Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 5

There was a sense of relief in the cab of the truck after they had finally made contact with the camp. The zombie was nearby, but obviously not intent on facing the Thompsons. The knowledge that the others were okay took the edge off their fears, but could not quite reign in the imperative to be there, where things were happening.

Twice Richie tried to tell Jeremy to slow down, afraid that the truck might actually flip over, the way it was bouncing in the rutted drive. But his own sense of urgency would not quite let him demand it, and by the time they came into sight of the camp, Richie was simply holding on for dear life as the truck jolted and pitched along the roadway. The remains of the silo came into view in the distance, and the platform atop the steel girders, and Richie was sure he could see some of the group at the windows facing them. He breathed a sigh of relief, glad to finally be back home.

"Stop at the edge of the field," he told Jeremy. "We'd better look out for the zombie before just driving in."

Richie's sense of relief was short-lived. Two things happened, almost at once. Ahead of them and to the right, at the edge of the copse of trees near the cleared field ahead, one of the tall elders suddenly shook itself awake, leaned over, and then toppled into the drive ahead of them. And then the walkie-talkie suddenly squawked in his hand, and Marnie yelled, "Richie! Stop!"

Jeremy stood on the brakes, and the big GMC ground to a halt ten feet from the leafy crown of the tree. Despite the tie-downs, there were banging noises from the rear cargo box as some of the load shifted around, and Richie heard something bang into the wall behind the cab. For a second the three of them sat there, stunned, staring out through the covered windshield at the green-speckled branches now blocking the way.

A flicker of motion out of the side of his eye caught Richie's attention, and he turned to look just as the end of the bole of a sizable tree impacted the steel grate covering the passenger window. Richie flinched away from the impact, but not before he spied the zombie farther down the length of the bole, it's arms wrapped around the battering ram, its face contorted in a mystifying expression of sheer fury. The sound of the strike was enormous, and the entire cab of the truck shuddered around them from the force of it.

The window glass exploded into hundreds of tiny chunks that pelted the three of them and rained onto the floorboards with a staccato clatter, and at the same time a narrow band of light appeared at the top of the door as the section around the window deformed inward. The grate over the window bowed in as well, and a small section of the crossed bars in the center parted with a snapping sound. But one thing Jack had been almighty good with was a welding torch, and the grate itself did not separate from the door frame.

The tree that had hit them dropped against the side of the truck, and the end of it fell with a heavy thud against the running board. There was another thunderous crash, and purple and blue hands were at the grate, fingers working between the severed bars, trying to rip apart the damaged section. The thick metal strands stretched as the zombie pulled with incredible power, and then began parting in a line with fierce popping sounds almost as loud as gunfire.

Mike shrieked and pushed himself away from the window, and against Richie. The younger boy hefted his Thompson and tried to bring it around, but he was too close to the door, and the muzzle hung up against the dashboard and stopped. Mike immediately swung his legs up and around, planted his feet against the door, and pushed, forcing Richie back hard against Jeremy.

But it gave the younger boy enough room to bring up his weapon, and as the grating over the empty window tore with an agonized shriek of overstressed steel, Mike brought up the Thompson and put a burst of ten rounds through the door just beneath the window. The noise was deafening, and Richie found himself screaming incoherently in response. The expended cartridges arced out of the ejector port and clattered against the window behind them, raining down onto the floor behind the seat.

A terrifying yowl came from outside the truck, and they felt it shudder as something moved rapidly against it. There was a scrabbling sound, and then a weight landed on the roof of the cab over their heads. Richie stared upwards in horror as a tremendous impact shook the cab, and the center of the roof dented downward several inches, popping the headliner loose at the edges.

Mike laid back into Richie's lap and tilted the muzzle of the Thompson skyward, and let loose another burst of fire, which opened a dozen quarter-sized holes in the roof above them. This time the expended cartridges glanced off of Richie's shoulder and bounced away, and he closed his eyes reflexively and turned his head to the side. There was an awful roar, and then a dark shape fell onto the hood of the truck, immediately scrabbled sideways, and slid off to the ground. And then the hands were at the door grate again, pulling hard, and the door itself groaned and threatened to give away as more of the grating tore in half.

Things were happening so quickly that there was little time to react. Richie yanked his own Thompson from the floor, but being between the others, he had no clear field of fire. Mike laid back again and fired another burst through the door, and the zombie screamed again and jumped away.

