A dozen people came running between the houses and into the yard. Chong and Morgie were with them, and when they saw Benny down on the grass covered with blood, they stopped and froze in place. Nix stood apart, her bokken in her hands, winded and terrified but looking unharmed. Everyone looked at her for a second, and then all eyes snapped back to stare at Benny.
Benny started to get up, but suddenly Lilah was there and she had a glittering dagger in her hand. Before Benny could speak Lilah crouched over him and put the edge of the blade beneath his chin. Benny froze.
“Lilah!” growled Tom.
“Look at his shoulder! He’s been bitten,” she snapped back.
“No …,” Benny croaked. “No!” cried Nix.
Tom handed Mrs. Houser off to Captain Strunk and two other men from the town watch. They gagged and bound her with practiced ease, though their faces were twisted into masks of fear and revulsion. Tom moved to Lilah’s side and touched the arm holding the dagger.
“No,” he said more gently, looking from her to Benny and back. “If he’s bitten, then it’s mine to deal with. It’s a family thing.”
“I didn’t get bitten,” Benny insisted, but no one seemed to be paying attention to him.
Lilah had eyes the color of honey, but at that moment Benny thought they looked as cold as ice. There was no trace of compassion or humanity on her face. All he could see was the hunter, the loner. The legendary Lost Girl who had killed humans as well as zoms in the Rot and Ruin.
The knife felt like a branding iron against his skin.
Then it was gone, and she stepped back.
“Be sure,” she said to Tom. “Or I will.”
Benny sagged back against the grass, more exhausted by the last few seconds than by the fight with the zoms.
Nix edged past Lilah, her eyes hooded and angry, and she moved to stand between them. Morgie crept closer until he was shoulder to shoulder with Nix; after a slight hesitation, so did Chong. Their bodies formed a screen. Lilah looked at them with a calculating stare, as if she was sizing them up and deciding how much—or how little—effort it would take to get past them to Benny.
Benny got shakily to his feet.
“I didn’t get bit,” he yelled. To prove it he pulled off his shirt and flung it on the grass at Lilah’s feet. Anger was rising in him now, replacing his terror inch by inch. “See?”
“I see,” was all Lilah said. She lowered her knife and turned away. Everyone watched as she walked over to the porch, mounted the steps, and without a pause drove the tip of the blade into the back of Big Zak’s skull. Unlike Benny, she did not miss.
“Holy crap,” said Morgie.
“Uh-huh,” breathed Chong, pale and shaken.
Tom bent and picked up Benny’s shirt, examined the bite hole on the shoulder, and handed it back to him. “You sure you’re okay?”
Benny looked over to the porch, where Big Zak lay sprawled a few feet from his son. From the thing that had once been a boy the same age as Benny. A friend once. A victim recently.
“I said I wasn’t bitten,” Benny said, shaking his head slowly as he turned away, “but I’m a billion miles from okay.”
FROM NIX’S JOURNAL
Before First Night the United States Census Bureau estimated that there were 6,922,000,000 people alive on planet Earth.
Tom said that news reports claimed that more than two billion people died in the first two days after First Night.
By the time the Internet went down, the estimates of the global death toll were at four billion and climbing.
People in town believe that following First Night more than six billion people died. Most people think the whole rest of the world is dead.
We know that the total population of the nine towns here in central California is 28,261 as of last New Year’s census.
THEY ALL SAT ON THE PICNIC TABLE IN BENNY’S YARD, DRINKING COLD TEA and eating enormous slices of apple pie with raisins and walnuts in it. The sun was a golden ball in a flawless blue sky, and birds chattered in the trees. However, this rampant beauty did nothing to lighten the mood of sadness and horror that hovered like fog around them.
Lilah sat apart, cross-legged on the grass. She had not spoken a single word since the confrontation in Zak’s yard. No one had, except for some ordinary comments mostly related to the serving and eating of Tom’s apple pie. Benny nibbled at his, but he had no appetite. Neither did Nix, though she poked angrily at the dessert until it was a mangled beige lump of goo on her plate. Chong and Morgie ate theirs, though Chong seemed to be eating on autopilot, his eyes focused on Lilah’s stern but beautiful profile.
