It occurs to Brian Blake as he huddles in the musty darkness, the terror constricting his chest, the pain throbbing in his knees: If only he possessed a second pair of hands, he could cover his own ears, and maybe block out the noise of human heads being demolished. Sadly, the only hands Brian currently owns are busy right now, covering the tiny ears of a little girl in the closet next to him.
The seven-year-old keeps shuddering in his arms, jerking at the intermittent THWACK-GAHHHH-THUMP outside the closet. Then comes the silence, broken only by the sticky sound of boot steps on bloody tile, and a flurry of angry whispers out in the vestibule.
Brian starts coughing again. He can’t help it. For days he has been fighting this goddamn cold, a stubborn blight on his joints and sinuses that he cannot shake. It happens to him every fall, when the Georgia days start getting dank and gloomy. The dampness gets into his bones, saps his energy, and steals his breath. And now he feels the pounding stab of a fever with each cough.
Doubling over in another hacking, wheezing fit, he keeps his hands pressed down on little Penny’s ears as he coughs. He knows the sound of his rasping is attracting all kinds of attention outside the closet door, out in the convolutions of the house, but there’s nothing he can do about it. He sees tracings of light with each cough—like tiny filigrees of fireworks across his blind pupils.
The closet—barely four feet wide, and maybe three feet deep—is as dark as an inkwell, and it reeks of mothballs, mouse droppings, and old cedar. Plastic coat bags hang down in the darkness, brushing the sides of Brian’s face. Brian’s younger brother Philip told him it was okay to cough in the closet. In fact, Brian was free to cough his fucking head off—it would draw out the monsters—but Brian better not give his goddamn cold to Philip’s little girl. If he did, Philip would crack Brian’s head open.
The coughing fit passes.
Moments later, another pair of lumbering footsteps disturbs the silence outside the closet—another dead thing entering the kill zone. Brian squeezes his hands tighter against Penny’s ears, and the child flinches at another rendition of Skull Splitting in D minor.
If asked to describe the racket outside the closet, Brian Blake would probably revert to his days as a failed music store entrepreneur and tell you that the head-cracking sounds are like a percussive symphony they might play in hell—like some trippy outtake from Edgard Varèse or a druggy drum solo from John Bonham—with repeating verses and choruses: the heavy breathing of humans … the shambling footsteps of another moving corpse … the whistle of an axe … the thunk of steel sinking into flesh …
… and finally, the big finale, the splat of moist, dead weight on the slimy parquet.
Another break in the action sends fever chills down Brian’s spine. The silence closes in again. Eyes now adjusted to the darkness, Brian sees the first shimmer of thick arterial blood seeping under the bottom of the door. It looks like motor oil. He gently yanks his niece away from the spreading puddle, pulling her back against the boots and umbrellas along the back wall.
The hem of Penny Blake’s little denim dress touches the blood. She quickly pulls the fabric away, and frantically rubs at the stain, as if the very absorption of the blood will infect her somehow.
Another convulsive coughing fit doubles Brian over. He fights it. He swallows the broken glass of a sore throat and pulls the little girl into a full-on embrace. He doesn’t know what to do or say. He wants to help his niece. He wants to whisper something reassuring to her but cannot think of a single reassuring thing to whisper.
The girl’s father would know what to say. Philip would know. He always knows what to say. Philip Blake is the guy who says the things that everybody else wishes they had said. He says what needs to be said, and he does what needs to be done. Like right now. He’s out there with Bobby and Nick, doing what needs to be done … while Brian hunkers here in the dark like a scared rabbit, wishing he knew what to say to his niece.
Considering the fact that Brian Blake is the oldest of the two siblings, it’s odd how Brian has always been the runt. Barely five feet seven in his boot heels, Brian Blake is a raw-boned scarecrow of a man scarcely able to fill out his black peg-leg jeans and torn Weezer T-shirt. A mousey goatee, macramé bracelets, and a thatch of dark Ichabod Crane hair complete the picture of a thirty-five-year-old Bohemian waif stuck in Peter Pan limbo, now kneeling in the mothball-scented gloom.
Brian sucks in a hoarse breath and looks down at the doe-eyed Penny, her mute, horrified face ghostly in the darkness of the closet. The child has always been a quiet little girl, with an almost porcelain complexion, like that of a China doll, which has given her face an almost ethereal cast. But since her mother’s death she has turned even further inward, becoming more wan and stoic, to the point of appearing almost translucent, with tendrils of raven-black hair obscuring her huge eyes.
For the last three days, she has hardly said a word. Of course, they have been three extraordinary days—and trauma works differently on children than it does on adults—but Brian is worried that Penny is perhaps slipping into some kind of shock.
“It’s gonna be okay, kiddo,” Brian whispers to her with a lame little cough as punctuation.
She says something without looking up at him. She mumbles it, staring down at the floor, a tear pearling on her dirty cheek.
“What was that, Pen?” Brian cradles her against him and wipes her tear.
She says something again, and again, and again, but not exactly to Brian. She says it more like a mantra, or a prayer, or an incantation: “It’s never-ever going to be okay, never-ever-ever-ever-ever.”
“Sshhhhh.” He holds her head, pressing it gently against the folds of his T-shirt. He feels the damp heat of her face against his ribs. He covers her ears again as he hears the THWACK of another axe blade outside the closet, smashing through the membrane of a scalp, into the hard shell of a skull, through the layers of dura, and into the pulpy gray gelatin of an occipital lobe.
It makes a smacking noise like a baseball bat hitting a wet softball—the ejaculate of blood like a mop head slapping the floor—followed by a ghastly, wet thud. Oddly, that’s the worst part for Brian: that hollow, moist thump of a body landing on expensive ceramic tile. The tile is custom made for the house, with elaborate inlay and Aztec designs. It’s a lovely house … or at least, it once was.
Again the noises cease.
Again the horrible dripping silence follows. Brian stifles a cough, holding it in like a firecracker that’s about to pop, so he can better hear the minute changes in breathing outside the closet, the greasy footsteps shuffling through gore. But the place is dead silent now.
Brian feels the child seize up next to him—little Penny girding herself for another salvo of axe blows—but the silence stretches.
Inches away, the sound of a bolt clicking, and the closet doorknob turning, rashes Brian’s body with gooseflesh. The door swings open.
“Okay, we’re good.” The baritone voice, whiskey-cured and smoky, comes from a man peering down into the recesses of the closet. Eyes blinking at the darkness, face shimmering with sweat, flush with the exertion of zombie disposal, Philip Blake holds a grue-slick axe in his workman’s hand.
“You sure?” Brian utters.
Ignoring his brother, Philip gazes down at his daughter. “Everything’s okay, punkin, Daddy’s okay.”
“Are you sure?” Brian says with a cough.
Philip looks at his brother. “You mind covering your mouth, sport?”
Brian wheezes, “You sure it’s clear?”
“Punkin?” Philip Blake addresses his daughter tenderly, his faint Southern drawl belying the bright, feral embers of violence just now fading in his eyes. “I’m gonna need y’all to stay right there for a minute. Awright? You stay right there until Daddy says it’s okay to come out. You understand?”
With a slight nod, the pale little girl gives him a feeble gesture of understanding.
“C’mon, sport,” Philip urges his older brother out of the shadows. “Gonna need your help with the cleanup.”
Brian struggles to his feet, pushing his way through the hanging overcoats.
