THE WALKING DEAD: ROAD TO WOODBURY EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT
The next day, under a pewter- colored sky, Lilly is playing with the Bingham girls in front of Chad and Donna Bingham’s tent, when a grinding noise echoes over the trees along the adjacent dirt access road. The sound stiffens half the settlers in the area, faces snapping toward the noise of an approaching engine, which is groaning through its low gears.
It could be anyone. Word has spread across the plagued land of thugs pillaging the living, bands of heavily armed rovers stripping survivors of everything including the shoes on their feet. Several of the settlers’ vehicles are currently out on scavenging reconnaissance
but you never know.
Lilly looks up from the girls’ hopscotch court— the squares have been etched in a little bare patch of brick- red clay with a stick— and the Bingham girls all freeze in mid- skip. The oldest girl, Sarah, shoots a glance at the road. A skinny tomboy in a faded denim jumper and down vest with big inquisitive blue eyes, fi fteen- year- old Sarah, the whip- smart ringleader of the four sisters, softly utters, “Is that—”
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Lilly says. “Pretty sure it’s one of ours.”
The three younger sisters start craning their necks, looking for their mom. Donna Bingham is presently out of view, washing clothes in a galvanized tin drum out behind the family’s large camping tent,
which Chad Bingham lovingly erected four days ago, equipping it with aluminum cots, racks of coolers, vent stacks, and a battery operated DVD player with a library of children’s fare such as The Little Mermaid and Toy Story 2. The sound of Donna Bingham’s shuffling footsteps can be heard coming around the tent as Lilly gathersup the children. “Sarah, get Ruthie,” Lilly says calmly yet firmly as the engine noises close the distance, the vapor of burning oil rising above the tree line. Lilly rises to her feet and quickly moves over to the twins. Nine- year- old Mary and Lydia are identical cherubs in matching peacoats and fl axen pigtails. Lilly herds the little ones toward the tent flap while Sarah scoops up the seven- year- old Ruthie— an adorable little elf with Shirley Temple curls hanging over the collar of her miniature ski jacket. Donna Bingham appears around the side of the tent just as Lilly is ushering the twins into the enclosure. “What’s going on?” The mousy woman in the canvas jacket looks as though a stiff wind might blow her over. “Who is it? Is it rovers? Is it a stranger?” “Nothing to worry about,” Lilly tells her, holding the tent flap open as the four girls fi le into the shadows. In the five days since the contingent of settlers arrived here, Lilly has become the de facto babysitter, watching over various groups of offspring while parents go out scavenging or go on walks or just grab some alone time. She’s
happy for the welcome distraction, especially now that the babysitting can provide an excuse to avoid all contact with Josh Lee Hamilton. “Just stay in the tent with the girls until we know who it is.” Donna Bingham gladly shuts herself inside the enclosure with her daughters.
Lilly whirls toward the road and sees the grill of a familiar fifteen- forward- speed International Harvester truck materializing in a haze of wood smoke at the far end of the road— coming around the bend in gasps of exhaust— sending a wave of relief through Lilly. She smiles in spite of her nerves and starts toward the bare
ground on the west edge of the fi eld, which serves as a loading area. The rust- bucket truck clatters across the grass and shudders to a stop, the three teenagers riding in the back with the roped- down crates nearly tumbling forward against the pockmarked cab. “Lilly Marlene!” the driver calls out the open cab window as Lilly comes around the front of the truck. Bob Stookey has big greasy hands— the hands of a laborer— wrapped around the wheel.
“What’s on the menu today, Bob?” Lilly says with a wan smile.
“Oh, we got a full gourmet spread with all the trimmings today, little sis.” Bob cocks his deeply lined face toward the crew in back.
“Found a deserted Target, only a couple of walkers to deal with . . .
made out like bandits.”
