Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 15

They were eating breakfast the next morning 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 bad guy fashion, I'll be back.

But that it worked in well with their own 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. She was back at her regular watch window this morning, and seemed none too pleased about it. "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. "I see now we really don't know anything about these things at all. If it gets its energy from the sun, who needs a lunch break?"

"We don't know it's energy comes from the sun," Bennie said, from his window. "That was just one idea."

"Yeah," Richie agreed. "But what this thing is doing now, it's a complete change of direction from his previous actions. I'm starting to think that Will and Sherry called this right. It wants us to come out and fight. But, can it really believe that we will?. He's been at this for hours, and hasn't had a response. I know he sees us at the windows. I can feel the eye contact."

Jeremy nodded. "And what is that about? When I was watching him through the binoculars, his eyes seemed right in front of me, like we were looking at each other from just a few feet apart. That is really spooky."

Richie nodded, but realized they were no closer to having any answers. "We just have to watch a little while and see where this is going. He may get tired of what he's doing and go back to direct attacks. He may realize he can throw bigger things at us, and try to take the place apart. There's just too much he might do to decide right now what we need to do next."

"You need to get him in the barn and blow his ass up," Marnie said, sounding irritated now. "This is getting weird. I don't want to play games with some crazy zombie. I want to get this over with, so that we can go back to feeling a little bit safe again."

"I want a bath, I know that," Tina said. "My feet stink."

Everyone laughed, easily understanding that one.

Bennie shook his head, watching the zombie's movements from his window. "This doesn't seem as scary now. It's more like he's gone nuts."

Sherry frowned at that. "Or, it's even scarier, because he seems to be thinking something new."

Jeremy raised an eyebrow at that. "Part of it is that we're getting used to him. But...maybe getting set on fire pushed him over the edge, too."

Richie shrugged. "Something has changed in the way he views us, that's for sure."

"Maybe he respects us now," Will said. "We beat his ass a couple of times already."

Richie nodded. "I suppose that's as good an answer as any."

"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 Garret 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 pile 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 f inding 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. "It would kill our night vision, too."

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 group 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 the 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 positive pole of the battery. The other, to the earth 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 hot wire via the alligator clip to the positive line to the blasting caps, before they went out to stand in front of the tool room door. The ground 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 ground wire to the negative 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 again, 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.


Richie opened his eyes to soft light emanating from the kitchen area. Marnie hovered over them, the hand that had awakened him still gently upon his shoulder. "It's time."

He nodded, even as Jeremy gave a soft sigh to indicate that he was also awake. "Thanks, Marn."

The girl nodded, and headed back to the light.

Jeremy rolled onto his side to face him. "Ready for this?"

Richie had expected to feel different. More nerves, maybe even some fear. Instead, he just felt...resigned. This was it. "Yeah."

They got up and dressed, washed their faces and their hands. Richie smiled, thinking how nice it would be to be able to bathe in the creek again, once the zombie was gone. No more of this washing up crap. He'd almost forgotten what it was like to feel really clean.

The rain seemed to have ended, and it was quiet outside. It was evidently still overcast, as a glance past the blackout curtains revealed only an inky blackness beyond. That would make the dawn later in coming, too.

They sat at the table in the kitchen and had stove top waffles for breakfast, and before they were through the whole camp had joined them. No one wanted to miss being there to send them off.

"We'll be watching from the windows," Mike reminded. "Rifles and scopes." He grinned. "We'll try to only hit the zombie, if we have to shoot."

Richie nodded, and gave the boy's shoulder a squeeze. "I know we'll be in good hands." He looked around at the others. "Just remember: no one leaves the camp, not for any reason. Got me?"

Everyone nodded, but there was something less than willing about the response. Richie sighed, hoping they would be sensible, but knowing they might not. He would have to count on Marnie's common sense, and the pledge that Mike had made to keep everyone inside.

They finished up eating, drew Thompsons from the rack, and checked the drum magazines to make sure they were full. That was a hundred rounds between them. The pistols they belted on carried another eight rounds apiece. If they couldn't handle things with that much ammo, then they were just shit out of luck. They donned their headlamps, stuffed pocket flashes into their pockets, clipped walkie talkies to their belts, and pronounced themselves ready to go.