He emerges from the closet and blinks at the harsh light of the vestibule. He stares and coughs and stares some more. For a brief moment, it looks as though the lavish entryway of the two-story Colonial, brightly lit by fancy copper chandeliers, is in the throes of being redecorated by a work crew afflicted by palsy. Great swaths of eggplant-purple spatters stain the teal green plaster walls. Rorschach patterns of black and crimson adorn the baseboards and moldings. Then the shapes on the floor register.
Six bodies lie akimbo in bloody heaps. Ages and genders are obscured by the wet carnage, the mottled, livid skin tones, and the misshapen skulls. The largest lies in a spreading pool of bile at the foot of the great circular staircase. Another one, perhaps the lady of the house, perhaps once a convivial hostess offering peach cobbler and Southern hospitality, is now splayed across the lovely white parquet floor in a contorted mess, a stringer of wormy gray matter flagging from her breached cranium.
Brian Blake feels his gorge rising, his throat involuntarily dilating.
“Okay, gentlemen, we got our work cut out for us,” Philip is saying, addressing his two cronies, Nick and Bobby, as well as his brother, but Brian can barely hear over the sick thump of his own heartbeat.
He sees the other remains—over the last two days, Philip has started calling the ones they destroy “twice-cooked pork”—strewn along the dark, burnished baseboards at the threshold of the living room. Maybe the teenage children who once lived here, maybe visitors who suffered the Southern inhospitality of an infected bite, these bodies lie in sunbursts of arterial spray. One of them, his or her dented head lying facedown like a spilled soup pan, still pumps its scarlet fluids across the floor with the profusion of a breached fire hydrant. A couple of others still have small hatchet blades embedded in their crania, sunk down to the hilt, like the flags of explorers triumphantly stuck into once unattainable summits.
Brian’s hand flies up to his mouth, as if he might stem the tide rising up his esophagus. He feels a tapping sensation on the top of his skull, as though a moth is ticking against his scalp. He looks up.
Blood drips from the overhead chandelier, a droplet landing on Brian’s nose.
“Nick, why don’t you go grab some of them tarps we saw earlier in the—”
Brian falls to his knees, hunches forward, and roars vomit across the parquet. The steaming flood of khaki-colored bile sluices across the tiles, mingling with the spoor of the fallen dead.
Tears burn Brian’s eyes as he heaves four days of soul-sickness onto the floor.
Philip Blake lets out a tense sigh, the buzz of adrenaline still coursing through him. For a moment he makes no effort to go to his brother’s side, but simply stands there, setting down his bloody axe, rolling his eyes. It’s a miracle Philip doesn’t have a groove worn into the tops of his eye sockets from all the eye rolling he’s done over the years on his brother’s account. But what else is Philip supposed to do? The poor son of bitch is family, and family is family … especially in off-the-scale times such as these.
The resemblance is sure there—nothing Philip can do about that. A tall, rangy, sinewy man with the ropy muscles of a tradesman, Philip Blake shares the same dark features as his brother, the same dark almond eyes and coal-black hair of their Mexican-American mother. Mama Rose’s maiden name was Garcia, and her features had dominated the lineage over those of the boy’s father, a big, coarse alcoholic of Scots-Irish descent named Ed Blake. But Philip, three years younger than Brian, had gotten all the muscle.
He now stands over six feet tall in his faded jeans, work boots, and chambray shirt, with the Fu Manchu mustache and jailhouse tats of a biker; and he is about to move his imposing figure over to his retching brother, and maybe say something harsh, when he stops himself. He hears something he doesn’t like coming from across the vestibule.
Bobby Marsh, an old high school pal of Philip’s, stands near the base of the staircase, wiping an axe blade on his size XXL jeans. A portly thirty-two-year-old junior college dropout, his long greasy brown hair pulled back in a rattail, Bobby Marsh is not exactly obese, but definitely overweight, definitely the type of guy his Burke County High classmates would call a butterball. He now giggles with nervous, edgy, belly-shivering laughter as he watches Brian Blake vomit. The giggling is colorless and hollow—a sort of tic that Bobby cannot seem to control.
The anxious giggling had started three days ago when one of the first of the undead had lumbered out of a service bay at a gas station near the Augusta airport. Clad in blood-soaked overalls, the grease monkey shuffled out of hiding with a trail of toilet paper on his heel, and the thing had tried to make a meal out of Bobby’s fat neck before Philip had stepped in and clobbered the thing with a crowbar.
The discovery that day—that a major blow to the head does the job quite nicely—had led to more nervous chortling on Bobby’s part—definitely a defense mechanism—with a lot of anxious chatter about it being “something in the water, man, like the black-fucking-plague.” But Philip didn’t want to hear about reasons for this shit storm then, and he sure doesn’t want to hear about them now.
“Hey!” Philip addresses the heavyset man. “You still think this is funny?”
Bobby’s laughter dies.
On the other side of the room, near a window overlooking the dark expanse of a backyard, which is currently shrouded in night, a fourth figure watches uneasily. Nick Parsons, another friend from Philip’s wayward childhood, is a compact, lean thirty-something with the kind of prep-school grooming and marine-cut hair of an eternal jock. The religious one of the bunch, Nick has taken the longest to get used to the idea of destroying things that were once human. Now his khakis and sneakers are stippled with blood, and his eyes burn with trauma, as he watches Philip approach Bobby.
“Sorry, man,” Bobby mutters.
“My daughter’s in there,” Philip says, coming nose to nose with Marsh. The volatile chemicals of rage and panic and pain can instantly ignite in Philip Blake.
Bobby looks at the blood-slicked floor. “Sorry, sorry.”
“Go get the tarps, Bobby.”
Six feet away, Brian Blake, still on his hands and knees, expels the last of his stomach contents, and continues to dry-heave.
Philip goes over to his older brother, kneels by him. “Let it out.”
“I’m—uh—” Brian croaks, sniffing, trying to form a complete thought.
Philip gently lays a big, grimy, callused hand on his brother’s hunched shoulders. “It’s okay, bro … just let it all out.”
“It’s all right.”
Brian gets himself under control, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Y-you think you got all of them?”
“You searched … everywhere? In the basement and stuff?”
“Yes, sir, we did. All the bedrooms … even the attic. Last one came out of hiding at the sound of that fucking cough, loud enough to wake the fucking dead. Teenage girl, tried to have one of Bobby’s chins for lunch.”
Brian gulps down a raw, painful swallow. “These people … they … lived here.”
Philip sighs. “Not anymore.”
Brian manages to look around the room, then gazes up at his brother. Brian’s face is wet with tears. “But they were like … a family.”
Philip nods, and he doesn’t say anything. He feels like giving his brother a shrug—so fucking what—but all he does is keep nodding. He’s not thinking about the zombified family he just dispatched, or the implications of all the mind-numbing butchery he’s already wreaked over the last three days—slaughtering individuals who were recently soccer moms and mailmen and gas station attendants. Yesterday, Brian had gone off on some bullshit intellectual tangent about the difference between morals and ethics in this situation: Morally, one should never kill, ever, but ethically, which is subtly different, one should maintain the policy of killing only if it’s in self-defense. But Philip doesn’t see what they’re doing as killing. You can’t kill a thing that’s already been killed. What you do is squash it like a bug, and move on, and stop thinking so much.
The fact is, right now, Philip isn’t even thinking about the next move his little ragtag group will make—which is probably going to be entirely up to him (he has become the de facto leader of this bunch, and he might as well face it). Right now, Philip Blake is focused on a single objective: Since the nightmare started less than seventy-two hours ago, and folks started turning—for reasons nobody has yet been able to figure out—all that Philip Blake has been able to think about is protecting Penny. It is why he got the hell out of his hometown, Waynesboro, two days ago.