“Let’s see . . .” Bob jerks the shift lever into park and kills the rumbling engine. His skin the color of tanned cowhide, his droopy eyes rimmed red, Bob Stookey is one of the last men in the New South still using pomade to grease his dark hair back over his weathered head. “Got lumber, sleeping bags, tools, canned fruit, lanterns,
cereal, weather radios, shovels, charcoal— what else? Also got a bunch of pots and pans, some tomato plants— still with a few warty little tomaters on the vines— some tanks of butane, ten gallons of
milk that expired only a couple of weeks ago, some hand sanitizer, Sterno, laundry soap, candy bars, toilet paper, a Chia Pet, a book on organic farming, a singing fi sh for my tent, and a partridge in a
pear tree.” “Bob, Bob, Bob . . . no AK- 47s? No dynamite?”
“Got something better than that, smarty pants.” Bob reaches over to a peach crate sitting on the passenger seat next to him. He hands it through the window to Lilly. “Be a darlin’ and put this in my tent
while I help these three stooges in back with the heavy stuff.”
“What is it?” Lilly looks down at the crate full of plastic vials and
“Medical supplies.” Bob opens his door and climbs out. “Need to
keep ’em safe.”
Lilly notices half a dozen pint bottles of liquor wedged in between the antihistamines and codeine. She gazes up at Bob and gives him a look. “Medical supplies?”
He grins. “I’m a very sick man.”
“I’ll say,” Lilly comments. She knows enough about Bob’s background by now to know that aside from being a sweet, genial, somewhat lost soul, as well as being a former army medic— which makes him the only inhabitant of the tent city with any medical training— he is also an inveterate drunk.
In the early stages of their friendship, back when Lilly and Megan were still on the road, and Bob had helped them out of a jam at a rest stop crawling with zombies, Bob had made feckless attempts
to hide his alcoholism. But by the time the group had settled here in this deserted pastureland fi ve days ago, Lilly had begun regularly helping Bob stagger safely back to his tent at night, making sure nobody robbed him— which was a real threat in a group this large and varied and fi lled with so much tension. She liked Bob,
and she didn’t mind babysitting him as well as the little ones. But it also added an additional layer of stress that Lilly needed as much as she needed a high colonic. Right now, in fact, she can tell he needs something else from her. She can tell by the way he’s wiping his mouth thoughtfully with his dirty hand.
“Lilly, there’s something else I wanted to—” He stops and swallows awkwardly.
She lets out a sigh. “Spit it out, Bob.”
“It’s none of my business . . . all right. I just wanted to say . . . aw, hell.” He takes a deep breath. “Josh Lee, he’s a good man. I visit with him now and again.”
“Yeah . . . and?”
“And I’m just saying.”
“I’m just . . . look . . . he ain’t doing too good right about now, all
right? He thinks you’re sore at him.”
“He thinks I’m what?”
“He thinks you’re mad at him for some reason, and he ain’t sure why.”
“What did he say?”
Bob gives her a shrug. “It’s none of my beeswax. I ain’t exactly privy
to . . . I don’t know, Lilly. He just wishes you wasn’t ignoring him.”
Bob looks at her. “You sure?”
“Bob, I’m telling you—”
“All right, look.” Bob waves his hand ner vously. “I ain’t telling
you what to do. I just think two people like y’all, good folks, it’s a
shame something like this, you know, in these times . . .” His voice
Lilly softens. “I appreciate what you’re saying, Bob, I do.”
She looks down.
Bob purses his lips, thinks it over. “I saw him earlier today, over by the log pile, chopping wood like it was going outta style.”
The distance between the loading area and the stack of cordwood
mea sures less than a hundred yards, but crossing it feels like the
Bataan Death March to Lilly.
She walks slowly, with her head down, and her hands thrust in
the pockets of her jeans to conceal the trembling. She has to weave
through a group of women sorting clothes in suitcases, circle around
the end of the circus tent, sidestep a group of boys repairing a broken
skateboard, and give wide berth to a cluster of men inspecting a row
of weapons spread out on a blanket on the ground.
