Z is for Zombie

by Geron Kees

Chapter 14

Richie surveyed the coal bunker, his eyes sweeping over the dusty length of the pit, and nodded. It was just after dinner, still plenty of light, but already cooling off noticeably. He and Jeremy were carrying their Thompsons slinged, where they could be grabbed quickly enough, but still left their hands free. Mike stood slightly off to one side, facing the other way, his own Thompson at the ready, to watch the large expanse of open wall where the boards had been removed to build the camp.

Up the hill at the camp, Sherry had window duty watching the barn, where she could see all approaches to the structure. She would blow an air horn if she spotted any movement from their friend. Richie knew they were taking a chance being out after the zombie had been seen moving about again; the creature had a way of spoiling their best laid plans with its unpredictability. But he and the others had been discussing the plan to lure the zombie into the tool room trap, and a few troubling ideas had come forth in the discussion.

"The plan is, we put the mannequins out in the field to draw our boy out, and we stand at the tool room door, hoping he'll come after us." Richie looked over at his boyfriend. "He comes at us, we slam the door in his face, and make our way to the coal bunker here, and wait for him to break inside and fall into the root cellar. Then we set off the dynamite."

"That's the plan," Jeremy agreed. "As long as our friend does his part, anyway."

Richie nodded. "But as we discussed earlier, it's based on him thinking we are taking refuge there, inside the tool room, and him breaking in after us. Suppose he doesn't think that?"

Jeremy looked over at the tool room, and then turned to survey the missing wall behind them. "If he thinks we're just running through the barn on our way to the camp, then --."

"-- he might run around the barn to head you off," Mike finished. The notion had come up in their discussions, forcing them to sit down and consider a way to deal with it.

"And not come through the tool room at all," Richie agreed.

"We'd be screwed then," Jeremy said. "I don't want to be trapped here in this dirty hole, with no place to go."

Richie smiled. "Ah. But it's not just a dirty hole, Jere. It's a coal bunker." He pointed into the dim depths at their feet. "Ever notice the way the floor slants down to the left?"

The other boy frowned. "Yeah. You can't see it from here, but I felt it when we were down inside. What does that mean?"

Richie nodded at the pit, and briefly looked around the barn. "There's a big iron cover that goes over this thing, but I don't know where it is. It's been off for years." He grinned. "I used to play here when I was a little. My mom always got mad, because I'd come home with my clothes covered with black dust."

Jeremy smiled, perhaps imagining Richie all covered in coal dust. "And this is relevant...how?"

Richie laughed. "I know this barn inside and out." He leaned forward and pointed down into the back end of the coal bunker, which faced the back of the barn. "You can barely see it, but there's a chute there that angles downward to a big hopper next to the furnace."

Jeremy blinked. "Furnace?"

"Yeah." Richie stamped a foot on the floor. "From here to the front of the barn, there's a stone and cement slab underneath." He turned and pointed towards the back of the barn. "The land slopes down that way, and under the back end of the barn there's a storeroom, and a furnace room. In case you never noticed, there's a stone foundation under the back part of the barn."

"I did notice. I just didn't know it was there for anything more than to keep the place level on the slope."

"Well, it does serve that purpose, yes. But there are several rooms underneath the back end, too. This coal bunker feeds a hopper that's next to the furnace. The winters here are cold, and this barn was once full of horses and milk cows, a long time back. That's how they kept them warm."

Jeremy nodded. "How does this help us?"

Richie pointed down into the bunker. "It gives us an escape exit. The chute is big enough for us to crawl through. If it looks like the zombie has run around the barn, we'll go through it to the furnace room. From there there are two ways out. A staircase that comes up near the leather room --"

"I think I saw that," Jeremy interrupted, nodding. "When we were moving the tools. It just didn't really register what is was."

"Uh huh. There's that way out, and there is an external door in the foundation at the back of the barn. We'll have our headlamps on, so we'll be able to see."

Jeremy looked pleased. "So there's a way out of this hole, at least. What will we do then?"

"Play it by ear, I would think." Richie frowned. "That thing may have super hearing, and know we were in the hole. It could jump in and try to come through the chute after us. Or, if we get away undetected, it's going to look for where we went. Maybe it will come down the staircase to the furnace room. Or circle around to the back of the barn."

Mike gave a low whistle. "Still kind of a pot luck escape, isn't it?"

Richie shrugged."Well, we could go out through one of the other exits, but I'm thinking that staying put would be the best idea. The furnace room is defensible, because all the entry points can be covered from the storeroom door. You can see the coal hopper, the staircase, and the outer door plainly from there. And with the storeroom at your back, there is only the one approach. The storeroom walls are concrete, with no windows. Stand inside the doorway, and anything that wants you has to come straight at you. Our friend would be facing two Thompsons, head-on."

"We couldn't stay there forever," Jeremy pointed out. "We'd have to come out at some point."

"We'd come to help you," Mike said, patting his own Thompson.

"No, you would not," Richie said, emphatically. "Out in the open, you guys would be in trouble. You will stay put, no matter what happens, and defend the camp and the others. You understand?"

Mike grimaced, but nodded. "But what will you guys do?"

Richie shrugged. "We'll wait. Wait until dark. Once it's dark outside, we can come out safely, and return to the camp. Then we'll all sit down and think up another plan."

For a moment there was silence.

Jeremy frowned then. "Here's an idea: we know our bad boy doesn't move in the dark. Would he even chase us into a dark place? That cellar is pitch black, I'll bet."

"It is," Richie agreed. "And whether or not the zombie will enter a dark place is something we don't know." He shrugged. "I'm hoping the original plan will work, and we won't have to find out."

Jeremy looked down into the coal bunker again, and nodded. "Okay, we have a plan A, and a plan B. I think that's the best we can do for the time being."

