Rot and ruin, p.18
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       Rot and Ruin, p.18

         Part #1 of Benny Imura series by Jonathan Maberry
 
Page 18

 

  “Quiz time,” said Tom.

  “Do we have to?”

  “No. You can quit and go shovel body parts into the pit. I’m easy. ”

  Benny didn’t voice the word that rose to his lips.

  “Define ‘kenjutsu. ’”

  “It’s Japanese for ‘sword methods’ or ‘the way of the sword,’” Benny said in as bored a tone as he could manage. Tom darted forward a half step in a quick fake, and Benny stepped backward.

  “What does ‘samurai’ mean?”

  “‘To serve,’” said Benny. This time he tried the same fake, but instead of retreating, Tom stepped in, parried his blade, and tapped him on the shoulder.

  “Blood is now pouring out of a hole where your arm used to be. ”

  “Yeah, yeah, and when I come back as a zom, I’m going to eat your brains. ”

  Tom laughed and swung another cut, but Benny blocked it, and Benny blocked the next dozen attacks.

  “You’re taking it easy on me,” Benny said.

  “You have to work up to full speed. ”

  “I can handle it. ”

  “No, you can’t. ”

  “Yes, I can. ”

  “No, you—Oh, hell. ” Tom moved forward and to one side, and just like that moment back in Harold Simmons’s house, Benny saw his brother’s body blur as Tom moved with incredible speed. His sword seemed to vanish, but then there was a loud TOK!, and Benny’s bokken was flying out of his hands and the world was tilting. Somehow the grass was under his back, and Tom was kneeling on him with his sword pressed into the soft flesh beneath Benny’s Adam’s apple.

  “Okay,” Benny croaked. “Fair enough. I’m not ready. Get off my nads. ”

  Tom raised his knee. “Sorry. Meant to pin your hip. ”

  “You missed,” Benny said in a tiny voice. “Ow. ”

  “Really,” Tom said. “Sorry. ”

  He stepped away and let Benny climb to his feet.

  “That was cool!”

  Benny turned to see Morgie, Chong, and Nix grinning at him from the other side of the garden gate.

  “Hit him again,” said Morgie.

  “Yeah,” agreed Nix. She didn’t smile as broadly as Morgie, and there was an edge to her voice.

  “Kneel on his nuts some more,” suggested Chong. “I don’t think that’s ever going to get old. ”

  Benny wheeled on Tom. “Why are they here?”

  “Suffering is easier to endure when shared,” said Chong as he lifted the gate latch.

  “What?”

  “They’re here for lessons,” said Tom. “I invited them. ”

  “Why? And remember that you can’t defend yourself if I smother you in your sleep. ”

  “Actually, I can. And I lock my bedroom door,” Tom said over his shoulder as he knelt down by the ancient black canvas bag in which he kept his equipment. He removed three battered but serviceable bokken. “I figured you’d learn better in a class setting. You know … with your friends. ”

  Benny looked at his friends. Nix was staring acid death at him. Morgie had his hands cupped around his groin, pretending to scream in pain. Chong smiled thinly at him and drew a finger slowly across his throat.

  “‘Friends’?” Benny echoed.

  Three hours later the four of them stood on trembling legs. Sweat poured down their bodies. Their clothes were pasted to them, their hair hung in rat tails on their foreheads and the backs of their necks. Morgie could barely lift his wooden sword. Chong’s face had lost its smile a while back. Benny was wondering if it was okay to wish for a coronary. Only Nix looked relatively alert. She was as flushed and sweaty as the others, but her hands didn’t tremble as she raised her sword for the last drill.

  Tom looked like he just got up from a long nap in a hammock under a shady tree.

  “Okay,” Tom said. “Pair up. We’ll run through the same attack and defense we just did, but let’s see if we can take it up a notch. Don’t really try to hit one another, but make the attacks as real as you can safely manage. ”

  Morgie pushed Chong out of the line, and they settled into stances. Chong was only slightly better than Morgie. He was faster, but Morgie was light on his feet for a stocky kid; he was at least twice as strong as Chong.

