Chapter 1 - My Head Is Filled with Things to Say
Through the flickering candlelight in this borrowed kitchen, his eyes found hers and held, and he saw when it hit her, the moment she understood. Her little ‘oh’, the glint in her eyes as she stared back at him—yeah, she knew. She, Beth, who he was starting to believe might the one person in the world who could read through all his bullshit and see the truth of things.
As terrifying as that was, as much as it squirmed unfamiliar and heavy in his gut, he didn’t regret what he said and he didn’t regret when she asked—insisted—on knowing why. Didn’t regret wanting her to know, even if he couldn’t tell her outright, and something warm fluttered in his chest when Beth figured out that she was the good, the good who survived and made him believe it of others.
But the dog barked, and he reached for that pig’s foot and jumped up from the table before the Daryl he was could tell the Daryl he used to be to keep his ass in that chair and find out what happens next. He took the out like a coward, but not without instantly missing the way her face looked before.
Her fingers grazed his arm and he turned, half way through the door to the foyer, to find her close behind him with his crossbow in her arms.
Her gaze flicked downward for a moment, but then she met his eyes again as she held out the weapon. “Just in case,” she said, with a quick shrug and a hint of teeth.
Beth leaned against the door frame and Daryl took the crossbow from her with a nod. “Good thinkin’.”
Before he could fully turn back around, the dog yelped, a high-pitched sound of terror cut short by rasping growls and the unmistakable sound of tearing flesh. Daryl jumped back a step and behind him, Beth gasped. Movement flashed in the moonlight shining between the planks nailed to the front door, and a ragged, rotting body slammed hard against them, rattling the glass and the hinges before stumbling away.
That was Beth, but she stole the word right out of his open mouth. Damn dog must’ve led them right to the front door. Daryl dropped the dripping pig’s foot and turned back to Beth, who stood ready with her knife in her hand.
They couldn’t see much from the ground floor, with the windows all boarded up, so he tossed his head toward the stairs and Beth nodded. The walkers hadn’t seen them yet. They had time to either wait them out or plan an escape route. Daryl knew her ankle hurt, but her worn old cowboy boots made hardly a sound as she climbed the stairs behind him, like she were a born hunter instead of some damn farmer’s daughter. The staircase led up to a long hallway spanning the width of the house with doorways leading off either side. Daryl pushed open the first door on the left and crossed the room to peer out the window down into the moonlit yard.
There weren’t any walkers visible from here, but muffled sounds of feeding filtered up from below. Dog must’ve gone down on the veranda, then.
“I don’t think they saw us,” Beth said, coming up beside him, her thin fingers resting on the window ledge. Fingers delicate enough to dance across piano keys and strong enough to plunge a knife into a walker’s skull.
“No, we got lucky.”
But he meant was, if Beth hadn’t interrupted him when she did, calling him back with the melody of her voice, he might’ve done something dumb like opening the door for a doomed dog and maybe dooming them both while he was at it. Beth turned her face up to look at him, all pale and glowing in the moonlight, and smiled a little, reminding him of that moment before in the kitchen. That fluttering in his chest flared again and her eyes, wide open as always, sparkled a little like maybe she was remembering it, too.
“Let’s check the back,” he said, tearing his gaze away before he fell right into her.
Darkness obscured most of the yard at the rear of the building, and what it didn’t was accomplished by the barrier of trees between the property and the road. There didn’t seem to be anything shuffling around out there, though, which probably meant the walkers were isolated to that group out front and not a larger herd. The only movement came from the swaying of the branches in the breeze.
Beth bumped his arm with her elbow. “Do you think they’ll wander off?”
“Have to wait ‘n see, I guess.” Daryl cast another glance out the window, trying to make out anything at all in the darkness below. “Should make a plan, either way.”
“We could bust open one of the back windows,” Beth said, turning now to put her back to the window, looking up at him and making it impossible not to look back down at her. “You said the road’s just through those trees, right? We could run for it.”
