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A Game of Hearts

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 “I never thought I’d see it, even in the apocalypse,” Maggie said, her tone approaching lightness for the first time in days.  “Playing cards?  Whatever happened to ‘temptations of the devil”?

 

“Seems to me the Lord won’t mind if I dust off an old habit just this once,” Hershel replied as they turned the corner into C Block.  “We all need a distraction so badly.  Though if the devil does make an appearance, I’ll be sure to ask him how my leg tasted.”

 

Maggie ran her thumb along the edge of the pack of cards.  Her father was more than right about the need for distraction.  With T-Dog gone, Lori gone, and Rick roaming the depths of the prison answering phone calls from nowhere…well, their group had seen better times.  Maggie herself had hardly slept the past few days, between helping with the newborn and avoiding the nightmares that rushed up every time she closed her eyes.  I’m not losing my baby, Lori had said.  You’re gonna have to cut me open.

 

When Daryl had emerged from the tombs the previous afternoon, Carol’s limp form tenderly cradled in his arms, Maggie had hardly dared believe it.  How had Carol survived alone without weapons, for three days?  But Hershel had declared her uninjured, to the intense relief of the group that had gathered at her bedside.  She had suffered severe dehydration and mild heatstroke, and would take a few days to regain her strength, but she would be okay. 

 

Carol’s eyes caught the light as she turned her head toward the doorway where Maggie and Hershel stood.  “Good, you’re awake,” said Hershel.

 

“We thought you might like to—” Maggie began, but stopped in midsentence when Carol brought a finger to her lips.  As Hershel set his crutches against the wall, his shadow shifted, allowing the light from the doorway to fall on a huddled form.  Maggie realized that it was Daryl, seated on the floor by the foot of the bed, one hand stretched out to hold Carol’s.  He had managed to fall asleep in this position, his head lolling down onto his shoulder.  Did he stay here all night?

 

“I see you’re already well attended,” Hershel whispered to Carol.  “I’ll just check your vitals, then we can come back in a bit.”  He took one hop toward the bunk, reaching to Maggie for support, but all three of them were distracted by a muffled “hmmm” from Daryl.  The man stirred, then suddenly jerked awake.

 

“Carol?”  Daryl looked around wildly for a moment before orienting himself and realizing Carol was three feet away from him.  He let out his breath audibly when his eyes found hers.

 

“Right here, Pookie,” said Carol.  Her voice was still cracked and hoarse.  Daryl, noticing Maggie and Hershel, dropped Carol’s hand and began climbing to his feet.  Maggie thought she could see him blushing in the dim light of the cell.

 

“Daryl, we didn’t mean to wake you,” Maggie said.

 

“I ain’t tired,” he mumbled, fumbling with the kerosene lantern on a small table in the corner.  “Must’ve just dozed off for a minute.”  The lantern blazed to life, illuminating the whole scene: Carol, propped against a couple of pillows with the blankets neatly tucked around her, and Daryl, his clothes rumpled, rubbing sleep from his eyes.  He stepped to the head of the bed and laid a hand on Carol’s forehead.  “You okay?  You thirsty?”  Daryl’s face was full of concern, and Maggie thought of Glenn, anxiously checking in with her after she had been forced to perform an emergency C-section on Lori.

 

“Some more water’d be nice,” Carol rasped.  As Daryl sprang up, nearly cracking his skull on the upper bunk, Hershel stilled him with a hand on his shoulder.

 

“It’s alright, we brought water,” Maggie’s father said.  Maggie moved forward, holding the bottle of water out to Daryl.  He took it and gently eased it to Carol’s lips.  Carol extended one hand to help guide the bottle, allowing Daryl to hold most of its weight as she drank a long sip.

 

“What’s going on out there?” Carol asked once she had quenched her thirst.  “The baby okay?  You seen Rick?”

 

“The baby’s alright. Beth’s trying to get some breakfast into her,” said Hershel.  He reached out and laid two fingers against the pulse in Carol’s neck.  “Glenn and Oscar went on a run to look for more formula.  Axel’s on watch, said he saw Rick wandering on the other side of the fence.  We can’t do anything for Rick but give him time.”

 

Carol’s lips tightened as she gave a small nod.  “And Carl?”  she asked.

 

Hershel and Maggie shared a glance.  Since Carl had shot his own mother in the head, he had barely spoken to anyone.  He pitched in with the group’s duties, but in his free moments he had taken to pacing the C block yard, his downward gaze fixed on the gun in his hands.  Maggie had tried once to bring up their shared ordeal with him, but to no avail.

 

“We were thinking we’d ask Carl to join us, once we knew if you were awake,” Maggie said.  She held up the deck of cards.  “Daddy wants to teach everybody Hearts.” 

