Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 12

"Mike said to get him some science fiction," Sherry said, as they walked up and down the aisles of shelves in the town library.

"That stuff will rot your brain," Jeremy returned, winking at Richie. "All those aliens, and zombies, and things. Who can believe in that stuff?"

Richie nodded, keeping his expression neutral. "Yeah, that stuff's for kids!"

Sherry stuck her tongue out at their playing. "Mike's a kid, in case you haven't noticed. So am I. And I like the stuff, too - well, some of it."

Jeremy finally laughed. "Yeah, I like it, too. Just a little less since we started living it, is all."

They had collected some empty boxes from the back room to transport their loot, and then split up to attack the shelves of books. By this point everyone knew the interests of the others, and it was a simple job to fill the boxes with a little something for everyone. Even Mom would look at books and magazines. She might not talk, but she could read right there with the rest of them.

They kept meeting back at the boxes, and stopping to look at what the others were getting. Richie had to admit to being a little bit excited at the thought of new reading material. He and Jeremy often kicked back on their mattress in the evening and read and talked, and it was something they both enjoyed. Sometimes others would join them, and the discussions could get quite interesting. A little R & R went a long way towards restoring the soul after a busy day staving off the end of the world.

They had stopped at the Jeans 'N Things first and collected a couple of mannequins. One - a blonde, happy-looking woman - was sitting, and they had brought along the plastic chair that went with her. The second mannequin - a man - had such a stupid grin on his face that it kind of made you hope the zombie would do a good job of tearing him to pieces. Both mannequins were dressed in jeans and colorful shirts, which would be traded for some old stuff when they got back to the camp. No reason to waste new clothing when one of them could be wearing it.

They'd locked up the clothing store and headed for the library, and now they were almost through with that part of their mission, too.

"Look at this," Sherry said, meeting Richie and Jeremy back at the boxes. She held up an over-sized paperback book with a lurid cover. Two gorgeous women in army fatigues, and armed with massive pistols, were in headlong flight away from a shadowy, raging crowd of misshapen humanity. The crowd was ghoulish in appearance, arms extended before them, hands clutching at the air just behind the women. The title of the book was Zombies from the Darkness.

Richie grinned at it. "By all means, bring that one. I'm interested in seeing how the pros do it."

Sherry tossed the book into a box, and then pulled her Thompson around on its sling and struck a pose. "How do I look?"

"Ready to take on any number of the undead," Jeremy said, coming to stand beside Richie. "And maybe a real zombie or two, as well."

Sherry frowned, and went back to holding the weapon with one hand. "I'd rather not. So far, this has been a nice trip."

Will returned then, a stack of magazines in hand. "Look what I got you, Jeremy."

Jeremy went to stand beside the boy and gazed down at the cover of the first magazine. "Oh, This Old House. Cool. Maybe we can get some ideas on how to remodel the living room."

"They don't have any This Old Silo," Will kidded. ""I thought this was the next best thing."

Jeremy leaned down and gave the boy's shoulders a quick squeeze. "Thanks for thinking of me."

Will looked pleased, and added the stack of magazines to one of the boxes.

"That looks like a full load," Richie said. "How about we pack up and head back?"

They gathered the boxes and headed for the back door, passing through the library's stock room. They had left the truck out back, with the driver's door close to the rear door of the library. Richie and Jeremy had put the new passenger door on the cab of the truck the previous afternoon, and had exchanged the lock sets between the two doors so that one key would still open both of them. Then they had welded a new grate over the passenger side window. It wasn't the prettiest job, but they hoped it would be as functional as the work Jack had done on the original.

They always locked the truck when they left it anywhere, for security; but this could be a double-edged sword if they needed to get into the cab quickly, and Richie felt mildly anxious as they exited the rear of the building. He immediately set his box down and brought his Thompson around, and Will set his box down and pulled his automatic pistol. Sherry, as guard, carried nothing in order to keep her hands free. She looked about warily, her Thompson at the ready, while Jeremy unlocked the truck, hauled himself quickly inside, and unlocked the passenger door.

Once that was done, Sherry climbed the ladder on the side of the truck's rear box, to where she had a good view of their surroundings. Only then did the boys open the rear doors of the cargo box and load their library spoils inside, making two trips to retrieve all the boxes. They used bungee cords to secure the boxes to the wall stays, and then climbed back down. Richie smiled at the two mannequins, tied side-by-side against the opposite wall, as he shut the doors. "Hey, you two. No playing in the dark."

They all climbed into the cab and shut the doors and locked them, and only then did Richie breathe a small sigh of relief. One more trip down and done. Well, the hard part, at least.

They sat in silence for a few minutes before Jeremy started the truck and pulled out. "Glad that's over." He pulled out of the little parking lot onto Main Street and turned the truck back towards the road out of town.

