Z is for Zombie
Z, the Unknown
The Keegan back yard was a wild and unpredictable place, full of savages, wild beasts, poisonous plants and quicksand. That was the way it seemed to Danny Keegan. That was the way he imagined it to be, anyway. He told his sister, who was a year younger than he, "When you're having an adventure in the back yard, you have to do a lot of imagining."
Barbara nodded eagerly and said, "When you're a Girls' Pathfinder, you're ready for imagining or anything else." She waved her official Girls' Pathfinder flashlight in Danny's face.
Danny didn't disagree with Barbara; there was no point starting an argument. But he had his own opinions about the Girls' Pathfinders. Both Barbara and their friend, Elisa, were members. Yet, neither of them could find their way home when they got lost in the woods out on Long Island the previous Halloween. It was only the peculiar talents of Howie Wolfner that had saved them.
The sun was setting on Brooklyn when Danny and Barbara found the old card table in the closet. Mr. Keegan had been promising for years that he would re-cover the torn and faded blue fabric top, but had not yet gotten around to it. Luckily, the condition of the top did not matter for what Danny and Barbara had in mind.
Danny's beagle, Harryhausen, barked with excitement and ran around in circles as Danny carried the table through the house.
Barbara paraded before Danny carrying an old bedspread that their mother had given them. Mrs. Keegan said the bedspread was chenile, which mean that soft caterpillars of fluff wound all across it in complicated patterns. It was Danny's favorite type of blanket to lie under when he wasn't feeling well. Danny was feeling just fine at the moment, but here he was about to lie under it anyway.
"Ol' Harryhausen knows we're going to have an adventure, don't you, boy?" Danny said. Harryhausen barked again. He may have understood Danny's question, or the barks may just have been two more in a continuing series.
The card table had been light when Danny had picked it up, but it was getting heavier as he carried it. His fingers had trouble gripping the cold metal rim of the table top. He grunted but didn't complain as he followed Barbara down the steps outside the back door. He stopped to rest on the driveway while he inhaled with appreciation. It was spring. Days were getting longer and brighter. The air was warm and full of the wonderful smells of growing things. It was as if color were being added to the world after a long winter made of nothing but shades of gray. The air promised that summer would arrive right on schedule.
Barbara said, "Camping in the back yard is nothing compared to going out on Long Island with the Girls' Pathfinders. Long Island is really a wilderness."
Well, there it was. It looked as if Danny could not avoid talking about the Girls' Pathfinders no matter how hard he tried. He had to say something. He winked and said, "Don't tell that to all the people on Long Island who have electricity and indoor plumbing."
"It's not all wilderness, silly," Barbara said, laughing as she walked along the driveway.
When they got to the back yard, Danny put down the card table again and studied their encampment. The back yard was surrounded by a high brick wall that was certain to keep out adventures that were perhaps more serious than he or Barbara were prepared to handle. The ground, which only a few weeks before had been frozen solid, now showed patches of pale grass, fine as baby hair.
Danny hefted the card table over to the grassy patch and let it fall onto its top. He and Barbara pulled each leg .paback, and each one locked into place with a click. Danny man-handled the card table until it was right-side-up and Barbara threw the chenile bedspread over it.
The chenile caterpillars were a little worn in places, and stained a faded brown where Barbara had once spilled chocolate milk; the bedspread really wasn't very fancy any more. That's why their mother had allowed them to use it to camp under.
Danny and Barbara pulled the corners of the spread away from the table and set a big rock on each one. What they'd built looked something like a tent with a flat top. "That's great," Danny said, and crawled under the bedspread. Barbara was right behind him.
Under the card, table the light, strained through the cloth walls, was dim and gray. Though the tent was in their back yard, and the new grass was the same outside as in, the fact that they were inside made their tent seem special-- almost magical.
"This is great," Danny said.
"Yeah," Barbara said. "Let's get our sleepy bags and equipment." She crawled out of the tent. Danny waited a moment, enjoying being alone in his hideaway.
When he crawled out, saying, "That's sleeping bag," he almost ran into Barbara. She was standing in front of the tent looking at the sky. When he looked up, he understood why.
From horizon to horizon herds of enormous whipped creamy clouds were piled pillow upon pillow, scoop upon scoop, fairy castle upon fairy castle, until they seemed to touch the blue ceiling of the sky. Delicate shades of pink, orange, purple and red tinted the clouds, the colors changing subtly as the sun went down.
"Wow," Barbara said, meaning it.
Danny wanted to agree with her, but he thought it would be funnier if he said, "It's all special effects. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg make these sunsets in Hollywood and ship'em all over the world." He looked at his sister to see what effect his statement was having.
Barbara bought Danny's story for about half a second. Then she sniffed, said, "You think you're so smart just because you're in the fifth grade," and hustled back to the house.
Danny spent a little more time watching the sky, and when he caught up with her in the kitchen, Barbara was about done loading a pocket knife, another flashlight, an Archie comic book, a candy bar, a canteen and a first aid kit into her knapsack. She slung the sack over her shoulder and lifted her sleeping back under her other arm. She looked really loaded down.
"Well," said, Mrs. Keegan as she popped peas out of a pod into a big bowl. "You look ready for anything."
"Anything but a wise-acre brother," Barbara said. She didn't even look at Danny as she tottered back outside.
"What did you say to Barbara?" Mrs. Keegan said.
As Danny gathered his own equipment together, he said, "I just told her how George Lucas and Steven Spielberg make the really good sunsets."