It weren’t a bad plan, if they needed to get out. With luck the walkers would wander off, like she said, and they wouldn’t have to run in the dark. He wasn’t sure he could stay here anymore, though, least not much longer than it took to rest Beth’s ankle. The spell of this place, whatever it was hanging in the air giving the illusion of peace or safety, fell apart with that first raspy growl of walkers outside.
“There’s a good size window in that back office,” Daryl said, stepping back from the window. “We’ll get our shit and get ready, in case.”
They’d taken two, maybe three steps back toward the stairs when he heard it. Daryl froze, and Beth froze, too, catching his eyes immediately. He spared half a breath to be impressed, proud really, that she hadn’t been fooled. ‘Cause he’d grown up hearing sounds like that, a whistle of birdsong from amongst the trees, answered seconds later by another much closer bird, but Beth hadn’t.
Birds didn’t sing at night, but men did. And whoever belonged to those hunting calls sure as hell knew about the two of them holed up here in the house.
He heard the hitch in her voice and hated how the thought of men outside started his heart pounding and his adrenaline rushing like no walker ever could. Eyes that had looked back at him in a candlelit room, flickering with possibilities and hope and everything good, now shone wide with moonlit fear. Could be nothing, he wanted to say to her. Could just be whoever belonged to the stash downstairs, and maybe they’d be decent and they’d make it work.
But it felt wrong, every bit of it. The dog. Walkers out front. Men at the back. Whistles in the dark and every hair on his neck standing on end. Daryl’s chest heaved with a heavy breath and a single thought wove its way through all the rest.
His whisper echoed harshly in the quiet house, but that didn’t matter. He had to get them out—out right the fuck now. He reached for Beth’s arm but she was already moving, and their boots pounded on the worn old hardwoods, Beth and her damn ankle right on his tail. One of the rooms near the stairs had French doors out to the balcony, and he pushed through them to the outside, glass panes banging when he shoved them aside and again as Beth barrelled through. Daryl hit the railing and stopped dead, Beth stumbling into his back. He caught her with the arm not holding his crossbow, drawing her in beside him as his heartbeat pounded right out through his chest and into the night.
No longer feeding, the walkers stumbled about the yard like walkers did, shuffling aimlessly when there wasn’t a meal in sight, except now one, two, half a dozen or more turned their rotten faces to look up. Daryl’s arm tightened around Beth’s waist and he hauled them back into the shadows of the overhanging roof, but it was too late. The snarling below intensified as the walkers gathered at the pillars, enticed by the sight and sound and smell of their next meal, and any thought he’d had of a quick escape off the balcony vanished.
“I could try drawing them away—”
“No!” Beth’s answer was explosive, louder maybe than she meant it to be, and she gripped the front of his shirt in her fist, shaking her head. “No,” she said, through clenched teeth. “We go together.”
Her eyes burned into his and held, driving away any more idiot thoughts of leaving her side, and he conceded with a nod and a mumbled word. She was right—again. With multiple threats, he needed her watching his back as much as she needed him watching hers. And the men, well, Daryl didn’t much care what they wanted from him, but Beth…
A shudder rolled across his shoulders, and he shook it off as they crept back inside through the French doors.
“Our pack’s downstairs,” Beth whispered from behind him, her words making little puffs of air on the back of his neck. “In the kitchen.”
Daryl nodded and held up his hand, hovering just inside the door to the room they were in, Beth a warm weight against his back. He couldn’t see the stairs from here, just the top of the wooden handrail. He cocked his ear toward it, listening. Inside was as quiet as ever, the only noise coming from the walkers out front.
“Okay.” Daryl kept his voice low and turned so he could see Beth’s face. “Kitchen first, for the pack, then out the window in the washroom ‘cross the hall, got it? When you get out, you run. Run to the woods and don’t stop ‘til you can’t run no more.”
“I’m right behind you, don’t worry,” he said, though with the way she was favouring that ankle, while trying to hide how much it hurt her, worry squirmed its way into his gut, heedless of his own advice. “Get your knife ready. Let’s go.”
