Some places carry a feeling. Daryl couldn't explain it any other way. It was just a fact of life that you would know if you paid attention. Back at the hospital, the moment you saw it you knew it was a bad place, a structure built on lies and false promises of safety. Same could be said about Terminus. Moment they walked in there was a feeling of something dark lurking behind the false smiles of everyone there. Johnson City was no different, no matter what Douglas tried to say about it being abandoned and forgotten.
Soon as they had left the RV on the outskirts and started on foot to the town centre, Daryl knew this place had a strong feeling and it wasn't a good one. He'd suggested leaving Michonne and Glenn behind to watch Carl, Judith and Maggie. Sasha and Tyrese insisted on coming, as did Carol but Rick had asked her to stay, for his kids. Rick was sure as hell worried they were walking into a trap, but this time around, they were armed better than ever. Douglas had pleaded that he be given a gun but all he got was a glare from Rick and a kitchen knife. If he was right about his friend being held up here in the firework warehouse, and this Stuart guy could vouch for the existence of a safe zone in Alexandria, then maybe Rick might start being a little less wary of him. Till then, he kept a firm hold of his rifle and had Douglas walk ahead, urging everyone to keep their guns loaded and ready. Daryl kept a firm hold of his crossbow but he had a shotgun strapped to his back in case. No telling how bad a feeling he had about this place but it was bad enough to know guns might be involved.
Douglas walked on as Rick instructed, looking ahead, holding the radio. They were heading down main street, past abandoned homes and empty cars, taking down the few walkers lingering in the shadows. Night fell fast and the cold began to set in. Daryl hated winter. Things got harder and survival became less about skill and more about luck. Hunting was harder, traveling on foot became a struggle, and if you had kids or weak ones with you the cold could claim them easily. In that way, he was glad they had the RV. It was warm, safe, and everyone managed to fit inside. He'd spent the ride from the motel up front beside Douglas. Their lack of acquaintance giving him the chance to enjoy some silence. Silence was something he'd grown up taking comfort in, but lately... No, lately it just made him relive things he should be moving on from. He'd hear that gun shot that had echoed through the hospital hallway, see her lying there... His mind would wander back, back to that house he'd carried Beth to, back to that kitchen where she'd looked into him and seemed as confused as he was by the sudden change between them. The memory would fade at that point and reconstruct itself into the moment Dawn had sent a bullet through Beth's head. The moment he knelt down and held her, carrying her down those stairs into the sunlight, praying to the sky that she could awaken when the light struck her face. He thought about her when he saw the sign for the town.
He'd never been outside of Georgia. Only person who'd known that was Beth Greene. If she'd been here, he knew she'd have made a joke of it, given him one of those small smiles and gone back to playing with Judith... This place wasn't somewhere he'd want to have taken her. Something bad was waiting in the dark. They were being watched and it drove him crazy not knowing where from. All the houses either side of them were empty, dark, listless. Their footsteps were the only sound to be heard. Even the wind seemed to fall silent, holding it's breath, waiting for what would come next.
"Up there, past that liquor store," Douglas pointed to where the residential street ended at a junction, the moon casting a dim light on the road ahead. There a store with smashed windows and broken crates outside. Empty bottles lay in the gutter. It would be the liquor store that got looted first, Daryl noted. To the right was a long row of shops, all scavenged from, stripped clear long ago. Most didn't even have windows anymore. To the left, Daryl saw a warehouse, a sign out front baring a logo he knew well. JC Fireworks. Only fireworks he'd ever laid his hands on. Every Fourth of July he'd go with Merle and steal some from the local firework show. They held it in a park in the area owned by rich bastards and their fat kids. No one dared even chase after them when they went running. Merle was tall and threatening even back then, when they were young and stupid. They'd take them to the river, far enough so their Mom wouldn't hear them, then light them up and stand back.
Gun powder and fire. That's all they were. Yet Daryl couldn't help but miss the days when they were magic. When there was some mysterious monstrous power in those rockets that burst free the moment a match touched the fuse. Beth would have... No, no he stopped himself and focused his cross bow on the cars abandoned around them, watching for the dead.
