There was a time, before the now and before the then, when people died like this all the time.
Death came knocking for the young and the old alike then, indiscriminately. Babies who made it to their first steps were miracles, women who'd had as many birthdays as her were considered middle aged. This was before modern medicine, before newborns were pumped full of vaccinations to protect them from the air they needed to flourish. Back before indoor plumbing and over the counters and 24-hour clinics.
Which is where they find themselves again. Hundreds of years of work by scientists and doctors and all the donated dollars to medical research mean nothing in the end. Back to the basics, back to the days when a simple stomach bug could put someone in a grave.
Maybe they'd taken medicine for granted in her family, what with her daddy being the kind of man who could suture up a wound over his morning coffee or deliver a screaming human into the world just as easily as he could a kicking fowl. They saw doctors of course, yearly trips in town to let the pediatrician scale their height and weight but mostly everything else Hershel could handle with his seemingly bottomless black medical bag.
Even when God hit the big pause button on the universe, her daddy kept cutting people apart and stitching them back together, lowering fevers and treating coughs. The man assessed his own amputation when he well enough to sit up and went right back to work treating others.
If her daddy was alive he would know how to help her, he'd know how to make this better.
Beth knew she was going to die from the moment she saw her brother trudging across the field, eyes glazed with a white fog and his teeth snarled like a feral dog. She was going to die much younger and probably much more painful than she ever could have imagined, she just never thought it would be like this.
That familiar Georgia clay is hard under her back, cracked and strained and begging for rain just like she and Daryl have been. She's used to the stench of death that permeates the air but now it mixes with the odor of her own sick and mess. If there was anything left to vacate her body she'd vomit but there isn't. She dry heaves; hot, acidic bile bubbling at the back of her throat but not making it to her mouth.
It started three days ago as a stomach ache and she'd been mortified having to duck behind trunk after trunk to release her bowels as Daryl refused to stay more than a few paces away. She'd cried and begged for him to just let her be alone, hot tears getting caught on the dry flakes of her chap lips. He wouldn't leave her of course, never anything more than a shrug or a grunt about how he'd seen worse.
She was mortified for the first man to move inside her, to touch every part of her wholly, to be seeing her this way.
Then the vomiting came, then the fever.
She's empty now, hasn't eaten for days or been able to get a mouthful of water down for more than seconds. Regardless, her body clenches and muscles spasm and it seems like she swallowed a lit match and the flames are licking up her intestines and esophagus. Her joints ache and limbs are like jelly, deflated at her sides no matter how many times her brain begs them to please just move.
If she had any power over her bodily functions at this point, she'd laugh at the sudden memory playing behind her eyelids.
Back in elementary school, the last hour of every Friday afternoon was reserved for free time in the computer lab. Just like art and music Beth loved computers because it was a class where she could do and not just listen. She sat next to Mary Ellen Gratz because the stations were assigned in alphabetical order. Each student could pick a game from a binder of CD-ROMS; every Friday Mary Ellen chose the 'Rosetta Stone' disc and Beth 'Oregon Trail'.
Mary Ellen insisted she was going to become fluent in Spanish so she could move to Punta Cana when she grew up and get a tattoo of a sun on her ankle just like her sister had done there on spring break. She would sigh about Punta Cana with the air of someone much older than 12 as if it was one of the seven wonders of the world that small town farm kids like Beth just couldn't appreciate.
Not that Beth minded. If Mary Ellen needed her to be a hokey little hillbilly so she could have her moment, then that was fine.
She was busy anyway, dutifully planning a treck across the Oregon Trail for a wagon of settlers. She was fascinated with the idea of setting out on an almost aimless mission, the search for somewhere to start anew with nothing but what you could cram in your wagon. Each week she was prepared with a game plan, what she could do differently to prevent any untimely deaths in her small, animated charge. Not that her plan ever worked. The characters would begin to dwindle, starving to death or getting bit by rattle snakes. Still, the wagon trudged on until the last driver met an end.
Some of the boys would erupt into fits of laughter when the screen would blink black and announce that another pioneer had fatally succumb to a fit of dysentery.
"That means you shit yourself to death."
"What? C'mon girl what'd you say?"
Daryl's hand is as big as her face when he cups it under her chin, two calloused fingers creeping up over her cheek. Beth doesn't know what she looks like, can't remember the last time she'd seen her own reflection, but it can't be good. His blue slits of eyes are swollen, red rimmed and she's seen Daryl Dixon cry enough times to put two and two together.
"Pioneers," she manages, forces her lips to quirk towards the sky because she's got to give him something; he's radiating fear and desperation. Her jeans are pulled back up under her bottom and that means Daryl cleaned her up, restored her dignity as best he could.
A feeble, broken, humiliated sob escapes her lips.
When she was growing up she thought love always came in one, big, beautiful blinding moment. But loving Daryl has come in quiet little paces, in the darkest, scariest places.
Here he is, knelt beside where she's been since last time her legs gave out and she just couldn't get them back up again. It takes him a few long breathes but he brushes a thumb over her lip and offers a nod with watery eyes.
"Guess we are a coupla' old pioneers."
They've been trecking the land together for six months, no clear destination in mind. Just somewhere they can be, somewhere they can just breathe for a while. They don't need to strike it rich, just land somewhere with enough to get by.
The funeral home was nice for a while, until the men came. Claimed, like she was something to own. She and Daryl, they slit throats together, ungraceful in the dark. It was ok in this world, to fall in love with a man while you watched him kill for you.
She should tell him to keep moving. A braver girl would let him leave her behind. Fruitless though, this isn't a movie. He won't be counted in the ranks of those who wrote her off. Daryl isn't going to leave her here, caked with her own feces and vomit and too drained to defend herself to be feasted on like dinner.
She had to be small for girls like Mary Ellen. She had to be naïve, be doodle bug and Bethy for her daddy and Maggie. She had to be mamma for Judith and hopeful for Carol but all she has to be for Daryl is Beth.
And she doesn't have to lie about wanting him to fight for her.
That's all they've done these months, fight for each other. They live for each other, exist in each other's heart beats and blinks. It was ok in this world, to love so big it's the only thing you stay alive for.
The thought wrecks her to imagine his face while her milky eyes focus in his direction and her jaws snap at his scent. He'll do it quick, he has to. Daryl knows the drill.
Beth doesn't know what he'll do after, she can't let herself. She's going to die and it's scary and it's hard but fighting it is useless.
And it'll be sad, but it'll be quiet. She'll be with someone who loves her. It'll be ok.