No one in the clearing hears the biters coming through the high trees.
The metallic ringing noises of tent stakes going into the cold, stubborn Georgia clay drowns the distant footsteps—the intruders still a good five hundred yards off in the shadows of neighboring pines. No one hears the twigs snapping under the north wind, or the telltale guttural moaning noises, as faint as loons behind the treetops. No one detects the trace odors of putrid meat and black mold marinating in feces. The tang of autumn wood smoke and rotting fruit on the mid-afternoon breeze masks the smell of the walking dead.
In fact, for quite a while, not a single one of the settlers in the burgeoning encampment registers any imminent danger whatsoever—most of the survivors now busily heaving up support beams hewn from found objects such as railroad ties, telephone poles, and rusty lengths of rebar.
“Pathetic … look at me,” the slender young woman in the ponytail comments with an exasperated groan, crouching awkwardly by a square of paint-spattered tent canvas folded on the ground over by the northwest corner of the lot. She shivers in her bulky Georgia Tech sweatshirt, antique jewelry, and ripped jeans. Ruddy and freckled, with long, deep brown hair that dangles in tendrils wound with delicate little feathers, Lilly Caul is a bundle of nervous tics, from the constant yanking of stray wisps of hair back behind her ears to the compulsive gnawing of fingernails. Now, with her small hand she clutches the hammer tighter and repeatedly whacks at the metal stake, grazing the head as if the thing is greased.
“It’s okay, Lilly, just relax,” the big man says, looking on from behind her.
“A two-year-old could do this.”
“Stop beating yourself up.”
“It’s not me I want to beat up.” She pounds some more, two-handing the hammer. The stake goes nowhere. “It’s this stupid stake.”
“You’re choked up too high on the hammer.”
“Move your hand more toward the end of the handle, let the tool do the work.”
The stake jumps off hard ground, goes flying, and lands ten feet away.
“Damn it! Damn it!” Lilly hits the ground with the hammer, looks down and exhales.
“You’re doing fine, babygirl, lemme show you.”
The big man moves in next to her, kneels, and starts to gently take the hammer from her. Lilly recoils, refusing to hand over the implement. “Give me a second, okay? I can handle this, I can,” she insists, her narrow shoulders tensing under the sweatshirt.
She grabs another stake and starts again, tapping the metal crown tentatively. The ground resists, as tough as cement. It’s been a cold October so far, and the fallow fields south of Atlanta have hardened. Not that this is a bad thing. The tough clay is also porous and dry—for the moment at least—hence the decision to pitch camp here. Winter’s coming, and this contingent has been regrouping here for over a week, settling in, recharging, rethinking their futures—if indeed they have any futures.
“You kinda just let the head fall on it,” the burly African-American demonstrates next to her, making swinging motions with his enormous arm. His huge hands look as though they could cover her entire head. “Use gravity and the weight of the hammer.”
It takes a great deal of conscious effort for Lilly not to stare at the black man’s arm as it pistons up and down. Even crouching in his sleeveless denim shirt and ratty down vest, Josh Lee Hamilton cuts an imposing figure. Built like an NFL tackle, with monolithic shoulders, enormous tree-trunk thighs, and thick neck, he still manages to carry himself quite gently. His sad, long-lashed eyes and his deferential brow, which perpetually creases the front of his balding pate, give off an air of unexpected tenderness. “No big deal … see?” He shows her again and his tattooed bicep—as big as a pig’s belly—jumps as he wields the imaginary hammer. “See what I’m sayin’?”
Lilly discreetly looks away from Josh’s rippling arm. She feels a faint frisson of guilt every time she notices his muscles, his tapered back, his broad shoulders. Despite the amount of time they have been spending together in this hell-on-earth some Georgians are calling “the Turn,” Lilly has scrupulously avoided crossing any intimate boundaries with Josh. Best to keep it platonic, brother-and-sister, best buds, nothing more. Best to keep it strictly business … especially in the midst of this plague.
But that has not stopped Lilly from giving the big man coy little sidelong grins when he calls her “girlfriend” or “babydoll” … or making sure he gets a glimpse of the Chinese character tattooed above Lilly’s tailbone at night when she’s settling into her sleeping bag. Is she leading him on? Is she manipulating him for protection? The rhetorical questions remain unanswered.
For Lilly the embers of fear constantly smoldering in her gut have cauterized all ethical issues and nuances of social behavior. In fact, fear has dogged her off and on for most her life—she developed an ulcer in high school, and had to be on antianxiety meds during her aborted tenure at Georgia Tech—but now it simmers constantly inside her. The fear poisons her sleep, clouds her thoughts, presses in on her heart. The fear makes her do things.
She seizes the hammer so tightly now it makes the veins twitch in her wrist.
“It’s not rocket science ferchrissake!” she barks, and finally gets control of the hammer and drives a stake into the ground through sheer rage. She grabs another stake. She moves to the opposite corner of the canvas, and then wills the metal bit straight through the fabric and into the ground by pounding madly, wildly, missing as many blows as she connects. Sweat breaks out on her neck and brow. She pounds and pounds. She loses herself for a moment.
At last she pauses, exhausted, breathing hard, greasy with perspiration.
“Okay … that’s one way to do it,” Josh says softly, rising to his feet, a smirk on his chiseled brown face as he regards the half-dozen stakes pinning the canvas to the ground. Lilly says nothing.
The zombies, coming undetected through the trees to the north, are now less than five minutes away.
Not a single one of Lilly Caul’s fellow survivors—numbering close to a hundred now, all grudgingly banding together to try and build a ragtag community here—realizes the one fatal drawback to this vacant rural lot in which they’ve erected their makeshift tents.
At first glance, the property appears to be ideal. Situated in a verdant area fifty miles south of the city—an area that normally produces millions of bushels of peaches, pears, and apples annually—the clearing sits in a natural basin of seared crabgrass and hard-packed earth. Abandoned by its onetime landlords—probably the owners of the neighboring orchards—the lot is the size of a soccer field. Gravel drives flank the property. Along these winding roads stand dense, overgrown walls of white pine and live oak that stretch up into the hills.
At the north end of the pasture stands the scorched, decimated remains of a large manor home, its blackened dormers silhouetted against the sky like petrified skeletons, its windows blown out by a recent maelstrom. Over the last couple of months, fires have taken out large chunks of the suburbs and farmhouses south of Atlanta.
Back in August, after the first human encounters with walking corpses, the panic that swept across the South played havoc with the emergency infrastructure. Hospitals got overloaded and then closed down, firehouses went dark, and Interstate 85 clogged up with wrecks. People gave up finding stations on their battery-operated radios, and then started looking for supplies to scavenge, places to loot, alliances to strike, and areas in which to hunker.
The people gathered here on this abandoned homestead found each other on the dusty back roads weaving through the patchwork tobacco farms and deserted strip malls of Pike, Lamar, and Meriwether counties. Comprising all ages, including over a dozen families with small children, their convoy of sputtering, dying vehicles grew … until the need to find shelter and breathing room became paramount.
Now they sprawl across this two-square-acre parcel of vacant land like a throwback to some depression-era Hooverville, some of them living in their cars, others carving out niches on the softer grass, a few of them already ensconced in small pup tents around the periphery. They have very few firearms, and very little ammunition. Garden implements, sporting goods, kitchen equipment—all the niceties of civilized life—now serve as weapons. Dozens of these survivors are still pounding stakes into the cold, scabrous ground, working diligently, racing some unspoken, invisible clock, struggling to erect their jury-rigged sanctuaries—each one of them oblivious to the peril that approaches through the pines to the north.
One of the settlers, a lanky man in his mid-thirties in a John Deere cap and leather jacket, stands under the edge of a gigantic field of canvas in the center of the pasture, his chiseled features shaded by the gargantuan tent fabric. He supervises a group of sullen teenagers gathered under the canvas. “C’mon, ladies, put your backs into it!” he barks, hollering over the din of clanging metal filling the chilled air.
The teens grapple with a massive wooden beam, which serves as the center mast of what is essentially a large circus tent. They found the tent back on I-85, strewn in a ditch next to an overturned flatbed truck, a faded insignia of a giant paint-chipped clown on the vehicle’s bulwark. Measuring over a hundred meters in circumference, the stained, tattered canvas big top—which smells of mildew and animal dung—struck the man in the John Deere hat as a perfect canopy for a common area, a place to keep supplies, a place to keep order, a place to keep some semblance of civilization.
“Dude … this ain’t gonna hold the weight of it,” complains one of the teens, a slacker kid in an army fatigue coat named Scott Moon. His long blond hair hangs in his face and his breath shows as he huffs and struggles with the other tattooed, pierced goth kids from his high school.
“Stop your pissin’ and moanin’—it’ll hold the thing,” the man in the cap retorts with a grunt. Chad Bingham is his name—one of the family men of the settlement—the father of four girls: a seven-year-old, nine-year-old-twins, and a teenager. Unhappily married to a meek little gal from Valdosta, Chad fancies himself a strict disciplinarian, just like his daddy. But his daddy had boys and never had to deal with the nonsense perpetrated by females. For that matter, Chad’s daddy never had to deal with rotting pus pockets of dead flesh coming after the living. So now Chad Bingham is taking charge, taking on the role of alpha male … because, just as his daddy used to say, Somebody’s gotta do it. He glares at the kids. “Hold it steady!”
“That’s as high as it’s gonna go,” one of the goth boys groans through clenched teeth.
“You’re high,” Scott Moon quips through a stifled little giggle.
“Keep it steady!” Chad orders.
“I said, hold the dad-blamed thing STEADY!” Chad snaps a metal cotter pin through a slot in the timber. The outer walls of the massive canvas pavilion shudder in the autumn wind, making a rumbling noise, as other teens scurry toward the far corners with smaller support beams.
As the big top takes shape, and the panorama of the clearing becomes visible to Chad through the tent’s wide opening at one end, he gazes out across the flattened, brown weeds of the pasture, past the cars with their hoods up, past the clusters of mothers and children on the ground counting their meager caches of berries and vending-machine detritus, past the half-dozen or so pickups brimming with worldly possessions.
For a moment, Chad locks gazes with the big colored dude thirty yards away, near the north corner of the property, standing guard over Lilly Caul like a gigantic bouncer at some outdoor social club. Chad knows Lilly by name, but that’s about it. He doesn’t know much else about the girl—other than the fact that she’s “some chick friend of Megan’s”—and he knows less about the big man. Chad has been in proximity with the giant for weeks and can’t even remember his name. Jim? John? Jack? As a matter of fact, Chad doesn’t know anything about any of these people, other than the fact that they’re all pretty goddamn desperate and scared and crying out for discipline.
But for a while now, Chad and the big black dude have been sharing loaded glances. Sizing each other up. Taking the measure of each other. Not a single word has been exchanged but Chad feels challenges being issued. The big man could probably take Chad in a hand-to-hand situation but Chad would never let it come to that. Size doesn’t matter to a .38 caliber bullet, which is conveniently chambered in the steel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 52 tucked down the back of Chad’s wide Sam Browne belt.
