Rot and ruin, p.40
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       Rot and Ruin, p.40

         Part #1 of Benny Imura series by Jonathan Maberry
 
Page 40

 

  She shook her head. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine that right now. ”

  He had no comeback to that. Her argument was too strong, and his was based only on wishful thinking and a threadbare piece of optimism.

  They sat together and listened to the forest.

  “Benny?” Nix asked quietly after a while.

  “Yeah?”

  “Last night … when you kissed me … ?”

  His throat went instantly dry. “Yeah?”

  “Why did you do it? I mean, was it because I was so upset and you didn’t know how else to help me? Or was it because you really wanted to?”

  “I—”

  “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. ”

  He took a breath. “I kissed you because I wanted to,” he said.

  She nodded. “Last night, when you thought I was sleeping … I saw you looking at her card. ”

  Benny plucked a stem of grass and ran it slowly between his fingers. It felt like cool silk. “Did you?” he asked.

  “I saw you throw it away, too. ”

  “Did you?” he asked again softly.

  “Yes, Benny … I did. ”

  She didn’t say anything else, didn’t speak another word for a long time. She leaned her head on his shoulder, and they sat there and waited for the day to burn away.

  49

  BY LATE AFTERNOON THE SUN WAS COMPLETELY COVERED BY A SHEET OF thick gray clouds. The temperature fell, but the humidity thickened the air to a hot soup. Benny drowsed against the trunk of one of the pines, and in his dreams he heard a sound that was like the roar of Lilah’s waterfall. The sound started small and far away, and Benny’s dreaming mind made it be the noise of the waterfall, which was a perfect backdrop for his dream of running through the woods, being chased by Charlie and the Hammer, both of who were now zoms but who also somehow managed to keep their personalities. They yelled to him in mocking voices, calling him “Little Benny” and promising to do terrible things to him. In his dream Benny ran as fast as the wind, and somehow the surrounding landscape barely moved, as if he was almost running in place. The zombie bounty hunters shuffled along behind him, almost close enough to grab him.

  The roaring sound grew steadily louder, and Benny thought that maybe he was making some distance, that he was nearing the waterfall, but when he looked around, all he saw was the plateau on which the bounty hunters had their camp. Something brushed him, and he turned to see that Nix was running next to him. She was screaming, but Benny could not hear her voice. The roar of the waterfall kept getting louder and louder. And it was deeper in tone now, more of a loud drone than the splash of water.

  “Benny!” Nix called his name, but it didn’t match the shape her mouth made.

  The roar was huge.

  “BENNY!”

  With a start, Benny realized that Nix’s voice was not coming from the girl running beside him, and just as quickly he understood that he was dreaming and that the real-world Nix was yelling at him. He snapped his eyes open. The camp and the zombies vanished. The roar, however, was still there. Deep and loud, and getting louder.

  “Benny!” Nix yelled.

  “What … what is it?”

  “You have to come and look!”

  Nix grabbed his hands and fairly hauled him to his feet and then pulled him out from under the shelter of the trees. Not toward the promontory that looked down on the camp. Instead, she pulled him toward the trail that led back into the woods. She was running, and her grip was so tight and insistent that Benny ran too.

  “What is it? What’s that sound?”

  “You have to come see!”

  They raced along the path to a clearing, and there, Nix stopped and pointed. She need not have bothered, because Benny saw it. His eyes bugged wide, and his mouth fell open as he stared up at the roaring thing.

  It was silver and white, with vast wings that lifted it high above the mountains. Benny raised his hand, as if he could touch it. The thing appeared to move slowly, but that was an illusion. It was just so far away. Higher than the tallest of the surrounding mountains, skimming just below the ceiling of gray storm clouds. In another hour there wouldn’t have been enough light to see it. If the storm had started, it would have been both invisible and unheard.

  But they stood there, holding hands, staring up as it roared above them, soaring with alien majesty from one horizon to the other. Coming from the west, heading east; far, far above the Rot and Ruin.

  “I don’t understand,” he said.

  Nix just shook her head.

  “Where did it come from?”

