Rot and ruin, p.2
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       Rot and Ruin, p.2

         Part #1 of Benny Imura series by Jonathan Maberry
 
Page 2

 

  Benny looked right into the creature’s eyes, but all he saw were dust and emptiness. No reflections of any kind. No hunger or hate or malice either. There was nothing. A doll’s eyes had more life.

  He felt something twist inside of him. The dead mail carrier was not as scary as he had expected. He was just there. Benny tried to get a read on him, to connect with whatever it was that drove the monster, but it was like looking into empty holes. Nothing looked back.

  Then the zom lunged at him and tried to bite its way through the chain links. The movement was so sudden that it felt much faster than it actually was. There was no tension, no twitch of facial muscles, none of the signs Benny had been taught to look for in opponents in basketball or wrestling. The zom moved without hesitation or warning.

  Benny yelped and backpedaled away from the fence. Then he stepped in a steaming pile of horse crap and fell hard on his butt.

  All of the guards burst out laughing.

  Benny and Chong quit at lunch.

  The next morning Benny and Chong went to the far side of town and applied as fence technicians.

  The fence ran for hundreds of miles and encircled the town and its harvested fields, so this meant a lot of walking while carrying yet another grumpy old guy’s toolbox. In the first three hours they got chased by a zom who had squeezed through a break in the fence.

  “Why don’t they just shoot all the zoms who come up to the fence?” Benny asked their supervisor.

  “’Cause folks would get upset,” said the man, a scruffy-looking guy with bushy eyebrows and a tic at the corner of his mouth. “Some of them zoms are relatives of folks in town, and those folks have rights regarding their kin. Been all sorts of trouble about it, so we keep the fence in good shape, and every once in a while one of the townsfolk will suck up enough intestinal fortitude to grant permission for the fence guards to do what’s necessary. ”

  “That’s stupid,” said Benny.

  “That’s people,” said the supervisor.

  That afternoon Benny and Chong walked what they were sure were a million miles, had been peed on by a horse, stalked by a horde of zoms—Benny couldn’t see anything at all in their dusty eyes—and yelled at by nearly everyone.

  At the end of the day, as they shambled home on aching feet, Chong said, “That was about as much fun as getting beaten up. ” He thought about it for a moment. “No … getting beaten up is more fun. ”

  Benny didn’t have the energy to argue.

  There was only one opening for the next job—“carpet coat salesman”—which was okay because Chong wanted to stay home and rest his feet. Chong hated walking. So Benny showed up, neatly dressed in his best jeans and a clean T-shirt, and with his hair as combed as it would ever get without glue.

  There wasn’t much danger in selling carpet coats, but Benny wasn’t slick enough to get the patter down. Benny was surprised they’d be hard to sell, because everybody had a carpet coat or two. Best thing in the world to have on if some zoms were around and feeling bitey. What he discovered, though, was that everyone who could thread a needle was selling them, so the competition was fierce, and sales were few and far between. The door-to-door guys worked on straight commission, too.

  The lead salesman, a greasy joker named Chick, would have Benny wear a long-sleeved carpet coat—low knap for summer, shag for winter—and then use a device on him that was supposed to simulate the full-strength bite of an adult male zom. This metal “biter” couldn’t break the skin through the coat—and here Chick rolled into his spiel about human bite strength, throwing around terms like PSI, avulsion, and postdecay dental-ligament strength—but it pinched really hard, and the coat was so hot, the sweat ran down under Benny’s clothes. When he went home that night, he weighed himself to see how many pounds he’d sweated off. Just one, but Benny didn’t have a lot of pounds to spare.

  “This one looks good,” said Chong over breakfast the next morning.

  Benny read out loud from the paper. “‘Pit Thrower. ’ What’s that?”

  “I don’t know,” Chong said with a mouth full of toast. “I think it has something to do with barbecuing. ”

  It didn’t. Pit throwers worked in teams, dragging dead zoms off the backs of carts and tossing them into the constant blaze at the bottom of Brinkers Quarry. Most of the zoms on the carts were in pieces. The woman who ran orientation kept talking about “parts,” and went on and on about the risk of secondary infection; then she pasted on the fakest smile Benny had ever seen and tried to sell the applicants on the physical fitness benefits that came from constant lifting, turning, and throwing. She even pulled up her sleeve and flexed her biceps. She had pale skin with freckles as dark as liver spots, and the sudden pop of her biceps looked like a swollen tumor.

