Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 14

"We have to have time to set them in some kind of realistic pose," Jeremy said, looking at the mannequins. It was just after dinner, still light, but already cooling off noticeably. They were standing in the back of the truck, having decided to keep the inanimate couple there, out of sight, until they actually planted them in the field. They wanted the zombie's first look at the mannequins to be a total surprise.

Richie nodded. "Agreed. And we need to plant them before dawn, because if the zombie sees us carrying mannequins out to the field, it will know they aren't real people."

Mike, standing at the back of the truck with his Thompson, laughed. "He gets a good look at that guy, he'll know he isn't real, anyway."

The male mannequin had quickly become something of a joke around the camp. They had passed by it countless times in the Jeans 'N Things and never once noticed how stupid-looking the expression on its face actually was. The mannequin was smiling, and surely its creators had been hoping to display some kind of happiness there. But there was just something so goofy about the expression that you could not look closely without laughing. They had explored the fellow's body when they had undressed him to change his clothing, and were totally unsurprised to find a small, impressed tag in his left butt cheek that said, among other things, "Made in China".

"That explains a lot," Jeremy said, rubbing his fingertips over the tag. "And leave it to them to mess up a perfectly nice butt like this one, too."

"I'm sure they put it there thinking it would never be seen," Richie decided. But then he grinned. "It is a nice butt, though."

Mike rolled his eyes and laughed. "Next thing you'll be checking out the zombie's butt."

Jeremy just shrugged. "I like butts." But then he grinned evilly. "Yours is pretty cute, by the way."

Richie tossed his head back and laughed at the embarrassed expression that immediately crawled across Mike's face. The boy took his free hand and self-consciously patted one butt cheek, almost defensively. "Oh. Uh, thanks for noticing."

"It's hard not to, when we all live in one room," Jeremy returned. He crossed his arms then. "Privacy has to be offered. It cannot be required. Everybody in the camp knows everything about everybody else. We've learned not to talk about some things, and that amounts to the privacy we have."

"I know. I'm sorry." Mike smiled, and turned briefly to look down at his backside. "So I have a nice butt, huh?"

Richie and Jeremy both laughed. "I'd give it a ten," Richie offered playfully.

Mike grinned, but didn't say anything else while the older boys finished dressing the two mannequins. The female one went quickly, but Jeremy hummed delightedly to himself as they pulled the male mannequin's pants up and fastened them. "We're usually going the other way with this, you know," he whispered into Richie's ear.

Richie laughed, and briefly pushed his cheek against his boyfriend's. "You're distracting me. Want me to have an accident with his zipper?"

"Not his zipper, no," Jeremy whispered back.

Even Mike laughed at that. "You two are terrible. Save the horny for bedtime."

Richie grinned at him. "Excuse me?"

Mike sighed. "Sex is better in bed." He looked around them. "I mean...we're in the back of a truck."

"You're young, still," Jeremy said, smiling. "You'll find out."

Mike considered that, and then laughed. "Really?"

"Yes." Richie nodded. "Sometimes the urge strikes you in the craziest of places."

Mike leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Yeah, but you guys need to be careful where you do it, okay? You guys are" -- he smiled -- "noisy. We always know when you're doin' it in bed. We can hear you."

Jeremy laughed. "So? We can hear you and Bennie jerking together, too, Mr. 'oh, it's coming, it's coming!'"

Mike's jaw dropped, and he looked aghast. "You can hear that?"

Jeremy looked patient. "I told you, everybody knows everything about everybody." He waved a hand up at the camp overhead. "The walls are sheets, for crying out loud."

For a second Mike looked horrified; but then he just couldn't hold onto that, and grinned instead. "Oh, shit."

Richie shook his head. "Don't worry about it. Everybody's used to it. It's just another sound in the night."

Mike thought about that, and nodded. "Yeah. There's a lot of those, now that you mention it."

"Exactly. Our privacy is that we don't talk about it to each other. Fair enough?"

Mike nodded. "Fair enough."

They finished with the mannequins and placed them just inside the rear doors of the truck, so that they could be removed by someone standing on the ground, and then climbed out and locked the cargo box.

Marnie was leaning out of the window above them. "All done?"

Richie smiled up at her. "Yup. If you set your alarm a little early for tomorrow morning, Jeremy and I will put them out."

