"How do you know... If something you felt was real?"
Morgan didn't expect Beth to be awake after the night she'd had tossing and turning in her sleep. It was near midday and they were close to the border, he'd carried her to the car and packed up their make shift camp while she slept. When he looked over, he saw the dark circles around her eyes were less pronounced than they had been earlier, her blue eyes shining brighter than the sky. Winter was coming and the world was turning grey quickly. Beth was the last ray of sunshine still in existence in a darkening world. He shrugged, thinking of his wife with a soft smile, trying to remember how he'd felt with her by his side.
"When its real, you just know. All I have to do is think of... Of jenny... And I feel it. Right here."
She watched as he pressed his palm over his heart, to a place she knew well.
Closing her eyes, she sighed, trying to overcome the sadness lingering in her soul as she spoke, "That's crazy"
"Your not the first to call me that," he chuckled, noticing how serious she suddenly seemed as she met his gaze.
"No I mean... That's crazy because... Because that's where I feel it."
Beth touched the same spot where a dull ache kept throbbing despite how much she tried to rally her spirits. It returned to her every time she fell asleep, every time her doubts for their future began to cloud the hope she tried to keep alive. Every time she thought of being happy. The pain didn't seem to ever fade away. Morgan nodded, Knowingly.
"Must be love then"
Fear. She felt it run deep inside of her. She didn't know why but something told her this pain that hurt her was tied around her lingering thoughts of Daryl. Everytime she awoke from a dream involving him, everytime she remembered him... The same pain tore into her chest and burnt her. As a sign ahead signalled their enterance into Washington, she focused on the pain and willed it to stop, whispering to herself "It can't be... "
Morgan misheard her laughing a little in an effort to raise her spirits, "It is, were here. Just hope the roads stay this clear."
Beth smiled, all too aware of his constant attempts to stay hopeful. It couldn't be easy for him. Suddenly, she felt selfish and hated herself for that. All Morgan had to look to was seeing Rick and finding a safe place to live out his remaining years. Beth was lucky. Her group was, in a way, her family. Carl, Rick, Carol, Glenn... If they'd all made it she would have peopel who cared about her. Daryl. Daryl would be shocked to see her and she took childish enjoyment in thinking of how much she'd stun him. There was no question he was still alive. Nothing could kill Daryl Dixon. It was a fact of life she'd long since accepted.
Morgan, however, had lost everyone and never had a chance of finding anyone to help ease his pain. Except maybe for her. She liked to think she could help him. Heal him. Show him kindness and care so he might see her as family. As the road widened ahead, tall office buildings and roofes of houses became apparent in the distance. Morgan sighed in relief and she felt happy for the both of them. Snow barked, making Morgan swerve, both of them laughing. Then, Morgan cursed, slowing. Up ahead, a large dark mound obstructed the road. He could have gone round but a few abandoned cars lingered by the grass beside he road. Straining to see what the mound was, Morgan leaned over the wheel, suprises when Beth answered his minds query.
"It's... It's a wolf."
He doubted the large mound could be any sort of creature but soon he was walking toward it followed by Beth. Snow refused to leave the car, sniffing the air, cowering away. Beth knew it was a wolf. Her dad always said dogs don't scare easy, unless they smell an animals that scares them, like wolves. He also told her dogs don't like smelling dead things, but she knew snow would have been used to the scent of decay since the corpses started walking. Morgan came to the mound, frowning, cursing as he saw it was a wolf. Grey fur so dark it was almost black as night, the head battered, beaten by a baseball bat or some other blunt object he guessed. The stomach was cut open, entrails spilling out onto the road. A walker crouched low, eating at some, silent sake for the soft squelching of the intestines in its mouth. To his suprise, Beth didn't bat an eyelid, walking through the blood and torn flesh, pushing her knife into the walkers skull, sighing as she looked at the animal with mournful eyes.
"Poor thing must have suffered."
He nodded, knowing too well someone must have killed this beast on purpose, maybe hunting it down for meat. The flesh smelt old and was dark, a week maybe judging by the flies. He doubted that whoever killed it was still about. He glanced at Beth, "must have been someone's kill... Maybe they left it in a hurry."
