“That’s another thing they didn’t tell us in school.”
“They wouldn’t,” said Tom. “Trust me, though, fear is the code we live by here in town, and in the other towns scattered along this mountain range. I suspect that if there are other towns still surviving elsewhere in the country or the world, then fear is what they live by too.”
“Not everyone’s afraid, though. …”
“No. You’re right. … There are some people who don’t let fear rule their actions, and I suspect it’ll be your generation that turns things around. Most of the people my age or older are lost in fear, and they’ll never find their way back. But you and your friends, especially those young enough to not remember First Night … You’re the ones who will choose whether to live in fear or not.”
“Last week, when you said that people in town didn’t trust anything out in the Ruin, that they think everything’s diseased …”
Tom nodded. “You’re on the right track. We—our town—could reclaim most of central California. Not Los Angeles, of course; that’s lost for good. But we could retake hundreds of thousands of square miles of farmland. We could reclaim whole towns. Like that town where Harold Simmons lived. Don’t you think three or four hundred armed people could retake that town?”
“We wouldn’t need anywhere near that many. Fifty people in carpet coats, with rifles, axes, and swords could do it. It isn’t a big town.”
“Right. And there are a dozen towns within a day’s walk from here. Hundreds just a few days away, with farmable land where we could grow more food than we could eat. No one would go hungry.”
Benny looked at the muffin he held between his fingers, and it struck him that if Nix and her mother were as poor as everyone said they were, then just the ingredients for the muffins must have cut into their own rations. He set the muffin down.
His brother leaned his forearms on the table and said quietly, “Let me tell you a secret, Benny. The first secret you and I will share, okay?”
“I’ll never let Jessie and Nix Riley go hungry. Haven’t you noticed that we don’t have meat on our table seven days a week, even though we can afford it?”
“That’s so there’s meat on their table. Nix doesn’t know, and you have to swear to me that you’ll never tell her.”
Benny tried to say the words, “I swear,” but his mouth was too dry to let the words out. Thunder punctuated his attempt, and Tom nodded, as if a deal had been struck.
When he could speak, Benny said, “I don’t get it. How can the town let anyone go hungry? I mean, we have the rationing system and all. Isn’t it supposed to provide—”
“Believe it or not, it was actually worse before First Night. There were hundreds of thousands of people without homes or food.”
“What, just living on the streets?” Benny laughed.
“Exactly. Homeless. Whole families. In every city in the country. I’ll bet they don’t teach that in school, either. The zombie uprising didn’t change everything.”
Benny shook his head, unable to grasp the concept. “You know how Nix is always writing in her diary?”
“It’s not a diary. She’s collected everything she can about zoms. She has this idea about getting out of Mountainside.” He told Tom about the Pacific Islands and Nix’s practical dreams of reclaiming them and starting a new life without the constant threat of the living dead.
Tom listened very attentively to every word, nodding his approval. “Darn smart girl. You ever think of asking her out?”
“Don’t go there, Tom.”
“Oookay.” Tom sipped his tea. “As far as Nix’s idea … I did say that it would be your generation that would probably change things. A few of us—too very few of us, really—have been trying to make changes, to get the others to shake loose from the fear. Sadly, we haven’t had much luck. Over the last dozen years, Mountainside has settled into a pattern, and the only thing more powerful than fear is routine. Once people are in a rut, it’s sometimes the hardest thing in the world to get them out of it. They defend the routine, too. They say that it’s a simpler life, less stressful and complicated, more predictable. Some of them are getting nostalgic about it, they mythologize it, as if we’re living in the Old West, except with zombies instead of wild Indians.”
“That’s dumb,” Benny said.
“It’s fearful,” Tom corrected, “but it’s safe. At least they think it is. It allows them to think they know the whole size and shape of their world. Except for when you kids are talking, you almost never hear someone talk about the world that was. People don’t ask one another where they’re from. I mean, they kind of know, and certainly if you look around, Mountainside is a microcosm of global diversity. Doc Gurijala was born in northern India, Old Man Sanchez came here from Oaxaca in Mexico. The Mekong brothers are Vietnamese. Chong’s Chinese, our dad was Japanese. And yet as far as you could tell from conversations around town, we’re all ‘from Mountainside.’ End of story. The rest of the world no longer exists. Do you know why?”
“I think so,” said Benny. “If they talk about where they’re from, they have to talk about what happened. And … who they left behind.”
“Right. Fear fueled by grief.” Tom rubbed his face with his palms.
“What about the bounty hunters and … and what you do? People have to talk about the outside world for that.”
Tom nodded approval. “That’s true, and it’s a cultural quirk that surfaces once in a while, but once the closure is accomplished, then the client goes right back into their shell. There are plenty of people who were clients of mine in the past, who walk by me on the street without a flicker of recognition. Either they pretend to ignore me, so that they don’t have to think about the service I provided for them, or they truly have forgotten it, as if a door closed in their minds. I can count the number of former clients on the fingers of one hand who will even talk to me about the closure job I did for them.” He paused. “Jessie Riley is one of them.”
Benny’s teacup paused an inch from his lips. “What? Nix’s mom was a client of yours?”
“Yes. Years ago.”
“But … but Nix said that it was just her and her mom.”
“Nowadays, sure. But everyone has family somewhere, Ben. Nix had a father and two older brothers.”
“First Night,” Tom agreed.
“God! Does Nix even know?”
“That’s hard to say. If Jessie told her, then either Nix has chosen not to say anything to her friends or she’s blocked it out like everyone else does.”
Benny shook his head. “Nix would have told me.”
“Are you sure?”