"Front door is locked tight but there's a hatch in the roof not many know about. I can..." Douglas stopped talking as Rick shot a warning glance at him, turning to Sasha and Tyrese.
"Wait by the door, I'll head up..."
Daryl walked over, shaking his head, placing a hand on Rick's shoulder, "you'll be too slow. I can get up there easy. Wait up here."
Rick agreed, warning him to be careful. Daryl let out a gruff laugh and nodded, hurrying over to the ladder he'd spotted in the shadows. It took him half way up, his feet finding a ledge which let him breath a second. He glanced down. If he fell he'd be looking at two broken legs. It didn't scare him, he didn't even mind when he had to climb from ledge to ledge to get up higher. When you learn to face your fears young, they can't control you when your older. Only thing that scared young Daryl Dixon was his dad and losing their home. Funny enough, both those things weren't a problem anymore, but fear wasn't the hardest emotion to handle. Not for Daryl. Grief was his fatal flaw. Holding onto the pain of losing people, never letting it out, never telling anyone what he felt like inside. Losing his mom, his brother, Beth. Just when he was starting to get over someone, another person died and he was left with the hurt and the anger but no one to turn to. Maybe he was cursed, and anyone who ever got to really know him didn't ever get to live long because fate wasn't keen on a man like him being happy. Life was a bitch.
"Come on you bitch," he murmured to himself, straining as he used his arms to pull his body up to the roof ledge, hands aching from his grip of the sharp edged metal. He let his back hit the roof, breathing, peering down. That wasn't a fall he'd survive. Climbing up, he saw the hatch, partially open. Cross bow ready, he looked inside, cursing. No light. Not a good sign. This Stuart would have had a light on if he'd been held up here. Taking a torch from his belt, Daryl slipped it between his teeth, dropping down onto the railing beneath the hatch, the metal creaking but holding. The place was empty, a big empty warehouse with a few hundred crates in the centre. Filled with fireworks. His childhood dream seeming pointless now.
Hurrying down the staircase, he went to the door, pulling up the heavy metal bars that were slotted across the enterance. The first was hefty and he strained to pull it, but the second came easier, and the third was almost eager to be set free of the lock. When the door opened, with the light of three torches, Daryl was able to notice something at the back of the warehouse. Something up on the wall, dripping, a puddle of dark liquid beneath it. He cursed, wishing he'd noticed earlier. Cautiously, he walked over, training his torch light on the dark... Body. It was a body, pinned up like he'd been crucified, blood pouring from open wounds at his neck and wrists. His shirt was open, chest bare, a word carved into his flesh.
When Rick noticed Daryl's light, he walked over and winced at the sight. He'd not seen something like this in a while. His first though was the RV. They needed to get back soon if people were nearby who could do this. Douglas raced forward, murmuring mournfully under his breath. Rick had forgotten that this crucified man was a friend to their new acquaintance and he felt for the man. Daryl helped Douglas pull out the shards of metal used to nail the man up, his body falling into his friends arms as Diuglas cradled him, frowning.
"Whisper?" Daryl looked at Douglas who took a deep breath, swallowing his grief as he looked up.
"The whisperers. Group of assholes who attacked the safe zone few months back, and failed. He must have come here and run into them. Hell, I'm gonna have to tell his wife..." Douglas fell silent. Naomi, Stuart's wife, he'd had his way with her a month before all this crap had happened. More guilt he'd never live down. Telling her he'd failed to save Stuart... That was gonna be difficult.
"We need to get going," Rick commanded and Douglas slowly let his fallen comrade down to the blood soaked floor. He sighed, looking to the crates then to Rick, expression determined and stronger than before.