There was an impact somewhere behind them, and the passenger side of the truck rose upwards a full foot and then crashed down again. The whole vehicle rocked viciously from side to side, a movement that increased in violence until Richie was sure he felt the passenger side tires bouncing upon the ground. The suspension groaned in amazement at this unheard of treatment, and they could hear things in the cargo box behind them bouncing about wildly. The boys were also bouncing about inside the cab, trying to hold onto each other, their weapons, and the seat, and not really succeeding with doing much of any of those things. The violence of the truck's movements was terrifying, and Richie could hardly think as he struggled just to hold on.

Suddenly, from outside the truck, came the unmistakable sound of another Thompson. Instantly, the truck settled back on its wheels, gave a couple of more lesser shudders, and then the violent motion of the cab dampened to just a faint rocking as the suspension and shocks absorbed the excess motion. Richie sat up straight, and saw the top of someone's head beyond the hood of the truck. He leaned back hard against Jeremy. "Open the door! Let me out!"

Jeremy didn't waste a moment in argument. The driver's door opened and Jeremy threw himself outside. Richie drove himself around with his legs, the heavy Thompson trying to thwart him, and scrambled out the door. The Thompson at the front of the truck was firing in short bursts, and some automatic calculator inside Richie's head was keeping count of the rounds being expended. He ran around the nose of the truck and came to a stop next to Sherry just as her weapon reached the end of its magazine.

The zombie was twisting and turning and rolling with incredible energy on the ground, and as the gunfire briefly ceased it sprang to its feet and started running away from them, across the field behind the copse of trees. Richie pointed his own weapon and let loose, knowing full well he couldn't hit the thing at the speed the creature was moving, but not wishing to give it the slightest reason to turn and come back. Furrows appeared in the ground behind the zombie, tossing dirt into the air, and Richie lifted the muzzle, trying to get the stream of bullets closer.

And then Mike was beside him, adding more fire. The zombie leaned forward into its motion and pumped its arms furiously, and disappeared over a rise in the field. Richie let off the trigger immediately, but Mike sent one last, furious burst of fire after the creature, before his own weapon went silent. The boy stamped his foot once, and cursed. "It got away!"

Richie laughed in amazement, slung his Thompson on his shoulder, and grabbed Mike into a hug, squeezing him close, holding him tightly. "Man, you saved our butts back there in the truck, boy! Quick thinking!"

Jeremy came up then, and grabbed Sherry and spun her around and gave her a huge hug, too. She grinned, hugging back, and Mike laughed, and tried his best to squeeze Richie back with the one arm not holding the gun.

And then the older boys switched places, and Richie hugged Sherry, and Jeremy hugged Mike. It lasted a long moment as the four of them rejoiced in just being uninjured.

But then Richie stood back and glared at Sherry. "Marnie sent you here out all alone?"

Sherry's gaze dropped, but then came back up, defiantly. "No. I came out when she wasn't looking. She heard me kick loose the dogs on the hatch, but I was going down the ladder by the time she got there."

All three boys stared at her, wide-eyed. "You left without Marnie's permission?" Jeremy asked, disbelievingly.

Mike whistled. "Wouldn't wanna be you!"

Richie blinked, but then smiled, and leaned forward and hugged the girl again. "We'll put in a good word for you, Sher. But...you know."

Sherry nodded. "Yeah. I'll be scraping the poop tray under the crapper by myself every day for the next year. After my butt heals, that is."

All the boys laughed, understanding perfectly the reference to Marnie's striking ability to tear someone a new asshole.

Mike hefted his weapon, and stared off across the field in the direction the zombie had run. "Lit outta here quick enough, didn't it?"

Sherry gave out a huge, tension-expelling sigh. "I got to the front of the truck while that thing was bouncing it, and peeked around, and then just started shooting," Sherry said. "I was so close I was hitting it with every round. It was just behind the cab, with it's arms underneath the box. I pumped a good ten rounds into it right off, but then it flipped backwards onto the ground away from the truck and started just bouncing around like crazy, trying to avoid my fire." She shook her head. "And I mean crazy. I don't think I ever hit it again, once it started moving. It just kept bouncing away from where I was shooting. That thing is just scary fast."

"We saw that," Jeremy said, quietly, looking off the way the zombie had gone. "It's plain weird, that anything can move like that."

Sherry smiled at Richie. "But it couldn't get up, either, trying to avoid my bullets." She patted the empty Thompson. "I'm sure glad you got here when you did, though."

Richie nodded. "Me, too."

Mike leaned forward and patted her arm. "We're you sacred?"

Sherry licked her lips, and her smile faded away. "I was too scared to be scared. I just knew I had to keep shooting it, or that it would get up again."

"It's afraid of the Thompsons, if it gets hit enough times" Richie decided. "So it must know they can hurt it...or kill it." He put a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Did you get any head shots?"

