She says Oh. And it never goes much further than that. Not that night. He looks at her until he can’t look at her anymore and then he looks away, at the jar in his hands, at the shit on the table, at the candles, at the wall. At anything. He feels like he edged up to something and edged away again. Words have never come easy to him; frequently they don’t come at all. For once, it seems like the same is true of her.
Except she seems like she might be about to say something else. He’s almost sure.
The dog doesn’t come back. He doesn’t fall asleep in the coffin. He hears her playing down the hall, some other song he doesn’t know. There’s a couch in another room, a parlor that must once have been set aside for the bereaved to be bereaved in dignified solitude, and it’s too short for him but he beds down there anyway.
He can’t be in there. He just can’t. Maybe he’s still grieving. Maybe something else is going on.
Here are some things that don’t happen.
The dog, as mentioned, doesn’t come back. But neither does anyone else. They wait for a few days. He goes out to get wood; there’s a fireplace and the nights are getting chilly. But he doesn’t go on a run. He’s not sure where he would run to. He thinks about running, and about not doing it anymore, even though she hasn’t brought it up again.
So she doesn’t bring it up again. That’s another thing.
They don’t talk about the others. Not anymore.
He doesn’t stop finding little excuses to touch her. Her back, her arm. Her foot, when he checks to see how it’s healing. Once her hair, mostly by accident. He doesn’t think about why.
She doesn’t stop singing.
They don’t leave.
At some point they both realize it’s winter. Full winter, and cold. He needs more wood, and she goes along with him; her foot is healed and her aim is getting better and better, uncannily so. She’s a quick draw. He’s worrying about her less and less. She’s her, still her, but she’s also not anymore. It’s happening slowly. Like a season moving through the year.
I wish I could just change.
There are a couple of houses within a couple of miles, and a store, and it actually looks like they haven’t been looted that badly. There might be enough food to get them through one or two months, if they ration carefully. He can hunt. Set snares. The water in the house seems to be sourced from a well. Maybe they’ll be all right. Board up the house a little better, fortify everything. Maybe they’ll be fine.
Her first time learning to field dress a deer, of course she makes faces, but she also doesn’t hesitate. Gets up to her elbows in blood. Of course she isn’t really squeamish anymore. She holds the knife like she was born to it, and he watches her with his arms crossed and looks for a long time at her slick hands. Later they eat venison and he wonders if there might be a way he could set up some kind of smokehouse. He listens to her sing. He wonders what happened to him. What’s happening now.
They still sleep in shifts. When she’s taking hers he roams the house, quiet as he can, and he lingers when he comes back to her, watches her side and back and chest rise and fall with her breathing. Feels creepy. Can’t really help it. This is confusing and a little alarming. Even if he knew what to do about it he’s not sure he would be able to do anything at all.
It’s been a month.
You’d think at some point she would have finished that conversation.
She tells him stories. She tells him about growing up the way she did, feeling happy but also feeling sort of invisible, the youngest child who was babied and petted but also never really expected to grow up the way her big sister did. Maggie always fulfilled expectations, exceeded them; Maggie went to college and Maggie was going to get married, have a career, have kids, be an adult and do all the things adults do. And what the hell was she going to do? A year and a half left of high school when high school became obsolete and she hadn’t even really thought about after. What she wanted to be, wanted to do. She wanted a baby. She knew that. She wanted a baby, and when she confesses that in a very small voice and she isn’t quite looking at him, he watches how the firelight moves across her face and he gets very angry. Because she should have been able to have that. That much. It’s unfair.
She’s living in a funeral home with him and he guesses it’s probably all right, she seems happy enough even if he doesn’t know how he’s feeling half the time, but he’s not fool enough to think this was anyone’s idea of a future.
Well. Except. Maybe.
There are a lot of things he doesn’t tell her. Most things. Not for lack of wanting to. But she smiles a lot, still, and he doesn’t want that to change. He wants to put that all away. It shouldn’t matter anymore.
