Home > Flesh and Bone (Benny Imura #3)(6)

Flesh and Bone (Benny Imura #3)(6)
Author: Jonathan Maberry

“But . . . the way-station monks travel all over, don’t they?”

Chong shrugged. “Sure. Like the Irish monks did during the Middle Ages and the Jesuits did a few centuries later. The Shaolin did it in China, too. Traveling, recording, spreading information, and making connections among the learned. Kind of a theme with traveling monks.”

“The way-station monks don’t travel to spread their religion, though.”

“Not every monk or priest is an evangelist, Benny. Some were scholars and historians. Though, shocking as it is, you’re right about one thing. If we find people using the same post–First Night slang, then it’s probably going to be because of the monks.”

“Gosh, Encyclopedia Chong. Thanks for throwing me a bone.”

“It’s a small bone. Chew it well.”

Benny elbowed him in the ribs, but he did it discreetly. He didn’t want to scare the kid.


EVE EVENTUALLY FELL ASLEEP. NIX WAVED EVERYONE AWAY SO AS NOT TO disturb the child. Benny drifted off to stare at the zoms in the ravine.

Chong saw Lilah sitting on a fallen log, sharpening the blade of her spear in preparation for setting off to find Eve’s parents. Not feeling in the mood for another rebuke, he sank down with his back to a slender pine, closed his eyes, and began wandering slowly through the library of his mind. That was how he viewed it. A library, with shelves of books and rows of file cabinets in which his thoughts and memories and experiences were neatly filed.

The only mental file cabinet that was not as neatly and precisely ordered was the one labeled LILAH.

That one leaned with an awkward tilt, its sides were dented, and none of the drawers rolled smoothly out.

Lilah was the storm that swirled around Chong’s life, and he dwelt in its calm eye, awed by the power and beauty of it, but not at all sure he understood it. Chong was relatively sure he would die of old age before he ever understood her completely.

He conjured the image of her in his mind. She was easily the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Tall, lithe, with long, tanned limbs, eyes the color of honey, and snow-white hair. Since Tom’s death, it had fallen to Lilah to be the de facto leader of their expedition. Even though she’d never been to Nevada—or in a desert—she understood the logic and science of survival. From age eleven to sixteen she had lived alone in the Ruin, alternately running from zoms and bounty hunters and hunting them. Chong believed that Lilah could survive in any environment on earth in which she found herself. And although he could understand the skills she possessed on an intellectual level, he knew that he lacked her basic survival instincts.

His reverie ended abruptly with a sharp kick in the middle of his thigh.

“Ow!” he yelped, and loaded his tongue with the vilest insult he could construct for Benny . . . only it wasn’t Benny.

When Chong opened his eyes, it was Lilah standing over him. She had her leather hunting pouch slung slantwise across her body and the spear in her hand.

“Wake up,” she said.

“I am awake.”

Lilah dropped the spear in the grass and sat cross-legged, facing him.

“I am leaving,” she said.

“You just got here.”

“No, I am going to find Annie’s parents.”

“Eve’s,” he corrected.

Her eyes flashed with irritation. “That’s what I said.”

“Okay,” said Chong.

Lilah sat there with an expectant look on her face.

“Yes?” asked Chong.

“Well—?” she said.

“Well . . . what?”

“I said I was leaving.”

“I know. Did . . . you want me to go with you?”

She laughed. “This is a hunt.”

“I know.”

“I will be moving fast. Tracking.”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

“You’re a—”

“A town boy. Yes, I know that, too.” He smiled. It was a fact she reminded him of a dozen times each day. “And this town boy would slow you down, get you eaten by zoms, and otherwise bring about the downfall of what’s left of humanity.”

“Well . . . yes.” Lilah studied him, clearly unsure of how to respond. Humor was the bluntest tool in her personal skills set.

“Then if it’s all the same to you, I’ll stay here and manfully defend this tree.”