  “From the east. ”

  “No, it’s heading east,” he said, but Nix shook her head.

  “It came from the east and turned around. I saw it and ran to get you. ”

  They watched it go, diminishing in size from a giant to a gnat and then to nothing, taking its roar with it. When it was gone, there was at least five minutes of silence before the birds began to sing again. They stood in the clearing for ten minutes more, hoping it would come back. Willing it to come back.

  Benny said, “Nix … did we just see that? I mean, tell me we actually saw that. ”

  Nix’s green eyes were filled with magic, and her smile was bright enough to hold back the storm. “It’s real, Benny. We saw it. ”

  “But how? It doesn’t make sense. ”

  She shook her head, and they stared off to the east. The thing they had just seen belonged to another age, to the days before First Night. They knew about them from the history books, but neither had ever seen one. Never expected to. They kept looking into the distance.

  But the slow, lumbering jumbo jet did not return.

  50

  THEY DID NOT KNOW HOW TO TALK ABOUT WHAT THEY HAD JUST SEEN. It was strange and wonderful, but it seemed more like a dream than a part of what they were about to do.

  “I wish I could tell Tom,” Benny said.

  “I wish I could tell Mom,” said Nix, then she said, “Benny, if we get out of this—”

  “When we get out of this,” he corrected.

  She gave only a tiny nod to acknowledge that possibility. “After this is over,” she said, “we need to find out about that jet. ”

  “Sure, I mean we let everyone know—”

  “No,” she said firmly. “We have to find out about it. Lilah was right. We don’t have a home anymore. We’ve been—I don’t know how to say it. Cut loose? We’re no longer connected to anything, and certainly not to Mountainside. ”

  “There’s Morgie and Chong. ”

  She shrugged. “If you want, we can go back for them, Benny. But then I want to follow that plane. ”

  “Where? All we know is that it went east. ”

  “It came from the east and turned around and went back. Why? Was it exploring to see what was out here? Or was it sending a message. ”

  “What message?”

  “’Follow me’?” she suggested. “I don’t believe in much anymore, Benny … but I believe that was a sign. ”

  “And if it’s not?”

  “Then I’ll find that out. One way or another, Benny, my life is over in Mountainside. ”

  He thought about it and looked up at the cloud-covered eastern sky. “Yeah,” he said after some long thought. “Maybe. ”

  “That’s what I’m going to do, Benny. If I’m alive tomorrow, then I’m going east. ”

  “We don’t know that there’s anything out there but three hundred million zoms. ”

  “Sure. Three hundred million zoms and enough people to repair, fuel, and fly an airplane. A jet. That says something. That says a lot. ”

  The storm clouds pulsed with lightning.

  “If you’re going east,” he said, “then so am I. ”

  They sealed the deal with a kiss.

  Two hours later the storm roiled and boiled above them, and Benny
knew that this one was going to be every bit as bad as the one that had pounded the town two nights ago.

  God, he thought, was it only two nights ago?

  In less than two hours the clouds went from white to slate gray to bruised purple to midnight black, and fierce winds from the lowlands snatched up leaves and branches and desert dust and used them like artillery. The rain had not yet started to fall, but the humidity made Benny and Nix feel like they were underwater as they climbed down from the promontory and began sneaking toward the camp. Lilah was nowhere to be seen, nor had they had a sign of her in hours. Had she succeeded or had Benny sent her to her death with his harebrained plan?

  The wind howled through the trees, like a host of banshees. Benny had never heard anything like it, and despite everything, there was some weird little part of him that liked it. It wasn’t “cool”—He’d cut off his leg before he used that word again. No, it was, in its own raw and primal way, magnificent. Nature screaming in anger, and Benny could not help but believe that it was screaming in anger against all that had been done by the men in this camp. Maybe some of those whistling shrieks were in support of what three kids—a red-haired beauty of a sun-freckled girl, a wild hazel-eyed man-killer, and a moody and battered boy who had no right trying to be a hero—were trying to do.