  Chong faked vomiting into his lunch bag.

  The other jobs offered by the quarry included ash soaker—“because we don’t want zom smoke drifting over the town, now, do we?” asked the freckly muscle freak. And pit raker, which was exactly what it sounded like.

  Benny and Chong didn’t make it through orientation. They snuck out during the slide show of smiling pit throwers handling gray limbs and heads.

  One job that was neither disgusting nor physically demanding was crank generator repairman. Ever since the lights went out in the weeks following First Night, the only source of electrical power was hand-cranked portable generators. There were maybe fifty in all of Mountainside, and Chong said that they were left over from the mining days of the early twentieth century. Town ordinance forbade the building of any other kind of generator. Electronics and complex machines were no longer allowed in town, because of a strong religious movement that associated that kind of power with the “Godless behavior” that had brought about “the end. ” Benny heard about it all the time, and even some of his friends’ parents talked that way.

  It made no sense to Benny. It wasn’t electric lights and computers and automobiles that had made the dead rise. Or, if it was, then Benny had never heard anyone make a logical or sane connection between the two. When he asked Tom about it, his brother looked pained and frustrated. “People need something to blame,” Tom said. “If they can’t find something rational to blame, then they’ll very happily blame something irrational. Back when people didn’t know about viruses and bacteria, they blamed plagues on witches and vampires. But don’t ask me how exactly the people in town came to equate electricity and other forms of energy with the living dead. ”

  “That doesn’t make even a little bit of sense. ”

  “I know. But what I think is the real reason is that if we start using electricity again, and building back up again, then things will kind of go back the way they were. And that this whole cycle will start over again. I guess to their way of thinking—if they even consciously thought about it—it would be like a person with a badly broken heart deciding to risk falling in love again. All they can remember is how bad the heartbreak and grief felt, and they can’t imagine going through that again. ”

  “That’s stupid, though,” Benny insisted. “It’s cowardly. ”

  “Welcome to the real world, kiddo. ”

  The town’s only professional electrician, Vic Santorini, had long since taken to drinking his way through the rest of his life.

  When Benny and Chong showed up for the interview at the house of the guy who owned the repair shop, he sat them down in the shade of an airy porch and gave them glasses of iced tea and mint cookies. Benny was thinking that he would take this job no matter what it was.

  “Do you know why we only use hand-cranked generators in town, boys?” the man asked. His name was Mr. Merkle.

  “Sure,” said Chong. “The army dropped nukes on the zoms, and the EMPs blew out all of the electronics. ”

  “Plus Mr. Santorini’s always sauced,” said Benny. He was about to add something biting about the bizarre religious intolerance to electricity when Mr. Merkl
e’s face creased into a weird smile. Benny shut his mouth.

  Mr. Merkle smiled at them for a long time. A full minute. Then the man shook his head. “No, that’s not quite right, boys,” Merkle said. “It’s because hand-cranked machines are simple, and those other machines are ostentatious. ” He pronounced each syllable as if it was a separate word.

  Benny and Chong glanced at each other.

  “You see, boys,” said Mr. Merkle, “God loves simplicity. It’s the devil who loves ostentation. It’s the devil who loves arrogance and grandiosity. ”

  Uh-oh, Benny thought.

  “Mr. Santorini spent the first part of his life installing electrical appliances into people’s homes,” said Mr. Merkle. “That was the devil’s work, and now he’s sought the oblivion of demon rum to try and hide from the fact that he’s facing a long time in hell for helping to incur the wrath of the Almighty. If it wasn’t for Godless men like him, the Almighty would not have opened the gates of hell and sent the legions of the damned to overthrow the vain kingdoms of mankind. ”

  Out of the corner of his eye, Benny could see Chong’s fingers turning bone white as he gripped the arms of his chair.