 

“Hearts?  What’s that?”  Daryl looked at Hershel in confusion.

 

“I used to play it with some friends in veterinary school,” Hershel explained.  “It’s not too hard to learn, but it’s complicated enough to take all of our minds off recent events for an hour or so.”  Taking Carol’s outstretched hand, Hershel gently pinched the skin on the back of it, checking for the tell-tale lack of elasticity that would mean she still didn’t have enough water in her system.

 

Daryl still appeared thoroughly suspicious.  “You think she can play cards just yet?”  he pressed.  “She ain’t even ready to stand up, hell, she can’t hardly sit up.  You best not be tiring her out.”  Maggie could hear the fierce protection in his voice as he took a step closer to Carol. 

 

“Actually, I think I could use a bit of mental exercise,” Carol said.  She inclined her head to smile up at the man standing over her.  “We can always stop if I’m getting tired.”

 

Daryl considered this.  Maggie resisted the urge to avert her eyes; the endearment in the way he looked at Carol was so honest and vulnerable that Maggie felt as though she were intruding on something private.  Finally, he nodded.

 

“Alright, but you can’t be reachin’ out and nearly falling out of bed every time your turn comes around.  Someone oughta sit by and hold your cards for you.”

 

“Someone to hold my cards?  Who could that be?” 

 

“Pffft.”  Daryl shook his head as though he couldn’t believe what he had essentially talked himself into.  “Lemme just go take a piss first.”

 

“I’ll go find Carl,” said Maggie.  “And I’ll get a chair for you, Daddy.  The rest of us’ll be alright on the floor.”  She followed Daryl out of the cell, leaving Hershel to open his medical bag and continue examining Carol. 

 

Ain’t Daryl something, Maggie thought idly as she headed out to the yard.  Falls asleep holding Carol’s hand after saving her life, but can’t come out and say it plain that he’d like to help her in a game of cards.  She felt a swell of gratitude for Glenn’s unfailing directness.  In times like these, when it could be anyone’s last day on earth, you had to act on love when you could.

 

****

 

For someone who claimed not to have played this game in thirty years, Hershel remembered the rules perfectly.  “As I’ve said, each round is called a trick.  The goal of every trick is to avoid picking up hearts or the Queen of Spades.  The one exception is if you pick up all of the hearts and the Queen of Spades, there’s a twenty-six-point bonus.  That’s called shooting the moon.  Now, it’s easy to think you can shoot the moon, but strategically it’s very difficult to pull off…”

 

Carol felt silently appreciative of Hershel’s patience and thoroughness.  Although a night of sleep had left her feeling much clearer than yesterday, she could tell that she still wasn’t grasping information as quickly as usual.  Her thoughts periodically strayed back to the stifling darkness of the tombs, and she would have to remind herself that she was no longer trapped there.

 

“Are you allowed to lead with hearts right away?”  Maggie asked.  The young woman sat on the floor directly across from Carol’s bunk, knees drawn up to make room for the table with the lantern.  To Maggie’s left sat Carl, who hadn’t yet said a word.  To her right, Hershel perched on a scavenged chair.  Daryl, leaning against the bed, completed the circle.  He had returned carrying a tattered pillow, which he had added to the stack under Carol’s head to raise her to a half-sitting position.  Now he was positioned so close that Carol could see the tiny crow’s-feet beginning at the corner of his left eye.  Between his physical proximity and the smell of his pillow under her head, Carol felt drenched in his scent—a mix of woodsmoke and Georgia pine, like a breath of the outdoors in the stale air of the cell, with a sweeter scent underneath that she had come to recognize as fundamentally Daryl.  She supposed he probably smelled a bit ripe as well, but she had become so accustomed to all of them being perpetually filthy that she could barely detect it.

 

“You can’t lead with hearts unless you don’t have any cards of the starting suit,” Hershel said.  “When the first heart is played, that’s called breaking hearts.”  The old man’s eyes flicked to Carl, a worried furrow momentarily creasing his brows.  “Everybody ready for the first hand?”

 

Hershel dealt out a stack of cards for each player.  Carol shifted onto her side to examine her cards, which Daryl held in a fan shape where both of them could see. 

 

“You’re makin’ the plays, I’m just here for the heavy lifting,” he said.  “You show me what you want, I’ll do it.”

 

“Is that so?” she murmured, her tone as sultry as she could manage with the residual scratchiness in her throat. 

 

Daryl glanced sideways at her.  “Stop.”  An almost imperceptible smile lifted the corner of his mouth.

 

“Pick your three passing cards.  We’ll start with everyone passing to their left.  Remember, this is your chance to make your neighbor a lovely gift of something you don’t want.”  Hershel looked around the circle with an uncharacteristically sly grin.  Carol could suddenly imagine him as a young man, laughing with his friends around a card table and sipping from a tumbler of bourbon.