Tom sat on a tree stump, looking angry and unhappy.
“What happened back there?” Benny finally asked. “With Danny and Zak … and …”
Tom sighed and ran his hands over his face. “It was Grandpa Houser. Looks like he died sitting on the living room couch, reading the Town Pump. Michelle probably thought he was asleep. Maybe she tried to shake him awake and he reanimated and bit her. Looks like she ran out of the house to get away. Or maybe to get help. The twins said that they were out with their dad all morning, so maybe Michelle went to get Zak or Big Zak to help her. Not sure what happened next. There’s a lot of blood in the kitchen, so it looked like maybe Grandpa attacked them when they came back in. Or maybe Michelle was hurt worse than she thought. Zak must have been bitten there and ran home. I looked inside their house too. There was a lot of blood in the dining room, so Zak must have bled out there, and when he reanimated …”
“… he attacked his dad,” Benny said.
Benny thought about mentioning his suspicions that Big Zak had been knocking Zak around, but there didn’t seem much point to it now. Even so, an ugly thought was forming in his mind. What if Zak had been bitten—by Mrs. Houser or Grandpa Houser—and, knowing that he was infected, had gone home to make sure that was where he’d be when he died and reanimated? Would Zak have done that as a twisted way to pay back the abuse?
Nix reached over and gave his knee a squeeze; and when Benny looked at her he saw a complexity of emotions swirling in her green eyes. She gave him a sad little smile, and he wondered, not for the first time, if she could somehow read his thoughts. Or feel what he felt. What did they call that? Empathy? Benny was pretty sure that was the word.
“This really sucks,” said Morgie. “Danny and his folks. Man …”
“Zak, too,” said Chong.
Morgie gave him a hard look. “We’re better off without any of the Matthias family around here anymore. You did us all a favor by bashing Zak’s head—”
Nix whirled and grabbed a small fistful of Morgie’s shirt. “Shut up!” she said fiercely.
“Hey! What’s your problem?” Morgie said, trying to peel her fingers off. “You should be throwing a party. Your mom died because of Zak and his whole loser family. They kidnapped you and you almost died. And I got my skull cracked and I nearly died. What does it take to get you mad enough to—”
“Shut up.” Nix’s voice was as cold as ice. “Zak didn’t know what Charlie would do when he told him about the Lost Girl card.”
Morgie sneered. “Yeah? And how do you know that? Did you ask him? Did you ever ask him why he told Charlie at all? How do you know that Charlie didn’t tell him exactly what would happen?”
Nix said nothing, but her eyes were green fire.
“How do you know that Zak wasn’t a part of all of it?” Morgie continued. “Tom’s not the only one training kids our age to be bounty hunters. Maybe Charlie was teaching Zak. Maybe Charlie told Zak all about Gameland and the Z-Games and all of it. You don’t know what Zak knew. He could have been as guilty as Charlie and the Hammer.”
Everyone looked at Nix, and Benny was expecting her to cry or punch Morgie or do something extreme.
Instead she slowly opened her hand to let go of Morgie’s shirt.
“You’re right,” she said.
Morgie blinked in surprise. “I—”
“I don’t know,” Nix went on, cutting off whatever Morgie might say. “Neither do you and now neither does anyone. Charlie Matthias and Marion Hammer are dead. We killed them up in the mountains. It’s not going to bring my mom back, I know that.” A tear broke from the corner of one eye and burned a silver line down her cheek. “But neither will condemning Zak without proof.”
Morgie started to reply, thought better of it, and closed his mouth. He looked around for support, but no one would meet his eyes.
Nix wiped the tear with the back of her hand. “Ever since we got back all I’ve done is hate Zak. And his father, and everyone Zak was ever related to. I wanted them all dead. I wanted them all to pay.” Her words were fierce, but her voice was so soft that Benny had to lean in to hear her. She sniffed. “Today … when I killed Zak today I actually wanted to. I wasn’t just killing the zom that Zak had turned into. I could feel it in my chest. I can still feel it. It’s like …”
They all waited in silence while she fought to clothe her feelings in words that everyone would understand. Benny put his hand on her knee, just as she’d done to him, but Nix shook her head and gently pushed it away.
