Chapter 3:

A Boy and His Do**

A Boy and His ****

The kid’s name was Ned.

“Do we have to call you Ned?” I asked him. He was coming with us. We were headed out of the woods.

“Why wouldn’t you?”

“Rhymes with the name of a guy I don’t like.”


“Yeah. This crazy dude. Nuttier than a ballsack. And mean.”

Ned gave me a weepy look like his entire family was just murdered. Oh. Wait. Shoot. His entire family was just murdered. At least as far as he had told us. I rubbed the back of my neck. “I’m not talking about you. You’re cool.”



He looked at me with his gouged-out bug-eaten eyesockets. “So what?” he said.

“What do we call you?”

“Well.” He shrugged “Ned’s what I’m called.”

I thought a second. “Alright.” It was only fair. I didn’t like when people called me anything other than Max. I figured he was probably the same way. If his name was Ned, Ned was what I’d call him. Plus I knew if he had backed down over something like this, I would've never been able to respect him, let alone trust him.

Yeah. Trust. It was a funny thing alright. Funny how so few people were ever worthy of it. Me and Scratch both knew it like we knew the sky was blue and people had two eyes on the front of their head: most people you couldn’t trust worth a damn. Most people you had to keep your guard up around. Only suckers trusted anyone else off sleeve, and they usually paid for it.

That’s why it was a rule, a one-step process: don’t trust anyone. Not right away. Not until you’re absolutely sure what kind of person they are. Not until you’re absolutely sure you can ease up around them and they aren’t gonna take the chance to shove their metaphorical dick up your metaphorical ass as they plunge their metaphorical knife into your metaphorical back all while fishing your metaphorical cash out of your metaphorical pocket. I could count the number of people who ever got past step one for me on one hand, but I didn’t ever have to cause all I had to do was look right next to me. I looked at Scratch. He looked back. We nodded at each other.

We could trust Ned. He was the rare exception to the rule. The type of guy who passed step one of one in one second. As for whether he should’ve been trusting us like he instantly did? Hell no. Me and Scratch were us first, everyone else second. And our mission inherently called for us to shortstick Ned. And if we didn’t, it’d be our heads on the chopping block. But we’d also agreed on it by then: we weren’t gonna screw Ned over. He was coming with us, but the plan was off. We’d worry about the consequences when we got home. We weren’t gonna underhand the kid.

We decided not to fuck over Ned partly cause of what he was. A zombie I mean. At least that’s what we thought he was. Except, thing was, I’d seen, met, beheaded, piledrived, and ran-over-with-a-bicycle about a thousand zombies in my day, and I’d never heard of a single one who could talk and think and stuff before. And so when you think about it, coming across Ned was kind of like making a massive discovery. Here was a zombie who, for better or worse, was still human in the head. And so that was a piece of it. But the other piece was also that we got on right away. Ned was a cool guy. He was buckass naked when we met him and he was buckass naked now that we were taking him with us. His skin was gray and a little slimy and kind of patchy-hairy in spots, like something a cat might chuck up. He had a hole cracked out of his skull and inside was a kind of head slurry, a soup with bits of brain sloshing around in it. He was a kid. Probably younger than me, at least in terms of looks. As for how old he actually was, I had no clue. Could have been decades for all I knew. He was maybe even older than Scratch. Hard to tell with zombies.

By the time we were halfway out of the forest, Ned was already our best friend. We were talking as we went. We pushed past dense brush, leaves still cool in the deep shade of late morning.

“Hey, look,” said Ned, showing me his watch. Sorry, I lied, he was buckass naked except for the watch. It was pretty dark in here so the display was pretty faded, but I could see that it read 11:11. “It’s 11:11. Make a wish.” See why I couldn't help but treat him like a kid?

“Personally,” Scratch chimed in, “I make my wishes at 11:34.”

Ned looked at his watch with a puzzled expression.

“Why?” I asked.

“Think about it for a second, man,” said Scratch.

“Yeah, think, Max!” Not Ned too. That was another thing to like about him though. Called me Max from the get, like I told him. And never MD.

“Zip it, kiddo. I’ll wipe my shoes on your face if you don’t.”

“Huh?! I thought you said we were friends!”

“We are. Now quiet so I can think.”

I thought about it for a second but I still didn’t get it.

“What does 11:34 look like upside down?” Scratch asked me when I told him I gave up.

I told Ned to show me his watch and he did and I pictured how the display would look at 11:34. “hEll…?”

“Right.” The kid beamed and I got a good look at his toothless mouth and misshapen yellow gums.

“Yeah,” Scratch said. “Hell.”

“But wait.” Ned’s smile turned to confusion “Why do you make a wish when the clock says hell?” That’s what I wanted to know too. Seemed like a weird as hell thing to do if you asked me. Not like there was anyone out here to ask me though. We three were the only ones for miles around, far as I could tell. Outsiders who’d rolled the village or made treehouse guy go splat were long gone. At least I hoped.

“Because that’s when the clock’s being most honest,” Scratch explained with a smile. “Think about it, man,” he said again. He was talking to Ned now. “Does time ever feel real to you?”

