"Do you have to go?"
Jess cried as the question burst from her. Dawn was beside her, holding her hand, smiling at her as tears trickled down the younger girls rosy cheeks. Jess was so child like, so unaware of how dark a world lay outside her door. She had to say goodbye inside because her chest had that horrible tube in it. Her mom was monitoring her heart, after last nights dizzy spell. Jess had felt so scared, so weak, till Dawn came rushing in, holding her as her mom got the medicine. To her, Dawn was an angel. Dawn was the only friend she had, the only one who could sit with her and play. When she left, Jess would be alone and her mom would leave again to get supplies and she'd be alone...
"I'll be back. I promise. When I find my friends, I'll come back and find you."
Dawn meant it. She'd spent all night thinking of how unsafe it was for Rebecca to stay out here by herself. They'd saved, her fed her, cared for her. Twice, she reminded herself. Twice this house had kept her safe. She owed them everything and leaving them here, at the mercy of anyone who happened upon them, was a poor way to repay them. No, she'd ask Rick to help her. To bring them to Washington... If they ever found anywhere in Washington that was safe.
Morgan was starting the car outside, so Dawn gave Jess another hug. Their fourth that day. Brushing the girls hair down, Dawn looked at her, smiling through tears, "hey, can you take this for me. As long as you have it, I'll be able to find you."
Dawn placed the Washington spoon in the girls hand, her small fingers tightening around it, her lips curled into a small smile, "I'll see you soon."
For a girl so young, she was brave, and that made Dawn smile. Jess pointed to the end of her bed, asking Dawn to take her rainbow coloured woollen scarf, "So you will remember me too."
Morgan came to the doorway, rubbing his hands on his jacket. He nodded at her, giving Jess a smile and a wave. Dawn was wearing the tan jacket he'd worn when he got here, with thick lined boots Rebecca had given her. As she rose, she wrapped the scarf Jess had given her around her neck, the soft smell of jasmine making her sigh. This house would be easy to leave behind.
Outside, Rebecca was loading a bag of food into the backseat, refusing to heed Morgan's objections, wiping her eyes as she looked over at Dawn.
"I am going to miss you, miracle girl," she smiled, embracing her tightly, silently praying Dawn would be safe. She prayed for both of them. How was she going to go back to surviving alone, to not having anyone...
"Thank you. For everything."
Dawn's words made her sigh, tucking the girls hair behind her ears, pressing her lips to her cheek. This was hard but Rebecca knew the girl deserved to find her friends. To send hope to people out there who missed her, who were struggling without her. Dawn climbed into the car as Morgan approached Rebecca, his face strangely sad. He was always so firm, so confident and determined. Her eyes watered a little.
"When we find everyone, when we find somewhere safe... I'll come back. We can help you. I swear."
Smiling, she pulled him into an embrace, arms tightly wound around him, "thank you, Morgan."
Pulling away, she smiled, watching them start their journey, ending their stay. The car drove away and with every second, she felt more and more alone. It was hard to watch the car disappear but Rebecca sighed and wiped her eyes. It was time to move on. To go on with how things had always been... How things might always be.
Motel Clementine. Parking available. No Vacany. The sign was clear as day when they were a few metres away from the place. Clouds above began to grow darker, a bad omen maybe, but these days bad things happen whether there is an omen or forest cleared around the strange place. It was easy to miss from the road, cast into darkness by the surrounding trees and the absence of sun light. The sign stood, straight and untouched, save for the vines crawling up the pole. The neon tube lights that outlines the motel name were grimy and without the electricity needed to illuminate. Daryl knew places like this too well. Often, Merle would take him on the road, stopping at places like this to get drugs or a box of unknown goods to sell on. He was glad this place was deserted.
There was a cheap wire fence up around it, broken at the middle, most likely by a car judging by the width of the gap and the bent metal poles on the floor. Motel itself was dark, wooden panels so dark they seemed almost black, the doors to each room painted a dull orange with rusted numbers. All the windows were grimy, too filthy to let you see inside. A few were broken, red stains on the jagged edges of the glass that lingered in the frame. It was only a two storey building, low and wide. That was about all there was to say about the motel.