Right now, though, an unexpected current of recognition arcs across the fifty yards between the two men like a lightning bolt. Lilly continues to kneel in front of the black man, angrily beating the crap out of tent stakes, but something dark and troubling glints in the black dude’s gaze suddenly as he stares at Chad. The realization comes quickly, in stages, like an electrical circuit firing.
Later, the two men will conclude, independently, that they—along with everybody else—missed two very important phenomena occurring at this moment. First, the noise of the tent construction in the clearing has been drawing walkers for the last hour. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the property is hampered by a single critical shortcoming.
In the aftermath, the two men will realize, privately, with much chagrin, that due to the natural barrier provided by the adjacent forest, which reaches up to the crest of a neighboring hill, any natural sound behind the trees is dampened, muffled, nearly deadened by the topography.
In fact, a college marching band could come over the top of that plateau, and a settler would not hear it until the cymbals crashed right in front of his face.
Lilly Caul remains blissfully unaware of the attack for several minutes—despite the fact that things begin unfolding at a rapid rate all around her—the noise of the clanging hammers and voices are replaced by the scattered screams of children. Lilly continues angrily driving stakes into the ground—mistaking the yelps of the younger ones for play—right up until the moment Josh grabs the nape of her sweatshirt.
“What—?” Lilly jerks with a start, twisting around toward the big man with eyes blinking.
“Lilly, we gotta—”
Josh barely gets the first part of a sentence out when a dark figure stumbles out of the trees fifteen feet away. Josh has no time to run, no time to save Lilly, no time to do anything other than snatch the hammer out of the girl’s hand and shove her out of harm’s way.
Lilly tumbles and rolls almost instinctively before getting her bearings and rising back to her feet, a scream stuck in the back of her throat.
The trouble is, the first corpse that comes staggering into the clearing—a tall, pasty-colored roamer in a filthy hospital smock with half his shoulder missing, the cords of his tendons pulsing like worms—is followed by two other walkers. One female and one male, each one with a gaping divot for a mouth, their bloodless lips oozing black bile, their shoe-button eyes fixed and glazed.
The three of them trundle with their trademark spasmodic gait, jaws snapping, lips peeling away from blackened teeth like piranhas.
In the twenty seconds it takes the three biters to surround Josh, the tent city undergoes a rapid and dramatic shift. The men go for their homemade weapons, those with iron reaching down to their improvised holsters. Some of the more brazen women scramble for two-by-fours and hay hooks and pitchforks and rusty axes. Caretakers sweep their small children into cars and truck cabs. Clenched fists slam down on door locks. Rear loading gates clang upward.
Oddly, the few screams that ring out—from the children, mostly, and a couple of elderly women who may or may not be in early-stage senility—dwindle quickly, replaced by the eerie calm of a drill team or a provisional militia. Within the space of that twenty seconds, the noise of surprise quickly transitions into the business of defense, of repulsion and rage channeled into controlled violence. These people have done this before. There’s a learning curve at work here. Some of the armed men spread outward toward the edges of the camp, calmly snapping hammers, pumping shells into shotgun breeches, raising the muzzles of stolen gun-show pistols or rusty family revolvers. The first shot that rings out is the dry pop of a .22 caliber Ruger—not the most powerful weapon by any means, but accurate and easy to shoot—the blast taking off the top of a dead woman’s skull thirty yards away.
The female barely gets out of the trees before folding to the ground in a baptism of oily cranial fluid, which pours down over her in thick rivulets. This takedown occurs seventeen seconds into the attack. By the twentieth second, things begin happening at a faster clip.
On the north corner of the lot Lilly Caul finds herself moving, rising up on the balls of her feet, moving with the slow, coiled stiffness of a sleepwalker. Instinct takes over, and she finds herself almost involuntarily backing away from Josh, who is quickly surrounded by three biters. He has one hammer. No gun. And three rotting mouths full of black teeth closing in.
He pivots toward the closest zombie while the rest of the camp scatters. Josh drives the sharp end of the hammer through Hospital Smock’s temple. The cracking noise brings to mind the rending of an ice-cube tray. Brain matter fountains, the puff of pressurized decay released in an audible gasp, as the former inpatient collapses.
The hammer gets stuck, wrenched out of Josh’s big hand as the walker folds.
At the same time, other survivors fan out across all corners of the clearing. On the far edge of the trees Chad gets his steel-plated Smith up and roaring, hitting the eye socket of a spindly old man missing half his jaw, the dead geriatric spinning in a mist of rancid fluids, pinwheeling into the weeds. Behind a line of cars a tent pole skewers a growling female through the mouth, pinning her to the trunk of a live oak. On the east edge of the pasture an axe shears open a rotting skull with the ease of a pomegranate being halved. Twenty yards away the blast of a shotgun vaporizes the foliage as well as the top half of a decaying former businessman.
Across the lot, Lilly Caul—still backing away from the ambush engulfing Josh—jerks and quakes at the killing racket. The fear prickles over her flesh like needles, taking her breath away and seizing up her brain. She sees the big black man on his knees now, clawing for the hammer, while the other two biters scuttle spiderlike across the fallen tent canvas toward his legs. A second hammer lies in the grass just out of his reach.
Lilly turns and runs.
It takes her less than a minute to cover the ground between the row of outer tents and the center of the pasture, where two dozen weaker souls are hunkered together among the crates and provisions stashed under the partially erected circus tent. Several vehicles have fired up, and are now pulling next to the huddling throng in clouds of carbon monoxide. Armed men on the back of a flatbed guard the women and children as Lilly ducks down behind a battered steamer trunk, her lungs heaving for air, her skin crawling with terror.
She stays like that for the duration of the attack, her hands over her ears. She doesn’t see Josh near the tree line, getting his hand around the hammer embedded in the fallen roamer, wrenching it free at the last possible instant and swinging it toward the closest attacker. She doesn’t see the blunt end of the hammer striking the male zombie’s mandible, staving in half the rotting skull with the tremendous force of Josh’s blow. And Lilly misses the last part of the struggle; she misses the female nearly getting her black incisors around Josh’s ankle before a shovel comes down on the back of her head. Several men have reached Josh in time to dispatch the final zombie, and Josh rolls away, unharmed and yet trembling with the adrenaline and tremors of a near miss.
The entire attack—now vanquished and fading away in a soft drone of whimpering children, dripping fluids, and the escaping gases of decomposition—has encompassed less than one hundred and eighty seconds.
Later, dragging the remains off into a dry creek bed to the south, Chad and his fellow alpha dogs count twenty-four biters in all—a totally manageable threat level … for the time being, at least.
“Jesus, Lilly, why don’t you just suck it up and go apologize to the man?” The young woman named Megan sits on a blanket outside the circus tent, staring at the untouched breakfast in front of Lilly.
The sun has just come up, pale and cold in the clear sky—another day in the tent city—and Lilly sits in front of a battered Coleman stove, sipping instant coffee from a paper cup. The congealed remnants of freeze-dried eggs sit in the camp skillet, as Lilly tries to shake the guilt-ridden ruminations of a sleepless night. In this world there is no rest for the weary or the cowardly.
All around the great and tattered circus tent—now fully assembled—the bustle of other survivors drones on, almost as if the previous day’s attack never happened. People carry folding chairs and camp tables into the great tent through the wide opening at one end (probably once the entrance for elephants and clown cars), as the tent’s outer walls palpitate with the shifting breezes and changes in air pressure. In other parts of the encampment more shelters are going up. Fathers are gathering and taking inventory of firewood, bottled water, ammunition, weapons, and canned goods. Mothers are tending to children, blankets, coats, and medicine.
Upon closer scrutiny a keen observer would see a thinly veiled layer of anxiety in every activity. But what is uncertain is which danger poses the greatest threat: the undead or the encroaching winter.
“I haven’t figured out what to say yet,” Lilly mutters finally, sipping her lukewarm coffee. Her hands haven’t stopped shaking. Eighteen hours have passed since the attack, but Lilly still stews with shame, avoiding contact with Josh, keeping to herself, convinced that he hates her for running and leaving him to die. Josh has tried to talk to her a few times but she couldn’t handle it, telling him she was sick.
“What is there to say?” Megan fishes in her denim jacket for her little one-hit pipe. She tamps a tiny bud of weed into the end and sparks it with a Bic, taking a healthy toke. An olive-skinned young woman in her late twenties with loose henna-colored curls falling around her narrow, cunning face, she blows the green smoke out with a cough. “I mean look at this dude, he’s huge.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Megan grins. “Dude looks like he can take care of himself, is all I’m saying.”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
“Are you sleeping with him?”
“What?” Lilly looks at her friend. “Are you serious?”
“It’s a simple question.”
Lilly shakes her head, lets out a sigh. “I’m not even going to dignify that with—”
“You’re not … are you? Good-Little-Doobie-Lilly. Good to the last drop.”
“Would you stop?”
“Why, though?” Megan’s grin turns to a smirk. “Why have you not climbed on top of that? What are you waiting for? That body … those guns he’s got—”
“Stop it!” Lilly’s anger flares, a sharp splitting pain behind the bridge of her nose. Her emotions close to the surface, her trembling returning, she surprises even herself with the volume of her voice. “I’m not like you … okay. I’m not a social butterfly. Jesus, Meg. I’ve lost track. Which one of these guys are you with now?”
Megan stares at her for a second, coughs, then loads up another one-hit. “You know what?” Megan offers the pipe. “Why don’t you take it down a little bit? Chill?”
“It’s good for what ails ya. It’ll kill that bug you got up your ass.”
Lilly rubs her eyes, shakes her head. “You are a piece of work, Meg.”
Megan gulps another hit, blows it out. “I’d rather be a piece of work than a piece of shit.”
Lilly says nothing, just keeps shaking her head. The sad truth is, Lilly sometimes wonders if Megan Lafferty is not exactly that—a piece of shit. The two girls have known each other since senior year at Sprayberry High School back in Marietta. They were inseparable back then, sharing everything from homework to drugs to boyfriends. But then Lilly got designs on a career, and spent a year of purgatory at Massey College of Business in Atlanta, and then on to Georgia Tech for an MBA she would never get. She wanted to be a fashionista, maybe run a clothing design business, but she got as far as the reception area of her first interview—a highly coveted internship with Mychael Knight Fashions—before chickening out. Her old companion, fear, put the kibosh on all her plans.
Fear made her flee that lavish lobby and give up and go home to Marietta and resume her slacker lifestyle with Megan, getting high, sitting on couches, and watching reruns of Project Runway.
Something had changed between the two women in recent years, however, something fundamentally chemical—Lilly felt it as strong as a language barrier. Megan had no ambition, no direction, no focus, and was okay with that. But Lilly still harbored dreams—stillborn dreams, perhaps, but dreams nonetheless. She secretly longed to go to New York or start a Web site or go back to that receptionist at Mychael Knight and say, “Oops, sorry, just had to step out for a year and a half…”
Lilly’s dad—a retired math teacher and widower named Everett Ray Caul—always encouraged his daughter. Everett was a kind, deferential man who took it upon himself, after his wife’s slow death from breast cancer back in the mid-nineties, to raise his only daughter with a tender touch. He knew she wanted more out of life, but he also knew she needed unconditional love, she needed a family, she needed a home. And Everett was all she had. All of which made the events of the last couple of months so hellish for Lilly.
