Of course they poked it with a stick. What else would twelve-year-olds do with a freshly discovered corpse? Later, when the fascination was fading, they would do what they were supposed to do and tell the police about the body, but then, at that first moment of discovery, they had a new toy and it had to be carefully examined before it could be given away.

They probably would have called the police, too. Certainly that was part of the unspoken agreement between them, but then their new toy moved and all of the rules changed.

'Fuck me, Freddie, are you serious?' Tom's voice broke as the dead man moaned and turned its head in the summer heat. They were all so shocked that no one called him on dropping the f-bomb.

Every last one of them saw the motion and heard the noise. They were all watching when the neck muscles shifted and the head rolled unevenly. The face of the dead man was revealed. He was no one they had ever seen before, and maybe that fact helped add to the madness of the moment, or maybe it was simply that at twelve years of age they had so little in the world that could truly be called theirs.

Jack glanced about, checking to see if there were any grown-ups around. He couldn't decide if the lack of them made him happy or worried him sick. They were near the old quarry at the edge of his granddad's property. None of them were supposed to go swimming at the quarry, but that had never stopped anyone before. You leave a perfectly good lake's worth of water in a convenient spot and add in the summer heat, and the next thing you know, there's a new swimming hole. The big bonus was that Grandpa Murphy was too old to come check on them much.

None of them knew why a man was lying dead on the ground, but it didn't look like he'd been murdered or anything. He was just lying there, grey and a little bloated, and there they were and there he was, and of course there were sticks nearby. Charlie had learned for them that you should always use a stick to poke dead things. A couple of years earlier, when he'd found a dead pigeon on the ground, he'd scooped it up and run all the way to the fort before anyone else got there. Charlie had allergies something fierce, and he hadn't even smelled the bird's rot. The others sure did though, which was why he still had to deal with the nickname Skunk. No amount of washing would get rid of the stink on him until he went home and took a real bath, and none of them saw any reason not to pick on him about it. You do stupid things and you have to pay the price. That was one of the simple rules that dictated their lives.

The thing tried to sit up, and Tom jabbed the stick into its shoulder and pushed as hard as he could. It let out another bleating noise and fell back, struggling feebly as its milky eyes rolled in its leaking head. The halo of flies around it buzzed harder for a moment and then settled down onto their latest meal again.

Tom laughed. 'That's sick, dude.'

Charlie nodded his head and licked his thick lips. Charlie had a sister two years older than any of them, and it was agreed that the features that made him look like a fish made her look like a pin-up girl. It was weird how that sort of thing worked. Jack cleared his throat and looked around again. 'Should we call someone?' He hated to ask, of course, because he knew everyone would look at him funny.

Tom sneered. Tom liked to sneer. He was a dick sometimes. 'You crazy? We have to see what this is all about.'

'Well, I mean, is he really dead? Or is he just sick?' He pointed at the dead thing, which seemed to be getting stronger. 'Cuz if he's just sick, we could get in some deep shit.' He knew about that sort of thing, of course. His brother Steve was over in Iraq, and there were all sorts of stories about what happened to prisoners over there. Sometimes when they weren't treated right, the soldiers who were watching them got in deep trouble. Sometimes they wound up in jail. It hadn't happened to Steve, of course, because Steve was one of the good guys, but a few of the guys he knew over in Iraq had gotten into some serious shit.

'Dude, he's a zombie.' Tom scowled and poked hard enough with the stick to tear the fabric of the shirt over the dead man's chest. The skin under that was soft, and something wet and black leaked out and stained the shirt's light-blue threads a dark grey. Tom shook his head. 'If he's alive, I'll kiss Skunk on the mouth.'

'Zombies are real?' That was Jose, who was only eleven, but cool enough that he got to hang out with them anyway.

Jack looked from the dead man to Jose. 'Guess they have to be. I mean, we got one right here, right?'