  That left Nix and Benny as partners. Benny had avoided this all afternoon, but Nix seemed to find the pair-up faintly amusing. They squared off, raising their swords in the ritual salute and settling into their stances.

  Tom called, “Hajime!” (Japanese for “Begin!”), and Benny lunged forward to deliver his attack. Nix slapped his sword aside and rapped him hard on the head. Benny saw stars.

  “No,” said Tom. “We’re trying not to make contact. ”

  “Oh,” said Nix distractedly. “Right. ”

  22

  NIX AND BENNY SWUNG AND BLOCKED, STABBED AND EVADED AS THE afternoon sun baked their skin and boiled the sweat from their pores. When Tom finally found a sliver of compassion and ended the session, they dropped where they stood. Morgie lay like a beached starfish, arms and legs spread wide, mouth open. Chong crawled under the picnic table, curled into a fetal position, and appeared to pass out. Benny limped to the oak tree whose thick trunk anchored the whole yard, slid down with a thump, kicked off his shoes, and gasped like a trout.

  “Here,” Nix said, and Benny pried one eye open to see her standing there with two tall glasses of cold water. She held one out to him.

  Benny hesitated.

  “It’s not poisoned,” she said, “and I didn’t spit in it. ”

  “Thanks. ” He took the glass and drank half of it, then looked up again. Nix was still standing there. “Have a seat. ”

  “You sure?”

  “Yeah. Sit down before you fall down. ”

  She lowered herself to the grass and sat cross-legged in the shade. Tom was in the house. The yard was still. Even the birds in the trees were too overheated to sing. There was a faint rumble of thunder way off to the west, but if there was a storm coming, then the clouds were still on the far side of the mountains.

  They drank their water. Benny waved a fly away. The moment stretched.

  “I’m sorry,” they both said at the same time. They blinked at each other, and they almost smiled.

  “You first. ” Again, both of them said it at the same moment.

  Nix held up a hand. “Me first,” she said, but then she took a few seconds to get the words out. “Look … I’m sorry for being such a girl. ”

  “No—”

  “Let me get it out,” she interrupted, “or I won’t be able to say it. ”

  “But—”

  “Please. ”

  Benny gave in, nodded. Nix flicked a glance across the yard to where Morgie lay, apparently dead.

  But when she spoke she didn’t say what Benny expected. “Morgie told me about the card you found. The Lost Girl. He said that the second you looked at it, there were little red hearts floating in the air around your head. ”

  “Morgie’s an idiot. ” He said it as a joke, but in truth he wanted to go over and beat Morgie to death for opening his big, dumb mouth. Especially since the Lost Girl card was lying under his pillow at the moment, and he’d planned to leave it there when he went to bed tonight. His face was wet hot. He hoped she would think that it was still the postexercise flush, but he knew she was way too smart for that.

  “Maybe,” she said, “but is he wrong?”

  “How could anyone fall in love with someone on a Zombie Card?” he said with a laugh, but he was at least a full second late in getting the answer out, and he knew it.

  “So … you’re not in love?” she said offhand, but Benny was already waiting for a snare, and he knew that this was it. That question had as much to do with Zombie Cards as their school textbooks on American history had to do with the world in which they lived. That question was a twisted path filled with thorns and bear
traps, and he knew it.

  Benny knew that he wasn’t the smartest of his friends, and when it came to perception he wasn’t usually the sharpest knife in the drawer. But he was a long way from stupid. He knew what was happening, and he knew that allowing it to go down that path would only do harm. Nix wanted him to say something about emotions, about love. She wanted him to open a door that would lead to a conversation that would really do neither of them any good. It was too soon to talk about why he hadn’t taken her hand; too soon to talk about what he really felt about her or if he felt anything at all. He didn’t know the answers to those questions himself, and he was afraid of what his mouth would say.

  So, he turned to her and instead of saying anything, he simply looked at her. And let her look at him.

  Heat lightning forked the sky above them.

