Fog hovered near the ground, glowing orange in the dawn light. The dampness of fresh dew filled the air; its innocent sweetness clashed with the heady scent of carrion. Through birthdays and family meals and combat training, even the strongest coffee could not disguise what laid just outside Alexandria's walls.
All the same, it did not stop Sarah from her morning ritual. She found a stash of her old favorite chain coffee beans on a supply run, and conveniently “forgot” to send it to the pantry.
Sarah monitored her water use, so none were the wiser. Everyone had their secrets around the camp, and she supposed hers was harmless enough. They had plenty of coffee for months to come, the one staple they were not at risk of running short on. Sarah hated having to ask Olivia every couple days for more grounds. The brew from those beans tasted like defeat and used car lot lobbies. But Sarah’s reminded her of Thursday mornings at her favorite cafe and long talks with Karen.
Sarah startled when a sharp chop rent the air. A splash of coffee scalded her lip.
Rick offered no immediate explanation when the group returned with Glenn and Abraham’s bodies the week before. The blood stained sheets draped over their misshapen remains left little to the imagination before they were removed to the Hilltop.
Sarah hissed and swore under her breath when a second thwack sounded. The fog had not yet evaporated. Despite the regularity of the chore–every other morning–and the warm morning sun, she still pulled her robe a little tighter.
The horror and swings of the bat flashed in Sarah's mind with each chop of the ax. She shuddered.
The wood splintered after the third, splitting with an unsettling crack.
No one offered any detail on the confrontation with Negan until three days later.
The night before, a sharp knock rapped at her door minutes before curfew. Eugene only waited for the door to close behind them before he started speaking.
"Our fine ginger friend did not falter or even flinch. The man had solid-gold cojones until the very end."
Sarah both wanted to hear every grisly detail and forget it happened, wishing to believe that Glenn and Abraham had instead only fallen into the quarry and snapped their necks on the way down. Instant death, no pain.
Eugene fixed his gaze on the hall closet handle as he spoke. "He used his last words to invite Negan to perform fellatio, and I quote, 'Eat my nuts.' That might be the most genuine act I ever saw him perform. After a few days’ reflection, I have concluded bonafide admiration of my friend's bravery and hope to follow his example if the most unfortunate circumstance arises. Sans the bludgeoning, of course."
Sarah offered a wan smile. She hoped it was enough to disguise the draining color from her face. If Eugene noticed–and he saw everything–he uncharacteristically held his tongue.
She and Toby were recruited into Alexandria before Rick's group arrived, but long after the community had been established. She became something close to a communal nanny. Between the choices the community adults had to make, and the trauma imposed upon the children, Sarah could not help but reach her heart out to them. Sarah was an after hours sort of version of Denise. Less psychology; more companionship.
Sarah bonded with the children and frustrated teenagers. The bright, mostly-unadulterated hope in the eyes of the children who had little to no exposure to the real world outside of the Alexandrian utopia lifted Sarah’s spirit. Simultaneously, Sarah’s heart twisted for those who had seen and done the worst that innocents should never have had to face. She related all too well when their brows furrowed, expressing their conviction to protect their loved ones, and mixed feelings yearning for the temptation of adventure.
Except in their dystopian reality, there was no clock to beat that would send them back home to where they belonged. Alexandria, for better or for worse, was the best any of them could hope for.
After Denise died, Sarah unofficially assumed her role as camp counselor, though most often, her quiet non-judgment and a reassuring smile were needed more than thoughtful words and meatball therapy. In just a few short weeks, much had changed within the community. Most of the citizens had more trouble coping than she cared to tell Rick.
Sarah told no one about her visitors. As far as anyone knew, each visitor assumed they alone sought her counsel. In the end, they went through more of her coffee stash than she did. She swallowed each secret with the last dregs they sipped from her cracked mugs.
Sarah didn’t know whether Eugene was a coffee drinker; she poured a cup for him anyway. He still stood in the foyer and said nothing, but glanced down at the mug when she pushed it into his hand.
"Perhaps my emotions were softer for Glenn because of Maggie and the fetus," he conceded. His chin only tremored once as he described Glenn's injuries. Eugene spared no detail but did not embellish.
Eugene finally met Sarah’s gaze only when he finished. A long moment hung between them. Without saying anything further, he about-faced and turned for the door, only offering a tortured look as he let himself out.
Sarah only just caught slips of sleep that night.