Sherry blew a small puff of air out between her lips. "I don't think so. I forgot about that. I was just shooting at its body, so that I wouldn't miss."

Jeremy gave a little shudder, and turned to look at the damage to the GMC. The zombie had done a number on the truck, no doubt about it. The passenger door around the window was warped and dented, and the door panel itself caved in. There was a dip in the roof line above the center of the windshield, and the top edge of the grill over the glass was bent downward. New dents to the body and cargo box, and new abrasions to the paint, were everywhere.

"No body shops around for this job." He sighed, and then grinned. "And I just washed her, too."

The others grinned at the joke.

Jeremy turned his smile on Richie. "Now I can try some of that welding that Jack taught me. I'll get it back the way it was." He surveyed the damage to the truck one more time, and then sighed. "Well, more or less."

"I don't care what it looks like, Jere. We just need to make it secure again."

"That I can do."

"Then I suggest we get a move on," Richie said then, glancing back in the direction the zombie had gone, examining the landscape. "I don't like not knowing where that thing is. It could be circling around us even now."

Mike, who had been watching their surroundings carefully, nodded. "It's not dead, I'm sure."

"I think I hurt it, though," Sherry said. "I put a bunch of holes in it, anyway."

"So did I," Mike said, grinning.

"Still, probably not fatal," Jeremy mused. "It will probably need to go and heal, but let's not take any chances, huh?"

The four of them squeezed into the cab of the truck, and Jeremy got it going and backed up. It was a challenge to get the big vehicle up out of the rutted drive and get it around the fallen tree, but Jeremy managed to get it done after only three tries. Jeremy drove up to the camp, and then backed the vehicle around so that the loading doors of the rear box were close to the ladder leading up to the platform.

This time there was no waiting to listen. The passenger door of the truck was jammed from the force of the zombie's attack, and they all piled out the driver's door. Richie and Mike immediately took up watchful positions with their Thompsons at the ready, while Sherry shouldered her empty weapon and added her eyes to the watch. Jeremy locked the driver's door, and then nodded at Richie. "Ready."

They moved as one unit to the base of the ladder, and Jeremy rapped on the wrung with the steel rod. "Jeremy, Richie, Mike, and Sherry, coming up!"

The spotlight snapped on above them, filling the ladder tube with white light. "Come on up," Marnie called.

Sherry went first, on the theory that Marnie would not go after her until the others were safely inside. The girl reached the top of the ladder, and the hatch opened, and she climbed on up onto the deck without any commotion from within. The boys followed, with Richie bringing up the rear.

Marnie peered down the ladder tube after them, and nodded at Bennie. "All clear."

The boy wrestled the hatch down, kicked the dogs into place, and shut off the spotlight.

For a moment, the interior of the camp was silent. Richie looked about, spied Tina at one window, watching the world outside, and Will across from her, watching the other side. Mom rocked quietly in her rocker, back and forth, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around her. Richie smiled at Marnie. "Well, we're home!"

The girl shook her head tiredly. "That was too close, Richie." She immediately turned to Sherry, and her expression grew grim. "You pissed me off, girl!"

Sherry sighed. "Figured that."

But then Marnie stepped forward and hugged the other girl. She gave Sherry a fierce squeeze, and then drew back, shaking her head. "But you made a difference out there, and everything worked out. This time."

Sherry blinked, and her eyes darted to Richie's before going back to the other girl's. "That's it?"

Marnie gave her a tired smile. "You're fifteen, Sherry. Almost as old as I am. Old enough to know right from wrong." Marnie let one shoulder rise and fall. "That was a brave thing you did, and you did it quickly and without wasting time. You probably saved the guys from getting hurt or killed. I can't argue much with that."

Sherry raised one eyebrow. "But?"

"You put everyone here at risk by leaving. Things could just as easily have gone bad, and some of us could have been hurt or killed. I just want you to think about that. Okay?"

Sherry winced. "I've already thought about it." She looked over at the guys. "I just couldn't stand here and do nothing. They were in trouble."

The two girls stared at each other a moment, before a faint smile came to Marnie's lips. "You did what you thought was needed. You didn't ask me, but I kind of agree that there wasn't time to talk about it." Marnie briefly chewed at her lip. "I would never have sent you out there alone. So I guess this was just one of those things that happened, and that worked out for the best."

Sherry looked amazed, but then smiled. "What about the part where you're pissed at me?"

Marnie also smiled. "I'll get over it."

Sherry nodded. "I just...reacted. I'm sorry I didn't ask."

Marnie nodded. "Yeah. I know." She turned to Richie and Jeremy. "No one was hurt? You guys have cuts on your arms and faces."