As they got closer, Daryl studied the building carefully. Bottom level had a row of eight windows, as did the top. Low roof, crooked drain pipes, an american flag flying in the breeze, representing a dead stairs were stained red, a trail of blood leading up from the bottom level, remains of a corpse or two lingering on the top step. The Tarmac leading up to the motel was filled with signs of death. Books, a stuffed rabbit, some abandoned suitcases lay open by the lobby, clothes scattered by the wind, strewn everywhere. Rick moved to the side and they all glanced through the fence, seeing five walkers roaming aimlessly, not as starved as most in the woods. There was a body, a few feet away, not fresh but not fully decomposed, lying host to a thousand flies. Explained how they were so well fed. The walkers prowled around it, groaning. One was a girl, about eighteen, with no arms, blond hair covering her sunken face. She was shorter than the rest, thinner, stumbling as she tripped on a mound of moulded clothes. Why Daryl noticed her over the others he couldn't tell, but he didn't like letting his eyes linger on her small form. There was something familiar in her figure, in her hair, and it made him feel uneasy for a moment. Just a moment.
Rick was the first to voice what the others were thinking, "can't be anyone inside or they'd have been trying to break in through the windows."
Glenn edged out a little, peering at the alley between the motel and the small maintanence cabin. He could see a car park beyond the gap. The afternoon was edging into early evening and the clouds were obstructing the suns light, but Glenn could make out a few shapes.
"There's a cabin or some kind of truck back there. I can see movement, walkers most likely... We have to get a closer look."
Daryl studied the road, crouching down by the feint tyre marks left behind, "Whatever kinda vehicle that's back there crashed through this fence. Not long ago either."
Rick came over, crouching beside him, resting against his rifle, "you saying these are fresh tracks?"
Daryl studied them closely. Marks were long. Someone made a point of backing up and accelerating hard to break in. Fence was weak, broke easy, maybe dented the hood. Tyre marks were wide. No ordinary car. No truck either, the alley was too narrow. He glanced up at Rick, "my guess is that whoever drove in here did it in past five days, maybe. Driving something big."
Rick loaded his gun, "only one way to find out. Take down the walkers quietly, could be a trap."
They crept toward the broken fence, ready to rush forward, but Rick placed a hand on Daryl's shoulder and lowered his voice, "Leave the blonde one to me."
Daryl nodded, relieved to know he wasn't the only one to notice the resemblance the thing had to... No. No, he was lucky Rick was there to know how to help him without needing to ask. He stopped thinking and headed out, raising his cross bow, bring it down on the zombie who was half crouched down, it's growl silenced with a sickening crack of bone and the thud of its body as it struck the floor. Blood sprayed onto his arm, warm and thick. He brought his boot down on its head, making sure it wasn't getting up anytime soon.
"Glenn, watch it."
Tyrese's call made Daryl glance over at the Asian boy, his knife stuck in the head of a walker, another coming up behind him. It took a second to load an arrow up and the thing was dead before Glenn could even look over.
"Thanks," he breathed, pulling the arrow from its eye socket, handing it back to Daryl. Glenn looked tired, stressed. Maggie's condition scared him and Daryl could see just how much he was suffering. Tyrese came with Rick, wiping his axe on his leg, glancing at the alley, "I hear them over there, sounds like something got them excited."
Daryl nodded, "no point walkin' into 'em. Best choice is we see what were up against."
"This way," Rick led, running over to the motel, running up the stairs, dodging a rotting carcass, holding his breath. Glenn gagged but followed close behind. Daryl let his eyes stray to the carcass. It was barely recognisable as human, ribs coated with rotten flesh, the skull fractured. They tried the first door. Locked. The window into the room was broken and Glenn moved to go in, jumping back as he saw a row of bodies tied in stained bed sheets, moving. One of the make shift body bags was small. So small Daryl didn't want to think of how young a child was inside.
"Keep going," Daryl warned Glenn, pushing him onward, ignoring the mummified dead's groans as Rick broke into the next room. It was empty, a few clothes scattered across the floor. A pair of men's shoes. A couple of shirts. The bathroom had three bottles of pills open on the floor. Aspirin. Some cigarettes. A cassette labelled 'Birdy.' Daryl picked them up and stowed them away in his jacket pocket, joining Rick at the window. The car park was a few square meters, no cars in sight, just a bulky RV with it's bumper open, the engine steaming. The dead were surrounding it. Twenty of them. Hammering at the windows. Daryl knew it wasn't your ordinary RV. The windows were blackened out and strong, the tyres heavy duty, and it was painted grey. Someone had customised it for the threats of this new world. Rick mirrored his thoughts, "Someone's gotta be inside. You don't leave that kinda vehicle behind"
"How we gonna help them?" Glenn asked, grabbing a box of matches from the bed table. Daryl shrugged rummaging through the large cabinet near the door, smiling as he found an unopened bottle of whiskey and a first aid kit. Rick rubbed his forehead, pensive.
"Waste of ammo if we try killing them, and the sound might bring more of them to camp."