"Danny," Mrs. Keegan said as she shook her head. But she couldn't keep from laughing. When Danny was ready to go outside, she said, "Be nice to your sister. I don't want any accidents while you're on this safari of yours."
"Sure, Mom," Danny said as he went out the door. He wondered what kind of accidents could possibly happen while they slept in the back yard. Parents sometimes had some funny ideas.
Danny found Barbara standing in front of the tent surrounded by her equipment. She was looking at the sky, apparently having forgotten everything else.
"What's . . . ?" Danny began. Then he looked where Barbara was looking, and he forgot everything else too.
Up in the sky was the strangest thing Danny had ever seen. It was stranger than his friend C.D. Bitesky turning into a bat. It was stranger than his friend Howie Wolfner turning into a wolf. It was even stranger than his friends Elisa and Frankie Stein shooting electricity from their fingers.
Floating slowly and silently through the sky among the fairyland of the clouds Danny saw a small airship. It wasn't an airplane or a helicopter or even a hot air balloon. Not exactly. It was more like something he'd seen in a movie on TV. The movie had been called "Master of the World" and it was about a guy who built a flying machine that looked kind of like a big blimp except that it had hundreds of propellers spinning from the top like maniac daisies, and hanging from the bottom, a kind of railroad car where all the people stayed.
But the airship Danny was looking at was not quite like that either. The balloon part was shaped like a blimp and all around its equator were the painted faces of strange bearded men blowing as hard as they could. Wind spirits? Danny wondered. Hanging from the balloon was a carriage shaped like a swan. A tall thin man was standing in its hollowed out back. His hair was long and wild, but he was dressed in a regular brown business suit. Reflecting the colors of the sunset, the man and his strange airship looked as if they were not quite real.
With one hand, the man held a rope that controlled a rudder behind a slowly-turning propeller at the back of the swan. With his other hand, he took handfuls of paper sheets from a box and flung them over the side. The sheets fell, slowly, slowly, rocking up and back like big autumn leaves. One of them caught in a tree in the yard next door.
The man saw Barbara and Danny. He smiled and waved, but said nothing. While holding the control rope under his arm, he folded one of his sheets into a paper airplane and sailed it in their direction.
As if hypnotized, Danny and Barbara watched the paper airplane swoop toward them. Barbara ran to snatch it out of the air. She carefully unfolded it and looked at it quizzically.
Danny, who by this time was looking over her shoulder, said, "It looks like a big Z."
"I can see that," Barbara said.
They looked at the Z. Barbara turned the paper every which way, but there was nothing on it except that one letter drawn in black. She said, "What do you think it means?"
"I don't know."
"Me neither. I'm going to ask Mom." She ran back into the house with Danny at her heels. She showed the paper to Mrs. Keegan as she breathlessly explained about the balloon and the swan and the strange man. Mrs. Keegan wiped her hands on her apron and took the paper. She studied it for a moment and said, "I've never heard of a swan airship floating over Brooklyn. Let's have a look." Still clutching the paper, she went outside.
"She doesn't believe us," Barbara whispered to Danny.
"We're lucky Dad is away. If he was here they both wouldn't believe us."
They ran back outside and saw Mrs. Keegan looking at the sky and shaking her head. "It's a beautiful sunset," she said, "and some of those clouds look a little like swans, but I don't see any airship."
Barbara and Danny looked where they'd seen the airship last, but it had disappeared. Danny wondered if it had ever been there. But the paper with the Z on it was in his mom's hand. Somebody had dropped it into their back yard.
"Must be some kind of advertising," Mrs. Keegan said, and handed the paper back to Danny. Then she said, "Have a good time, but don't stay up too late. And try not to get eaten by a lion or something. I'd never be able to explain it to your father." She laughed and hugged them both and went back into the house. Danny handed the paper to Barbara and went to organize his equipment.
He dragged his stuff under the edge of the chenile bedspread with him and unrolled his sleeping bag. He set out a copy of "Dr. Doolittle In the Moon," and his flashlight. The inside of the tent was getting pretty murky. He could hardly see anything. A few minutes later Barbara joined him with her own stuff.
"See anything?" Danny said.
"It's getting dark," Barbara said.
"That's what the flashlights are for, doofus."
Barbara said, "Yeah," instead of angrily asking, "Who's a doofus?"
If Barbara wouldn't take offence when Danny called her a doofus, then something was definitely wrong. And Danny knew what it was. It was those clouds from another planet and that airship and that man and his millions of papers, each with a Z on it. They were all too strange, and really the wrong kinds of things with with to start a night outside, even in the back yard.
Danny crawled out of the tent as Barbara called after him, "Where are you going?"
"Right here," Danny said. He and Barbara sat crosslegged in front of the tent, sometimes looking at the blackening sky, sometimes looking at the friendly yellow squares of light--the windows--in the big bulk of their house.
Danny thought about their mom, by now probably sitting in the family room, watching TV or reading or just listening to music. It was warm in the house too. He shivered. "You bring a jacket?" he said.
"No," Barbara said in a miserable voice. She looked at him. He was the big brother. It was up to him to do something. He said, "You know, I don't think it's safe out here."
"No?" Barbara said hopefully.
"Yeah," said Danny. "If strange guys in airships can drop things from the sky, anything can happen."
"You think?" Barbara said.
"Yeah. Maybe we should sleep in the house tonight." Barbara said, "Mrs. Bumpo says that a Girls' Pathfinder never gives up."
"What does she say about Girls' Pathfinders acting stupid."
"You're right," Barbara said. She and Danny dived back into their tent, the interior of which was now pitch black. Danny collected anything he could in his arms and ran toward the house. Barbara was right behind him.