Home > Flesh and Bone (Benny Imura #3)(8)

Flesh and Bone (Benny Imura #3)(8)
Author: Jonathan Maberry

She nodded. “The truth, with nothing hidden.”

“Good. Then here’s the thing. I’m twice your age.”

“What does that matter—?”

“Shhh, let me talk. Let’s do this the right way, okay?”

Lilah had not replied to that. The moment had not become what she had expected. In books, the hero sweeps the he**ine up into his arms and they kiss. Lilah had never kissed anyone except Annie and George, and those were cheek kisses. Not the fiery kisses she’d read about. The kinds of kisses where the world tilts on its axis and the he**ine feels like she’s going to faint. Lilah did not know what that really meant, but she wanted to find out.

What Tom said was, “Lilah, you are my friend. You’re a very pretty girl, no doubt about that. You are strong, and intelligent, and lovely, and you care about people. All of those are amazing qualities. If I was Benny’s age, I have no doubt that I would be one of a hundred boys who would fall head over heels for you. But that’s not going to happen, for a couple of very good reasons. First, I’m an adult and you’re a teenager, so there are all sorts of legal and moral issues right there, and I’m not the kind of guy who’s ever been interested in crossing those lines. Not now and not ever.”

Lilah said nothing to that. It was a stupid reason, and she was sure that she could kick it aside.

“Second, even though it’s a self-appointed role, I’m charged with protecting you. That means I have to advise you against making the wrong kinds of choices. If you came to me and told me that you were in love with someone else, some other adult, I’d give you the same advice: Don’t do it.”

She ignored that, too. There were no protectors when she lived alone in the Ruin, and she did not believe she needed anyone to make decisions for her. She had to fight to keep a dismissive sneer off her face.

“And third, and most important of all—I don’t love you like that, Lilah. I don’t now and I won’t.”

“Why not?” Lilah demanded, her tone fierce, her posture aggressive.

Tom set his coffee cup down and looked out the window at the falling snow for a long time. When he turned back to her, his eyes were filled with more sadness than Lilah had ever seen in anyone’s eyes.

“Because I’m already in love with someone, Lilah,” he said softly. There were thorns and broken glass in his voice.

“With who?” demanded Lilah.

“With Nix’s mom. With Jessie Riley.”

Lilah blinked. “But . . . Nix’s mother is dead. Charlie Pink-eye killed her.”

“Yes,” agreed Tom. “Charlie beat her so badly that she was dying when I found her. I held her while she died, Lilah. I felt her go. I felt her heart stop. I felt her last breath on my lips.”

A single tear broke and fell down Tom’s cheek.

“I loved Jessie Riley with my whole heart.”

“I—” began Lilah, but Tom shook his head.

“No.” He wiped the tear away with his fingers and looked at the wetness for a long moment. “I had to use a sliver to keep her from coming back.”

“Oh . . .”

“You know,” Tom said softly, “this year, during the spring festival, I was going to propose to her. Benny and Nix don’t know that. There’s a silversmith in Haven who was making the ring.”

He sniffed and took a breath.

“Jessie had my heart, Lilah. And . . . when she died, I think that part of me died with her.” He shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll ever love anyone else. Not like that.”

“In books,” Lilah protested, “people heal. They get over it.”

“Other people, maybe,” Tom said. “But—those books were written before First Night.”

It was the last thing he said about it. Lilah stayed for a cup of coffee, but they sat at the table and looked at things inside their own heads and said nothing to each other. Her coffee was cold and untouched when she left the house, and they never spoke of it again.

Somewhere, somehow, during the long weeks after that conversation with Tom, Lilah’s heart changed. She let go of her desire for Tom, though in a different way she loved him more than ever. She always would.

Now Tom was dead.

She walked on along the stream, pushing herself to focus on her mission.

However, she wondered if, now that Tom was gone too, there was someplace where he and Mrs. Riley were together again. Lilah’s understanding of her own spiritual beliefs was largely unformed, but she wanted Tom and Jessie Riley to be together. Tom had earned that.