They all looked again, trying to make sure it really was a zombie. There were stories, of course. They had as much use for the nightly news as they did for instruction manuals, but you sort of had to hear things, even if you weren't trying. There were places in California and in Mexico that had supposedly been overrun by the dead. Most everyone thought the whole thing was some kind of joke, or maybe a publicity stunt for a new Hollywood monster movie. You had enough money, you could probably convince the news stations to play along. At least that was what his daddy said.

The dead man swung a wild arm at the stick Tom had pushed into its chest and knocked the thick branch back, taking a chunk of wet rot along for the ride.

Skunk gagged a little. Seemed his allergies didn't suck so bad that day.

'What are we gonna do with it, guys?' Jack again. He had to ask. He had to know. They couldn't just leave a thing like that lying on the ground. Some of the stories said the dead people ate other people, and that would be sort of like leaving a rabid dog on the side of the road, wouldn't it?

Tom had a solution. Tom always had a solution. That was why he was the boss so much of the time. 'Let's tie it up and hide it somewhere.' Tom's blue eyes looked from under his thick, dark bangs, and he flipped the too-long hair from his broad, tanned face. 'Let's play with it.'

Jack wasn't sure if that was the best idea ever, but there was that thrill, that secret shiver that danced across his skin as he thought of all the things they could learn about zombies if they experimented a bit.

'Where are we gonna hide a zombie?' Jose's voice rose half an octave as he spoke. 'How are we gonna get it where no one's gonna take it from us?' His Mexican accent was faint: he'd lived in the area as long as any of them could remember, but that accent never quite left him.

'I know where.' Jack licked his lips and tasted sweat on his tongue. The heat was hammering down on them as the summer day grew older. They needed someplace where the roasting weather wouldn't ruin their new plaything. 'I got the perfect place.'

Some secrets are too big not to share, and in this case the secret also needed to be moved as quickly as possible, because the dead man was definitely getting more active. Billy Chambers and Ben Deveraux were recruited to join them on their quest. Billy worked on his dad's farm, and that meant he worked with horses. He was perfect, really, because he knew how to throw a lasso. Maybe he'd come in fourth in the junior rodeo the year before, but he was fast enough for their needs, and he was one of them. Ben too, even if he didn't get to come out and play as often.

Billy threw the lasso around the dead man's shoulders - extra wide so they wouldn't accidentally pull his head off or something - and they passed the rope around in a circle until they'd looped the heavy cable around the monster's chest and arms half a dozen times.

It fought back, thrashing and croaking incoherently. Its teeth - big and white in the grey receding gums - clashed together loudly again and again as it tried to bite at them, but they were smarter; they never got that close. After the arms were bound to the waist, Billy pulled it backward and Tom and Jack caught and held the legs, while Skunk and Jose tied them together with more rope. Most of their parents would have been shocked to see how well they could work together when they had to. Their folks would have been surprised by a lot of things that their little ones were capable of, but isn't that always the case?

Once they had their new toy properly bound and gagged - not for silence, but to keep those teeth of his from getting ahold of them - the group half carried and half dragged him across the field to the storm shelter Jack's grandfather had built into the property. A wallet, thin and black, fell from the thing's pants, and Tom snapped it up so fast that almost no one noticed as they struggled with their burden. Almost no one. Jack saw, but he kept it to himself. Tom's family was poor - Jack's dad called them 'dirt farmers' when he thought Jack wasn't around to hear - and if anyone needed the cash, it was Tom. Besides, Tom always thought of cool things to do whenever they came across a few dollars.

The part of Texas where the boys lived was known for many things, including tornadoes. The storm season wasn't quite ready to come around, and that meant that there was no reason for anyone to disturb them or their experiments. The area was far enough away from the house and deep enough under the ground that there was no reason to worry about anyone hearing them, especially since Grandpa Murphy was at least half deaf.

