Rot and ruin, p.33
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       Rot and Ruin, p.33

         Part #1 of Benny Imura series by Jonathan Maberry
 
Page 33

 

  Pain was sewn through the fabric of his heart and stitched deep into his sides as they ran and ran and ran.

  38

  BENNY HAD NO IDEA HOW LONG THEY RAN. A MILE, MAYBE TWO. His legs felt like lead and his chest burned, but he held onto Nix’s hand on every jump and never once let her fall. With every step, his heart lifted with the knowledge that Nix was alive and safe. And then it fell as he thought of Tom.

  “Look!” Nix said, pulling him to a stop on the roof of a Chevy Suburban. She pointed to a path that wound like a snake and vanished into the tall grass. “It’s empty. ”

  She was right. The last of the zoms were hundreds of yards behind them. In their panic they’d far outrun the immediate threat.

  “What about Charlie?” Benny stood on his toes and looked back the way they’d come, but the bounty hunters were nowhere to be seen.

  “I don’t know,” she said. “But let’s get off these cars. ”

  They jumped down to the ground and froze there for a moment, checking forward and backward for any sign of movement or for zombies standing still, whose appetites would be triggered by their own movement. They saw nothing but empty cars, carrion birds, the waving grass, and the bones of a thousand dead people.

  Benny dragged a forearm across his eyes, although he didn’t know if he was wiping away sweat or tears.

  “Let’s go,” he whispered. “Move slowly. Follow me, do what I do, move when I move, stop when I stop. ”

  They were Tom’s words on his lips, and it hurt him to say them, but he knew that he had to draw on everything his brother had showed him if he and Nix were going to survive.

  Together, still holding hands, they moved slowly from the shelter of the endless line of cars. Benny waited for the wind to stir the grass and tall stalks of wild wheat, and when they bent to the left, he moved that way. When the wind stopped, so did he. When the grasses stood back up again, he moved to the right. Stop and start, taking his time. Doing it right. It took them five minutes to move from the highway to the path and then they were inside the tall grass. The shadows of early twilight cast the trail in shades of purple, and in that velvet gloom Benny and Nix vanished entirely.

  They lost track of how long or how far they ran. Benny took every upward sloping road, remembering what Tom said about there being fewer zombies in the high mountain passes. They passed burned-out houses and houses where zombies stood in the yard, but when Nix and Benny saw them, they slipped into the deepest foliage and moved without a sound. Terror made them cautious, and with each encounter, they refined the skills of not being seen and not being hunted.

  By the time the last of the day’s light was melting into shadows, Benny realized that it had been more than an hour since the last time they’d see a zom.

  “How did you get away from them?” he asked Nix.

  “I kicked one of the other bounty hunters in the groin and ran. ”

  Benny grinned at her. “You are one tough chick. ”

  “Call me a chick again and I’ll show you how tough I am. ” It was meant as a joke, but it was weak. Even so, Benny gave her a big grin, and they headed higher up the mountain slope.

  Then Nix grabbed his arm and pointed to something. Benny looked up. Just ahead was a building on stilts that rose a hundred feet above a steep rocky slope. Sunlight still touched its eaves. They raced to the foot of the ladder.

  “Can you climb?” he asked. Nix didn’t have the breath to answer, but she nodded and they grabbed the rusted rungs and began to ascend. After the long uphill run it was torture to scale the ladder. Their muscles burned and their limbs trembled, but they never stopped, never faltered.

  The ladder rose to a narrow catwalk that surrounded the boxy wooden structure of the ranger outpost. The catwalk was red with rust and littered with old birds nests and animal droppings. The windows were white with dust and grime, and Benny couldn’t see in. He pulled his bokken out of his belt,

  “Stay here,” he told Nix, and she crouched down at the top of the ladder. She had no weapon, and Benny thought that her eyes looked terrified and maybe a little crazy. He couldn’t blame her. How could she not be whacked out after everything she’d been through?

  With the bokken poised to thrust or strike, he moved slowly and quietly along the catwalk. Darkness was closing its hands around them, and the last golden touch of sunlight was melting from the peaked roof of the tower. The walls and windows were pitted from weather, and none of it looked safe, and here and there were smudges that might have been old mud. Or it might have been something else.