The girl suddenly looked back over her shoulder, and then down again at Richie. "Come up now. Will says something is happening on the other side."

They moved quickly to the hatch, and Marnie already had it open. They swarmed up inside the camp, dropped the hatch and kicked the dogs into place. Then they met at the windows on the side where Will had watch.

"Look," the boy said, pointing out across the field.

Richie squinted into the bright evening sun in the sky just to the right of the barn, which was getting into the tops of the trees now. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare, and settled his gaze on the field at the edge of the trees.

The zombie stood there, hands on hips, looking back at them. On the ground beside it was a large mat of woven tree branches, on which resided a sizable pile of...something.

"I need the binoculars," Richie said, not taking his eyes off the zombie. Marnie was there in an instant, extending them to him, too quickly to have waited for him to ask. He smiled at how she was so often one step ahead of him, and raised them to his eyes.

"It looks like...shit, it looks like gravel on that mat." Richie lowered the glasses and stared a moment longer, and then turned to Will. "Was he carrying that pile when he came out of the trees?"

"Yeah. He just walked out, set it on the ground, and started watching us."

Richie returned the glasses to his eyes. "Man. That's three hundred pounds of stone, if its an ounce."

He let the glasses focus on the zombie's face, and one again had the uncanny sensation that their gazes somehow met across the distance between them. The eyes were black, but shiny, and alive with the light of intelligence. For the first time, the features of the thing were clear, and not contorted in rage and hate. Richie got his first really good look, and was struck then by the idea that this had once been a handsome man, with strong, almost chiseled features, a solid jawline, and even a slight cleft in his chin. He smiled, as the idea that here was a zombie movie idol burst in his mind.

"What are you grinning at?" Jeremy asked.

Richie silently handed over the glasses, and Jeremy stared off through them at their friend. "I don't see...oh." Jeremy was silent as he focused the glasses, and then he grinned, too. "Wow. Our purple-faced friend was a looker, once." The glasses dropped a bit, and Jeremy's grin grew even wider. "The zombie still has underwear on. Little bitty briefs. They look like they're black. They have a few holes burned in them, but you can't see anything." He gave out a sound like a little purr. "Sexy."

Mike and Bennie both burst out laughing. "Are you checking out the zombie's junk?" Mike called.

Richie didn't miss a beat. "Sure. It's always a good idea to see what the opposition is packing."

The grin suddenly vanished from Jeremy's face. "What the...Rich, I get the distinct impression this guy can see me looking at him."

A sudden chill ran through Richie. "I felt that way, too. And I saw the same thing through the scope that day on the outcrop by Johansen's place."

Suddenly, the zombie raised its arms and waved them furiously back and forth, and let out a bellow that echoed eerily across the field. Then it danced sideways for about ten feet, and then danced back the other way twice that distance, and then returned to its original position in the middle. It raised its hands and waved them, and bellowed again, even louder. The sound was frightening in its animal ferocity, silencing even the crickets just coming out for their evening songfest. The entire world went silent for a full minute after, before the voices of the coming night finally returned.

"What the hell?" Jeremy said, shaking his head. "What's he doing?"

"I don't know." Richie watched as the zombie repeated the performance. This time, when it returned to the center position, it squatted and came up with a stone from the pile on the mat. The creature leaned backwards into a wind up that would have made any National League pitcher proud, and then its body became a blur as it unwound that spring into a pitch. A second later the side of the camp resounded to a small impact, surely not enough to do any damage, but more than enough to get their attention.

"He threw a rock at us," Marnie said in amazement.

The zombie repeated the odd sideways dance, and then another small stone bounced off the thick sides of the camp.

"I know what he's doing," Will said quietly. "He's saying, 'come out and fight'."

Richie stared at the distant creature, suddenly sure that Will was exactly right. It was a challenge, plain and simple.

"Maybe he's tired of getting shot up," Sherry suggested. "He wants someone to come out and fight like a man."

Bennie laughed at that. "Or a woman. It doesn't have to be one of us!"

Everyone laughed. But no one took their eyes off the distant zombie, who made no move to close the gap to the camp, but who also continued to perform his little war dance, ending each side-to-side jig with a small rock against the sides of the camp.