If that could be true, then maybe there was a place where George and Annie were together. He’d be lying under a tree, peeling an apple, and she’d be laughing as she chased butterflies in a sunlit field where there were no living dead and no evil men.

It was why Lilah did not fear death. So many of the people she loved were waiting for her there.

Lilah kept walking along the muddy bank of the stream, but she slowed and then stopped completely. The path ahead of her was invisible now. It was not hidden by shadows, and it had not petered out as loose soil gave way to hard rock. No, it was simply that Lilah couldn’t see a thing through the hot tears that boiled from her eyes and burned their way down her cheeks.

15

BENNY AND CHONG STOOD AT THE EDGE OF THE RAVINE. MORE THAN AN hour had passed since Lilah had gone looking for Eve’s family, and half an hour since Benny’s inexplicable fight with Nix. Now Nix sat sleeping against the tree with Eve in her arms. Benny did not tell Chong about the argument. He was still trying to figure a way to explain it to himself and so far had made no headway at all.

Benny sighed.

“Something wrong?” asked Chong, distractedly peeling a fig while staring into the ravine.

What could possibly be wrong? wondered Benny sourly. I either think I’m hearing voices or I’m actually being haunted. And I got so depressed down in the ravine that I almost gave up fighting for my own life. How’s that for “wrong”?

“Tell me something, O mighty sage,” Benny said at length. “Do you ever have too many thoughts in your head?”

Chong started to say something funny and biting, but stopped himself and studied Benny for a slow three-count. He turned back to study the faces of the dead.

After a long time he said, “All the time, man. All the darn time.”

They were silent for many long minutes before either of them spoke again.

“Earlier . . . you said you saw a woman?” asked Chong. “What was that about?”

Benny told him. And about how she appeared to blow on a silent whistle, and how the zoms did not attack her. By the time he was finished, Chong had a half smile on his face.

Benny sighed. “Go on, say it.”

“You are monkey-bat crazy.”

“Thanks.”

“A whistle?”

“Yeah.”

“Like . . . what? A dog whistle?”

Benny grunted. He hadn’t considered that possibility. Mr. Lafferty, who owned the general store, had a dog whistle. You couldn’t hear that sound either.

“Maybe,” said Benny. “That’s what it kind of looked like.”

“For calling zoms?”

“I never said she called the zoms. I’m telling you what I saw.”

“Okay,” said Chong.

“Okay,” said Benny.

They watched the zoms.

“Real question,” said Chong, “so don’t hit me.”

“Okay.”

“How was it down there? Was it bad?”

“It was bad.”

“Are . . . you okay?”

Benny shrugged.

“Did you see any fast ones?” asked Chong.

“A couple.”

“Jeez.”

“Yeah.”

All their lives there had been only one kind of living dead. Slow, mindless, shuffling zoms. It was the way it was—a zom was a zom was a zom. Then last month, while Benny and Nix were on the way to Gameland, they had encountered zombies who moved faster. Not really as fast as a healthy human, but at least twice as fast as any zom Benny had ever heard about.

That ugly fact was just one of several things about the zoms that was changing the world as Benny knew it. The people back in town had only survived this long because they began to understand what zoms could and could not do. Knowledge of them did not make the dead less of a threat, but it increased the chances of survival in a world where zoms were everywhere.

Now that was changing. Now nothing that had previously been known about them could be relied on. Some zombies were faster. The few advantages people had over zoms seemed to be crumbling.

What if the dead started thinking? There were seven billion of them, and barely enough humans to fill a small city.

They stood in the silence of their own thoughts for a long time. The zombies watched them with unblinking eyes. Birds sang in the trees on Benny’s side of the divide, but there was movement in the sky above the zoms. Benny shielded his eyes from the glare and peered at a dozen large black birds drifting in slow circles high above the far side of the field. Chong noticed him looking and cupped his hands around his eyes too. He turned and saw even more of them over the forest behind them.