The first outbreak of walkers hit the north side of Cobb County hard. They came from blue-collar areas, the industrial parks north of Kennesaw woods, creeping into the population like malignant cells. Everett decided to pack Lilly up and flee in their beat-up VW wagon, and they got as far as U.S. 41, before the wreckage slowed them down. They found a rogue city bus a mile south of there—careening up and down the back streets, picking survivors up—and they almost made it onboard. To this day, the image of her father pushing her through the bus’s folding door as zombies closed in haunts Lilly’s dreams.
The old man saved her life. He slammed that accordion door behind her at the last possible instant, and slid to the pavement, already in the grip of three cannibals. The old man’s blood washed up across the glass as the bus tore out of there, Lilly screaming until her vocal cords burned out. She went into a kind of catatonic state then, curled into a fetal position on a bench seat, staring at that blood-smeared door all the way to Atlanta.
It was a minor miracle that Lilly found Megan. At that point in the outbreak, cell phones still worked, and she managed to arrange a rendezvous with her friend on the outskirts of Heartsfield Airport. The two women set out together on foot, hitchhiking south, flopping in deserted houses, just concentrating on survival. The tension between them intensified. Each seemed to be compensating for the terror and loss in different ways. Lilly went inward. Megan went the other direction, staying high most of the time, talking constantly, latching on to any other traveler who crossed their path.
They hooked up with a caravan of survivors thirty miles southwest of Atlanta—three families from Lawrenceville, traveling in two minivans. Megan convinced Lilly there was safety in numbers, and Lilly agreed to ride along for a while. She kept to herself for the next few weeks of zigzagging across the fruit belt, but Megan soon had designs on one of the husbands. His name was Chad and he had a bad-ass good-old-boy way about him, with his Copenhagen snuff under his lip and his navy tattoos on his wiry arms. Lilly was appalled to see the flirting going on amid this waking nightmare, and it wasn’t long before Megan and Chad were stealing off into the shadows of rest stop buildings to “relieve themselves.” The wedge between Lilly and Megan burrowed deeper.
It was right around this time that Josh Lee Hamilton came into the picture. Around sunset one evening the caravan had gotten pinned down by a pack of the dead in a Kmart parking lot, when the big African-American behemoth came to the rescue from the shadows of the loading dock. He came like some Moorish gladiator, wielding twin garden hoes with the price tags still flagging in the wind. He easily dispatched the half-dozen zombies, and the members of the caravan thanked him profusely. He showed the group a couple of brand-new shotguns in the back aisles of the store, as well as camping gear.
Josh rode a motorcycle, and after helping load the minivans with provisions, he decided to join the group, following along on his bike as the caravan made their way closer to the abandoned orchards patchworking Meriwether County.
Now Lilly had begun to regret the day she agreed to ride on the back of that big Suzuki. Was her attachment to the big man simply a projection of her grief over the loss of her dad? Was it a desperate act of manipulation in the midst of unending terror? Was it as cheap and transparent as Megan’s promiscuity? Lilly wondered if her act of cowardice—deserting Josh on the battlefield yesterday—was a sick, dark, subconscious act of self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Nobody said you’re a piece of shit, Megan,” Lilly finally says, her voice strained and unconvincing.
“You don’t have to say it.” Megan angrily taps the pipe on the stove. She levers herself to her feet. “You’ve totally said enough.”
Lilly stands. She has grown accustomed to these sudden mood swings in her friend. “What is your problem?”
“You … you’re my problem.”
“The hell are you talking about?”
“Forget it, I can’t even handle this anymore,” Megan says. The rueful tone of her voice is filtered by the hoarse buzz of the weed working on her. “I wish you luck, girlie-girl … you’re gonna need it.”
Megan storms off toward the row of cars on the east edge of the property.
Lilly watches her pal vanish behind a tall trailer loaded with cartons. The other survivors take very little notice of the tiff between the two girls. A few heads turn, a few whispers are exchanged, but most of the settlers continue busying themselves with the gathering and accounting of supplies, their somber expressions tight with nervous tension. The wind smells of metal and sleet. There’s a cold front creeping in.
Gazing out across the clearing, Lilly finds herself momentarily transfixed by all the activity. The area looks like a flea market crowded with buyers and sellers, people trading supplies, stacking cordwood, and chatting idly. At least twenty smaller tents now line the periphery of the property, a few clotheslines haphazardly strung between trees, blood-spattered clothing taken from walkers, nothing wasted, the threat of winter a constant motivator now. Lilly sees children playing jump rope near a flatbed truck, a few boys kicking a soccer ball. She sees a fire burning in a barbecue pit, the haze of smoke wafting up over the roofs of parked cars. The air is redolent with bacon grease and hickory smoke, an odor that, in any other context, might suggest the lazy days of summer, tailgate parties, football games, backyard cookouts, family reunions.
A tide of black dread rises in Lilly as she scans the bustling little settlement. She sees the kids frolicking … and the parents laboring to make this place work … all of them zombie fodder … and all at once Lilly feels a twinge of insight … a jolt of reality.
She sees clearly now that these people are doomed. This grand plan to build a tent city in the fields of Georgia is not going to work.
The next day, under a pewter-colored sky, Lilly is playing with the Bingham girls in front of Chad and Donna Bingham’s tent, when a grinding noise echoes over the trees along the adjacent dirt access road. The sound stiffens half the settlers in the area, faces snapping toward the noise of an approaching engine, which is groaning through its low gears.
It could be anyone. Word has spread across the plagued land of thugs pillaging the living, bands of heavily armed rovers stripping survivors of everything including the shoes on their feet. Several of the settlers’ vehicles are currently out on scavenging reconnaissance but you never know.
Lilly looks up from the girls’ hopscotch court—the squares have been etched in a little bare patch of brick-red clay with a stick—and the Bingham girls all freeze in mid-skip. The oldest girl, Sarah, shoots a glance at the road. A skinny tomboy in a faded denim jumper and down vest with big inquisitive blue eyes, fifteen-year-old Sarah, the whip-smart ringleader of the four sisters, softly utters, “Is that—”
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Lilly says. “Pretty sure it’s one of ours.”
The three younger sisters start craning their necks, looking for their mom.
Donna Bingham is presently out of view, washing clothes in a galvanized tin drum out behind the family’s large camping tent, which Chad Bingham lovingly erected four days ago, equipping it with aluminum cots, racks of coolers, vent stacks, and a battery-operated DVD player with a library of children’s fare such as The Little Mermaid and Toy Story 2. The sound of Donna Bingham’s shuffling footsteps can be heard coming around the tent as Lilly gathers up the children.
“Sarah, get Ruthie,” Lilly says calmly yet firmly as the engine noises close the distance, the vapor of burning oil rising above the tree line. Lilly rises to her feet and quickly moves over to the twins. Nine-year-old Mary and Lydia are identical cherubs in matching peacoats and flaxen pigtails. Lilly herds the little ones toward the tent flap while Sarah scoops up the seven-year-old Ruthie—an adorable little elf with Shirley Temple curls hanging over the collar of her miniature ski jacket.
Donna Bingham appears around the side of the tent just as Lilly is ushering the twins into the enclosure. “What’s going on?” The mousy woman in the canvas jacket looks as though a stiff wind might blow her over. “Who is it? Is it rovers? Is it a stranger?”
“Nothing to worry about,” Lilly tells her, holding the tent flap open as the four girls file into the shadows. In the five days since the contingent of settlers arrived here, Lilly has become the de facto babysitter, watching over various groups of offspring while parents go out scavenging or go on walks or just grab some alone time. She’s happy for the welcome distraction, especially now that the babysitting can provide an excuse to avoid all contact with Josh Lee Hamilton. “Just stay in the tent with the girls until we know who it is.”
Donna Bingham gladly shuts herself inside the enclosure with her daughters.
Lilly whirls toward the road and sees the grill of a familiar fifteen-forward-speed International Harvester truck materializing in a haze of wood smoke at the far end of the road—coming around the bend in gasps of exhaust—sending a wave of relief through Lilly. She smiles in spite of her nerves and starts toward the bare ground on the west edge of the field, which serves as a loading area. The rust-bucket truck clatters across the grass and shudders to a stop, the three teenagers riding in the back with the roped-down crates nearly tumbling forward against the pockmarked cab.
“Lilly Marlene!” the driver calls out the open cab window as Lilly comes around the front of the truck. Bob Stookey has big greasy hands—the hands of a laborer—wrapped around the wheel.
“What’s on the menu today, Bob?” Lilly says with a wan smile. “More Twinkies?”
“Oh, we got a full gourmet spread with all the trimmings today, little sis.” Bob cocks his deeply lined face toward the crew in back. “Found a deserted Target, only a couple of walkers to deal with … made out like bandits.”
“Let’s see…” Bob jerks the shift lever into park and kills the rumbling engine. His skin the color of tanned cowhide, his droopy eyes rimmed red, Bob Stookey is one of the last men in the New South still using pomade to grease his dark hair back over his weathered head. “Got lumber, sleeping bags, tools, canned fruit, lanterns, cereal, weather radios, shovels, charcoal—what else? Also got a bunch of pots and pans, some tomato plants—still with a few warty little tomaters on the vines—some tanks of butane, ten gallons of milk that expired only a couple of weeks ago, some hand sanitizer, Sterno, laundry soap, candy bars, toilet paper, a Chia Pet, a book on organic farming, a singing fish for my tent, and a partridge in a pear tree.”
“Bob, Bob, Bob … no AK-47s? No dynamite?”
“Got something better than that, smarty pants.” Bob reaches over to a peach crate sitting on the passenger seat next to him. He hands it through the window to Lilly. “Be a darlin’ and put this in my tent while I help these three stooges in back with the heavy stuff.”
“What is it?” Lilly looks down at the crate full of plastic vials and bottles.
“Medical supplies.” Bob opens his door and climbs out. “Need to keep ’em safe.”
Lilly notices half a dozen pint bottles of liquor wedged in between the antihistamines and codeine. She gazes up at Bob and gives him a look. “Medical supplies?”
He grins. “I’m a very sick man.”
“I’ll say,” Lilly comments. She knows enough about Bob’s background by now to know that aside from being a sweet, genial, somewhat lost soul, as well as being a former army medic—which makes him the only inhabitant of the tent city with any medical training—he is also an inveterate drunk.
In the early stages of their friendship, back when Lilly and Megan were still on the road, and Bob had helped them out of a jam at a rest stop crawling with zombies, Bob had made feckless attempts to hide his alcoholism. But by the time the group had settled here in this deserted pastureland five days ago, Lilly had begun regularly helping Bob stagger safely back to his tent at night, making sure nobody robbed him—which was a real threat in a group this large and varied and filled with so much tension. She liked Bob, and she didn’t mind babysitting him as well as the little ones. But it also added an additional layer of stress that Lilly needed as much as she needed a high colonic.
Right now, in fact, she can tell he needs something else from her. She can tell by the way he’s wiping his mouth thoughtfully with his dirty hand.
“Lilly, there’s something else I wanted to—” He stops and swallows awkwardly.
