Daryl didn't really know what to expect of the Winchesters' home, but he certainly didn't expect an eerie brick Victorian seated on a hill in the midst of a small, wooded island. It was kind of like that nursery rhyme, over the river and through the woods, only Daryl thought it looked less like grandma's house and more like the evil witch's. Who was he to talk though? They lived in a prison. A sturdy brick prison, sure, and there was a lot to be said for brick even if it did seem very foreboding. But, he had to admit, the island was pretty sweet. He couldn't believe Dean had never hunted deer! The island had to be overrun with them. It was a good year for deer, what with all the people dying off. Sure, walkers got a few, but deer were quick – and good jumpers. Honestly, they had a better chance against the walkers than people did.
Dean had stopped to pick up an older guy back at the bridge, a grizzly looking fellow who looked more the part of a 'hunter' with his flannel shirt, ammo vest, and a dirty old cap. He had a little handgun with a silencer (looked like a Kimber, if Daryl remembered right from Rick's shooting lessons), so Daryl figured the fella was probably more Dean's kind of hunter than his own. The guy glared at the truck a moment before climbing into Dean's Impala. “Stay sharp, guys,” Daryl warned Michonne and Cas. Sasha was still riding with the brothers. “We don't want to have any problems.”
“Bobby won't give you any problems if you don't give him any,” Cas assured him.
“Yeah, well, it pays to stay sharp anyway.” He saw Michonne give a short nod in the corner of his eye.
They followed Dean up a long gravel drive and piled out at the house. Daryl shivered as he stepped out, feeling a chill from the nearby Mississippi. “Nice place.”
“Thanks.” Dean ran up the steps as a young boy came out, who Daryl figured must be the famed Ben that Dean had been so worried about. Jody followed behind. Daryl had met her – and tattooed Castiel's weird warding symbol on her – when Cas had teleported her to the prison. Her eyes carefully took in the whole group, though she gave a short nod to Daryl, but the kid beamed and ran straight for Dean, heedless of everything else.
“Dean! You're back!”
“How'd it handle while we were gone?”
“Okay. Jody found a book of edible wilds, and we gathered some food that grows here on the island. We saw deer and turkeys.”
“Thought we might try hunting when you got back,” the older guy, Bobby, drawled.
“Yeah,” Dean said, grinning. “I learned a little bit about that while I was gone. Guys, this is Ben, Bobby Singer, and Sheriff Jody Mills.” Jody tipped a nonexistent hat. “This is Daryl, Sasha, and Michonne. They're good folk.”
“Look good,” Bobby agreed, his hand trailing across a box of waffle cones in the back of the truck.
“Yeah, they're gonna share some of that. Why don't we let them get cleaned up and offer them a drink, and you guys can help me unload Baby.”
Jody led the three of them inside, and she seemed rather pleased to see a few other women. “Lemonade? It's powdered, but we've got rehydrated lemons we toss in it. It's not bad.”
“Sure, wow.” Daryl looked around as he entered the house. From the front, up close, with its red brick, potted herbs on the porch, and a porch swing, it almost looked normal. Almost. But the house loomed weird and out of place, and inside Daryl saw that all of the rooms (and a pretty weird energy, so he thought) radiated from the very center of the place. It looked like extra wings had just been tacked on willy-nilly.
The entry room was painted in vibrant shades of red with green trim and had heavy, old-fashioned wooden bookshelves built right into the walls. It looked very antique, with intricate scrolling in the bookshelves and on the fancy molding of the house, but they seemed almost out of place in the odd home. Daryl's eyes were drawn to several sets of metal shutters pulled back on the inside of each window in the room. There was a large desk in the corner that stood covered with a large sheet, the unmistakable forms of multiple computer screens and towers rising from beneath like a ghostly skyline. There was no other furniture, just a cushion and a pile of guns in the window seat, and three different narrow little halls shot off the entry room from the opposite wall. Jody led them down one hall, to some sort of parlor, he guessed the word was, which he figured was probably the center of the home. It had tons of similar narrow hallways radiating around it like spokes from a hub, and he could see a large, carpeted staircase rising up on the far side of the unused fireplace.