As she passes the men— Chad Bingham included in their number,
holding court like a redneck despot— Lilly glances down at
the tarnished pistols, eleven of them, different calibers, makes,
and models, neatly arrayed like silverware in a drawer. The pair of
12- gauge shotguns from Kmart lie nearby. Only eleven pistols and
the shotguns, and a limited number of rounds— the sum total of the
settlers’ armory— now standing as a thin tissue of defense between
the campers and calamity.
Lilly’s neck crawls with goosefl esh as she passes, the fear burning
a hole in her guts. The trembling increases. She feels as though
she’s running a fever. The shaking has always been an issue for
Lilly Caul. She remembers the time she had to deliver a pre sen tation
to the admission committee at Georgia Tech. She had her notes
on index cards and had rehearsed for weeks. But when she got up in
front of those tenured professors in that stuffy meeting room on
North Avenue, she shook so much she dropped the stack of cards all
over the fl oor and completely choked.
She feels that same kind of ner vous tension right now— amplifi ed
by a factor of a thousand— as she approaches the split- rail fence
along the western edge of the property. She feels the trembling in
her facial features, and in her hands inside her pockets, so intense
now it feels like the tremors are about to seize up her joints and
freeze her in place. “Chronic anxiety disorder,” the doctor back in
Marietta called it.
In recent weeks, she has experienced this kind of spontaneous
palsy in the immediate aftermath of a walker attack— a spell of shuddering
that lasts for hours afterward— but now she feels a deeper
sense of dread fl ooding through her that comes from some inchoate,
primal place. She is turning inward, facing her own wounded soul,
twisted by grief and the loss of her father.
She jumps at the crack of an axe striking timber, her attention
yanked toward the fence.
A group of men stand in a cluster around a long row of dry logs.
Dead leaves and cottonwood swirl on the wind above the tree line.
The air smells of wet earth and matted pine needles. Shadows dance
behind the foliage, tweaking Lilly’s fear like a tuning fork in her
brain. She remembers nearly getting bitten back in Macon three
weeks ago when a zombie lurched out at her from behind a garbage
Dumpster. To Lilly, right now, those shadows behind the trees look
just like the passageway behind that Dumpster, rotten with menace
and the smell of decay and horrible miracles— the dead coming back
Another axe blow makes her start, and she turns toward the far
end of the woodpile.
Josh stands with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his back to her. An
oblong sweat stain runs down his chambray shirt between his
massive shoulder blades. His muscles rippling, the skin folds in his
brown nape pulsing, he works with a steady rhythm, swinging,
striking, yanking back, bracing, swinging again with a thwack!
Lilly walks up to him and clears her throat. “You’re doing it all
wrong,” she says in a shaky voice, trying to keep things light and
Josh freezes with axe blade in midair. He turns and looks at her,
his sculpted ebony face pearled with sweat. For a moment, he looks
shell- shocked, his twinkling eyes belying his surprise. “You know, I
fi gured somethin’ wasn’t working right,” he says fi nally. “I’ve only
been able to split about a hundred logs in fi fteen minutes.”
“You’re choked down way too low on the handle.”
Josh grins. “I knew it was somethin’ like that.”
“You have to let the logs do the work for ya.”
“You want me to demonstrate?”
Josh steps aside, hands her the axe.
“Like this,” Lilly says, trying her best to appear charming and
witty and brave. Her trembling is so bad the axe head quivers as she
makes a feeble attempt to split a log. She swings and the blade sideswipes
the wood, then sticks into the ground. She struggles to pull
“Now I get it,” Josh says with an amused nod. He notices her
shaking, and his grin fades. He moves next to her. He puts his huge
hand over hers, which is white- knuckling the axe handle as she
struggles to pull it out of the clay. His touch is tender and soothing.
“Everything’s gonna be okay, Lilly,” he says softly.
She lets go of the axe and turns to face him. Her heart races as she
looks into his eyes. Her fl esh goes cold, and she tries to put her feelings
into words, but all she can do is look away in shame. Finally
she manages to fi nd her voice. “Is there someplace we can go and
“How do you do it?”