"We take as many as we can and light them outside of town. Alexandria will radio in NAND we can leave before the whisperers know we were here... We have to leave Stuart here though... Take one of their kills and..." He trailed off and Rick let him linger there, Tyrese and Sasha lifting a box together while Daryl went for another, all pausing in alarm as a bright light came from outside. Rick raced out, eyes widening as he saw the street lights turning on one by one, all they way down the residential street... Where a walker heard was heading toward them. He swore and called for them to hurry but then the sound of nearing groans and cries was broken by the blaring sound of a siren. Rick couldn't see where it came from but it summoned the attention of the dead toward them and he had no choice but to heave the door shut.
Daryl raced to help, stunned by how close the hoard was. Those weren't on their way a few minutes ago. No, someone brought them here and was guiding them to the warehouse. Douglas stood up, frozen, fear etched in his now pale face, "it's them. Shit, their gonna let the dead rip us apart and watch. Damn you Stuart, why didn't you leave a warning you selfish bastard!"
"I think he was the warning" Rick said, loading his gun, heading to the roof. That's when Daryl heard Beth's voice in his head. We should burn it down. His eyes strayed to Tyrese and the box of fireworks. The tower of boxes. It was a long shot but it was all they had. Running over, he found the biggest rocket, cutting it open, making a trail of gun powder to the stairs that led to the roof. Rick noticed, reading Daryl in a heartbeat, all to aware of the plan. He didn't think twice, trusting his friends impulse.
"Everyone up and out, Douglas, call the RV, tell them to drive up to the cover of the Forrest."
As the plan unfolded, Daryl focused on his task, ignoring the siren that made his ears ring, ignoring the walkers pounding at the door, letting himself recall Beth's words over and over in his mind. He remembered throwing all that moonshine about as she laughed, lighting the fire, watching it burn, raising a middle finger because she wanted to. He smiled for a moment, standing back. The trail was long but he'd have to be quick. Pulling out the matchbox from the motel, he struck a light and stared at it for a moment.
"Light 'em up," he murmured, flicking the match, the flame traveling quicker than he expected. Daryl raced up the stairs, two at a time, resisting the urge to look back, even when the first of the dead broke through the door and began growling and groaning at the sight of him. Rick was waiting at on the roof, pulling Daryl up.
"Ready?" He breathed pointing over to the adjacent rooftop where the others were waiting. Daryl nodded, both jumping, all running across the shop rooftops, making it to a stretch of empty street. Daryl shot a walker with his cross bow, about to retrieve the arrow when the explosion set the street alight, shaking the ground, collapsing the shops beside it, a huge fiery light burning everything in it's wake. He got up and ran, following the others, unable to stop himself smiling as he heard the words in his head. We should burn it down. Hell why did it make him feel so alive to feel the heat of the fire and the ghost of her words circling his mind.
Beth Greene hadn't just changed him. She'd driven him crazy, and he couldn't imagine life any other way.
"Come on Snow! Sit!"
The dog remained standing, staring into Dawn's sky blue eyes, tongue lolling, waiting for the treat he knew he'd be given regardless of his failure to heed her command. Dawn had been trying to teach him to sit for the past hour, only succeeding in losing a handful of jerky pieces. Snow was too loving. She couldn't resist giving him a treat when he stared at her with that face. Morgan just laughed and kept on studying his map. They were close to Johnson City and he was adamant that they would stay there the night if it seemed safe. Dawn didn't mind. Her back was aching from sleeping in the car. They had passed the motel that day. Morgan said he saw new tyre tracks leading out from the motel to the open road. In his mind, they were hot on Rick's heels, but she was a little less sure. Knowing her group, they'd had little reason to stop anywhere, no one to stop and help. Maybe they were a few days away at least, but Morgan didn't seem to realise how slow a journey they'd had. Regardless, Dawn appreciated how hopeful he was. Morgan was more open and honest with her and she preferred it to how things had been.
"That dog ain't gonna learn nothing if you keep spoiling it."
Morgan sighed as she ignored him, insisting the creature sit. Standing up, he stretched, folding the map away carefully. About time one of them slept, and if Dawn wouldn't, he sure as hell could use some rest. He trusted her to keep watch. She wasn't as useless as he'd expected her to be. Dawn watched and knew her way with a knife. He wished they had a gun to use but with a Forrest of unseen threats around them, avoiding loud sounds was probably wisest.