  As they crawled through the foliage, Benny kept grinning. Nix looked at him and shook her head. That’s okay, he thought, she already thinks I’m crazy.

  Charlie Matthias whipped open the flap of his tent, and the wind nearly knocked him over. He tilted into the gale and grabbed a sapling for support. All around him debris was flying. A cooking pot sailed past him, and he was pelted by acorns and pinecones. Using one massive hand to shield his eyes, he roared orders to his men to secure their gear.

  He pointed at the pigpen, where the kids huddled in terror. “Joey! Get over there and see to the merchandise!”

  On the far side of the camp, Joey Duk climbed out of his tent and bent into the wild rain to comply. He climbed over the rail of the pen and pushed through the kids. All of their collar ropes were bundled together in one central point, and that was wound around the trunk of a small tree, but the tree was whipping back and forth with each gust. Joey lashed the lines tighter and shifted the central line lower to make use of the thicker base of the tree.

  Benny and Nix watched from thirty feet away. They were in shadows and hidden behind a cracked boulder. Benny pointed to the tent Joey had come out of. Every time the wind blew, the flap opened, and they could see part of Vin Trang’s face.

  “That’s it,” Benny said in an urgent whisper. “That’s how we’re going to create part one of our diversion. ” He quickly told Nix what he had in mind.

  “How are you going to get past Vin?”

  “I’ll think of something. ”

  “Okay, but we also have to get Charlie and the Hammer away from the pen,” said Nix, her mouth right against his ear, so that he could hear through the storm.

  He nodded. The storm was complicating things. Half an hour ago most of the men were in their tents; now everybody was running around. He grumbled about it, but Nix shook her head. “Maybe Vin will come out of his tent too. ”

  “Yeah. Maybe. ”

  “Where’s Lilah? Shouldn’t she be back by now?”

  “Give her time,” said Benny, but in truth he was starting to worry. Lilah should have been back twenty minutes ago. He began to get a sinking feeling about whether she would be coming back at all.

  The wind began to slacken, and they looked up to see that the dense black cloud cover was now a swirling gray blue.

  “Oh come on, man,” Benny said despairingly. “Can you try and cut us one frigging break? I mean, really … just one?”

  A fat raindrop splatted him right in the eye.

  Just the one.

  Benny quietly cursed as he wiped his eye clear. He and Nix turned and looked at the camp. The bounty hunters were laughing now, bending to pick up their scattered possessions, making rude jokes about Mother Nature. The kids in the pen cringed together. Benny leaned as far forward as he could, almost coming out of the shadows, trying to get a handle on their next move.

  On the outside edge of the huddle, the oldest of them, a girl of about twelve, knelt with her arms around the shoulders of the smallest. Her face was streaked with tears, but she spoke soothing words to the others, keeping up a steady patter, reassuring them, calming them. Then she raised her head and looked straight into Benny’s eyes. From her kneeling position she had an angle between the rocks that the others in the camp did not have. Only she could see Benny as he crouched behind the cracked boulder. Her eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to say something to the others, but Benny quickly put a finger to his lips and shook his head.

  The girl closed her mouth. Benny held up a finger and mouthed the words: “Be ready!”

  He could see her lips move as she read his words. She gave a quick nod, and then the girl did something that she probably never thought she’d do again in this life: She smiled.

  A second later the rain began to fall.

  Five seconds later the vault of the heavens opened up and dumped an ocean on the mountain.

  “Perfect,” Benny said. He said it aloud, at normal level, but it didn’t matter. The rain was falling so hard that not even Nix heard him, and she was standing right next to him.

  51

  BENNY PULLED NIX CLOSER AND SPOKE QUICKLY IN HER EAR.

  “We can’t wait any longer,” he yelled. “I don’t think Lilah’s coming back. ”

  “Don’t say that. ”

  “Okay … but she’s not here now, so we’re on our own. I have an idea. Here’s what I need you to do. …”

  The rain was hard and steady, but the sky above was still not as dark as Benny would have liked. He had no idea how long this downpour would last. If it didn’t last until Lilah got here, then this was very likely going to be the shortest rescue attempt in history.
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