The sun continued to go down, and finally, the zombie turned to look back at the reddened sky behind him. Its head came back around to stare at them, and Richie was sure that the creature could see them there at the windows. It raised its arms one last time, bellowed out another challenge, and then turned back again and disappeared into the woods.

They watched until dark, when they were fairly certain that the creature would not return, and then they all went to the kitchen area and pulled up chairs for a pow-wow.

"This is something new," Richie said, knowing that he was stating the obvious, but feeling it necessary as a prelude to a change of direction. He looked over at Marnie. "First off, we'll cancel the plans to put the mannequins out tomorrow before dawn. I want to watch for a day or so to see what happens next. If our friend starts throwing larger objects at the camp, we'll have to think of a new course of action. He could wreck the place, if he's persistent enough."

"You would have had to see the trees he threw at us the other day to believe it," Bennie said, nodding in agreement. "And he didn't have to get close, either."

"Right. This is a provocation, to draw us out. We just don't know what the thing plans to do, once we're out there."

"Kill us," Tina said, simply. "That's all he's ever wanted to do."

Marnie put an arm round the girl's shoulders. "He's not going to do that."

"I know. But he wants to."

It was true, and Richie nodded. "Well, he's not. We're going to win this one." That declaration seemed to reassure everybody, and Richie smiled. "Take more than one ugly, naked zombie to tackle this bunch."

"Nearly naked," Jeremy reminded, smiling.

That brought a round of naked zombie jokes, followed by a round of goofy male mannequin jokes, and then Marnie and Mom opened some cans of kippered herring and served them on thin salt biscuits as a snack. The boxes of library materials were brought forth, and soon everyone was discussing the best things to read.

Jeremy slid his chair closer to Richie's, and put an arm around his shoulders. "You sure gotta love these guys," he said quietly, watching the spirited discussion. "The end of the world doesn't faze them in the least."

Richie nodded. "I do love them. And no freak of nature is going to take even one of them away from us."

"What do you think he's up to? Our buddy, outside?"

"I don't know. I think we have to wait and see what comes next." He looked over at his boyfriend. "You think I'm doing the right thing, waiting on the mannequins?"

"Yes. We need to see if he comes back tomorrow, and where. I noticed this evening that our friend was in the perfect spot to see mannequins placed out beyond the tool room door, and come investigating. If that becomes his spot to challenge us, then we have a good shot at making the plan work."

"Yeah." Richie leaned his head against Jeremy's and sighed. "I couldn't do this without you."

"Oh, you probably could," Jeremy countered, and then smiled when Richie turned his head to look at him. "It just wouldn't be nearly as much fun for you."

They exchanged a quick kiss, and then Richie grinned, and tossed his head at the boxes of library materials. "Come on, or all the good stuff will be gone. I want to find that zombie book before someone else gets it."

They were eating breakfast when Will called an alert. A few seconds later, the first stone hit the side of the camp. The zombie had returned, and was back to his little war dance at the edge of the field. Richie and Jeremy were delighted to see that the creature had returned to the same spot. That probably only meant that the zombie arrived from the same direction each morning, but he had also left the pile of gravel there on its woven mat, which seemed to be saying, in good Schwarzenegger fashion, I'll be back.

But that it worked in well with their plan gave them a sense that it might have a chance of succeeding.

And, it was also a little revealing. Habits were not just a human trait, familiar ground being a known concept throughout the animal kingdom. But that the zombie had a well-worn stretch of ground under its feet now that it considered its stage from which to perform did seem to suggest that it had not wandered completely away from its humanity.

As the morning wore on, however, they became a little unnerved by the zombie's persistence. That it could perform such duty over and over, hour after hour, without variation, or apparently without becoming weary, was simply unsettling to all of them. Raise arms, wave arms, bellow with rage, sashay left, sashay right, return to center, throw stone, bellow, repeat.

It was inhuman in its patience, and everybody knew it.

"Too bad we don't have more dynamite," Richie said, after they had watched the creature perform its ritual for most of the morning. "We could plant some there at night and blow the damn thing to kingdom come when it started its morning show."

"If it comes back to the same spot every day," Jeremy acknowledged. He frowned at Richie. "We could always remove the dynamite from the root cellar."

Richie laughed at that. "The idea scares me, just a little."

"Yeah. Me, too."