The air in the storm shelter was nearly cold after they'd been in the blasting heat of the day. It brought sweet relief and a rush of gooseflesh across Jack's skin. Still, he wouldn't even consider bitching about the weather. From what he understood, they had it a lot worse where Steve was. All desert heat and crazy people with bombs who wanted to kill Americans whenever they saw them. He'd never met anyone from the Middle East, and he planned to keep it that way if all they wanted to do was bomb people. What sort of animals killed and killed without any good reason? Besides, they didn't even believe in Jesus.

'So what are we gonna do with him, guys?' Ben held his hand in front of his face and tried to wave away the smell of dead man. Like that was even possible.

'Don't do too much until I get back, okay?' Jack ran to the top of the creaking wooden stairs.

'Where are you going?' Tom asked.

Jack smiled. 'Grampa Murphy has air fresheners in the house. He likes to hide his farts.'

Tom smiled and nodded his approval. 'Sweet.' Jack started to close one of the doors to the shelter but stopped when Tom called out. 'Hey.'


Tom jerked his chin toward their new toy. 'Think you can get a knife or two?' Jack licked his lips and thought about it. 'Maybe.'


He managed to confiscate two cans of air freshener, a box of matches, a bar of soap, and a small jar of peanut butter.

He got the knives the next day.

That night Steve called from Baghdad. He sounded very tired but glad to hear their voices. There were only two phones in the house, so Jack only got to listen in for a couple of minutes and talked to his big brother for even less time.

'Hey, Steve?' He waited to ask his questions until Mom had run to the kitchen to get the hamburgers off the stove and into the oven to stay warm, and until he knew his Dad had run to the bathroom.

'Yeah, bud?' His brother's voice sounded forever away, tinny and static and still so very wonderful.

'Are the dead people moving out where you are?'

There was a pause for a few seconds, and he could almost see Steve looking around to make sure no one heard him. 'Yeah. Some of them are. But we don't talk about that, okay? Not ever.'

'Are they different than prisoners of war?'

'Of course.'

'How come?'

'Prisoners of war are still alive, Jack. They're still people.'

Before he could respond any further, his mom was back on the line, and so he just listened and basked in the voice of his older brother, the hero.

He was glad zombies weren't people any more. He'd been a little worried about that.

'Where do they come from?' That was Jose, who was always asking a billion questions.

Charlie just shrugged. Jack didn't know either, but just lately he'd taken to watching the news a lot more closely. 'Maybe it's a virus. I hear if they bite you, you become a zombie, too.'

Tom snorted. 'My dad says they aren't zombies. He says they're the undead.'

'Doesn't that mean the same thing?' Jose again.

Jack shook his head. 'No. Undead is vampires. I saw it on that Dracula movie.'

'The movie's wrong.' Tom shook his head and practically dared Jack to contradict him again. 'My dad knows better than Hollywood.'

'Whatever.' Jack dismissed the attitude. You had to make exceptions when you were with Tom. He could really be a dick. But mostly he was cool.

Ben had managed to get out of the house again. Sometimes you had to break the rules, and a zombie was worth the risks. 'I heard it was the water in Mexico. It's so full of shit that it kills you and makes you a zombie.'

That made a little sense. Mexico was a big place, and both California and Texas were connected to it. 'No. My brother Steve says they've got zombies over there too.'

Ben frowned and shook his head, genuinely puzzled. 'Maybe the zombies over there are Mexican?'

'Do they have Mexican soldiers?' Charlie sniffed. His allergies were back with a vengeance. Maybe he was allergic to zombies too. He was allergic to almost everything else.

Billy nodded. 'Yeah. Jose could join the army if he wanted. You know, when he's old enough.'

'I'm an American. I was born here.'

'Yeah, but your folks are Mexican, right?'

'Well, yeah, of course.'

'See? You could be a soldier.' Billy had a good head on his shoulders, as Dad liked to say.

'I think it's demons.' That was Tom, who had walked back over to their pet zombie. The thing snarled and thrashed. Jack didn't know how smart it really was, but the zombie always got more active when Tom got near it. Tom used the knives and sticks the most while the others watched. Maybe it knew how to tell them apart, even though Tom had poked out one of the eyes.

