Rot and ruin, p.5
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       Rot and Ruin, p.5

         Part #1 of Benny Imura series by Jonathan Maberry
 
Page 5

 

  “People do go to the Red Zone, Benny. They go there to post erosion portraits for the bounty hunters. ”

  “Oh, yeah? Well, I know for a fact that most people pay kids to post the portraits for them. How do I know? Because I’ve put up about a hundred of them. ”

  “You—?”

  “Zombie Cards don’t buy themselves, Tom. And when people ask kids to put the pictures up, they don’t even say what they are. I mean, we’re standing there, both looking at an erosion portrait, and no one ever mentions the word ‘zom. ’ Most people just say, ‘Hey, kid, want to hang this for me?’ They never say where. They know that we know, but they can’t actually come out and say it. It’s freaking weird, man. ”

  “People are scared, Benny. They’re in denial. You’re only fifteen, so you and your friends don’t really understand what it was like during First Night. ”

  “No joke, Mr. Wizard. That’s my whole point! We want to know. ”

  Tom pursed his lips. “I guess … people probably want to shelter you from it. ”

  Benny wanted to throw something at Tom. He eyed a heavy book; that might wake him up. “How the heck can anyone shelter us? We live behind fences, surrounded by the Rot and Ruin. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Big place, used to be called America? Filled with zoms? It’s not fair that people don’t tell us the truth. ”

  “Benny, I—”

  “It’s our world too,” Benny snapped. His words hit Tom like a slap. Then into the silence Benny dropped another bomb. “Don’t get on my case for listening to Charlie if he’s the only one who thinks we ought to know truth. ”

  Tom stared at him for a long time as different emotions flowed like water over his face. Finally he threw the last of his coffee into the bushes beside the porch, and stood up.

  “Tell you what, Benny … Tomorrow we’re going to start early and head out into the Rot and Ruin. We’ll go deep, like Charlie does. I want you to see firsthand what he does and what I do, and then you can make your own decisions. ”

  “Decisions about what?”

  “About a lot of things, kiddo. ”

  And with that Tom went inside and to bed.

  6

  TOM AND BENNY LEFT AT DAWN AND HEADED DOWN TO THE southeastern gate. The gatekeeper had Tom sign the usual waiver that absolved the town and the gatekeeping staff of all liability if anything untoward happened once they crossed into the Ruin. A vendor sold Tom a dozen bottles of cadaverine, which they sprinkled on their clothing, and a jar of peppermint goo that they dabbed on their upper lips, to kill their own sense of smell.

  “Will this stuff stop the zoms?”

  “Nothing stops them,” said Tom. “But this slows them down, makes most of them hesitate before biting. Even drives some away. It gives you an edge and a little breathing room, but don’t think you can stroll through a crowd of them with no risk. ”

  “That’s encouraging,” Benny said under his breath.

  They were dressed for a long hike. Tom had instructed Benny to wear good walking shoes, jeans, a durable shirt, and a hat to keep the sun from boiling his brains.

  “If it’s not already too late,” Tom said.

  Benny made a rude gesture when Tom wasn’t looking.

  Despite the heat, Tom wore a lightweight jacket with lots of pockets. He had an old army gun belt around his narrow waist, with a pistol snugged into a worn leather holster. Benny wasn’t allowed to have a gun yet.

  “Eventually,” Tom said, then added, “Maybe. ”

  “I learned gun safety in school,” Benny protested.

  “You didn’t learn it from me,” Tom said with finality.

  The last thing Tom strapped on was a sword. Benny watched with interest as Tom slung a long strap diagonally across his body, from left shoulder to right hip, with the hilt standing above his shoulder so that he could reach up and over for a fast right-handed draw.

  The sword was a katana, a Japanese long sword that Benny had seen Tom practice with every day for as long as he could remember. That sword was the only thing about his brother that Benny thought was cool. Benny’s mom, who was Tom’s adopted mother, was Irish, but their father had been Japanese. Tom once told Benny that the Imura family went all the way back to the samurai days of ancient Japan. He showed Benny picture books of fierce-looking Japanese men in armor. Samurai warriors.