Lilly sits with her legs crossed Indian- style, on the ground under
the massive branches of a live oak, which dapple the carpet of matted
leaves around her with a skein of shadows. She reclines against
the gigantic tree trunk as she speaks. Her eyes remain fi xed on the
swaying treetops in the middle distance.
She has a faraway look that Josh Lee Hamilton has seen now and
again on the faces of war veterans and emergency room nurses— the
gaze of perpetual exhaustion, the haggard look of the shell- shocked,
the thousand- yard stare. Josh feels the urge to take her delicate, slender
body into his arms and hold her and stroke her hair and make
everything all better. But he senses somehow— he knows— now is
not the time. Now is the time to listen.
“Do what?” he asks her. Josh sits across from her, also crosslegged,
wiping the back of his neck with a damp bandanna. A box
of cigars sits on the ground in front of him— the last of his dwindling
supply. He is almost hesitant to go through the last of
them— a superstitious twinge that he’ll be sealing his fate.
Lilly looks up at him. “When the walkers attack . . . how do you
deal with it without being . . . scared shitless?”
Josh lets out a weary chuckle. “If you fi gure that out, you’re gonna
have to teach me.”
She stares at him for a moment. “Come on.”
“You’re telling me you’re scared shitless when they attack?”
“Oh, please.” She tilts her head incredulously. “You?”
“Let me tell you something, Lilly.” Josh picks up the package of
cigars, shakes one loose, and sparks it with his Zippo. He takes
a thoughtful puff. “Only the stupid or the crazy ain’t scared these
days. You ain’t scared, you ain’t paying attention.”
She looks out beyond the rows of tents lined along the split- rail
fence. She lets out a pained sigh. Her narrow face is drawn, ashen.
She looks as though she’s trying to articulate thoughts that just
stubbornly refuse to cooperate with her vocabulary. At last she says,
“I’ve been dealing with this for a while. I’m not . . . proud of it. I
think it’s messed up a lot of things for me.”
Josh looks at her. “What has?”
“The wimp factor.”
“No. Listen. I need to say this.” She refuses to look at him, her
eyes burning with shame. “Before this . . . outbreak happened . . . it
was just sort of . . . incon ve nient. I missed out on a few things. I
screwed some things up because I’m a chickenshit . . . but now the
stakes are . . . I don’t know. I could get somebody killed.” She
fi nally manages to look up into the big man’s eyes. “I could totally
ruin things for somebody I care about.”
Josh knows what she’s talking about, and it puts the squeeze on
his heart. From the moment he laid eyes on Lilly Caul he had felt feelings
that he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager back in Greenville—
that kind of rapturous fascination a boy can fi x upon the curve of a
girl’s neck, the smell of her hair, the spray of freckles along the
bridge of her nose. Yes, indeed, Josh Lee Hamilton is smitten. But he
is not going to screw this relationship up, as he had screwed up so
many before Lilly, before the plague, before the world had gotten so
Back in Greenville, Josh developed crushes on girls with embarrassing
frequency, but he always seemed to muck things up by rushing
it. He would behave like a big old puppy licking at their heels.
Not this time. This time, Josh was going to play it smart . . . smart
and cautious and one step at a time. He may be a big old dumb- ass
hick from South Carolina but he’s not stupid. He’s willing to learn
from his past mistakes.
A natural loner, Josh grew up in the 1970s, when South Carolina
was still clinging to the ghostly days of Jim Crow, still making futile
attempts to integrate their schools and join the twentieth century.
Shuffl ed from one ramshackle housing project to another with his
single mom and four sisters, Josh put his God- given size and strength
to good use on the gridiron, playing varsity ball for Mallard Creek
High School with visions of scholarships in his eyes. But he lacked
the one thing that sent players up the academic and socioeconomic
ladders: raw aggression.
Josh Lee Hamilton had always been a gentle soul . . . to a fault.
He let far weaker boys pick on him. He deferred to all adults with a
“yessim” or “yessir.” He simply had no fi ght in him. All of which is
why his football career eventually petered out in the mid- eighties.