Nobody—and no body—challenged them on the way down the stairs and into the kitchen. Beth blew out the candles and scooped them into their pack, and Daryl added the jar of pig’s feet and the rest of the peanut butter before they hurried together across the hallway. At the back corner of the parlour’s second room was the little washroom with a decent sized window and a clear shot toward the woods. Daryl had just enough time to pull the pocket door shut behind them before another whistle sounded from right outside.
Beth jerked her hands away from the window sash and crouched down in the space between the toilet and sink, looking over at him to make sure he heard. He gave her a quick nod and crouched down, too, though the light was wrong for anyone outside to see him through the glass. Nothing happened again for another minute or so until a twig snapped in the near distance, followed by a harshly whispered admonishment from outside their window.
A bark of laughter came from further out, and the words spoken after it were anything but apologetic. “…know we’re here anyway. He didn’t take the bait.”
“Keep your fuckin' mouth shut, O’Donnell,” said the one standing next to the building.
The farther-away voice—O’Donnell—laughed again. “We’ll get you your little songbird, Gorman, once we take out the trash.”
“If we don’t get eaten first,” growled the other, the one called Gorman. “Keep your voice down.”
The pair moved away, toward the back, their voices fading from his hearing though he’d stopped listening anyway. He heard enough, and so had Beth, by her too-wide eyes as she stared across the bathroom at him, breathing hard and clutching her knife with white knuckles. Daryl counted off two minutes in his head, then motioned for Beth to move to one side so he could open the window from the other. After the initial effort to get it moving, the window slid up with hardly a noise, and he neither heard nor saw anyone outside.
It took another minute to remove the planks nailed across the opening, more owing to the need for silence than the effort it took. The wood was solid but the nails weren’t meant for the task of holding the boards indefinitely; a half-hearted groan of protest and they pulled right out.
Daryl tossed the last one to the side, leaving them a spot below to land safely. “Come on, Beth.”
She stood, still favouring that ankle but not saying a word about it, only uttering a small squeak when he grabbed her around the middle to lift her up and send her out feet first.
“Okay, let go now,” she said, once seated on the sill, one hand holding her knife and the other gripping the window frame. “Don’t forget to run.”
Behind him, from somewhere inside the house, a floorboard creaked. Daryl released Beth and she dropped outside, landing with a pained cry at the same time as a crash echoed through the house—the sound of a boot kicking down a door. Quick footsteps followed, then another, closer door crashed. To the sound of careful footsteps approaching the washroom, Daryl tossed their pack out the window, pausing just long enough to see Beth running for the trees before lifting his bow and taking aim.
The pocket door near shattered with the force of the kick. Daryl released the trigger but the black outline of the body in the doorway dodged the bolt meant for its head. A gun barrel shone in a shaft of moonlight and Daryl charged, driving his shoulder into the solid midsection of his attacker. They crashed to the floor and Daryl landed two quick punches before the asshole beneath him got a knee up and into his belly.
He landed on his back with somebody’s fists in his face, blind except for the slivers of light and the body moving in it. He swung his crossbow toward the shadow and the man grunted, landing hard against the wall, giving Daryl the chance he needed to get to his feet a split second before the other.
Daryl raced for the foyer but a foot caught his and he landed hard, sliding into the wall of the stairs. His attacker was on him immediately, but Daryl got his feet up and kicked, sending the man careening back toward the office door, but he caught the frame and launched himself back. Daryl rolled out of the way and the man crashed into the side wall of the stairs but didn’t fall, and rounded on him with two great, sweeping punches that didn’t connect.
The gun barrel caught the light again and again Daryl charged, pushing his crossbow into the son-of-a-bitch’s belly and diverting the bullet into the ceiling. He stomped his foot hard until the hand holding the gun released the weapon and kicked it away as he bolted for the front door.
The walkers clawing at the pillars saw him immediately but he didn’t pause, running along the veranda toward the side of the house where Beth had gone and hoping he was fast enough to outrun the man now charging out the door behind him. A walker stumbled close but he thrust his knife through its eye and shoved the corpse behind him, running, running, until he made the jump clear over the railing onto the grass below.