A small farming community on the eastern edge of central Georgia, the place had gone to hell quickly when folks had started dying and coming back. But it was Penny’s safety that had ultimately convinced Philip to fly the coop. It was because of Penny he had enlisted the help of his old high school buddies; and it was because of Penny he had set out for Atlanta, where, according to the news, refugee centers were being set up. It was all because of Penny. Penny is all that Philip Blake has left. She is the only thing keeping him going—the only salve on his wounded soul.
Long before this inexplicable epidemic had broken out, the void in Philip’s heart would pang at 3 A.M on sleepless nights. That’s the exact hour he had lost his wife—hard to believe it’s been nearly four years now—on a rain-slick highway south of Athens. Sarah had been visiting a friend at the University of Georgia, and she’d been drinking, and she lost control of her car on a winding road in Wilkes County.
From the moment he had identified the body, Philip knew he would never be the same. He had no qualms about doing the right thing—taking on two jobs to keep Penny fed and clothed and cared for—but he would never be the same. Maybe that’s why all this was happening. God’s little gag. When the locusts come, and the river runs red with blood, the guy with the most to lose gets to the lead the pack.
“Doesn’t matter who they were,” Philip finally says to his brother. “Or what they were.”
“Yeah … I guess you’re right.” By this point, Brian has managed to sit up, cross-legged now, taking deep wheezing breaths. He watches Bobby and Nick across the room, unrolling large canvas tarps and shaking open garbage bags. They begin rolling corpses, still dripping, into the tarps.
“Only thing that matters is we got this place cleaned out now,” Philip says. “We can stay here tonight, and if we can score some gas in the morning, we can make it to Atlanta tomorrow.”
“Doesn’t make any sense, though,” Brian mutters now, glancing from corpse to corpse.
“What are you talking about?”
“Look at them.”
“What?” Philip glances over his shoulder at the gruesome remains of the matriarch being rolled up in a tarp. “What about ’em?”
“It’s just the family.”
Brian coughs into his sleeve, then wipes his mouth. “What I’m saying is … you got the mother, the father, four teenage kids … and that’s like it.”
“Yeah, so what?”
Brian looks up at Philip. “So, how the hell does something like this happen? They all … turned together? Did one of them get bitten and bring it back inside?”
Philip thinks about it for a moment—after all, he’s still trying to figure out just exactly what is going on, too, how this madness works—but finally Philip gets tired of thinking about it and says, “C’mon, get off your lazy ass and help us.”
It takes them about an hour to get the place cleaned up. Penny stays in the closet for the duration of the process. Philip brings her a stuffed animal from one of the kid’s rooms, and tells her it won’t be long before she can come out. Brian mops the blood, coughing fitfully, while the other three men drag the canvas-covered corpses—two large and four smaller ones—out the back sliding doors and across the large cedar deck.
The late-September night sky above them is as clear and cold as a black ocean, a riot of stars shining down, taunting them with their impassive, cheerful twinkling. The breaths of the three men show in the darkness as they drag the bundles across dew-frosted planks. They carry pickaxes on their belts. Philip has a gun stuffed down the back of his belt. It’s an old .22 Ruger that he bought at a flea market years ago, but nobody wants to rouse the dead with the bark of gunfire right now. They can hear the telltale drone of walking dead on the wind—garbled moaning sounds, shuffling footsteps—coming from somewhere in the darkness of the neighboring yards.
It’s been an unusually nippy early autumn in Georgia, and tonight the mercury is supposed to dip into the lower forties, perhaps even the upper thirties. Or at least that’s what the local AM radio station claimed before it petered out in a gust of static. Up to this point in their journey, Philip and his crew have been monitoring TV, radio, and the Internet on Brian’s BlackBerry.
Amid the general chaos, the news reports have been assuring people that everything is just peachy-keen—your trusty government is in control of the situation—and this little bump in the road will be smoothed out in a matter of hours. Regular warnings chime in on civil defense frequencies, admonishing folks to stay indoors, and keep out of sparsely populated areas, and wash their hands frequently, and drink bottled water, and blah, blah, blah.
Of course, nobody has any answers. And maybe the most ominous sign of all is the increasing number of station failures. Thankfully, gas stations still have gas, grocery stores are still stocked, and electrical grids and stoplights and police stations and all the infrastructural paraphernalia of civilization seem to be hanging on.
But Philip worries that a loss of power will raise the stakes in unimaginable ways.
“Let’s put ’em in the Dumpsters behind the garage,” Philip says so softly he’s almost whispering, dragging two canvas bundles up to the wooden fence adjacent to the three-car garage. He wants to do this swiftly and silently. He doesn’t want to attract any zombies. No fires, no sharp noises, no gunshots if he can help it.
There’s a narrow gravel alley behind the seven-foot cedar fence, serving the rank and file of spacious garages lining the backyards. Nick drags his load over to the fence gate, a solid slab of cedar planks with a wrought-iron handle. He drops the bundle and opens the gate.
An upright corpse is waiting for him on the other side of the gate.
“LOOK OUT, Y’ALL!” Bobby Marsh cries out.
“Shut the fuck up!” Philip hisses, reaching for the pickaxe on his belt, already halfway to the gate.
The zombie lurches at him, chomping, missing his left pectoral by millimeters, the sound of yellow dentures snapping impotently like the clicking of castanets—and in the moonlight, Nick can see that it’s an elderly adult male in a tattered Izod sweater, golf slacks, and expensive cleats, the lunar gleam shining in its milky, cataract-filmed eyes: somebody’s grandfather.
Nick gets one good glimpse at the thing before stumbling backward over his own feet and falling onto his ass on the lush carpet of Kentucky bluegrass. The dead golfer lumbers through the gap and onto the lawn just as a flash of rusty steel arcs through the air.
The business end of Philip’s pickaxe lands squarely in the monster’s head, cracking the coconutlike shell of the old man’s skull, piercing the dense, fibrous membrane of the dura mater and sinking into the gelatinous parietal lobe. It makes a sound like celery snapping and sends a clot of dark brackish fluid into the air. The insectile verve on the grandfather’s face instantly dims, like a cartoon whose projection system has just jammed.
The zombie folds to the ground with the inelegant deflation of an empty laundry sack.
The pickaxe, still deeply embedded, pulls Philip forward and down. He yanks at it. The point is stuck. “Shut the motherfucking gate now, shut the gate, and do it quietly, goddamnit,” Philip says, still affecting a frenzied stage whisper, slamming his left Chippewa steel-toed logger boot down on the breached skull of the cadaver.
The other two men move as if in some synchronized dance, Bobby quickly dropping his load and rushing over to the gate. Nick struggles to his feet and backs away in a horrified stupor. Bobby quickly latches the wrought-iron lever. It makes a hollow metallic rattle that is so noisy it echoes across the dark lawns.
At last, Philip wrenches the pick from the stubborn crag of the zombie’s skull—it comes out with a soft smooch sound—and he is turning toward the remains of the family, his mind swimming with panic, when he hears something odd, something unexpected, coming from the house.
He looks up and sees the rear of the Colonial, the window glass lit brilliantly from within.
Brian is silhouetted behind the sliding glass door, tapping on the pane, motioning for Philip and the others to hurry back, right now. Urgency burns in Brian’s expression. It has nothing to do with the dead golfer—Philip can tell—something is wrong.
Oh God, please let it not have to do with Penny.