He comes back one cold afternoon with no meat, covered in walker guts, strings of rotting tissue, stinking blood, flecks of brain and spongey bone. He tries to wave her off but for some reason she won’t be waved. She hovers, gets him water and one of the old towels they’ve found, and when she comes in with it he has his shirt off and his back to her. It’s stupid. He hears her breath drawn sharply in and his entire body goes numb. He squeezes his eyes shut and bites down so hard on his lip that he tastes blood.
Not like this, is the thing. He might have been okay if he had been able to choose when and where and how.
It was bad, okay, he says later. She doesn’t bring it up but he digs down and finds all the courage he can, because they’ve been living together for weeks and weeks now and he should be able to say this, it shouldn’t be a problem. Look, it’s over now, like you said, just put it away. It don’t matter.
She looks up at him, her arms crossed over her chest, and she shakes her head and murmurs That’s not what I meant and you know it.
And he does.
So later he does tell her. A lot later. Long enough for things to scab over. But it’s like digging into it again. With a thumbnail, the point of a blade. A shovel. He tells her enough—the belt, once an actual honest-to-god switch until he was bleeding, the two times his arm was broken. The dislocated jaw. He tells her that he wondered if it would ever stop, if this was just how he was going to live forever, and then how he started to just get used to it. It was like it didn’t even matter. A numbness came over him and if he was still being hurt over and over it seemed inconsequential. Somehow, not in so many words, he tells her that there’s being broken and then there’s a place beyond breaking, where you’re ground down to so much nothing that there’s nothing left to break. You’re a walking hollow space. You breathe and eat and talk and move around but you don’t feel human anymore.
He doesn’t draw the obvious comparison. He doesn’t feel like he needs to.
She cries. He doesn’t. After a minute or two after he falls silent and listens to her trying to muffle her sobs he turns from where he’s been standing by the door and goes to her without a word, crouches down in front of her and pulls her into his arms. And he’s not the one comforting her, not really. Because he’s burying his face in her hair, holding on tight, and he can feel his shoulders starting to shake. Not crying, just everything bleeding out of him. He hates that she’s crying. He never knew what to do about it. He’s not sure this is the right thing. But it feels right.
She feels right.
They stay like that for a while. At some point he realizes they’ve slid down to the floor. They’re lying in front of the fire and she’s pressed against him, her head tucked under his chin. And it’s okay. It’s really okay. The wind buffets the house but that’s all, and it’s still inside and inside him, all still, and it’s okay.
The dog comes back. She gives it a bath. She gets him to help. She doesn’t have to try all that hard. When the mutt crowds up against him, all wet and happy and licks his face, she laughs. The thing has absolutely terrible breath but it’s worth it, to hear her laugh like that.
It’s so worth it.
Should we feel bad? Givin’ up?
He has to ask her to clarify. She does, uneasily. On them. On all of them. He’s not sure how to tell her what he’s feeling, which is sort of awful but which is that everyone else isn’t really their problem anymore.
He’s done his grieving.
We didn’t give up. We’re still here.
Recently he has embarked on a number of meditations on how her hands feel in his. They’re small but he never thought they were weak. She can squeeze. She can squeeze hard enough to hurt. He takes them now, both of them, and he shakes his head.
We’re here. That’s not givin’ up. That’s movin’ on.
Starting over. Because you have to.
She doesn’t try to pull away when he lifts one of her hands, looks at it, becomes oddly fascinated by a long, pale scar running across its back. She doesn’t try to pull away when he lifts it to his mouth, kisses its edge.
It’s a step. Toward something.
They’re on a run when they get cornered.
There haven’t been any of them. It’s been weird. Maybe it’s the cold, he’s thought, maybe it’s just winter slowing them down. But it’s getting warm again, somehow the weeks slipped by without him really noticing, and he should have been paying more attention. He got sloppy. He got careless. All of a sudden there are fifteen of them, maybe twenty, bursting in through the storefront and staggering forward, pressing them back against where the milk and the cheese and the butter all used to be. Six or seven between them and the back exit, and he’s already lost all but two bolts. She’s expended the rest of her ammunition. They’re going to die because they got stupid, and that’s so fucking infuriating.