She lets out a sigh. “Spit it out, Bob.”
“It’s none of my business … all right. I just wanted to say … aw, hell.” He takes a deep breath. “Josh Lee, he’s a good man. I visit with him now and again.”
“Yeah … and?”
“And I’m just saying.”
“I’m just … look … he ain’t doing too good right about now, all right? He thinks you’re sore at him.”
“He thinks I’m what?”
“He thinks you’re mad at him for some reason, and he ain’t sure why.”
“What did he say?”
Bob gives her a shrug. “It’s none of my beeswax. I ain’t exactly privy to … I don’t know, Lilly. He just wishes you wasn’t ignoring him.”
Bob looks at her. “You sure?”
“Bob, I’m telling you—”
“All right, look.” Bob waves his hand nervously. “I ain’t telling you what to do. I just think two people like y’all, good folks, it’s a shame something like this, you know, in these times…” His voice trails off.
Lilly softens. “I appreciate what you’re saying, Bob, I do.”
She looks down.
Bob purses his lips, thinks it over. “I saw him earlier today, over by the log pile, chopping wood like it was going outta style.”
The distance between the loading area and the stack of cordwood measures less than a hundred yards, but crossing it feels like the Bataan Death March to Lilly.
She walks slowly, with her head down, and her hands thrust in the pockets of her jeans to conceal the trembling. She has to weave through a group of women sorting clothes in suitcases, circle around the end of the circus tent, sidestep a group of boys repairing a broken skateboard, and give wide berth to a cluster of men inspecting a row of weapons spread out on a blanket on the ground.
As she passes the men—Chad Bingham included in their number, holding court like a redneck despot—Lilly glances down at the tarnished pistols, eleven of them, different calibers, makes, and models, neatly arrayed like silverware in a drawer. The pair of 12-gauge shotguns from K-mart lie nearby. Only eleven pistols and a single shotgun, and a limited number of rounds—the sum total of the settlers’ armory—now standing as a thin tissue of defense between the campers and calamity.
Lilly’s neck crawls with gooseflesh as she passes, the fear burning a hole in her guts. The trembling increases. She feels as though she’s running a fever. The shaking has always been an issue for Lilly Caul. She remembers the time she had to deliver a presentation to the admission committee at Georgia Tech. She had her notes on index cards and had rehearsed for weeks. But when she got up in front of those tenured professors in that stuffy meeting room on North Avenue, she shook so much she dropped the stack of cards all over the parquet floor and completely choked.
She feels that same kind of nervous tension right now—amplified by a factor of a thousand—as she approaches the split-rail fence along the western edge of the property. She feels the trembling in her facial features, and in her hands inside her pockets, so intense now it feels like the tremors are about to seize up her joints and freeze her in place. “Chronic anxiety disorder,” the doctor back in Marietta called it.
In recent weeks, she has experienced this kind of spontaneous palsy in the immediate aftermath of a biter attack—a spell of shuddering that lasts for hours afterward—but now she feels a deeper sense of dread flooding through her that comes from some inchoate, primal place. She is turning inward, facing her own wounded soul, twisted by grief and the loss of her father.
She jumps at the crack of an axe striking timber, her attention yanked toward the fence.
A group of men stand in a cluster around a long row of dry logs. Dead leaves and cottonwood swirl on the wind above the tree line. The air smells of wet earth and matted pine needles. Shadows dance behind the foliage, tweaking Lilly’s fear like a tuning fork in her brain. She remembers nearly getting bitten back in Macon three weeks ago when a biter lurched out at her from behind a garbage Dumpster. To Lilly, right now, those shadows behind the trees look just like the passageway behind that Dumpster, rotten with menace and the smell of decay and horrible miracles—the dead coming back to life.
Another axe blow makes her start, and she turns toward the far end of the woodpile.
Josh stands with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his back to her. An oblong sweat stain runs down his chambray shirt between his massive shoulder blades. His muscles rippling, the skin folds in his brown nape pulsing, he works with a steady rhythm, swinging, striking, yanking back, bracing, swinging again with a thwack!
Lilly walks up to him and clears her throat. “You’re doing it all wrong,” she says in a shaky voice, trying to keep things light and casual.
Josh freezes with axe blade in midair. He turns and looks at her, his sculpted ebony face pearled with sweat. For a moment, he looks shell-shocked, his twinkling eyes belying his surprise. “You know, I figured somethin’ wasn’t working right,” he says finally. “I’ve only been able to split about a hundred logs in fifteen minutes.”
“You’re choked down way too low on the handle.”
Josh grins. “I knew it was somethin’ like that.”
“You have to let the logs do the work for ya.”
“You want me to demonstrate?”
Josh steps aside, hands her the axe.
“Like this,” Lilly says, trying her best to appear charming and witty and brave. Her trembling is so bad the axe head quivers as she makes a feeble attempt to split a log. She swings and the blade sideswipes the wood, then sticks into the ground. She struggles to pull it free.
“Now I get it,” Josh says with an amused nod. He notices her shaking, and his grin fades. He moves next to her. He puts his huge hand over hers, which is white-knuckling the axe handle as she struggles to pull it out of the clay. His touch is tender and soothing. “Everything’s gonna be okay, Lilly,” he says softly.
She lets go of the axe and turns to face him. Her heart races as she looks into his eyes. Her flesh goes cold, and she tries to put her feelings into words, but all she can do is look away in shame. Finally she manages to find her voice. “Is there someplace we can go and talk?”
“How do you do it?”
Lilly sits with her legs crossed Indian-style, on the ground under the massive branches of a live oak, which dapple the carpet of matted leaves around her with a skein of shadows. She reclines against the gigantic tree trunk as she speaks. Her eyes remain fixed on the swaying treetops in the middle distance.
She has a faraway look that Josh Lee Hamilton has seen now and again on the faces of war veterans and emergency room nurses—the gaze of perpetual exhaustion, the haggard look of the shell-shocked, the thousand-yard stare. Josh feels the urge to take her delicate, slender body into his arms and hold her and stroke her hair and make everything all better. But he senses somehow—he knows—now is not the time. Now is the time to listen.
“Do what?” he asks her. Josh sits across from her, also cross-legged, wiping the back of his neck with a damp bandanna. A box of cigars sits on the ground in front of him—the last of his dwindling supply. He is almost hesitant to go through the last of them—a superstitious twinge that he’ll be sealing his fate.
Lilly looks up at him. “When the walkers attack … how do you deal with it without being … scared shitless?”
Josh lets out a weary chuckle. “If you figure that out, you’re gonna have to teach me.”
She stares at him for a moment. “Come on.”
“You’re telling me you’re scared shitless when they attack?”
“Oh, please.” She tilts her head incredulously. “You?”
“Let me tell you something, Lilly.” Josh picks up the package of cigars, shakes one loose, and sparks it with his Zippo. He takes a thoughtful puff. “Only the stupid or the crazy ain’t scared these days. You ain’t scared, you ain’t paying attention.”
She looks out beyond the rows of tents lined along the split-rail fence. She lets out a pained sigh. Her narrow face is drawn, ashen. She looks as though she’s trying to articulate thoughts that just stubbornly refuse to cooperate with her vocabulary. At last she says, “I’ve been dealing with this for a while. I’m not … proud of it. I think it’s messed up a lot of things for me.”
Josh looks at her. “What has?”
“The wimp factor.”
“No. Listen. I need to say this.” She refuses to look at him, her eyes burning with shame. “Before this … outbreak happened … it was just sort of … inconvenient. I missed out on a few things. I screwed some things up because I’m a chickenshit … but now the stakes are … I don’t know. I could get somebody killed.” She finally manages to look up into the big man’s eyes. “I could totally ruin things with somebody I care about.”
Josh knows what she’s talking about, and it puts the squeeze on his heart. From the moment he laid eyes on Lilly Caul he had felt feelings that he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager back in Greenville—that kind of rapturous fascination a boy can fix upon the curve of a girl’s neck, the smell of her hair, the spray of freckles along the bridge of her nose. Yes, indeed, Josh Lee Hamilton is smitten. But he is not going to screw this relationship up, as he had screwed up so many before Lilly, before the plague, before the world had gotten so goddamn bleak.
Back in Greenville, Josh developed crushes on girls with embarrassing frequency, but he always seemed to muck things up by rushing it. He would behave like a big old puppy licking at their heels. Not this time. This time, Josh was going to play it smart … smart and cautious and one step at a time. He may be a big old dumb-ass hick from South Carolina but he’s not stupid. He’s willing to learn from his past mistakes.
A natural loner, Josh grew up in the 1970s, when South Carolina was still clinging to the ghostly days of Jim Crow, still making futile attempts to integrate their schools and join the twentieth century. Shuffled from one ramshackle housing project to another with his single mom and four sisters, Josh put his God-given size and strength to good use on the gridiron, playing varsity ball for Mallard Creek High School with visions of scholarships in his eyes. But he lacked the one thing that sent players up the academic and socioeconomic ladders: raw aggression.
Josh Lee Hamilton had always been a gentle soul … to a fault. He let far weaker boys pick on him. He deferred to all adults with a “yessim” or “yessir.” He simply had no fight in him. All of which is why his football career eventually petered out in the mid-eighties. That was right around the time his mother, Raylene, got sick. The doctors said it was called “lupus erythematosus,” and it wasn’t terminal, but for Raylene it was a death sentence, a life of chronic pain and skin lesions and near paralysis. Josh took it upon himself to be his mom’s caretaker (while his sisters drifted away to bad marriages and dead-end jobs out of state). Josh cooked and cleaned and took good care of his mama, and within a few years he got good enough at cooking to actually get a job in a restaurant.
He had a natural flair for the culinary, especially cooking meat, and he moved up the ranks at steakhouse kitchens across South Carolina and Georgia. By the 2000s, he had become one of the most sought-after executive chefs in the Southeast, supervising large teams of sous-chefs, catering upscale social events, and getting his picture in Atlanta Homes and Lifestyles. And all the while he managed to run his kitchens with kindness—a rarity in the restaurant world.
Now, amid these daily horrors, beset with all this unrequited love, Josh longed to cook something special for Lilly.
Up until now, they had subsisted on things like canned peas and Spam and dry cereal and powdered milk—none of which would provide the proper backdrop for a romantic dinner or a declaration of love. All the meat and fresh produce in the area had gone the way of the maggots weeks ago. But Josh had designs on a rabbit, or a wild boar that might be roaming the neighboring woods. He would make a ragout, or a nice braise with wild onions and rosemary and some of that Pinot Noir that Bob Stookey had scavenged from that derelict liquor store, and Josh would serve the meat with some herbed polenta, and he would add extra special touches. Some of the ladies in the tent city had been making candles from the suet they found in a bird feeder. That would be nice. Candles, wine, maybe a poached pear from the orchard for dessert, and Josh would be ready. The orchards were still lousy with overripe fruit. Maybe an apple chutney with the pork. Yes. Absolutely. Then Josh would be ready to serve Lilly dinner and tell her how he feels about her, how he wants to be with her and protect her and be her man.
“I know where you’re going with this, Lilly,” Josh finally says to her, tamping his cigar’s ash on a stone. “And I want you to know two things. Number one, there’s no shame in what you did.”
