“I’m sorry,” they both said.
They stared at each other.
Tom’s smile was slower in coming.
“You’re a total pain in my butt, little brother.”
“You’re a world-class jerk.”
The hot breeze blew past them. Tom said, “If you want to go back, then we’ll go back.”
Benny shook his head. “No.”
“Do I have to have an answer?”
“Right now? No. Eventually? Probably.”
“Yeah,” said Benny. “That’s okay, I guess. Just tell me one thing. I know you said it already, but I really need to know. Really, Tom.”
“You’re not like them. Right? Swear on something.” He pulled out his wallet and held up the picture. “Swear on Mom and Dad.”
Tom nodded. “Okay, Benny. I swear.”
“On Mom and Dad.”
“On Mom and Dad.” Tom touched the picture and nodded.
“Okay,” said Benny. “Then let’s go.”
The afternoon burned on, and they followed the two-lane road around the base of the mountain. Neither spoke for almost an hour and then Tom said, “This isn’t just a walk we’re taking, kiddo. I’m out here on a job.”
Benny shot him a look. “You’re here to kill a zom?”
Tom shrugged. “It’s not the way I like to phrase it, but … yes, that’s the bottom line.”
They walked another half mile.
“How does this work? The … job, I mean.”
“You saw part of it when you applied to that erosion artist,” said Tom. He dug into a jacket pocket and removed an envelope, opened it, and took out a piece of paper that he unfolded and handed to Benny. There was a small color photograph clipped to one corner that showed a smiling man of about thirty, with sandy hair and a sparse beard. The paper it was clipped to was a large portrait of the same man as he might be now if he was a zombie. The name “Harold” was handwritten in one corner.
“This is why erosion portraits are so useful. People have pictures done of wives, husbands, children … anyone they loved. Someone they lost. Sometimes they can even remember what a person was wearing on First Night, and that makes it easier for me, because as I said, the dead seldom move far from where they lived. Or worked. Guys like me find them.”
“And kill them?”
Tom answered that with a shrug. They rounded a bend in the road and saw the first few houses of a small town built onto the side of the mountain. Even from a quarter mile away Benny could see zombies standing in yards or on the sidewalks. One stood in the middle of the road with his face tilted toward the sun.
Tom folded the erosion portrait and put it in his pocket, then took out the vial of cadaverine and sprinkled some on his clothes. He handed it to Benny, then dabbed some mint gel on his upper lip and passed the jar to his brother.
“Not even a little bit,” said Benny.
Tom loosened his sword in its scabbard, and led the way. Benny shook his head, unsure of how exactly the day had brought him to this moment, and then followed.
“WON’T THEY ATTACK US?” BENNY WHISPERED.
“Not if we’re smart and careful. The trick is to move slowly. They respond to quick movements. Smell, too, but we have that covered.”
“Can’t they hear us?”
“Yes, they can,” Tom said. “So once we’re in the town, don’t talk unless I do, and even then—less is more, and quieter is better than loud. I found that speaking slowly helps. A lot of the dead moan … so they’re used to slow, quiet sounds.”
“This is like the Scouts,” Benny said. “Mr. Feeney told us that when we’re in nature we should act like we’re part of nature.”
“For better or worse, Benny … this is part of nature too.”
“That doesn’t make me feel good, Tom.”
“This is the Rot and Ruin, kiddo. … Nobody feels good out here. Now hush and keep your eyes open.”
They slowed their pace as they neared the first houses. Tom stopped and spent a few minutes studying the town. The main street ran upward to where they stood, so they had a good view of everything. Moving very slowly, Tom removed the envelope from his pocket and unfolded the erosion portrait.
“My client said that it was the sixth house along the main street,” Tom murmured. “Red front door and white fence. See it? There, past the old mail truck.”
“Uh-huh,” Benny said without moving his lips. He was terrified of the zombies that stood in their yards not more than twenty paces away.
