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 (6 page)

BOOK: Just Another Day at the Office: A Walking Dead Short
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She stares at him for a moment. “Come on.”

“What?”

“You’re telling me you’re scared shitless when they attack?”

“Damn straight.”

“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.”

“Lilly—”

“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…inconvenient. 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 finally 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 fix 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 goddamn bleak.

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. Shuffled 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 fight 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 flair for the culinary, especially cooking meat, and he moved up the ranks at steakhouse 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 world.

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 finally 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 finish.” 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 trying to—”

“We’re a team, right?” He leans down so he can see her beautiful face. “Right?”

She nods.

“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. “Deal?”

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 figure 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 elderly 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 organize, finish erecting the last of their shelters, stow supplies, explore the immediate area, settle into a routine, and form coalitions and cliques and hierarchies. The families—ten of them in all—seem to carry more weight in the decision-making process than do single people. Something about the gravitas of having more at risk, the imperative of protecting children, maybe even the symbolism of carrying the genetic 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 Mafia capo. Each day, he struts along the edges of the camp with his snuff defiantly bulging under his cheek, his pistol in full view. With winter in the offing, and troubling noises behind the trees at night, Lilly worries about this ersatz figurehead. 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 shuffling 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 films 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 campfire. Jacked up on pseudoephedrine, instant coffee, and bad weed, the half a dozen or so social misfits 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 figured 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 genetic 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 thing?”

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 campfires 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 nervous 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 reflects Lilly’s dark intuition. Something terrible seems imminent.

One night, before turning in, Lilly Caul pulls a small leather-bound 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, service providers have vanished, and the world has reverted to the fundamentals: bricks, mortar, paper, fire, flesh, blood, sweat, and whenever possible,
internal combustion
. Lilly has always been an analog girl—her place back in Marietta brims with vinyl records, transistor radios, windup clocks, and first 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, November 1.

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 fisherman’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, gloved hand.

BOOK: Just Another Day at the Office: A Walking Dead Short
3.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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