“She would have told me. Especially after I told her …”
Benny’s voice trailed off and Tom nodded. “After you told her about our trip to the Ruin?”
“It’s up to her what she chooses to tell you, but as far as what I’m about to share, that’s confidential. Family business. You can’t tell her about this.”
“We never break a client’s confidence. I need your word on this.”
Benny finished his tea as he thought it through. He didn’t want to agree, but he couldn’t construct a single reason why not.
“Yeah,” he said, “okay.”
“Good. Now we get to what you want to hear, because the story of Nix’s family is tied to the Lost Girl.”
“Wait!” said Benny, “In the story the artist guy told me, there was a woman who had a baby. Was that baby Nix?”
Tom sat back and cocked his head to one side. “How long ago was First Night?”
“Almost fourteen years ago and … oh. Right. Nix will be fifteen in a couple of months. Can’t be her.”
“My brother, the math genius.”
“There is a connection, though, but it’s not a blood link, not a family tie,” Tom said. “I was doing the closure job for Jessie Riley. Rob had done erosion portraits of Mike Riley and the boys, Greg and Danny, and Jessie said that when she fled her house, she’d slammed the door behind her. Very few zoms can turn doorknobs, and most of them don’t have the coordination to climb out of a window. So unless someone else opened the door, there was a good chance they’d still be there.”
“How long ago was this?”
“About five years ago. Remember the first time I left you with Fran and Randy Kirsch? I left on a Sunday, as I remember, heading northeast. There were a lot more zoms roaming free back then, and the farther I went from Mountainside, the more of them I saw. Most of them were singles, walking along, following some movement—a deer, a rabbit, whatever—but there were groups of them, too. Biggest group I saw was about fifty, standing in the middle of an intersection. Probably they’d come down different roads and met at the intersection and had nowhere else to go. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? But that’s what happens if there’s nothing for them to hunt and nothing to attract them. They just stop.”
“What about the noms?”
“Good question and I don’t have a good answer. They’re different. The nomads keep wandering and never seem to stop, but they’re rare. Maybe one out of every couple thousand will roam.”
“I thought all zoms were the same,” said Benny, unnerved by Tom’s story.
“Not all of anything is the same. There are always differences, always changes.”
“Zombie evolution?” Benny joked, but Tom shrugged.
“Maybe. We don’t know.”
“How can we not know?”
“Benny … it’s not like anyone’s made a formal scientific study of zombies. Get real. Who would do that? How would they do it? Mind you, I think they should do it, but as I already said, the people around here don’t spend much active thought on what happens beyond the fence line. Any information on differences in zombies comes from the kind of people who go out into the Ruin. Bounty hunters, the way-station monks, the traders who go from town to town. A few others. And the loners.”
“There are people who live out in the Ruin. They’re individuals who want to be alone and would rather deal with the threat of the zoms than rejoin society.”
“That’s hard to answer, because they’re not a ‘type,’ if you know what I mean. Each one of them has their own reasons. I know some of them. A few are friends. Some never make contact with anyone with a pulse.” He inhaled through his nose. “And a few of them are very bad people. I know of some that I wouldn’t come within fifty yards of without a weapon in my hand.”
“Because some of them will kill anyone they meet. Human or zom, they don’t care. They’ve staked out a spot, and I guess it’s their version of paradise, or maybe their corner of hell, and it’s more than your life’s worth to trespass.”
“How can you tell what are the no-trespass zones?”
“Smart question. The borders are usually marked. Staked out, so to speak. It’s very tribal. I know of a family, living high in the hills, who have driven a line of stakes into the ground all around their place and topped each stake with a head.”
“Human heads or zoms?”
“After the crows have been at them, it’s hard to say, but I wouldn’t want to bet a torn ration dollar that they only kill zoms.”
“Is that how the Lost Girl lives?”
Tom didn’t answer immediately, but instead shifted back to his narrative. “I kept moving, following an old travel map that Jessie had marked for me. By nightfall on the third day, I reached the town where the Rileys lived. The place had been hit hard by First Night and what happened after. There was a big road—an interstate highway that ran past it—and it was choked with rusted vehicles. Zoms had been smashed by cars and trucks; run over by people trying to flee or by people who were trying to kill zoms. Even after all that time, you could see where cars skidded away from an impact with a zom and went off the road, or collided with other cars. I guess once a few accidents blocked the road, the cars behind them got jammed up and then the zoms must have closed in and attacked. It was strange, too, because there were clear signs that some of the zoms used stones and heavy sticks to smash through the windows.”
“Zoms using tools?”
“Sounds weird, right? But I’ve seen it a couple of times. It’s another one of the variations, and I can’t explain it any more than I can explain why they don’t rot away completely.” Tom took a muffin and bit off a piece, chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then continued. “There were some military vehicles there, too, and I could tell there had been a huge battle. Everything had been chopped by heavy caliber rounds or blasted by grenades and rockets. Even with that there were very few bodies, of course, because the dead would have reanimated. That’s why we didn’t win the war. By the time the authorities realized that it was only damage to the motor cortex of the brain or to the brain stem that could permanently put them down, a lot of the combat units had been overwhelmed by zoms they’d hit with body shots. I saw a couple of those early fights, and I saw machine gunners emptying their weapons at the walking dead, chopping off arms and legs and tearing out huge chunks of hips and torsos, and the zoms just got back up and kept coming. Or they crawled toward the troops. I guess the soldiers permanently dropped half of the zoms they faced, but some of the dead got up three, four times, advancing a little closer each time until … well, you know. We lost. There were plenty of bones, though, skeletons from people that had been attacked by crowds of zombies and devoured, or from zoms that had been killed by head shots.”