'Demons? Like in the movies?'

'Like in the Bible. Jesus fought demons.'

'It didn't react when you put a cross around its neck.'

Billy again, who was normally the only other person who would stand up to Tom.

Tom looked at the zombie for a minute and then backed away as it tried to lunge for him.

'So. Maybe it's a Jewish zombie and doesn't know any better.' Jack didn't know enough about Jews and all the other religions, so he kept his opinions to himself.

Tom stepped away from the zombie, and Ben took that as a sign that he could play. He picked up a long steel post he'd found and poked it into the dead man's thigh. The meaty spot squelched, and the point drove a good inch and a half into the cold dead meat.

Jack frowned as the zombie hissed and dislodged a maggot from its upper lip.

'Do you think he can feel anything, guys?'

No one had a definitive answer.

Tom stared hard at the thing on the ground and got that look on his face, the one that said he'd come up with a really cool idea and he wanted to be the one to do something first. He grabbed the carving knife Jack had snuck from the old set that was half buried in his grandfather's kitchen cabinets, and slipped past Ben.

Tom made sure everyone was looking at him. 'Let's find out. Let's see if this fucker feels anything.' He drove the tip of the knife through the dead man's wrist and held on as it jumped and tried to snap at him.

Tom took the time to look each of the boys in the eye before he started sawing at the mutilated wrist, straining and grunting as he fought the blade between the small bones. The thing's arms were still tied in place around the chest, but the rope was fraying now, soggy with the black nastiness that passed for blood. The zombie let out a warbling noise and struggled, thrashed, its teeth snapping again and again as it tried to reach Tom.

Tom was smarter than that. He stayed away from the head of the thing.

Long after the hand had been cut away, the zombie struggled against its bonds and let out low keening noises.

Jack couldn't be sure. He thought maybe the zombie felt something, but whether or not it really qualified as pain, he couldn't say.

After a while Tom got tired of chopping digits away from the fingers that curled and uncurled like spider legs. The stump of the wrist didn't bleed any more, but Jack could see the muscles and bones left there trying to move the hand that was no longer where it had always been. The motion was almost hypnotic.

Jack watched the news after dinner and heard the rumors that the dead were coming back in greater numbers. According to somebody in the governor's office, the problem was getting so big in Dallas and Houston that people were rioting and trying to get out of the cities before the situation could get any worse. The only pictures they showed were of traffic jams, cars trying to move and going nowhere fast on the roads away from the cities. Police had to work longer hours, and the National Guard was coming in to help.

They were just rumors, of course. There was no proof. No real evidence, as his dad said. There'd been pictures a couple of times, but no one wanted to show them any more. Or maybe they weren't allowed to. That was what Ben said. His dad worked for the local paper, and Ben said the government wasn't allowing anyone to take pictures and show them on the TV or even put them in newspapers. His mom and dad didn't let him go online except when they were in the room, and they wouldn't even talk about the zombies in front of him. He was too young, as far as they were concerned. If they knew he'd seen one, touched one, poked holes in one, they'd have tanned his hide for him.

When the news anchor started talking about the possibility of mandatory cremation - he thought that was when they burned the bodies, but he wasn't completely sure - Mom screamed at Dad and made him change the channel to Wheel of Fortune.

After that the atmosphere in the house grew cold and awkward. Later, after he'd been sent to bed even though he wasn't tired, he heard his parents talking in their bedroom. Mom was worried. Dad tried to calm her down and swore he wouldn't let any of them come back from the dead if something bad happened.

Ben was happy about that. He didn't know how his dad would stop them from being zombies, but he had faith in the man. His dad was young and could still do pretty much anything. Ben knew it in his heart.

He drifted to sleep, only vaguely aware of his mom crying through the wall.

His dad would make it right. That was all that mattered, wasn't it?