“Well,” Ned said after a minute, “no, not really I guess. I mean no matter how much of it passes, nothing ever really changes. More bad stuff keeps happening I guess, but that’s just more of the same. Not really a change.”

“Exactly. So the way I see it, the clock’s lying most of the time. Only time it’s honest is twice a day.”


“Yeah. Cause if everything’s bad and nothing ever changes, where does that mean we are?”

“... Hell?”

He nodded.

“Hell yeah!” Ned pumped both fists in the air. “Hell! We’re in hell!”

See what I mean? Anyone who says shit like that, that’s someone you can trust.


We were at the edge of the forest, where all the green tapered out to dull shrubland. Ned was ecstatic. He was jumping for joy, nearly.

“Enjoy it while it’s new,” I told him. “Not much else to enjoy about any of it.” I gestured broadly. I was obviously referring to the entire world. Ned sure seemed excitable for someone who was already dead. But that was just part of who he was, I guessed.

“Have you never been out of the woods?” Scratch asked him. He shook his head and kept hopping and running and doing wild shit like cartwheels and shit.

We’re not out of the woods yet, I thought. We still needed to get all the way back after all. I looked out over the sea of grass and had to shield my eyes to keep the sunlight from frying them.

We camped there that night. “Can we for the love of god please have a godblessed fire tonight?”

Scratch sniffed the air. Then he scowled. But he said we could.

“Thank god.”

We didn’t have much to eat. But that was fine. Ned didn’t eat anyway, he told us. “I can eat when I want to,” he said. “But I don’t have to.”

“So, are you like…?” I trailed off, not wanting to sound rude. How was I supposed to word this? “You’re like… a zombie, right?” There were bigger farts to fry than just getting to the bottom of who the kid was. Like where did he come from? How come he still had a mind of his own like a living breathing person? And what was up with the ghost town we found him in? But I figured I’d start with first things first.

“I don’t know what I am.”

“Lucky you.”

“All I know is that, well, I guess I’m already dead.” He sounded sad.

“Zombie then. Right, Scratch?”

Scratch tensed his shoulders or something in an imitation shrug.

The only sound for a bit was the crackle of the fire. “I’m just me,” Ned finally said.

“And what about that town of yours?” I hated to dig up all the kid’s bad memories or whatever. But my curiosity was starving to know. We were counting on there being a whole horde of zombies in the middle of the forest. And instead we found an entire town full of stuff you couldn’t reason out a decent explanation for if you spent a million years trying. So I had to know.

“Well,” Ned started, his throat catching a little, “I lived there with my mom and dad. And all our neighbors and all our friends.”

“And they were dead too?”

“They were like me, if that’s what you mean. Everyone there was. Yeah.” He nodded. “Yeah, I think all of us were dead. But because we were dead, none of us could ever die again. So it was almost like we could live forever.”

Scratch whistled. “Immortality. What a thought. Juice some of that and needle it right into these old bones. I’d be spryer than any young upstart pup with a hundred times the wisdom to boot.”

I laughed. “And then maybe you wouldn’t have to go crawling back to your old lady, right?”

He bared his teeth and growled at me.

“Oh, sorry. Old bitch.” I stuck my tongue out and he stuck his out back. Ned laughed. Then I thought of a good question. “Hey, how about this, Scratch? Would you want to go back to being a young dog if you could? Not immortality but just going back.”

For a second, I got a rare eyeful of Scratch seeming to contemplate. Usually he tried all he could to make it seem like he always had all the answers instantly at all times, like any question you could ever think of asking him he’d already been tossing around inside his head for decades before the thought even crossed your idiot mind.

“I suppose not,” he finally said. “There are some things that you only learn with age. Some things you can only accomplish with time. I wouldn’t want to give that up.”

I flopped on my back on the grass and stared at the stars. “Still though. A whole town full of intelligent zombies.” My thoughts were all over the place. Could you blame me with all the crazy stuff we’d been seeing? I’d hardly left my home town up until that point, so it was a lot to witness. “Who would’ve thought? Sometimes your nose leads us to some pretty good places, Scratch.”


Ned was kinda curled up into a ball, outlined in orange by the fire. “It was a good place. Until everyone got smushed. Turned out we couldn’t really live forever. We could only live until all the bad men came and killed us.”

Scratch’s ears perked. “Bad men?”

Ned nodded.

“Outsiders. Right, Scratch?” I asked Scratch.


Man. I was starting to put two and two together to make five. Outsiders. I’d grown up hearing the stories but had never witnessed their handiwork myself. They were the ones that did treehouse guy in and then they moved on to the zombie village. Or the other way around. Either way, they’d been in this area in the last week or so. If they were still here, we hadn’t come across them, obviously, since we were still alive. I hoped they were long gone.

“Who are outsiders?” Ned asked. He was pretty sheltered, I was learning. No surprise either. Who knows how long those zombies had been living secluded in the woods like that? Probably a pretty long time if no one had ever really heard of them till now.