 

The game began.  Hershel set a fast pace, laying down each card with a decisive speed that the others struggled to match.  Carol’s head swam as she double-checked herself on each move, hoping not to make an embarrassing faux pas in front of Daryl.  He appeared to be taking his role very seriously—every time she pointed to a card, he would turn to meet her eyes for a second, then give a little nod and make the play.  Their awareness of each other’s body language had deepened over the long winter on the road, and she began to ease back into his familiar rhythm.

 

Although they often communicated like this without speaking, Carol had discovered that Daryl was more of a talker than he let on.  If the two of them had an uninterrupted stretch of time alone, she could often get him relaxed and effusive, gesticulating excitedly as he recounted some epic tale.  She had heard a great deal of stories about hunting and tracking, and several others involving Merle’s youthful exploits.  Daryl was a fount of local legends, earnestly describing the meanings of Indian hatchet marks on old trees and sharing myths about the pygmy people that dwelt behind mountain waterfalls.  Once, in the quietest, darkest hour of a shared night watch, he had spoken of his father.  Carol treasured the words he gave her.  More and more she found herself talking too, allowing herself to experience the unfamiliar sensation of being listened to and accepted.

 

“Well, would you look at that, hearts have been broken!”  Hershel announced as he scooped up four cards.

 

Daryl turned to look at Carol, jerking his head slightly toward Carl to indicate that the boy had been the one to play the unexpected heart.  “Kid had some tricks up his sleeve,” he muttered.

 

“Was that a pun, Daryl?  Tricks up his sleeve?”  Maggie teased.

 

“That’s terrible!”  Daryl protested. 

 

Carol chuckled with the others.  But by the time her next turn came, she couldn’t quite catch her breath.  A dizzy heat rose in her body, and her mind tugged her back to the acrid darkness under the prison.  When she tried to point at a card, her index finger skidded down into Daryl’s palm.

 

“Carol?  Carol?  What’s wrong?  Oh, fuck!  Carol!”  Suddenly Daryl was leaning over her, cupping her face and trying to find her gaze.  She noticed vaguely that everyone else was standing too.

 

“Just…felt a little faint…” she rasped. 

 

“You passed out!”  Daryl’s eyes were wide and afraid.

 

“I’m OK…I…” Carol said weakly.

 

“You’re most likely just a little dehydrated.  Let’s get some more water in you,” said Hershel.  He passed the bottle to Daryl, who held it to Carol’s lips.  The first sip tasted like the nectar of the gods, and the second tasted even better.

 

“Here, use this for her forehead.”  Maggie held out a clean shirt that had been hanging on the bunk rail.  Dampening the shirt with a splash of water, Daryl smoothed it down onto Carol’s brow.

 

His hand on her forehead felt cool and callused.  You’re okay, I’m here, his touch seemed to say.  Without really thinking about it, Carol pressed her lips to his wrist.

 

Daryl gave a little stifled gasp.  Carol felt his arm go rigid, but he didn’t pull away.  A jolt of adrenaline brought her back to full lucidity as she met his eyes, full of a liquid, questioning longing.

 

“Are we gonna be able to keep playing?  I had good cards.”  Everyone’s heads swiveled toward Carl as he spoke for the first time.  The boy peered out from under the brim of his sheriff’s hat, gesturing toward the table.  Carol felt herself blushing; Daryl swiftly withdrew his hand and shoved it back into his pocket.

 

“Let’s give it a few more minutes to make sure Carol’s alright.  Then we can finish out this hand,” Maggie said.

 

****

 

Daryl pushed the table with the kerosene lantern back into the corner of the cell.  Although he had never been much of a one for card games, he had to admit that Hershel’s idea had been a good one.  Playing Hearts was certainly a lot more fun than the horribly disorganized family poker tournaments of Daryl’s youth, where the rules were constantly changing, and his uncles came to blows more often than not.

 

Turning the lantern down to a dim glow, he stepped back to Carol’s bedside, careful to move in absolute silence.  He wasn’t sure if she had fallen asleep already, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

 

They had managed to play four hands of Hearts after Carol’s fainting episode.  Hershel had easily won the first and second hands, but on the third hand, Carl had made an impressive underdog coup and had ended up shooting the moon.  “Hey guys, check this out,” the boy had said with a shy smile, revealing his collection of every penalty card in the deck.  Daryl was fairly certain Hershel had let Carl win again on the fourth hand, but it had been more than worth it just to see the kid’s dark cloud lifting slightly.  At that point, Carol had grudgingly conceded that she was getting tired, and Hershel, Maggie, and Carl had departed to go attend to various prison chores.  “We’ll play again this evening or tomorrow,” Hershel had said, taking another survey of Carol’s vitals before making his exit.