“There's a coat closet under stairs,” Jody said as she continued straight on into a kitchen. “Have a seat. Make yourself at home. We have a wash room just there,” she pointed toward a converted sun room out the back door. “There's a stone walk to the outhouse, if you need it. If that's too weird, we have an incinerator toilet in the upstairs bath.”
“No, that's weird,” Daryl said.
Jody laughed, and Sasha followed her into the kitchen to make good use of the attached wash room. Michonne quietly stalked the perimeter of the parlor, peering her head down each hall and listening before moving on to the next. Sasha and Jody returned shortly, with Jody carrying a tray with a large pitcher and glasses. Sure enough, little lemon pieces floated in the lemonade.
“That was fast. You guys really have a good set up here, huh?”
“Yeah. We lucked out. Whoever owned it was a doomsday prepper-type. It was pretty much furnished and ready to go.”
“Good find,” Daryl said, accepting a lemonade and drinking deeply.
“Maybe too good,” Sasha said, turning abruptly and running back down the hall towards the front of the house. Daryl quickly set his glass on the coffee table and followed, and soon he heard the unmistakable sound of a fight brewing out front.
“I said stop right there!” Dean cried, his gun drawn and ready to take out the driver, who was slowly pulling some douchebag electric monstrosity to a stop behind their truck.
Daryl couldn't help but smile approvingly when he noticed a chick on a sleek black-and-silver BMW dual-sport pulling up behind the awful bubble-Kia. He hurried down the stairs to join Dean with crossbow at the ready as a skinny little dude jumped out of the ugly bubble car and pulled a piece of his own, ducking down behind the driver's side door like that tin flap had a chance of protecting him.
Bobby straightened out of the bushes and threw a bag of breadcrumbs at the car. “Don't shoot! Garth, it's me, ya idjit!”
The kid poked his head up, swinging his gun around. “Bobby?”
Daryl took a step back, though he kept one eye on the girl climbing off the bike. Unlike Daryl, this chick wore plenty of riding gear. She had on a leather jacket and leather chaps over her jeans, with riding gloves that he knew cost over a hundred dollars. Or used to, anyway. She took off a full face helmet to reveal a flattened blonde mohawk, the points lying either which way, oddly bringing to mind a dinosaur. She pulled an M12 pistol off her leg and waved it lazily around.
“Yes, Bobby. And friends.”
The kid came around and gave the old guy a hug. “Sorry, Bobby! I didn't know you were coming.”
Bobby shook his head. “This is your place?”
“What happened to the house boat? We looked for you. It's all tore up.”
“Oh, yeah, I know. I've still got that, too. Had to pack in a hurry though.” He glanced at Dean. “You can put that gun away.” Dean frowned and kept the gun carefully trained on him, then nudged Daryl. Almost reluctantly, Daryl raised his crossbow back up to cover the girl, seeing as how she was still armed. “I took up a few new hobbies after zombies took over the earth,” Garth was saying. “Cleared this old place and fortified it. Used to be Edgar Hannity's bug-out place. You know him? Conspiracy nut. Turned out to be right, though, didn't he? Found him here already zombied-up, so I took it. I needed lots of yard room for my kennel.”
“Kennel?” Bobby asked. “We haven't seen any dogs.”
“Hope they're still alive!” Garth laughed, but no one else did. “Sheesh, guys. I'm just kidding. They're on automatic feeders and waterers. They're probably pissed about being stuck inside for over two weeks though. Wasn't supposed to be that long. I'm gonna have a doozy of a time cleaning it out.” He walked past everyone and into the house. Daryl nodded to the young woman as she holstered her piece and followed him.
Dean elbowed his arm and grinned as they watched her walk up the steps. Daryl couldn't help but grin back. Then Dean cleared his throat and frowned, turning on Bobby. “You didn't tell us this place was already claimed.”
“I didn't know! I surely didn't think this was Garth's. Hell, did you get a look at him? I figured he was dead.”
“Well, what are we going to do now?”
“Garth won't kick us out.”
“No offense, but I don't think I want to live with this Garth guy,” Dean spat. Daryl tried to drop further behind them as they argued. “Besides, have you seen any signs of dogs?”
That mystery was answered as they followed Garth inside. Weirdo had a hidden room in the basement. Apparently the far door opened right out to the outside, though it was concealed behind large holly bushes, but inside was the real surprise. Inside was what looked like an honest–to–god animal shelter. Cages lined both walls of the large room, and the stench when he opened the door was overwhelming.
