“Doesn’t tell you much,” said Chong.
Morgie grunted. “Charlie Matthias said she’s just a myth.”
Benny’s head whipped around. “You’ve heard of her?”
“Sure. Everyone’s heard of her.”
“I haven’t,” said Benny.
“I haven’t,” said Chong.
“Do you guys even live in the same town as me?” said Morgie with exasperation. “We heard about her years ago. Little girl with snow-white hair, hiding out in the Ruin, eating bugs and stuff. Completely wild. Can’t speak English or nothing. What’d you call it? Feral?”
Benny shook his head, but Chong said, “Yeah … that’s ringing a faint bell.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Back in the Scouts. Mr. Feeney told us about her. We were, like, nine or something. It was that weekend we all camped out in Lashner’s Field.”
“I was sick,” said Benny. “I had the flu, remember?”
“Riiight,” said Chong slowly.
“What’d Feeney say about her?”
“Nothing much. He told a spooky story about people trapped in a farmhouse with zoms all around. Everyone died, but the ghost of the youngest daughter keeps haunting the hills, looking for her folks.”
“Uh-uh,” said Morgie, “that wasn’t how it went. The people in the farmhouse kept going out, one by one, to try and get help, but no one ever came back until only the little girl was left. She’s supposed to still be there.”
“I heard she died,” insisted Chong.
“Not according to Mr. Feeney,” said Morgie.
“I remember that she was a ghost. Everybody died in the story I heard.”
“Everybody dies in every story,” said Morgie.
“If everybody died,” said Benny as he turned the card over to look at the picture again, “then who told the story?”
They thought about it. “Maybe one of the trackers found the place and figured it out,” suggested Chong. They considered it. There were several trackers in town, some of whom used to be cops or hunters before First Night.
“No,” said Benny, shaking his head slowly. “No, if she died as a little girl, then why draw her as a teenager?”
Morgie nodded. “And why give her boobs?”
“Jeez, Morgie,” said Chong. “Don’t you think of anything else but boobs?”
“No,” Morgie said, looking genuinely surprised. “Why would I?”
Benny turned the card over and stared at the back. In the lower left corner was the artist’s name. “Rob Sacchetto.”
“Hey,” said Chong. “Isn’t that the guy you tried to get a job with? The erosion artist. Has the blue house by the reservoir.”
“So go ask him. If he did this, then he must have talked with someone who saw her. I mean … if this is real.”
“It’s real.” Benny shuffled through the rest of the cards. There were only three others that had been painted by Sacchetto. Charlie Matthias. The Motor City Hammer.
And Tom Imura.
“Are you two …,” Morgie began, but before he could finish, Benny was on his feet and heading toward the reservoir on the far side of town. He left the Zombie Cards behind—except for the one with the picture of the Lost Girl.
“What’s his malfunction?” Morgie asked. “What, he fall in love with this chick, just because she’s built?”
Chong said, “Do yourself a favor, Morg. Next time you’re staring at a girl’s boobs, look up. You’ll be shocked to learn it, but there’s going to be a face up there. Nose, mouth, eyes. And behind the eyes is an actual person.”
“Yes, Confucius, I know. Girls are people. Wisdom of the ages. Nix is a girl and therefore a person. I know that.”
“Really?” said Chong as he watched Benny vanish around a corner. “Maybe if you looked her in the eyes, she’d know that you know.”
He got to his feet, shoved his hands down deep into his pockets, and headed home. Morgie watched him go, wondering what the hell had just happened.
THERE WAS A SIGN ON A POLE THAT READ ROB SACCHETTO—EROSION ARTIST. It hung from two lengths of rusted chain and creaked in the hot western wind. The outside of the house was painted with murals of lush rainforests filled with exotic birds and brightly colored frogs. Benny had barely glanced at the murals when he’d come to apply for a job, but now he lingered to look. The paintings were filled with life—monkeys, insects, flowering plants—but no people.
The artist opened the door on the second knock. He wore low-slung jeans that seemed to be held together by dried paint, and a plaid shirt with the sleeves cut off. His feet were bare, and he had a steaming cup of coffee hooked on one multicolored finger. He peered down at Benny.
“You’re that kid,” he said.
“I thought I told you that I couldn’t use you.”
“I’m not here about the job.”
“Okay. Why are you … ?” the artist’s voice trailed off as Benny held out the card. Sacchetto looked at the image and then at Benny.
“Who is she?” Benny asked.
Shutters dropped behind the artist’s eyes. “It’s just a card, kid. They’re sold in every settlement in California.”
“I’ve been out to the Rot and Ruin.” When that didn’t seem to do much, Benny added, “With my brother, Tom.”
The artist studied him, stalling by taking a long sip of his coffee.
“I need to know who she is,” Benny said.
“Because I believe in her. Because she’s real. My friends think she’s dead or that she’s just a ghost story. But I know she’s real.”
“Yeah? How do you know that she’s real?”
“I just know.”
Sacchetto drained his cup. “D’you drink coffee, kid?”
“I’ll brew another pot. This might take a while.” He wasn’t smiling when he said it, but he stepped back to let Benny enter. The artist paused to look at something that caused his whole body to tense, and Benny turned to see the Motor City Hammer, crossing the street toward the livery stable. However, the Hammer was looking directly at Sacchetto, and he wore a peculiar smile on his ugly face.