That was right around the time his mother, Raylene, got sick. The
doctors said it was called “lupus erythematosus,” and it wasn’t terminal,
but for Raylene it was a death sentence, a life of chronic pain
and skin lesions and near paralysis. Josh took it upon himself to be
his mom’s caretaker (while his sisters drifted away to bad marriages
and dead- end jobs out of state). Josh cooked and cleaned and took
good care of his mama, and within a few years he got good enough
at cooking to actually get a job in a restaurant.
He had a natural fl air for the culinary, especially cooking meat,
and he moved up the ranks at steak house kitchens across South
Carolina and Georgia. By the 2000s, he had become one of the most
sought- after executive chefs in the Southeast, supervising large
teams of sous- chefs, catering upscale social events, and getting his
picture in Atlanta Homes and Lifestyles. And all the while he managed
to run his kitchens with kindness— a rarity in the restaurant
Now, amid these daily horrors, beset with all this unrequited
love, Josh longed to cook something special for Lilly.
Up until now, they had subsisted on things like canned peas and
Spam and dry cereal and powdered milk— none of which would
provide the proper backdrop for a romantic dinner or a declaration
of love. All the meat and fresh produce in the area had gone the way
of the maggots weeks ago. But Josh had designs on a rabbit, or a
wild boar that might be roaming the neighboring woods. He would
make a ragout, or a nice braise with wild onions and rosemary and
some of that Pinot Noir that Bob Stookey had scavenged from that
derelict liquor store, and Josh would serve the meat with some herbed
polenta, and he would add extra special touches. Some of the
ladies in the tent city had been making candles from the suet they
found in a bird feeder. That would be nice. Candles, wine, maybe a
poached pear from the orchard for dessert, and Josh would be ready.
The orchards were still lousy with overripe fruit. Maybe an apple
chutney with the pork. Yes. Absolutely. Then Josh would be ready to
serve Lilly dinner and tell her how he feels about her, how he wants
to be with her and protect her and be her man.
“I know where you’re going with this, Lilly,” Josh fi nally says to
her, tamping his cigar’s ash on a stone. “And I want you to know two
things. Number one, there’s no shame in what you did.”
She looks down. “You mean running away like a whipped dog
when you were under attack?”
“Listen to me. If the shoe was on the other foot, I would’ve done
the same damn thing.”
“That’s bullshit, Josh, I didn’t even—”
“Let me fi nish.” He snubs out the cigar. “Number two, I wanted
you to run. You didn’t hear me. I hollered for you to get the Sam
Hell outta there. Makes no sense— only one of them hammers
within grasp, both of us trying to mix it up with them things. You
understand what I’m saying? You don’t need to feel any shame for
what you done.”
Lilly takes a breath. She keeps looking down. A tear forms and
rolls down the bridge of her nose. “Josh, I appreciate what you’re
“We’re a team, right?” He leans down so he can see her beautiful
“The dynamic duo, right?”
Another nod. “Right.”
“A well- oiled machine.”
“Yeah.” She wipes her face with the back of her hand. “Yeah, okay.”
“So let’s keep it that way.” He throws her his damp bandanna.
She looks at the do- rag in her lap, picks it up, looks at him and
manages a grin. “Jesus Christ, Josh, this thing is totally gross.”
Three days pass in the tent city without an attack of any note. Only
a few minor incidents sully the calm. One morning, a group of kids
stumble upon a quivering torso in a culvert ditch along the road. Its
gray, wormy face cocked toward the treetops in perpetual, groaning
agony, the thing looks as though it recently tangled with a
mechanical reaper, and has ragged stumps where its arms and legs
once were. Nobody can fi gure out how the limbless thing got there.
Chad puts the creature down with a single hatchet blow through its
rotting nasal bone. On another occasion, out by the communal toilets,
an el der ly camper realizes, with heart- skipping dismay, that
during his afternoon bowel movement, he is unwittingly shitting
on a zombie. Somehow the roamer got itself stuck down in the sewage
trough. The thing is easily dispatched by one of the younger
men with a single thrust of a post- hole digger.