Glancing at the dog, he smiled for a moment, before speaking in a low commanding tone, "Here boy, sit!"
To his surprise, Snow sat immeadietly, wagging his tail. Dawn groaned and held up her hands in resignation, "I give up!"
Then, a low rumble sounded from ahead of them. Distant but loud, a bright light shining from beyond the trees. Then, a thousand different fireworks exploded in the sky all at once, the sound horrifyingly loud, like an almighty crack of thunder. Dawn jumped, staring up as the sky was alight with explosions for a moment. He feared it might be a bomb, while Dawn feared it was the sound of something coming. Then, it died, and the silence absorbed them. Morgan glanced down at her, "we should sleep in the car tonight."
She nodded, putting out the fire, glancing up at him, "for a moment I thought the universe might have exploded."
Uneasily, he laughed, "those weren't stars."
She nodded, packing away the blankets and tins, "I know but I still made a wish on it."
That made Morgan pause, confused as he saw how matter of factory she'd spoken. Noticing his slowed pace, she looked at him, smiling, "don't worry, I didn't wish for anything stupid."
They tried to find Snow but he'd run off when they had been distracted by the explosion. Dawn wasn't overly concerned. She knew too well he was wild, but tame enough to come back by morning. Morgan let her know they'd stay till Dawn which made her smile.
As they climbed into the car, curiosity overweighted alarm and he asked her what she wished for. Dawn shrugged, staring up at the sky through the window, "I wished for whoever I lost to come back to me... like the wolf calling the moon."
"What the hell happend?!"
Glenn's outcry was a welcome sound as Rick and the others approached the concealed RV. Carol rushed over to Tyrese, embracing him. Sasha laughed and wiped sweat from her forehead. Douglas rushed ahead with Rick, hurrying to his radio. Daryl was the only one left alone outside, taking deep breaths, still weary from the long run here. He rested a hand on the cool door of the RV, listening to Rick and Douglas.
"No signal yet, might take soem time for my people to figure out it's me. We've lost a lot of people out here lately."
"We can't linger here too long."
"Don't worry. We will be gone the moment they radio in."
Daryl heard enough to know they were staying put. That meant he could afford soem time alone. Heading into the trees, he followed the moonlight, looking for somewhere far enough to earn him privacy, just not too far for him to lose awareness of what was happening at camp. Deep down he knew they were being followed, or would be the moment those whisperers knew they'd escaped the fire. When bodied don't have guns beside them it's obvious all you've killed are walkers. He hadn't heard of these whisperers before, but they'd met enough of their kind. Truth was, no one out there was trustworthy. You stick your neck out for your own and you fight for them. That's why he was here, with Rick, with what was left of their group. They were family... Beth had been family. Thinking of her, he stopped, noticing a small river up ahead. Carefully avoiding the twisted maze of roots and undergrowth energy his feet, he made his way to the crooked tree whose roots spilled into the river. The water was silent, running without a sound, save for the odd trickle as he stuck the toe of his boot into it.
The moon left him in shadows, darkness absorbing him. It seemed he was always in the dark. It's where people like him belonged. Lost and alone. His mom used to say that to him when she was drunk. That he was meant to be alone, meant to be some stray dog walking the street, too much of a mutt to ever amount to anything, too wild to ever find anyone who could put up with him. He'd walk out when she was like that, slam the door and make out he hadn't heard, but the words burnt into him, even now. Especially now. A lonely dog sitting in the shadows, waiting for the next struggle ahead.
He considered getting his knife and attacking another tree to vent some of the anger, but he wasn't angry enough. Grief was his trouble and it didn't go away when you started hitting something. Grief needed time, and pain, and someone to listen. Damn Beth Greene for ever letting him think he had someone to talk to. Damn Merle Dixon for dying on him, leaving him without any family. Family had to listen to your shit. Instead, he just looked up at the moon and let himself relax. Till a rustle behind him brought him back to where he was. Grabbing his knife, he spun round, staring at the white creature before him. A single brown eye staring up at him.