'What? You going pussy on us?' Tom's voice held more than the usual menace. He looked at the bigger boy and felt his brow pull lower over his eyes. Maybe Skunk was scared of Tom, but Jack never had been.

'I'm not going pussy. I just don't want to touch that thing.' Tom had taken his carving skills to the next level. He hadn't actually cut the left leg off the zombie, but it wasn't for lack of trying. The pants had been cut away, and a length of rope had been used to tie the leg in place. Two tent posts from Tom's old tent had been hammered into the ground and anchored the ankle firmly. The rope had already cut deep into rotting flesh, and even in the permanent semidarkness of the storm cellar he could see the bone under the rope. Tom had peeled off most of the skin, and the muscles - grey and black and rotting in the summer heat - shifted and twitched every time the dead man tried to get away from the, well, from whatever passed for pain in its ruined head. Tom still wasn't sure about that part.

Ben wasn't there, but everyone else was. Half of them were looking away, finding something else to stare at as the confrontation started, but Billy and Jose were looking on with expressions that held an edge of anticipation. The zombie was starting to grow old, as toys go, and the heat was taking a toll on the rotting flesh. Most of the experiments that could be done at this point were the sort that made a bigger mess, and it was harder to get that crap off their clothes. Tom had come up with the idea of garbage bags, and he'd used two of them to make himself a sort of raincoat against the foul substances he'd spilled as he carved and hacked at the ruined leg.

Now he held the knife that Jack himself had confiscated for them and waved the bloodied, slicked mess in front of him. 'Everyone else did it, Jack. What makes you so special?' There was an edge to his voice, an implied threat: Either you're one of us or you aren't.

'You were supposed to wait for everyone, Tom. What makes you so special?' He crossed his arms over his chest and stared hard.

Tom blinked and shook his head, barely believing that anyone would speak out against him. And Jack allowed himself a small smile as the heads of their mutual friends turned to look at Tom with unspoken accusation.

Tom still didn't understand well enough: yes, he was bigger; he might even be a better fighter than any of the others - well, except for Billy - but he wasn't as smart as he thought he was.

The zombie leaned forward and let out a series of grunting noises as it lunged for Tom's leg. Tom moved out of the way and swung the knife angrily, opening a slash across the monster's cheek and nose. It recoiled and barked furiously.

Sometimes Jack worried about Tom. Not often, of course, but every now and then.

Billy broke the tension. 'It's too hot for this. Let's go swimming.'

That seemed like a fine idea to Jack. In no time they were back at the scene of the crime, and he glanced over at the spot where they'd found the dead man again and again as they goofed around and cooled off their bodies and their tempers.

Tom knew the man's name. He was the only one who knew. He had to know. He had the wallet, didn't he?

Jack watched Tom do a cannonball from the side of the quarry, splashing them all. He rose back up and looked toward Jack as he treaded water.

Looking at him made Jack feel strange in the pit of his stomach, the same way the idea of cutting into the dead man made him feel. There was something wrong with Tom. Or maybe there was something wrong with him. He didn't know for sure which it was.

Later that same day, after he'd cleaned up and everyone had gone their own ways, the phone call came in for Jack's family. Steve had caught shrapnel in his leg. He would be all right, but there was a chance he'd be coming home sooner than expected.

And Jack got that feeling in his stomach again. He'd been praying for Steve to come home early, and now maybe he would be, but if he had to get hurt to come home, was that really a good answer to his prayers?

The question was too big for him to wrap his head around easily.

The next day he got down to the storm cellar later than he'd planned. He had to take care of some chores around the house, and then his mom wanted him to drop off the casserole she'd baked over to his grandpa's place. It wasn't like he had to go out of his way, but the man was in a talkative mood, and it was almost an hour before he could get out of the house and head for the storm cellar. He loved his grandfather, but he wasn't always exciting to talk to.

The smell was the first thing that caught him. The zombie hadn't been pleasant to smell anyway, but now the odor was enough to stagger him. He descended the steps and listened to the sounds of the guys laughing.