She looks down. “You mean running away like a whipped dog when you were under attack?”
“Listen to me. If the shoe was on the other foot, I would’ve done the same damn thing.”
“That’s bullshit, Josh, I didn’t even—”
“Let me finish.” He snubs out the cigar. “Number two, I wanted you to run. You didn’t hear me. I hollered for you to get the Sam Hill outta there. Makes no sense—only one of them hammers within grasp, both of us trying to mix it up with them things. You understand what I’m saying? You don’t need to feel any shame for what you done.”
Lilly takes a breath. She keeps looking down. A tear forms and rolls down the bridge of her nose. “Josh, I appreciate what you’re trying to—”
“We’re a team, right?” He leans down so he can see her beautiful face. “Right?”
“The dynamic duo, right?”
Another nod. “Right.”
“A well-oiled machine.”
“Yeah.” She wipes her face with the back of her hand. “Yeah, okay.”
“So let’s keep it that way.” He throws her his damp bandanna. “Deal?”
She looks at the do-rag in her lap, picks it up, looks at him and manages a grin. “Jesus Christ, Josh, this thing is totally gross.”
Three days pass in the tent city without an attack of any note. Only a few minor incidents sully the calm. One morning, a group of kids stumble upon a quivering torso in a culvert ditch along the road. Its gray, wormy face cocked toward the treetops in perpetual, groaning agony, the thing looks as though it recently tangled with a mechanical reaper, and has ragged stumps where its arms and legs once were. Nobody can figure out how the limbless thing got there. Chad puts the creature down with a single hatchet blow through its rotting nasal bone. On another occasion, out by the communal toilets, an elderly camper realizes, with heart-palpitating dismay, that during his afternoon bowel movement, he is unwittingly shitting on a zombie. Somehow the roamer got itself stuck down in the sewage trough. The thing is easily dispatched by one of the younger men with a single thrust of a post-hole digger.
These prove to be isolated encounters, though, and the middle of the week progresses uneventfully.
The respite gives the inhabitants time to organize, finish erecting the last of their shelters, stow supplies, explore the immediate area, settle into a routine, and form coalitions and cliques and hierarchies. The families—ten of them in all—seem to carry more weight in the decision-making process than do single people. Something about the gravitas of having more at risk, the imperative of protecting children, maybe even the symbolism of carrying the genetic seeds of the future—all of it adding up to a kind of unspoken seniority.
Among the patriarchs of the families, Chad Bingham emerges as the de facto leader. Each morning, he leads the communal powwows inside the circus tent, assigning duties with the casual authority of a Mafia capo. Each day, he struts along the edges of the camp with his snuff defiantly bulging under his cheek, his pistol in full view. With winter in the offing, and troubling noises behind the trees at night, Lilly worries about this ersatz figurehead. Chad has been keeping his eye on Megan, who has been shacking up with one of the other fathers, in plain view of everybody, including the man’s pregnant wife. Lilly worries that the whole semblance of order here rests on top of a tinderbox.
Lilly’s tent and Josh’s tent sit a mere ten yards away from each other. Each morning, Lilly awakens and sits facing the zippered end of her tent, gazing out at Josh’s tent, drinking her instant Sanka and trying to sort out her feelings for the big man. Her cowardly act still gnaws at her, haunts her, festers in her dreams. She has nightmares of the bloody folding door on that rogue bus back in Atlanta, but now, instead of her father being devoured, sliding down that smeared glass, Lilly sees Josh.
His accusing eyes always wake her up with a start, the cold sweat soaked through her nightclothes.
On these dream-racked nights, lying sleepless in her moldy sleeping bag, staring at the mildewed roof of her tiny tent—she acquired the used pup tent on a raid of a deserted KOA camp, and it reeks of smoke, dried semen, and stale beer—she inevitably hears the noises. Faint, off in the distant darkness beyond the rise, behind the trees, the sounds mingle with the wind and crickets and rustling foliage: unnatural snapping noises, jerky shuffling sounds, which remind Lilly of old shoes tumbling and banging inside a dryer.
In her mind’s eye, mutated by terror, the distant noises conjure images of terrible black-and-white forensic photos, mutilated bodies blackened by rigor mortis and yet still moving, dead faces turning and leering at her, silent snuff films of dancing cadavers jitterbugging like frogs on a hot skillet. Lying wide awake each night, Lilly ruminates about what the noises might actually mean, what is going on out there, and when the next attack will come.
Some of the more thoughtful campers have been developing theories.
One young man from Athens named Harlan Steagal, a nerdy grad student with thick horn-rims, begins holding nightly philosophy salons around the campfire. Jacked up on pseudoephedrine, instant coffee, and bad weed, the half a dozen or so social misfits grope for answers to the imponderable questions tormenting everybody: the origins of the plague, the future of mankind, and perhaps the timeliest issue of them all, the walkers’ patterns of behavior.
The consensus among the think tank is that there are only two possibilities: (a) zombies have no instinct, purpose, or behavioral pattern other than involuntary feeding. They are merely sputtering nerve endings with teeth, bouncing off each other like deadly machines that simply need to be “turned off.” Or (b) there is a complex pattern of behavior going on here that no survivor has figured out yet. The latter begs the question of how the plague is transmitted from the dead to the living—is it only through the bite of a walker?—as well as questions of horde behavior, and of possible Pavlovian learning curves, and even larger-scale genetic imperatives.
In other words—to put it in the patois of Harlan Steagal: “Are the biters like playing out some weird, fucked-up, trippy evolutionary thing?”
Lilly overhears much of this rambling discourse over those three days and pays it little heed. She has no time for conjecture or analysis. The longer the tent city goes on without being assailed by the dead, the more Lilly feels vulnerable, despite the safety precautions. With most of the tents now erected and a barricade of vehicles parked around the periphery of the clearing, things have quieted down. People are settled in, keeping to themselves, and the few campfires or cooking stoves that are employed for meals are quickly extinguished for fear of errant smoke or odors attracting unwanted intruders.
Still, Lilly becomes exceedingly nervous each night. It feels as though a cold front is moving in. The night sky gets crystalline and cloudless, a new frost forming each morning on the matted ground and fencing and tent canvases. The gathering cold reflects Lilly’s dark intuition. Something terrible seems imminent.
One night, before turning in, Lilly Caul pulls a small leather-bound paper calendar from her backpack. In the weeks since the advent of the plague, most personal devices have failed. The electrical grid has gone down, fancy batteries have run their course, service providers have vanished, and the world has reverted to the fundamentals: bricks, mortar, paper, fire, flesh, blood, sweat, and whenever possible, internal combustion. Lilly has always been an analog girl—her place back in Marietta brims with vinyl records, transistor radios, windup clocks, and first editions crammed into every corner—so she naturally starts keeping track of the plague days in her little black binder with the faded American Family Insurance logo embossed in gold on the cover.
On this night, she puts a big X on the square marked Thursday, November 1.
The next day is November 2—the day her fate, as well as that of many others, will irrevocably change.
Friday dawns clear and bitingly cold. Lilly stirs just after sunrise, shivering in her sleeping bag, her nose so cold it feels numb. Her joints ache as she hurriedly piles on the layers. She pushes herself out of her tent, zipping her coat and glancing at Josh’s tent.
The big man is already up, standing beside his tent, stretching his massive girth. Bundled in his fisherman’s sweater and tattered down vest, he whirls, sees Lilly, and says, “Cold enough for ya?”
“Next stupid question,” she says, coming over to his tent, reaching for the thermos of steaming instant coffee gripped in his huge, gloved hand.
“Weather’s got people panicked,” he says softly, handing the thermos over. With a nod, he indicates the three trucks idling along the road across the clearing. His breath shows in puffs of vapor as he talks. “Bunch of us heading up into the woods, gathering as much firewood as we can load.”
“I’ll come with.”
Josh shakes his head. “Talked to Chad a minute ago, I guess he needs you to watch his kids.”
“Okay. Sure. Whatever.”
“You keep that,” Josh says, gesturing toward the thermos. He grabs the axe that sits canted against his tent and gives her a grin. “Should be back by lunchtime.”
“Josh,” she says, grabbing his sleeve before he can turn away. “Just be careful in the woods.”
His grin widens. “Always, babydoll … always.”
He turns and marches off toward the clouds of visible exhaust along the gravel road.
Lilly watches the contingent hopping into cabs, jumping up onto running boards, climbing into cargo bays. She doesn’t realize at this point the amount of noise they’re making, the commotion caused by three large trucks embarking all at once, the voices calling to each other, doors slamming, the fog bank of carbon monoxide.
In all the excitement, neither Lilly, nor anyone else for that matter, realizes how far the racket of their departure is carrying out over the treetops.
Lilly senses danger first.
The Binghams have left her inside the circus tent, in charge of the four girls, who now frolic across the floor of matted grass, scampering amid the folding tables, stacks of peach crates, and tanks of butane. The interior of the circus tent is illuminated by makeshift skylights—flaps in the ceiling pulled back to let in the daylight—and the air in there smells of must and decades of moldy hay impregnated into the canvas walls. The girls are playing musical chairs with three broken-down lawn chairs scattered across the cold earthen floor.
Lilly is supposed to be the music.
“Duh-do-do-do … duh-da-da-da,” Lilly croons halfheartedly, murmuring an old Top 40 hit by the Police, her voice thin and weak, as the girls giggle and circle the chairs. Lilly is distracted. She keeps glancing through the loading entrance at one end of the pavilion, a large swath of the tent city visible in the gray daylight. The grounds are mostly deserted, those who are not away scavenging now hiding in their tents.
Lilly swallows her terror, the cold sun slanting down through the far trees, the wind whispering through the big-top tent. Up on the rise, shadows dance in the pale light. Lilly thinks she hears shuffling sounds up there somewhere, behind the trees maybe; she’s not sure. It might be her imagination. Sounds inside the fluttering, empty tent play tricks on the ears.
She turns away from the opening and scans the pavilion for weapons. She sees a shovel leaning against a wheelbarrow filled with potting soil. She sees a few garden implements in a dirty bucket. She sees the remains of the breakfast dishes in a plastic garbage can—paper plates crusted with beans and Egg Beaters, wadded burrito wrappers, empty juice boxes—and next to it a plastic storage container with dirty silverware. The silverware came from one of the retrofitted camper/pickups, and Lilly makes note of a few sharp knives in the container but mostly she sees plastic “sporks” sticky with food gunk. She wonders how effective a spork would be against a monstrous drooling cannibal.
She silently curses the camp leaders for not leaving firearms.
Those who remain on the property include the older settlers—Mr. Rhimes, a couple of spinsters from Stockbridge, an eighty-year-old retired teacher named O’Toole, a pair of geriatric brothers from an abandoned nursing home in Macon—as well as a couple dozen adult women, a good portion of them too busy now with laundry duty and philosophical chatter along the back fence to notice anything amiss.
The only other souls currently present in the tent city are children—ten sets of them—some still huddling against the cold in their private tents, others kicking a soccer ball around in front of the derelict farmhouse. Each gaggle of kids has an adult woman in charge of them.