Another round of hugs ensued, and everyone wished them well. Mike, Sherry, and Bennie pulled scoped Winchesters from the rack, and began to check them out.

"About twenty minutes now to first sun," Marnie said. "You'd better get going."

Richie nodded, and he and Jeremy went to the hatch. Richie flipped open the peephole cover, and motioned to Marnie to turn on the light in the ladder tube. The brilliant flood of light made him squeeze his eye shut. It seemed unusually bright.

He opened his eye again and peered down the length of the ladder. What the hell?

The ground beneath them was barely visible. White wisps of what looked like smoke curled about the ladder six feet down, and a white haze beneath that slowly thickened until the ground at the bottom was scarcely there at all.

He couldn't smell smoke. For a second he just couldn't figure out what he was seeing...and then it hit him. It had been so long since he'd seen fog that he'd nearly forgotten what it looked like.

"Problem. It looks like it's really foggy out this morning."

Jeremy swore softly. "Better get the hatch open and see how bad it is."

They kicked the dogs loose, and swung the hatch upright. The ladder tube didn't look much better this way, and the ground was still scarcely visible. "Only one way to know," Richie said, stepping down onto the first rung of the ladder. He bent over, grabbed the handhold on the floor, and started down. As soon as his head was clear, Jeremy followed.

The moment Richie touched ground he turned on his headlamp and swung it around. His worst fears were realized when the beam seemed to travel just a short distance before it became lost in the thick mist around them.

Jeremy came down beside him, and also turned on his head lamp. "Shit. We can't go anywhere in this. We wouldn't be able to see ten feet ahead of us."

Richie considered that. It would be light soon, and the zombie would become active. There was no reason for it to not walk about in the fog, because nothing it might meet could possibly stand against it. It could even decide to make use of the fog, and walk right up to the camp, undetected. It would be dangerous for the boys to be out, because their senses were no match for the zombie's. And if the creature got wind that they were outside, it might be upon them before they even knew it was nearby.

On the other hand, if they stayed inside the camp until the fog cleared, the zombie might already be in place beside its rock pile at that point, and they would have no way to get to the barn without being seen. And the mannequins would be seen, and the element of surprise lost forever.

Crap. There seemed to be only one thing to do.

"We're going to have to try to get to the barn," Richie decided. "We've got to be in place when the fog burns off, or we might lose the whole plan."

Marnie, above them by the hatch, heard every word. "You can't see, Richie. What if that thing is out wandering around in the fog as soon as it's light? You'd never see him coming."

"We could go into the tool room, and each take one door," Jeremy suggested. "There's enough of a crack along each door frame to see out. We'll just have to watch for him until the fog clears."

Richie nodded. The tool room, with only two ways in, was at least a little bit defensible. But they had only reinforced the exterior door. The interior door would not keep the zombie out for a second if it decided to come through it.

Well, that's what the Thompsons were for.

Richie looked up at Marnie. "Hear that? We're going to the tool room. Do not call us on the radios unless it's an extreme emergency, okay? The sounds they make carry too far. As it is, we're going to keep the volume way down."

Marnie nodded. "Okay. But you call us if you need to, okay?"

Richie nodded, and smiled up at her. "See you later."

The girl licked her lips, and nodded. "Be careful."

They waited until the hatch was closed and dogged, and the light beneath it extinguished, before making their way out from beneath the camp.

"Man, it sure was good that we planted those dummies last night, because we'd have a hell of a time doing it this morning," Richie said.

Jeremy grunted. "Maybe. But if we hadn't planted them last night, we'd have had the option of canceling the plan for a day."

Richie reached out and pulled Jeremy close, and put his arms around him. Jeremy responded in kind immediately. "I love you so much," Richie whispered. "Be careful, you hear?"

He felt Jeremy nod. "The same goes for you." Jeremy kissed him. "You're everything I have, Rich."

For just a moment, Jeremy was all there was in the world for Richie. He closed his eyes, pressed his cheek to his boyfriend's, and prayed for the first time in his life. Please let us do this. Please let us stay together.

They squeezed each other again, and then continued on their way. They knew the direction to take, and made their way carefully. The lights barely reached out in front of them, and so they were startled when the barn suddenly loomed out of the mist ahead. They were down by the back of it, and had to turn right and head towards the front before they encountered open wall where the exterior boards had been removed in building the camp. They squeezed between the framework, and were again startled as their lights suddenly played out in front of them. The interior of the barn was oddly mist-free.