These prove to be isolated encounters, though, and the middle of
the week progresses uneventfully.
The respite gives the inhabitants time to or ga nize, fi nish erecting
the last of their shelters, stow supplies, explore the immediate area,
settle into a routine, and form co ali tions and cliques and hierarchies.
The families— ten of them in all— seem to carry more weight
in the decision- making pro cess than do single people. Something
about the gravitas of having more at risk, the imperative of protecting
children, maybe even the symbolism of carry ing the ge ne tic
seeds of the future— all of it adding up to a kind of unspoken seniority.
Among the patriarchs of the families, Chad Bingham emerges
as the de facto leader. Each morning, he leads the communal powwows
inside the circus tent, assigning duties with the casual authority
of a Mafi a capo. Each day, he struts along the edges of the
camp with his snuff defi antly bulging under his cheek, his pistol in
full view. With winter in the offi ng, and troubling noises behind the
trees at night, Lilly worries about this ersatz fi gurehead. Chad has
been keeping his eye on Megan, who has been shacking up with
one of the other fathers, in plain view of everybody including the
man’s pregnant wife. Lilly worries that the whole semblance of order
here rests on top of a tinderbox.
Lilly’s tent and Josh’s tent sit a mere ten yards away from each
other. Each morning, Lilly awakens and sits facing the zippered end
of her tent, gazing out at Josh’s tent, drinking her instant Sanka and
trying to sort out her feelings for the big man. Her cowardly act still
gnaws at her, haunts her, festers in her dreams. She has nightmares
of the bloody folding door on that rogue bus back in Atlanta, but
now, instead of her father being devoured, sliding down that
smeared glass, Lilly sees Josh.
His accusing eyes always wake her up with a start, the cold sweat
soaked through her nightclothes.
On these dream- racked nights, lying sleepless in her moldy sleeping
bag, staring at the mildewed roof of her tiny tent— she acquired
the used pup tent on a raid of a deserted KOA camp, and it reeks of
smoke, dried semen, and stale beer— she inevitably hears the noises.
Faint, off in the distant darkness beyond the rise, behind the trees,
the sounds mingle with the wind and crickets and rustling foliage:
unnatural snapping noises, jerky shuffl ing sounds, which remind
Lilly of old shoes tumbling and banging inside a dryer.
In her mind’s eye, mutated by terror, the distant noises conjure
images of terrible black- and- white forensic photos, mutilated bodies
blackened by rigor mortis and yet still moving, dead faces turning
and leering at her, silent snuff fi lms of dancing cadavers jitterbugging
like frogs on a hot skillet. Lying wide awake each night, Lilly
ruminates about what the noises might actually mean, what is going
on out there, and when the next attack will come.
Some of the more thoughtful campers have been developing theories.
One young man from Athens named Harlan Steagal, a nerdy
grad student with thick horn- rims, begins holding nightly philosophy
salons around the campfi re. Jacked up on pseudoephedrine,
instant coffee, and bad weed, the half a dozen or so social misfi ts
grope for answers to the imponderable questions tormenting everybody:
the origins of the plague, the future of mankind, and perhaps
the timeliest issue of them all, the walkers’ patterns of behavior.
The consensus among the think tank is that there are only two
possibilities: (a) zombies have no instinct, purpose, or behavioral
pattern other than involuntary feeding. They are merely sputtering
nerve endings with teeth, bouncing off each other like deadly machines
that simply need to be “turned off.” Or (b) there is a complex
pattern of behavior going on here that no survivor has fi gured out
yet. The latter begs the question of how the plague is transmitted
from the dead to the living— is it only through the bite of a walker?— as
well as questions of horde behavior, and of possible Pavlovian
learning curves, and even larger- scale ge ne tic imperatives.
In other words— to put it in the patois of Harlan Steagal: “Are the
dead things like playing out some weird, fucked- up, trippy evolutionary
Lilly overhears much of this rambling discourse over those three
days and pays it little heed. She has no time for conjecture or analysis.