“Are those...pomeranians?” Dean asked, blinking his eyes at all the ammonia in the air.
“Yes,” Garth called as he ran through the room to open the far door. “And chihuahuas, bichon frisé, and a few jack russell terriers. We also have a pair of collies in the far corner here. Then there's Peanut,” he said, kneeling before one cage, “our one little bassett. She's spayed, but I really hope to find a breeding pair.”
“You've taken to breeding dogs now?” Bobby asked, incredulous. “How in blazes did we miss this? How do you feed all these things?”
“Well, the room's soundproof. Don't want the zombies to get them. There's a pretty good vent system separate from the house, but guess it's overworked at the moment.” Garth switched to a rather disgusting baby voice. “Sure didn't mean to be gone so long! No, I didn't. I'm so very sorry, little friends.” He switched back to his own voice, much to Daryl's relief. “But really, I can't believe you of all people, Bobby, missed the hidden rooms.”
“Rooms?” Ben asked, peeking his head around the adults.
“Yeah! There's several in this old place. Did you know,” Garth began, taking several leashes off the wall and handing them to his companion. She passed some around to everyone, then pointed toward the cages when nobody moved. “Experts speculated that in an armageddon scenario, all toy dogs would be extinct within five to ten days without humans to protect them. Mostly food for bigger things. And they believed that all specific, individual breeds would die out within fifty years - at the most! But we're not going to let that happen, are we, guys? No! Not with Uncle Garth here to help.”
“Yeah,” Dean muttered to Bobby. “This guy's a nutbag.”
Daryl opened the cage to one of the jack russell pairs. They were so excited to see anybody that they pissed themselves as they jumped all over him. “Hey, watch the shoes!”
“You know that pets are a real commitment in the best of circumstances, right, Garth?”
“Yes. I do know what I'm doing, believe it or not,” he said before tying a handkerchief around his face and grabbing a shovel. Daryl quickly clipped the leashes on his pair and hurried outside and into the fresh air.
The house had several sections that jutted out at odd angles, and a three-barrel rain system had been set up at each gutter spout. All of the dogs pulled to the nearest one, which had a small plastic kiddie pool set up beneath the tap. Apparently their automatic waterers had run out, because these dogs were all panting pathetically, gazing up at Daryl with sad eyes. He turned the water on and tried to keep them from fighting over it.
“We weren't supposed to be so long,” a voice said at his right. Daryl turned to see the fierce mohawk chick. She was cute, even though facial piercings weren't usually his thing. Bikes were. He dug a chick who loved bikes.
She dropped her leashes, knowing the attached collies weren't going anywhere, and pulled out a cigarette case. “Want one? Camels.”
“Sure. Thanks.” Daryl inclined his head as she lit it for him.
She took a puff before answering. “Me and Garth, we're kind of like guides. We go out and look for supplies, toy poodles, survivors, whatever. We find survivors, we match them up with a camp. Well,” she blew her smoke directly in Daryl's face and fanned it away apologetically, “we heard about a new camp, so we went to check it out. Only we got there too late. Fire had destroyed the whole area. Only finally stopped once it hit the river. Most of 'em were dead, but we spent a couple days looking for survivors. Found a few. Took 'em up to Wolf River.”
“So you just help people find safe zones? You know a few? Like, really safe?”
“Yeah. What, you ain't found no other people? No hunters?”
“I'm kinda new to this.” Daryl switched his cigarette to his left hand and reached out to shake. “Daryl.”
“That short for Alicia?”
“No. Just Lisha.”
“So you're one of Dean's kind of hunters?”
“Trigger-happy guy from out front.”
“Oh. I suppose so. If he's Bobby's type of hunter.”
Daryl swung his crossbow around off his shoulder. “I'm the old fashioned kind of hunter, but I'm trying to branch out these days.”
“Well, plenty of job security.”
“Reckon so.” He scrambled to pick up the leashes before his two dogs ran off. Lisha just snapped, and her collies swung around and came back to her. “We got a place out in Georgia,” he offered. “Know any more out that way?”
“We don't usually roam that far. Kind of a tristate area operation, though we know a couple guys out of Missouri who cover a bit more ground up north.” Lisha walked over to a fallen log and sat down, absently petting the two collies who sat at her feet. “We haven't had anybody out east since...well, we lost some people.”