Beth looked around, suddenly eager to get moving, grabbing hold of one of the wolfs hind legs, looking expectantly at Morgan who took a deep breath, pushing the creature aside, struggling against it's weight. Beth strained, pulling hard, the smell making her stomach clench, but she refused to let herself wretch. When they finally moved it to a clear spot, Beth crouched near its head, petting the fur by its vacant eyes. Morgan urged her to leave and she rose, walking back to the car, thinking of the lone wolf and the moon. A memory surfaced. Her father, at the prison, sitting with his bible as she fed Judith. He had heard Daryl left with Merle and was talking about him.
"Poor boy always looks lost... A lone wolf always does." Her fathers words seemed to haunt the cold breeze that blew against her making her slow down, looking at the red stain in the road. She realised the lone wolf wasn't her, it was Daryl. When Morgan had told her the story of the lone wolf, she'd been thinking of Daryl. That's when she noticed something white yellow and curved gleaming in the remnants of the wolfs entrails. Reaching down, she pulled it up, wiping away the blood with her sleeve eyes widening. It was a tooth.
For some reason, she slipped it in her pocket. Not for herself, but for Daryl.
The moment they entered Dahlgren, Beth knew things weren't any better here. Walkers roamed the streets, houses were ransacked and abandoned. As they pulled up to a junction, she noticed four moving bodied hanging from a street light. Suicides gone wrong. The hanging walkers shook and swung as they saw the car pass them. Morgan swallowed his instinct to curse. There was no sign of anyone living around and he knew he wouldn't find any markers from Rick. If Rick was even here. After a while driving down a clear road, he asked Beth to get the map out, tracking where they were. They'd passed the sign for Washington miles back, having to make a diversion as the highway filled with abandoned cars. This way, they would have a longer journey, but Morgan was sure they would be safe as long as the got across the bridge.
"Here is Dahlgren... Potomac river is an hour that way..."
He pulled the car over frowning as he studied the map, shifting uncomfortably. His back was playing up again. She knew the signs. How he kept twisting his neck and moving in his seat. They needed a nights rest in a bed, or at least on a flat surface. Her neck was cramped and she'd never admit to it, but her scar was beginning to ache from the inside, as though something were still there, burning into the front of her skull. To hide her discomfort, she turned and pet Snow, sleeping comfortably on the back seat between the bags of empty cans and supplies, her eyes closing as she tried to push away the pain.
"Don't suppose you remember anyone mentioning where they were going next."
Glancing at him, she shook her head helplessly, "I was kinda never there with them, after the prison."
He nodded, eyes straining as he studied the map again, finger tracing the road that led across the river, trying to find a route. He needed more. A marker to indicate some sort of sanctuary. Or a meeting point. He felt lost, unable to figure out where to go next, unable to express his frustration due to the girl sitting beside him so full of hope. He glanced at her, wishing he had some food for her. They had been running low, missing breakfast to save rations for later. A can of corn and a few beef jerky pieces were all that remained. Rebecca had given them enough for a week but it had been longer than that and food was scarce. Most shops were looted, hunting was not his strong point. If only he had a gun.
Beth spoke and he looked up from the map. He followed her finger, noticing a supermarket that seemed void of any undead occupants. The windows were still untouched, doors closed, car park empty. It was a marvel he hadn't noticed it before. She opened the window, looking around. The street was empty, a few dead ones a little way off, most of the surrounding structures being shops that sold clothes and shoes, a gas station with a collapsed roof, and some houses a little way off. Beth could almost imagine they were the only people left on earth. The silence was deafening. The morning rain made everything seem cold and clear, the dark clouds above casting a grey light on the world below. If they found supplies, the journey would be easier, and maybe a good meal could help rally their hopes. Hell, she knew she was beginning to find it hard to keep her spirits high.
Morgan started the car, speaking his plan aloud, "We pull up outside, I'll check the area. If it's clear..."
Beth cut him off rolling her eyes playfully as they parked outside the market, "We move in together. You'll take the lead, I'll grab what we need. Yes Sir."
