“You’re not a happy drunk, at all.”
“Yeah, I’m happy, I’m just not blind.”
They didn’t look back.
Flames towered behind them. Beth could still hear their roaring, could still smell the smoke rising as she and Daryl ran side by side into the woods, away from the burning cabin and the stumbling walkers.
Another wall of fire, another inferno left behind. The heat of destruction at their backs. It was becoming a familiar sensation, here at end of the world.
But this one was different.
This one, they'd started themselves.
As twigs and fallen branches snapped loudly under her boots, Beth felt light, almost giddy, as though they were naughty college kids who’d just pulled a prank. She had never been to college—the world had ended long before she’d had the chance—but that’s how she imagined it anyway. Tonight, she and Daryl had broken almost every rule of this new, dark world that they lived in, and done so gladly.
They’d have no shelter this night, but no matter. It was worth it, it had to be. Just like finding her drink, earlier. Beth could hardly believe that burning that old, abandoned shack had been her idea, and that Daryl—ever practical in all things relating to survival —had agreed to it. She would've laughed or even shouted with exhilaration, but she was already a bit short of breath. Despite being on the run together for a while now—had it really been weeks since their prison home had fallen, their friends and family lost?—keeping up with that seemingly tireless man was not easy.
She kept pace with him now though, pushing through the burning in her lungs, the queasiness in her tummy, and the cramp in her side, and dared a quick glance at him. They had drawn farther and farther from the still-roaring fire, the darkness of the woods deepening, blocking the faint moonlight, until she could barely make him out. Until she could see only the glint of his eye, the silhouette of that crossbow that was almost an extension of his arm, and the pale outline of the wings on the back of his vest beneath the pack he carried. Angel wings, she thought dizzily.
Without warning, Daryl stopped and turned towards her. Too quick; she stumbled into him. Just as fast, his free hand caught her arm, held her up, kept her on her feet.
As she wondered what had made him cease mid-stride, a familiar fear coursed through her and her fingers moved instinctively to the little knife at her belt. She looked wildly around them, expecting a walker or an entire herd to burst through the trees at any moment.
“Easy, girl,” Daryl mumbled, steadying her.
Absurdly, Beth was reminded of the tone her father had used on spooked horses back at the farm and she suppressed a sudden giggle.
“Why’re we stoppin’?” she managed. Breathless and shaky, her voice wavered in dark space between them.
“Look at you, swayin’ on your feet,” he replied, still holding onto her. Unlike earlier, his grip on her arm was firm but gentle. “Sure ya ain't sick?”
“Oh.” She was not entirely certain how to answer. Earlier she'd boldly boasted to him that she was feeling fine, and she had been—buzzed, she remembered her friends calling it—but she wasn't so sure now.
After a moment, she realized her other hand was still on his chest, where she’d placed it to prevent herself from completely bowling into him. Underneath the cool leather of his vest, she could feel his heart thumping. Fast, like a rabbit, the way it had when she’d hugged him close back in her cell that night he’d come to tell her about Zach. It could only have been weeks ago , but it seemed like years. Another lifetime, now.
Looking up into his face, Beth could still behold that rare curve of his mouth and strange brightness in his eyes. He must feel it, too, she thought. A release. A letting-go. Grief, for her father, for Maggie and Glenn, for Rick and Carl, for lil Judy—Oh, God, Judy—for everyone, still lingered within her, hot and searing, but she put it away. “You’ve got to put it away”, she’d insisted to him back there in the run-down shack. Maybe it was just the moonshine talkin’, she thought, but at least it’s got us movin’ again.
“Gotta keep movin’,” Daryl muttered, as if he’d heard her thoughts. Yet still he held her by the arm, his callused grip strong and warm upon her bare flesh. He was close, close enough she could feel the burn of the moonshine on his breath.
Beth just nodded up at him, her own breath coming in little gasps. Even Daryl seemed to need a moment before pressing on again. He’d had quite a bit of the drink himself, in the end. As she was all-too aware. "I'm a dick when I'm drunk," he'd said back there on that moonlit porch, a sheepish smile creeping over his features.
The near-hilarity of their situation was fading as the reality set in—they’d burned their only shelter for the night, and walkers could still overrun these woods any moment. After a lifetime without, all that alcohol was making Beth’s head swim. She’d felt amazing back there on the enclosed porch, but after running like hell she thought she might be sick. She never thought she’d admit it, but maybe her daddy had been right to forbid it, before. Maybe she would've even told him so if she could only have…
Sudden tears welled, threatened to spill, but she shook them away.
“Sure you’re alright?” Daryl inclined his head, looking her up and down, that small smile that had been playing on his lips since they had sat on the porch together replaced with something else. Something new.
Beth shivered, suddenly feeling the night air. “Yeah, just my first drink an’ all that,” she shrugged.
“You mean drinks.” There was amusement in his tone. “You downed a helluva lot. Seein’ it was your first time 'n all. Never took you for a moonshine girl, Greene. Be feelin' it come mornin’. If you ain’t already.”
He’s teasin' me. She grinned up at him. “So much for bein’ my chaperone. You had quite a few yourself, Mr. Dixon.” Her breath was coming back to her now, but her head was still a bit fuzzy. She lowered her hand from his chest, letting the cool leather of his vest slide under her fingers.
Gradually, Daryl released her from both his gaze and his grip. She began to move away when she felt his hand come back up, to linger for a moment upon the small of her back. His fingers were light but strong as he nudged her forward. “Come on,” he mumbled.
