it, and slowly zeroed in on it. "It's over by the hatch." A sense of alarm came to him then, and he quietly got to his feet, staying on the mattress, and then stepped onto the floorboards and stood still. The noise came again, and this time, almost at the range of his ability to sense, he felt a tiny vibration in the floor.

Richie crept forward, aware of Jeremy and Bennie falling in behind him. Jeremy dropped a hand on his shoulder, and followed at the same incremental pace, as Richie took one step, and then another. The creaking came again, and this time the vibration in the floor was more pronounced.

They reached the hatch, aware now that it was lightening outside. Dawn was approaching rapidly. In another few moments Marnie would be up - up with the sun, as she liked to say.

Richie squatted carefully, and put one hand on the hatch. For a second there was nothing; and then the creak came again. At the same moment, the hatch flexed minutely, the steel of the plate quivering under his fingertips. The creaking came from the hatch dogs, bolted through the floorboards into the joists beneath. The nuts were on this side, and the smooth polished heads of the bolts were not visible to anyone beneath, being beneath the fiberglass insulation and the thin plywood sheathing that covered the bottom of the camp.

But in an instant, Richie knew what was happening. Standing on the steel ladder just beneath the hatch, someone with considerable strength was pushing up against the steel hatch plate, trying to loosen the dogs that held it down. The plate itself was beyond breaking, but the dogs - strong as they were - were bolted through thick wood. The creaking was the sound of that wood being subjected to considerable stress, as whoever was there applied force, over and over.

Whatever was there, that is.

"He's back," Richie whispered over his shoulder. "Jeremy - quietly - move over to the welding tanks. Get that torch lit. Bennie, man the fuel pump."

The others moved carefully, and assumed their stations. Richie cast about with his hand and found the eyehole in the hatch, and squatted beside it, ready to throw the little cover back.

"Ready," came Bennie's voice.

There was a small hiss, and the brief scent of the acetylene, and then the bright spark of the igniter. A flame sputtered out of the end of the torch, and then grew fine as Jeremy reined it in. "Ready."

"Go, Bennie."

Bennie's figure moved in the half-light, and then they could hear the woof-woof of the pump handle being moved rapidly back and forth.

Everything happened at once after that. There was an incredible, enraged roar from beneath the hatch, and Richie felt a tremendous impact against it. The dogs grunted at the stress, but Jack had built well, and they showed no signs of giving in. More impacts followed, and then they heard the others yelling as they were abruptly snatched from sleep. But he couldn't pay attention to that just now. He was counting the number of strokes of the pump in his head, even as the raw odor of the camp fuel being sprayed below them came to his nostrils. After thirty beats he just nodded to himself. Anything on the other side of the hatch had to be soaked by now.

"Jeremy, the flame!"

Jeremy squatted beside Richie even as another terrific blow vibrated the hatch. In the light from the torch, Richie flicked open the cover to the eyehole, and Jeremy pushed the tip of the torch into it and turned the nozzles on the handle. They felt the sudden ignition of the fuel beneath them, and a burst of heat came in around the edges of the hatch. This was followed by an unearthly yowl, and the floor shook as something beneath it thrashed about violently. The sudden silence that followed was disconcerting, and Richie was trying to picture what might be happening when he heard voices behind him.

"Over here!" someone yelled, and Richie turned to see the others now, some of them lined up at the windows. Richie jumped to his feet and went to the nearest one, and stared at the field below. Moving across it, away from them, was a living ball of fire, the shapes of arms and legs pumping back and forth just visible inside of it.

"Oh, my god!" Jeremy breathed, arriving beside him. "We got him!"

Twice the burning figure staggered and collapsed to the ground, only to bounce right back to its feet with amazing energy, to run some more. They watched in silence as it reached the edge of the trees and then ran into the shadows beneath them. For a second the bright torchlight was visible among the boles of oaks and maples, and then the flames wavered, and suddenly went out.

"Threw himself in the creek," Marnie surmised, from her own window. "Good riddance, I say."

Richie simply shook his head, still stunned at what had happened. They had never been able to test dousing someone on the ladder and then igniting them - it was just one of those things that Jack had said would work, and that they had trusted him on. But not only had it worked, it had worked well. The zombie had been totally aflame as it retreated...well, ran away was a better description. But how much damage had they really done to it? Would it be lethal to the creature?

"I'll bet a lot of what we saw was its clothing burning off," he guessed, still watching the place where the zombie had disappeared. "It would have been soaked with camping fuel, and just burned like a torch."

"Yeah, but that would have to have burnt the skin beneath it," Marnie argued. "Any real person that went up in flames like that would be dead now."

"Probably." But Richie could not forget how the zombie had fallen, and then gotten up and kept running. "Judging by prior experience, I'd say this is not enough to kill it." He managed a grin then. "But I have a feeling it will not come knocking at our front door again."

"That means we'll have to act like it didn't die," Jeremy added, looking around at the others. The sun had popped up in the east now, and it was light enough inside the camp to see faces. "Everybody understand that?"

Heads nodded everywhere, but no one said anything. The others had been startled out of a sound sleep and immersed in sudden confusion, and all of them looked like they were still trying to catch up with it all.

Finally, Tina sighed, and clutched the small pillow she slept with - but would not admit to caring about - to her breast. "It burns well, anyway."

Richie almost laughed, but the absolute seriousness with which the little girl had said the words stopped him. Again he looked out of the window, towards the distant woods. That was a man, once. And by the way it screamed and took off, it could still feel pain.

Suddenly, he just wanted this to be over with. If they had to kill the zombie, let it be done quickly. That the thing might still be able to suffer was not something he wanted to think about. It was either them or the zombie, that much was plain. Silently, he cursed whatever forces had put them into this dilemma. The world really sucked sometimes, and sucked big, too.

And then he began thinking about how to end this thing, once and for all.

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