He sighed, giving her hair a ruffle, making her laugh, "Okay Saint Beth, no need to prove you have heavenly wisdom."
She smirked. He always made jokes about her reawakening. Saint Beth he called her, sometimes even asking if she was Jesus in disguise. Her father would say such jokes were uncouth and blasphemous but Beth enjoyed them. They were absurd and always said with a smile, making her feel like Morgan's friend as opposed to a kid who just tagged after him. They were equal and she liked to see him treat her like an adult. He didn't worry she couldn't kill a walker or start a fire, or even scout out the area. He trusted her judgement and he knew she was tough. In a way, he was a lot like Daryl, although his age and his grief made her recognise his likeness to Rick. No wonder they were friends.
As they left the car, Morgan letting Snow out for a walk, Beth glanced at the road they had driven down, wondering how far away her group was. How far away Daryl was.
"See that pizza place we passed?" Morgan asked her grabbing his machete from the boot, throwing her a torch. She caught it, nodding.
"Rome pizza. Yeah. Me and my friends used to go places like that all the time, before."
Jimmy took her all the time. Maggie used to go with her friends and take Beth with her, sneaking her an extra slice here and there. Her dad didn't like that kinda food but he liked seeing his daughters out having fun. For her fourteenth birthday, Maggie brought home a pizza with fourteen candles on it. Somewhere at the barn, she had a photo of it... A photo long gone and forgotten. A sigh slipped from her lips as she followed Morgan to the door of the market.
He glanced at the glass, the gloomy light from outside providing poor light inside. Thinking of the past, he remembered his family, "My son loved pizza... Add that to my list of things I miss."
Beth smiled sadly, shining her light through the glass. Using his knife, Morgan pried open the door. They jammed as he tried to pull them further apart. He heaved and breathed hard, relenting with a weary groan.
"Ain't opening any more than that."
She nodded, slipping inside with ease, her arm caught by his hand, his voice strained and fearful, "it's too risky Beth, there could be..."
"Walkers? With all that notice they'd have come out by now. Don't worry, I'll get the stuff."
He shook his head, "lemme break the window..."
"No! It'll attract the dead all around the street. I'll be fine, just stay by the car in case we need to leave quick."
He kept a firm grass of her arm, worried, concern etched in his face as he stared down into her intense blue eyes, her expression firm as she spoke, "Morgan... I can do this. Trust me."
Slowly, he released her, handing her his machete which she took uneasily. As he walked away, she took a deep breath, pulling her sheriff hat low. The air was thick, stuffy but not laced with anything dead. Holding the torch up, she checked the area beside her. Clothes. Something they needed but she didn't want to start scavenging yet. She had to search the store first. Dead could be lurking in the aisles and she couldn't risk being attacked with cans and clothes weighing her down. Passing the tills, she scanned each isle with her torch. Cans were scarse but she saw a few scattered on different shelves. The alcohol selection was bare, a few broken bottles on the floor. The meat fridges were no longer on and the smell of what remained was strong, making her walk a little faster. As she darted down an isle, she heard a distant clink of wood. It was faint, barely detectable, but she knew better than to doubt her senses. Daryl taught her that. She remembered his words.
'Y'hear anythin' different, y'follow it. Most likely something dead creepin' up on ya.'
Carefully, she followed to tapping, passing the baby supplies, ignoring the ache in her heart inflicted by the sight of a child on a packet of diapers. Judith. No, she kept her focus, rounding a corner, frowning. Up ahead, she saw a sign, her torch illuminating the words. Fun zone. Beneath the sign was a room, closed of by a gate. Butterflies and cars were painted on the walls, a smiling sun staring at her eerily from its place on the wall. The tapping came from behind the white painted gate, too tall to see over without standing on the carefully placed step before it. She swallowed the dread that built up inside her knife by her side as she approached the step, heart racing as she heard the faint hiss of the dead. Their smell was evident and she should have walked away, saved herself from the sight of what lay beyond the fence, but she needed to do this. She wasn't weak, and she wouldn't let herself back down. Maggie wouldn't, Daryl wouldn't. Carl wouldn't either. Beth was strong.