Lilah narrowed her eyes. “That is not a funny joke.”

“No,” he admitted. “Just mildly silly.”

They sat for a moment, she looking at him and Chong pretending to look at nothing.

“I am leaving,” she said again.

“Okay,” he said.

She lingered, waiting.

“What?” he asked again.

“I am leaving,” she replied, leaning on the word.

“Okay. Good-bye. Be safe. Come back soon.”

“No,” she said.

“Good hunting?”

Lilah growled low in her throat, grabbed his shirt with both hands, and hauled him toward her. Into a kiss that was fierce and hot and instantly intense. After several scalding seconds, she shoved him roughly back.

She got to her feet and snatched up her spear, then looked pityingly down at him. “Stupid town boy,” she muttered, then turned and jogged into the forest.

Chong lay sprawled, eyes glazed and face flushed.

“Holy moley . . . ,” he gasped.


CHONG LOOKED UP AS BENNY’S SHADOW FELL ACROSS HIM. BENNY WAS grinning like a ghoul as he softly chanted, “Chong and Lilah sitting in a tree . . .”

“Although I’m a moral person,” began Chong as he climbed to his feet, “I would have no compunction about killing you in your sleep.”

“Just saying . . .”

Chong squatted down in front of Nix, who held a sleeping Eve. The little girl twitched every now and then, as if flinching away from shadows in her dreams.

Chong reached out to stroke Eve’s silky hair. “I’ll sit with her for a while if you want.”

“You sure?” asked Nix.

“Sure, you know me and kids.”

Nix nodded. Unlike Benny, who was often clumsy around kids and old people, Chong was completely comfortable with them. His inner calm seemed to work magic on the little ones, and he told the best stories. Chong knew all of Aesop’s fables, Mother Goose, Oz, and Narnia, and a huge number of silly, funny stories culled from the countless books he’d read.

With a grateful sigh, Nix handed Eve to Chong, who took her with such care that the little girl never even stirred. Chong crossed his legs and sat back against the tree.

Benny touched Nix’s arm. “Want to take a walk?”

She nodded, and they set off at a slow stroll toward the forest and then turned just before the line of junipers and walked north in the shade.

The forest itself was a strange holdover from before First Night. It had once been an elaborate golf course that someone had plunked down in the middle of an inhospitable desert. Wind-driven turbines had been erected to pump in water from some distant place in order to keep the grass green; but after First Night, the wind turbines began to fail. Benny and his friends had passed a line of them on the way here. Of the fifty they counted, only three still turned sluggishly, and they must have been enough to allow some trees and plants to flourish. But there was clear evidence that the more water-hungry vegetation was dying and the more desert-hardy junipers and pinyons were taking over. Soon only the desert plants would be left, and another of man’s structures that had been imposed on the land would be reclaimed by nature.

They walked in silence through the green trees, leaving the stench of the crowd of zoms behind. A few small white butterflies fluttered past. A black-tailed jackrabbit sat shoulder-deep in the grass, munching on a stem, and paused to watch them with a nervous eye, but soon went back to its foraging. All around them the desert birds flitted and sang. Benny loved birds and pointed out some of his favorites to Nix.

“That one there’s a sage grouse,” he said. “And see, on that branch? That’s a horned lark. And I think I saw a meadowlark earlier and . . .”

His voice trailed off as he realized that she wasn’t listening. She wasn’t even giving him the usual courtesy nods and grunts people give when they’re pretending to listen. Nix was deep inside her own thoughts, and Benny was on the other side of that wall. He lapsed into silence, and they walked without talking for ten minutes.

“I asked Eve about where she came from,” Nix said eventually.


“A lot of it is confusing. She’s little, and she doesn’t understand most of what’s happened, and I think she’s a bit out of it, you know? Like, in shock? Some of the things she says don’t make much sense. I think she’s confusing stuff from dreams, or maybe nightmares, with things that are actually happening.”

