1.5 The Walking Dead

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A normal burn victim would have begged for help, but Mr. Gotte ignored the agony of his suppurating wounds. He merely existed. Anything he could do to lessen the pain would be a decision, and he no longer made decisions.

Six-year-old Thomas appreciated that. He micromanaged Gotte through household chores. They did three loads of laundry, washed dirty dishes, collected empty beer cans into a trash bag, and made a pile of wreckage to throw out later. Gotte made an involuntary scream every once in a while, but Thomas told him to drink a lot of water, and that seemed to keep him functional.

But as the evening shadows lengthened outside, Gotte seemed less and less able to follow complexities. Thomas had to revise every single command into simplistic step-by-step instructions.

And where was Mrs. Gotte? Summer days lasted a long time, but she should have returned with the groceries at least an hour ago.

Thomas had a sickening suspicion. When he replayed his memories after the groceries command, he could not recall hearing any sound of an engine, or tires crunching over gravel.

It seemed insane that Mrs. Gotte would have gone shopping without a vehicle. The nearest supermarket was seven miles away. But Thomas supposed he ought to find out for certain.

"Let's go outside," he said with reluctance. "Open the door."

Gotte turned the doorknob in vain. It was locked. He kept trying.

"Unlock the door." Thomas waited for Gotte to obey. "Now open the door. Now go behind my wheelchair and push me outside."

Gotte stank worse than road-kill combined with an outhouse. Belatedly, Thomas realized that he'd neglected to tell his zombified foster father to relieve his bladder. The zombie had wet himself.

"Stop," Thomas said, once they were on the front porch, amidst cooling air and chirping crickets.

The old beat-up pickup truck was still in the driveway. That was the only functional vehicle the Gottes owned, amidst rusted shells. Thomas wanted to punch himself for being such an idiot. He should have told his zombified foster mother to "drive" to the supermarket. He probably should have given her explicit instructions.

Instead, she must have walked the seven miles.

In high heels.

Thomas sucked breath through his teeth. Maybe controlling other people wasn't as easy as grown-ups made it look. "Go inside the house," he told Gotte, "and fetch the truck key from the kitchen counter. Then return."

After many painstaking instructions, Thomas sat buckled into the passenger seat of the pickup truck, trying to ignore the zombie stench of his foster father.

"Roll down the windows," he commanded.

Crickets chirped in a loud, ominous way.

"Turn on the headlights," Thomas said. "Back out of the driveway."

Gotte made bestial noises instead of obeying the last command. His eyes were glassy, and he didn't blink enough.

Thomas sensed the problem. Gotte was trying to back out of the driveway on foot, while he remained buckled into the driver's seat. Conflicting commands swirled in his broken mind.

"Stop backing out of the driveway," Thomas said with a weary sigh. "Okay. Place your right foot on the brake pedal. Press the pedal with your foot. Shift the gearshift to the 'R' symbol."

As a six-year-old, Thomas shouldn't know how to drive a pickup truck, but he helplessly absorbed skills from anyone whom he spent more than a few minutes around. He understood how to repair transmissions and radiators. He could theoretically give someone a perfect pedicure, thanks to the mind of his foster mother. And he knew several foreign languages, including American Sign Language and Braille.

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