Stepping up, she looked over the gate, biting her lip to save herself from crying out as she saw what lay before her. Three walkers. Three walkers who were also children. Barely able to walk, clustered together as they cried out, grey eyes staring up at her, striking the gate. One had a stump where a hand should have been, the tapping of it's bone against the gate making Beth gag, falling back, scrambling to her feet. She knew her nightmares would be haunted by those faces, those small faces with grey eyes and peeling skin and bloodied lips. Her own lip bled from the incisions her teeth had made and she spat blood, unaware of how she could overcome the image. Her strength forced her to resist the urge to call for Morgan! although she couldn't bring herself to kill the walkers. They were dead but they were children, a year or two older than Judith, her Judith...
"I see you've met my kids."
Beth spun round, knife raised as a woman walked out from behind a shelf of dog food cans, hunched as she lurched towards her. For a moment, Beth thought she might be a walker. Her hair was matted and greasy, face coated in a thick layer of dirt and grime, clothes a patchwork of multi coloured rags. Her eyes were murky and dark, shining with a demonic gleam as she stared into Beth. In her hand she carried a joint of meat, dripping with blood, her teeth yellow and crooked as she smiled up at her.
"Ain't they perfect... Excuse me a moment, they ain't been fed yet."
To Beth's horror she realised the woman was talking about the undead children. She couldn't move, paralysed by shock, watching as the woman heaved the skinned mass of meat over the fence, beaming with pride as the walkers began to tear their meal apart. The sound of their tiny jaws clenching onto the flesh of whatever she'd fed them filled the air and suddenly the world seems so loud. Beth wished she was dreaming, an illusion conjured by her damaged mind, but when she opened her eyes the woman was closer, holding out a blood stained hand. She took a step back, grip of her knife tightening, unable to speak. The woman beamed, pointing to the walkers.
"My girl, lily, she's wearing the blue print dress... The rest I'm watching for their mommas... Are you here to get them?"
Beth shook her head, close to nausea as the woman's dark eyes bore down on her, the stench of her unwashed clothes mixing with the scent of rotten flesh, suddenly making it hard to breath. The deranged woman kept walking toward Beth, holding out a hand, asking her to come see her children, whispering something under her breath. Something about fresh meat.
"I feed them every day, children need a varied diet you know... I give them birds and some of the dead ones out there... A few live ones too..." Her voice was steady, calm, her lips quivering as she continued to smile. She began to stare at Beth with hungry eyes. Eyes that saw her as meat rather than a person. The woman drew a hack saw from her rags, never looking away from Beth, voice breathless.
"Don't worry honey, I'll just take an arm... When you come back hungry, I'll put you with my kids. I'll take care of you..."
Stumbling away, Beth called for Morgan, too overwhelmed by the depravity she had witnessed to attack, her knife slipping from her grasp as she slipped on blood that coated the floor between the aisles. As she tried to get back to her feet, a hand grabbed her ankle, sharp nails tearing into her skin as she was dragged back. The woman was on her in moments, holding down her arm, angling the saw, ready to take off Beth's arm, never failing to smile... Till Snow came, biting into the woman's neck hard, causing her to scream as blood sprayed across the floor, coating Beth's face. When she tossed Snow aside with a harsh blow, the woman glanced down, her saw ready, eyes wide as a knife sliced through her neck as Beth cut deep and left the woman chocking on her blood. She held her throat, gasping, hand reaching out toward the fun zone, tears filling her wild eyes.
Beth slid away, staring as the life left the woman's eyes. She wasn't the first living person she'd killed, but Beth felt the knife in her hand suddenly grow heavier and she let it go.
"Here snow, good boy," she shivered, crawling over to the dog, hugging him. For a moment, she was a child, scared, hugging her pet, hiding from what lay around her. Her head hurt and the taste of the woman's blood burnt her lips. Approaching footsteps forced her to take the knife, raising it up.