Richie opened his mouth to reply when a shadow fell upon the truck. At the same time, something thundered past overhead and was gone in an instant, to the accompaniment of a weird shriek that sounded a little like a jet engine, and a little like a power saw.

Jeremy stood on the brakes, and the truck stopped so quickly that they all slid forward on the bench seat. Sherry jerked her Thompson down into firing position, and Will yelled something incoherent. Jeremy swore, and leaned against the steering wheel to look up through the windshield.

Richie thrust the door open and stood up on the running board, searching the early afternoon sky for whatever it was that had just passed over them. His eyes tracked across the unclouded blue overhead until he found it, a bright speck on an upward curve, heading for the zenith. Whatever it was, it was moving like a bat out of hell, climbing at a rate that bordered on the ridiculous. In a second or two it was gone, without even a contrail to mark its passing.

A moment later there came a loud report from above, a fierce bang that caused Richie to duck reflexively. It echoed ominously from horizon to horizon, and then trailed off into a rumble like a thunderstorm coming on. Richie stared upwards into the now empty sky, not quite able to comprehend something that could move that fast. The sky was cloudless, a beautiful, unblemished blue, and he turned his head from horizon to horizon, looking for any other movement, any other bright speck that would signify another aircraft.

But there was nothing. He used his hand to shade his eyes, and scanned the far horizon in the direction of the sun. There was a white fade to it that indicated clouds at an extreme range, but there was nothing there, no trails across the blue, no sign that the world was not as dead as they feared it might be.

And then he realized that he was exposed, standing out there on the running board like that, and that he was exposing the others to danger, too. He climbed back into the truck and slammed the door, and used his elbow to depress the lock button. And then he just sat in silence, like the others...wondering.

"What did you see?" Sherry finally asked. "Was it an airplane?" Her voice seemed strangely hushed. Richie understood that - the experience had been awe-inspiring, if for no other reason than for its sheer boldness. Whatever had passed over them could not have been more than a hundred feet in the air, and its speed nothing short of incredible.

"It would have had to be a jet fighter, the way that thing went over," Jeremy offered, shaking his head. "But the pilot would have to be nuts, flying that fast, and that low."

Richie nodded, remembering how quickly the plane had disappeared into the depths of the sky. "That bang - it was a sonic boom, I think. My granddad told me what they sounded like, from when he was based at Wright-Patterson back when they tested new planes there."

"What's that mean?" Will asked, owl-eyed.

"That plane broke the speed of sound - over seven hundred miles per hour - on its way back up into the sky." Richie scratched his head. "Whatever it was, it didn't belong down here on the ground with us."

"Well, that had to be military, don't you think?" Jeremy asked. "No one else would fly a plane like that."

"Yeah." Richie considered that. It did give weight to the idea that the traffic they had been observing of late in the sky overhead was the American Air Force at work. But...he'd no sooner had that notion when another one came along, one far more chilling.

"I just had a thought," he said quietly, stunned by his own realization. "You know, we don't have any idea of what happened the night of the Changes. Not even Jack knew." He looked over at the others. "What if...what if someone fought a war that night, against us? Attacked our country? And used some new, horrible weapon to turn everyone into blue crystal?" He tossed a thumb at the sky. "That might not actually be our air force up there at all. For all we know, these are the guys that won the war, moving in now."

The others gaped at him.

"No way," Sherry said, looking absolutely horrified. "You have been reading too much science fiction."

Richie blinked at that, and then had to smile at the look on her face. "Too far out there?"

"Slightly."

Will shook his head. "It's not any more nuts than zombies. We don't know what happened to everybody that night. It could have been anything." He leaned forward and glanced through the windshield again at the sky. "I think we'd better be careful what we do with these airplanes."

Jeremy frowned at Will, and then at Richie. "Isn't that a little paranoid? Don't we have enough to worry about, without finding new stuff to bother us?"

"Well -" Richie suddenly felt on the defensive. Was he over-thinking this? And other things, too? The more he considered everything that had happened, the more fearful ideas jumped into the spotlight of his mind. "It's just that, without knowing what happened, we have to allow for the fact that it could have been anything, and be ready for it."

Even as he said the words, Richie knew it was the wrong path to be taking. Nameless fears were everywhere, and the more you looked for them, the more you would find. What would happen to his leadership if they got to the point where every single situation offered up so many possibilities to be considered that he simply couldn't make any decision at all? He could imagine a hell of a lot in the present situation, and all of it had the potential to be more incapacitating then helpful.

Jeremy watched him silently a moment, and then nodded. "Okay. I can't deny that it's weird that all these planes are suddenly showing up now. But I have to think that if someone attacked the United States and turned the whole country into statues, they wouldn't wait two years to move in and take over."

