A wicked wind kicked up dust limiting vision to less than a mile and making the wide open prairie feel like a confining box. Despite the dust in the air the sun was still heating up the land on the warm August afternoon as the man and the dog marched along the gravel road. 'Not that the dog seems to care.' Red thought to himself. Since walking away from a fight with the powerful zombie that had killed Nita and taken Hugh, Red had done a lot of walking. Walking and thinking. 'It isn't like me to complain about how unfair everything seems to have gotten. But here I am.'
“Here, Reilly, c'mon girl. Leave that alone.” Red called to the dog. His words pulled it away from the corpse at the side of the road, a human body with a sizable head wound. Someone knew how to kill zombies around here. The dog still growled in Red's direction, but she left off gnawing on the old woman where she lay. “That's a girl. Good dog.” It just didn't seem right to Red to have the dog eating human flesh. 'That's reserved for me.' Not that this flesh appealed to Red; it had been dead a long while and all the swirling energy that was contained in the body had long since fled.
The day he left the fight he had taken a motorcycle and driven up Highway 80 to southeastern Wyoming. Red ran out of gas half an hour after crossing the border, Red didn't bother looking for any more, walking would suit him just as well. He did prop the bike up next to one of the many accidents along the road. It was a good machine and might come in handy for someone else if they wanted to find gas for it. Red had nowhere to go, yet he still went on. The road signs giving the distance to Cheyenne told him he was less than eight miles out. After thinking about it briefly he decided to cut across country instead of heading through another city. Cities were full of zombies or people trying to kill zombies and he didn’t want the drama.
At the edge of his dust limited vision he could see a large farm house. He set off for it because having a destination, even such a short term one, seemed better than wandering around aimlessly. Red wasn't worried that he would run into any gun-toting humans in the farmhouse; the place was empty of both the living and the dead. Having an extended 'zombie vision' was convenient; it made finding human meals easier, but also allowed him to steer clear of other zombies. After the last couple of days Red was sure he was going to avoid making any friends for a while, living or dead. 'Reilly is enough. Maybe I will find some other dogs to keep her company. She needs some socializing.' Trudging into the yard of the house Red felt there was something wrong almost immediately. He stood on the packed gravel drive and tried to put his finger on what was wrong. A cow mooed softly from the shade of the barn, a dozen chickens were gathered around a water filled bowl set in the shade of the same structure. From the fence a huge pink pig snorted at him and turned back to wallowing in the mud.
'It's the animals, they should be dead by now.' Red had passed several ranches and farms and come across dead livestock of all sorts. Farm animals didn't feed themselves and tended to die after a few days without water. These animals were fine, well cared for too, by the look of it. Red turned to get a better look at the pig as the shot rang out. He was thrown to the ground in a puff of dust by the shot, which had caught him in the left shoulder. Scrambling around he tried to get to the barn as more shots rang out, followed by cursing from the direction of the house.
Frantically, Red sought out his opponent, 'Nothing. The damned guy is invisible!' Reaching the lucrative safety of the barn Red turned and peered out of the doorway towards the house. Shifting his vision back to what he thought of as 'near human' to spy out his opponent. A weight hit him in the back and knocked him forward into the side of the door, pinning him there. Three long, slender tines were poking out of his chest and embedded in the wooden frame of the doorway. Red was not a natural fighter, the last few months of unlife had seen fit to give him a rudimentary education in brawling, but that was the best he could manage. Usually his strength was enough if he got into a tussle with someone else. The problem now was getting a grip on his opponent, the man moved around quickly and it took Red valuable seconds to pull away from where he was pinned with the pitchfork and twist around. Once he accomplished this Red stopped dead in his tracks.
“Why you're...you're just a boy!” He said with surprise.
“And you're dead mister.” the boy sneered as another shot rang out and hit Red from behind, this time striking him just above his right elbow.
The shot was a disappointment to the boy who screamed, “Goddamn it, Jimbo! You can't shoot worth shit!”