As she followed him deeper into the trees, branches scratched at her arms, her face, her hair, as grasping as any walker’s nails. Once again, she resisted the urge to glance behind her. If the dead were walking out here, let them come. She pushed a wispy lock of hair that had fallen from her ponytail out of her face and took a deep breath. What lies ahead. That’s all that matters now. In this world, that meant more walkers—and more death—that much was certain. Beth had made room for loss before, and if she lived long enough she knew she might have to do so again.
These woods might hold her death this very night, but Beth felt like shouting in defiance at the darkness, just as they had flipped off the shack and watched it burn, the flames dancing high into the midnight sky. Before today, it had been a long time since they’d had much reason to keep going. The loss of all whom they had known and loved had seemed too much to bear. Too much to bear alone, she thought, but not too heavy to carry together.
Before today, she'd feared she might lose him, too. Lose him to the numbness and grief and sheer indifference of it all. But then they'd drank together, and the grief had come pouring out out of him…
In the midst of it, and in the aftermath, Beth had remembered something her father had once told her—how some folk were akin to a glass overflowing. So filled up with whatever ailed them that they'd have to empty themselves before there was room for anything else again. Guess you were right about that too, Daddy.
As she moved quickly but carefully through the night woods, still shadowing her companion, she caught him glancing her at her often. Probably just makin' sure I'm not miles behind him, puking my guts out. And yet, each time she reached his side, his arm would come up to urge her onward. It was only the briefest of movements, a subtle resting of fingers upon her back, shoulder, or elbow. But it was insistent, protective.
In a night already laden with thoughts of their prison family and of those already long-gone, she was hit with yet another memory of her big brother, Shawn. Back there in the shack, she'd told Daryl that she'd found her older brother annoying and even overprotective at times—and it was true. But of course she had never truly minded. If anything, she had to admit she missed it, even—that feeling of just knowing that someone so loyal, so strong always had her back.
An old classic rock song her brother had always blared through the open windows of his pickup truck came to her then, rising like a mist from the floor of memory. And as often happened, before she even realized it she was humming it to herself, the sounds high and pleasing in her throat:
Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done.
Lay your weary head to rest,
Don’t you cry no more…
The song trailed off, her voice fading away into the night as smoke or wisps of cloud disappear before the light of the moon. Feeling strangely shy all of a sudden, she stole another glance at Daryl. If he'd noticed her singing, he'd made no sign. Despite herself, she could not help feel somewhat relieved—if the man still considered such an activity frivolous and annoying, she didn't really want to find out.
As she observed him striding close to her side but just slightly ahead of her, she wondered if she was perhaps imagining it. Imagining the expression on his face. For, despite the perilous nature of their current situation, Daryl appeared oddly calm. Not just unmoved and stoic in the face of their almost unbearable loss as he had been these last weeks, during even in his blackest moods. The air around him felt somehow less charged, and the man himself appeared almost…serene.
Beth considered this shift in the fabric of their strange and precarious existence. This eking out of a survival of sorts out here, deep in the forest. Might it be that the surreal events of today had set a new path unfolding ahead of them? A path of living, not just breathing. A path upon which, perhaps, they might just find something…more.
Some might say there was neither peace nor rest left in this world, but that didn’t mean she would stop looking. Not for as long as she lasted, anyway. And she intended to last, for a while longer at least.
Daryl would keep going too, she had admonished him that he must. Somehow, she felt that he would adhere to that, even after she was long gone. “Stop,” he’d pleaded, when she’d started down that dark thought-trail back at the cabin. When she'd told him she'd be gone someday. And oh, that look he'd given her, almost as if she were twisting that big knife of his into his side. Almost as if he…
She shook her head again, trying to rattle away the memory of it. That hard, narrowed gaze, gone soft and vulnerable. Those once-guarded eyes, shining with some unearthly light. Or perhaps it had just been the halo moonshine that surrounded them both.
No, something sure had changed tonight. Shifted, like the earth was shifting under her boots. We burned it down.
Fire. She knew she ought to fear it, as a horse fears it, with the whites of its eyes gleaming in the dark, with nostrils flaring from the acrid smoke. For she was well-acquainted with its destructive power. Her childhood home, all she'd ever known, had gone up in flames on that long-ago, fateful night. And later, the prison towers had smoked and burned as Daryl had come for her, as they'd turned and fled together at the last moment.
And yet, in lighting up that shack with her own hand—her own hand and his, she reminded herself—Beth felt less and less as though she'd just finished something and more and more as though something had just begun. Something she might not be able to stop, even if she'd wanted to, something as wild and unpredictable as the element itself. She felt spurred ever onward by some inward force, as though she had always been a creature of flight. As though something of the fire yet burned within her, as though the very soles of her feet might set the night-forest alight.
The weight of all they'd left burning back there began to lift, for all was transmuted, wood and glass even now floating skyward as smoke and ash. There could be no turning back. She'd made her choice, she'd had her damn drink. She'd poured that booze, she'd smashed those glasses. Hell, she'd just set something on fire. With him.
Beth suspected that, moonshine or no, this wasn't the sort of somethin' she'd forget come morning.
Maybe she was doing too much thinking for someone who'd been drinking, for as she looked ahead she saw that she'd once again fallen behind Daryl. He was now a few paces ahead of her, the wings on his vest a faint glow in the shadows. Lest they fade entirely, she quickened her steps, the undergrowth crunching beneath her boots, and soon she was at his side once more. And I'm gonna stay here, she thought, as long as I can. As long as I live…
They picked up the pace, and with each step they breathed the same breaths, shared the same night air.
As they emerged from the trees to dart cross an abandoned country road, the thin clouds above parted to reveal the silvery moon. Beneath its pale light, their shadows shifted and merged, and as they ran once more into the shelter of the forest, Beth felt a strange sense of certainty.
Together, they would live to see another dawn.