“I know this is hard, kiddo,” he said gently, “but we live in a pretty hard world. We struggle to live. We’re always on our guard, and we have to toughen ourselves just to get through each day. And each night.”
“I hate you.”
“Maybe. I doubt it, but it doesn’t matter right now.” He gestured toward the path that led back home. “Everybody west of here has lost someone. Maybe someone close or maybe a distant cousin three times removed. But everybody lost someone.”
Benny said nothing.
“I don’t believe that you would disrespect anyone in our town or in the whole west. I also don’t believe—I don’t want to believe—that you’d disrespect the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers who live out here in the great Rot and Ruin.”
He put his hands on Benny’s shoulders and turned him around. Benny resisted, but Tom Imura was strong. When they were both facing east, Tom said, “Every dead person out there deserves respect. Even in death. Even when we fear them. Even when we have to kill them. They aren’t ‘just zoms,’ Benny. That’s a side effect of a disease or from some kind of radiation or something else that we don’t understand. I’m no scientist, Benny. I’m a simple man doing a job.”
“Yeah? You’re trying to sound all noble, but you kill them.” Benny had tears in his eyes.
“Yes,” Tom said softly, “I do. I’ve killed hundreds of them. If I’m smart and careful—and lucky—I’ll kill hundreds more.”
Benny shoved him with both hands. It only pushed Tom back a half step. “I don’t understand!”
“No, you don’t. I hope you will, though.”
“You talk about respect for the dead and yet you kill them.”
“This isn’t about the killing. It isn’t, and never should be, about the killing.”
“Then what?” Benny sneered. “The money?”
“Are we rich?”
“Then it’s obviously not about the money.”
“It’s about the why of the killing. For the living … for the dead,” Tom said. “It’s about closure.”
Benny shook his head.
“Come with me, kiddo. It’s time you understood how the world works. It’s time you learned what the family business is all about.”
THEY WALKED FOR MILES UNDER THE HOT SUN. THE PEPPERMINT GEL RAN off with their sweat, and had to be reapplied hourly. Benny was quiet for most of the trip, but as his feet got sore and his stomach started to rumble, he turned cranky.
“Are we there yet?”
“How far is it?”
“We’ll stop soon.”
“What’s for lunch?”
“Beans and jerky.”
“I hate jerky.”
“You bring anything else?” Tom asked.
“Jerky it is, then.”
The roads Tom picked were narrow and often turned from asphalt to gravel to dirt.
“We haven’t seen a zom in a couple of hours,” Benny said. “How come?”
“Unless they hear or smell something that draws them, they tend to stick close to home.”
“Well … to the places they used to live or work.”
Tom took a couple of minutes on that. “There are lots of theories, but that’s all we have—just theories. Some folks say that the dead lack the intelligence to think that there’s anywhere other than where they’re standing. If nothing attracts them or draws them, they’ll just stay right where they are.”
“But they need to hunt, don’t they?”
“‘Need’ is a tricky word. Most experts agree that the dead will attack and kill, but it’s not been established that they actually hunt. Hunting implies need, and we don’t know that the dead need to do anything.”
“I don’t understand.”
They crested a hill and looked down a dirt road to where an old gas station sat beneath a weeping willow.
“Have you ever heard of one of them just wasting away and dying of hunger?” Tom asked.
“The people in town think that the dead survive by eating the living, right?”
“Well, sure, but—”
“What ‘living’ do you think they’re eating?”
“Think about it. There’re more than three hundred million living dead in America alone. Throw in another thirty-odd million in Canada and a hundred ten million in Mexico, and you have something like four hundred and fifty million living dead. The Fall happened fourteen years ago. So—what are they eating to stay alive?”
Benny thought about it. “Mr. Feeney says they eat each other.”
“They don’t,” said Tom. “Once a body has started to cool, they stop feeding on it. That’s why there are so many partially eaten living dead. They won’t attack or eat one another even if you locked them in the same house for years on end. People have done it.”
“What happens to them?”
“The trapped ones? Nothing.”
“Nothing? They don’t rot away and die?”
“They’re already dead, Benny.” A shadow passed over the valley and momentarily darkened Tom’s face. “But that’s one of the mysteries. They don’t rot. Not completely. They decay to a certain point, and then they just stop rotting. No one knows why.”
“What do you mean? How can something just stop rotting? That’s stupid.”
“It’s not stupid, kiddo. It’s a mystery. It’s as much a mystery as why the dead rise in the first place. Why they attack humans. Why they don’t attack one another. All mysteries.”
“Maybe they eat, like, cows and stuff.”
Tom shrugged. “Some do, if they can catch them. A lot of people don’t know that, by the way, but it’s true. … They’ll eat anything alive that they can catch. Dogs, cats, birds—even bugs.”
“Well, then, that explains—”
“No,” Tom interrupted. “Most animals are too fast. Ever try to catch a cat who doesn’t want to be caught? Now imagine doing that if you’re only able to shuffle along slowly and can’t strategize. If a bunch of the dead came upon cows in a pen or fenced field, they might be able to kill them and eat. But all the penned animals have either long-since escaped or they died off in the first few months. No … the dead don’t need to feed at all. They just exist.”
“Morgie says that out here wild animals turn into zoms.”
“Nope. As far as anyone’s been able to tell, only humans turn into the living dead. We don’t have the science to try and figure out why, and I don’t know if it’s true everywhere, but we know it to be true here. Otherwise every time you bit into a chili dog, it’d bite back.”