Richie looked down at himself, and was surprised to see little scrapes and droplets of dried blood on his arms. "I guess...when the window broke, maybe. There was flying glass everywhere."

Marnie took Richie by the arm. "Come on, the three of you. Sherry, Bennie, can you guys take windows on the quarters and watch outside while I put some antiseptic on these guys?"

The two kids nodded. Sherry stopped at the gun rack and traded her empty magazine for a fresh one, and then she and Bennie each took a window at ninety degrees to Will and Tina.

It was practice in the camp to treat even minor cuts and scrapes immediately. Jack had ingrained in them all a healthy respect for infection, and one of the things they had a good supply of was antibiotics, antibacterial creams, and band aids. They would not last indefinitely; but while they had them, they used them. Marnie had the boys sit around the kitchen table, while she applied little dabs of the cream to their wounds and then covered the bigger ones with tiny band aids.

Richie watched her while she worked, noting the strain in the lines of her face. Finally, he reached up and gently squeezed her wrist. "We're okay."

Marnie gave an almost too-sharp little nod. "I know. But it could have been...I don't want to think about it." She shook her head. "We wondered why that thing was doing what it was doing, waving little trees around and drawing our fire."

"We heard you shooting, in town," Mike supplied, quietly.

"You were meant to, I think," Marnie returned. "That whole thing had the feel of a trap laid for your return." She shook her head. "That thing is smart, Richie."

"I know. I...I remember looking at it, down in the field by Johansen's farm, through my binoculars, that first day we saw it. It was like we made eye contact through the lenses. I got the same sense, that it wasn't just some man turned into a monster. Whatever happened to the ones that turned into these creatures, it doesn't seem to have messed up their smarts too much. It just...warped them, or something." He clenched his jaw a moment, finding the idea scary when said out loud like that. "We've got to be really careful with this thing, because I am pretty sure it will be back."

"Do you think it's my fault?" Jeremy suddenly asked.

Richie turned to look at him. "Why would it be your fault?"

"Well..." The other boy frowned. "I shot at it when it got the buck. I hit it, and I guess I hurt it." He gave a little sigh. "If someone took a shot at me out in a field, I might want a little payback, too."

The idea was new, and Richie turned it over in his mind, trying to see all the angles. But then he smiled. "I don't know, but I also don't care. According to what Jack told us, if this thing had seen us first instead of the other way around, we probably wouldn't be sitting here now. So I'm not about to worry if we pissed it off by shooting first."

Mike gave a little scoffing sound. "I'm sure it doesn't love me, either, after it ate all those forty-five slugs from my Thompson. And I sure don't care if I made it mad."

Richie grinned, but then sobered almost immediately. "I have to admit I have been thinking of this thing as a ..a monster. More like an animal than one of us. And you just don't expect an animal to be as smart as you are." He scratched the back of his head, where Marnie had applied antiseptic to a small cut. She slapped at his fingers, and he laughed. "It stings!"

"Better it stings than gets infected, and your head falls off."

Jeremy laughed, and Mike grinned. "You were saying," Jeremy offered to Richie, at the same time turning his smile on Marnie, whose eyes twinkled back at him.

"I was saying that we have to start thinking of this creature as a human enemy. One that's as smart as we are, or maybe even smarter. What I saw today scared the shit out of me." Richie shook his head. "I don't want that to be the way this whole thing works, with that creature one step ahead of us every time we meet up. We need to start imagining what it might do next."

"I'd say it's gonna have to go somewhere and lie down overnight," Mike said, smiling. "It's got some pretty big holes in it that need to heal."

Jeremy pointed a finger at him. "You are right, sir. It looked a little beat up when it took off. That might mean we have some time to do a few things while it heals."

"These things can take an amazing amount of damage," Richie said, slowly. "And they're so damn fast they're just incredibly hard to hit. Jack said you pretty much have to blow the head off to stop them."

"It had some damage today," Marnie said. "And it didn't seem to slow it down any. We could see the way it took off through the field behind the trees, from here. I've never seen anything run so fast."

Richie nodded, remembering the almost effortless way the zombie had run down the big buck. "It's strong, it's fast, and it's smart. That's a pretty tough combination to beat."

"We need to be smarter," Mike said.

Jeremy nodded. "Or crazier."

Richie laughed; but then he paused, and rubbed his chin, looking at his boyfriend. Jeremy suddenly grinned. "I see the wheels turning. Something I said?"

Richie nodded, and had to grin, himself. "Maybe. An idea, just maybe. Come over here, you."

Jeremy sighed, leaned over, and let Richie kiss him.

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