They pass the sign on the way into town, bumping over a series of railroad tracks and entering the village from the southeast. Lilly and Bob remain silent in the Dodge RAM’s rear enclosure, as Josh, behind the wheel, scans the immediate area. To his right a busted sign reading PIGGLY IGGLY stands over a parking lot littered with dead bodies and broken glass. The grocery store is caved in on one side as though blasted by dynamite. Tall cyclone fencing, gouged and punched out in places, runs along the road known alternately as Woodbury Highway or Main Street. Grisly lumps of human carnage and twisted, scorched metal litter patches of exposed ground – the white, sandy earth practically glowing in the snowy darkness – an eerie sight reminiscent of a desert war zone smack dab in the middle of Georgia.
“Had a pretty big dust-up a few weeks ago with a herd of walkers,” the man named Martinez says from the passenger seat, lighting a Viceroy and opening his window a few inches. The smoke curls out into the wind-lashed snow, vanishing like ghosts. “Things got outta hand for a while, but luckily cooler heads prevailed. Gonna be taking a hard left up here in a second.”
Josh follows the van around a hair-pin and down a narrower section of road.
In the dark middle distance, behind a veil of windswept sleet, the heart of Woodbury comes into view. Four square-blocks of turn-of-the-century brick buildings and power lines crowd a central intersection of merchants, wood frame homes and apartment buildings. Much of it is laced with cyclone fences and idle construction sites that appear to be recent additions. Josh remembers when they used to call these places “wide spots in the road.”
Woodbury’s width seems to extend about a half a dozen blocks in all directions, with larger public areas carved out of the wooded wetlands to the west and north. Some of the rooftop chimneys and vent stacks sprout columns of thick black smoke, either from generator exhaust or wood stoves and fireplaces. Most of the street lamps are dark, but some glow in the darkness, apparently running on emergency juice.
As the convoy approaches the center of town, Josh notices the van pulling up to the edge of a construction site. “Been working on the wall for months,” Martinez explains. “Pretty near got two square blocks completely protected, and we plan on expanding it – moving the wall back further and further as we go.”
“Not a bad idea,” Josh mutters, almost under his breath, as he ponders the massive high wall of wooden timbers and planks, cannibalized pieces of cabin logs, siding, and two-by-fours, at least fifteen feet tall, extending along the edge of Jones Mill Road. Portions of the barricade still bear the scars of the recent walker attacks, and even in the snow-swept dark the claw marks and patched areas and ricochet holes and bloodstains, as black as tar, call out to Josh.
The place vibrates with latent violence, like some throwback to the Wild West.
Josh brings the truck to a stop, as the van’s rear doors jack open and one of the young Turks hops out the back and then goes over to a seam in the fortification. He pulls open a hinged section, swinging the gate wide enough for the two vehicles to pass through. The van rumbles through the gap, and Josh follows.
“Got about fifty people and change,” Martinez continues, taking a deep drag off the Viceroy and blowing it out the window. “Place over there, on the right, that’s kind of a food center. Got all our supplies, bottled water, medicine stashed in that place.”
As they pass, Josh sees the faded old sign – DeForest’s Feed and Seed – its storefront fortified and reinforced with burglar bars and planking, two armed guards standing out front smoking cigarettes. The gate closes behind them as they roll slowly along, venturing deeper into the secure zone. Other denizens stand around, watching them pass – people bundled up on boardwalks, standing in vestibules – shell-shocked expressions behind scarves and mufflers. Nobody looks particularly friendly or happy to see them.
“Got a doctor on board, working medical center and what-not.” Martinez tosses his cigarette butt out the window. “Hope to expand the walls at least another block by the end of the week.”
“Not a bad set-up,” Bob comments from the back seat, his watery eyes taking it all in. “If ya don’t mind my asking, what the hell is that?”
Josh sees the top of the massive edifice a few blocks beyond the walled-in area, toward which Bob is now pointing a greasy finger. In the hazy darkness it looks like a flying saucer has landed in the middle of a field beyond the town square. Dirt roads circle the thing, and dim lights twinkle in the snow above its circular rim.
“Used to be a dirt race track.” Martinez grins. In the green glow of the dashboard lights the smirk looks almost lupine, devilish. “Hillbillies love their races.”
“’Used’ to be?” Josh asks.
“Boss laid down the law last week, no more races, too much noise. Racket was drawing biters.”
“There’s a boss here?”
The smirk on Martinez’s face curdles into something unreadable. “Don’t worry, Cousin. You’ll be meeting him soon enough.”
Josh sneaks a glance at Lilly, who is busily gnawing on her fingernails. “Not sure we’re gonna be sticking around very long.”
“It’s up to you.” Martinez gives a non-committal shrug. He slips on a pair of fingerless, leather Carnaby gloves and turns up his collar. “Keep in mind, though, those mutual benefits I was talking about.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Our apartments are all filled up but we still got places you can stay in the center of town.”
“Good to know.”
“I’m telling you, once we get that wall expanded, you’ll have your pick of places to live.”
Josh says nothing.
Martinez stops smirking and all at once, in the dim green light, he looks as though he’s remembering better days, maybe a family, maybe something painful. “I’m talking about places with soft beds, privacy… picket fences and trees.”
A long pause of awkward silence.