The zombie plague unleashes its horrors on the suburbs of Atlanta without warning, pitting the living against the dead. Caught in the mass exodus, Lilly Caul struggles to survive in a series of ragtag encampments and improvised shelters. But the Walkers are multiplying. Dogged by their feral hunger for flesh and crippled by fear, Lilly relies on the protection of good Samaritans by seeking refuge in a walled-in town once known as Woodbury, Georgia.
At first, Woodbury seems like a perfect sanctuary. Squatters barter services for food, people have roofs over their heads, and the barricade expands, growing stronger every day. Best of all, a mysterious self-proclaimed leader named Philip Blake keeps the citizens in line. But Lilly begins to suspect that all is not as it seems... Blake, who has recently begun to call himself The Governor, has disturbing ideas about law and order.
Ultimately, Lilly and a band of rebels open up a Pandora’s box of mayhem and destruction when they challenge The Governor’s reign . . . and the road to Woodbury becomes the highway to hell in this riveting follow-up to Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga's New York Times bestselling The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor.
On the north side of Woodbury’s racetrack complex, beneath the arched exit, a wiry, tightly coiled individual emerges from an unmarked metal door and gazes up at the sky. The rain has ceased for the moment, leaving behind a low ceiling of sooty clouds. The wiry gentleman carries a small bundle wrapped in a threadbare woolen blanket the color of dead grass, gathered at the top with rawhide.
The wiry man crosses the street and starts down the sidewalk, his raven black hair slick with moisture and pulled back in a ponytail today.
As he walks, his preternaturally alert gaze is everywhere, practically all at once, taking in everything that goes on around him. In recent weeks the emotions that have plagued him have subsided, the voice in his head silent now. He feels strong. This town is his raison d’etre, the fuel that keeps him keen and sharp.
He is about to turn the corner at the intersection of Canyon and Main when he notices a figure in his peripheral vision. The older guy – the drunk who came in a few days ago with the nigger and the girls – is emerging from the warehouse at the south end of the racetrack. The weathered old dude pauses for a moment to take a gulp from his flask, and the look on his face after swallowing and cringing at the burn is apparent to the wiry man even a block away.
In the distance, the older dude grimaces as the alcohol streams down his gullet, and the grimace is weirdly familiar to the wiry man. The grimace – full of shame and desolation -- makes the wiry man feel strange and sentimental, almost tender. The older man puts the flask away and starts trundling toward Main Street with that trademark gate – half limp, half drunken amble – which many homeless people get after years of struggling on the street. The wiry man follows.
Minutes later, the wiry man cannot resist calling out to the juicer. “Hey Sport!”
Bob Stookey hears the voice -- gravelly, lightly accented with a trace of Southern small-town, echoing on the breeze – but he cannot locate the source.
Bob pauses at the edge of Main Street and looks around. The town is mostly deserted today, the rains driving denizens indoors.
“’Bob’ is it?” the voice says, closer now, and Bob finally sees a figure approaching from behind.
“Oh, hi… how ya doin’?”
The man saunters up to Bob with a forced smile. “I’m doing great, Bob, thanks.” Wisps of coal black hair dangling in front of the man’s chiseled face, he carries a bundle that seems to be leaking moisture, dripping on the pavement. People around town have started to call this man The Governor – the name has stuck – which is fine and dandy with this guy. “How you settling into our little hamlet?”
“You meet Doc Stevens?”
“Yes sir. Good man.”
“Call me The Governor.” The smile softens a bit. “Everybody else seems to be calling me that. What the hell? Kinda like the ring of it.”
“The Governor it is,” Bob says and glances down at the bundle in the man’s grip. The blanket leaks blood. Bob glances away quickly, alarmed by it, but feigning ignorance. “Looks like the rains have blown over.”
The man’s smile remains stamped on his face. “Walk with me, Bob.”
They start down the cracked sidewalk, moving toward the temporary wall that stands between merchant’s row and the outer streets. The sound of nail guns snapping can be heard above the wind. The wall continues expanding along the southern edge of the business district. “You remind me of somebody,” the Governor says after a long pause.
“It ain’t Kate Winslet I’m betting.” Bob has had enough alcohol to loosen his tongue. He chuckles to himself as he trundles along. “Or Bonnie Raitt, neither.”
“Touche’, Bob.” The Governor glances down at his package, notices the droplets of blood leaving little coin-sized marks on the sidewalk. “What a mess I’m making.”
Bob looks away, scrambles to change the subject. “Ain’t y’all worried about all that pounding racket over there drawing walkers?”
“We got it under control, Bob, don’t you worry about that. Got men posted out on the edge of the woods, and we try and keep the pounding down to a minimum.”
“That’s good to hear… got things figured out pretty good around here.”
“We try, Bob.”
“I told Doc Stevens, he’s welcome to any medical supplies I got in my stash.”
“You a doctor, too?”
Bob tells the man about Afghanistan, patching marines, getting an honorable discharge.
“You got kids, Bob?”
