Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 11

The next morning they were back at work, bright and early.

The first order of business was to examine the tool room doors. The door from the outside opened inward, and was made of the same stout oak planks as the barn itself. The hinges were large and heavy, and the frame around the door was made of four-by-fours. The door itself might hold the zombie for a brief period, but it only had a simple wooden latch to keep it closed, and that was not nearly strong enough to do the job.

The planks of the door were assembled with an old-fashioned 'Z' of iron strips, through which the planks were bolted, and they reinforced that with more metal strips of their own, also placed horizontally across the planks, to add strength to them. Next they added a stout crossbar to the four-by-four frame, which could be quickly swung down to secure the door. Based on past experience, it would not keep the zombie out for very long at all, but it would at least slow him down for the ten or so seconds they would need to get through the tool room, close the inner door, and get themselves into the coal bunker.

They surveyed the view of the tool room from standing within the coal bunker and peering over the edge across the floor of the barn. They would need to see when the zombie actually fell into the trap. But the inner door of the tool room went right down to the floor, so they took it off the hinges and cut three inches off the bottom, and when it was remounted they then had a good view across the length of the tool room floor to the outer door. There would be no missing the action now, when it finally happened.

Then they lowered eight pallets into the root cellar, to be used, four to each side, as mounts for the harvester blades; and then they lowered the blades themselves. There were twenty of them, curved, three feet in length, old and a little rusty, but still with a fair edge on them. They were dense and heavy, and would become potent missiles when propelled with sufficient force.

Next they nailed small flathead nails into the sides of the cut floorboards at one-foot intervals along all four sides of the hole in the tool room floor, and stretched the baling twine as tight as they could across the gap between them. The flathead nails would support the tensioned twine easily enough to keep it in place, but not the weight of a full-grown man - or zombie. When they next laid the big tarp across the hole and stretched it tight and lightly tacked it to the floor, it was reasonably level. There was still some slight dip in the center, but you would have to stop and examine it closely to see it.

The back corner of the tarp, over the moved staircase down into the root cellar, they left free. When they were done, they would simply pull it tight and lay another pallet down flat over it in the corner of the room to hold it in place, and set a few boxes of expendable junk on top of it to give a reason to be there. It was makeshift, but it would only have to work once. They could quickly lift and move the whole thing, and peel back the tarp there in order to gain access to the stairs if they had to do so. But once they were done in the root cellar, they had no plans to go back.

The entire floor of the barn was strewn with ancient hay, and they gathered some of that and cast it about on the tarp. The addition of the hay finalized the appearance of the floor - at least in the low light available within the tool room - as that of ancient wood trod into submission by generations of human feet. The effect was amazing, even though they knew the 'floor' would not support any weight to speak of.

"This might actually work," Jeremy said, looking as if he didn't quite dare believe that it would.

Next came the work in the root cellar, which was the scariest part. By flashlight, they carefully placed the four sticks of dynamite to rear uprights of the shelving on each side of the cellar, back against the earthen walls, at waist-height from the floor, and secured them in place with duct tape. Each stick of explosive had a hole in the end, into which would be inserted a blasting cap, which were tiny aluminum cylinders about two inches in length. Two wires sprouted from the end of the cap, about six feet in length, the ends of which were stripped but wrapped in an insulated plastic tab. The tab prevented a static discharge from setting off the cap, a very real danger in dry environments.

They set the caps in the middle of the shelving for the time being, far enough away from the dynamite that one of them accidentally going off would not also set off the explosives. Jack had said that the caps needed to be in contact with the sticks of dynamite in order to supply enough compression shock, quickly enough, to set them off. Then they ran four paired wires across underneath the floorboards to the old coal bunker, and ran a quick continuity test on them to make sure they were conductive. The four runs were combined at the bunker end, and a piece of electrical tape wrapped about each paired end to prevent them absorbing a static discharge. Then they removed the tabs from the ends of the cap's wires, attached the paired wires from the joint run to them, and wrapped the connections in electrical tape. They now had a connection established from the coal bunker to the root cellar.