They reached the gas station. Tom stopped by the old pump and knocked on the metal casing three times, then twice, and then four more times.
“What are you doing?”
“Hello to … ?”
There was a low moan, and Benny turned to see a gray-skinned man shuffling slowly around the corner of the building. He wore ancient coveralls that were stained with dark blotches and, incongruously, a garland of fresh flowers around his neck. Marigolds and honeysuckle. The man’s face was shaded for a few steps, but then he crossed into the sunlight, and Benny nearly screamed. The man’s eyes were missing, and the sockets gaped emptily. The moaning mouth was toothless, the lips and cheeks sunken in. Worst of all, as the zombie raised its hands toward them, Benny saw that all of its fingers had been clipped off at the primary knuckles.
Benny gagged and stepped back, his muscles tensed to turn and run, but Tom put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a reassuring squeeze.
“Wait,” said Tom.
A moment later the door to the gas station opened, and a pair of sleepy-eyed young women came outside, followed by a slightly older man with a long, brown beard. They were all thin and dressed in tunics that looked like they had been made from old bed sheets. Each wore a thick garland of flowers. The trio looked at Benny and Tom and then at the zombie.
“Leave him be!” cried the youngest, a black girl in her late teens, as she ran across the dirt to the dead man and stood between him and the Imura brothers, her feet planted, her arms spread to shield the zombie.
Tom raised a hand and took his hat off so they could see his face.
“Peace, little sister,” he said. “No one’s here to do harm.”
The bearded man fished eyeglasses from a pocket beneath his tunic, and squinted through dirty lenses.
“Tom … ?” he said. “Tom Imura?”
“Hey, Brother David.” He put his hand on Benny’s shoulder. “This is my brother, Benjamin.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Passing through,” said Tom. “But I wanted to pay my respects. And to teach Benny the ways of this world. He’s never been outside of the fence before.”
Benny caught the way Tom put emphasis on the word “this.”
Brother David walked over, scratching his beard. Up close he was older than he looked. Maybe forty, with deep brown eyes and a few missing teeth. His clothing was clean but threadbare. He smelled of flowers, garlic, and mint. The man studied Benny for a long moment, during which Tom did nothing and Benny fidgeted.
“He’s not a believer,” said Brother David.
“Belief is tough to come by in these times,” said Tom.
“Seeing is believing.”
Benny thought that their exchange had the cadence of a church litany, as if it was something the two of them had said before and would say again.
Brother David bent toward Benny. “Tell me, young brother, do you come here bringing hurt and harm to the Children of God?”
“Um … no?”
“Do you bring hurt and harm to the Children of Lazarus?”
“I don’t know who they are, mister. I’m just here with my brother.”
Brother David turned toward the women, who were using gentle pushes to steer the zombie back around the far side of the building. “Old Roger there is one of Lazarus’s Children.”
“What? You mean he’s not a zom—”
Tom made a noise to stop him.
A tolerant smile flickered over Brother David’s face. “We don’t use that word, little brother.”
Benny didn’t know how to answer that, so Tom came to his rescue.
“The name comes from Lazarus of Bethany, a man who was raised from the dead by Jesus.”
“Yeah, I remember hearing about that in church.”
The mention of church brightened Brother David’s smile. “You believe in God?” he asked hopefully.
“I guess. …”
“In these times,” said Brother David, “that’s better than most.” He threw a covert wink at Tom.
Benny looked past Brother David to where the girls had taken the zombie. “I’m, like, totally confused here. That guy was a … you know. He’s dead, right?”
“Living dead,” corrected Brother David.
“Right. Why wasn’t he trying to … you know.” He mimed grabbing and biting.
“He doesn’t have teeth,” said Tom. “And you saw his hands.”
Benny nodded. “Did you guys do that?” he asked Brother David.
“No, little brother,” Brother David said with a grimace. “No, other people did that to Old Roger.”
“Who?” demanded Benny.
“Don’t you mean ‘why?’”
“No … who. Who’d do something like that?”
Brother David said, “Old Roger is only one of the Children who have been tortured like that. You can see them all over this county. Men and women with their eyes cut out, their teeth pulled, or jaws shot away. Most of them missing fingers or whole hands. And I won’t talk about some of the other things I’ve seen done. Stuff you’re too young to know about, little brother.”
“I’m fifteen,” said Benny.
“You’re too young. I can remember when being fifteen meant you were still a child.” Brother David turned and watched the two young women return without the old zombie.
“He’s in the shed,” said the black girl.
“But he’s agitated,” said the other, a pale-skinned redhead in her mid-twenties.
“He’ll quiet down after a spell,” said Brother David.
The women stood by the gas pump and eyed Tom, although Tom seemed to suddenly find something fascinating about the movement of the clouds. Benny’s usual inclination was to make a joke at Tom’s expense, but he didn’t feel like it. He turned back to the bearded man.
“Who’s doing all this stuff you’re talking about? To that old man. To those … others you mentioned. What kind of dirtbags are out here doing that stuff?”
“Bounty hunters,” said the redhead.
“Killers,” said the black girl.
“If I had an answer to that,” said Brother David, “I’d be a saint instead of a way-station monk.”
Benny turned to Tom. “I don’t get it. … You’re a bounty hunter.”