“We’re looking for a man named Harold Simmons. There’s nobody in the yard, so we may have to go inside.”
“Inside?” Benny asked, his voice quavering.
“Come on.” Tom began moving slowly, barely lifting his feet. He did not exactly imitate the slow, shuffling gait of the zombies, but his movements were unobtrusive. Benny did his best to mimic everything Tom did. They passed two houses in which zombies stood in the yard. The first house, on their left, had three zombies on the other side of a hip-high chain-link fence. Two little girls and an older woman. Their clothes were tatters that blew like holiday streamers in the hot breeze. As Tom and Benny passed by them, the old woman turned in their direction. Tom stopped and waited, his hand touching the handle of his sword, but the woman’s dead eyes swept past them without lingering. A few paces along, they passed a yard on their right in which a man in a bathrobe stood, staring at the corner of the house as if he expected something to happen. He stood among wild weeds and creeper vines that had wrapped themselves around his calves. It looked like he had stood there for years, and with a sinking feeling of horror, Benny realized that he probably had.
Benny wanted to turn and run. His mouth was as dry as sand, and sweat ran down his back and into his underwear.
They moved steadily down the street, always slow. The sun was heading toward the western part of the sky, and it would be dark in four or five hours. Benny knew they could never make it home by nightfall. He wondered if Tom would take them back to the gas station … or if he was crazy enough to claim an empty house in this ghost town for the night. If he had to sleep in a zombie’s house, even if there was no zombie there, then Benny was sure he’d go completely mad-cow crazy.
“There he is,” murmured Tom, and Benny looked toward the house with the red door. A man stood inside, looking out of the big bay window. He once had sandy hair and a sparse beard, but now the hair and beard were nearly gone, and the skin of his face had shriveled to a leathery tightness.
Tom stopped outside of the paint-peeling white picket fence. He looked from the erosion portrait to the man in the window and then back again.
“Benny?” he said under his breath. “You think that’s him?”
“Mm-hm,” Benny said with a low squeak.
The zombie in the window seemed to be looking at them. Benny was sure of it. The withered face and the dead pale eyes were pointed directly at the fence, as if it had been waiting there all these years for a visitor to come to the garden gate.
Tom nudged the gate with his toe. It was locked.
Moving very slowly, Tom leaned over and undid the latch. The process took more than two minutes. Nervous sweat ran down Benny’s face, and he couldn’t take his eyes off the zombie.
Tom pushed on the gate with his knee, and it opened.
“Very, very slowly,” he said. “Red light, green light—all the way to the door.”
Benny knew the game, though, in truth, he had never seen a working stoplight. They entered the yard. The old woman in the first garden suddenly turned toward them. So did the zombie in the bathrobe.
“Stop,” Tom hissed. “If we have to make a run for it, head into the house. We can lock ourselves in and wait until they calm down.”
The old lady and the man in the bathrobe faced them, but did not advance.
The tableau held for a minute that seemed an hour long.
“I’m scared,” said Benny.
“It’s okay to be scared,” said Tom. “Scared means you’re smart. Just don’t panic. That’ll get you killed.”
Benny almost nodded, but caught himself.
Tom took a slow step. Then a second. It was uneven, his body swaying, as if his knees were stiff. The bathrobe zombie turned away and looked at the shadow of a cloud moving up the valley, but the old lady still watched. Her mouth opened and closed, as if she was slowly chewing on something.
But then she too turned away to watch the moving shadow.
Tom took another step and then another. Benny eventually followed. The process was excruciatingly slow, but to Benny it felt as if they were moving too fast. No matter how deliberately they went, he thought it was all wrong, that the zombies—all of them up, and down the street—would suddenly turn toward them and moan with their dry and dusty voices, and that a great mass of the hungry dead would surround them.
Tom reached the door and turned the handle.
The knob turned in his hand, and the lock clicked open. Tom gently pushed open the door and stepped into the gloom of the house. Benny cast a quick look at the window to make sure the zombie was still there.