Philip drops the pickaxe and crosses the lawn in seconds flat.
“What about the stiffs?” Bobby Marsh is calling after Philip.
“Leave ’em!” Philip yells, vaulting up the deck steps and rushing to the sliding doors.
Brian is waiting with the slider ajar. “I gotta show you something, man,” he says.
“What is it? Is it Penny? Is she okay?” Philip is out of breath as he slips back into the house. Bobby and Nick are coming across the deck, and they too slip into the warmth of the Colonial.
“Penny’s fine,” Brian says. He’s holding a framed photograph. “She’s fine. Says she doesn’t mind staying in the closet a little while longer.”
“Judas Priest, Brian, what the fuck!” Philip catches his breath, his hands balled into fists.
“I gotta show you something. You want to stay here tonight?” Brian turns toward the sliding glass door. “Look. The family died together in here, right? All six of them? Six?”
Philip wipes his face. “Spit it out, man.”
“Look. Somehow they all turned together. As a family, right?” Brian coughs, then points at the six pale bundles lying near the garage. “There’s six of them out there on the grass. Look. Mom and dad and four kids.”
“So fucking what?”
Brian holds up a portrait in a frame, the family from a happier time, all smiling awkwardly, dressed in their starchy Sunday best. “I found this on the piano,” he says.
Brian points at the youngest child in the photo, a boy of eleven or twelve years old, little navy blue suit, blond bangs, stiff smile.
Brian looks at his brother and says very gravely, “There’s seven of them in the picture.”
The graceful two-story Colonial that Philip selected for their extended pit stop sits on a manicured side street deep in the tree-lined labyrinth of a gated enclave known as Wiltshire Estates.
Situated off Highway 278, about twenty miles east of Atlanta, the six-thousand-acre community is carved out of a forest preserve of dense longleaf pine and massive, old live oaks. The southern boundary fronts the vast, rolling hills of a thirty-six-hole golf course designed by Fuzzy Zoeller.
In the free brochure, which Brian Blake found on the floor of an abandoned guard shack earlier that evening, a flowery sales pitch makes the place sound like a Martha Stewart wet dream: Wiltshire Estates provides an award-winning lifestyle with world-class amenities … named the “Best of the Best” by GOLF Magazine Living … also home to the Triple-A Five Diamond Shady Oaks Plantation Resort and Spa … full-time security patrols … homes from $475,000 to 1 million-plus.
The Blake party happened upon the fancy outer gates at sunset that day—on their way to the refugee centers in Atlanta—all of them crammed into Philip’s rust-pocked Chevy Suburban. In the spill of the headlights, they saw the fancy cast-iron finials and great arched legend with the Wiltshire name hammered in metal across the spires, and they stopped to investigate.
At first, Philip thought the place might serve as a quick pit stop, a place to rest and maybe forage for supplies before completing the last leg of the journey into the city. Perhaps they would find others like them, other living souls, maybe a few good Samaritans who would help them out. But as the five tired, hungry, wired, and dazed travelers made an initial circle of the winding roads of Wiltshire, with the darkness quickly closing in, they realized that the place was, for the most part, dead.
No lights burned in any of the windows. Very few cars remained in the driveways or at the curbs. A fire hydrant gushed at one corner, unattended, sending a foamy spray across a lawn. At another corner, an abandoned BMW sat with its shattered front end wrapped around a telephone pole, its twisted passenger door gaping open. People had apparently left in a hurry.
The reason they left, for the most part, could be seen in the distant shadows of the golf course, in the gullies behind the resort, and even here and there on the well-lighted streets. Zombies shambled aimlessly like ghostly remnants of their original selves, their slack, yawning mouths letting out a rusty groan that Philip could hear well enough, even through the sealed windows of the Suburban, as he circumnavigated the maze of wide, newly paved roads.
The pandemic or the act of God—or whatever the hell started it all up—must have hit Wiltshire Estates hard and fast. Most of the undead seemed to be off in the berms and pathways of the golf course. Something must have happened there to speed the process. Maybe golfers are mostly old and slow. Maybe they taste good to the undead. Who the hell knows? But it is apparent, even from hundreds of yards away—glimpsed through trees or over the tops of privacy fences—that scores, maybe hundreds, of undead are congregated in the vast complex of clubhouses, fairways, footbridges, and sand traps.
In the dark of night, they resemble insects lazily swarming a hive.
It’s disconcerting to look at, but somehow the phenomenon has left the adjacent community, with its endless circuit of cul-de-sacs and curving lanes, relatively deserted. And the more Philip and his wide-eyed passengers circled the neighborhood, the more they began to long for a small chunk of that award-winning lifestyle, just a taste, for just long enough to replenish themselves and recharge.
They thought that they could maybe spend the night here, get a fresh start in the morning.
They chose the big Colonial at the bottom of Green Briar Lane because it seemed far enough away from the golf course to avoid the attentions of the swarm. It had a big yard with good sight lines, and a high, sturdy privacy fence. It also seemed empty. But when they carefully backed the Suburban across the lawn and up to a side door—leaving the vehicle unlocked, the keys in the ignition—and they sneaked in a window, one by one, the house almost immediately started working on them. The first creaking noises came from the second floor, and that’s when Philip had sent Nick back to the Suburban for the assortment of axes stored in the back well.
“I’m telling you, we got ’em all,” Philip is saying now, trying to calm his brother down, who sits across the kitchen in the breakfast nook.
Brian doesn’t say anything, just stares at his bowl of soggy cereal. A bottle of cough medicine sits nearby, a quarter of which Brian has already chugged down.
Penny sits next to him, also with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch in front her. A little stuffed penguin the size of a pear sits next to her bowl, and every now and then Penny moves her spoon to the toy’s mouth, pretending to share her cereal with the thing.
“We checked every inch of this place,” Philip goes on as he throws open cabinet after cabinet. The kitchen is a cornucopia, brimming with upper-class provisions and luxuries: gourmet coffees, immersion blenders, crystal goblets, wine racks, handmade pastas, fancy jams and jellies, condiments of every variety, expensive liqueurs, and cooking gadgets of every description. The giant Viking range is spotless, and the massive Sub-Zero refrigerator is packed with expensive meats and fruits and spreads and dairy products and little white Chinese carryout boxes full of still-fresh leftovers. “He might have been visiting a relative or something,” Philip adds, making note of a nice single-malt Scotch sitting on a shelf. “Might’ve been with his grandparents, staying over at a friend’s house, whatever.”
“Holy freaking Jesus, look at this!” Bobby Marsh exclaims across the room. He stands in front of the pantry, and he’s lustily inspecting the goodies inside it. “Looks like Willy-damn-Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in here … cookies, lady fingers, and the bread’s still fresh.”
“The place is safe, Brian,” Philip says, pulling the bottle of Scotch down.
“Safe?” Brian Blake stares at the tabletop. He lets out a cough and cringes.
“That’s what I said. Matter of fact, I’m thinking—”
“Just lost another one!” a voice pipes in from the other side of the kitchen.
