There was no escaping the heat, even in the middle of the night. The group had all moved into the farm house, taking cover from the increasing number of walkers that had made their way through the woods surrounding the vast pastures. Daryl had propped himself up, half sitting on the railing that wrapped around the porch, half leaning on one of the posts that supported the balcony above. His crossbow lay across his bent leg. He looked across the land for the umpteenth time that night. He wished for just the slightest breeze, something to cut through the humidity that hung around him like a blanket.
He heard the screen door squeak open then turned and saw a mess of blonde hair, pulled back in a ponytail, poke through the opening. It was Hershel’s youngest...Beth, if he remembered right. She usually stayed inside, he noticed, so their paths rarely crossed. Now that everyone was living practically on top of each other, he figured it’d be inevitable that they’d eventually have to pretend to get to know each other.
Her bright blue eyes shone in the pale moonlight; her alabaster skin all but glowed. He couldn’t help but acknowledge just how beautiful she was, but he shook his head, pushing those kinds of thoughts out of his mind. What the hell, Dixon, he chastised himself. She’s what, 15? 16? Ya dirty ol’ perv. ‘Sides, it’s Hershel’s daughter. Ain’t no way that’s gonna happen.
“Hi,” she whispered, her voice matching the rest of her, soft and delicate.
“What are you doin’ here?” he asked gruffly. “Oughta be inside, asleep.”
She nodded, her eyes falling to the faded wooden boards making up the porch. “It’s too hot. Too close. Too many people.” She looked up at him through her long eyelashes.
Daryl nodded in understanding. “Know whatcha mean.”
An uneasy silence fell between them. He scanned the fields again, always searching, and heard her cross closer to him. He unconsciously tensed up as she drew near, relaxing only slightly as she settled on the porch swing across from him instead. He glanced over at her. She had one leg tucked under her, her other leg dangling in front; her toes, nails painted red, were pressing against the floor of the porch, causing the swing to gently glide back and forth.
“Somethin’ on your mind?” Beth asked.
Daryl glared at her. Of course. There was always something on his mind. Right now, aside from fighting the thoughts exploding through his imagination, of wondering just what her perfect skin would feel like under his fingers, the rest of his thoughts were consumed with finding Sophia, Carol’s daughter. He’d been looking for days and had turned up with nothing.
“You wanna talk about it?” she pressed on. Apparently she didn’t know that Daryl was not one for words, for opening up, for sharing what all went on in his head.
Instead of barking at her, biting her head off, unleashing the anger and frustration he was feeling on this innocent little thing, he just shook his head and stared down at the toe of his boot.
Another moment of silence pressed on, finally broken by her soft words, “It’s the little girl, isn’t it? You’re worried about her. I know you’ve been looking for her...more than anyone else has.”
Daryl looked up at her again. She was still seated on the swinging bench, now stilled as she questioned him, talked to him, tried to understand him. Her eyes were bright with interest and concern for him. His eyes remained guarded, peering at her quizzically. How had this little spit of a girl have him so figured out, so quickly? How had she known he’d been looking for her when she spent her days inside?
He couldn’t hold back his curiosity any more. “How old’re you, girl?” he ground out.
A curious expression crossed her face. “Seventeen. Why?” she asked.
Daryl just shrugged in response. Seventeen was better. Still not good, but better. No, this girl was completely off limits. He had to cover his tracks, though. “Just seem pretty smart for a kid.”
She grinned at that. “There’s not a lot to do around here but people watch, cook and clean.” Her grin broadened into a smile when Daryl snorted, the closest thing he’d offer as a laugh.
Another moment passed; a sudden cool breeze blew across them. Beth breathed in deeply through her nose. She hummed, “Mmm...a storm’s coming in. You can smell it. Hopefully the rain will wash away some of this humidity,” she said optimistically.
Daryl silently regarded her again. She really was smart for a kid. Hell, she was smart for some of the adults he’d come across. There was something about her he wanted to like, very much, but forced any kinds of those feelings down into the dark corner of his heart and mind. He again focused on the stretch of yard in front of him, enjoying the breeze as it picked up again and cooled the sweat on his face and arms.
She stood up and took a few quiet steps closer to him. He jumped when she laid her hand on his bicep, tensing momentarily before realizing this girl meant him no harm. He looked to her face, bright with a confident smile. “You’ll find her, Daryl. I know you will. She’s out there somewhere; you just gotta have a little faith...a little hope.” With that, she turned and went back into the house, closing the screen door quietly behind her.
Daryl felt the absence of her presence immediately; he almost wished she hadn’t gone. The cool breeze picked up into sudden gusts of wind as the trees that lined the property began to bend and bow under its force. When the gentle raindrops began their pitter patter rhythm on the eaves of the porch, Daryl slid off the railing and sunk onto the swing Beth had just occupied, the warmth from where she had been seeping through his own clothes.
As the rain picked up, he felt the temperature around him drop, almost causing a chill on his bare arms, the coolness a welcome relief. Her words had brought a similar relief, though not to his skin, but to his mind, to his heart.
Off on the horizon, below the line of clouds rolling by, the sky started to lighten as the sun prepared to start its journey across the sky once again. He watched as the sky lit up, morphing from purple to a deep blue, before the sunrays pierced through and painted the clouds with brilliant oranges, reds and yellows. Daryl wasn’t sure he’d seen anything so beautiful until his thoughts wandered back to the woman-child who had given him more than just a quiet conversation, more than a friendly touch on the arm.
He marveled at the wondrous sight unfold before him and felt it. She had given him hope, and that was more than anyone had given him in a very long time.