They went to the coal bunker and fixed the wiring from the battery. Now, to set off the explosives, all they need do would be to clip the ground wire to the negative lead, and push the button.

After that they moved to the tool room, went inside, and quietly closed the door. Richie carefully circled the room on the stable part of the floor, and lowered the crossbar on the outer door. Jeremy had locked the inner one, but a few good smacks from the zombie would probably be enough to shatter it. There was no reason for the creature to come that way, but then...the zombie had a mind of it's own, obviously. It had been unpredictable thus far, and Richie saw no reason for that to change now.

They waited. Soon it began to lighten beyond the outer door. Richie pressed his eye to the crack between the door and the frame, hoping to spot the mannequins, but they were too far away, and the fog too thick, for them to be visible yet. It continued to grow lighter, but the world outside was simply made of formless white stuff, that hid everything more then a dozen feet from the barn.

Once, Richie thought he heard something, from out beyond the door. A sort of crunching sound, just one, and it was not repeated. But the fog also softened sound, and misdirected it, and soon he wasn't even sure he had heard anything at all.

Slowly, the fog receded. The sky above brightened, which to Richie meant that the sun was peeking through the clouds. If the sun could just get out in strength a little, the fog would burn off quickly.

The tool room also lightened, until they could see each other easily. He and Jeremy talked back and forth across the room with sign language and grins.

See anything?

Just a beautiful, hunky guy!

Outside, stupid!

Oh! Hahaha!

Not exactly the stuff of epic adventures, but it made them feel better, and more relaxed.

Along about eight o'clock, Richie checked in with Marnie briefly, in a conversation scarcely above a whisper. He said they were fine, but couldn't see anything yet. Marnie said that they could barely see the barn, and could not see the mannequins from the camp at all, nor the place where the zombie had been doing his war dance. That was as much conversation as Richie dared to risk, and said he would call back later.

The fog continued to recede, and the world to brighten. Richie had just checked his watch and seen that it was almost nine o'clock when he also thought he could see the shadows of the mannequins out in the thinning fog. He stared through the crack, willing the fog away, and slowly it moved away from them, and the mannequins became visible.

He saw immediately that something was wrong. The female mannequin was still seated in its chair, and the male was still standing behind her. But he had leaned to one side, and looked to be in danger of falling over any second. No human could stand at quite that angle, so stiffly - it didn't look natural at all.

Shit. If the zombie saw the mannequins now, would the odd angle of the male give him pause for thought?

Richie turned and motioned for Jeremy to join him. The other boy nodded, peered through the crack in his door one more time, and then made his way carefully around the room.

"What's up?"

Richie stepped away from the crack. "Look at the mannequins."

Jeremy leaned forward and peered through the crack. "Well...damn. What's going on with Goofy? He looks like he's about to fall over."

"What should we do? Go out and fix him?"

Jeremy jerked back from the door and stared at him. "Are you kidding? The zombie could be over by his pile of rocks, and we'd never see him."

"We can't just leave that mannequin like that. It won't fool anyone, the way it's leaning. And it might just fall over any second."

Jeremy frowned, and put his eye back to the crack. "Probably all that rain last night softened the ground there, and he leaned over a little. Damn."

Richie sighed in frustration. To have come this far, only to have the plan ruined by a little rain. "I guess we can't go out until we can at least see the damn woods."

Jeremy looked through the crack in door again. "That won't be long. Looks like the sun is coming out."

They waited another ten minutes, and by then the trees were coming into view. The sun came out full blast, and the mists outside started to melt away.

"We'll have to open the door to look over at where the zombie was yesterday, you know," Jeremy said.

"Yeah." Richie pulled the walkie talkie from his belt. "Marn?"

"I hear you, Richie."

"What can you guys see from up there?"

"Pretty much everything now. We can see the mannequins. What's wrong with the man?"

"We think the rain made the ground soft. He's leaning over, ready to take a fall."

"Oh. There's no sign of our friend. He's not at the rock pile."

"You look through all the peeps and make sure he's not underneath the camp?"

"Yep. All of them. We're clear here."

Richie looked at Jeremy. "He doesn't seem to be around." He pushed the talk button on the radio again. "You have a full three-sixty view?" he asked Marnie.