“No sir… for the longest time it was just me and Brenda, my old lady. Had a little trailer outside of Smyrna, not a bad life.”
“You’re looking at my little bundle, aren’t ya Bob?”
“No, sir… whatever it is, it’s none of my beeswax. Doesn’t concern me.”
“Where’s your wife?”
Bob slows down a bit, as though the mere subject of Brenda Stookey weighs him down. “Lost her to a walker attack shortly after the Turn.”
“Sorry to hear that.” They approach a gated section of the wall. The Governor pauses, knocks a few times, and the seam opens. Litter swirls as a workman pulls the gate back and nods at the Governor, letting the twosome pass. “My place is just up the road a piece,” the Governor says with a tilt of his head toward the east side of town. “Little two-story apartment building… come on over, I’ll fix you a drink.”
“The governor’s mansion?” Bob jokes. He can’t help it. The nerves and the booze are working on him. “Ain’t you got laws to pass?”
The Governor pauses, turns and smiles at Bob. “I just figured out who you remind me of.”
In that brief instant, standing in that gray overcast daylight, the wiry man -- who from this point on shall think of himself as “the Governor” – experiences a seismic shift within his brain. He stands there staring at a coarse, deeply-lined, alcoholic good-old-boy from Smyrna who is the spitting image of Ed Blake, the Governor’s old man. Ed Blake had that same pug-nose, prominent brow, and crows feet around red-rimmed eyes. Ed Blake was a big drinker too, like this guy, with the same sense of humor. Ed Blake would toss off sarcastic one-liners with the same drunken relish, cutting to the quick with his words when he wasn’t slapping his family around with the back of his big, calloused hands.
All at once, another part of the Governor bubbles up to the surface – a deeply buried part of him -- on a wave of sentimental longing, which almost makes him dizzy as he remembers big Ed Blake in happier times, a simple hillbilly laborer who tried to fight his demons long enough to be a loving father. “You remind me of somebody I used to know a long time ago,” the Governor says finally, his tone softening as he looks Bob Stookey in the eyes. “C’mon, let’s go get a drink.”
For the rest of their journey across the safe zone, the two men talk quietly, openly, like old friends.
At one point the Governor asks Bob what happened to his wife.
“Place we lived, this mobile home park…” Bob says slowly, heavily, as he hobbles along, remembering dark days. “…We got overrun one day with walkers. I was out trying scrounge up some supplies when it happened… by the time I got back they had gotten into our place.”
He pauses and the Governor says nothing, just walks in silence, waiting.
“They were tearing into her, and I fought ‘em off best I could… and… I guess they only ate enough of her that she came back.”
Another agonizing pause. Bob licks his dry lips. The Governor can see that the man needs a drink badly, needs his medicine to stanch the memories.
“I couldn’t bring myself to finish her off.” This comes out of Bob on a choked wheeze. His rheumy eyes well up. “I ain’t proud of the fact that I left her. Pretty sure she got some folks after that. Her arm and her lower body was pretty mangled but she could still get around. Them people she got, their deaths are my fault.”
“It’s hard to let go sometimes,” the Governor ventures at last, glancing down at his ghastly little bundle. The dripping has diminished somewhat, the blood thickening to the consistency of blackstrap molasses. Right then the Governor notices Bob pondering the blood droplets, his brow furrowed in thought. He looks almost sober.
Bob gestures at the gruesome bundle. “You got somebody turned on ya, don’t ya?”
“You’re not so dumb… are ya, Bob?”
Bob wipes his mouth pensively. “Never thought about feeding Brenda.”
“C’mon, Bob, I want to show you something.”
They reach the two-story brick edifice at the end of the block, and Bob follows the Governor inside.
“Stand behind me for a second, Bob.” The Governor fiddles a key into a deadbolt, the door at the end of a second floor hallway. The door clicks, and the sound of a low growl seeps out. “I would appreciate it, Bob, if you kept what you’re about to see to yourself.”
“No problem… lips are sealed.”
Bob follows the Governor into a two-bedroom unit with Spartan furnishings that reeks of spoiled meat and disinfectant, the windows painted over with black Rustoleum. A floor length mirror near the front vestibule is covered with newspaper and masking tape. The mirror in the bathroom – visible through an open doorway – is missing, its absence evident in the pale oval outline above the sink. All the mirrors in this place have been removed.
“She’s everything to me,” the Governor says. Bob follows the man across the living room, down a short hallway, and through a doorway into a cramped laundry room, where the upright corpse of a little girl is chained to a U-bolt drilled into the wall.
“Oh Lord.” Bob keeps his distance. The dead girl -- still in pigtails and pinafore dress, as if dressed for church -- snarls and spits and flails, her chain straining at its mooring. Bob takes a step back. “Oh Lord.”
“Calm down, Bob.”
The Governor kneels in front of the pint-sized zombie and lays the bundle on the floor. The girl bites at the air, blackened teeth clacking. The Governor unwraps a human head, its cranial cavity gaping on one side from a close-range gunshot.