The longer the tent city goes on without being assailed by the
dead, the more Lilly feels vulnerable, despite the safety precautions.
With most of the tents now erected and a barricade of vehicles parked
around the periphery of the clearing, things have quieted down.
People are settled in, keeping to themselves, and the few campfi res or
cooking stoves that are employed for meals are quickly extinguished
for fear of errant smoke or odors attracting unwanted intruders.
Still, Lilly becomes exceedingly ner vous each night. It feels as
though a cold front is moving in. The night sky gets crystalline and
cloudless, a new frost forming each morning on the matted ground
and fencing and tent canvases. The gathering cold refl ects Lilly’s
dark intuition. Something terrible seems imminent.
One night, before turning in, Lilly Caul pulls a small leatherbound
paper calendar from her backpack. In the weeks since the
advent of the plague, most personal devices have failed. The electrical
grid has gone down, fancy batteries have run their course,
ser vice providers have vanished, and the world has reverted to the
fundamentals: bricks, mortar, paper, fi re, fl esh, blood, sweat, and
whenever possible, internal combustion. Lilly has always been an
analog girl— her place back in Marietta brims with vinyl rec ords,
transistor radios, windup clocks, and fi rst editions crammed into
every corner— so she naturally starts keeping track of the plague
days in her little black binder with the faded American Family Insurance
logo embossed in gold on the cover.
On this night, she puts a big X on the square marked Thursday,
The next day is November 2— the day her fate, as well as that of
many others, will irrevocably change.
Friday dawns clear and bitingly cold. Lilly stirs just after sunrise,
shivering in her sleeping bag, her nose so cold it feels numb. Her
joints ache as she hurriedly piles on the layers. She pushes herself
out of her tent, zipping her coat and glancing at Josh’s tent.
The big man is already up, standing beside his tent, stretching
his massive girth. Bundled in his fi sherman’s sweater and tattered
down vest, he whirls, sees Lilly, and says, “Cold enough for ya?”
“Next stupid question,” she says, coming over to his tent, reaching
for the thermos of steaming instant coffee gripped in his huge,
“Weather’s got people panicked,” he says softly, handing the
thermos over. With a nod, he indicates the three trucks idling along
the road across the clearing. His breath shows in puffs of vapor as
he talks. “Bunch of us heading up into the woods, gathering as
much fi rewood as we can load.”
“I’ll come with.”
Josh shakes his head. “Talked to Chad a minute ago, I guess he
needs you to watch his kids.”
“Okay. Sure. What ever.”
“You keep that,” Josh says, gesturing toward the thermos. He
grabs the axe that sits canted against his tent and gives her a grin.
“Should be back by lunchtime.”
“Josh,” she says, grabbing his sleeve before he can turn away.
“Just be careful in the woods.”
His grin widens. “Always, babydoll . . . always.”
He turns and marches off toward the clouds of visible exhaust
along the gravel road.
Lilly watches the contingent hopping into cabs, jumping up onto
running boards, climbing into cargo bays. She doesn’t realize at this
point the amount of noise they’re making, the commotion caused by
three large trucks embarking all at once, the voices calling to each
other, doors slamming, the fog bank of carbon monoxide.
In all the excitement, neither Lilly, nor anyone else for that matter,
realizes how far the racket of their departure is carry ing out over
Lilly senses danger fi rst.
The Binghams have left her inside the circus tent, in charge of the
four girls, who now frolic across the fl oor of matted grass, scampering
amid the folding tables, stacks of peach crates, and tanks of
butane. The interior of the circus tent is illuminated by makeshift
skylights— fl aps in the ceiling pulled back to let in the daylight—
and the air in there smells of must and de cades of moldy hay impregnated
into the canvas walls. The girls are playing musical chairs with
three broken- down lawn chairs scattered across the cold earthen
Lilly is supposed to be the music.