  At the corner he paused and looked around the edge, but the catwalk was empty and the door to the station stood ajar.

  Was that a good thing or a bad thing? He didn’t know.

  He crept forward, breathing shallowly, sweat running down his hot face.

  Three soft steps took him to the door, and he paused, drew a breath, and then kicked the door open. The ancient hinges squealed, as if they were in pain, and the door swung inward and stopped, jammed against something soft that crunched like leaves. Benny waited for an attack, for movement. Saw nothing.

  He moved inside and looked quickly around … and then lowered his sword.

  Except for leaves and branches from some creature that had long ago made a nest in the corner behind the door, and a few rotting sticks of furniture, the place was empty. There was a door set in the back wall with a sign marked RESTROOM, and Benny moved to it and gingerly opened it. The light was so bad that he couldn’t see a thing, so he took a match from his pocket and scraped the sulfur on the doorframe. In the sudden glow, Benny saw that the tiny cubicle held only a toilet and sink, but the water had long ago evaporated, and the corners were filled with trash and rags.

  Benny froze. He held the flickering match out to take a second, longer look at the pile of rags. It was crammed into the corner between the wall and the toilet. Leaves and other debris covered it, and the chitinous carcasses of dead bugs were littered around.

  The match flame gleamed dully from the barrel of a pistol that lay on the floor in a tangle of old twigs.

  No … not twigs. Bones.

  He set his sword down and used his thumb and fore-finger to lift a bit of the fabric, and as he did, he understood what this was. The rags were the remnants of clothes—a brown uniform trimmed with gold cord. An old flat-brimmed hat lay under the remains. A tarnished badge was pinned to the crown. Benny had never met one, but he’d seen pictures of forest rangers in books. This was the ranger. Had he been bitten and crawled in here to die? No … that made no sense. He’d have turned. Then Benny considered the pistol, and he understood. The man had been bitten, and he’d come in here to do what was necessary to keep himself from becoming a monster. Even though Benny knew this sort of thing had probably happened hundreds of thousands of times around the world, seeing it here, firsthand, made it almost unbearably sad.

  Benny’s match was burning down, but he had enough light left to poke among the rags and find the ranger’s name tag.

  M. Horwitz.

  “I’m sorry,” Benny said.

  Was this the same ranger station where Tom and Mr. Sacchetto had come with their telescope? If so, there was no sign of it, and Benny guessed there were probably several similar towers scattered throughout the mountains.

  He straightened and stepped out of the bathroom and then hurried through the station and around the corner to where Nix still crouched. Despite the heat she was shivering, and Benny felt a knife of panic stab him. He’d learned about shock in the Scouts, and he knew it could be as dangerous as a bullet.

  “Come on,” he said, holding out his hands. Nix hesitated for a moment, her eyes unfocused, as if she didn’t quite recognize him. She reached for him, and he pulled her against his chest. Nix wrapped strong arms around him and clung to him, and after only a sliver of a second, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and back, and squeezed her wi
th all his strength.

  Together, still holding onto each other and moving in an awkward ballet, they stumbled back to the door and shambled inside. Benny kicked the door closed and leaned back against it, sliding down to the floor, taking Nix with him.

  She whispered a single, heartbroken and heartbreaking word.

  “Mom!”

  Benny clutched her to him, sharing his heat with her.

  “I know,” he said. It was all he had to say, all she needed to hear. That he knew, that he understood, was as necessary to her as it was terrible, and she disintegrated into tears that burned against his face and throat. Benny held her, and his grief for her, for her mother, for Mr. Sacchetto … and for Tom was a vast and unbearable ache that filled every inch of him.

  They held each other and wept as the night closed its fist around their tiny shelter, and the world below them seethed with killers both living and dead.

  39

  BENNY OPENED HIS EYES AND REALIZED THAT HE’D BEEN ASLEEP … AND that he was alone. The ranger station was in absolute darkness. Benny tensed, reaching for his sword, but his fingers found nothing. He remembered then that he’d left the bokken in the bathroom.