Shaking, she dropped the knife, nodding as Morgan came to her, arms wrapped around her as he embraced her! staring at the dead woman. She wasn't a walker and he thanked god for that. He didn't ask her anything, waiting for her to calm down. He saw the blood staining her face, staining the dog. After a moment, Beth pulled away, wiping her tears away swiftly, expression strong once more.
"She attacked me. There are... There are dead kids over there. She fed them..."
"That's enough. Your okay, that enough," he took hold of her face, pulling a rag from his pocket, wiping the blood away, forcing a smile to his lips. She sighed taking the rag, finishing the job, rising to her feet. Her eyes strayed to the where the dead children were and he knew she wanted them to be saved from their undead state. He didn't want to do it but he saw how distraught she was. Snow barked, sniffing at the fallen cans of dog food.
"How about I deal with..."
She shook her head. She had to be the one to do it. This was her job. Everyone had a job and she had already killed their mother. Those kids were alive and beautiful once and Beth wanted them to die by someone who could see that. Besides, Morgan might have a relapse over his sons death of he saw them. No, Beth knew what to do. If she'd ever become one of them, she'd want to be killed by someone who saw her as more than just a dead girl. Looking up at him, she could almost see her father smiling back at her, so she let out a shuddering breath, taking his knife silently, "I need to do this."
Morgan let her go, the father in him urging him to run forward and stop her save her form the horror and the pain... But this wasn't a world where she could be saved form such depravity. Every step they took was tainted by the dead and the desperate, he couldn't pretend to be ignorant of how strong she was. So, taking hold of snow, he took a nearby shopping trolley, placing the dog inside as he began loading up on dog food. A few cans were unopened. A small bag of dog kibble rested by the shelf, and he opened it, letting Snow stick his head in the bag, eating at a pace almost unimaginable. Morgan was glad they and the dog. He saved Beth, he kept her smiling, and times like this, he cheered Morgan up aswell.
"I got cherries!"
He turned to see Beth. Her face was tight and tense, but she was forcing a smile and he appreciated that. She dropped two cans of tinned cherries into the trolley. Had this been an ordinary day in an ordinary world, he'd have promised to make her a pie topped with whipped cream, like Jenny used to make in the summer. He could almost taste the crisp crust and soft cherries. Damn that was another thing to put on his things he missed list. Beth's game was starting to slip into everything he did and he found it helpful. Kept him able to smile.
He glanced over at her, groaning as she retrieved toothpaste and toothbrushes, along with soap, "damn I don't miss brushing my teeth."
She scrunched up her nose and laughed, "You need it. Badly."
He gave her a playful push, rubbing his chin, noticing her eyes falling on him. Hurrying back to he shelf, she came back with a shaving razor, "I got you covered."
He laughed genuinely, shrugging, "yeah I think I need a good shave."
Beth smiled, remembering her times back at the prison, "There's a guy in our group, Glenn... He told me he tried to grow a beard once and it took him a year just to get a little moustache."
Morgan chuckled, grabbing some aspirin from the top shelf above her, "Not everyone has my skill.My boy used to say he wanted to have some facial hair. One day he came down, must have been seven or eight, dressed for school, with black marker on his top lip."
She laughed, taking hold of his arm as she noticed how his eyes watered a little at the thought of his son.
As they passed two isles of empty shelves, he noticed her linger by a collection of stuffed toys. A few bears, and a doll, with yellow cloth hair, wearing a green jacket and brown boots. He let out a laugh, "looks like you."
She nodded, smiling, "what I was thinking."
He took hold of it, handing it to her, "take it. For luck."
Beth hesitated, letting her fingers brush across the stitched smiles. Judith would love it. It beat the rag doll she'd tried hard to make her at the prison. She took it, slipping it into her pocket, glad the jacket was so large. They found a few cans of beans and some more fruit, mostly peaches. A pack of jerky, a few tins of sardines. They mad their way over to the clothes department. Morgan loaded up on socks and gloves and jumpers, but Beth lingered by the boots. A pair sat before her, brown and high with laces, a small heel, the front made to look a little worn. They reminded her of all the women on the old south western singles her mom had collected. Cowboy boots to match her hat. Her hat! Pulling on the shoes, she ran back to the bloody isle, panicking as she failed to see it. Gone. It could to be gone. Her heart raced, turning to the gate... No. No, she'd lost it somewhere and it wasn't here.