Daryl knew what he was considering. Leave the guy to it. He was a good distraction and they didn't have the numbers or the resources to take on a hoard. Made sense to leave.. There was Beth's voice in his head again. There's still good people. Damn. He started to think when Tyrese called from the doorway, asking what was to be done next.
That's when Daryl noticed the stack of wood hiding in the shadows by the back of the parking lot. Looked like scrap. Wooden planks and pieces of a shed, even a log or two about as tall as he was. If they got the walkers close, they could burn it and take them out easily. Only problem was getting there without them noticing. He'd just have to risk it. Risk it for a stranger in the hope he wasn't some asshole like everyone else they'd met along the way... Beth would have told him to do it. To try. He wasn't doing this for himself. He was doing it for her.
"We can burn 'em. Let me get to that wood there, I'll climb the fence and call 'em over. Soon as they get close... we burn it."
Rick frowned, studying the parking lot sceptically, "that kinda light might draw every walker round here to us."
Glenn shook his head, handing Daryl the matches and the whiskey, "not with those trees around us. Plus, if any do come, at least they will be behind the fence and away from camp."
Rick thought a moment, looking to Daryl, awaiting his final assent. He nodded and Rick turned to Tyrese, "go back to camp, keep them safe. You too Glenn."
They left, vanishing into the shadows of the trees, leaving Rick and Daryl at the alley entrance. Rick planned on running with Daryl but he refused.
"No point us both getting stuck over there. Moment I start calling them you get into that RV."
Rick nodded, gun in hand. Daryl took a Deep breath.
The walkers cries drowned out as he focused on his heartbeat.
Three. Two. One.
He ran, fast, not even looking at the walkers as he crossed the parking lot, cross bow weighing him down. He heard a few groans from ahead, a walker without any legs emerging from the wood. It didn't cause him much trouble, his knife slicing in and out of its head within seconds. He wanted to look back but he resisted, reaching the fence, studying the wood. Wasn't wet, bone dry in fact. Winter was only just setting in and a this area hadn't been hit by much rain. He drenched the largest panel of wood with whiskey, knowing too well he would have enjoyed it's fiery ability to erase the pain he was in. Guilt never existed when whiskey was involved.
The voice was unfamiliar. Daryl turned to see a man standing of the RV roof, waving his hands at Daryl. He was stocky, with dark skin and ragged clothing. He wasn't close enough to see properly but Daryl noticed how his clothes were torn. Like he'd been attacked. He swore hoping he hadn't been bit. Rick was emerging from the alley, looking to Daryl.
"Get back inside you idiot!" Daryl yelled, striking the fence with his knife. The metallic clanking bringing the walkers to turn around, a few lingering at the RV, most stumbling over. He opened the matches, cursing as they didn't seem to light. Eight matches in with seconds till the walkers were on him, Daryl managed to get one lit, tossing it at the wood, jumping back as the flame burst into life, devouring every scrap of wood to be found. A walker lunged for him but Daryl jumped back, heading to the fence.
"Come on, come and get it you dumb dead bastards!"
Most were already on fire, dropping to the floor. He climbed up the fence, swearing as a flame lashed out at him, burning his arm, the pain numbing as he fell to the other side. There was no time to treat the wound so he ignored it, rushing to his feet, grimacing as a walker came to the fence, on fire, face melting as it hissed at him. As skin started to burn away, Daryl saw he was just a kid, bit older than Carl, wearing one of those nerdy t shirts with some tv show on it, some stained converse on his feet. Ordinary teenager, probably on holiday with his parents. Daryl stood closer to it, watching as it's eyeballs burned down to nothing, it's body black and charred as it dropped. The smell made him stand back, grimacing.
He didn't enjoy killing them anymore. Go back to when he was with Merle, killing one of these damn things was an honour, a game, a way to show you were a man. Maybe he'd just gone soft, but Daryl didn't enjoy watching them die. He killed them because he had to. Not because he wanted to. Beth was right, when they found those walker bodies someone had been fixing up to bury. He wouldn't call it beautiful, but it was something good in a way. Seeing them for who they were. When he killed Merle, he'd have given anything to see someone fix him up and bury him as a man, not as a monster.
That's when the rain started, pouring down from the dark clouds above. First rain they'd had in a long time. In a week there'd be snow, closer they got to Washington. Beth would have liked snow... Beth would have liked to have lived.
Rick's voice brought him back to where he was, running to the fence, climbing over, ignoring the blaze as he hurried over to the RV. Rick had the guy pinned against it, searching him. When he approached the man stared at him with a relieved smile.
"Nice work, thanks so..."
He was cut off by a sharp jab in the ribs by Rick, "Enough. Now tell me again, who the hell are you?"