 

In the ten minutes since then, Daryl had just about run out of items to neaten up around Carol’s cell.  He knew he should go and see if he was needed somewhere—maybe he could even try to talk some sanity into Rick—but he was finding it difficult to leave Carol.  Last night in his restless half-sleep, he had dreamed that he was walking in the woods as he had done a few days before, searching for a Cherokee rose to lay on her grave.  But in his dream, the entire forest was burnt out for miles and miles.  He shivered just remembering it. 

 

Lingering by the edge of the bed, he allowed himself to stare down at her face, calm and still in repose.  Maybe in a few days, he’d take her up the guard tower at sunrise and watch for migratory birds.  He’d seen a flock of merganser ducks the other day.  Maybe while they were up there, he’d get another glimpse of that little scar on her jaw that was only visible in a certain light.  If Daryl were entirely honest with himself—which he almost never was—he wanted to kiss that scar.

 

“You didn’t have to offer to hold my cards, you know,” Carol murmured, opening her eyes slightly.

 

Daryl jumped, startled from his reverie.  “You fainted,” he reminded her.  “’Sides, way I see it, I was making sure you couldn’t cheat.”

 

Carol laughed, the first time he’d heard her really laugh since finding her in the tombs.  But then her face grew pensive.  “Will you stay?” she asked.

 

Of course he would stay.  Who was he kidding?  He would’ve ended up staying even if she hadn’t said anything.  With a grunt of agreement, he moved to settle himself down on the floor. 

 

“Do you want, uh, would you, um…will you come here?” 

 

Daryl realized in astonishment that Carol was patting the narrow space beside her in the bed.  He felt the blood leave his face, taking every shred of intelligent speech with it.

 

“Mmh?” he sputtered.  “M’dirty…you don’t…I…”

 

“I just meant so you wouldn’t have to sit on the floor,” Carol said.  “It’s okay, there’s room.”  She scooted toward the wall, creating a vacant strip of mattress.

 

If playing cards wasn’t one of Daryl’s strong points, physical proximity had to be one of his weakest.  But the intense trust and reassurance in Carol’s gaze soothed his fear.  And there was a part of him that needed to be tangibly reminded that she was still warm and alive.

 

The bed creaked as Daryl eased his weight down onto it.  After several seconds of clumsy effort, he finally succeeded in tucking the covers around his body.  When he rested his head on one of the pillows, Carol’s face was inches from his own.

 

“Comfy?” she asked.

 

“M’hm.”

 

Carol’s eyes slid closed.  He knew she must be exhausted.  She may have tried to hide it in front of the others, but Daryl could tell that surviving those three days in the tombs had taken everything she had.  Careful to keep to the edge of the bed lest he disturb her rest, he settled in to watch over her.  His hammering heart began to slow incrementally, which was good, because he had been worried she might hear it.

 

A few minutes later, Carol’s breathing was slow and even.  Daryl remembered a story she had told him about Sophia, how the girl slept so lightly that she had woken up every time Carol tried to slip a quarter from the tooth fairy under her pillow.  Their nights out on the road had confirmed that Carol slept as lightly as her daughter.  So Daryl moved in the smallest increments, sliding his hand across the narrow gap between them until he touched Carol’s hand where it lay curled up by her chin.  He gently wrapped his fingers around hers.  Now she could grab hold of something if she had a bad dream, he thought to himself.  It had nothing to do with his own desire to touch her.

 

Suddenly Carol, still fast asleep, squeezed his hand.  She rolled to face away from him, pulling his arm to drape over her.  In the same motion, she nestled her back against his chest with a contented sigh. 

 

Daryl thought he was about to have a stroke.  He lay frozen in place, feeling more electricity coursing through his body than when he had touched a busted spark plug on Merle’s old truck.  This was different than holding Carol back from the barn on the Greene family farm, or carrying her limp body out of the tombs.  In one way it was deeply soothing, as if a breath he’d been holding ever since believing she was dead had been released.  But in another way it was overwhelming, filling all his senses with her presence and bringing up thoughts he should not be having under these circumstances.

 

After what seemed like hours, Daryl concluded that he couldn’t risk pulling away.  Any major shift in his position might wake Carol up.  Despite the effect their contact was having on him, he would simply have to endure it.  And no one would ever hear a word of the fantasies running through his mind.

 

Daryl tightened his arm around Carol—in the name of staying comfortable, of course.  He shifted his lower body a few degrees away from hers, for his own sanity.  Then, to even the score from that moment during the Hearts game, he brushed the spot behind her ear with the lightest, briefest kiss. 

 

“Love you more’n you know,” he whispered.  Closing his eyes, he matched his breathing to hers.