They grew tired of watching, and left the chore to Will and Mike, who each had window watch on that side of the building.

"Nothing fun ever happens on my side," Tina lamented, her arm propped on her windowsill, and her chin propped in her hand. "Just squirrels chasing squirrels, and birds chasing birds. Bor-ring!"

After a while, Mike took pity on her and switched windows, but Richie halfway suspected that part of it was the unnerving repetition of the zombie's performance. A few hours of that, and birds chasing birds might seem interesting.

Shortly after noon, Will called from his window that the zombie had gone away. They took the time to break the window guards, so that they could have something to eat. But in less than an hour the zombie was back, war dance, rocks, and all.

"Lunch break?" Jeremy asked, as they watched the creature's movements.

"I would guess." Richie smiled. "That's kind of a human need, isn't it?"

"Yeah. But --" Jeremy shook his head. "We just don't know anything about these creatures, Rich. It does seem now like they don't actually eat the things they kill. But I would swear that something that moves like this thing does, and has muscle power like this thing does, would have an enormous daily energy requirement. Where the hell does he get it?"

"Maybe it's the sun," Bennie said, from his window. "That could explain why they can't move at night."

The two older boys looked at each other, and Jeremy shrugged. "Hell, I dunno. But we've seen this guy moving around on cloudy days, too."

"Some wavelengths of sunlight pass right through clouds," Richie pointed out. "Right? It's just visible light that is absorbed and diffused."

Jeremy laughed. "I knew you weren't asleep in science class."

Richie just smiled at the jibe. "We're no closer to knowing, anyway. All we can do is suppose."

"Speaking of supposing," Marnie said, listening to the conversation from her chair by Mom, "what do you suppose will happen if we continue to ignore this creature's challenge to come out and play? I mean, if it decides that we are not going to come to it, won't it come to us?"

"Yes. I think you're right," Richie agreed. "And I don't want to chance this guy deciding he needs to break in here with us, if we can take him out while he's still outside." He looked at Jeremy. "So I suggest we go out early tomorrow and plant the mannequins."

Jeremy shook his head. "I think it'd be better if we go out after dark tonight and do it. Then we need only worry about getting ourselves out there before dawn."

Richie smiled. "Okay, that's even better." He turned and looked at Marnie. "Once it's good and dark, Jeremy and I will go out and post the mannequins."

"No guard?" Mike said immediately. "Is that safe?"

"No," Richie admitted. "It's not. But I don't think three guys with flashlights in the dark will be any safer than two. Just more of a chance we'll shoot each other if something kicks off."

Mike looked unhappy, but nodded.

The rest of the day was more of the same. It was simply unbelievable that the zombie could repeat the same movements, over and over, and not get even a little tired. Or disgusted, or bored, or even angry. The bellows were terrifying in their energy, but somehow the zombie did not convey to them any anger whatsoever. Just a cold, inimical sense of purpose.

Richie killed some of the time reading Zombies From the Darkness out loud to the camp. The story concerned two hometown girls, Zinia and Leslie, barely out of their teens. The two friends survived a zombie apocalypse brought about by a greedy corporation experimenting with illegal human bio engineering in an attempt to make the perfect soldier, while a complicit government looked the other way. The way the girls went, in a few chapters, from scared farm girls constantly in danger of being eaten, to zombie-stomping Amazons armed with huge guns and swords, had the whole camp laughing.

At one point, little Zinia thrust her saber through two zombies at one time, yelling, "Eat three feet of steel, you undead maggots!" Everyone screamed in delight when Richie read the line, and they laughed for a full minute after. Despite the unnerving performance of their zombie friend outside, it was the most fun they had had together in a long time, and Richie was actually a little sad when the book was over.

Of course a helicopter had appeared at a fateful moment, when Zinia and Leslie were trapped, surrounded by zombies and with no way out. It had hovered above them and dumped a chemical spray on the crowd, which turned zombie flesh to pudding and caused all of them to seep into the dirt at the girl's feet. The spray also made regular humans very horny, if the way the two girls fell all over Adam, the handsome young scientist who had labored at his secret mountain retreat to find a way to deal with the zombie menace, was any indicator. As the three flew off together into the sunset, Marnie slapped the arm of her chair and snorted. "Adam flying off with his two Eves, huh? That's as subtle as a brick to the side of the head!"