“Turkey vultures,” observed Chong.

“I know.”

They watched the dark, ugly birds glide without sound on the thermal currents above the endless miles of pinyon pines.

“There are a lot of them out today,” Chong said. “Seem to be everywhere.”

Benny looked at him. He could feel the blood drain from his face.

“Oh, crap . . .”

“Yeah. Carrion birds don’t eat zoms . . .”

“ . . . so what are they circling?” Benny finished.

It was one of the great mysteries of the Ruin that vermin did not feed on the zoms, even though they smelled of decay. No one understood it, and as Mr. Lafferty at the general store once said, “Kind of a shame, too, ’cause in about a month we’d have had a zillion fat crows and no zoms at all.”

Chong said, “Something’s dead out there.”

“I’d better get Nix,” said Benny.

16

LILAH ANGRILY FISTED THE TEARS FROM HER EYES AND GLARED AROUND AS IF ready to bash anyone who happened to be a witness to those tears. She detested weakness of any kind. It was something she could barely tolerate in her friends and would not allow in herself.

Especially after what had happened a month ago. After Tom led them out of town, their group had gotten separated. Chong, torn by guilt for having inadvertently caused Nix’s face to be slashed, and generally feeling like the town boy he was, had run away, requiring that Tom go and find him. That night, while Nix, Benny, and Lilah waited for Tom’s return in a deserted monk’s way station, the place was overrun by a sea of zoms. Thousands upon thousands of them; more zoms than anyone had seen in one place since First Night. In the moments before the attack, Lilah had been arguing with Benny, and he accused her of deliberately ignoring and mocking Chong’s feelings for her. That hurt, because it was entirely true. Lilah cared for Chong, but he was the weakest and least hardy of their team. He was not suited for the Ruin; not at all. When the zoms attacked, Lilah panicked and ran. It was the first time she had ever panicked since that terrible night when she had escaped from Gameland and was forced to quiet Annie. She’d thrown down her spear and run blindly into the dark. Even now she could not remember what her thoughts had been in those moments. Or even if she’d had any thoughts. All she remembered was running through the blackness, inside and out.

Awareness came back to her much later. She found herself curled on the ground, totally vulnerable and totally lucky to be alive. The zoms had not found her; but a strange mountain loner named the Greenman had. He hadn’t attacked her—just the reverse; he showed her kindness and patience, and helped her discover where she’d left her strength. He also spoke with her about love, about responsibility, about guilt, and about the choices everyone makes.

Lilah had wept several times that day. And she wept even more bitterly that night, when the monster Preacher Jack shot Tom Imura in the back. It did not matter that Preacher Jack and Gameland both died that night. Tom Imura had died too. Lilah had clung to his hand as the last strength went out of it. Even now, a month later, thinking about it was like being punched in the heart.

She stood there in the forest and wept again. For Tom.

And for Annie.

God, how that little girl, Eve, looked like Annie. So much. Too much.

It was unfair.

It was cruel.

She sniffed and wiped her eyes and took as many deep breaths as she needed to in order to stop her chest from hitching with sobs. The forest waited for her. The day seemed to pause for her.

“Annie,” Lilah whispered to the forest. “Oh God, Annie, I miss you.”

She begged the forest to answer her. She begged for the ghost of Annie to speak inside her mind, like the ghost of Tom Imura sometimes did.

And suddenly the forest stopped being empty and silent.

She spun and faced the northern reach of the forest as noise filled the air. She frowned. This was not a forest sound. It was a sound she had only ever heard once, back in Mountainside.

It was the sound of a machine.

No . . . machines. At least two, coming from different directions.

The sounds rode the breeze toward her from different directions. Motor sounds, clearly mechanical, like the hand-crank generators in the town’s hospital.

Lilah ducked behind a tumble of rocks, going low and still, melting into the landscape as the motor sounds grew from a growl to a roar.

The leaves of the forest wall parted, and Lilah beheld something that shocked her. Something she’d believed belonged only to a world that no longer existed.

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