Red stepped sideways to move out of sight from the shooter. The boy leaped up into the hayloft, making the jump of more than twenty feet in a single bound. Dumbfounded, Red realized the boy was a zombie, he had to be, or else Red was seeing things. Quickly he switched to his zombie sight to track the boy before he disappeared, the boy hardly registered in Red's vision. His aura was so faint that Red would never have considered him a zombie. Now that he had seen the boy moving he knew what he was dealing with. Reaching out mentally he grabbed for the boy with his mind, 'Time to be unfair, but for me this time.'
Like a slippery trout the boy's mind slid through Red's grasp. The effort was not without results though, the boy slowed down and Red was able to tell that he was facing a much weaker zombie than he was. Surprisingly the boy was from the same line as Re, which meant that somewhere along the line Red had infected the zombie that had infected the boy. This meant that Red should have more control over him, not less. 'Something is going on here and I need to find out what. I could use what they are doing.'
In a flash the boy was gone, jumping through an open door in the hayloft to land in the driveway in front of the barn. Red shrugged and turned again towards the open door, bumping the long handle of the pitchfork into the wall as he turned. Frowning Red tried to reach the handle of the tool, but couldn't do it. Looking around for something to help pull it out of him he saw Reilly cowering by the side of the wall, looking at him.
“Lotta help you've been. What happened to barking? You bark at every god damned butterfly or grasshopper for two hundred miles, but when I need it you curl up and go all cowardly on me?” The dog crouched down more and whimpered, “Aw, shit. Sorry, I know this ain't been easy on you either. Just lay low. Good girl.”
“You talking to the dog?” called a voice from outside.
“Well I ain't talking to you, no.” Red yelled. He grasped the middle tine of the pitchfork and pushed it down even with his chest. 'Right through the solar plexus, pretty good shot.'
“What do you want?”
Red stopped to think for a moment.
“You hear me? I want to know what you want.”
“Yeah, you got a right nice way of asking for it mister. You behind the barrel of a gun, ambushing me in the driveway. Then stabbing me a pitchfork.”
“Times are...difficult. We didn't want any trouble and people like you cause lots of it.”
“People like me?”
“Yeah, don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. Early made zombies; the oldest ones. You're pretty old. If I had to guess, from your accent you aren't from the area, which means you were one of the first.”
“Yes, that's right.” Red said, growing concerned that the man could tell things about him. Red tried to read the guy, but he couldn't. Like the boy he slid away like a trout in a stream. Again Red was able to get a sense that the zombie he was talking to was much younger than he was which should have made this an uneven relationship in his favor.
“Good analogy. Fish that is. I can use that.”
Surprise shook Red to the core, the man was reading him! That usually only happened when a more powerful zombie used less powerful ones as his eyes and ears. A paternal zombie could share some vision and sound with his minions, but that was always by choice.
“I don't suppose we could talk this out?” Red offered.
“That depends on what you want. You seem to be evading my only question.”
Again Red stopped talking. The pitchfork fell out of him as the weight of the handle dragged the tines out of his back. Red absently kicked the tool to the side of the barn and answered, “It's not that I don't want to answer, I just don't really know.”
“Well what brings you here? Why aren't you heading east like all the others?”
Red's quiet laughter greeted the man's questions, “Why would I do that? You already know I am a leader in this mess, not a follower and what is going down out east is not to my taste. I was slowing it down, trying to give the people there time to prepare their defenses against the coming wave.”
“Why'd you stop? You could still be there now, doing whatever you were doing.”
“I ran into a force more powerful than myself. I lost my friends. They worked with me, helping as best they could. They weren't as strong as me, but we had a plan. Another zombie showed up while I was taking care of...a friend. By the time I got back one of my companions was dead, the other was dominated, and I was outmatched.”
“That so? Sorry if I don't seem so gullible, but not many of us help out the living.”
“Aren't your rifling my brain right now?” Red asked. He had felt like something was going through his head, sorting out his thoughts as he stood there. Almost immediately he felt the presence withdraw.
“It's not like that.”