Lilly looks back out the exit and sees Megan Lafferty, way in the distance, sitting perched on the porch of the burned-out house, pretending to be babysitting and not smoking pot. Lilly shakes her head. Megan is supposed to be watching the Hennessey kids. Jerry Hennessey, an insurance salesman from Augusta, has been carrying on with Megan for days now in a not-too-discreet fashion. The Hennessey kids are the second-youngest kids in the encampment—at ages eight, nine, and ten respectively. The youngest children in the settlement are the Bingham twins and Ruthie, who at this moment pause in their play to stare impatiently at their nervous babysitter.
“C’mon, Lilly,” Sarah Bingham calls out with her hands on her hips, catching her breath near a stack of fruit crates. The teenager wears an adorable, stylish imitation-angora sweater that breaks Lilly’s heart. “Keep singing.”
Lilly turns back to the children. “I’m sorry, sweetie, I just—”
Lilly stops herself. She hears a noise coming from outside the tent, from up in the trees. It sounds like the creaking bulwark of a listing ship … or the slow squeak of a door in a haunted house … or, more likely, the weight of a zombie’s foot on a deadfall log.
Another noise cuts off Lilly’s words. She spins toward the tent’s opening at a loud rustling sound, which rings out from the east, shattering the stillness a hundred yards away, coming from a thicket of wild rose and dogwood.
A flock of rock pigeons suddenly takes flight, the swarm bursting out of the foliage with the inertia of a fireworks display. Lilly stares, transfixed for a single instant, as the flock fills the sky with a virtual constellation of gray-black blots.
Like controlled explosions, along the far edge of the camp, another two flocks of pigeons erupt. Cones of fluttering specks punch up into the light, scattering and re-forming like ink clouds undulating in a clear pool.
The rock pigeons are plentiful in this area—“sky rats” they’re called by the locals, who claim the pigeons are actually quite delicious if boned and grilled—but their sudden appearance in recent weeks has come to signify something darker and more troubling than a possible food source.
Something has stirred the birds from their resting place and is now making its way toward the tent city.
“Girls, listen to me.” Lilly quickly shuffles over to the youngest Bingham girl and scoops her up in her arms. “I’m gonna need you to come with me.”
“Why?” Sarah gives Lilly that patented teenage sulk. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t argue with me, sweetie, please,” Lilly says softly, and the look in Lilly’s eyes straightens the teenager with the power of a cattle prod. Sarah hastily turns and takes the twins by their hands, then starts shepherding them toward the exit.
Lilly stops in her tracks in the middle of the tent’s opening when she sees the first zombie burst out of the trees forty yards away—a big male with a hairless scalp the color of a bruise and eyes like milk glass—and all at once Lilly is shoving the kids back into the pavilion, clutching Ruthie in her arms and uttering under her breath, “Change in plans, girls, change in plans.”
Lilly quickly urges the kids back into the dim light and moldy air of the empty circus tent. She sets the seven-year-old down on the matted weeds by a steamer trunk. “Everybody be very quiet,” Lilly whispers.
Sarah stands with a twin on either side of her, the teenager’s face aghast, wide-eyed with terror. “What’s going on?”
“Just stay there and be quiet.” Lilly hurries back to the tent opening and wrestles with the massive flap, which is cinched ten feet up with rope ties. She yanks at the ropes, until the tent flap falls across the gap.
The original plan—which flickered instantaneously across Lilly’s mind—was to hide the kids in a vehicle, preferably one with its keys still in its ignition, in case Lilly had to make a quick escape. But now, all Lilly can think of doing is huddling silently in the empty pavilion and hoping that the other campers fend off the assault.
“Let’s all play a different game now,” Lilly says when she returns to the huddling girls. A scream rings out from somewhere across the property. Lilly tries to stanch her trembling, a voice resonating in her head, Goddammit, you stupid bitch, you gotta grow some balls for once in your life, for these kids.
“A different game, right, right, a different game,” Sarah says, her eyes glittering with fear. She knows now what’s going on. She clutches the tiny hands of her twin sisters and follows Lilly between two high stacks of fruit crates.
“Gonna play hide-and-seek,” Lilly says to little Ruthie, who is mute with horror. Lilly gets the four girls situated in the shadows behind the crates, each child crouched down low now and breathing hard. “Have to stay very still—and very, very, very quiet. Okay?”
Lilly’s voice seems to comfort them temporarily, although even the youngest knows now this is no game, this is not make-believe.
“I’ll be right back,” Lilly whispers to Sarah.
“No! Wait! NO, DON’T!” Sarah clutches at Lilly’s down jacket, holding on to her for dear life, the teenager’s eyes pleading.
“I’m just going to grab something across the tent, I’m not leaving.”
Lilly extricates herself and scuttles on her hands and knees across the carpet of pressed grass to the pile of buckets near the long central table. She grabs the shovel that leans against the wheelbarrow, then crawls back to the hiding place.
All the while, terrible sounds layer and build outside the windblown walls of the pavilion. Another scream pierces the air, followed by frantic footsteps, and then the sound of an axe sinking into a skull. Lydia whimpers, Sarah shushes her, and Lilly crouches down in front of the girls, her vision blurring with terror.
The frigid wind tosses the skirt of the tent’s walls, and for a brief moment, under the momentary gap, Lilly glimpses the onslaught in progress. At least two dozen walkers—only their shuffling, muddy feet visible like a brigade of upright stroke victims—converge on the tent-strewn field. The running feet of survivors, mostly women and elderly, are fleeing in all directions.
The spectacle of the attack temporarily distracts Lilly from the noise behind the girls.
A bloody arm lurches under the tent flap only inches away from Sarah’s legs.
Sarah shrieks as a dead hand clamps down on her ankle, its blackened fingernails digging in like talons. The arm is gouged and tattered, clad in the ripped sleeve of a burial suit, and the girl convulses in shock. Moving on instinct, the teenager crawls away—the force of her movement yanking the rest of the zombie inside the tent.
A dissonant chorus of squeals and shrieks rings out from the sisters as Lilly springs to her feet with the shovel clutched tightly in sweaty palms. Instinct kicks in, Lilly spinning and cocking the shovel high. The dead man bites at the air with snapping-turtle fury, as the teenager writhes and crawls across the cold ground, crying out garbled yelps of terror, dragging the zombie with her.
Before the rotting teeth get a chance to penetrate, Lilly brings the shovel down hard on the zombie’s skull, the impact making a flat clanging noise like the chime of a broken gong. The crack of the cranium vibrates up Lilly’s wrists and makes her cringe.
Sarah breaks free of the cold fingers and struggles to her feet.
Lilly brings the shovel down again … and again … as the iron scoop rings its flat church-bell clang and the dead thing deflates in a rhythmic black gush of arterial blood and rotting gray matter. By the fourth blow, the skull caves in, making a wet cracking noise, the black spume bubbling across the matted grass.
By this point, Sarah has joined her sisters, each girl clinging to the other, each bug-eyed and whimpering with horror as they back toward the exit, the great canvas flap billowing noisily in the wind behind them.
Lilly turns away from the mangled corpse in the tattered pin-striped suit and starts toward the opening twenty-five feet away, when all at once she freezes in place, grabbing Sarah’s sleeve. “Wait, Sarah, wait—WAIT!”
At the other end of the circus tent, the giant tarpaulin flap furls upward in the wind, revealing at least half a dozen zombies crowding in on the exit. They shuffle spastically into the tent—all adults, both male and female, clad in torn, blood-spattered street clothes, bunched together in an awkward grouping—their wormy cataract-filmed eyes fixing on the girls.
“This way!” Lilly yanks Sarah toward the opposite end of the circus tent—maybe a hundred and fifty feet away—and Sarah scoops the toddler up into her arms. The twins scurry after them, slipping on the wet, matted grass. Lilly points at the bottom of the canvas wall—now a hundred feet away—and whispers breathlessly, “Gonna sneak under the tent.”
They get halfway to the opposite wall when another walker appears in their path.
Apparently this slimy, mutilated corpse in faded denim dungarees—with half its face torn away on one side in a ragged starburst of red pulp and teeth—got in under the tarp and now comes straight for Sarah. Lilly steps between the zombie and the girl and swings the shovel as hard as she can, making contact with the mangled cranium and sending the thing staggering sideways.
The zombie slams into the center pillar, and the raw inertia and deadweight knocks the timber out of its mooring. Guidelines snap. There’s a cracking noise like a ship breaking through ice and three of the four Bingham girls let out ululating shrieks as the massive big top collapses into itself, snapping the smaller rigging posts like matchsticks and pulling stakes out of the ground around it. The conical ceiling sinks like a vast soufflé.
The tent falls on the girls and the world goes dark and airless and full of slithering movement.
Lilly flails at the heavy fabric and struggles to get her bearings, still grasping the shovel, the tarpaulin pressing down on her with the sudden weight of an avalanche. She hears the muffled squealing of the children and she sees daylight fifty feet away. She crabs under the tent toward the light with the shovel in one hand.
At last she brushes a foot against Sarah’s shoulder. Lilly cries out: “Sarah! Take my hand! Grab the girls with the other and PULL!”
At this point, for Lilly, the passage of time—as it often does in catastrophes-in-progress—begins to retard, as several things transpire almost simultaneously. Lilly reaches the end of the tent and bursts out from under the deflated canvas, and the wind and cold wake her up, and she yanks Sarah out with all her might, and two of the other girls get dragged out behind Sarah—their tiny voices shrieking like teakettles on the boil.
Lilly springs to her feet and helps Sarah up with the other two little girls.
One girl—Lydia, the youngest of the twins by a “good half an hour,” as Sarah claims—is missing. Lilly pushes the other girls away from the tent and tells them to stay back but stay close. Then Lilly whirls toward the tent and sees something that stops her heart.
Shapes are moving under the fallen circus tent. Lilly drops the shovel. She stares. Her legs and spine seize up in blocks of ice. She can’t breathe. She can only stare at the small lump of fabric undulating madly twenty feet away—little Lydia struggling to escape—the sound of the child’s scream dampened by the tarp.
The worst part—the part that encases Lilly Caul in ice—is the sight of the other lumps tunneling steadily, molelike, toward the little girl.
At that moment, the fear pops a fuse in Lilly’s brain, the cleansing fire of rage traveling through her tendons and down her marrow.
She lurches into action, the burst of adrenaline driving her to the edge of the fallen tent, the rocket fuel of anger in her muscles. She yanks the canvas up and over her head, crouching down and reaching for the girl. “LYDIA, SWEETIE, I’M RIGHT HERE!! COME TO ME, SWEETIE!!”
Lilly sees in the pale diffuse darkness under the tarpaulin the little flaxen-haired girl, fifteen feet away, frog-kicking and scrambling to escape the clutches of the canvas. Lilly hollers again and dives under the tarp and reaches out and gets a piece of the little girl’s jumper. Lilly pulls with all her might.
That’s when Lilly sees the ragged arm and bloodless blue face appearing in the dark only inches behind the child, making a drunken grab for the little girl’s Hello Kitty sneaker. The rotting, jagged fingernails claw the sole of the child’s tennis shoe just as Lilly manages to yank the nine-year-old out from under the folds of reeking fabric.