"Beth? You okay?"
Morgan called out, worried. She hurried back to him, knowing she'd be pathetic to cry over something so insignificant but she felt lost without it. Reaching him, she sighed, "lost my hat, sorry."
He frowned, glancing at the trolley, picking up... Her hat. She laughed, taking it, securing it to her head, confused by his sudden look of concern, "what's wrong?"
They spent the next hour searching for Snow, the sky begining to darken as they loaded the car with their new found supplies. Beth searched the road, worried, unable to see any sign of him. She had searched the store a dozen times, shaken the dog food bag, even opened a tin of his food to try and lure him out but to no avail. As Morgan started the engine, she let herself accept he'd run off. He had done it before and come running back. It was risky to stay out here, still needing to find a place to spend the night. Kicking at a rock with her boot, she stared up at the sky. Dark clouds swirled, suffocating the sunlight. Yet, she smiled, closed her eyes for a moment, letting the wind chill her forcing her hair to dance, wild and untamed. She thought of every bright moment she'd ever felt. She thought of the farm, of her dad, of Judith playing with her doll, of Maggie teasing Glenn... Of Daryl. Daryl arguing with her, breaking down over everything they'd lost, drinking with her, carrying her... Saving her. If anything were to happen, if she didn't make it to them, she'd be damned if she didn't let herself remember just how many good memories she had of them.
"Any sign of him?" Morgan called from the car window. She turned, rubbing her arms, heading over, shaking her head with a sad smile.
"He'll turn up... We need to get going, were losing light."
He nodded, waiting for her to get in, "yes mam."
As they pulled out, Beth remembered the woman and her dead children. She wished they could have buried them, or at least given them some sort of final word. That was death. Sudden and final. You expected more time to finish things, to have people there, for it all to be perfect. Then something happened and you didn't get a goodbye or a tearful send off. You were just dead and buried and forgotten. Now the dead were always looking to kill and it made it impossible to even see them for what they once were. Beth wasn't Rebecca, as much as she wished she could be. Out there, in the remote regions, where the dead were fewer and there was plenty to earth to rest them in. Here, they outnumbered you, and time spent burying them was time too precious to lose. Even now, as they drove out, Beth knew they had wasted a lot of time. They needed to find somewhere safe and the light was dying. That's when she spotted the block of apartments up ahead, surrounded by a fenced off car park. A few dead roamed the streets around them but the space around the blocks was empty. Morgan shared her thought, driving up to the open fence, cursing as he noticed the five walkers making their way toward them from the road. Beth leapt into action, darting out, rushing toward the gate, pulling it closed, ignoring the groans of the dead as she pulled off her belt, using it to tie the gate together, releasing it just as a walkers head crashed into the metal, teeth biting the links. She hurried back the fence holding. Morgan was close behind, unloading the car, taking their two bags of supplies out as he headed toward the apartment door, stacking them inside the hallway. He glanced toward Beth, surprised when he saw her pull out the arrow she kept secures to her waist, using it to stab through the heads of each walker. The sight unnerved him, her determination and fierce strength rallying his spirits as he began to work faster, lifting all the bags onto his aching back, knife in hand, calling to her.
"You check it out, I'll be there in a sec!"
He knew she would be fine but he lingered, watching her stab the final four walkers, her eyes darting around the area before they fell on him, arrow slipped back into the hook of her jeans as she ran toward him. For a moment, he saw Rick in her. The hat, the fierce look of determination, the look of a person back from the dead, determined to find their family. He didn't deserve to ever linger on how tired or weary he was, not when he had Beth. She may not like being called a saint, but she sure as hell gave him something bright and good to look toward. Taking her knife, she nodded to the stairs, turning her torch on.
He took shifted the bags on his back, staring at the dark staircase before them, praying for good luck before he glanced at he.
"Light the way Beth."