“I don’t want anyone to cheer about it,” she said in voice that was dangerously close to a sob. “And I don’t want anyone to make it all right for me, either. I feel like I’m going crazy … I feel …” She took a deep breath. “I feel polluted.”
Nix looked around to see if anyone understood. Tom nodded first, and Benny understood why. He’d been doing this longer than any of them, and Benny knew for certain that each and every kill Tom made hurt him. Deeply.
Chong nodded as well, and he turned his face away to hide whatever might be showing in his dark eyes. Lilah gave a single, short grunt that could mean anything; but it was not a shake of her head.
Nix turned to Benny, and there was such pain and such hope warring on her face.
“Yeah,” Benny said. “You know that I know.”
One by one they all turned to Morgie. His eyes were fierce, his jaw set.
He stood up and without a word turned and walked away.
“Morgie!” Nix called, starting to rise, but Tom stopped her with a shake of his head.
“Leave him be,” Tom said. “He needs some time.”
But Nix didn’t leave it. She ran after Morgie and caught him as he slammed the gate behind him. Nix pushed it open again, but Morgie kept walking, almost running. Nix ran to stand in front of him. Benny couldn’t hear what she said, or what Morgie said back. At first they were shouting, but their words were muffled by distance. Then Nix was hugging Morgie and for a moment there was no response, then Morgie wrapped his arms around her and they stood there, heads buried on each other’s shoulders. Benny could see the hitch of their bodies as they cried.
“Don’t go over there, Benny,” said Chong softly.
“No,” Benny agreed.
They watched for a while, then one by one they turned away.
FROM NIX’S JOURNAL
People in the Rot and Ruin
Bounty Hunters: This is the biggest group of people who go into the Ruin, or sometimes live out there. They do jobs for pay, like clearing zoms out of a town, hunting specific zombies for pay, clearing the trade routes, finding lost people, and other work.
Tom says that most of them are dangerous and not very nice, but that “nicer people generally won’t do that kind of work.” Mayor Kirsch calls them a “necessary evil.”
People in town have been talking about a new bounty hunter moving into the area to take over Charlie Pink-eye’s territory. They call him White Bear, but that’s all I know about him … except that he’s supposed to be just as mean and tough as Charlie. Oh … great.
Charlie Pink-eye and the Motor City Hammer were bounty hunters, and the people who worked with them were all bad.
Closure experts are a different kind of bounty hunter. They’re hired by people to look for family members or friends who have been zommed. This is what Tom Imura does.
Tom finds them if he can (zoms usually don’t wander far from where they reanimated), reads them a last letter from the family, and then “quiets” them as humanely as possible.
Other closure experts Tom introduced me to: Old Man Church, Solomon Jones, and Lucy Diamonds.
Bounty hunters Tom trusts: J-Dog, Dr. Skillz, Hector Mexico, Sally Two-Knives, Basher Bashman, Magic Mike, LaDonna Willis and sons, and Fluffy McTeague.
What would my name be if I was a bounty hunter? Reds Riley? Li’l Killer?
I’ll have to think about that.
BENNY FELT HORRIBLE AND HELPLESS. MORGIE HAD ALWAYS HAD A CRUSH on Nix and had been on his way to her house to ask her out the night Nix’s mom was killed. Morgie had tried to defend Nix and her mom, but the Hammer had struck him on the back of the head with his iron club.
The same club Benny had used to take down Charlie.
Now Morgie and Nix were deep inside the pocket of a shared experience, and the intimacy of it made Benny feel deeply insecure. But when he realized that he was feeling insecure and jealous, Benny wished he could drag his own stupid mind behind the house and kick the crap out of it.
They ate the last of the leftovers from supper and more big slices of pie. They sat in silence, trying not to look at the road. After fifteen minutes Nix and Morgie came back. They each accepted plates of pie and glasses of tea from Tom.
Morgie sat in the empty gap between Tom and Chong, and there were dried tear tracks on his face. Nix sat on the picnic table, but not as close to Benny as she had been before.