Red nodded to his unseen companion and said, “Sure it isn't buddy.”
“I can't really go through your mind, I was just trying to see if you were lying to me.”
“I don't think you were. You felt offended when I implied you were lying.”
“Does that mean we can talk?”
“Yeah. Don't kill him V.”
Red carefully looked around and saw a young woman in the loft, she had a shotgun pointed at him and what looked like a broken off blade from a paper cutter tucked into her belt. She was standing less than twenty feet away. Nodding to her, Red raised his hands and stepped out into the courtyard. 'I'm getting careless. I suppose the power I have has made me a little arrogant.'
“So, I can't read you, but that only means you're more powerful than we are.”
“You got that bit about the fish.”
The large man on the porch had a rifle, he lowered it while laughing, “You know what I got? I saw an image of a fish, swimming out of your fingers.”
“Well it's good to know my secrets are safe. Or are you lying to spare my feelings?”
“I wouldn't do that to you. What's your name?”
“Jimbo. The boy is Bobby and the woman is Veronica.”
“Jimbo sounds like a name from my part of the country. Is it a nickname?”
Jimbo nodded, “Yeah, it got hung on me after I came back. I don't like it, but I keep it.”
“So you won't forget where you came from?”
“Something like that. To keep me humble.”
“Did Veronica hang it on you?”
“No, she, well, her and I share a 'mother'.”
“Oh? Where's mom?” asked Red looking towards the house.
“That bitch is dead. I killed her myself; I take care of my own shit jobs.”
“What about the boy? He yours or did he come after?”
“Mine, but he came after. I wasn't thinking too clear about things back then or I would never have done that to a kid.”
Red lowered his hands and brushed off his sleeves, looking at the blood stains on his shirt, “I'm not in any place to judge you. You know that.”
Jimbo looked him up and down again and said, “Well, you'd best come into the house. Then Veronica and I can hear your story out of the sun.”
The heat didn't bother Red, but standing around talking in the dust swept driveway seemed uncivilized so he followed Jimbo into the house.
“So this isn't your place then?” he asked as they went inside.
“No. We came up from Denver and stopped here a couple weeks ago. The animals were about dead and we'd all seen enough of killing to last us awhile so we started taking care of them. The power went out ten days ago, but this place has an old fashioned water pump right alongside the faucet in the barnyard. Now we're farmers. I don't know what we will do when the grain runs out.”
“I hope not. We found a few books on 'Country Living' the next house over, it looked like wanna-be farmers lived there. The books are a good start.”
The men moved into the kitchen, which struck Red as the most natural thing to do. They sat down at the utilitarian Formica table. A moment later the young woman from the barn came in. She didn't put her gun down like Jimbo did; she kept it nestled in the crook of her arm, a threat not lost on Red.
“So, you got whipped and ran huh?”
“No, I...well, it didn't come to a fight. I could just feel him and knew he could kill me. Hell he coulda dominated me, maybe. And he had a few friends.”
“That sucks. Why'd you come here?”
“I was following the highway and decided I didn’t want to deal with any crap in Cheyenne, so I set out across country and ended up here.”
Jimbo chuckled. “As good a reason as any. What are you going to do with yourself?”
“I don't know.”
“Okay, let me rephrase that, what do you want to do?”
“I want to go back there and kill the son of a bitch who killed my friend.”
Jimbo's eyebrow rose, “You haven't seen enough killing?”
“One more won't make much difference.”
Both men stared at each other for a moment in silence. Red didn't feel the other man pressing against his head and he refrained from trying any form of mental push as well.
Finally, Jimbo nodded, “You know I could help you.”
“Jimbo!” the woman spoke for the first time, in a sharp voice.
“Ah, Veronica, why do you think everyone who comes along is out to get us? The Nancys of the world are few and far between.”
Jimbo nodded, “Yes. You're not the first super zombie we've run into after killing her. You’re the first one we haven't successfully put down.”
“You haven't seen enough killing?”