It’s Nick. For the past ten minutes, he’s been nervously surfing through the TV channels on a little plasma screen mounted under a cabinet to the left of the sink, checking the local stations for updates, and now, at a quarter to twelve Central Standard Time, Fox 5 News out of Atlanta has just crumbled into snow. All that leaves on the cable box—other than national networks showing reruns of nature programs and old movies—is Atlanta’s stalwart, CNN, and all they’re showing at the moment are emergency robo-announcements, the same warning screens with the same bullet points that have been airing for days. Even Brian’s BlackBerry is giving up the ghost, the signal very spotty in this area. When it does work, the device is full of blind e-mails and Facebook tags and anonymous tweets with cryptic messages such as:
… AND THE KINGDOM WILL BE IN DARKNESS …
… IT’S THE BIRDS FALLING FROM THE SKY, THAT’S WHAT STARTED IT …
… BURN IT ALL DOWN BURN IT ALL …
… BLASPHEMIES AGAINST GOD …
… U SUCK U DIE …
… THE HOUSE OF THE LORD HAS BECOME A DWELLING PLACE OF DEMONS …
… DON’T BLAME ME FOR THIS I’M A LIBERTARIAN …
… EAT ME …
“Turn it off, Nick,” Philip says gloomily, plopping down on a chair in the breakfast nook with his bottle. He frowns and reaches around to the back of his belt, where his pistol is digging into the small of his back. He lays the Ruger on the table and thumbs the cap off the Scotch, then takes a healthy swig.
Brian and Penny both stare at the gun.
Philip puts the cap back on the bottle, then tosses the Scotch across the kitchen to Nick, who catches it with the aplomb of an all-state second basemen (which he once was). “Tune in to the all-booze channel for a while … you need to get some sleep, stop watching screens.”
Nick takes a taste. He takes another one, then caps the bottle and tosses it to Bobby.
Bobby nearly drops it. Still standing at the pantry, he is busily wolfing down an entire package of Oreos, the black crust already forming in the corners of his mouth. He washes the cookies down with a big pull of single-malt, and lets out a grateful belch.
Drinking is something Philip and his two friends are accustomed to doing together, and they need to do it tonight more than ever. It started in their freshman year at Burke County, with crème de menthe and watermelon wine in pup tents in each others’ backyards. Later, they graduated to boilermakers after football games. Nobody can hold his liquor like Philip Blake, but the other two men are close rivals in the juicer sweepstakes.
Early in his married life, Philip would go out carousing with his two high school buddies on a regular basis, mostly to remind himself what it was like to be young and single and irresponsible. But after Sarah’s death, the three men drifted apart. The stress of being a single parent, and working days at the muffler shop, and nights driving the freightliner with Penny in the sleeper compartment, had consumed him. The boys’ nights out became less and less frequent. Once in a while, though—in fact, as recently as last month—Philip still finds time to meet Bobby and Nick down at the Tally Ho or the Wagon Wheel Inn or some other Waynesboro dive for an evening of good-natured debauchery (while Mama Rose watches Penny).
In recent years, Philip had started wondering if he was just going through the motions with Bobby and Nick to remind himself that he was alive. Maybe that was why, this past Sunday—when the feces hit the fan in Waynesboro, and he decided to take Penny and shuffle off to a safer place—he rounded up Nick and Bobby for the journey. They felt like a piece of his past, and that helped somehow.
He had never intended to take Brian along, though. Bumping into Brian had been an accident. That first day on the road, about forty miles west of Waynesboro, Philip had taken a quick detour into Deering, to check on his mom and dad. The elderly couple lived in a retirement community near the Fort Gordon military base. When Philip arrived at his folks’ little town house, he found that the entire population of Deering had been moved to the base for safekeeping.
That was the good news. The bad news was that Brian was there. He was holed up in the deserted town house, huddling in the basement crawl space, petrified by the growing number of walking dead in the backcountry. Philip had almost forgotten about his brother’s current status: Brian had moved back home after his marriage to that crazy Jamaican girl from Gainesville had gone south—literally. The girl had pulled up stakes and had gone back to Jamaica. This, coupled with the fact that every single one of Brian’s harebrained business schemes had all crashed and burned—most of them financed with their parents’ money (like his latest brilliant idea of opening a music store in Athens, when there was already one on every corner)—made Philip cringe at the thought of having to watch over his brother for any length of time. But what was done was done.
“Hey, Philly,” Bobby says from across the room, polishing off the last of the cookies, “you think those refugee centers in the city are still up and running?”
“Who the hell knows?” Philip looks at his daughter. “How you doing, punkin?”
The little girl shrugs. “Okay.” Her voice is barely audible, like a broken wind chime in the breeze. She stares at the stuffed penguin. “I guess.”
“What do you think of this house? You like it?”
Penny shrugs again. “I don’t know.”
“What would you say if we stayed here a while?”
This gets everyone’s attention. Brian looks up at his brother. All eyes are on Philip now. Nick finally speaks up: “Whattya mean ‘a while’?”
“Gimme that hooch,” Philip says, motioning at Bobby for the bottle. The bottle comes over and Philip takes a long pull, letting it burn nicely. “Look at this place,” he says after wiping his mouth.
Brian is confused. “You said just for the night, right?”
Philip takes a deep breath. “Yeah, but I’m sorta getting over that idea right now.”
Bobby starts to say, “Yeah, but—”
“Look. I’m just saying. Might be best for us to lay low for a spell.”
“Yeah, but Philly, what about—”
“We could just stay put, Bobby, see what happens.”
Nick has been listening intently to this. “Philip, come on, man, they’ve been saying on the news that the big cities are the safest—”
“The news? Jesus Christ, Nick, blow the wax outta your head. The news is going down the tubes with the rest of the population. Look at this place. You think some government halfway house is gonna have these kinds of goodies, beds for everyone, enough food for weeks, twenty-year-old Scotch? Showers, hot water, washing machines?”
“We’re so close, though,” Bobby says after a moment’s thought.
Philip sighs. “Yeah, well … close is a relative term.”
“It’s twenty miles, tops.”
“Might as well be twenty thousand miles, all them wrecks on the interstate, 278 crawling with those things.”
“That ain’t gonna stop us,” Bobby says. His eyes light up. He snaps his fingers. “We’ll build a—whattya call it?—on the front end of the Chevy—a scoop—like in fucking Road Warrior—”
“Watch your language, Bobby,” Philip says, nodding at the little girl.
Nick speaks up. “Dude, we stay here, and it’s only a matter of time until those things out at the—” He stops himself, glancing at the child. Everybody knows what he’s talking about.
Penny studies her soggy cereal as though she’s not listening.
“These places are solid, Nicky,” Philip counters, setting down the bottle, crossing his muscular arms across his chest. Philip has been giving a lot of thought to the problem of those wandering hoards out on the golf course. The key would be keeping quiet, masking out the light at night, not sending up any signals, or smells, or undo commotion. “As long as we got power, and we keep our wits about us, we’re golden.”
“With one gun?” Nick says. “I mean, we can’t even use it without drawing their attention.”
“We’ll check out the other houses, look for weapons. These rich bastards are big on deer huntin’, maybe we can even find a silencer for the Ruger … hell, we can make one. You see that workshop downstairs?”
“C’mon, Philip. What are we, gunsmiths now? I mean … all we got to defend ourselves right now is a few—”
Brian’s voice startles everybody—the way it comes out on a hoarse, wheezing tone of certainty. He pushes his cereal away and looks up at his brother. “You’re right.”
Philip is probably the one who is the most taken aback by the conviction in Brian’s nasally voice.
Brian stands up, comes around the table, and stands in the doorway leading into the spacious, well-furnished living room. The lights are off in there, and all the shades are drawn. Brian points toward the front wall. “Basically, the front of the house is the problem. The sides and the back are pretty well protected by that tall fence. The dead don’t seem to be able to, like, penetrate barriers and stuff … and every house on this block has a fenced-in backyard.” For a moment, it looks as if Brian’s going to cough but he holds it in, puts his hand to his mouth for a moment. His hand is shaking. He goes on: “If we can, like, borrow materials from the other yards, other houses, maybe we can secure a wall across the front of the house, maybe across the neighbors’ houses, too.”