They were going to use a big six-volt lantern battery to set the things off. Jack had set off his stick using the three volts supplied by the batteries in his pocket flash, but it had only worked because modern alkaline cells packed a good punch when they were fresh. The caps specified 4.5 to 7.5 volts, and they had plenty of still fresh lantern batteries in stock for emergencies that they could use as a power supply. This would ensure that the caps would detonate when they threw the switch.

They stood the pallets up on end against the shelving in front of the explosives, and nailed brads into them to act as hangers for the harvester blades. Then they hung the blades, ten to a side, held in place only by their own weight. They would become deadly missiles when the explosives went off.

When they were done, they carefully examined their handiwork by flashlight.

"I wouldn't want to be down here when it all happened," Jeremy said quietly, as if realizing for the first time how destructive the trap would be. "Jeez, I hope we know what we're doing."

Once the blasting caps had been pushed into the dynamite they would not risk reentering the root cellar, so they had to be certain that everything else was done first. They checked everything twice, and then argued briefly over who would insert the caps.

"I'll do it," Richie said, waving a hand at Jeremy. "You go back to the coal bunker."

"The hell I will. I'll stick the things in, and you go back to the bunker."

They stared at each other, their eyes bright and intense in the light from the flashes.

"We can't afford to both get killed," Richie said quietly. "We have to think of the others. Go back to the bunker, Jere."

Jeremy licked his lips. "They can't afford to lose you, Rich. You're the leader now."

Richie raised his eyebrows pointedly. "Then, as the leader, I am ordering you to go back to the bunker."

Jeremy actually pouted, like a small boy. "No."

Richie felt a brief sense of frustration, but could not be angry. He understood, all too clearly, that neither of them could bear the thought of going on without the other. He looked over at where the dynamite was attached to the shelving. Jack had said the stuff was very safe, didn't he?

He sighed. "Okay. I think maybe we can both do it. You take one side, and I'll take the other. Be careful, but be quick, And then let's get the hell out of here."

Jeremy compressed his lips, but nodded. "Okay." He leaned forward, and gave Richie a quick kiss. "I love you."

Richie leaned back, and returned the kiss. "I love you, too. Now let's do this."

They each took a side, and reached back behind the pallets and inserted the blasting caps, first one, and then the other, into the ends of the sticks of dynamite. Richie was careful to get them all the way in, as Jack had showed them. Then, without a further word, they climbed the stairs, pulled the tarp taut, and placed the pallet over it. They set the three boxes of junk on the back corner of the pallet by the wall, leaving them enough free room to step across the pallet when the time came to pass through the tool room. And then they went into the barn and closed the inner tool room door behind them.

Only then did Richie take a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Shee-it. I could not do that every day for a living. I don't know how people that work with explosives handle it."

Jeremy came to him and put his arms around him, and they pulled each other close. "If this works, we'll never have to do it again." Briefly, they were silent, just recharging each other by touch.

"I should be mad at you," Richie said then.

Jeremy nodded, and leaned his forehead against Richie's. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't...I just couldn't leave you there."

Richie understood. "Yeah. I know."

They kissed, and then held each other quietly a moment longer. Sherry, who had guard duty on that side of the barn, glanced in at them, and then shook her head. "Hey, no goofing off in there, you two."

Richie laughed, kissed Jeremy one more time, and then stepped back from him. "Later. Tonight."

Jeremy grinned, his eyes twinkling. "Count on it."

They discussed the next phase of their plan over lunch: how to get the zombie to chase them into the barn.

"I was thinking about that," Marnie said, as she and Mom laid out plates of food. "Zombies will chase anything that moves, it seems. But they also seem to recognize people, and attack them even if they're not moving. That gives me an idea."

"Well don't keep it a secret," Jeremy said, winking at Richie. "Tell!"

Marnie swatted his arm. "Just keep it up, Jeremy Campbell, and I'll let you figure this out for yourself."

Everyone laughed.

"Seriously, Marn," Richie put in, "what do you have in mind?"