Both Lilly and child tumble backward into the cold light of day.
They roll a few feet, and then Lilly manages to pull the little girl into a bear hug. “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay, I got you, you’re safe.”
The child sobs and gasps for breath but there’s no time to comfort her. The din of voices and rustling canvas rises around them as the camp is attacked.
Lilly, still on her knees, waves the other girls over to her. “Okay, girls, listen to me, listen, we have to be quick now, quick, stay close, and do exactly as I say.” Lilly huffs and puffs as she stands. She grabs the shovel, turns, and sees the chaos spreading across the tent city.
More walkers have descended upon the camp. Some of them move in clusters of three and four and five, growling and drooling with rabid, feral hunger.
Amid the screams and pandemonium—settlers fleeing in all directions, car engines firing up, axes swinging, clotheslines collapsing—some of the tents shudder with violent struggles going on inside, the assailants burrowing through gaps, ferreting out the paralyzed inhabitants. One of the smaller tents falls onto its side, legs scissoring out one end. Another enclosure quakes in a feeding frenzy, the translucent nylon walls displaying silhouettes of blood mist like ink blots.
Lilly sees a clear path leading to a row of parked cars fifty yards away and turns to the girls. “I need you all to follow me … okay? Stay very close and don’t make a sound. All right?”
After a series of frantic, silent nods, Lilly yanks the girls across the lot … and into the fray.
The survivors of this inexplicable plague have quickly learned that the biggest advantage a human enjoys over a reanimated corpse is speed. Under the right circumstances, a human can easily outrun even the stoutest walking cadaver. But this physical superiority is overwhelmed in the face of a swarm. The danger increases exponentially with each additional zombie … until the victim is engulfed in a slow-moving tsunami of ragged teeth and blackened claws.
Lilly learns this harsh reality on her way to the closest parked car.
The battered, gore-streaked silver Chrysler 300 with the luggage cap on the roof sits on the gravel shoulder of the access road less than fifty yards from the circus tent, parked at an angle in the shade of a locust tree. The windows are up, but Lilly still has reason to believe they can at least gain access, if not start the car. The odds are about even that the keys are in the ignition. People have been leaving keys in cars for a while now for quick escapes.
Unfortunately, the property now teems with the dead, and Lilly and the girls barely traverse ten yards of weed-whiskered turf before several attackers move in on each flank. “Stay behind me!” Lilly cries out to her charges, and then swings the shovel.
The rusty iron bangs into the mottled cheek of a female in a blood-spattered housecoat, sending the walker careening into a pair of nearby males in greasy dungarees, who tumble like bowling pins to the ground. But the female stays upright, staggering at the blow, flailing for a moment, then coming back for more.
Lilly and the girls get another fifteen yards closer to the Chrysler when another battery of zombies blocks their path. The shovel zings through the air, smashing through the bridge of a younger walker’s nose. Another blow hits the mandible of a dead woman in a filthy mink coat. Yet another blow cracks the skull of an old hunched crone with intestines showing through her hospital smock, but the old dead lady merely staggers and backpedals.
At last, the girls reach the Chrysler. Lilly tries the passenger door and finds it—blessedly—unlocked. She gently but quickly shoves Ruthie into the front seat as the pack of walkers closes in on the sedan. Lilly sees the keys dangling off the slot in the steering column—another stroke of luck. “Stay in the car, honey,” Lilly says to the seven-year-old, and then slams the door.
By this point, Sarah reaches the right rear passenger door with the twins.
“SARAH, LOOK OUT!”
Lilly’s keening scream rises above the primordial din of growling that fills the air, as a dozen or so dead loom behind Sarah. The teenager yanks open the rear door, but has no time to get the twins inside the car. The two smaller girls trip and sprawl to the grass.
Sarah screams a primal wail. Lilly tries to get in between the teen and the attackers with the shovel, and Lilly manages to bash in another skull—the huge cranium of a putrified black man in a hunting jacket—sending the attacker staggering back into the weeds. But there are too many walkers now, lumbering in from all directions to feed.
In the ensuing chaos, the twins manage to crawl into the car and slam the door.
Her sanity snapping, her eyes filling with white-hot rage, Sarah turns and lets out a garbled cry as she shoves a slow-moving walker out of her way. She finds an opening, pushes her way through it, and flees.
Lilly sees the teenager racing toward the circus tent. “SARAH, DON’T!!”
Sarah gets halfway across the field before an impenetrable pack of zombies closes in on her, blocking her path, latching on to her back and overpowering her. She goes down hard, eating turf, as more of the dead swarm around her. The first bite penetrates her imitation-angora sweater at the midriff, taking a chunk of her torso, sparking an earsplitting shriek. Festering teeth sink into her jugular. The dark tide of blood washes across her.
Twenty-five yards away, near the car, Lilly fights off a growing mass of gnashing teeth and dead flesh. Maybe twenty walkers in all now—most of them exhibiting the grotesque buzzing adrenaline of a feeding frenzy as they surround the Chrysler—their blackened mouths working and smacking voraciously, while behind blood-smeared windows, the faces of three little girls look on in catatonic horror.
Lilly swings the shovel again and again—her efforts futile against the growing horde—as the cogs and gears of her brain seize up, mortified by the grisly sounds of Sarah’s demise on the ground across the property. The teenager’s shrieking deteriorates and sputters into a watery series of caterwauls. At least a half-dozen walkers are on her now, burrowing in, chewing and tearing at her gushing abdomen. Blood fountains from her shuddering form.
Over by the row of cars, Lilly’s midsection goes icy cold as she slams the shovel into another skull, her mind crackling and flickering with terror, ultimately fixing on a single course of action: Get them away from the Chrysler.
The silent dog-whistle urgency of that single imperative—get them away from the children—galvanizes Lilly and sends a jolt of energy down her spine. She turns and swings the shovel at the Chrysler’s front quarter panel.
The clang rings out. The children inside the car jerk with a start. The livid blue faces of the dead turn toward the noise.
“C’MON! C’MON!!” Lilly lunges away from the Chrysler, moving toward the nearest car lined up in the haphazard row of vehicles—a beat-up Ford Taurus with one window covered in cardboard—and she strikes the edge of the roof as hard as she can, making another harsh metallic clang that gets the attention of more of the dead.
Lilly darts toward the next car in line. She bangs the scoop against the front left quarter panel, issuing another dull clang.
“C’MON!! C’MON!! C’MON!!”
Lilly’s voice rises above the clamor like the bark of a sick animal, stretched thin with horror, hoarse with trauma, toneless, a touch of madness in it. She slams the shovel against car after car, not really knowing exactly what she’s doing, not really in control of her actions anymore. More zombies take notice, their lazy, awkward movements drawn to the noise.
It takes Lilly mere seconds to reach the end of the row of vehicles, slamming the shovel into the last vehicle—a rust-pocked Chevy S-10 pickup—but by that point, most of the assailants have latched on to her clarion call, and now slowly, stupidly, clumsily wander toward the sound of her traumatized shouts.
The only walkers that remain are the six that continue to devour Sarah Bingham on the ground in the clearing by the great, billowing circus tent.
“C’MON!! C’MON!! C’MON!! C’MON!! C’MON!! C’MON!! C’MON!! C’MONNNNN!!!!!” Lilly vaults across the gravel road and dashes up the hill toward the tree line.
Pulse racing, vision blurred, lungs heaving for air, she drops the shovel and digs her hiking boots into the mire as she ascends the soft forest floor. She plunges into the trees. Her shoulder bangs against the trunk of an ancient birch, the pain flaring in her skull, stars shooting across her line of vision. She moves instinctively now, a horde of zombies coming up the rise behind her.
Zigzagging through the deeper woods, she loses her sense of direction.
Time loses all meaning. As though in a dream, Lilly feels motion slow down, her screams refusing to come out, her legs bogging down in the invisible quicksand of nightmares. The darkness closes in as the forest thickens and deepens.
Lilly thinks of Sarah, poor Sarah, in her sweet little pink angora sweater, now bathed in her own blood, and the tragedy drags Lilly down, yanking her off her feet and throwing her down to the soft floor of matted pine needles and decaying matter and endless cycles of death and regeneration. Lilly lets out a paroxysm of pain on a breathless sob, her tears rolling down her cheeks and moistening the humus.
Her weeping—heard by no one—goes on for quite some time.
The search party finds Lilly late that afternoon. Led by Chad Bingham, the group of five men and three women—all heavily armed—see Lilly’s light blue fleece jacket behind a deadfall log a thousand yards due north of the tent city, in the gelid darkness of the deep woods, in a small clearing under a canopy of loblolly branches. She appears to be unconscious, lying in a patch of brambles. “Careful!” Chad Bingham calls out to his second-in-command, a skinny mechanic from Augusta by the name of Dick Fenster. “If she’s still movin’, she might’ve turned already!”
Nervous breaths showing in the chill air, Fenster cautiously goes over to the clearing with his snub-nosed .38 drawn and ready, hammer back, trigger finger twitching. He kneels down by Lilly, takes a good long look, and then turns back to the group. “She’s all right! She’s alive … ain’t bit or nothing … still conscious!”
“Not for long,” Chad Bingham utters under his breath as he marches toward the clearing. “Chickenshit fucking whore gets my baby killed—”
“Whoa! Whoa!” Megan Lafferty steps between Chad and the deadfall. “Hold on a second, hold on.”
“Get outta my way, Megan.”
“You gotta take a deep breath.”
“Just gonna talk to her.”
An awkward pause seems to weigh down on everybody present. The other members of the search party stand back in the trees, looking down, their drawn, exhausted faces reflecting the day’s horrible work. Some of the men are red-eyed, stricken with loss.
Returning from their firewood-gathering expedition, the noise of their engines and axes still ringing in their ears, they were shocked to find the tent city in ghastly disarray. Both human and zombie alike littered the blood-soaked grounds, sixteen settlers slaughtered, some of them devoured—nine of them children. Josh Lee Hamilton did the dirty work of finishing off the remaining walkers and the unfortunate humans whose remains were left intact. Nobody else had the heart to shoot their friends and loved ones in the head to ensure their eternal rest. The incubation period—strangely—seems to be more and more unpredictable lately. Some victims reanimate within minutes after a bite. Others take hours—even days—to turn. At this moment, in fact, Josh is still back at camp, supervising a disposal crew, preparing the victims for mass burial. It’ll take them another twenty-four hours to get the circus tent back up.
“Dude, listen, seriously,” Megan Lafferty says to Chad, her voice lowering and becoming softly urgent. “I know you’re torn up and all but she saved three of your girls … I told you I saw it with my own eyes. She drew the walkers away, she fucking risked her life.”
“I just—” Chad looks as though he’s either going to cry or scream. “I just … want to talk.”
“You got a wife back at camp’s gonna lose her mind with grief … she needs you.”
Another awkward beat of silence. One of the other fathers starts to softly weep in the shadows of the trees, his handgun falling to the ground. It’s nearly five o’clock and the cold is squeezing in, the puffs of vapor wafting in front of all of their tortured faces. Across the clearing, Lilly sits up and wipes her mouth, and tries to get her bearings. She looks like a sleepwalker. Fenster helps her to her feet.