She’s the one who moves. She’s the one who lunges forward, breaks one of the snack displays with two sharp kicks, ends up with a long metal pole delightfully sharp on both ends, and she’s the one wielding it like a double-ended spear, moving faster than he realized she could move. He lunges forward, beats two of them off her and sends a bolt into the skull of a third, but it’s her that gets them to the back, her that shoves him through and screams Go, go.
He grabs her, drags at her, tears her shirt. She’s slick with blood. He is too. He catches a glimpse of her in the fading light as they sprint down the street, a mass of gore and stumbling, limping, and he thinks Fuck, she’s bit, she’s got to be bit.
The idea numbs him. Makes him a hollow space. He’s running, breathing, but he’s not human anymore.
Later, in the candlelight, stripping off her clothes, silencing her protests that she’s fine with furious hisses. Shut the fuck up. He’s frantic and he doesn’t trust her. Running his hands over her, looking everywhere. At any other time this would be impossible, unthinkable, he would hate himself, but terror has killed all his hesitation and all his inhibition. It doesn’t matter that she’s naked and he’s touching her. What matters is that she’s alive.
She’s not bit.
He rocks back on his heels and sobs.
Her hands on his face. She’s kneeling in front of him, not embarrassed, not trying to hide herself. Pulling him against her and whispering to him. It’s okay. It’s alright.
It’s all right.
They fall asleep together in front of the fire again. Except she falls asleep before him, curled against him, and he thinks some very strange things, about what it would have been like to stay there with her and wash her, wash the blood off her skin. Lay his mouth over every scratch and every bruise. And that’s when he realizes that he’s really not afraid of her, not afraid of that. The fear of losing her burned it all away.
He presses his lips to her forehead, closes his eyes, drifts until morning.
Looking at her in the morning light, her hair a blond cloud around her face and her cheek puffy and dark with a bruise, he tries to find a name for this.
Then he stops. This is the end of the world. Names don’t really matter.
This is spring, he thinks. This is the beginning of everything.
They’re sitting on the porch, on the steps, looking out at the lengthening shadows of the tombstones, the nameless dog—for some reason she’s bucked all expectation and not named him—wandering around the cemetery and sniffing everything with a furiously wagging tail. It’s still been days since they saw a walker, and he’s begun wondering whether maybe they’re dying on their own. Maybe soon they’ll all be gone, and no one ever had to do anything but wait.
Maybe not. But it’s a nice idea.
She’s sitting in front of him, between his legs, leaning back. Somehow without meaning to he settled his arms around her, and all she did was press in closer and sigh. They still aren’t talking about it. He doesn’t think they’re going to.
She covers his hand with hers. They fit, he thinks. They just do. He’s had months to make observations and he’s comfortable coming to that conclusion. They fit together, in front of the fire, in the kitchen, going on runs, hunting, watching each other’s backs, whispering to each other at night, and when he listens to her play and feels something in his chest getting tighter and tighter, and when things get overwhelming, when breathing gets difficult, leaning his forehead against hers and breathing her in. She makes it easier, makes it possible, because they fit.
I wish I could just change. Well.
Let’s stay out here ‘til the stars come out, she says softly. It’ll be fine.
He doesn’t have to agree. It’s implicit. And they do, and she tells him the names of all the constellations she can remember, and to mark each one he kisses the back of her neck, the side of her throat, her ear, moving without thinking, without worrying, and eventually she stops talking and just breathes, sighs, tips her head back.
He has no idea how to do any of this and somehow that isn’t becoming a problem.
You do know. You know because she does.
The names run through his head. Cassiopeia. Draco. Orion. Ursa Major. Queens and dragons, hunters and bears. It’s so strange how she knows them but so many things are strange now, and he knows so much more than he ever expected to.
Later, lying wrapped up in her with the last of the fire burning down, he thinks that maybe they’ll have more than this and maybe they never will, and he doesn’t really care, because this is perfect. This, her in his arms and breathing and whole and alive, this is everything. She’s everything, forever. Without him really noticing, that’s what she became.
We’ll just make it work.
Yes. We’re here. We will.