Read Just Another Day at the Office: A Walking Dead Short Online

Authors: Robert Kirkman,Jay Bonansinga

Tags: #Thrillers, #Horror, #General, #Media Tie-In, #Fiction

Just Another Day at the Office: A Walking Dead Short (5 page)

BOOK: Just Another Day at the Office: A Walking Dead Short
13.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Josh rode a motorcycle, and after helping load the minivans with provisions, he decided to join the group, following along on his bike as the caravan made their way closer to the abandoned orchards patchworking Meriwether County.

Now Lilly had begun to regret the day she agreed to ride on the back of that big Suzuki. Was her attachment to the big man simply a projection of her grief over the loss of her dad? Was it a desperate act of manipulation in the midst of unending terror? Was it as cheap and transparent as Megan’s promiscuity? Lilly wondered if her act of cowardice—deserting Josh on the battlefield yesterday—was a sick, dark, subconscious act of self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Nobody said you’re a piece of shit, Megan,” Lilly finally says, her voice strained and unconvincing.

“You don’t have to say it.” Megan angrily taps the pipe on the stove. She levers herself to her feet. “You’ve totally said enough.”

Lilly stands. She has grown accustomed to these sudden mood swings in her friend. “What is your problem?”

“You…you’re my problem.”

“The hell are you talking about?”

“Forget it, I can’t even handle this anymore,” Megan says. The rueful tone of her voice is filtered by the hoarse buzz of the weed working on her. “I wish you luck, girlie-girl…you’re gonna need it.”

Megan storms off toward the row of cars on the east edge of the property.

Lilly watches her pal vanish behind a tall trailer loaded with cartons. The other survivors take very little notice of the tiff between the two girls. A few heads turn, a few whispers are exchanged, but most of the settlers continue busying themselves with the gathering and accounting of supplies, their somber expressions tight with nervous tension. The wind smells of metal and sleet. There’s a cold front creeping in.

Gazing out across the clearing, Lilly finds herself momentarily transfixed by all the activity. The area looks like a flea market crowded with buyers and sellers, people trading supplies, stacking cordwood, and chatting idly. At least twenty smaller tents now line the periphery of the property, a few clotheslines haphazardly strung between trees, blood-spattered clothing taken from walkers, nothing wasted, the threat of winter a constant motivator now. Lilly sees children playing jump rope near a flatbed truck, a few boys kicking a soccer ball. She sees a fire burning in a barbecue pit, the haze of smoke wafting up over the roofs of parked cars. The air is redolent with bacon grease and hickory smoke, an odor that, in any other context, might suggest the lazy days of summer, tailgate parties, football games, backyard cookouts, family reunions.

A tide of black dread rises in Lilly as she scans the bustling little settlement. She sees the kids frolicking…and the parents laboring to make this place work…all of them zombie fodder…and all at once Lilly feels a twinge of insight…a jolt of reality.

She sees clearly now that these people are doomed. This grand plan to build a tent city in the fields of Georgia is not going to work.

Two

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, fifteen-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 gathers up 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 flaxen 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 file 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 field, 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. “More Twinkies?”

“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.”

“Do tell.”

“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 fish 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 bottles.

“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 five 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 filled 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.”

“Go on.”

“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.”

“I’m not.”

Bob looks at her. “You sure?”

“Bob, I’m telling you—”

“All right, look.” Bob waves his hand nervously. “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 trails off.

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 measures 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 gooseflesh 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 presentation 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 floor and completely choked.

She feels that same kind of nervous tension right now—amplified 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 flooding 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 to life.

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 casual.

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 figured somethin’ wasn’t working right,” he says finally. “I’ve only been able to split about a hundred logs in fifteen 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.”

“Good idea.”

“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 side-swipes the wood, then sticks into the ground. She struggles to pull it free.

“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 flesh 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 find her voice. “Is there someplace we can go and talk?”

 

“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 fixed 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 cross-legged, 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 figure that out, you’re gonna have to teach me.”

BOOK: Just Another Day at the Office: A Walking Dead Short
13.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Artifact of Foex by James L. Wolf
Betrayal by St. Clair, Aubrey
Dirty Thoughts by Megan Erickson
Brown Sunshine of Sawdust Valley by Marguerite Henry, Bonnie Shields
Evacuation (The Boris Chronicles Book 1) by Paul C. Middleton, Michael Anderle
Owning His Bride by Sue Lyndon
The Golden Vendetta by Tony Abbott