“Oh my.” Bob notices that the human head -- its pulpy concavity on one side already hectic with maggots -- sports a bristly, jarhead haircut, as if it once belonged to a soldier or marine.
“This here’s Penny… she’s an only child,” the Governor explains as he shoves the dripping severed head within range of the chained cadaver. “We came from a small town called Waynesboro. Penny’s mother – my sweet wife Sarah -- was killed in a car crash before the Turn.”
The child feeds.
Bob watches from the doorway, at once appalled and riveted, as the diminutive zombie slurps and chews the soft matter of the cranial passage as though ferreting out the meat of a lobster.
The Governor watches the feeding. The slurping noises fill the air. “My brother Brian and I – along with a few friends of mine – we set out to find greener pastures with Penny here. Made our way west, crashed in Atlanta for a spell, hooked up with some people, lost some people. Kept moving west.”
The little corpse settles down, leaning against the wall with tiny, greasy, scarlet-stained fingers burrowing deep into the hollowed-out skull for morsels.
The Governor’s voice drops an octave. “Had a run-in with some dirt bags at an orchard not far from here.” His words falter for a moment. No tears but his voice crumbles a little. “Put my brother in charge of Penny while I fended ‘em off… and one thing led to another.”
Bob cannot move. He cannot speak in this airless chamber of stained tiles, exposed plumbing, and mildew-darkened grout. He watches the tiny abomination, her ghastly face content now, stringers of brain matter hanging from her little tulip lips, her fish-belly eyes rolling back in her head as she leans back.
“My brother fucked up big time, got my baby killed,” the Governor explains now, his head down, his chin on his chest. His voice gets thick with emotion. “Brian was weak and that’s all there is to it. I could not let it go, though.” He looks at Bob through raw, wet eyes. “I know you can relate, Bob. I could not let go of my baby girl.”
Bob can relate. His chest seizes up with sorrow for Brenda.
“I blame myself for Penny getting killed and comin’ back.” The Governor stares at the floor. “I kept her going with scraps and we kept headin’ west. By the time we got to Woodbury my brother Brian was ape-shit crazy with guilt.”
The thing that was once a little girl drops the skull as though discarding an oyster shell. She gazes around the room through her milky eyes as if awakening from a dream.
“I had to put Brian down like a sick dog,” the Governor utters, almost to himself. He takes a step closer to the little thing that used to be a child. His voice becomes almost toneless. “I still see my Penny in there sometimes… when she’s calm like this.”
Bob swallows hard. Contrary emotions swirl and eddy inside him – repulsion, sadness, fear, bone-deep longing, even sympathy for this deranged individual – and he hangs his head. “You been through a lot.”
“Look at that, Bob.” The Governor nods toward the little zombie. The child-thing cocks its head, staring at the Governor with a vexed expression. The thing blinks its eyes. A faint trace of Penny Blake glimmers behind its eyes. “My baby’s still in there. Aren’t ya, Honey?”
The Governor goes over to the chained creature, kneels and strokes its livid cheek.
Bob stiffens, starts to say, “Be careful, you don’t want to be –“
“Here’s my beautiful baby girl.” The Governor strokes the thing’s matted hair. The tiny zombie blinks. The pallid face changes, eyes narrowing, blackened lips peeling away from rotten baby teeth.
Bob steps forward. “Look out --!”
The Penny-thing snaps its jaws at the exposed flesh of the Governor’s wrist, but the Governor pulls away just in time. “Woopsy!”
The little zombie strains at its chain, scuttling to its feet and reaching at the air… as the Governor backs away. He speaks in baby talk. “Wascally Wabbit… almost got daddy that time!”
Bob gets woozy. He can feel his gorge rising, the bile threatening to come up.
“Bob, do me a favor and reach into that loose bundle the head came out of.”
“Do me a favor and grab that last little goodie in that bag over there.”
Bob holds his vomit in and turns and finds the bundle on the floor and looks inside. A pale human finger, apparently male, lies at the bottom of the bag in a clot of drying blood. Hair sprouts from the knuckles, and from the ragged end protrudes a small nodule of white bone.
Something loosens inside Bob – as sudden as a rubber band snapping -- as he pulls a handkerchief from his pocket, bends down, and retrieves the finger.
“Why don’t you do the honors, my friend,” the Governor suggests, standing proudly over the snapping zombie-child, his hands on his hips.
Bob feels as though his body has begun to move on its own, with a mind of its own. “Yeah… sure.”
Bob stands within inches of the chain’s limit, as the Penny-Thing snarls and sputters noisily at him, clanging against the U-bolt. “Yeah… why not?”
Holding the finger out at arm’s length, Bob feeds it to the creature.
The little corpse gobbles the thing, falling to its knees, two-handing the finger into her ravenous little pit of a mouth. The nauseating wet noises fill the laundry room.
The two men stand side-by-side, watching now. The Governor puts his arm around his new friend.The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.