Freeing himself from Rick, he stood before them, rubbing his ribs, "Douglas Monroe. I'm sorta the scout for ASZ."
Daryl frowned, confused. The guy looked battered and bruised, a deep scar on his cheek, but he spoke confidently, almost like he was some news broadcaster. Rick frowned. "What?"
He sighed, holding up his hands, "I came out here looking for my friend, he was staying here looking for survivors. Were from the Alexandria Safe Zone."
The car rattled for the first few miles, so Morgan took it slow, keeping his eyes on the road ahead, thankful for the scarcity of walkers. He was sure the car was sturdy enough to withstand hitting one, but he didn't want to risk damaging their onyl hope of reaching Washington in time. They had enough gas in the back, enough food rations, and a map. A part of him was nervous, ready for something to go wrong. An attack by scavengers, a walker hoard, maybe an earthquake. It was impossible for him to believe they could make it there this easily. An hour into driving down the straight road and he allowed himself to relax, glancing over at the girl. Dawn was writing in her journal, balancing it on her knee, the map open on her lap. She'd kept it open and in full view for him, and he felt slightly guilty over how awkwardly she was sitting just to accommodate him. Clearing his throat, he spoke, "We got a good few hours straight on, you can put the map away."
"You sure?" She waited till he nodded before folding it carefully, sliding it into the bag by her feet. Moving her pen back to the journal, she finished her final line. So far shed documented all the happenings from the moment she woke up. She wrote about Jess and Rebecca, about the music she'd found, about how she was forgetting someone and it was killing her slowly to know someone important was missing. Part of the reason why she was writing was because deep down she was so afraid her memory might just leave her completely at any moment, and forgetting was worse than death.
Closing her journal, she began sifting through cassettes. He didn't want to openly state how much he disliked country songs, but he told himself to lighten up. His wife always liked playing that sort of cowboy music when they went on a road trip. Dwayne was too young to complain, more fixated on that grey rabbit his grandma got him for christmas. They drove all night, laughed at old stories, played I spy for the kid, and then, when it was almost time to reach home, she'd always tell him she could keep on driving forever if she had him by her side. That was how they'd met. Senior year. She was his friend Harley's sister. They spoke a few times. Then he asked her out the day he got his drivers got a pick up from his dad. Beat up piece of crap with a dent in the hood and a wheel cap missing. There she was, dressed in a blue dress with white flowers, eyes brighter than the stars, watching her sister play in the park. He pulled up, asked her out for dinner, and she just laughed and nodded. Shy and beautiful and always smiling. Always.
Jenny. It had been a long time since he let himself think of her. Her name was painful to remember, impossible to say except for in his nightmares. Jenny.
"How'd you meet Rick?"
The question broke through his thoughts, bringing him back to where he was, and where Jenny was not. Dawn watched him, knowing too well he was letting his mind linger in sad moments from his past. She didn't know him well enough to pry into his story, but at least her question involved a person they both knew well.
"I was the first living person he met when he woke up from his coma. Took care of his wounds, fed him, told him how the world had gone to shit. He got us guns, promised to radio every morning so I'd know where to find him..."
Dawn smiled, that was the Rick she remembered. All night shed tossed and turned, the absences of those few memories making her feel conflicted, suffocating in the dense fog of confusion. She tried to remember the way every person in her group acted. Rick was strong, a leader, devoted to his kids, always fighting for them all. Morgan had clarified what she knew to be true and that made her feel a momentary flood of relief.
He shook his head, shifting uncomfortably, "how about we put in one of those cassettes."
"I just wanted to ask, I mean, I know you had a fam..."
"Not now, girl."
Dawn knew it was a push to even mention the past, so she sighed, not really caring what she pushed into the stereo. When the music began to play, she turned it up loud enough to drown the awkward silence between them. Leaning out the window, she pressed her cheek against the door, wind blowing through her hair, her scar feeling strange as the breeze kissed it.
Mad world the tape had said. A song her brother listened to a few times, she never liked it. It was too sad. The song was dark. Maybe once upon a time it wasn't but as she watched the world around her, the dead roaming the grass beside the road, abandoned cars with bloodied windows... Sitting back, she let the lyrics sink in.
'Their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression, no expression
Hide my head, I wanna drown my sorrow
No tomorrow, no tomorrow.'
If she didn't find her group, didn't remember everything and find everyone, maybe there would be no reason for a tomorrow. Why fight when the dead have won? She was always full of hope, always believing there were others out there, but her family was dead. The only real future she had was tied to whoever she had forgotten. Where were they? How were they? Maybe they were gone too. Maybe everyone was gone.
Maybe all that was left was a mad world.