Daryl nodded and snubbed out the butt of his cig, pocketing it to throw away later. “Well, now maybe you can get to know some folks out that way.”
“Sure,” she said, grinding her butt into the ground with the toe of her boot. “How far are you? Whatcha got?”
Daryl shared a little of their history, and Lisha did the same. He learned that she and Garth were cousins, though she usually preferred to stay on the road by herself. She worked a circuit; she didn't say it outright, but Daryl got the feeling she was looking for someone. Or something. After a while, Ben came and collected everyone for dinner, and they returned the dogs to a newly pristine kennel room. Or closer to it, anyway.
“Think he'll part with one?” Daryl asked as the jack russells covered him in slobbery kisses.
“I dunno. Maybe one of the fixed ones. He seems obsessed with protecting the breeds. Of course, we know where some packs roam if you want to do the whole 'let the wild mustang choose you' thing.”
“Maybe. I don't care much about breed. I've just always wanted a dog.”
“How long are you staying for?”
“It was a pretty long trip. We had a fairly successful run on the way out here. Figured we'd probably head back out in the morning. Sasha wants to log some of their hunting stories. Dean's giving us some of those long-range radios he found, but it won't do no good 'til we get one back to the prison, so we don't want to linger too long. We hadn't planned to follow them all the way out here.”
“You guys can take all that food, you know,” Lisha said. “I take it Bobby didn't find the pantries?”
“I really don't know.”
“Garth and some of his buddies updated this place right after everything started breaking down, but that Edgar guy had it mostly set up already. He's got an underground emergency bunker and an underground storage bunker.”
“Really? Isn't the water table too high or something, sitting right on the Mississippi?”
“Notice the hill the house's sitting on? Dude brought in dirt to cover his shipping container bunkers, then moved the house here on top of it.”
“Damn. It's good to be rich, I guess.”
“Yeah. I think a lot of it was probably stolen. He was a hunter too, you know. We're really all just a bunch of grifters,” she laughed. “But he was like a treasure hunter or something before. Made a bunch of money on art circuits and stuff. Anyway, there's all sorts of prepper stuff in the house. He definitely built this place with conspiracies in mind.” Lisha gave him a sideways smile. “We could probably even spare some for you guys, if you want more than rice and breadcrumbs.”
“Yeah, that'd be mighty nice.”
“I might ride along with, if that's okay. I haven't been east since...well, since we lost my sister. We're always glad to check out a new safe house, though.”
“Well, I can't really vouch for how safe it is with all the crap that's been going on, but you're welcome to check it out.”
“We'd better hurry and get to the stories then.”
“Stories? You're game, then?”
“Oh yeah. You get a nice handful of hunters together, throw in food and a few beers, you guys'll get your stories all night long. Guarantee it.”
“Not sure if Sasha will be happy or disappointed. I think she maybe hoped for some other stuff all night long.”
Lisha laughed, then wiggled her pierced brows at him. “Don't we all?”
Daryl learned a lot from their stories. Everybody did, but Daryl figured he remembered the most, since he was the only one who didn't get shit-faced. Daryl never much cared for alcohol, but especially not after the whole world went to shit. Better to stay clear-headed, he figured.
So he ended up walking the drive alone late at night, figuring that somebody had better keep an eye on the bridge. From what he'd gathered, it was the only access point to the ten acre island, which actually seemed surprisingly safe. There was a low bridge leading to the mainland off the Mississippi side, so they'd not had to cross the whole big river. It was peaceful, and Daryl hadn't seen a walker since they'd made it to the island. Somebody had done a fair job of hiding the bridge on the mainland side. Sitting out below the stars, watching the moonlight ripple on the Mississippi, Daryl almost thought things seemed normal.
Except that the large river would normally have blinking lights in the electric towers lining the sides, with lots of barge activity, especially late at night. There was none of that now. No boats that he could see at all. No roads. No lights. Just leaves, sky, and water.
After a few hours, Sam came to take over for him. Daryl clasped his hand and gave the bro hug, saying nothing as he headed back to the house to catch a few hours of sleep. He hadn't been led to a guest room or anything, so he just curled up with a throw on the couch in the parlor, falling asleep at once.