“Duh- do- do- do . . . duh- da- da- da,” Lilly croons halfheartedly,
murmuring an old Top 40 hit by the Police, her voice thin and weak,
as the girls giggle and circle the chairs. Lilly is distracted. She keeps
glancing through the loading entrance at one end of the pavilion, a
large swath of the tent city visible in the gray daylight. The grounds
are mostly deserted, those who are not away scavenging now hiding
in their tents.
Lilly swallows her terror, the cold sun slanting down through the
far trees, the wind whispering through the big- top tent. Up on the
rise, shadows dance in the pale light. Lilly thinks she hears shuffl
ing sounds up there somewhere, behind the trees maybe; she’s not
sure. It might be her imagination. Sounds inside the fl uttering,
empty tent play tricks on the ears.
She turns away from the opening and scans the pavilion for weapons.
She sees a shovel leaning against a wheelbarrow fi lled with potting
soil. She sees a few garden implements in a dirty bucket. She
sees the remains of the breakfast dishes in a plastic garbage can—
paper plates crusted with beans and Egg Beaters, wadded burrito
wrappers, empty juice boxes— and next to it a plastic storage container
with dirty silverware. The silverware came from one of the
retrofi tted camper/pickups, and Lilly makes note of a few sharp
knives in the container but mostly she sees plastic “sporks” sticky
with food gunk. She wonders how effective a spork would be against
a monstrous drooling cannibal.
She silently curses the camp leaders for not leaving fi rearms.
Those who remain on the property include the older settlers— Mr.
Rhimes, a couple of spinsters from Stockbridge, an eighty- year- old
retired teacher named O’Toole, a pair of geriatric brothers from an
abandoned nursing home in Macon— as well as a couple dozen
adult women, a good portion of them too busy now with laundry
duty and philosophical chatter along the back fence to notice anything
The only other souls currently present in the tent city are
children— ten sets of them— some still huddling against the cold in
their private tents, others kicking a soccer ball around in front of the
derelict farm house. Each gaggle of kids has an adult woman in
charge of them.
Lilly looks back out the exit and sees Megan Lafferty, way in the
distance, sitting perched on the porch of the burned- out house, pretending
to be babysitting and not smoking pot. Lilly shakes her
head. Megan is supposed to be watching the Hennessey kids. Jerry
Hennessey, an insurance salesman from Augusta, has been carrying
on with Megan for days now in a not- too- discreet fashion. The
Hennessey kids are the second- youngest kids in the encampment— at
ages eight, nine, and ten respectively. The youn gest children in the
settlement are the Bingham twins and Ruthie, who at this moment
pause in their play to stare impatiently at their ner vous babysitter.
“C’mon, Lilly,” Sarah Bingham calls out with her hands on her
hips, catching her breath near a stack of fruit crates. The teenager
wears an adorable, stylish imitation- angora sweater that breaks Lilly’s
heart. “Keep singing.”
Lilly turns back to the children. “I’m sorry, sweetie, I just—”
Lilly stops herself. She hears a noise coming from outside the tent,
from up in the trees. It sounds like the creaking bulwark of a listing
ship . . . or the slow squeak of a door in a haunted house . . . or, more
likely, the weight of a zombie’s foot on a deadfall log.
Another noise cuts off Lilly’s words. She spins toward the tent’s
opening at a loud rustling sound, which rings out from the east,
shattering the stillness a hundred yards away, coming from a thicket
of wild rose and dogwood.
A fl ock of rock pigeons suddenly takes fl ight, the swarm bursting
out of the foliage with the inertia of a fi reworks display. Lilly stares,
transfi xed for a single instant, as the fl ock fi lls the sky with a virtual
constellation of gray- black blots.
Like controlled explosions, along the far edge of the camp, another
two fl ocks of pigeons erupt. Cones of fl uttering specks punch
up into the light, scattering and re- forming like ink clouds undulating
in a clear pool.
The rock pigeons are plentiful in this area—“sky rats” they’re called
by the locals, who claim the pigeons are actually quite delicious if
boned and grilled— but their sudden appearance in recent weeks
has come to signify something darker and more troubling than a
possible food source.
Something has stirred the birds from their resting place and is
now making its way toward the tent city.