  “Nix … ?” he whispered.

  Nothing.

  Very slowly he shifted onto his knees and then climbed to his feet, staying low, listening for some sound. His shirt collar was still damp from her tears, so he knew he couldn’t have been asleep for long. Half an hour maybe?

  He went outside. Nix was at the corner of the rail, her arms crossed tightly over her chest, her hair blowing in the breeze. There was a sliver of moon and a splash of stars, and the light outlined her face and glistened on the tears that ran like mercury down her cheeks. He stood next to her, leaning his arms on the rail and looking out at the vastness of the sky. The starlight glimmered on the canopy of leaves, and the ocean of trees seemed to stretch away forever.

  “Have you heard anything?” he whispered as they sat down on the edge of the catwalk, their feet hanging over into the lake of darkness.

  “No. ”

  “Good. I think we’re safe,” he said, then added lamely, “Up here, I mean. ”

  She nodded. A mockingbird sang its schizophrenic melodies from a nearby tree.

  Benny said, “When there’s light we’ll have to try and find our way back to town. ”

  Nix just shook her head, and the denial had so many possible meanings that Benny left his questions unasked.

  “Morgie,” she said. “Is he … ?”

  “No, he’s okay. Or will be. They hit him pretty hard in the head, but they say he’s going to make it. ”

  Benny saw Nix steeling herself for the next question, and he was pretty sure he knew what it was going to be.

  “My mom,” she began, and he quietly curled his fingers around the lip of the catwalk’s metal floor. “They said that she was … They said that she’d …” Nix stopped and shook her head, trying it another way. “They wanted to leave a present for Tom. That’s what they called it. A ‘present. ’”

  “It wasn’t like that,” Benny said. “We got there pretty quick. Your mom was still … your mom. Tom held her all the way up to the last, and she held onto him. It was … I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it. But then she was … gone. It didn’t look like she was in pain when it happened. She just went to sleep. ”

  “Sleep,” Nix said in a soft echo. “And … after? Did she … I mean, did they let her … God, Benny, don’t make me say it!”

  “No,” he soothed. “No. She never returned. There wasn’t time. Tom did what was necessary. ”

  “Tom?”

  “Yes. With a sliver. He did it fast and quick. She never knew. And he held her afterward. ”

  Nix made no comment, but he could feel her pain. She sat and stared into the darkness of her own thoughts as the wheel of night turned above them.

  “Why did they come after you, Nix?”

  She turned to him in the dark. “It was because of that card. The Zombie Card with the girl on it. ”

  “I don’t get it. ”

  “Zak Matthias got one too. I ran into him yesterday. He was on his way home from the store with his Zombie Cards, and I asked to see them. He was kind of weird about it, but he showed them to me. When I saw the card for the Lost Girl, I told him that I’d seen that picture before. He seemed really interested and asked where, and I told him that my mom was friends with Mr. Sacchetto, the erosion artist. He came over to the house with Tom a few times, and they talked about the Lost Girl. ”

  “You never told me about that. ”

  She shrugged. “Why would I? It didn’t seem to involve us. Just my mom and her friends talking. But when I told Zak, he kept asking me about it. What did my mom know about the Lost Girl? What had Tom and Mr. Sacchetto told her? Did I know where the Lost Girl was?” A tear rolled down her face, and she brushed it away. “I thought he was just interested because of the picture. The girl’s so pretty, you know? Like something out of a book. A faerie princess or something like that. Zak was smiling the whole time and … I don’t know … He’s good-looking, and he was being nice to me and …”

  “And I’d blown you off?”

  Nix shot him a sharp look, but her face softened and she looked away. “I don’t know. Maybe. ”

  “What did you tell him?”

  She was a long time answering, and twice her face screwed up as she fought to control the pain in her soul. “I … I told him everything I knew. It wasn’t a lot. I didn’t really pay much attention when Mom and the others were talking about her. I told Zak that Mom knew a lot about her. ” She shook her head in confusion. “I don’t know, Benny. Zak was being so nice. … I don’t know what I said. ”
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