"We'll need to go over this with the others," Richie said, quietly. "No one is to leave the camp for any reason, no matter what they see or hear down at the barn. Mike, I am counting on you to make sure this happens." He smiled. "Watch your girlfriend, especially. We already know that Sherry is a little impulsive."

The other boy looked pained, but nodded. "I will. I promise, Richie."

Richie smiled. "Good. Now let's go back to the truck and look over our clones." Richie pulled the walkie talkie from his belt, and informed Sherry that they were coming back to the camp. "We'll be at the truck, okay?"

"Gotcha. Looks all clear to me. But be careful, anyway."

They exited the barn through the open wall, and strode quickly up the slope to the camp, watching everything around them as they did so. There was an hour or more of good light left, and the evening was peaceful, with a sliver of moon already rising in the eastern sky. They made it to the truck without problem, and unlocked the rear doors and climbed inside.

"We have to have time to set these guys in some kind of realistic pose," Jeremy said, looking at the mannequins. They had kept the inanimate couple here, out of sight, until they actually planted them in the field. They wanted the zombie's first look at the mannequins to be a total surprise.

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

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

The male mannequin had quickly become something of a joke around the camp. They had passed by it countless times in the Jeans 'N Things, and never once noticed how stupid-looking the expression on its face actually was. The mannequin was smiling, and surely its creators had been hoping to display some kind of happiness there. But there was just something so goofy about the expression that you could not look closely without laughing. Even Marnie had come down briefly for a look, and just shaken her head in sympathy.

They'd tossed a change of clothing for the pair into the back of the truck before heading down to the barn, and now Richie and Jeremy laid the mannequins on the floor of the cargo box and squatted beside them, and began to undress them. Jeremy had the male, and once he had removed the mannequin's clothing, he turned him face down and explored the fellow's body, and seemed totally unsurprised to find a small, impressed tag in his left butt cheek that said, among other things, "Made in China".

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richie laughed, and briefly pushed his cheek against his boyfriend's before leaning over to pull up the male mannequin's fly. "You're distracting me. Want me to have an accident with his zipper?"

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

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

Richie grinned at him. "Excuse me? Have you learned nothing this night?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike nodded. "Fair enough."

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

They heard a sound, and looked upwards. Marnie was leaning out of the window above them. "All done?"

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

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

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

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

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

The zombie stood there, hands on hips, looking back at them. On the ground beside it was a large mat that looked to be of woven tree branches, upon which resided a sizable, pyramid-shaped pile, that couldn't quite be made out.

Richie gave a low whistle. They knew the zombie was back in action sooner than they had thought it might be, and the closeness by which they had missed each other over near the barn was unsettling. Once again, their enemy had surprised them.

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

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

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

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

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

"What are you grinning at?" Jeremy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Right." Richie was amazed at this new turn of events. "This is a provocation, to draw us out. We just don't know what the thing plans to do, once we're out there."

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

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

"I know. But he wants to."

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

"Nearly naked," Jeremy reminded, smiling.

"Nearly naked, and weird," Marnie stated then. "This is nothing like what he's done before now."

"Maybe..."Sherry started, and then stopped.

Richie smiled at her. "Maybe...what?" he coaxed.

She frowned. "Well...I was thinking. Suppose you're a badass, like the zombie is. You're used to being able to take anything you meet - people, animals...everything. Everywhere you have been, since the Changes, you win. And then, one day, you meet some people you can't take. Where you can't win."

"It's not over yet," Bennie reminded. "He doesn't know he's lost, not yet."

No," Sherry agreed. "Not yet. But meeting us hasn't worked out for him. It hasn't been easy for him, and he's been hurt every time he comes at us." She looked around at faces. "Maybe he's been thinking about that. Maybe he's trying to figure out a way to deal with us, just like we're trying to figure out a way to deal with him."

Richie blinked, and then immediately smiled. Here was more new thinking about the zombie, and something worth considering, too. "Maybe. But if he thinks he can just challenge us, and we'll come out and fight face to face, he'd better think again."

"Maybe that's the way zombies do it," Tina said. "If two of them want to be in the same place, maybe they challenge each other, and the loser leaves."

Jeremy turned and smiled at Richie. "That's actually a good idea. Jack said the zombies don't get along with each other. Maybe they evolved a way to settle disputes over territory. Challenge each other to a fight, winner take all."

Richie considered that, amazed at yet another new possibility about their visitor. Was there such a thing as zombie society, primitive and hostile though it might be? Two years was certainly time enough for them to have adapted to the necessities of their changed existences. That they didn't work together seemed to have been established. But...what did they do when two zombies found themselves in competition for the same goal?

"Wow." Richie smiled at Sherry. "If what you say is true, then our friend is now considering dealing with us as equals."

"Like another zombie?" Bennie asked, grinning. "That's utterly cool."

Jeremy nodded. "It is an idea that kind of fits the facts. But we still don't know. We're still just guessing."

"So what will it do if we don't come out and fight?" Marnie asked.

Richie rubbed at his jaw. "Think of something else. I have a feeling if we don't go to him, he will come to us again."

"We don't want that. So we need to try to get your plan going as soon as we can."

Richie nodded. "I still want to wait a day to see what our friend does next. But I have a feeling that you're right."

Tina looked towards the window again, and shook her head. "He doesn't seem as scary in his underwear." She stuck her tongue out at the window and blew a rude noise, and everyone laughed.

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

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

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

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

"I don't know." Richie gave out a little sigh. "This is a complete change from his previous tactics. It's almost more like something a person would do, than a zombie. He's clearly challenging us, I'm just still not sure why. I think we have to wait and see what comes next." He looked over at his boyfriend. "You think I'm doing the right thing, waiting on the mannequins?"

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

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

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

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

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