"Yes. We can even see back into the woods now, about as far as we normally can. No sign of him."

Jeremy looked undecided. "Maybe he took the day off. Maybe...maybe he figured we wouldn't be able to see his little dance, and decided to wait until the fog lifted."

Richie chewed his lip. "That means we don't have much time before he shows. We should fix this thing now." He pulled the radio back to his lips. "Okay, Marn. Stand by."

He shrugged at his boyfriend. "What do you think?"

He could already tell by Jeremy's expression that he was not inclined to go out to the mannequins. "I think it's dangerous."

Richie couldn't help grinning. "This whole thing's dangerous. I'm just worried we'll blow this opportunity, if Goofy falls face-first into the mud."

"Yeah. I know." Jeremy leaned forward and peeked through the crack again. "For all we know, Zombo is leaning up against the wall just outside the door, waiting for us to open it."

"Nah. I think he's more the direct-action type. If he was that close to us, this door would not much stop him from getting at us"

Jeremy nodded. "Okay." He straightened, and put his hand on the crossbar. "I'll lift this, open the door, and take a quick look. Be ready to shoot the shit out of anything purple and blue that you see outside."

Richie stepped back and clicked off the safety on his Thompson and tilted the muzzle to the ceiling. After his almost-shot earlier when the deer had spooked him, he was unwilling to have the muzzle aimed anywhere near his boyfriend. But he could tilt the weapon down in an instant, if need be.

Jeremy smiled at him, held up two fingers and crossed them. Then he quietly tilted the crossbar back on the door and inched it open. When nothing happened, he opened it wider and quickly stuck his head out and pulled it back in. Nothing.

"No surprises right beside the door, anyway," Jeremy said. He pulled the door open wide enough to exit, tilted his own Thompson down, and flicked off the safety. Then he took a step outside, and quickly looked both ways. "It's clear."

Jeremy stepped to the side and Richie joined him. They scanned the distant trees, and Richie let his eyes pause on the pile of gravel the zombie had placed at the edge of the field. It looked like enough for a solid week of war dancing, which would seem to indicate the creature's intent to keep it up for at least the next few days. Maybe the fog had put a crimp in his plans, after all.

But...where was the thing now?

Richie licked his lips and focused again on the mannequins. It was obvious now that, without the female in the chair to prop him up, the male would be face-down, kissing dirt. What was even holding him up at the cockeyed angle he had assumed was a mystery. Richie envisioned the male's hands, and figured that maybe one was somehow snagged against the female's neck. It had to be something like that, or the male would already be horizontal.

Jeremy took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "Ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be."

Jeremy nodded. "Side-by-side, one step at a time. Anything moves, get back to the door. Okay?"

"Okay."

They took the first step, and then the second. The air was warming, and the scent of pine stirred in Richie's nostrils. The sky overhead was bluing up nicely, whatever clouds had brought in the rain having moved on to douse other lands. It was a pretty day, all things considered.

Another step, and then another. The ground under their feet squished faintly as they moved, only the stubs of grass keeping it from being mud. Somewhere behind and above them, probably atop the barn, the pleasant kee-yup call of a finch sounded, adding to the feeling of a pleasant spring day.

Two more steps, then four, then eight. They were a third of the way to the mannequins now. Richie cast a quick glance over one shoulder, and could see the top of the camp emerging above the roof of the barn. They would be just coming into view to those watching from the windows. Richie felt sure that Marnie would have the binoculars trained on them, looking for danger.

Jeremy stopped then, and grabbed Richie's arm to stop him, too. Richie looked over at him as Jeremy leaned forward and squinted at the mannequins. Then his boyfriend's eyes slowly widened, and then turned towards Richie. Jeremy leaned closer, and put his lips right to Richie's ear, and whispered, "Look at the back of the male's shirt."

Richie sent his eyes back to the mannequins. The male was wearing one of Richie's old tee-shirts, a light green in color. Richie squinted at it, but at first could see nothing out of place. Except...

The shoulders of the tee-shirt in back were brown, not green. Richie stared, trying to figure it out, when it suddenly hit him.

Mud.

There was only one way that could have happened. The mannequin had to have been flat on his back on the ground at some point. But, even if the rain and wind last night had toppled the mannequin...who had set him back on his feet?