He rolled to a stop on his back, cocked, loaded, and shot his bow, imbedding the bolt clean through the forehead of a uniformed cop.
What the hell?
A walker growled and Daryl spun around to dispatch it, first knocking it off balance with his crossbow, then driving his knife deep into the side of its decayed head. Most of the others were feeding on the cop behind him, tearing the flesh from his lifeless body with their usual vigour. And in front of him, at the edge of the trees, Beth Greene landed her boot on the knee of the walker shuffling toward her, sending it sprawling to the ground before stabbing it in the side of the head. A total of three walkers lay in a circle around her now, and two more were headed her way. Daryl loaded his bow and took out the closest one, and before he could shoot again, Beth pulled the bolt from the first one’s head and stabbed it through the eye socket of the second.
She spun back around to face him, and fuck if she didn’t look like some wild woman, a warrior goddess or something, there in the moonlight all high on adrenaline, covered in sweat and blood, breathing hard and grinning wide from a fight well fought.
I can take care of myself.
He wanted to run to her, to do something crazy like swing her through the air or hug her or worse, but at the last second he pulled back. That fluttering in his chest was getting harder and harder to ignore but they weren’t out of it yet, not until they got away from this cursed house. Mindful of the walkers still feasting behind him, Daryl went to the window to retrieve their pack.
Daryl jerked around and raised his bow at the sound of her scream. The second cop, the one he’d forgotten about in the aftermath, pressed his gun to Beth’s head.
“There, there, sweetheart,” the one called Gorman said, as he buried his nose in Beth’s hair. He took a long sniff, eyes half closing, and he slipped his hand from over her mouth to rip her knife away and toss it into the grass at her feet.
Daryl moved forward, crossbow trained on Gorman’s stupid smirking face. “Let her go!”
“Or what?” Gorman laid his palm on Beth’s belly, digging his fingers in just under the edge of her shirt. “You gonna stop me? Ah, ah—that’s close enough.”
Gorman pushed the gun harder against Beth’s temple and she bit her lip with enough force to make it bleed.
“You’re gonna let her go,” Daryl said, with calmness he didn’t feel. His insides burned and that fluttery thing in his chest ached when he breathed.
Gorman laughed, a cold, oily sound which slithered out of him like something ugly and dead, as he ducked behind Beth until only a hint of his slicked hair was visible, using her as his goddamn shield. “I don’t think so, redneck. I worked long and hard for this sweet birdie, and besides, you owe me. For O’Donnell.”
Daryl’s breath left him in a rush and he swallowed back the words waiting on his tongue, about how he owed nobody nothing and Beth weren’t no sweet birdie and any asshole who thought otherwise was begging for a bolt to the brain. But Beth’s eyes sought his and held, and Daryl bit his tongue and shut up. His finger itched on the bow’s trigger, but he couldn’t get a clean shot. Gorman’s fingers itched, too, slipping back and forth across the pale skin on Beth’s belly. Beth shook under his hold, a vibration which started in her feet and carried clean up to her jaw.
Her eyes stayed fixed on his across the space between them, which might as well have been miles instead of just a few yards. Tears stained her cheeks but in her eyes a fire blazed. Daryl followed the movement of her hand, watched as those delicate fingers gripped the gun in her holster, the one they’d taken from the walker in the woods. The one Gorman overlooked when he disarmed her of her knife.
She swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and squeezed her eyes shut. With the world spinning around them in some sort of strange slow motion, Beth drew and fired. Both she and Gorman fell to the ground, and Daryl didn’t remember moving, only landing on his knees beside her as she fought to sit up, swaying and dazed but alive.
He pulled her up and away from the dead cop with the bullet through his head and then he was running, trees whipping by, branches slapping and snapping in his face until the woods disappeared and there was the road, and a car with a painted cross in the window, lonely and waiting for two dead cops who weren’t coming back. They’d left the keys in the ignition and nobody guarding the car, unless you counted the walkers stumbling through the woods toward the sound of his footsteps.
Beth scrambled into the passenger seat and Daryl started the engine. The car roared to life and he pulled a squealing u-turn, floored the gas and sped off into the night.