Everyone laughed.

"What was the name of that author?" Bennie asked. "We have to look for more books by him."

Richie looked at the front cover of the paperback. "Um, some guy named Jerry Keys. What a hack! I wonder if he's blue crystal, became a zombie, or is out thrusting three feet of steel through all the ones he can find, these days?"

"I never heard of him," Will said, shaking his head.

"Who cares?" Sherry said. "He's funny, even if he doesn't mean to be."

Dinner time arrived, without any change from their challenger. The rocks continued to arrive against the walls at regular intervals, and Richie just shook his head at how many the zombie must have had in that pile. He examined the gravel again with the binoculars, and the tiny mountain looked to have been scarcely reduced in size.

Only sunset brought them respite from the war dance. The western horizon was blue and sullen looking, and when the sun hit it, it got dark very quickly. The zombie simply ended one of its cycles, looked briefly at the camp, and then turned and walked away into the woods.

"He's done," Will called.

Richie waved a thanks at him, and breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe, just maybe, they would not have to go through another day of this.

They had dinner, and everyone now seemed a little down. That it was because Richie and Jeremy were going out after dark seemed apparent to the older boys, and they did their best to liven the meal with jokes and stories. The others smiled and joined it, but the collective heart that had inspired and enriched their afternoon of reading together seemed absent.

Richie waited until ten o'clock before leaving. He and Jeremy each carried a Thompson, and wore elastic headbands with bright LED spots attached to them. Each boy also carried a pocket flash, just in case the headband failed, got knocked off, or was otherwise incapacitated on their journey.

They covered the light on the kitchen table with squares of Mom's knitting, until there was the barest amount of light to move about by, and pulled back the blackout curtains. They wanted their eyes to adjust to the night, but the sky seemed heavily overcast, and it was truly dark outside, without even a single star in the sky for illumination. After ten minutes it became plain that finding their way around without a light would be almost impossible.

"Damn, it is black out there," Jeremy said, standing at one of the windows. "It must really be cloudy tonight."

Richie, who stood next to him, took a sniff of the air. "Smells like rain, too. We'd better get going."

"We could turn on the outdoor lights under the camp," Sherry suggested, but then shook her head. "Or would that be too much like advertising?"

"A little," Richie agreed.

Mike and Sherry would watch their progress from the windows, each armed this time with Winchesters and scopes, but knowing they probably would not be able to use them for fear of hitting Richie or Jeremy. They had a night scope among their supplies, found in one of the homes they had raided for arms, but it used a very unusual type of battery, and they had been unable to find a replacement. Jack had tried to charge the one they had, to no avail. Just one more tech casualty of the Changes, in a long line of them the group had had to deal with in the past two years.

When Richie and Jeremy went to leave, they found all the others, save for Mom, in a line before the hatch.

"We each want to give you both a hug," Marnie said, absolutely seriously.

Richie blinked at them. "We are coming back, you know."

"Yes." The girl nodded. "It's for luck."

So they did that, pausing at each one, and receiving very heartfelt hugs. Richie hugged each of them, kissed the girls on the cheeks and the boys on tops of their heads. No one complained.

They got the hatch open, and Richie turned on his headband light and looked down the metal tube. It was clear, but he had not expected it to be otherwise. He and Jeremy descended the ladder, and heard the hatch dogged behind them.

"Ready?" Richie asked his boyfriend.

"Yes." Jeremy came closer, put an arm around Richie, and they kissed. "For luck," Jeremy said.

Richie clenched his jaw, and nodded.

They had not been outside at night in a long time. There was no need for it, and despite their almost certainty that zombies were inactive in the dark, it was just too dangerous. It was unbelievably dark, so much so that the night seemed to absorb much of the light from their headlamps. The beams cut sharp cones of light in the darkness, but not much was visible beyond them.

They got the truck open and brought out the mannequins, and the plastic chair for the female. In the store, supportive steel rods behind the standing mannequins kept them safely upright; but out in the field they would be unable to use any sort of visible support. The female mannequin in the chair was self-supporting, and the logic in selecting her had been that they could place the male against the chair next to her for the added support needed to ensure he would stand.