Bobby and Nick are looking at each other now, nobody reacting, until Philip finally says with a faint smile, “Leave it to the college boy.”
It’s been a while since the Blake boys have smiled at each other, but now Philip sees that at least his ne’er-do-well brother wants to be useful, wants to do something for the cause, wants to man up. And Brian seems to be absorbing confidence from Philip’s approval.
Nick is unconvinced. “For how long, though? I feel like a sitting duck in this place.”
“We don’t know what’s gonna happen,” Brian says, his voice raw and yet somehow manic. “We don’t know what caused this thing, how long it’s gonna last … they could, like, figure this thing out, come up with an antidote or something … they could drop chemicals from crop dusters, the CDC could contain it … you never know. I think Philip’s totally right. We should cool our jets here for a while.”
“Damn straight,” Philip Blake says with a grin, still sitting with his ropy arms crossed. He gives his brother a wink.
Brian returns the wink with a satisfied little nod, wiping a strand of hair as thick as straw from his eyes. He takes a shallow breath into wheezing lungs and then triumphantly walks over to the bottle of Scotch, which sits on the table next to Philip. Grabbing the bottle with a gusto that he hasn’t shown in years, Brian lifts it to his lips and takes a massive gulp with the victorious swagger of a Viking celebrating a successful hunt.
Instantly, he flinches, doubles over, and lets out a fusillade of coughs. Half the liquor in his mouth goes spraying across the kitchen, and he coughs and coughs and coughs and wheezes furiously, and for a moment, the others just stare. Little Penny is thunderstruck, gawking with her huge eyes, wiping droplets of liquor from her cheek.
Philip looks at his pathetic excuse for a brother and then looks at his buddies. Across the room, Bobby Marsh struggles to stifle a laugh. Nick tries to repress his own twitching grin. Philip tries to say something but can’t help but start laughing, and the laughter is contagious. The others start chortling.
Soon, everybody is laughing hysterically—even Brian—and for the first time since this whole nightmare kicked in, the laughter is genuine: a release of something dark and brittle lurking in all of them.
That night, they try to sleep in shifts. Each one of them gets their own room on the second floor—the remnants of former inhabitants like eerie artifacts in a museum: a bedside table with a half-full glass of water, a John Grisham novel open to a page that will never be finished, a pair of pompoms hanging off a teenage girl’s four-poster bed.
For most of the night, Philip sits watch downstairs, out in the living room, with his gun on a coffee table next to him and Penny tucked under blankets on a sectional sofa beside his chair. The child tries unsuccessfully to fall asleep, and around three in the morning, as Philip finds his mind casting back to those tormented thoughts of Sarah’s accident, he notices out of the corner of his eye that Penny is tossing and turning restlessly.
Philip leans over to her and strokes her dark hair and whispers, “Can’t sleep?”
The little girl has the covers pulled up to her chin, and she looks up at him. She shakes her head. Her ashen face is almost angelic in the orange light of a space heater, which Philip has rigged next to the couch. Outside, in the distant wind, barely audible over the soft drone of the heater, the dissonant chorus of groaning is relentless, like an infernal series of waves lapping a shore.
“Daddy’s here, punkin, don’t worry,” Philip says softly, touching her cheek. “I’ll always be here.”
Philip gives her a tender smile. He leans down and plants a kiss on her left eyebrow. “Ain’t gonna let nothin’ happen to you.”
She nods again. She has the little penguin lodged snugly in the nape of her neck. She looks at the stuffed animal and frowns. She moves the penguin to her ear, and she acts as though she’s listening to the animal whisper a secret. She looks up at her father. “Daddy?”
“Penguin wants to know somethin’.”
“Penguin wants to know if them people are sick.”
Philip takes a deep breath. “You tell Penguin … yeah, they’re sick all right. They’re more than sick. That’s why we’ve been … puttin’ them outta their misery.”
“Penguin wants to know if we’re gonna get sick, too.”
Philip strokes the girl’s cheek. “No, ma’am. You tell Penguin we’re gonna stay healthy as mules.”
This seems to satisfy the girl enough for her to look away and stare into the void some more.
By four o’clock that morning, another sleepless soul in another part of the house is asking imponderable questions of his own. Lying in a tangle of blankets, his skinny form clad only in T-shirt and briefs, his fever breaking in a film of sweat, Brian Blake stares at the stucco plaster of a dead teenage girl’s ceiling and wonders if this is how the world ends. Was it Rudyard Kipling who said it ends “not with a bang but a whimper.” No, wait a minute … it was Eliot. T. S. Eliot. Brian remembers studying the poem—was it ‘The Hollow Men’?—in his twentieth century comparative literature class at the U of G. A lot of good that degree had done him.
He lies there and broods about his failures—as he does every night—but tonight the ruminations are intercut with carnage, like frames of a snuff film inserted into his stream of consciousness.
The old demons stir, mingling with the fresh fears, wearing a groove into his thoughts: Was there something he could have done or said to keep his ex-wife, Jocelyn, from drifting away, from lawyering up like she did, from saying all those hurtful things before she went back to Montego Bay? And can you kill the monsters with a simple blow to the skull or do you have to destroy the brain tissue? Was there something Brian could have done or begged for or borrowed to keep his music shop open in Athens—the only one of its kind in the South, his brilliant fucking idea of a store that catered to hip-hop artists with refurbished turntables and used bass cabinets and gaudy microphones festooned with Snoop Dogg bling? How fast are the unlucky victims out there multiplying? Is it like an airborne plague, or is it passed in the water like Ebola?
The circular ruminations of his mind keep going back to more immediate matters: the nagging feeling that the seventh member of the family that once lived here is still somewhere in the house.
Now that Brian has closed the deal among his compatriots that they should indeed stay here indefinitely, he can’t stop worrying about it. He hears every creak, every faint ticking of the foundation settling, every hushed whirr of the furnace coming on. For some reason that he cannot explain, he is absolutely certain that the blond-haired kid is still here, in the house, waiting, biding his time for … what? Maybe the kid is the only one in the family who didn’t turn. Maybe he’s terrified and hiding.
Before turning in that night, Brian had insisted they check the nooks and crannies of the house one last time. Philip had accompanied him with a pickaxe and a flashlight, and they had checked every corner of the basement, every cabinet, every closet and storage locker. They looked inside the meat freezer in the cellar, and even checked the washer and dryer for unlikely stowaways. Nick and Bobby looked up in the attic, behind trunks, in boxes, in wardrobes. Philip looked under all the beds and behind all the dressers. Coming up empty, they still made some interesting discoveries along the way.
They found a dog’s food bowl in the basement, but no sign of the animal. They also found an array of very useful power tools in the workshop: jigsaws, drills, routers, and even a nail gun. The nail gun would be especially handy for building barricades since it is somewhat quieter than a pounding hammer.
In fact, Brian is thinking about other uses for that nail gun when, all at once, he hears a noise that instantly frosts his scantily clothed body in goose bumps.
The sound is coming from above him, on the other side of the ceiling.
It’s coming from the attic.
Upon hearing the noise—almost subconsciously identifying it as something other than the house settling, or the wind in the dormers, or the furnace rattling—Brian sits up on the edge of the bed.