When he reached the bottom of the steps, he stopped and stared, barely believing what he saw.

The zombie was opened up like a grisly flower, his abdomen cut wide and the skin spread open like petals. Loops of ropy intestines fell in piles, and the ribs had been cut open. His legs had been stripped of everything but gristle and bone, and his arms had been freed but lacked enough remaining muscle to make them a threat.

It wasn't just Tom this time. All of the guys were there, and all of them had plastic bags wrapped over their clothes and shoes alike.

'What the hell?' He could barely recognize his own voice.

Tom grinned. His smile held an edge, and his eyes were a blatant challenge. Tom had called him on not joining in the day before, and now he'd drawn a line in the sand. Either Jack crossed the line and joined them, or maybe he proved he was chickenshit.

Tom spoke softly, confidently. 'We got tired of waiting.' He pointed to the zombie. 'But we saved you the head.'

Jack's face felt like it would catch fire. His stomach had congealed like a frozen lump, and there was a strange ringing in his ears. What they'd done . . . well, it wasn't right.

The dead man wriggled, and its chest moved up and down as it strained to make a noise.

Jack stared hard at Tom. 'What was his name?'

'What?' Tom had no idea what Jack meant.

Jack's hand shook just a little as he pointed at the struggling heap of ruined meat and hacked pieces. 'I saw you pick up his wallet. It fell from his pocket when we were carrying him here, and you grabbed it. What was his name?'

Tom shook his head. His broad face worked as he tried to find the right expression for answering the unexpected question and accusation. 'Who cares?'

'I do!' Jack moved closer to him, his body shaking. His blood seemed too thick, pushed too hard to move through his body. 'I do. Maybe he has a family that wants to know he's dead. Maybe he has a little brother or a big sister and they miss him, Tom. Maybe he has a wife or a mom who doesn't know why he disappeared.'

It was Steve, of course, that he was thinking about. He'd heard about people getting so ruined that no one could identify the bodies. What if Steve had been that badly hurt instead of just getting his leg messed up? What if they'd never known what happened to him?

'Well, you're the only one.' It was Tom's turn to cross his arms over his chest.

'Am I?' Jack looked at each of them, his ears still ringing. 'Don't any of you care about what he was before we found him?'

Skunk looked at him with a puzzled frown on his round face. 'He's dead, Jack. What does it matter?'

'He was alive once!' Jack's eyes stung as he took a step toward Charlie, and the boy flinched like he'd swatted at him.

'Well, he's dead now!' That from Billy, who stepped closer himself, looking ready to take a swing - Billy, who had always been ready to defend someone if something got out of hand. Only now he was standing in front of Charlie as if he needed defending from Jack. 'He's dead, and no one cares who he was.'

Tom put down his knife and reached for the sharpened stick he'd used from the first. 'Is it the knife, Jack? Are you afraid to cut yourself?' With casual skill he spun the length of wood between his fingers like a baton. When he stopped, the unsharpened edge was held toward Jack. 'Come on. This is safer. You can't cut yourself. You can maybe get a splinter.'

Jack looked at him and shook his head. They didn't get it. They didn't want to or they couldn't - he didn't know which. He wasn't afraid of the dead man. He was afraid of what they were doing. How could they be the good guys if they hurt things just because they could? He shook his head again, because even that didn't seem to quite cover it. What if there was still a person stuck inside that wasted, rotted thing?

Caution is made for grown-ups. Kids tend to leave caution in the dust. Despite his recent epiphanies, Jack was still just twelve. He reached for the stick, fully meaning to push it aside, and his left foot caught the viscera that had spilled around the dead thing. He couldn't have pulled a better slapstick moment if he'd had a banana peel. Jack's heel went up and he went down, his ass slapping against the wet ground and his head bouncing lightly. He could feel the filth and decay soaking his jeans and the hair on the back of his head. The dead man next to him on the ground struggled to reach him, but its limbs no longer worked and it could only wiggle closer. Jack had time enough to push away, his adrenaline kicking in at the thought of how close he was to the vile thing.