Richie carried the male over his shoulder, and the chair suspended from his hand. The straight posture of the male mannequin made him easy to balance on his shoulder, and he simply threw one arm over the mannequin just under his butt and then grabbed up the chair with his free hand. His Thompson hung from its sling over his right shoulder, and his right hand clutched the hand grip.

The seated posture of the female made her more awkward to carry, and Jeremy had a time until he tossed her over his shoulder and allowed her boobs to do some of the work of keeping her there. They started for the barn, walking slowly, trying to watch the uneven ground in the beams of their lights while still being aware of things going on around them. Or, trying to be aware. The darkness of the night worked against them there.

They reached the barn and started around the front of it, moving past the big double doors and across the gravel apron there. The footing was better on the stones, but they made more noise crossing it. They reached the far corner of the barn, and Jeremy stopped. "Let's put these dummies down a minute, and look over the field," he whispered.

Richie nodded, and set goofy on his feet and propped him against the wall of the barn. He set the chair down, and Jeremy placed his mannequin into it.

Jeremy blew out a nervous breath, and leaned closer to Richie. "I want to listen for a moment, and look around with the lights. I don't mind saying this is giving me the willies, a little."

Richie nodded, feeling his own nerves. "Okay."

They both raised their heads and looked out into the field. Richie immediately caught a flash of movement, and his finger jerked reflexively on the trigger of his weapon. If the safety had not been on, it would have fired.

But then he saw the tail end of a deer vanish into the darkness, and let his breath out in a rush. "That scared the shit out of me," he whispered.

Jeremy grunted. "You? I think I pissed myself."

Richie grinned, and then the two of them slowly cast their lights about the field. They could not see to the trees, but they could see midway, to the spot where they wanted to set the mannequins. Everything looked clear.

"I just had a thought," Jeremy said. "I doubt that deer would be loafing around here if the zombie was out, too."

"Yeah. Okay, good. Let's do this, and get back to the others."

They retrieved their loads, and started across the field. What by day was simply part of the landscape was by night an eerily vacant place, floating in the middle of nothingness. The field's limits seemed uniform within the illuminated circle, although new variations in the still blackened stubs of the grass came into existence at the range of their lights as they walked, moved eerily towards them, and then vanished under their feet. There was no world at all behind them, just the night.

Finally, they reached the spot that Richie had determined to be midway, and he set the chair down, and then lowered the male mannequin to his feet. Richie cast his light about them. The ground was only sparsely covered by grass here, the dirt packed and dry from lack of rain, and very even. Richie hoped that would mean that the male mannequin would stand upright without any trouble. On the floor of the truck it had balanced well on its feet, but a simple push was enough to topple it over. The night air was absolutely still now, but they didn't want a wind accompanying the rain that Richie could smell in the air to come up and topple goofy before he got a chance to act his part.

Jeremy sat his mannequin in the chair, where she gave no indication of instability. Jeremy stood the male next to her, and stepped away from him. The mannequin remained upright. Richie leaned closer and gave it a tiny push, and it immediately started to go over.

"Shit," he said, grabbing it. "Are we gonna have trouble with you now?"

"Hey," Jeremy said, his light going from the male mannequin to the seated female. "Look at the height of his hands. It looks like they're the same height as the girl's shoulders."

Both mannequins were cast in one piece, their positions unable to be altered. The male had his hands before him, looking like he was about to catch a thrown beach ball or something. Richie pulled the mannequin around to the back of the chair, and compared the height of the hands to the height of the seated mannequin's shoulders. They were a match.

"Bingo," he said, repositioning the male. Actually, the female's shoulders were just a tiny bit lower than the male's hands, and when Richie leaned the figure against the back of the chair, his hands hovered a scarce half-inch above them.

Jeremy squatted, and Richie pulled the mannequin back again. Jeremy pulled out his pocket knife and dug at the ground where the front of the male mannequin's feet had stood, and then straightened. "Try it again."

Richie repositioned the male, and let go of it. It immediately leaned forward and stopped, its hands atop the female mannequin's shoulders. Richie reached out and gave the male a gentle push, but it showed no sign of toppling. Jeremy gave it a harder push from his side, but the male mannequin remained stubbornly in place. Finally, Richie reached around to the front of the male and gave it a push backwards. It moved an inch, and then leaned forward against the female again.