He cocks his head and listens more carefully. It sounds like somebody scratching at something, or the faint sound of fabric tearing in fits and jerks. At first, Brian feels compelled to go get his brother. Philip would be the best one to deal with this. It could be the kid, for God’s sake … or something worse.
But then, almost as an afterthought, Brian stops himself. Is he going to puss out again … as usual? Is he going to run, like always, to his brother—his younger brother, for God’s sake—the same individual whose hand Brian had once held at the crosswalk every morning when the two of them were grade school kids at Burke County Elementary? No, goddamnit. Not this time. This time, Brian is going to grow a pair.
He takes a deep breath, turns, and searches for the flashlight he had left on the bedside table. He finds it and switches it on.
The narrow beam shoots across the dark bedroom, spreading a silver pool of light on the opposite wall. Just you and me, Justin, Brian thinks as he rises to his feet. His head is clear. His senses are crackling.
The truth is, Brian had felt incredibly good earlier that night when he had concurred with his brother’s plans, when he had seen the look in Philip’s eyes, like maybe Brian is not a hopeless loser after all. Now it’s time to show Philip that the moment in the kitchen was not a fluke. Brian can get the job done just as well as Philip.
He moves quietly toward the door.
Before leaving the room, he grabs the metal baseball bat that he found in one of the boys’ bedrooms.
The papery rustling noises can be heard more clearly in the hallway, as Brian pauses under the attic hatchway, which is a glorified trapdoor embedded in the ceiling above the second-floor landing. The other bedrooms along the hallway—filled with the deep snores of Bobby Marsh and Nick Parsons—are situated on the other side of the landing, on the east side of the house, out of earshot. That’s why Brian is the only one hearing this right now.
A leather strap hangs down, low enough for Brian to jump up and grasp. He pulls the spring-levered hatch open, and the accordionlike stairs unfold with a pinging noise. Brian shines the flashlight up into the dark passage. Dust motes drift in the beam. The darkness is impenetrable, opaque. Brian’s heart chugs.
You fucking pussy, he thinks to himself. Get your pussy ass up there.
He climbs the steps with the baseball bat under one arm, the flashlight in his free hand, and he pauses when he reaches the top of the ladder. He shines the light on a huge steamer trunk with Magnolia Springs State Park stickers on it.
Now Brian smells the cold putrid odors of must and mothballs. The autumn chill has already seeped into the attic through the seams of the roof. The air is cool on his face. And after a moment, he hears the rustling again.
It’s coming from a deeper place in the shadows of the attic. Brian’s throat is as dry as bone meal as he climbs to his feet on the threshold. The ceiling is low enough to force him to hunch. Shivering in his underwear, Brian wants to cough but doesn’t dare.
The scratching noises stop, and then start again, vigorous and angry sounding.
Brian raises the bat. He gets very still. He’s learning the mechanics of fear all over again: When you’re really, really scared, you don’t shake like in the movies. You grow still, like an animal bristling.
It’s only afterward you start shaking.
The beam of the flashlight slowly scans across the dark niches of the attic, the detritus of the well-to-do: an exercise bike laced with cobwebs, a rowing machine, more trunks, barbells, tricycles, wardrobe boxes, water skis, a pinball machine furry with dust. The scratching noises cease again.
The light reveals a coffin.
Brian practically turns to stone.
Philip is already halfway up the staircase when he notices, up on the second-floor landing, the attic stepladder hanging down, unfolded.
He pads up to the landing in his stocking feet. He carries an axe in one hand and a flashlight in the other. The .22 pistol is shoved down the back of his jeans. He is shirtless, his ropy musculature shimmering in moonbeams filtering down through a skylight.
It takes him mere seconds to cross the landing and scale the accordion steps, and when he emerges into the darkness of the attic, he sees the silhouette of a figure across the narrow space.
Before Philip even has a chance to shine his flashlight on his brother, the situation becomes clear.
“It’s a tanning bed,” the voice says, making Brian jump. For the past few seconds, Brian Blake has been paralyzed with terror, standing ten feet away from the dusty, oblong enclosure shoved up against one wall of the attic. The top of the thing is latched shut like a giant clamshell, and something scratches to get out of it.
Brian jerks around and finds in the beam of his flashlight his brother’s gaunt, sullen face. Philip stands on the threshold of the attic with the axe in his right hand. “Move away from it, Brian.”
“You think it’s—”
“The missing kid?” Philip whispers, cautiously moving toward the object. “Let’s find out.”
The scratching noise, as if stimulated by the sound of voices, surges and rises.
Brian turns toward the tanning bed, braces himself, and raises the baseball bat. “He might have been hiding up here when he turned.”
Philip approaches with the axe. “Get outta the way, sport.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Brian says bitterly, moving toward the latch, his baseball bat poised.
Philip gently steps in between his brother and the tanning bed. “You don’t have to prove nothing to me, man. Just move outta the way.”
“No, goddamnit, I got this,” Brian hisses, reaching for the dusty latch.
Philip studies his brother. “Okay, whatever. Go for it, but do it quick. Whatever it is—don’t think about it too much.”
“I know,” Brian says, grasping the latch with his free hand.
Philip stands inches behind his brother.
Brian unlatches the enclosure.
The scuttling noises cease.
Philip raises the axe as Brian throws open the lid.
Two quick movements—a pair of blurs in the darkness—shoot across Philip’s sight line: a rustling of fur and the arc of Brian’s bat.
It takes a second or two for the animal to register in Philip’s heightened senses—the mouse darting out of the glare of the flashlight and scurrying across the fiberglass trough toward a hole gnawed in one corner.
The baseball bat comes down hard, missing the fat, oily-gray rodent by a mile.
Pieces of the bed’s switch panel and old toys shatter at the impact. Brian lets out a gasp and recoils at the sight of the mouse vanishing down the hole, slithering back into the inner workings of the bed’s base.
Philip lets out a sigh of relief and lowers the axe. He starts to say something when he hears a little metallic tune playing in the shadows next to him. Brian looks down, breathing hard.
A little jack-in-the-box, thrown by the impact of the bat, lies on the floor.
Triggered by the fall, the tinny music plays a few more notes of a circus lullaby.
Then the toy clown pops out—sideways—from the fallen metal container.
“Boo,” Philip says wearily, with very little humor in his voice.
Their moods improve slightly the next morning after a huge breakfast of scrambled eggs and slab bacon and grits and ham and griddlecakes and fresh peaches and sweet tea. The fragrant mélange fills with entire house with the welcoming odors of coffee and cinnamon and smoked meats sizzling. Nick even makes his special redeye gravy for the group, which sends Bobby into ecstasy.
Brian finds cold remedies in the master bedroom medicine cabinet and starts feeling a little better after he downs a few DayQuil capsules.
After breakfast, they explore the immediate vicinity—the single square block known as Green Briar Lane—and they get more good news. They find a treasure trove of supplies and building materials: woodpiles for fireplaces, extra planking under decks, more food in the neighbors’ refrigerators, cans of gas in the garages, winter coats and boots, boxes of nails, liquor, blowtorches, bottled water, a shortwave radio, a laptop, a generator, stacks of DVDs, and a gun rack in one of the basements with several hunting rifles and boxes of shells.
No silencer; but beggars can’t be choosers.
They also get lucky in the undead department. The houses on either side of the Colonial are empty; their residents evidently got the hell out of Dodge before the shit had gone too far down. Two houses away from the Colonial, on the west side, Philip and Nick encounter an elderly couple who have turned, but the oldsters are easily, quickly, and most importantly, quietly dispatched with some well-placed hatchet blows.
