The Walking Dead
The Road To Woodbury
By Robert Kirkman, Jay Bonansinga
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga
All rights reserved.
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 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 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.
"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 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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Jay Bonansinga. Copyright © 2012 Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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