"Well, remember the clothing store in town? There are mannequins there, dressed in the latest fashions. I was wondering what a zombie would do it if saw a couple of them standing in the field on that side of the barn."

Richie and Jeremy glanced at each other. "I doubt it would fool a zombie." Richie said slowly. "At close range, anyway. The simple fact that the mannequins didn't run like crazy when they saw the zombie coming would be pause for thought all on its own."

"And mannequins couldn't run into the tool room and be chased," Jeremy added. "And we need that to happen."

Marnie raised an eyebrow. "No, you're right. But suppose you put the mannequins out in the field, far enough from the barn and close enough to the woods to tempt the zombie out of hiding? Then the two of you stand outside the tool room door. The zombie might get to the mannequins and see they weren't real, but wouldn't it keep on coming if it saw the two of you? That would put you far enough away from the thing to see it coming and still have time to get away."

Richie frowned. "We'd be armed. It might see the Thompsons, and not give chase."

"I don't know about that." Marnie shook her head. "We've had the Thompsons with us all along, and they have not stopped this thing from coming at us."

"Maybe...maybe it doesn't know what they are, exactly," Mike said then, looking startled by his own idea. "They're guns to us, but...what are they to the zombie? It doesn't seem to run until we actually shoot at it a lot. It might just know the sound they make. Or even just how it feels to get hit by the bullets. But if it has no tech-sense left, it might not understand how we even do it."

"It was a man once," Sherry pointed out. "It would remember guns."

"Maybe." Jeremy frowned. "And maybe not. We just don't know how much is left of what it once was. It sure acts like it isn't afraid of guns."

Richie and Jeremy looked at each other. They were used to the idea that zombies had keen senses. But that the creatures might no longer understand everything those senses told them was a fascinating idea.

Richie nodded. "Interesting thought. You're saying maybe it doesn't get the idea of the guns at all, until we are actually shooting at it. And even then it just knows it's in danger?"

"That kind of makes sense," Jeremy said. "That goes back to us wondering why the thing just didn't take off after easier game."

"It has to have some understanding of guns," Marnie pointed out. "It deliberately drew our fire to get you guys to come racing back from town, remember? That means it had to know that the sounds of gunfire traveled pretty far, which means it understands the concept of gunfire itself."

Richie grimaced, but then laughed. "This thing just keeps going around and around."

"But there is a weird sense to it," Jeremy decided. "It knows that guns can hurt it, it knows what they sound like, but maybe it just doesn't quite get what they are. We shot at it a lot from inside the truck that day, but it didn't take off running until Sherry showed up and started really hosing it, at point-blank range."

Sherry leaned forward across the table top. "So if you just don't shoot at it, there won't be anything to keep it from chasing you?"

Marnie nodded in agreement. "You could wait by the door, and see if it tries to attack the mannequins. If it comes out of hiding to go after them, and no one shoots at it...it will come after you, too. Don't you think?" She frowned then, when Richie didn't immediately answer. "You told us to start thinking about the zombie differently, right? Well, that's what I'm trying to do. I think it will chase after anything that looks like people, at least until it finds out they aren't real."

"Maybe." Richie finally said, nodding. "Just maybe."

"Why do you need the mannequins at all, then?" Mike asked. "Just stand outside the door and see if it charges you."

"No, I see what Marnie means," Jeremy said, glancing at the other boy. "We need to draw it out. There's a lot of ground to cover from the woods to the tool room door. I wouldn't want to go and stand out close to the woods, and then try to outrun that thing if it charged us. But if we put bait out there - non-human bait - it may just come out of hiding to look it over. It might not be fooled, but it will bring it close enough to see us, and give chase. That leaves us right at the door, and with an avenue of escape. That way it would be coming to us, instead of the other way around."

Sherry grinned. "This sounds like a movie script, or something."

"It's nuts, is what it is," Bennie put in, from over by a window. "All that play acting...what if it doesn't work?"

"Mannequins wouldn't fool me," Tina said, from another window. "I'd think you were up to something."