Jimbo laughed, “Touché. We think of it more as self-preservation. Besides you're the first one who offered to talk to us. It's the god damned wind, it threw my shot off, otherwise we'd be digging you a new spot in the garden out back.”
Outside they heard a boy's laughter, followed by some barking. Together they rose and peered out the window into the yard, where Bobby and Reilly were running around a tree in the long grass.
“That's the first time the boy's done anything but play his damned video games since we got here.”
“I thought the power was off?”
“Shit. Veronica, he is going to get all our secrets out of us with my big mouth. The power is off, but there is a generator in the garage. We don't need the major appliances, but having the video games for the boy and lights at night is pretty nice.”
From where Red was in the kitchen he could see a large tank by the side of the barn, it was positioned so it couldn't be seen easily from the road in front of the house.
“I'm glad he likes the dog; I think she misses her owners.”
“Kids and dogs go together like stink and shit. And smell about like that after a hard day of playing too. But that is the natural way of things.” Jimbo moved and sat down at the table again, after a moment Red joined him.
“Why'd the owners let you have their dog?” asked Jimbo.
“They didn't, the dog kinda adopted me when the owners were put on a bus heading east. The adults there didn't have room or want her I guess, if the story I heard was right. Anyway when I was heading back to my friends, the dog started following.”
“So you didn't kill them?”
“No, I haven't killed one of the living on purpose in a few weeks.”
“It's complicated. I hit one guy too hard, broke his neck.”
“I just meant to knock him out. He was holding this woman hostage and we needed her.”
“You and your friends?” Jimbo asked.
Red shook his head, “These were different friends. Not my zombie friends.”
“You had human friends?”
“Have. I hope. I sent them into Iowa to tell the soldiers what was coming.”
“Really?” Red felt Jimbo pressing him mentally.
“Really.” he answered trying not to resent the other man's intrusion.
“No you're not.” said Veronica before Red could, she turned towards him, “It will go faster if we believe you. He can tell if you lie, which makes things easier.”
The three of them sat and stood in the kitchen for a moment of awkward silence, broken only by the sound of an ancient cuckoo clock ticking from where it was hanging on the wall.
Finally, Red broke the silence, “So, about this power of yours....?”
“Yeah, it's good isn't it? Not sure how I lucked into it. I think everyone gets something, not all zombies are the same. ‘V’ over there is fast, she is strong and fast, Bobby can jump like a grasshopper, me, I got some fancy mind stuff. Probably from all the 'Star Wars' movies I watched as a kid.”
“We all watched those movies.” Veronica said. “You're going to do it, aren't you?”
“We're a team V, if you say 'no', I'll accept it. But I am leaning towards it, yeah.”
“We listen to him first, then we decide, we don't need someone like Nancy with these powers running around.”
“Yeah, but if we teach him, we might want to go after this guy ourselves, to help the living out. It might be the right thing to do.”
Veronica snorted, “If you say so. I know you Jimbo. You've already made up your mind.”
“No, I will listen to Red and see what he has to say before I make up my mind.”
“Whatever. You good old boy rednecks are all the same.”
“Hey now we don't know he's a redneck.”
“Really…'Red'? That's his fucking name, 'Jimbo'! If that doesn't scream NASCAR and tractor pulls I don't know what does.”
“Sorry to interrupt, but I didn't care much for NASCAR. I might have a southern accent and I might not be the fullest can in the six pack, but watching cars drive around in circles doesn't strike me as a good way to spend a Sunday.”
Jimbo looked crestfallen at this statement, but Veronica smiled, “Well then, maybe Jimbo is right, we should teach you.”
“I didn't know about his feelings on NASCAR. Now I am having second thoughts.”
“Sure you are, you play a good game. You still want to show him.” Veronica said.
“So you can teach others how to do it, how to prevent other zombies from messing in their heads?” Red asked, a little too eagerly.
“Yes, but I can do other things in your head too, better than anyone I've run into yet.”
“Okay, so what do we do?”
“First, tell us everything...and Red, don't lie or leave anything out.” Jimbo said seriously.
So Red told them.