  “What?” she snapped, and then she heard the shrill sound of her own voice and the need threaded through it. Benny could see the awareness blossom in her eyes, and it was a shared experience, because she knew that he saw it. It was a sobering moment, and in a bizarre way Benny felt like it aged him. Matured him. Just a bit. Nix too; he was certain of it. Her green eyes lost some of their force, and her mouth softened for a second, as if her lips were going to tremble, and then her jaw tightened as she clamped her self-control into place. In an odd, distracted way Benny admired that. He loved that about her.

  They sat there for a long time, their eyes shifting away and coming back, their mouths wanting to speak but uncertain what language was spoken in this strange new country.

  “I—,” he began, but again she cut him off.

  “So help me God, Benny, if you say ‘I’m sorry,’ I’ll kill you. ”

  She meant it. Even her freckles seemed to glow with dangerous heat. But at the end of her anger, there was the whisper of a smile that lifted the corners of her lips. Benny wished right then that things were different for them, that they had been given the chance to meet at this age rather than growing up together. It would make so many things easier.

  He cleared his throat. “So … where does that leave us, Nix?”

  “Where do you want it to leave us?”

  “I want us to be friends. Always. ”

  “And are we friends?”

  “You’re one of my best friends. You and Chong—you’re my family. ”

  “Me and Chong? What about Morgie?”

  Benny shrugged. “He’s the family dog. ”

  Morgie raised his head at the sound of laughter. On the other side of the yard, in the shade of the big oak, Benny and Nix were howling with laughter.

  “What the hell’s so funny?” he asked irritably.

  Chong peered weakly out from under the picnic table. He saw the two of them laughing together, but he also saw that they were sitting apart. He sighed.

  “I don’t like it,” growled Morgie. “That monkeybanger’s making a play for Nix. ”

  “Morgie,” Chong said.

  “What?”

  “Shut up. ”

  But Morgie was persistent. “What? You’re saying I don’t have anything to worry about?”

  Chong considered. “Knowing you, your personal habits, your general hygiene, and your raw intelligence, I think you have a lot to worry about. ”

  “Hey!”

  Chong grunted and closed his eyes.

  Thunder rumbled again in the west.

  After a while Nix took her journal out of her satchel, used a pocket knife to sharpen her pencil, and began writing. Benny watched her while pretending not to. He was particularly interested in the way her sweaty T-shirt molded to her when she stretched to grab the bag. And the way the sunlight brought out gold flecks in her green eyes. He banged his head against the rough bark of the tree. Twice. Hard.

  What the hell is wrong with me? he wondered, and not for the first time.

  Nix either didn’t notice him watching or—even at fourteen and three-quarters—was too practiced at being a young woman to allow anything to show on her face. She bent over the book and wrote for nearly twenty minutes, only pausing long enough to whittle a new point at the end of each full page.

  When she stopped again to reach for the knife, Benny said, “Why do you write in that thing?”

  “I’m writing a book,” she said, deftly shaving off a fleck of wood.

  “About what? Love and bunnies? Do I get eaten by your attack bunnies?”

  “Don’t tempt me. No, it’s not a novel. It’s nonfiction. ” She blew on the sharpened pencil point. “About zombies. ”

  Benny laughed. “What, you want to kill zoms? I thought you guys were doing this sword stuff for fun. ”

  “I don’t particularly want to kill zoms,” she said. “But I do want to understand them. ”

  “What’s to understand?” Benny said, though even as he said it he knew it was a stupid thing to say. The real truth was, things had now changed between him and Nix, and he didn’t know the territory. It had a new feel to it, a new language, and he felt immensely awkward. He tried it again. “I mean … why?”

  Instead of answering directly, Nix said, “Do you want to live in Mountainside your whole life?”

  “Got to live somewhere,” he began, but he saw disappointment blossom in her eyes. Nix shook her head and bent over her book, pencil poised to pick up the thread of her argument. Before she’d finished half a paragraph, a ragged line of seagulls flew overhead, their stomachs as white as snow, their wings tipped with black. Nix nodded toward them. “They probably sleep on the coast, right by the ocean. According to the maps we’re less than two hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, but I’ve never seen it. No one our age has. The way things are going, no one will. It might as well be on another world. ”
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