“They’re the sprongs who mulched you guys’ squat,” I told him. He tilted his head. “What?”

More tilt. Kid’s globe was ticking like the hand of a clock. “Sprongs?”

“Yeah. Chicks too but all of them are just slaves.” I spat. “Well, maybe not all. But most.”

We went silent but the kid looked like he didn’t really get it even though he’d been exposed to them firsthand. So I kept explaining. It was best he drilled this into the deflating balloon that was his head as early and quick as possible. “Outsiders are about the most dangerous things you can run into. More dangerous than any animal. More dangerous than any plant. More dangerous than any no-go zone. And a hell of a lot more dangerous than any person. Especially insiders like us.”

His nonexistent eyes went wide, the stretchy brown goo in the back of the empty sockets unpuckering and making squishing sounds. “But you guys seem so tough.”

“We can handle ourselves, sure. But there’s a world of difference between insiders and outsiders. Not like people are super soft where we’re from or anything either. Some of the guys I grew up with would bite your balls off for a can of broccoli. Hell, they’d do it for free. And they’d scent weakness sure as a cockroach scuds for filth. Show one second of spinelessness and your ass was as good as fileted from then on. I’m talking relentless torture of every type. Physical. Mental. Shit that would leave scars. Shit that would leave scars on scars. Well, guess what? All of that’s fairytale happily ever after shit compared to what outsiders’ll do to you if they get their gloves on you. As you’ve already seen firsthand.”

It was like Ned was in a trance. Everything I was saying had him completely enraptured, like it was fantasy. But it wasn’t. He should’ve known that better than any of us.

“And if you ever see them again?” I continued. “Run. Doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing. Run.”

“What if instead of me seeing them, they see me?”

“Then your ass’ll be dead before you hit dirt and you won’t have to worry about it, or about anything, ever again. But that’s if you're lucky. If you’re not, you’ll be wishing they killed you. When it comes to outsiders, you're better off dead than prisoner. Speaking of, what about you?” I flipped up to where I was sitting criss cross. “How the hell did you make it out alive, Ned?”

He didn’t answer right away. When he did he was forcing himself. Even I could tell that much. “I… I don’t know. I think I hid, b-but… I… I…”

He was on the verge of crying and he didn’t even have eyes. That’s how much pain he was in and how sad he was. Poor kid. If there was any part of me that still wanted to backstab the little guy and complete our mission, there wasn’t anymore.

“After everyone got turned to mush I had nowhere to go. I wandered around for a while. In the forest.”

“For days,” Scratch said.

“It was all a blur. I thought maybe it was all some kind of horrible, awful dream. The worst nightmare ever. But once my legs carried me back to the village, that was when it sunk in how true it really was. And…” He gulped. “... That’s when I met you guys.”

So that was how it went down. Too messy to remember and too frightful to even try and think about.

Well, Ned might not have needed food or water or anything, but he did need sleep. Which was good, cause Scratch was pretty tuckered by then and I was looking forward to conking out not shivering with cold for once.

But I could tell there was something else eating Ned up inside, and not just the worms that would sometimes wriggle out of him by chewing past the soft rot of his belly and, with no more food to eat through, dropping to the ground. So before we called it a night, I asked him. “What’s wrong, kid?” I mean except his entire family getting ganked by a bunch of crazed maniacs who killed for sport. Kind of a dumb question now that I think about it.

Turned out there was something else weighing the kid’s mind down too. “You guys… you’re not gonna eat me, right?” He sideeyed me, then Scratch, then back to me, and back and forth and so on.

Scratch was undisturbed. “Of course we’re not going to eat you. Humans and dogs don’t eat zombies. Don’t you know that?”

“I-I’ve never,” the kid sniffled, “I’ve never met a human and a dog before.”

“Well we’re not gonna eat you. Ok?”

“Ok,” said Ned with a sound like he was slurping back some of the brain gunk swimming around inside his open skull. “I believe you.”

Except Scratch wasn’t looking at Ned when he said it. He was looking at me. I just nodded silently and he nodded back and put his head back down like he was going to sleep and that was that.

But it was funny I guess. I’d kind of been chewing on the same idea as Ned this entire time, just back-asswards from how Ned had been. This whole time I was kind of worried that Ned was gonna be the one to gobble us up as soon as we dropped our guard. I wasn’t too scared since I was a lot bigger than Ned and probably stronger and definitely faster. But aside from having a functioning mind, he was still zombie in every other way. Wouldn’t have surprised me if he still had some instinct hiding deep down inside him and compelling him to do what was in his nature. Compelling him to do us in, fork us down the hatch as he licked his chops and patted a potbelly full of fleshy chunks of us.

But by now I figured all that was probably just my dumbass imagination getting away from me.

“Ditto what Scratch said. It’s a promise.” I tried grinning but it looked like it was creeping him out so I stopped. “Well, as long as you promise you’re not gonna eat us.”

Ned smiled now and I saw his single tooth dangling like shriveled brown yo-yo from a string of rotten gum. “It’s a deal!”