Richie considered that, and immediately brightened. "You know, you're right?" He blew a relieved breath through his lips. "That makes so much sense that it has to be right. Nobody would attack us and then just wait for two years to collect the spoils."

Sherry gave off a soft pfft. "Unless whatever weapon they used against everybody had to have time to wear off before it was safe to come here."

Richie stared at her, amazed to see his new relief so quickly crushed. For just a second he felt a new panic take hold, and the clouds of doubt threatened to overwhelm him. But as he stared at Sherry, a moment of clarity arrived, and he focused on the look on the girl's face. Sherry was watching him expectantly, as if she was hoping he would counter her fears with something rational - something safe. His eyes moved to Will's face, and the boy's expression was much the same. Both kids were tense, their nerves plainly visible now. They watched him as if they were looking for something to come back to them. Something only Richie could give to them.

Something he was at a loss to name.

Guidance? Support? Finally, his eyes lifted to Jeremy's, and what he saw there was patience, and fondness, and a quiet assurance that whatever they faced, it would be faced together.

And then, oddly, something else came to him, totally out of the blue; a quote he had read somewhere within the past two years: "It's hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse."

It was a lesson in confidence, and also in how others saw you as a leader. Being a leader did not mean you had to be the smartest fellow around, or even the strongest person in the room. Being a leader was a little bit of a lot of things, but one of those things was the ability to be confident when others could not. It didn't mean you could not be afraid; it did not mean that you could not worry. A leader could do both. But what he or she could not do was to allow those fears and those worries to rule their thinking.

And then he knew what it was that the others were looking for from him: continuity. The assurance that things would go on no matter what might happen. Their greatest battle now was with the idea that the end might always be just around the corner.

In other words, what the others wanted from him was simple: they wanted a future. The realization of that fact was wonderful, because that was also the one thing that Richie most wanted for them to have. A life worth living.

Suddenly, he could not help laughing. Sherry looked surprised at that, and narrowed her eyes a moment; but then she seemed to understand that Richie was not laughing at her. She grinned and looked around at Jeremy, who smiled at her. "Now you're in trouble."

"What? I was just saying what I thought. That's okay, isn't it?"

"Yes, it's fine," Richie told her. "And thanks for it, too. You made me see that I was getting a little off the road there."

Jeremy smiled. "I thought I heard some tires crunching in the gravel."

Richie nodded, seeing now where his boyfriend had been gently trying to point him. "Yeah." He patted Sherry's shoulder. "Whatever is going on, we'll deal with it."

Will immediately looked relieved. "So what's next?"

Richie took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Some of his anxieties went with it. "We go home. We still have a zombie to take care of."

Jeremy smiled, and started the truck moving again. "That's the Richie I know and love."

Will looked at Sherry, and both of the younger kids looked at Richie. "Can we do that?" Will asked. "Can we handle the zombie?"

Richie nodded. "Yes."

Jeremy smiled at him again, and Richie had to smile back.

They headed out of town, their spirits back in good order. Yes, there were things that needed to be considered. Maybe the planes they had been seeing were theirs, and maybe they weren't. Until they knew more, they would simply have to withhold judgment. But definitely, Richie could not worry about it when he had no facts to go on at all.

"One thing I noticed when that plane went over us," Jeremy said, as the silent buildings of Hanford were left behind them. He glanced at Richie a moment, and then smiled, like he saw now that it was safe to offer more opinions without setting off another round of doubt. "It didn't really sound like a jet to me."

Richie replayed the moment in his head, and had to agree. "It did sound kind of weird, didn't it?"

"Like my dad's table saw, and maybe a little of my mom's vacuum cleaner."

Will rolled his eyes, and shook his head in mock disgust "Aw, man, if we're gonna be buzzed by vacuum cleaners now, I'm going home."

Jeremy dropped a hand on the boy's knee and gave it a fond squeeze. "Do I need to stop and let you off?"

Will laughed. "No. I'm here for the duration, partner."

"What do you make of it, then?" Richie asked, smiling at Will's new look of relaxation.

Jeremy shrugged. "Hell if I know. I never heard anything like it."

"It sounded just a little like one of those jet helicopters you see in the movies," Sherry decided. "Sort of whiny, sort of thundery. But a lot more...I don't know. More powerful?"

"That was no helicopter," Jeremy said. "There isn't a chopper on earth that can break the sound barrier."

Sherry nodded. "I know." She considered it a moment longer. "You know what else it sounded a little like? My Aunt Dixie's dishwasher."

They all laughed at that. Jeremy held up a hand and tracked his fingers sideways in the air, like he was reading a newspaper headline. "Mysterious airplane buzzes zombie hunters. All I know is that it got away clean, said one."

Everyone groaned at the bad joke. Jeremy smiled like he loved it, though, and the truck rolled on towards home.

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