Marnie shook her head. "But these zombies don't seem to see things like we do. You're right that we've only been thinking about this zombie one way until now, Richie. I've been trying to look differently at the way this thing operates, and it's like it's really smart, but that it's also oblivious to a lot of things we take for granted. We know it plans, because it set up that ambush on you guys and the truck." She frowned. "I just can't quite get the way it acts about our guns. It's almost like it has forgotten how much damage they can do each time it comes back after us."

That did seem true. So far the zombie did not seem concerned about their guns until after it started receiving a lot of damage. The fact that the group was armed had not deterred the creature from trying to attack them several times. So maybe their weapons were not a factor considered in the attack at the onset. Only when the amount of damage the zombie was taking reached a certain critical point did some flight sense kick in and tell it to be on its way.

So did the zombie even understand the nature of guns at all, beyond the sounds they made and the damage they could do?

If an unarmed human being with a knowledge of guns found himself facing an opponent with a Thompson submachine gun, he would be inclined to make himself scarce and find some other way to get things done. But suppose...just suppose that, somewhere on earth, on some island in the middle of nowhere, or deep in some jungle, you happened to find a human being who had never heard of guns. If you stood before him holding a Thompson, while that primitive held a spear, he might consider you undefended, or at least armed only with a weird-looking club. Without recognizing that you were armed to the teeth, the primitive would have no real idea of the danger he was facing. If he then attacked you and was met with a hail of bullets - and survived - would he even then know that some kind of weapon had been used against him?

If zombies had somehow lost all sense of technology, then gunpowder, ballistics, and weapons technology would almost be like magic to them. But their own eyes would tell them that the damage they received came from the strange objects that the humans held in their hands. Their own zombie had showed ingenuity in trying to get at them, but had been driven off each time by the superior force of these objects, these weapons. In a human, that would certainly give one pause for thought. But that was because gunfire was deadly for people, and even one bullet was one too many for most people to want to chance. But if that was not a concern so much, would people care as much? The answer seemed obvious. No, they wouldn't.

So it didn't matter if the zombie actually understood the nature of guns or not. Richie was of a mind to think that the creature did remember them from its previous life, but that it was now simply contemptuous of them, until the damage it received added up to a certain point. The zombie understood that, in its newly altered state, what was once lethal in its other life, could now be taken in some measure and be survived.

It was a question of scale. A human might run at an opponent armed with a BB gun, knowing that the damage he might receive, while painful, was unlikely to be fatal. Their zombie opponent seemed to view the human's guns the same way, as things that could do some damage, but perhaps not quickly enough to deny him victory. The zombie was trying to get the encounter over before he received enough damage to be fatal. When it became clear that one particular encounter was not going to work out that way, he simply took off, waited to heal, and then tried again.

And that lent credence to the idea that the zombie was well aware of its own strengths and limitations, another very human aspect of thought. And that the zombie, once healed, considered all factors to have been reset to even between himself and the humans, and any new tack he took in attacking them to have just as much of a chance at success as any other. Chance aside, the zombie's abilities were superior to the human's, with only the human weapons the deciding factor. And, given enough attacks, the odds seemed sure that eventually, one would be successful.

He's trying to wear us down, Richie realized. And with enough time, he just might. Holy shit.

"There may be another answer," he offered slowly, thinking. "This thing has lived with its current condition for two years now. It must know by now what it can take in the way of damage, and still survive. We have no idea what it has experienced in that span of time, but let's just assume it has been shot at before. So it knows that gunfire is not immediately fatal, and that it can heal itself in a day, or two, at most. So it may just allow for a certain level of damage, knowing it can bounce back from it, and doesn't take off until that level of damage starts to get hairy enough to worry it."

Marnie nodded, her eyes widening slightly. "Oh! There you go. So it does know we have guns, it does know the Thompsons are dangerous, but it is weighing damage it might receive against a possible victory with each attack against us, knowing it can just heal and come back at us again if it fails the first time."