It happened on some occasion where an adult without a child accompaniment would find their way into the labyrinth. The labyrinth thrived on the innocence of children's honest souls and the suspension of disbelief, although adults were not banned outright–so long as they acknowledged and removed their tainted lenses of adulthood and cynicism.
Too often, when full grown mortal adults found themselves Underground, they refused to believe they were exactly in the place they wished to be. As though they could detach themselves from the environment on the sheer disgust of having been an adult human in a less than ideal place that did not meet their standards or understanding of reality.
Even worse, they smelled. Just as bad as adolescents.
What Jareth did not expect, however, was that so many would turn up in such a short span of time.
The first incident occurred three days prior. Jareth strongly disapproved of unannounced visitors anywhere in the labyrinth, least of all to his gardens–if that is what they could be called.
Far from lush and fragrant, Jareth kept clear an ancient portion of the labyrinth for his own private use. Long-dead vines covered all but the most narrow sliver of the cracked and dusty path, frozen in knots and thick coils over broken walls, and strangled the necks and bound the wrists of marble figures, long distinguishable from years of neglect and overgrowth. A thin cloud of dust hovered and never quite cleared.
The gardens provided respite for the Goblin King. The silent chaos and fading beauty reminded him of battles and wars won and lost–long before Sarah and a few after. Here, Jareth reconnected with his history and marked the passage of time. Forever really was not long at all.
By now, the goblins had learned their lesson–most of them, anyway. Sentries stood guard near the various entrances, but none dared step one foot out of place or interrupt him. Jareth rather supposed they despised culture and grace beyond fearing punishment or bogging.
Gasps and crude language shattered the silence when two women and a man crashed into a fountain. Long since it ran dry, all that remained in its bowl was mysterious dark muck.
Jareth’s lips twitched when someone yelped as their hand squelched into it as they all toppled on each other and found their bearings.
The Goblin King had long accustomed himself to summonses and the whims of many various mortals' selfish expectations but did not expect that they could wish themselves away without his precise knowledge or magical summoning. The requirements stated that he appear to each mortal to offer them the last opportunity of escape from their duty–that is, to care for the child they had wished away. Yet between the three of them, Jareth neither saw nor sensed a child.
"How exciting," Jareth began. All three whipped around at the sound of his voice, eyes wide and faces blanched. "I did not wish for human adults, and yet the labyrinth saw fit to entertain me. Please do inform me as to why you are here." He spat the word humans as an insult and yet as only one of the women–a harried and frumpy ginger, a freckled thing–caught his words at all. Jareth suspected his inflection was lost on her as their collective silence stretched from an appropriate pause to uncomfortable silence.
He turned to the male first. "You," he nodded to the man with a blond... mullet , if Jareth remembered correctly. "Why have you appeared here in my garden?"
The mulleted man chewed his lip and shrank under Jareth’s stare. He glanced at both women, and only spoke after the ginger nodded encouragingly. "Er, your Highness–"
"Things Aboveground are not...they are..." His blanched face faded to a slight green tinge. He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head.
The other woman opposite the ginger, a petite brunette, finished for him.
"Walkers, your Majesty, Goblin King, sir," she attempted a rough curtsy. Her broad forehead missed the edge of the fountain bowl by millimeters.
"Forgive me, I am not familiar with this term, walkers ," Jareth drawled. He kept his gaze locked with the brunette woman. "Please do inform me of them, and spare no detail."
She stuttered and murmured, glancing between her comrades before eyeing Jareth again. "Please, sir, your Highness–"
"Your Majesty. Please. These creatures are horrific. We don’t have the right words to describe them. Wishing ourselves away was our last resort..." she swallowed, her sentence trailed off.
"For...? Precisely what follows that?"
The ginger woman sighed, long-suffering in the way that only exhausted mothers could muster. "For safety, your Majesty."
Nonplussed, Jareth found himself at a momentary loss for words. He was perplexed why a human with any working knowledge of his labyrinth would describe it as safe .
The group bowed again in supplication, dark circles evident under their eyes. The brunette’s shoulders stooped and shuddered.
Jareth tilted his head as he observed them. "I must remind you that you are fully aware of the implications of your actions," he looked down his nose toward the ginger woman. "You cannot undo this action, and you must submit to my will."
"It would be an honor to live in your kingdom, under your rule, your Majesty," the blond man replied. He tumbled knees first off the fountain and into the dead vines on the ground. "I submit to serve you, and you only, Goblin King."