All of the boys laughed, except for Jack. There was nothing funny about the situation - well, okay, the fall was worthy of a chuckle, maybe - and his confusion and frustration were as deep as ever. Instead, Jack braced his hands and pushed himself into a sitting position then onto his knees before he tried to stand up. And he slipped a second time, falling across the dead man, his hand slapping the corpse's face as he struggled to save himself.

Jack felt a sudden pain spike deep into his left palm and across the little finger.

'Ow! Fuck!' he looked toward the pain as he pulled his hand back and froze. The zombie had bitten down good and hard. He looked at the blood welling from his hand and skittered back, his eyes flying wide. There was a tooth sticking out of the ridge of his hand. He'd pulled it from the corpse's mouth when he yanked his hand away.

The zombie lunged as best it could and snapped at him again. Without even thinking, Jack kicked at the face and knocked the jaw aside with ease. The muscles had atrophied to the point where even its ability to stay together was more luck than nature.

'Jack. You're bit.' Billy's voice was distant; it sounded like a whisper.

'I gotta get to Grampy's house. He can fix it,' Jack said through lips that felt numb. The ringing was back in his ears, only now there was a different source to it.

Skunk spoke up next, shaking his head. 'It's been in the news, Jack. Ain't no cure. You get bit, you become one of those things. It's all over.'

'That's shit!' Jack blinked his eyes and shook his head, denying what he had heard himself. 'That's shit! No way!'

He looked at the dead thing again. It was barely even capable of moving. His desire to give it comfort was dead, torn away like the flesh on his bleeding hand. He lashed out again and again, kicking at the broken face, until his tears completely obscured his vision and he had to stop and wipe them away.

All around him his friends stared at him in sickened fascination.

Billy shook his head. 'It ain't shit, and you know it. You been watching the news, too. Those things, they're spreading. You can't even go home, Jack. You might try to hurt your own family.'

'It isn't that fast.' He shook his head again. 'It takes time.'

Tom shook his head, too, but his face was unreadable. 'Not much time. Maybe a couple of hours.'

'Well, I have to try and get it fixed.'

'Too late.' Tom stepped to the side and took two more steps. It took Jack only a second to realize he was blocking the way past the dead thing.

'You need to get the hell out of my way. I'm sick of you, Tom.'

Charlie was wheezing; his breaths sounded wrong. Jose leaned over and shook his head, whispering something in the other boy's ear.

Tom didn't answer. Instead he jabbed out with the stick in his hand and drove the point into Jack's left shoulder.

'Ow! What the hell, dude?' Jack covered the spot quickly, not even thinking as he used his wounded hand. The good news was that the bite barely even hurt now. The spot where he was poked felt worse. It flared with a little extra pain as the blood from his hand fell across the small area where the stick had broken skin. Jack pulled his hand back quickly. He could make the infection worse that way, couldn't he? He wasn't really sure.

He was about to say something else to Tom, when the boy poked him a second time, on his other arm. This time the point put a hole in his shirt and the blood was more obvious.

'Tom! Stop it!' He stared hard as Tom's smile spread.

'Skunk, cover the door.'

Jack knew that tone in Tom's voice. It was the cool and level voice of the expedition leader. The same tone used to gather the troops and offer instructions when they were hunting for crawfish or trying to sneak up on someone they were about to pull a stunt on.

'Billy, get your rope.'

Jack looked around quickly as both Skunk and Jose headed for the narrow staircase, and Billy reached down, his eyes never leaving Jack, and grabbed his lasso.

'What are you doing, guys? Come on, this isn't funny.' He could barely breathe.

The look in their eyes said otherwise. The look they cast his way said the fun was only about to begin.

Jose reached up and closed the storm doors firmly, leaving them lost in the near darkness. To his left, the rope in Billy's hands snapped in the air twice and then grew silent.