The artist’s house was clean but not neat. Sketches were thumbtacked to the walls; partially finished paintings stood on half a dozen easels. A wheeled wooden table held hand-mixed pots of paint. They passed through into a tiny kitchen. Sacchetto waved Benny to a chair while he went to fill the coffeepot. Every house in Mountainside had an elevated cistern that drew upon the reservoir and rainwater to feed the faucets and toilets. Because of some quirk of luck during the influx of First Night survivors, Mountainside had twenty-three plumbers and only one electrician. In terms of electricity they were a half step out of the Stone Age, but there was always water to flush the john and fill the kettle. Benny was cool with that.
“Tom Imura, huh,” Sacchetto murmured. “I can see it now, but not when you were here the first time. I knew Tom had a little brother, but I always assumed he’d look more Asian.”
Benny nodded. Both of Tom’s parents were Japanese, so Tom had straight black hair, light brown skin, black eyes, and a face that showed only the expressions he wanted it to show. Benny’s mother had been a green-eyed, pale-skinned redhead who looked like every one of her Irish ancestors. Benny got an even split of the genes. His hair was straight, but it was medium brown with red highlights. His eyes were a dark forest green. His skin was pale, but he took a good tan. However, where Tom’s body was toned to a muscular leanness, Benny was merely lean.
“We’re half brothers,” he explained.
The artist digested that. “And he took you out into the Ruin?”
“I guess I’m his apprentice now. I’m fifteen.”
“Did he take you to Sunset Hollow?”
“No, but he mentioned it. Or … someone mentioned it to us. I don’t know what it is, though.”
“If Tom didn’t tell you, then it’s not for me to do it,” said Sacchetto, taking two clean mugs from the cupboard. Before Benny could press him on it, the artist said, “What did you see out there?”
“I don’t know if I should talk about it.”
“Kid, here’s the deal. You tell me about the Ruin, about what you saw out there. About what Tom showed you, and I’ll tell you about the Lost Girl.”
Benny thought about it. The smell of brewing coffee filled the little kitchen. The artist leaned back against the sink, arms folded across his chest, and waited.
“Okay,” said Benny, and he told the artist everything. It was the same story he told Nix. The artist was a good listener, interrupting only to clarify a point and to press him for more precise descriptions of the three bounty hunters who had been torturing the zoms. Sacchetto was on his second cup of coffee by the time Benny finished. The coffee in Benny’s cup was untouched and cold.
When Benny was finished, the artist sat back in his chair and studied Benny with pursed lips.
“I think you’re telling me the truth,” he said.
“You think? Why would I lie about stuff like that?”
“Oh, hell, kid. People lie to me all the time. Even when they don’t have a reason to. Folks that want an erosion portrait but don’t have a photo of their loved one tend to exaggerate so much, the picture comes out looking like either Brad or Angelina.”
“Doesn’t matter. Point is, people lie a lot. Sometimes out of habit. Not many people are good at telling the truth. But what I meant just now was that nearly everybody who comes back from the Ruin, lies about what they’ve seen.”
“What kind of people?”
“You see? That’s the kind of question that makes me think you’ve actually been there. Most people would ask, ‘What kind of lies?’ You see the difference?”
Benny thought he did. “Tom says that people here in town want to believe their own version of the truth.”
“Yes, they do. They don’t want to know the truth and even when they say that they do, they don’t ask the right questions.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are a lot of very obvious questions about our world that nobody around here seems to want to ask.”
“Like why we don’t expand the town?” suggested Benny.
“And … why don’t we try and—what’s the word?—reclaim what we lost. I know. Since we got back I’ve been thinking a lot about that.”
“I’ll bet you have. You’re Tom’s brother after all.”
“Okay, now what about that? After what happened, I guess my opinion about Tom has changed a bit.”
“But … ?”
“But I still don’t understand why everyone thinks Tom is so tough. He’s even on one of the Zombie Cards.”
“You haven’t seem him in action?”
“All I saw was him do was hog-tie one skinny zom.”
“Sure. He ran away from the three bounty hunters.”
“‘Ran away,’” echoed the artist, looking amused. “Tom Imura, running away.” He suddenly threw his head back and laughed for a whole minute, his thin body shaking, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. He slapped the tabletop over and over again until the cold coffee in Benny’s cup jumped and spilled.
“Holy crap, kid.” Sacchetto gasped when he could talk. “God! I haven’t laughed that hard since Mayor Kirsch’s outdoor shower blew away in the Santa Ana, leaving him standing stark naked with soap dripping off his—”
“What’s so freaking funny?” interrupted Benny.
The artist held up his hands in a “sorry” gesture, palms out. “It’s just that anyone who knows your brother, I mean, really knows him, is going to react the same way if you tell them that Tom Imura was afraid of anything.”
“He ran away. …”
“He ran away because you were there, kid. Believe me, if he’d been alone …” He left the rest unsaid.
“You don’t live with him,” Benny said irritably. “You don’t know what I know. You don’t know what I’ve seen.”
Sacchetto shrugged. “That pretty much goes both ways. You don’t know what I know. Or what I’ve seen.”
They sat there for half a minute, both of them re-evaluating things and trying to find a doorway back into the conversation.
Finally, the artist said, “The Lost Girl. My end of the bargain.”
“The Lost Girl,” Benny agreed. “Tell me that she’s real.”
Benny closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked down at the card. “Tell me she’s alive.”
“That I can’t say for sure,” said Sacchetto, but when Benny looked up at him, his eyes filling with dread, the artist shook his head. “No, I mean that I can’t say for sure how she is today, this minute. But she was alive and well a couple of months ago.”
“How do you know?” demanded Benny.
“Because I saw her,” said the artist.
“You … saw her?”
“Once, just for a minute. Maybe half a minute, but yeah, I saw her out in the Ruin, and I came back and painted her. Tom helped me remember a few details, but that card there … That’s her to a tee.”