Richie's eyes darted to the woods, the pile of gravel, and back to the mannequins. He swallowed hard and took a step backwards. Jeremy went with him. Both boys held their Thompsons at the ready, muzzles pointed at the mannequins.

And then Richie noticed something else: the male mannequin's head looked lopsided. They could only see it from the back, but it just didn't look right somehow. The hair was higher on one side, and one ear seemed to be sticking out at an odd angle.

They took another step backwards.

Richie's eyes dropped to the ground around the mannequins. The previous night, when they were setting the mannequins in place, Richie had noted how even the ground was there. Now...now there was a little bit of a hump to the ground to one side of the mannequins, which from where they were looked to be about three feet wide. Just a slightly less even spot, and all dirt, with no grass visible.

They took several more steps backwards.

Suddenly, even as he was looking at it, the uneven hump in the ground moved...and then exploded upwards as someone buried in the ground sat up.

"Run!"

The boys turned and ran for the door, even as the terrifying roar of the zombie cut the air behind them. Richie ran like he had never run before, and Jeremy pounded along right beside him. They reached the door and Richie paused just a little, letting Jeremy get inside first. Richie followed, and then Jeremy was slamming the door and yanking down the crossbar.

Something hit the door so hard that they heard the boards crack, and nails popped out of the metal squares at the corner joints and rattled onto the floor at their feet. Richie grabbed Jeremy and propelled him to the side of the room, and both boys ran around to the pallet in the far corner and jumped across it. Another blow hit the door, and one of the upright boards simply broke off at chest level and flew across the room, nearly hitting them.

They reached the door into the barn and Richie pushed Jeremy through. He turned then and looked back, and saw the face of the zombie, streaked with mud now, at the new hole in the other door, staring in at him. For a moment their gazes met solidly, and this time Richie was sure that something strange passed between them. Whatever it was, the creature seemed incensed by it, and bellowed again so loudly that Richie's eardrums rattled painfully.

The creature reared back and hit the door again, and the crossbar groaned and splinters flew off of it. Richie danced through the door into the barn and slammed it behind them. Jeremy had already made it to to the coal bunker and jumped inside, and turned to look back. His expression was frantic now at not finding Richie right behind him. "Run!"

Richie covered the distance to the bunker and threw himself into it, coming up hard enough against the back wall to knock some of the wind out of him. But he turned anyway, and grabbed up the push button as Jeremy clipped the ground wire to the lead running to the blasting caps. Richie heard a tremendous crash, and his gaze went to the door to the tool room, and underneath it, even as the outer door disintegrated and the zombie flung itself inside.

But the creature made only three steps across the floor of the tool room before there was a horrendous ripping sound, and the tarp pulled loose from the tacks holding it in place. The zombie suddenly disappeared downward, the edges of the tarp flying up into the air and following it into the hole. Richie ducked and pushed the button at the same time.

There was the sound of the world dying, of the entire planet crumbling to dust. The cement floor jumped beneath their feet in concert with that incredible noise, and then Richie heard sounds that simply had no name. Terrible, horrifying sounds, as missiles of every kind rocketed away from the blast to embed themselves in the wood of the barn, shredding, shattering, tearing without mercy at the century-old wood. The entire structure seemed to vibrate in pain, and a rain of dust and old hay cascaded down into the coal bunker.

The sounds merged, and became an echo of simply amazing proportions that tore at their ears. Richie yelled and grabbed at Jeremy, and held onto him as tightly as he could. Time briefly stopped, and the rumble of doom seemed endless, unsatisfied with simply a single roar, but requiring a sequence of them, each slightly less than the one before, until its energy was finally expended.

Only then did it began to quiet.

It happened in stages. The great reverberation of the explosion itself slowly wandered away and died, and left in its place the more gentle sounds of things falling to the ground. Things that had been sent skyward by the blast, and other things that had been jarred loose from old places above. All of them bowing to gravity and once again seeking the ground. It was a gentle rain in comparison to the sound of the blast, but still considerable in volume. Richie coughed as dust grabbed at his throat, and he heard Jeremy hacking along with him. They held onto each other, eyes closed, faces together, waiting for it all to be over.