  “I can see a little doubt in your eyes, boys, and that’s fair enough,” said Merkle, his mouth twisted into a smile that was so tight, it looked painful. “But there are a lot of people who have embraced the righteous path. There are more of us who believe than don’t. ” He sniffed. “Even if all of them don’t yet have the courage of their faith to say so. ”

  He leaned forward, and Benny could almost feel the heat from the man’s intense stare.

  “The school, the hospital—even the town hall—run on electricity from hand-cranked generators, and as long as right-minded people draw breath under God’s own heaven, there won’t be any ostentatious machinery in our town. ”

  There was a whole pitcher of iced tea on the table, as well as quite a pile of cookies, and Benny realized that Mr. Merkle probably had a lot to say on the subject and wanted his audience comfortable for the whole ride. Benny endured it for as long as he could and then asked if he could use the bathroom. Mr. Merkle, who had now shifted from simple electricity to the soul-crushing blasphemy that was hydroelectric power, was only mildly thrown off his game, and told Benny where to go inside the house. Benny went inside and all the way through and out the back door. He waved to Chong as he vaulted the wooden fence.

  Two hours later Chong caught up with him outside of Lafferty’s, the local general store. He gave Benny a long and evil look.

  “You’re such a good friend, Benny, I’ll really miss you when you’re dead. ”

  “Dude, I gave you an out. When I didn’t come back, didn’t he go looking for me?”

  “No. He saw you go over the fence, but he kept smiling that smile of his and said, ‘Your little friend is going to burn in hell, do you know that? But you wouldn’t spit in God’s eye like that, would you?’”

  “And you stayed?”

  “What could I do? I was afraid he’d point at me and say ‘Him!,’ and then lightning bolts would hit me or something. ”

  “Scratch that job off the list?”

  “You think?”

  Spotter was the next job, and that proved to be a good choice, but only for one of them. Benny’s eyesight was too poor to spot zoms at the right distance. Chong was like an eagle, and they offered him a job as soon as he finished reading the smallest numbers off a chart. Benny couldn’t even tell they were numbers.

  Chong took the job, and Benny walked away alone, throwing dispirited looks back at his friend sitting next to his trainer in a high tower.

  Later, Chong told Benny that he loved the job. He sat there all day, staring out over the valleys, into the Rot and Ruin that stretched from California, all the way to the Atlantic. Chong said that he could see twenty miles on a clear day, especially if there were no winds coming his way from the quarry. Just him up there, alone with his thoughts. Benny missed his friend, but privately he thought that the job sounded more boring than words could express.

  Benny liked the sound of bottler, because he figured it for a factory job of filling soda bottles. Benny loved soda, but it was sometimes hard to come by. Some pop was old stuff brought in by traders, but that was too expensive. A bottle of Dr Pepper cost ten ration dollars. The local stuff came in all sorts of recycled bottles—from jelly jars to bottles that had actually once been filled with Coke or Mountain Dew. Benny could see himself manning the hand-cranked generator that ran the conveyor belt or tapping corks into the bottlenecks with a rubber mallet. He was positive they would let him drink all the soda he wanted. But as he walked up the road, he met an older teenager—his pal Morgie Mitchell’s cousin Bert—who worked at the plant. When Benny fell into step with Bert, he almost gagged. Bert smelled awful, like something found dead behind the baseboards. Worse. He smelled like a zom.

  Bert caught his look and shrugged. “Well … what do you expect me to smell like? I bottle this stuff eight hours a day. ”

  “What stuff?”

  “Cadaverine. What, you think I work making soda pop? I wish! Nah, I work a press to get the oils from the rotting meat. ”

  Benny’s heart sank. Cadaverine was a nasty-smelling molecule produced by protein hydrolysis during putrefaction of animal tissue. Benny remembered that from science class, but he didn’t know that it was made from actual rotting flesh. Hunters and trackers dabbed it on their clothes to keep the zoms from coming after them, because the dead were not attracted to rotting flesh.

  Benny asked Bert what kind of flesh was used to produce the product, but Bert hemmed and hawed and finally changed the subject. Just as Bert was reaching for the door to the plant, Benny spun around and walked back to town.
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