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 drown 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 midafternoon 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
“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 midthirties 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.
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 walker in a filthy hospital smock with half his shoulder missing, the cords of his tendons pulsing like worms—is followed by two other creatures. 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 walkers 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 corpses. 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 walkers 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 huddled 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 cadaver, 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 walkers 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
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 two years 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 Caulalways 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 midnineties, 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.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga
ROBERT KIRKMAN is best known for his work on The Walking Dead and Invincible for Image Comics, as well as Ultimate X-Men and Marvel Zombies for Marvel Comics. He is one of the five partners of Image Comics and is an executive producer and writer on The Walking Dead television show.
JAY BONANSINGA is a New York Times bestselling novelist whose works include Perfect Victim, Shattered, Twisted, and Frozen. His debut novel, The Black Mariah, was a finalist for a Bram Stoker award.