Slowly, the sounds of things falling around them lessened, first in violence, and then in sound level, and finally ended. Richie's ears rang softly, insisting on making some sort of sound even after the external ones had ceased. The cloud of dust that had washed over them dissipated, and Richie was able to take breaths that didn't make him cough. He opened his eyes, and Jeremy's were right there in front of him. For a brief moment, the zombie, and the world that held it, ceased to exist. Richie kissed his boyfriend, simply pushing his face against the other boy's and holding it there in one long, intense expression of affection. Jeremy responded in the same fashion, only lessening the energy of the kiss when the barn became totally silent again. He pulled back, and smiled at Richie.

"I love you," Richie saw written on his boyfriend's lips...but Jeremy's voice was the barest of mumbles.

Richie laughed. "I think I'm deaf."

"I love you!" Jeremy yelled, and Richie heard him that time, far way, at the bottom of some ocean.

He grinned, and yelled right back. "I love you, too!"

Jeremy stuck a finger in one ear and wiggled it, and then just shrugged.

Richie grinned and stood up, and Jeremy stood beside him. They both turned to look at the tool room...but it was gone. The tool room, most of the store room next to it, the outer wall of the barn, and much of the roof directly above the blast. They could see the mannequins out in the field beyond, and a fan of debris on the ground, and also that it was still a very pretty day outside, indeed.

Richie sensed movement behind them, grabbed at his Thompson, and turned to find Mike, Bennie, and Sherry standing there, weapons held at the ready. The three kids grinned at them, looks of relief obvious on their faces, and Richie could just hear Mike's voice as the boy pointed at them. "Leave you two alone for a minute, and look at the mess you make!"

Richie glared. "I said no one was to come out here!"

All three kids simply placed looks of defiance on their faces. "And?" Sherry said, quite loudly.

Richie and Jeremy hauled themselves out of the coal bunker, and exchanged hugs with the others.

"Marnie sent you out?" Jeremy asked, loudly.

"She couldn't stop us!" Bennie hooted.

"She was too busy sitting on Will and Tina to keep them from coming, too," Sherry said. She still sounded a lot farther away than she actually was.

Richie opened his mouth and worked his jaw, and suddenly his ears popped, and he seemed able to hear a little better.

"Did you kill it?" Bennie asked.

Richie and Jeremy exchanged glances. "We don't know," Jeremy said. "But I have a feeling if it was still able to, it would be here with us right now."

"It fell into the hole, and I pushed the button," Richie offered. He stared at the destruction the explosives had wrought. "If it lived through that, it deserves to be here."

"I guess we should look," Jeremy decided.

"Hold it a second," Sherry said, pulling her walkie-talkie to her lips. "They're okay, Marnie."

They could hear the faint sound of cheering over the radio, and then Marnie's voice. The relief in it was so plain that Richie's throat caught at the sound of it. "Well, good," Marnie said, struggling to sound calm. "What are you doing now?"

"We have to go and look and make sure it's done," Sherry explained.

"Call me back when you know."

"Will do."

They moved, as a group, carefully towards the remains of the tool room. The floor was splintered and unsafe to cross long before they actually reached the hole, and they simply stared at it, unable to believe that anything could have lived through such a blast.

"Maybe four sticks of dynamite was a little much," Richie conceded, smiling.

"Oh...yuck," Sherry said, pointing. "Is that part of it?"

Richie followed her gaze. Trapped in a pile of rubble was an odd, purplish mass. Richie stared at it for ten full seconds before his eyes could decipher what he was seeing.

Shoulders, but no arms, a fair bit of torso below. No blood to be seen. And...no head.

Jeremy sighed at the finality of it. "We blew it to pieces. It's not coming back from this one."

Richie felt a sense of relief flood through him, followed almost immediately by a flood of sadness. "Poor guy. He didn't ask for that to happen to him."

To his surprise, no one argued the point. They all stared at the remains for a moment longer, and then Bennie turned and walked away, and then Sherry, and then Mike. Jeremy put a hand on Richie's arm. "We had to do what we did."

"I know." Richie nodded. "I do know that." He turned to look at the remains again. "But...after the smoke clears, when we get a moment, I want to collect whatever is left and bury it. The guy deserves that."

Jeremy nodded. "I'll help you."

They followed the others outside, and Richie circled the barn and approached the mannequins. The male was still standing at its cockeyed angle. When they circled it, they found that its face was crushed, that something had delivered a blow to it of considerable proportions. Richie knew immediately who had delivered that blow, too.

