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A Kind of Salvation

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She didn’t mean to get lost, didn’t even want to leave the camp in the first place, but she had to pee so badly and it doesn’t matter that the world’s ended, there’s no way she’s just going to go squat down only a few feet away where everyone can hear.

The forest is scary at night and Beth keeps looking back over her shoulder while she wanders around, looking for a good place. She can hear the group talking in low voices, can see T-Dog’s broad-shouldered silhouette in the light of the fire. She should have asked someone to come with her, should’ve asked Maggie, but last time she saw, Maggie and Glenn were sitting curled up together and she didn’t want to disturb them.

Besides, Mr Grimes has been really scary lately and she doesn’t want to bring any attention to herself if she can help it. It’s only a short walk into the woods and back. If she’s lucky they won’t even notice she’s been gone.

The trouble begins after she’s found a bush big enough to provide cover from watching eyes. She finishes her business and uses her last tissue to wipe, wondering when she’ll see another one. They left home with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and whatever supplies were stocked in the cars. There’s no soap or shampoo, no toilet paper, no tampons. Then she remembers that Jimmy and Patricia and Andrea are dead and suddenly feels like a terrible person for worrying about tampons of all things.

Andrea was right. The pain doesn’t go away. It still gnaws on her insides, like a nest of rats have taken up residence in her stomach. Beth rubs her wrist, runs her fingers over the neat stitches under the bandages. Then she shoves her hands into her pockets and ducks out from behind the bush to return to camp.

She can’t see the firelight any longer. When she strains her ears to listen for voices, there’s nothing but the wind rustling in the leaves. The forest is terrifying, unfamiliar and strange. The ground is uneven beneath her feet and she keeps tripping. Every rock and branch has seemed to come alive. Where is the camp? She couldn’t possibly have walked that far, could she?

Beth is scared now, even more so than before. What if she’s to die here, alone in the woods? After all that’s happened, it would be such a stupid way to go.

She’s pretty sure she’s seen those trees before, so she’s either on the right track, or she’s walking around in circles. Why didn’t she ask Maggie to come with her?

Then she hears it, the sound of slow shuffling steps behind her, a guttural wheezing groan. Beth stops, frozen in her tracks. The horrible stench of decaying flesh fills the air and she knows she should run, that she should get away from here as fast as possible, should at least scream for help, but she can’t move a finger and her vocal chords seem to be just as paralyzed as the rest of her. There’s a small, hysterical part of her that’s wildly grateful that she just went behind that bush, because otherwise she would’ve wet her pants by now.

Somewhere, she finds the wherewithal to turn around, because she figures that if she’s going to die, she should at least do it with her eyes open. It’s one lonely walker, a woman whose long blonde hair is matted and tangled with mud and twigs and leaves. She’s wearing a ragged dress with a flower print, her feet are bare, and her eyes are milky white and unseeing.

She’s missing an ear and part of her nose. That’s what sticks in Beth’s mind, that this poor dead woman only has half a nose. That, and the fact that she’s lurching closer with every step, her arms reaching out and grabbing. Beth walks backwards until she finds herself backed up against a tree with nowhere else to go. She decides that she doesn’t want to die with her eyes open after all, so she closes them and holds her breath.

There’s a soft thunk and then something that sounds like the air seeping out of a particularly foul smelling balloon. Next, Beth can hear something heavy hit the ground in front of her. She carefully peers one eye open and finds the walker lying prone by her feet, an arrow sticking out of her forehead.

Beth turns her head and sees Daryl stepping out from between the trees, crossbow still raised, like some kind of dirty, grimy wood elf.

“What the hell are you doin’ wandering around on your own? You tryin’ to make yourself a meal for a walker?”

He keeps his voice low, but Beth can hear that he’s angry and she backs away instinctively. She’s never felt comfortable around Daryl. He’s too rough around the edges, untamed and coarse, like he wasn’t made to be around people. Uncouth, is the word her mother would’ve used. Not our kind of people.

“I’m sorry,” she squeaks, frightened like a little mouse. “I had to... I had to go and I didn’t want anyone to see...”

“That worth gettin’ killed over?” Daryl growls, coming closer. “Next time you have to take a piss you can damn well go behind the nearest tree like the rest of us.”

He grabs her bandaged wrist and drags her along and it hurts. Beth yelps and staggers a little, stumbling over her own feet, suddenly terrified at being alone with this man. She used to read the papers, watch TV, listen to her friends’ stories. She knows what men like him likes do to girls like her. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she repeats, swallowing back tears. “I won’t do it again, I promise, please don’t hurt me!”

As the words roll off her tongue, Daryl flinches violently and lets go of her wrist like he’s been burned. Something flashes over his face, an eerie expression somewhere in between fear and shame and disgust. It only lingers there for a second or two before he shakes it off and steps away from her.

“Stop apologizin’, princess. Ain’t no-one gonna respect you if you’re cowering like that. Come on, lets get you back to your daddy.”