  “Are you a samurai?” Benny had asked when he was nine.

  “There are no samurai anymore,” Tom said, but even back then Benny thought that Tom had a funny look on his face when he said that. Like maybe there was more to say on the subject, but he didn’t want to say it right then. When Benny brought the subject up a couple of times since, the answer was always the same.

  Even so, Tom was pretty damn good with the sword. He could draw fast as lightning, and Benny had seen him do a trick once when Tom thought no one else was looking. He threw a handful of grapes into the air, then drew his sword and cut five of them in half before they fell to the grass. The blade was a blur. Later, after Tom had gone off to a store, Benny counted the grapes. Tom had thrown six into the air. He’d only missed one. That was sweet.

  Of course, Benny would sooner eat broken glass than tell Tom how impressive he thought it was.

  “Why are you bringing that?” he asked as Tom adjusted the lay of the strap.

  “It’s quiet,” Tom said.

  Benny understood that. Noise attracted zoms. A sword was quieter than a gun, but it also meant getting closer. Benny didn’t think that was a very smart idea. He said as much, and Tom just shrugged.

  “Then why bring the gun?” Benny persisted.

  “’Cause sometimes quiet doesn’t matter. ” Tom patted his pockets to do a quick inventory to make sure he had everything he needed. “Okay,” he said, “let’s go. We’re burning daylight. ”

  Tom tipped a couple of fence runners to bang on drums six hundred yards north, and as soon as that drew away the wandering zoms, Tom and Benny slipped out into the great Rot and Ruin and headed for the tree line.

  Chong waved to them from the corner tower.

  “We need to move fast for the first half mile,” cautioned Tom, and he broke into a jog-trot that was fast enough to get them out of scent range but slow enough for Benny to match.

  A few of the zombies staggered after them, but the fence runners banged on the drums again, and the zombies, incapable of holding on to more than one reaction at a time, turned back toward the noise. The Imura brothers vanished into the shadows under the trees.

  When they finally slowed to a walk, Benny was sweating. It was a hot start to what would be a scorcher of a day. The air was thick with mosquitoes and flies, and the trees were alive with the sound of chattering birds. Far above them the sun was a white hole in the sky.

  “We’re not being followed,” Tom said.

  “Who said we were?”

  “Well … ever since we left you keep looking back toward the fence line. ”

  “No, I don’t. ”

  “Or are you looking to see if any of your friends came to see you off? Other than Chong, I mean. Maybe a certain red-haired girl?”

  Benny stared at him. “You are completely delusional. ”

  “You’re going to tell me that you don’t have a thing for Nix Riley?”

  “A world of no. ”

  “How come I found a sheet of paper with her name written on it maybe a million times?”

  “Must have been Morgie’s. ”

  “It was your handwriting. ”

  “Then I guess I was practicing my penmanship. What is it with you? I told you, I don’t have a thing for Nix. Let it go. ”

  Tom turned away without another word, but Benny caught his smile. He cursed under his breath for the next mile.

  “How far are we going?” Benny asked.

  “Far. But don’t worry, there are way stations where we can crash if we don’t make it back
tonight. ”

  Benny looked at him as if he’d just suggested they set themselves on fire and go swimming in gasoline. “Wait—You’re saying we could be out all night?”

  “Sure. You know I’m out there for days at a time. You’re going to have to do what I do. Besides, except for some wanderers, most of the dead in this area have long since been cleaned out. Every week I have to go farther away. ”

  “Don’t they just come to you?”

  Tom shook his head. “There are wanderers—what the fence guards call ‘noms,’ short for ‘nomadic zombies’—but most don’t travel. You’ll see. ”

  The forest was old but surprisingly lush in the late August heat. Tom found fruit trees, and they ate their fill of sweet pears as they walked. Benny began filling his pockets with them, but Tom shook his head.