Chad looks down. “Fuck it.” He turns and walks away, his voice trailing after him. “Fuck it.”
The next day, under a frigid overcast sky, the tent dwellers have an improvised graveside service for their fallen friends and loved ones.
Nearly seventy-five survivors gather in a large semicircle around the mass burial site on the east edge of the property. Some of the mourners hold candles flickering stubbornly against the October winds. Others clutch at each other in convulsive grief. The searing pain on some of the faces—especially those of grieving parents—reflects the agonizing randomness of this plague world. Their children were taken with the arbitrary suddenness of a lightning bolt, and now the mourners’ faces sag with desolation, their parboiled eyes shimmering in the unrelenting silver sunlight.
The cairns are set into the clay, stretching up the gentle rise of bare ground beyond the split-rail fence. Small piles of stones mark each of the sixteen graves. Some markers have hanks of wildflowers carefully wedged between the rocks. Josh Lee Hamilton made sure Sarah Bingham’s marker got adorned with a lovely bouquet of little white Cherokee roses, which grow in profusion along the edges of the orchards. The big man had grown fond of the feisty, whip-smart teenager … and her death wrenched his heart in two.
“God, we ask that you take our lost friends and neighbors into your hands,” Josh says now from the edge of the fence, the wind buffeting his olive-drab army coat stretched across his massive shoulders. His deeply etched face glistens with tears.
Josh grew up Baptist, and although he lost most of his religion over the years, he asked his fellow survivors earlier this morning if he might say a few words. Baptists don’t put much stock in prayers for the dead. They believe the righteous instantly go to heaven at the time of death—or, if you’re a nonbeliever, you instantly go to hell—but Josh still felt obliged to say something.
He saw Lilly earlier in the day, and he held her for a moment, whispering words of comfort to her. But he could tell something was wrong. Something was going on inside her beyond mere grief. She felt limp in his enormous arms, her slender form trembling ceaselessly like a wounded bird. She said very little. Only that she needed to be alone. She didn’t show up for the burial service.
“We ask that you take them to a better place,” he goes on, his deep baritone voice cracking. The work of body disposal has taken its toll on the big man. He struggles to hold it together but his emotions are strangling his vocal chords. “We ask that you—you—”
He can’t go on. He turns away, and he bows his head and lets the silent tears come. He can’t breathe. He can’t stay here. Barely aware of what he’s doing, he finds himself moving away from the crowd, away from the soft, horrible sound of weeping and praying.
Among the many things he has missed today in his daze of sadness is the fact that Lilly Caul’s decision to avoid the burial service is not the only conspicuous absence. Chad Bingham is also missing.
“Are you okay?” Lilly keeps her distance for a moment, standing on the edge of the clearing, wringing her hands nervously, about fifteen feet away from Chad Bingham.
The wiry man in the John Deere cap says nothing for the longest time. He just stands on the edge of the tree line, his head bowed, his back to her, his shoulders slumped as though carrying a great weight.
Minutes before the burial service began, Chad Bingham surprised Lilly by showing up at her tent and asking her if they could talk privately. He said he wanted to set things right. He said he didn’t blame her for Sarah’s death, and from the heartbreaking look in his eyes, Lilly believed him.
Which is why she followed him up here to a small clearing in the dense grove of trees lining the northern edge of the property. Barely two hundred square feet of pine-needle-matted ground, bordered by mossy stones, the clearing lies under a canopy of foliage, the gray sunlight filtering down in beams of thick dust motes. The cool air smells of decay and animal droppings.
The clearing is far enough away from the tent city to provide privacy.
“Chad—” Lilly wants to say something, wants to tell him how sorry she is. For the first time since she met the man—initially appalled by his willingness to conduct a dalliance with Megan right under his wife’s nose—Lilly now sees Chad Bingham as simply human … imperfect, scared, emotional, confused, and devastated by the loss of his little girl.
In other words, he’s just some good old boy—no better or worse than any of the other survivors. And now Lilly feels a wave of sympathy washing over her. “You want to talk about it?” she asks him at last.
“Yeah, I guess … maybe not … I don’t know.” His back still turned, his voice comes out like a leaky faucet, in fits and starts, as faint as water dripping. The sorrow knots his shoulder blades, makes him tremble slightly in the shadows of the pines.
“I’m so sorry, Chad.” Lilly ventures closer to him. She has tears in her eyes. “I loved Sarah, she was such a wonderful girl.”
He says something so softly Lilly cannot hear it. She moves closer.
She puts her hand gently on the man’s shoulder. “I know there’s nothing anybody can say … a time like this.” She speaks to the back of his head. The little plastic strap on the back of his cap says SPALDING. He has a small tattoo of a snake between the cords of his neck. “I know it’s no consolation,” Lilly adds then, “but Sarah died a hero—she saved the lives of her sisters.”
“Did she?” His voice rises barely above a whisper. “She was such a good girl.”
“I know she was … she was an amazing girl.”
“You think so?” His back still turned. Head bowed. Softly shuddering shoulders.
“Yes I do, Chad, she was a hero, she was one in a million.”
“Really? You think so?”
“Then why didn’t you do your FUCKING JOB!” Chad turns around and strikes Lilly so hard with the back of his hand that she bites through her tongue. Her head whiplashes, and she sees stars.
Chad hits her again and she stumbles backward, tripping over an exposed root and tumbling to the ground. Chad looms over her, his fists clenching, his eyes blazing. “You stupid, worthless bitch! All you had to do is protect my girls! Fucking chimpanzee could do that!”
Lilly tries to roll away but Chad drives the steel toe of his work boot into her hip, tossing her sideways. Pain stabs her midsection. She gasps for air, her mouth filling with blood. “P-please duh—”
He reaches down and yanks her back to her feet. Holding her up by the front of her sweatshirt, he hisses at her, his sour breath hot on her face, “You and your little slutty friend think this is a party? You smoking dope last night? Huh? HUH?”
Chad smashes a right hook into Lilly’s jaw, cracking her teeth and sending her back to the ground. She lands in a heap of agony, two of her ribs cracked, the blood choking her. She can’t breathe. Icy cold spreads through her and blurs her vision.
She can barely focus on Chad Bingham’s ropy, compact form hovering over her, dropping down on her with tremendous weight, straddling her, the drool of uncontrollable rage leaking out of the corner of his mouth, his spittle flying. “Answer me! You been smoking weed when you’re with my kids?”
Lilly feels Chad’s powerful grip closing around her throat, the back of her head banging off the ground now. “ANSWER ME, YOU FFFUHHHH—”
Without warning, a third figure materializes behind Chad Bingham—pulling him off Lilly—the identity of this rescuer barely visible.
She only sees a blur of a man so enormous he blots out the rays of the sun.
Josh gets two good handfuls of Chad Bingham’s denim jacket and then yanks with all his might.
Either through a sudden spike of adrenaline coursing through the big man, or simply due to Chad’s relatively scrawny girth, the resulting heave-ho makes Chad Bingham look like a human cannonball. He soars across the clearing in a high arc, one of his boots flying off, his cap spinning into the trees. He slams shoulder first into an enormous ancient tree trunk. His breath flies out of him, and he flops to the ground in front of the tree. He gasps for breath, blinking with shock.
Josh kneels by Lilly and gently raises her bloody face. She tries to speak but can’t get her bleeding lips around the words. Josh lets out a pained breath—a sort of gut-shot moan. Something about seeing that lovely face—with its sea-foam eyes and delicately freckled cheeks, now stippled with blood—sends him into a rage that draws a gauzy filter down over his eyes.
The big man rises, turns, and marches across the clearing to where Chad Bingham lies writhing in pain.
Josh can see only the milky-white blur of the man on the ground, the pale sunlight beaming down through the musty air. Chad makes a feeble attempt to crawl away but Josh easily catches the man’s retreating legs, and with a single decisive yank, Chad’s body is wrenched back in front of the tree. Josh stands the wiry man up against the trunk.
Chad stammers with blood in his mouth. “This ain’t—it ain’t none of your—pleeeease—m-my brother—you don’t have to DDUHHH—!”
Josh slams the man’s flailing body against the bark of the hundred-year-old black oak. The impact cracks the man’s skull and dislocates his shoulder blades with the violent abruptness of a battering ram.
Chad lets out a garbled, mucusy cry—more primal and involuntary than conscious—his eyes rolling back in his head. If Chad Bingham were repeatedly hit from behind by a massive battering ram, the series of impacts would not rival the force with which Josh Lee Hamilton now begins slamming the sinewy man in denim against the tree.
“I’m not your brother,” Josh says with eerie calm, a low velvety voice from some hidden, inaccessible place deep within him, as he bangs the rag doll of a man against the tree again and again.
Josh rarely loses control like this. Only a handful of times in his life has it happened: Once, on the gridiron when an opposing offensive tackle—a good old boy from Montgomery—called him a nigger … and on another occasion when a pickpocket in Atlanta grabbed his mother’s purse. But now the quiet storm inside him rages harder than ever before—his actions unmoored and yet somehow controlled—as he repeatedly slams the back of Chad Bingham’s cranium against the tree.
Chad’s head flops with each impact, the sick thud getting more and more watery now as the back of the skull caves. Vomit roars out of Chad—again an involuntary phenomenon—the particles of cereal and yellow bile looping down, unnoticed, across Josh Lee Hamilton’s ham-hock forearms. Josh notices Chad’s left hand groping for the grip of his steel-plated Smith & Wesson tucked inside the back of his belt.
Josh easily tears the pistol out of Chad’s pants and tosses the weapon across the clearing.
With his last scintilla of strength, his brain sputtering from multiple concussions and the hemorrhage leaking out the back of his fractured skull, Chad Bingham makes a futile attempt to drive a knee up into the big man’s groin, but Josh quickly and handily blocks the knee with one forearm, and then delivers an extraordinary blow—a great winding backhand slap, a surreal echo of the slap delivered moments ago to Lilly—which sends Chad Bingham hurling sideways.
Chad sprawls to the ground fifteen feet away from the tree trunk.
Josh can’t hear Lilly stumbling across the clearing. He can’t hear her strangled voice, “Josh, NO! NO! JOSH, STOP, YOU’RE GOING TO KILL HIM!!”
All at once, Josh Lee Hamilton wakes up, and blinks as though discovering that he’s been sleepwalking and has found himself naked and wandering down Peachtree Boulevard during rush hour. He feels Lilly’s hands on his back, clawing at his coat, trying to yank him back and away from the man lying in a heap on the ground.
“You’re gonna kill him!”
Josh whirls. He sees Lilly—bruised and battered, her mouth full of blood, barely able to stand or breathe or speak—directly behind him, her watery gaze locked onto his. He pulls her into an embrace, his eyes welling with tears. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine … please, Josh … you have to stop before you kill him.”
Josh starts to say something else but stops himself. He turns and looks down at the man on the ground. Over the course of that terrible, silent pause—as Josh moves his lips but is unable to make a sound or put a thought into words—he sees the deflated body on the ground, lying in a pool of its own fluids, as still and lifeless as a bundle of rags.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga