On that quiet morning, two separate and troubling problems lie just beneath the surface of that burned husk of a village—both issues, at least initially, going completely unnoticed by the residents.
The drumming of hammers and rasping of saws fill the air. Voices rise on the wind in busy call-and-response. The congenial odors of woodsmoke, tar pitch, and compost infuse the warm breezes. A sense of renewal—maybe even of hope—thrums beneath the surface of all the activity. The oppressive heat of summer, still a good month or two away, has not yet wilted the wild Cherokee roses growing in profusion along the abandoned train tracks, and the sky has that high-def, robin's-egg brilliance that skies around these parts get in the fleeting last weeks of spring.
Spurred on by their tumultuous regime change, as well as the possibility of a new democratic way of life amid the ruins of the plague, the people of Woodbury, Georgia—a onetime railroad burg fifty miles south of Atlanta, only recently reduced to scorched buildings and battered, scarred, littered roadways—have reconstituted themselves like strands of DNA, forming a sturdier and healthier organism. Lilly Caul is a big reason for this renaissance. The slender, comely, battle-bitter young woman with the dishwater auburn hair and heart-shaped face has become the reluctant leader of the village.
At this moment, in fact, her voice can be heard from every quarter, carrying on the wind with authority, drifting over the tops of live oaks and poplars lining the promenade west of the racetrack. From every open window, every alley, every convolution of the arena, she can be heard selling the little settlement with the verve of a Florida real estate agent peddling beachfront property.
"Right now the safe zone is small, I'll grant you that," she is commenting candidly to some unidentified listener. "But we're planning to expand that wall over there another block to the north, and this one over here, maybe another two or three blocks to the south, so what we're eventually going to end up with is a town within a town, a safe place for kids, which will one day, if all goes well, be totally self-contained and totally self-sustainable."
As the lilting sound of Lilly's monologue echoes and penetrates the nooks and crevices of that dirt-track stadium—the place where madness once reigned in the form of bloody death matches—the dark figure trapped underneath a drainage grate jerks its charred face toward the sound of the voice with the mechanized abruptness of a satellite dish rotating toward a signal from space.
Once a lanky farmhand with ropy muscles and a thick crown of wheat-straw hair, this burned, reanimated corpse tumbled through the broken grating during the chaos and fires that engulfed the town not long ago, and now it has gone unnoticed for practically a week, wallowing in the airless, reeking capsule of darkness. Centipedes, beetles, and pill bugs crawl hectically across its pallid dead face and down its tattered, faded denim—the fabric so old and distressed it can barely be distinguished from the thing's dead flesh.
This errant walker, once a captive member of the inhuman gladiators that graced the arena, will prove to be only the first of two very worrisome developments that have gone completely undetected by every resident of the town, including Lilly, whose voice now rises with each footstep as she approaches the racetrack, the shuffling of other footsteps audible beneath her own.
"Now, you might be asking yourselves, ‘Am I seeing things, or did a gigantic flying saucer land in the middle of town when nobody was looking?' What you're staring at is the Woodbury Veterans Speedway—guess you could call it a leftover from happier times when people wanted nothing more on a Friday evening than a bucket of fried chicken and a track full of men in stock cars sideswiping each other and polluting the atmosphere. Still trying to figure out what to do with it … but we're thinking it would make a great public garden."
Inside the festering enclosure of the sewer culvert, the dead farmhand drools at the prospect of living tissue closing in. Its jaws begin to ratchet and grind, making a papery creaking noise as it scuttles toward the wall, reaching blindly up at the daylight filtering through the grate. Through the narrow iron slats of the overhead grating, the creature can see the shadows of seven living humans approaching.
The thing accidentally wedges its right foot in a divot in the crumbling masonry.
Walkers have no climbing skills, no purpose other than to devour, no sentient awareness other than hunger, but right then, the unforeseen foothold is enough for the thing to almost inadvertently lift itself up to the busted grate through which it had previously plummeted. And as its white shoe-button eyes reach the lip of the manhole, the creature locks its feral gaze on the closest figure: a little girl in rags approaching with the group, a child of about eight or nine years old, walking alongside Lilly with an earnest expression on her grime-smudged face.
For a moment, the walker inside the sewer culvert coils itself like a spring, letting out a low growl like an engine idling, its dead muscles twitching from innate signals sent by a reanimated nervous system. Its blackened, lipless mouth peels away from mossy green teeth, its eyes like milky diodes absorbing its prey.
* * *
"You're gonna hear rumors about this sooner or later," Lilly confides to her malnourished clientele as she passes within inches of the sewer grate. Her tour group is made up of a single family, the Duprees, which consists of an emaciated father of about forty years old who goes by the name of Calvin, his waiflike wife, Meredith, and their three ragamuffins—Tommy, Bethany, and Lucas—twelve, nine, and five years old, respectively. The Dupree clan wobbled into the Woodbury town limits the previous night in their beat-up Ford LTD station wagon, near death from starvation, practically psychotic with hunger. Lilly took them in. Woodbury needs bodies—new residents, fresh people to help the town reboot itself and do some of the heavy lifting of community building. "You might as well hear it from us," Lilly says to them, pausing in her Georgia Tech hoodie and ripped jeans, her hands on her Sam Browne gun belt. Still in her early thirties but bearing the visage of a much older soul, Lilly has her ruddy brown hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, her hazel eyes glittering, the spark down in the core of her pupils partly intelligence and partly the hundred-yard stare of a seasoned warrior. She throws a glance over her shoulder at a seventh figure standing behind her. "You want to tell them about the Governor, Bob?"
"You go ahead," the older man says with a plague-weary smile on his weathered, leathery face. Dark hair pomaded back across a corrugated brow, ammo bandolier canted across his sweat-stained chambray shirt, Bob Stookey stands over six feet in his socks, but he slumps with the perpetual fatigue of a reformed drunk, which is what he is. "You're on a roll, Lilly-girl."
"Okay … so … for the better part of a year," Lilly begins as she stares at each Dupree one at a time, emphasizing the importance of what she's about to say, "this place, Woodbury, was under the yoke of a very dangerous man named Philip Blake. Went by the name of the Governor." She lets out a flinty little breath, half chuckle, half sigh of disgust. "I know … the irony's not lost on us." She takes a breath. "Anyway … he was a pure sociopath. Paranoid. Delusional. But he got things done. I hate to admit it, but … he seemed to most of us, for a while, at least, a necessary evil."
"Excuse me … um … Lilly, was it?" Calvin Dupree has stepped forward. A compact, fair-skinned man with the hard gristly muscles of a day laborer, he wears a filthy windbreaker that looks as though it has doubled as a butcher's apron. His eyes are clear and warm and open—despite the reticence and the lingering trauma of being out in the wild for God knows how long. "Ain't sure what this has to do with us." He glances at his wife. "I mean … we appreciate the hospitality and such, but where y'all going with this?"
The wife, Meredith, stares at the pavement, chewing her lip. A mousy little woman in a ragged sundress, she hasn't said more than three words—other than "Hmm" or "Uh-huh"—since the Duprees arrived. The previous night, they were fed, given first aid by Bob, and allowed to rest. Now the wife fidgets as she waits for Calvin to practice his patriarchal duty. Behind her, the children look on expectantly. Each child seems stunned, loopy, gun-shy. The little girl, Bethany, stands only inches away from the broken sewer grate, sucking her thumb with a shopworn doll in the crook of her tiny arm, completely oblivious of the shadow moving inside the trench.
For days, the stench emanating from the sewer—the telltale rancid-meat odor of a biter—has been mistaken for the reek of old sewage, the faint growling noise misidentified as the reverberation of a generator. Now the moving corpse manages to squeeze its clawlike hand through a gap in the broken grate, the moldering fingernails jerking toward the hem of the little girl's dress.
"I understand the confusion," Lilly says to Calvin, locking gazes with him. "You don't know us from Adam. But I just thought … you know. Full disclosure. The Governor used this arena for … bad things. Gladiator fights with biters. Ugly stuff in the name of entertainment. Some folks around here are still a little jumpy because of all that. We've taken the place back now, though, and we're offering you a sanctuary, a safe place to live. We'd like to invite you to stay here. Permanently."
Calvin and Meredith Dupree exchange another glance, and Meredith swallows hard, looking at the ground. Calvin has a strange look on his face—almost a longing—and he turns and starts to say, "It's a generous offer, Lilly, but I gotta be honest—"
All at once he is interrupted by the rusty shriek of the grate collapsing and the little girl squealing in terror, and then everybody is jerking toward the child.
Bob reaches for his .357 Magnum.
Lilly has already crossed half the distance of scarred pavement toward the little girl.
Time seems to hang suspended in the air.
* * *
Since the plague broke out nearly two years ago, the change in the behavior patterns of survivors has been so gradual, so subtle, so incremental as to be almost invisible. The blood-drenched early days of the Turn, which at first seemed so temporary and novel—captured in those yammering headlines THE DEAD WALK and NO ONE IS SAFE and IS THIS THE END?—became routine, and it happened without anybody ever really being aware of it. Survivors got more and more efficient at lancing the proverbial boil, lashing out without forethought or ceremony, destroying the brain of a rampaging cadaver with whatever was handy—the family shotgun, a farm implement, a knitting needle, a broken wineglass, an heirloom from the mantel—until the most ghastly act became commonplace. Trauma loses all meaning, grief and sorrow and loss are all stuffed down the gorge until a collective numbness sets in. But active-duty soldiers know the truth beneath the lie. Homicide detectives know it as well. Emergency room nurses, paramedics—they all know the dirty little secret: It doesn't get any easier. In fact, it lives in you. Every trauma, every horrible sight, every senseless death, every feral, blood-soaked act of violence in the name of self-preservation—they all accumulate like silt at the bottom of a person's heart until the weight is unbearable.
Lilly Caul isn't there yet—as she is about to demonstrate over the next few seconds to the Dupree family—but she is well on her way. She is a few bottles of cheap bourbon and a couple of sleepless nights away from total annihilation of spirit, and that's why she needs to replenish Woodbury, she needs human contact, she needs community, she needs warmth and love and hope and grace wherever she can find it. And that's why she pounces on that reeking corpse of a farmhand with extreme prejudice as it bursts from its lair and grabs hold of the little Dupree girl's tattered hemline.
Lilly crosses the fifteen-foot gap between her and the girl in just a couple leaping strides, simultaneously yanking the .22-caliber Ruger SR from the miniholster on the back of her belt. The gun is a double-action rig, and Lilly keeps it decocked with the safety off, a single-stack magazine in it with eight rounds ready to rock and one always in the chamber—not a huge-capacity weapon but big enough to get the job done—which Lilly now aims on the fly, her vision coalescing into a tunnel as she charges toward the shrieking little girl.
The creature from the drainpipe has one skeletal hand tangled up in the gingham hem of the child's dress, which has thrown the girl off balance and sent her sprawling to the cement. She screams and screams, trying to scuttle away, but the monster has her dress and bites at the air around her sneaker-clad feet, slimy incisors clacking like castanets, moving ever closer to the tender flesh of Bethany's left ankle.
In that frenzied instant before Lilly unleashes hellfire—a dreamlike suspension of time to which plague folks are almost growing accustomed—the rest of the adults and children jerk back and gasp in unison, Calvin fumbling for the buck knife on his belt, Bob reaching for his .357, Meredith covering her mouth and letting out a little mewl of shock, the other kids backing up wide-eyed and stunned.
By this point, Lilly is already in close proximity to the biter, with the Ruger raised and aimed. Lilly simultaneously nudges the child out of harm's way with the toe of her boot while she brings the muzzle down to within centimeters of the monster's skull. The walker's hand stays hooked inside the hem of the child's dress, the fabric ripping, the little girl scraping across the concrete.
Four quick blasts like dry balloons popping penetrate the biter's cranium.
A clot of blood-mist hits the portico behind the creature while a cookie-sized skull fragment jettisons. The ex-farmhand sinks instantly to the ground. A surge of black blood sluices out in all directions from beneath the ruined head as Lilly backs away, blinking, catching her breath, trying not to step in the spreading pool of spoor as she thumbs the hammer down and puts the safety back on.
Bethany continues keening and caterwauling, and Lilly sees that the walker's hand is still clutched—rigor mortis seizing up its tendons—around a hank of the torn gingham dress. The little girl writhes and gasps air as if unable to summon tears after so many months of horror, and Lilly goes to her. "It's okay, honey, don't look." Lilly drops the pistol and cradles the girl's head. The others gather around them, Meredith kneeling, Lilly slamming her boot down on the dead hand. "Don't look." She tears the dress away. "Don't look, honey." The girl finally finds her tears.
"Don't look," Lilly repeats under her breath, almost as though speaking to herself.
Meredith pulls her daughter into a desperate embrace and whispers softly in the child's ear. "It's all right, Bethany, sweetie, I got you … I got you."
"It's over." Lilly's voice has lowered, as though she‘s talking herself into something. She lets out an agonizing sigh. "Don't look," she utters once more to herself.
She should probably stop looking at the walkers after destroying them, but she can't help it. When the brains finally succumb and the dark compulsion goes out of their faces, and the empty slumber of death returns, Lilly sees the people they were. She sees a farmhand with big dreams who got maybe an eighth-grade education but had to take over an ailing father's farm. She sees cops, nurses, postal carriers, shop clerks, and mechanics. She sees her father, Everett Caul, tucked into the silk convolutions of his casket, awaiting burial, peaceful and serene. She sees all the friends and loved ones who have passed since the outbreak swept across the land—Alice Warren, Doc Stevens, Scott Moon, Megan Lafferty, and Josh Hamilton. She's thinking about one other victim when a gravelly voice breaks the spell.
"Lilly-girl?" Bob's voice. Faint. Sounding as though it's coming from a great distance. "You okay?"
For one last fleeting instant, staring at the dead face of that farmhand, Lilly thinks of Austin Ballard, the androgynous, long-lashed, rock-star-handsome young man whom she saw sacrificed on a battlefield in order to save Lilly and half the people in Woodbury. Was Austin Ballard the only man Lilly had ever truly loved?
"Lilly?" Bob's voice rises slightly behind her, tinged with worry. "You all right?"
Lilly lets out a pained breath. "I'm good … I'm fine." Suddenly, without warning, she lifts herself to her feet. She gives Bob a nod and then picks up her handgun, shoving it back into her holster. She licks her lips and looks around the group. "Everybody okay? Kids?"
The other two children slowly nod, looking at Lilly as though she has just lassoed the moon. Calvin sheathes his knife and kneels and strokes his daughter's hair. "She okay?" he asks his wife.
Meredith gives him a terse nod, doesn't say anything. The woman's eyes look glassy.
Calvin lets out a sigh and stands. He comes over to Lilly. She is busy helping Bob drag the corpse under an overhang for later retrieval. She stands up, wiping her hands on her jeans and turning to face the newcomer. "I'm sorry you folks had to see that," she says to him. "How's the girl?"
"She'll be okay, she's a strong one," Calvin says. He holds Lilly's gaze. "How about you?"
"Me?" Lilly sighs. "I'm fine." She lets out another pained breath. "Just tired of it."
"I hear ya." He cocks his head a bit. "You're pretty handy with that firearm."
Lilly shrugs. "I don't know about that." Then she looks around the center of town. "Gotta keep our eyes open. Place saw a lot of upheaval over the last few weeks. Lost an entire section of the wall. Still a few stragglers. But we're getting it back under control."
Calvin manages a weary smile. "I believe you."
Lilly notices something dangling on a chain around the man's neck—a large silver cross. "So what do you think?" she asks.
"Staying on. Making a home here for your family. What do you think?"
Calvin Dupree takes a deep breath and turns to gaze at his wife and daughter. "I won't lie … it's not a bad idea." He licks his lips pensively. "Been on the move for a long time, been putting the kids through the mill."
Lilly looks at him. "This is a place they can be safe, happy, lead a normal life … more or less."
"I ain't saying no." Calvin looks at her. "All I'm asking is … you give us time to think about it, pray on it."
Lilly nods. "Of course." For a brief instant, she thinks about the phrase "pray on it" and wonders what it would be like to have a Holy Roller in their midst. A couple of the Governor's men used to pay lip service to having God on their side, and what would Jesus do, and all that 700 Club nonsense. Lilly has never had much time for religion. Sure, she's prayed silently on a few occasions since the plague broke out, but in her mind that doesn't count. What's that saying? "There are no atheists in the foxhole." She looks into Calvin's gray-green eyes. "You take all the time you need." She smiles. "Look around, get to know the place—"
"That won't be necessary," a voice interrupts, and all heads turn to the mousy woman kneeling by her trembling child. Meredith Dupree strokes the girl's hair and doesn't make eye contact as she speaks. "We appreciate your hospitality, but we'll be on our way this afternoon."
Calvin looks at the ground. "Now, honey, we haven't even discussed what we're going to—"
"There's nothing to discuss." The woman looks up, her eyes glittering with emotion. Her chapped lips tremble, her pale flesh blushing. She looks like a delicate porcelain doll with an unseen crack down its middle. "We'll be on our way."
"There's nothing more to talk about."
The silence that ensues makes the awkward moment turn almost surreal, as the wind buffets the tops of the trees, whistling through the gantries and trestles of the adjacent stadium, and the dead farmhand festers silently on the ground only a few feet away. Everybody in close proximity of Meredith, including Bob and Lilly, looks down with mute embarrassment. And the silence stretches until Lilly mumbles something like, "Well, if you change your mind, you can always stay on." Nobody says anything. Lilly manages a cockeyed smile. "In other words, the offer stands."
For a brief instant Lilly and Calvin share a furtive glance, and a tremendous amount of information is exchanged between them—some of it intentional, some of it unintentional—without a single word spoken. Lilly remains silent out of respect, aware that this issue between these two newcomers is far from resolved. Calvin glances over at his jittery wife as she tends to the child.
Meredith Dupree looks like a phantom, her anguished face so ashen and drawn and haunted she looks as though she's gradually disappearing.
Nobody realizes it then, but this frumpy, diminutive hausfrau—completely unremarkable in almost every conceivable way—will prove to be the second and far more profound issue with which Lilly and the people of Woodbury will sooner or later have to deal.
Copyright © 2014 by Robert Kirkman, LLC.