He turns around, muttering something about ‘little girls getting lost in the woods’, and steps back into the shadows. Beth spares the dead walker a glance before she hurries to follow him. She wants to tell him that she isn’t a little girl, that she’ll be seventeen come winter, almost grown up. She would’ve been off to college in a few years if it hadn’t been for the world ending.

Beth keeps thinking about the unfairness of it all while she trails after Daryl back to the camp. He hasn’t said anything else, makes his way through the underbrush with ease, like he can see in the dark. It might just be Beth’s imagination, but there’s something off about the line of his shoulders, like he’s holding himself too tensely under that angel-winged leather vest.

She almost walks into him when he stops dead in his tracks, raising a hand to keep her back.

“Listen, d’you hear that?”

Beth concentrates, tries to filter out all the various forest sounds to find the thing he wants her to hear. And there it is, another deep mindness groan, a sickening caricature of a voice. There’s a rustling on the ground nearby, like something is dragging itself over the forest floor. Daryl leaves the trail, heading for the source of the noise. Beth is torn between staying where she is and following him, but in the end, she decides she doesn’t want to be left alone.

They don’t have to go far to find the second walker. This one is a man, bald headed and skeletal, jaws working and working as if he’s trying to chew air. He’s missing his right foot and the lower half of his left leg and is using his arms to crawl forward. As Beth and Daryl come closer, he raises his head, sniffing the air. He lets out a pitiful noise, close to a cry.

Beth can’t help but feel sorry for him. She wonders how he came to end up here. Does he have any family to miss him?

Daryl pulls an arrow out of his quiver and cocks the crossbow, raises it and aims for the poor thing. Beth doesn’t want to watch.

“Do you really have to?” she asks, hating the way her voice trembles. “He’s not doing any harm like this.”

Daryl turns around, scowling. “Say that again when it comes crawling into camp later tonight and starts chewin’ on your toes. Damn it, kid, d’you want to die?”

His words hit her right where it hurts the worst and she can feel the tears rise in her throat. “I don’t know!" she blurts out. She promised Maggie and Dad that she’d try, that she’d take one day at the time, but she’s still not sure. Now, it all wells up again, flooding from that painful place in her belly. Mom, Sean, Otis and Patricia, poor Jimmy. Her face feels hot and her eyes are burning and she really doesn’t want to start crying where Daryl can see, but she can’t keep the tears away any longer.

Daryl’s mouth twitches with discomfort and he nods to her wrist, the stained bandages there. “If that was true, I woulda had to put a bullet in your brain days ago,” he says. Then he reaches for the huge buck knife in his belt and hands it over to Beth. “Here, you put it down.”

Beth takes the knife. It’s heavy in her hand and she looks from the sharp blade to the mournful figure of the walker in front of her. “He used to be a person,” she says.

Daryl shrugs. “It ain’t a person anymore. That thing died long ago, you’re just puttin’ an end to it.” He grabs her by the shoulder and shoves her forward until she’s standing just out of reach of the walker’s pawing hands and then folds his fingers around hers on the knife, showing her how to grip it properly. “They’ve got fragile skulls but you gotta put some weight into it. Try to aim for the temple. You ever taken one out before?”

Beth shakes her head. Her hand is trembling. She doesn’t know if she can do this.

“‘bout time you learned then. Ain’t nobody gonna save you but you.”

That’s the thing, she realises. She went out with Jimmy, not because she loved him, but because she wanted someone to look after her. She wanted to go to college to meet a nice boy who would marry her and take care of her. She’s had people looking out for her all her life, Mom, Dad, Sean, Maggie.

But that life is gone now. In this new world, Beth is all but useless. There are no more dance recitals, no more French exams, no more church choirs. Everything she was ever good at is gone, and if she can’t find a way to earn her keep, she might as well lie down and die here and now, because she’ll never be more than a burden to drag the rest of the group down.

And she doesn’t want to die. She’s not sure if she wants to live in the terrifying place she’s found herself in, but she doesn’t want to die.

She drops to her knees in front of the walker and swings the knife, aiming for the side of its head like Daryl told her. The sharp blade sinks into its skull with a sickening crack. There has to be something about death that changes the bone structure of the walkers because it shouldn’t be this easy. It’s easy. Beth pulls the knife out and drives it into the walker’s head again, shoving it in as far as it will go. A dark fluid wells out of the gaping wounds and it stinks bad enough to make her gag, but she manages not to be sick and stabs it again, again, and again.

It’s not fair. She had her life all planned out and the virus took everything away from her and she’s so very angry.

When she’s done, the walker is lying unmoving on the ground. Its skull is a mess of blood and brains and sharp bone fragments and Beth is covered in filth up to her elbows. She looks up at Daryl, who stands there watching her, his crossbow hanging by his side. “Not bad,” he says. He sounds almost proud and Beth can’t hold back a smile. She tries to hand the knife back to him, but he won’t take it. “Keep it, kid. You shouldn’t be walkin’ around unarmed. I’ll teach you how to use it tomorrow.”

Her arms are covered in walker blood, her clothes are stained with it. The knife handle lies comfortably in her hand, like it belongs there. Beth stands up, holding her back straight and her head high. Ain’t nobody gonna save her but her, and it’s about time she started.