Jareth tilted his head again, this time in the opposite direction, and grinned. He could get used to this. It was certainly an improvement over the goblins limited vocabulary and abhorrence of obedience. "What is your name?"
"Well, Jordan...I believe that if you seek a place to serve, you have found it," and Jareth tipped his head back and laughed. He snapped his fingers. The sentries shuffled in and gathered behind the newcomers.
Neither of the women returned his smile.
Sarah Williams stood on her porch wrapped in her robe and blinked through the fog. She spent more time recoiling and blinking away tears at the ax striking wood than sipping her coffee. She pictured each bite of Lucille’s teeth into her friends’ skulls with each swing of the ax.
Sarah’s heart ached for her friends, their losses, and raced in fear of Negan’s abilities. She thought of the quietude that settled over Alexandria as everyone pretended they weren’t panicking over the impending first visit in just a few days’ time, their shoulders slumped and voices hushed.
She sipped again, half-wishing she could have her favorite salted caramel flavored creamer, for a hint of sweetness and a distraction from the bitter tears slipping down her cheeks.
She could not lose what Sasha, Rosita, and Maggie lost that night–unconditional love and her beacon of light in a dark world. She would not relinquish the authority and power Rick had forcibly handed to Negan. She could not bear to go through with Toby what they had both seen with Karen and Robert–senselessly ripped away from them even after all the lengths they went to survive and protect each other.
Sarah could not shake the images Eugene planted for her in his flat tone. Sarah counted her blessings that Glenn and Abraham did not suffer longer than they did.
Beyond all other measurements against doubt, the most fearless leaders of Alexandria had succumbed to Negan’s terrorism and went belly-up. Michonne’s movements lacked their fluidity and determination; she either stalked around camp in a silent rage or scurried with her tail tucked. Rick limped everywhere instead of his usual saunter. His eyes, ice-blue with terror, surreptitiously scanned and darted into every corner, always looking for something that wasn’t there.
Each time she had managed to close her eyes and slip into light slumber the night before, Sarah heard the thwack of blunt force trauma and the blood spatter smacking thick on the walls. Disembodied wails of anguish echoed and pulled her from sleep, only when she realized they were hers did she see Toby’s face flash before Lucille struck the next time the scene replayed.
Sarah would not let the last of what she loved the most–the only thing she allowed weakness for beyond good coffee–to be surrendered to broken submission as Rick had been. Sarah had to protect Toby. He was the last and only important thing she had left–and Negan couldn’t have him.
Sarah slipped back into the house. Only one stair creaked as she tip-toed up to the second floor. In her room, she traded her robe and slippers for a sweater and jeans. She set down the mug and palmed the knife on the corner of her dresser.
She didn’t pause at Toby’s half-open door and slipped through. If she stopped to think any longer than she already had, Sarah’s resolve would crumble. Making the decision was easy–it was the only one left. Following through with it was another matter entirely.
Toby lied on the bed, his face turned away, and into the orange dawn light, arms spread and angled. Ash blonde roots contrasted against his sunshine yellow curls, layers that skimmed the tops of his ears. He chewed his mouth in his sleep, and as she approached, his jaw rotated and his tongue clicked in his slumber. Sarah’s heart twisted: he would always be her baby brother napping in a crib.
Sarah eased herself onto the bed. Her heart pumped a rapid tattoo against her throat as she tried to suppress her racing doubts; about what she was about to do. She pressed the blade of her defense knife against his throat.
Whether the cool touch of the blade in the warm morning woke him, or if it was the pressure against his neck, Toby stirred and awoke instantly. His eyes scoped the room, widening in panic as he saw his sister leaning over him and felt the knife pressed against his throat.
"Toby, listen to me," she implored. "I must keep you safe."
Toby swallowed nervously. His neck twitched against the blade.
"I'm going to send you somewhere. You must find someone for me, and tell him I sent you."
Toby's brow furrowed. “Sarah–”
Sarah cut him off and applied pressure. She pursed her lips to quell their trembling. "Find the person in charge. Tell him I am your sister.”
“Are you okay, sis?”
"Do you remember the goblin stories I told you, Tobes? When you were a kid?" Sarah grasped Toby’s hand with her free one. A thin line of blood stained the knife but did not freely flow. Toby grasped her hand with both of his, his blue eyes wide and bewildered.
Sarah went to speak again, to continue her explanation, but stopped herself. Just do it.
Sarah didn’t release Toby’s hand as she uttered the final words:
"I wish the goblins would come and take you away. Right now."