"I think that's it," Jeremy said, sounding relieved. "Let's go."

They turned back to the barn, walked a dozen feet, and then looked back. The two mannequins stood together, staring off into the night, oblivious to the danger they were in. It actually looked like the male was giving the female a shoulder massage, as if the two were perhaps a pair of lovers out enjoying a day in the sun. In a strange way, Richie felt guilty leaving them to their fate. They weren't human, but they looked like people, and it went against his grain to leave two helpless people alone in the dark.

Jeremy reached out and squeezed his wrist. "They'll be fine, Rich."

Richie laughed. His boyfriend knew him all too well.

They retraced their steps around the barn, and up the gentle grade to where the camp stood. Richie felt the first drops of rain strike him then, and again hoped that the weather would not find some way to confound their plan.

The ladder appeared in their lights, and Richie found the metal rod and tapped it on one of the rungs. They heard the hatch dogs go back, and a light came on above them. Then the hatch lifted, and Marnie's voice floated down. "Come up."

Richie gave Jeremy a push, and the other boy sighed and climbed the ladder first. Richie followed, all the while feeling invisible hands reaching for his legs from the darkness. But nothing grabbed him, and he made it inside unscathed. The hatch dropped, the dogs went into place, and then there was a mob of people around both of them, all trying to hug them at once.

Richie just pulled at every warm body that came near, and hugged back.

Finally, Bennie circulated around and closed the blackout curtains, and the cloth was removed from around the light on the kitchen table.

"Set your alarm," Richie reminded Marnie. "I want to get up at least forty-five minutes before first light.

"Already done."

Richie looked about at the circle of faces. "I hope the hard part of this is done. When the zombie comes back in the morning, he is going to see our friends out in the field. Maybe he will think they came to fight. Jeremy and I will be standing right outside the tool room door. I am hoping the zombie will go for the mannequins, see us at some point, and chase us through the door into the tool room. You know the rest."

Jeremy gave Richie a prod. "We have to set up the battery, right?"

The wire ends leading to the blasting caps in the root cellar had electrical tape around them to guard them from static discharge. Jeremy had created two leads that went to each post of the battery, and had alligator clips on the end of them. One went straight to the negative pole of the battery. The other, to the hot side of the battery, had a push button wired into it. They would pull the electrical tape from both leads of the cap wires and connect the ground wire via the alligator clip to the negative line to the blasting caps, before they went out to stand in front of the tool room door. The positive wire could not be connected until they were ready to fire, to prevent an accident from happening.

When the zombie chased them into the barn, they had to get through the tool room, and get to the coal bunker. Once inside, it was Jeremy's job to quickly connect the hot wire to the positive lead to the caps. Richie would take up the firing button, watch underneath the inside door to the tool room to see when the zombie broke through the outer door, attempted to cross the floor, and fell into the root cellar, at which point he would push the button and fire the blasting caps, which would set off the four sticks of dynamite. All very simple and straightforward.

Providing they had the time, providing they didn't mess up, and providing that everything worked as planned.

Richie squeezed his eyes shut a moment, and nodded. "Yeah. I won't forget."

Marnie came closer, put an arm around each of their waists, and pulled them to her. "Will you be able to sleep tonight? I don't know if I will."

The boys each put an arm around Marnie, and the three of them stood quietly a moment. Richie sensed movement in the room, and then the others were there, close around them. They stood in a huddle, no one saying anything, until Richie cleared his throat.

"I love of all of you," he said quietly. "Whatever happens, I want you to know that."

"Me, too," Jeremy said, a little hoarsely. "All of you."

"Everything is going to be okay," Marnie added, and sounded like she meant it. "It's time we all got to bed."

The group broke up, everyone saying good night. But Richie didn't miss the way the others looked at him and Jeremy, as if this might be the last time they ever saw them alive.

Jeremy saw it, too, and put an arm around Richie. "Come on. I'll sing you to sleep."

Richie gave a startled laugh. "You can't sing."

Jeremy smiled, and pulled him closer. "Okay, I'll figure out something else."

They retired to their bed, just as the rain developed into a steady patter on the roof. It was restful, and they held each other, and the last thing that Richie remembered was the fine, warm scent of Jeremy's skin in his nose, and the soft touch of his lips against his own.

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