Only he wasn’t.
“Tom!” Benny cried. “Look out!”
A dark shape lunged at Tom out of the shadows of the entrance hallway. It clawed for him with wax-white fingers and moaned with an unspeakable hunger. Benny screamed.
Then something happened that Benny could not understand. Tom was there and then he wasn’t. His brother’s body became a blur of movement as he pivoted to the outside of the zombie’s right arm, ducked low, grabbed the zombie’s shins from behind, and drove his shoulder into the former Harold Simmons’s back. The zombie instantly fell forward onto its face, knocking clouds of dust from the carpet. Tom leaped onto the zombie’s back and used his knees to pin both shoulders to the floor.
“Close the door!” Tom barked as he pulled a spool of thin silk cord from his jacket pocket. He whipped the cord around the zombie’s wrists and shimmied down to bring both its hands together to tie behind the creature’s back. He looked up. “The door, Benny—now!”
Benny came out of his daze and realized there was movement in his peripheral vision. He turned to see the old lady, the two little girls, and the zombie in his bathrobe, lumbering up the garden path. Benny slammed the door and shot the bolt, then leaned against it, panting, as if he had been the one to wrestle a zombie to the ground and hog-tie it. With a sinking feeling he realized that it had probably been his own shouted warning that had attracted the other zombies.
Tom flicked out a spring-bladed knife and cut the silk cord. He kept his weight on the struggling zombie while he fashioned a large loop, like a noose. The zombie kept trying to turn its head to bite, but Tom didn’t seem to care. Maybe he knew that the zom couldn’t reach him, but Benny was still terrified of those gray rotted teeth.
With a deft twist of the wrist, Tom looped the noose over the zombie’s head, catching it below the chin, and then he jerked the slack, so the closing loop forced the creature’s jaws shut with a clack. Tom wound more silk cord around the zombie’s head, so that the line passed under the jaw and over the crown. When he had three full turns in place, he tied the cord tightly. He shimmied down the zombie’s body and pinned its legs and then tied its ankles together.
Then Tom stood up, stuffed the rest of the cord into his pocket, and closed his knife. He slapped dust from his clothes as he turned back to Benny.
“Thanks for the warning, kiddo, but I had it.”
“Um … holy sh—!”
“Language,” Tom interrupted quietly.
Tom went to the window and looked out. “Eight of ’em out there.”
“Do … do we … I mean, shouldn’t we board up the windows?”
Tom laughed. “You listen to too many campfire tales. If we started hammering nails into boards, the sound would call every living dead in the whole town. We’d be under siege.”
“But we’re trapped.”
Tom looked at him. “‘Trapped’ is a relative term,” he said. “We can’t go out the front. I expect there’s a back door. We’ll finish our business here and then we’ll sneak out nice and quiet, and head on our way.”
Benny stared at him and then at the struggling zombie that was thrashing and moaning.
“You … you just …”
“Practice, Benny. I’ve done this before. C’mon, help me get him up.”
They knelt on opposite sides of the zombie, but Benny didn’t want to touch it. He’d never touched a corpse of any kind before, and he didn’t want to start with one that had just tried to bite his brother.
“Benny,” Tom said, “he can’t hurt you now. He’s helpless.”
The word “helpless” hit Benny hard. It brought back the image of Old Roger—with no eyes, no teeth, and no fingers—and the two young women who tended to him. And the limbless torsos in the wagon.
“Helpless,” he murmured. “God …”
“Come on,” Tom said gently.
Together they lifted the zombie. It was light—far lighter than Benny had expected—and they half-carried, half-dragged it into the dining room, away from the living room window. Sunlight fell in dusty slants through the moth-eaten curtains. The ruins of a meal had long since decayed to dust on the table. They put it in a chair, and Tom produced the spool of cord and bound it in place. The zombie continued to struggle, but Benny understood. The zombie was actually helpless.