No one said anything for a moment, and Richie was aware of the eyes upon him as he continued to turn the facts over in his head. It was hard to understand the way the zombie operated. It seemed oblivious to gunfire until it was really getting damaged, as if it didn't feel the pain of each bullet. Yet they knew it felt pain, by the way it reacted to things. The two ideas seemed contradictory. In a human, moving onward in the face of pain was an act of will. A deliberate, planned action. Only very powerful drivers would maintain a human in action when the pain of that action was mounting up.

So what drove the zombie? Just the act of destruction? Did it want to kill them so badly that it would risk all that damage, perhaps even death, just to get at them? The goal seemed clear enough, but the reason was a total unknown. Killing simply to kill was not a concept Richie could understand. The very idea was chilling.

"So in other words, we don't really know what to do, do we?" Mike ventured, looking unsettled by all the back and forth conjecture.

Jeremy grinned. "Just means we have no reason not to try everything that might work." He looked at Richie. "What do you say?"

Richie shrugged. "Hell, I don't know. These are some crazy ideas to consider." He looked around at the others. "We don't know what goes on inside a zombie head. Mannequins may not fool our friend at all, or they might be indistinguishable from one of us."

Jeremy laughed. "So we give it a try?"

"Yeah. Why not? Let's give it a try and see. The worst that could happen is that Zombo will sit back and laugh at our attempts to fool him. Then we'd just have to think of something else."

Jeremy squeezed his eyes shut and winced. "That means another trip into town. I kinda wanted to replace that door on the truck before we went out in it again."

"We'll get to work on that now." Richie grinned, and patted his boyfriend's wrist. "I'll help you. And then we'll zip into town in the morning and visit the Jeans 'N Things, okay?" He looked over at Marnie then. "And we can make a quick stop at the library and grab some more reading stuff, too."

The girl smiled. "That would be nice. I've read some of these magazines like ten times."

"Who's going?" Mike asked. "You two have been having all the fun lately."

Richie and Jeremy both laughed at that idea, but Sherry spoke up before either boy could say a thing.

"You went last time," she said accusingly, gently slapping Mike's forearm. "If they need a hired gun, it's my turn."

"I wanna go," Will said. "I never get to go anywhere."

"Four is all we can get into the cab of the truck and still have room to breathe," Jeremy pointed out.

Richie looked over at Marnie. The girl was smiling. "I suppose you want to go, too?" he asked.

Marnie laughed. "Yeah, right. You never take me anywhere, Richie Kincannon." She turned her nose up in mock disgust. "I've been ignored so long it feels normal to me. I wouldn't go if you begged me."

"That means she doesn't want to go," Jeremy translated playfully. "She likes being mistress of the castle."

Marnie laughed then, but nodded. "I would like to go some time, just not this time. Maybe when this zombie thing is over." She looked around at the other kids. "I couldn't go to town and leave my babies by themselves."

Bennie looked astounded, and Mike tossed his head back and howled.

"Babies!" Bennie said, pounding a hand on the tabletop. "I can shoot as well as you!"

"Probably better," Marnie said, dropping a hand on his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "I'm just teasing you, sweetheart."

"Oh." Bennie's face gently reddened, and Richie tried hard not to smile.

Jeremy turned to Mike. "What about it? Willing to let Sherry have a turn?"

Mike looked over at the girl, but then sighed, and nodded. "It's only fair, I guess."

"So Sherry and Will this trip," Richie said, winking at Bennie. "And Bennie next trip."

"Yay!" Will looked elated.

"What about me?" Tina asked peevishly. "I need a vacation, too."

That brought more laughter. Richie nodded. "Okay, Bennie and Tina on the next run. Any objections?"

There seemed to be none. Everyone started talking, comparing notes on what lay ahead.

Richie leaned closer to Jeremy's ear. "All this decision-making is enough to wear a guy out," he whispered. "I could use some, um...relaxation. What are you doing later tonight?"

The other boy's eyes twinkled. "Sleeping with you."

Richie sighed, and laid his head on his boyfriend's shoulder. "That's the right answer."

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