  “They’re heavy and they’ll slow you. Besides, I picked a route that’ll take us through what used to be farm country. Lots of fruit growing wild. Some vegetables, too. Wild beans and such. ”

  Benny looked at the fruit in his hand, sighed, and let them fall.

  “How come nobody comes out here to farm this stuff?” he asked.

  “People are scared. ”

  “Why? There’s got to be forty guys working the fence. ”

  “No, it’s not the dead that scare them. People in town don’t trust anything out here. They think there’s a disease infesting everything. Food, the livestock that have run wild over the last fourteen years—everything. ”

  “Yeah …,” Benny said diffidently. He’d heard that talk. “So … it’s not true?”

  “You ate those pears without a thought. ”

  “You handed them to me. ”

  Tom smiled. “Oh, so you trust me now?”

  “You’re a dork, but I don’t think you want to turn me into a zom. ”

  “Wouldn’t have to get on you about cleaning your room, so let’s not rule it out. ”

  “You’re so funny, I almost peed my pants,” Benny said without expression, then said, “Wait, I don’t get it. Traders bring in food all the time, and all the cows and chickens and stuff. … They were brought to town by travelers and hunters and people like that, right? So …”

  “So, why do people think it’s safe to eat that stuff and not the food growing wild out here?”

  “Yeah. ”

  “Good question. ”

  “Well, what’s the answer?”

  “The people in town trust what’s inside the fence. Currently inside the fence. If it came from outside, they remark on it. Like, on the second Wednesday of every month, folks will say, ‘’Bout time for the wagons, ain’t it?,’ but they don’t really acknowledge where the wagons come from or why the wagons are covered in sheet metal and the horses wrapped in carpet and chain mail. They know, but they don’t know. Or don’t want to know. ”

  “That doesn’t make any sense. ”

  Tom walked a bit before he said, “There’s town and then there’s the Rot and Ruin. Most of the time they aren’t in the same world, you know?”

  Benny nodded. “I guess I do. ”

  He stopped and stared ahead with narrowed eyes. Benny couldn’t see anything, but then Tom grabbed his arm and pulled him quickly off the road and led him in a wide circle through the groves of trees. Benny peered between the hundreds of tree trunks and finally caught a glimpse of three zoms, shuffling slowly along the road. One was whole; the other two had ragged flesh where other zoms had feasted on them while they were still alive.

  Benny opened his mouth and almost asked Tom how he knew they were there, but Tom made a shushing gesture and continued on, moving soundlessly through the soft summer grass.

  When they were well clear, Tom took them back up to the road.

  “I didn’t even see them!” Benny gasped, turning to look back.

  “Neither did I. ”

  “Then how … ?”

  “You get a feel for this sort of thing. ”

  Benny held his ground, still looking back. “I don’t get it. There were only three of them. Couldn’t you have … you know …”

  “What?”

  “Killed them,” said Benny flatly. “Charlie Matthias said he’ll go out of his way to chop a zom or two. He doesn’t run from anything. ”

  “Is that what he says?” Tom murmured, then continued down the road.

  Benny shrugged, then followed.

  7

  TWICE MORE TOM PULLED BENNY OFF THE ROAD SO THEY COULD CIRCLE around wandering zombies. After the second time, once they were clear of the creatures’ olfactory range, Benny grabbed Tom’s arm and demanded, “Whyn’t you just pop a cap in them?”

  Tom gently pulled his arm free. He shook his head and didn’t answer.

  “What, are you afraid of them?” Benny yelled.

  “Keep your voice down. ”

  “Why? You afraid a zom will come after you? Big, tough zombie killer who’s afraid to kill a zombie. ”

  “Benny,” said Tom with thin patience, “sometimes you say some truly stupid things. ”

  “Whatever,” Benny said, and pushed past him.

  “Do you know where you’re going?” Tom said when Benny was a dozen paces along the road.

  “This way. ”

  “I’m not,” said Tom, and he began climbing the slope of a hill that rose gently from the left-hand side of the road. Benny stood in the middle of the road and seethed for a full minute. He was muttering the worst words he knew all the while he climbed up the hill after Tom.
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