Next to the mannequins was the hole the zombie had dug to hide himself, six feet long and three feet wide, almost as if it had known that it would need a grave shortly. It hadn't been quite deep enough to allow the ground to look level once the zombie had laid down into it and pulled earth over itself, but that the creature could have done such a thing at all gave him a small shiver. Intelligence, indeed.

"I think I can figure this," Jeremy said, looking from the hole to the mannequins. "Our friend was moving around in the fog after all. He walked up on our lovers here, and immediately took a swipe at the male, knocking him onto his back. The zombie must have realized right off that it was a dummy and not a real person. It sat down to think it over, and figured we had set some sort of trap for him. And so he set one for us, instead. He stood the male back on its feet in as close a position to the original as he could manage. That it looked cockeyed to us only suggests that we were right to assume that zombies don't quite perceive things like we do. All he knew was that it had been upright once, and needed to be upright again to have us not suspect anything was out of place."

"Maybe he set it cockeyed on purpose," Sherry suggested. "To get you to do exactly what you did - come and see what was up."

Jeremy gaped a moment, but then nodded. "Maybe. That scenario is a little scarier, actually, but you might just be right."

Richie turned slowly, surveying the trees, the field, and the pile of gravel still standing at the edge. "I almost can't believe he's gone."

They headed back to the camp, and were met at the base of the ladder by Marnie and Tina and Will. More hugs were exchanged, and then they went inside and recounted the story of what had happened again so that the others could hear it. By now Richie's hearing was almost normal again, and he didn't have to yell to think he was being heard.

Marnie closed her eyes when Sherry spoke of finding the remains. "Thank god, it's done."

Richie nodded. "Jeremy and I will go back later and bury what's left, and say a few words over the grave. Anyone that would like to attend can do that, and anyone that doesn't, that's okay, too."

Marnie nodded. "I'll pass. I'm just glad this is over." She turned and looked to where Mom was rocking slowly in her chair. "Besides, I don't want to leave Mom alone here."

They had something to eat, and then Richie and Jeremy went back to the barn to collect the remains. They dug the torso out of the rubble, but when they went to lift it, found it to be unbelievably heavy. They could barely move it at all, in fact, and had to get a wheeled cart from the back of the barn and lever the torso up onto it.

"What the hell's with that?" Jeremy asked, wiping at the sweat on his face as they finally got the remains situated on the cart. "Just that piece of the thing alone must weigh four hundred pounds."

Richie shook his head, staring at the remains. "I don't know. Just one more thing about them we don't understand." He frowned. "Might explain why there's so much left of him, though. I expected nothing this size to be left at all."

They eventually found most of both legs, which were equally heavy, and which soon joined the torso on the cart, which itself was getting hard to push around now. The massiveness of the zombie's body was hard to figure, but Richie was by now coming to understand that this very quality was in some way related to the creature's durability.

In another part of the rubble they found the head of the zombie, looking remarkably untouched by all the destruction. The neck was severed raggedly, and there were some chunks missing here and there, but no blood was present. The eyes were closed, the expression peaceful. Richie saw once again that the zombie had once been a handsome man. Again he felt a moment of sadness that things had ended this way.

Of the arms there was no sign at all. They would probably turn up later; but for now, the burial would proceed with what they had.

"I'm sorry," Richie thought, as he and Jeremy wrapped the remains in burlap for burial. "But after Jack, we said no more, and we meant no more."

They dug a large, deep hole on the camp side of the barn, where it could easily be seen from the windows. Richie did not think the zombie could come back from this final battle, but he was taking no chances. It would be nice to be able to look out the window each morning before leaving the camp, and take assurance from the fact that the the dirt of the grave was undisturbed.

The service was quiet, and everyone attended but Marnie and Mom. But Richie could see Marnie at the window of the camp, watching, as he and Jeremy piled dirt on the burlap-shrouded remains. They erected a small marker beside the grave, just a blank piece of flagstone, for there was no name, no history to place upon it. The zombie was an enigma, both in life, and in death.

When they went back inside, Marnie's eyes were damp, and Richie suspected she had been crying. Whether it was for the fact that Richie and Jeremy had survived their ordeal, or that the zombie hadn't, he never did know for certain.

But he suspected it was a little bit of both.

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