Benny nodded toward the zoms on the other side of the long ravine. “That’s not too hard to understand. Sometimes I can’t believe it myself. Sometimes I think I’m going to wake up and smell Tom’s cooking, and then I’ll go down to breakfast. Scrambled eggs with peppers and mushrooms. Your mom’s corn muffins. Fresh-pressed apple juice and a big glass of milk.” He sighed.

Nix nodded but didn’t comment on that. “Eve said she used to live in a house up in a town called Treetops. I don’t know if that’s real or something she made up.”

“That’s actually not a bad idea. Zoms can’t climb.”

“She said that one night the trees all caught fire and everyone ran. And here’s the really strange part: She said that it was angels who came and set fire to the trees.”

“She mentioned angels before. Is that another name for zoms?”

“I don’t think so. She said the angels came riding in on what she called ‘growly horses.’ Isn’t that strange?”


“According to her, the angels had wings on their chests.”

“On their chests?” Benny grinned at the thought. “Wouldn’t that make them fly upside down?”

“It’s not funny,” said Nix. “Eve was really scared of them.”

They stopped and picked some tart early-season elderberries.

As Benny ate, he thought about the idea of wings on the chests of angels, and it made him think about the woman he’d seen in the field right before the horde of zoms attacked him. What was it embroidered on the front of her shirt? Could that have been angel wings?

He told Nix about her.

“You sure she wasn’t a zom?”

“Yeah. Weird, huh? Oh, and I heard a strange sound while I was down in the ravine.” He described the motor noise. “Did you hear anything like that?”

“A motor?” Nix brightened. “I didn’t hear anything, but . . . could it have been a jet?”

Benny thought about it and reluctantly shook his head. “No. It didn’t sound anywhere near big enough.”

Nix looked crestfallen, and Benny felt bad. Although he was out here in the Ruin to look for the jet too, it was clear to everyone that the search for the jet was Nix’s mission. Her quest. Benny wanted to find it, as did Lilah and Chong; but Nix needed to find it. Benny thought he knew why she was so obsessed by it, but he didn’t dare say it to her. Not now, anyway.

He let her sort through her own emotions for a moment. She chewed her lip thoughtfully, then grunted. “Hmm. Motors . . .”


“I don’t know, but it makes me wonder what sound those ‘growly horses’ made.”

He paused with a handful of berries halfway to his mouth. “Wow,” he said quietly.

“Wow,” she agreed. “Mr. Lafferty said once that just because the EMPs blew out all the motors, there was no reason why someone couldn’t repair some of them. I mean . . . we did see that jet.”

“Yes, we did.”

“So . . . maybe the growly horses are some kind of . . . I don’t know . . . car or truck or something.”

Benny nodded. “Not sure I want to find out.”

Nix looked away and didn’t answer. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she asked, “Do you regret it?”

“Regret . . . what?”

“This,” she said, gesturing to the forest. “Leaving town, coming out here. Are you sorry we came?”

Benny tensed. He loved Nix, but he knew that she was not above setting verbal traps for him to put his foot into. She’d done it enough times, and he’d stumbled numbly into them more times than he could count. It wasn’t a very likable quality, but it wasn’t any kind of deal breaker for them. He was pretty sure there were things he did that annoyed her, too.

So he relied on one of his favorite stalling tactics. “What do you mean?”

“What I said,” Nix replied, parrying deftly. “Are you sorry we came?”

Benny stuffed his mouth with berries to buy another second to think, and he rather hoped another ravine full of zoms would suddenly open up in the ground directly in front of them.

When that did not happen, he swallowed and braced himself and said, “Sometimes.”


“We haven’t found the jet,” he said. “And until today we haven’t even seen any people. We don’t know if we’re going in the right direction. We’re low on supplies, and now we’ve run into a horde of zoms.” He paused, wondering how far off the cliff of “said too much” he’d already gone. He tried to fix it, but the wrong words came out. “I guess it isn’t what I expected.”

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