That afternoon, Philip and company cautiously begin work on the barricade across the front parkway of the Colonial and its two neighbors—a total span of a hundred and fifty feet for the three lots, and sixty down either side—which sounds to Nick and Bobby like a daunting amount of territory to cover, but with the ten-foot-long prefab sections they find under a neighbor’s deck, combined with fencing cannibalized off the place across the street, the work goes surprisingly fast.
By dusk that evening, Philip and Nick are connecting the last sections on the northern edge of the property line.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on ’em all day,” Philip is saying, pressing the forked tip of the nail gun against the bracing of a corner section. He’s referring to the swarms out near the golf club. Nick nods as he butts the two support beams against each other.
Philip pulls the trigger, and the nail gun makes a muffled snapping noise—like the crack of a metal whip—sending a six-inch galvanized nail into the boards. The nail gun is baffled with a small piece of packing blanket, secured with duct tape, to dampen the noise.
“I ain’t seen a single one of them wander closer,” Philip says, wiping the sweat from his brow, moving to the next section of support beams. Nick holds the boards steady, and the tip presses down.
“I don’t know,” Nick says skeptically, moving to the next section, the sweat making his satin roadie jacket cling to his back. “I still say it’s not if … but when.”
“You worry too much, son,” Philip says, moving to the next section of planking, tugging on the gun’s cord. The extension cable snakes off toward an outlet on the corner of the neighbor’s house. Philip had to connect a grand total of six twenty-eight-foot cords to get the thing to reach. He pauses and glances over his shoulder.
About fifty yards away, in the backyard of the Colonial, Brian pushes Penny in a swing. It’s taken a little getting used to for Philip, putting his hapless brother in charge of his precious little girl, but right now Brian is the best nanny he’s got.
The play set—of course—is deluxe. Rich folks love to spoil their kids with shit like this. This one—more than likely a haunt of the missing kid—has got all the bells and whistles: slide, clubhouse, four swings, climbing wall, jungle gym, and sandbox.
“We got it made here,” Philip goes on, turning back to his work. “Long as we keep our heads screwed on straight, we’re gonna be fine.”
As they position the next section, the rustling sounds of their movements and the creak of the planks mask the telltale noise of shuffling footsteps.
The footsteps are coming from across the street. Philip doesn’t hear them until the errant zombie is close enough for its odor to register.
Nick is the first one to smell it: that black, oily, mildewy combination of rotting protein and decay—like human waste cooking in bacon grease. It immediately puts Nick’s guard up. “Wait a minute,” he says, holding a section of planking. “You smell—”
“Yeah, smells like—”
A fish-belly arm bursts through a gap in the fencing, grabbing a hank of Philip’s denim shirt.
The assailant was once a middle-aged woman in a designer running suit, now an emaciated wraith with torn sleeves, blackened, exposed teeth, and the button eyes of a prehistoric fish, her hooked hand clutching Philip’s shirttail with the vise grip of frozen dead fingers. She lets out a low groan like a broken pipe organ as Philip spins toward his axe, which lies canted against a wheelbarrow twenty feet away.
Too damn far.
The dead lady goes for Philip’s neck with the autonomic hunger of a giant snapping turtle, and across the yard, Nick fumbles for a weapon, but it’s all happening too fast. Philip rears backward with a grunt, just now realizing that he still holds the nail gun. He dodges the snapping teeth, and then instinctively raises the muzzle of the nail gun.
In one quick movement, he touches the tip to the thing’s brow.
The lady zombie stiffens.
Icy fingers release their grip on Philip.
He pulls himself free, huffing and puffing, gaping at the thing.
The vertical cadaver teeters for a moment, wobbling as if drunk, shuddering in its soiled velveteen Pierre Cardin warm-up, but it will not go down. The head of the six-inch galvanized nail is visible above the ridge of the lady’s nose like a tiny coin stuck there.
The thing remains upright for endless moments, its sharklike eyes turned upward, until it begins to slowly stagger backward across the parkway, its ruined face taking on a strange, almost dreamy expression.
For a moment, it looks as though the thing is remembering something, or hearing some high-pitched whistle. Then it collapses in the grass.
“I think the nail does just enough damage to take ’em out,” Philip is saying after dinner, pacing back and forth across the shuttered windows of the lavish dining room, the nail gun in his hand like a visual aid.
The others are sitting at the long burnished oak table, the remnants of dinner lying strewn in front of them. Brian cooked for the group that night, defrosting a roast in the microwave and making gravy with a vintage cabernet and a splash of cream. Penny is in the adjacent family room watching a DVD of Dora the Explorer.
“Yeah, but did you see the way that thing went down?” Nick points out, pushing an uneaten gob of meat across his plate. “After you zapped it … looked like the damn thing was stoned for a second.”
Philip keeps pacing, clicking the trigger of the nail gun and thinking. “Yeah but it did go down.”
“It’s quieter than a gun, I’ll give you that.”
“And it’s a hell of a lot easier than splitting their skulls open with an axe.”
Bobby has just started in on his second helping of pot roast and gravy. “Too bad you don’t have a six-mile extension cord,” he says with his mouth full.
Philip clicks the trigger a few more times. “Maybe we could hook this puppy up to a battery.”
Nick looks up. “Like a car battery?”
“No, like something you could carry more easily, something like one of them big lantern batteries or something outta one of them electric mowers.”
Philip paces and thinks.
Brian stares at the wall, mumbling, “Something to do with their brains.”
“Say what?” Philip looks at his brother. “What was that, Bri?”
Brian looks at him. “Those things … the sickness. It’s basically in the brain, right? It’s gotta be.” He pauses. He looks at his plate. “I still say we don’t even know they’re dead.”
Nick looks at Brian. “You mean after we take ’em out? After we … destroy ’em?”
“No, I mean before,” Brian says. “I mean, like, the condition they’re in.”
Philip stops pacing. “Shit, man … on Monday, I saw one of ’em get squashed by an eighteen-wheeler and ten minutes later, it’s dragging itself along the street with its guts hanging out. They’ve been saying it on all the news reports. They’re dead, sport. They’re way dead.”
“I’m just saying, the central nervous system, man, it’s complicated. All the shit in the environment right now, new strains of shit.”
“Hey, you want to take one of them things to a doctor for a checkup, be my guest.”
Brian sighs. “All I’m saying is, we don’t know enough yet. We don’t know shit.”
“We know all we need to know,” Philip says, giving his brother a look. “We know there’s more of them fucking things every day, and all they seem to want to do is have us for lunch. Which is why we’re gonna hang here for a while, let things play out a little.”
Brian breathes out a painful, weary sigh. The others are silent.
In the lull, they can hear the faint noises that they’ve been hearing all night, coming from the darkness outside: the muffled, intermittent thudding of insensate figures bumping up against the makeshift barricade.
Despite Philip’s efforts to erect the rampart quickly and quietly, the commotion of the day’s construction project has drawn more of the walking corpses.
“How long do you think we’re gonna be able to stay here?” Brian asks softly.
Philip sits down, lays the nail gun on the table and takes another sip of his bourbon. He nods toward the family room, where the whimsical voices of children’s programming drift incongruously. “She needs a break,” Philip says. “She’s exhausted.”
“She loves that play set out back,” Brian says with a weak smile.
Philip nods. “She can live a normal life here for a while.”
Everybody looks at him. Everybody silently chews on the concept.
“Here’s to all the rich motherfuckers of the world,” Philip says, raising his glass.
The others toast without really knowing just exactly what they’re toasting … or how long it will last.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga