It's as if they announce his arrival when he enters her.
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
There's a lot about those days from the Before that she doesn't remember. The bullet that carved its straight, neat groove across her skull serves as a line of demarcation, an artificial border between the Before and the After. Later, looking at the X-Rays as Edwards awkwardly explained the details of what had happened to her, she thought of an atlas in a geography class that she took two lives removed, the weird uneven squiggles of European nations and the neat, hard angles of Africa and the western United States. One could see history in the pattern of those lines. Centuries of territorial warfare settled by treaties between relative equals, and then in the other places the borders drawn by conquering overlords, consulting no one but themselves, disregarding all other considerations. The neatness of the map was a mark of utter viciousness, a story of ruthless destruction and greed.
The gunshot reordered everything she is, and it never asked her what she wanted.
The bullet colonized her.
These are the strange connections she makes now, as a matter of routine. Sometimes she says things other people don't immediately understand, though now and then they eventually come to follow her fractured logic. They've grown used to it, because she's useful to them, with her scope and her rifle and her aim as straight and true as the groove in her skull, and the coldness with which she combines and employs all three. They appreciate the results.
So does she. She supposes.
Except there's that line, and it makes her so sad that it's there. She senses what she's lost, even if she can't remember a great deal of it. She senses that great deal, the amount if not the content. Feels the pain even if she can't remember the source.
And she does remember. Some things. She remembers who people are. She remembers what they meant to her.
She remembers what love is.
Which is why, when Rick and the others came into the city and right up to their gates, she didn't slaughter every last one of them.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
She remembers. She remembers that she lay in the grass beside him, her lungs tearing themselves apart and her heart smashing itself to pulp against the inside of her breastbone, and she listened to his panting and tried to calm herself by matching her breath to his. Wondered later if he noticed. She couldn't breathe, until she could because he helped her and he likely never even knew, how his body led her. Soothed hers, although she could still feel the chaos in him, the panic and the horror beneath the veil of his numbness. She couldn't do anything about that, so at least at first she didn't try. She took what she needed from him and she had faith that it wasn't unfair, that he would have given it to her if she asked.
Wondering about the distinction between the paralysis of despair and the openness of generosity. Whatever. I don't give a shit. And Of course. Whatever you need.
The things she would have given him, if she thought there was a chance in hell he would ever accept them.
Until he did.
Now it's dim in her second floor bedroom. The sun is rising and a storm is blowing up. She's not sure how she got him in here; he's barely looked at her since he looked for the first time. That first look, though—she thought he might never stop looking. She thought he might fall. She stood there beside Tamika, her partner on watch, and she forgot Tamika and Rahim and the others gathering to gawk at the newcomers, and she forgot Michonne and she even forgot Rick, and she looked at him looking at her and she gripped her rifle so hard the skin over her knuckles felt as if it might simply break open to the bone.
And she remembered. She remembered so much and so hard that a scream froze in her throat.
Thank God, they didn't try to hug her. She'd guess they were too shocked. Whatever the reason, she was relieved.
Now he's here with her. It's after dinner, or an uneasy meal that she supposes would be called supper. Uneasy because while no one is shooting at anyone, no one is confident that there won't be shooting at some point in the future. Breaking bread isn't always fellowship. Sometimes it's barely an introduction.
Introduced to him. She sat across from him. He didn't eat.
She doesn't recall whether she did or not.
It's a long way back to where they've made their home. Asked to stay the night; they said yes. She stood aside from everything, watching what they did, how they were when they did it. They're the same people but everything has changed. They're so old now, and in a way that passes lines on a face and the texture of skin and the color of hair, and goes straight for the gut of the cell. It's a kind of age with which she's on intimate terms. She thinks she might be nineteen now, possibly twenty, but she isn't sure, and it doesn’t matter.
Anyway, Michonne and Rick and him are the only ones in the group who she still knows.
They agreed to stay. Were shown to a vacant house in the compound; she went along. She got the sense, looking at Rick’s face in the flickering overhead light in the front hall, that he would have liked her to linger, that there were things he might have liked to say to her. Questions he might have liked to ask. Questions she wouldn't have liked to answer, so she said goodnight and left them there.
But she did linger. Out of sight, in the shadows—where she spent most of the time on her six hundred mile journey north. Small, nimble things, furry little prey creatures that survived the death of an entire species of enormous predators.
She can be a predator too.
Though that's not why she was waiting.
He didn't say a word to her. But she knew he would come. She remembers that too: she remembers that, not long before she lost him, he could speak to her that way, without saying anything at all. He could look at her and she would see everything, whether or not he wanted her to, and in the end he needed her to see it, because he couldn't find the words for what he was trying to say.
She was watching from the shadows when he slipped out through the front door, stood for a moment on the stoop with his head slightly raised, scenting the air like something wild. Turning his head immediately toward her, and though she couldn’t make out his eyes, she could feel them.
Like fingers on her face. Tracing her lines, her brows and eyelids and nose and mouth, her cheekbones and her jaw, her scars. Hesitant and disbelieving.
A flock of birds burst out of the tree as she stepped out from under it, and as she went to him and took his hand, they wheeled overhead, their calls hoarse and exclamatory.
She started walking. He followed her.
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can't imagine
She doesn't live in the small two-bedroom house alone. She shares it with Tamika. But Tamika has a girlfriend she sometimes spends the night with, and now the house is empty except for him and her. She didn't tell him any of this as she opened the door and led him inside, and through the dark hall toward the stairs. He followed her in silence—everything silent, even his footfalls, and if it wasn't for his hand in hers and the soft huff of his breath, she might have forgotten he was there at all.
No. No, she never would have forgotten anything of the kind.
She took him upstairs, into her room. Didn't shut the door. Didn't cut on the light. There wouldn't have been much to show him here if there was the illumination to do it with; she has a bed, a dresser, a lamp and a bedside table, a small desk, some books, a painting on the wall that she doesn't much care for. The painting is of a river, but she can look out her single large window and see a real river, the wide expanse of the Potomac with the rising moon glittering on its windbroken surface. She likes the river, likes the moon on it. Likes it best when those two things are combined. Her back against the door, she turned to him at the same instant he turned to her, and he was a patchwork of shadows, but beyond him was the window and the river and the moon.
Look, she almost said. In some other version of events, she pointed at the window and directed him to it. Look at it. Do you see it?
She didn't say anything. She closed her eyes and tipped her head back and felt her lips move.
He did. It took him what felt like an hour, but he did. A single fingertip against her brow—surely aimed. Didn't move a micrometer once it set itself just above her left eyebrow.
She wondered if any of the faith in him survived.
She reached up and curled her hand around his wrist. He was shaking. She moved her hand up, fitted her fingers alongside his, interweaved them. Squeezed. In the tree outside her window, a restless stirring of wings. She took a breath.
He started to cry.
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
She knows, in ways she doubts many people do, how malleable time is. A clock is a lie of order. Time expands and contracts like a living body; it bends and twists, doubles back on itself, contorts, ties itself into knots. All they did was stand there but it must have been hours. Then she took another breath—her first in all that time—and they were at her bed, and she was lowering herself to sit and he was crumpling in time-lapse onto his knees in front of her, hands splayed against the outsides of her thighs, his head dropping into her lap as she combed her fingers into his hair. It got so long, she thinks. He let it get so long. Hers was cut short and has only recently returned to her shoulders, but when she first saw him out there he was practically hiding behind the curtain of his hair, and the glimpses she caught of his eyes were bloodless and haunted.
Stroking his hair, hunching her body over his until she rested her cheek against the crown of his head and breathed him in, and he clung to her as the sobs continued to rock him.
What people do in stories, when they meet each other like this after a long and seemingly final separation, is tell each other everything. Or that's how it seems to her, thinking back over what stories she remembers. Maybe it doesn't happen right there on the page, sentence by sentence and beat by beat, but they talk. They stand together on either side of those gaps of missing time and they fill them in, and when they're done they walk across the new ground and are together. But talking felt wrong. She didn't want to talk. What the fuck should she even say? What should he? If she was writing this story, this is where she would find herself hopelessly stuck.
I thought you were dead.
I wasn't. I'm not.
No. No, you're not.
They said all that already, and neither of them had to make a sound.
So she held him like that until, little by little, he loosened and went still. She felt him flooding out under her. Her face toward the window, she watched the moonlight on the water and imagined him flowing away. She listened to the rustling of the birds and imagined his lungs, his heart. His hands. Moving, even as the rest of him ceased to move.
These connections she makes, between things that shouldn't fit and yet as far as she's concerned fit perfectly. Like his kneeling body between her thighs. Like her palms against his damp cheeks, when he finally raises his head.
Like her lips on his.
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Kissing is something else she doesn't remember.
She knows it happened. She had two boyfriends; it must have. Did she have only the two? Or were there more? She lost the two, and that's what she retains. Surely she kissed those, anyway. Maybe she went further than that? She knows the facts of life. She's seen Tamika and her girlfriend backed into a corner behind the vegetable storehouse, a groping hand on Tamika’s round ass, squeezing and kneading as together they slide into a slow, aching grind. The wet sound as their mouths collide, tongues tangle. She felt none of the tingling shame of a voyeur—only a dry emptiness. Tamika working a knee between the girl’s powerful thighs, moving like that, she knew they would finish but she didn't wait to see it. Again, not out of any shame, or delicacy of sensibility.
She still isn't sure why she left.
But she felt a familiarity in her core, low in her belly where she knew something else should also be. All the rest of that day, it gnawed at her. That night she lay awake in bed, the sheets rumpled around her waist, and she put herself in Tamika’s place, slipping her tongue past the girl’s sweet lips and tasting her, carding the fingers of one hand into long hair blonder than hers while her other hand crept up under the girl’s thin tank top and cupped a full breast unprotected by a bra, tweaking the nipple and making her shiver and groan.
Soft, wet mouth. The warm silk of her skin, the brown scatter of freckles gone to blurs this close up. That tit in her hand, its owner’s back arching and pressing it into Beth’s palm as she squeezed. Knee between her legs; cunt soaked through her jeans and thrumming. Winding up and ready to uncoil in a single violent spasm.
Something was supposed to be happening now. But she spread her legs a little, pressed her hand beneath her panties and parted her labia and nosed a finger into herself, and encountered…
Nothing. She felt nothing.
Turning her head and watching the river, and the flock of starlings landing and taking flight and landing again, perhaps flying for the sheer pleasure of it, streaks of shadow against the pale shards of the moon.
Heat of a body beside hers, panting. Heaving. Every muscle in constant motion, straining with life and the instinctive desperation to hold onto it.
She did feel something, then. She just could never have defined what it was.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
He stiffens when she kisses him. For a moment she's certain he’ll snap backward and away, might respond with a violent shake of the head, a violent shake of himself, a full-body denial. She discovers in that moment that she's not surprised by the idea, and she wouldn't resent it. This was never how it was supposed to go, if it was ever going to go at all. Not first meeting of eyes and then barely hours later, this. She suspects it might have taken him years to work up to this point, if he even got there.
But haven't they had years?
He does stiffen. He doesn't pull away. He doesn't touch her, except for his hands still framing her thighs. He whimpers, and it's a sound choked with fear, but just as she's about to release him and do the withdrawing for him, his hands are working further up to her hips, fingers hooking into her belt loops, and his lips are parting—though it feels as if it's not so much to admit her as it is him desperately trying to think of something to say.
She traces the seam with her tongue, slow. Tentative. Thumbs high on the ridge of his cheekbones, not quite stroking him. It's like she's never done this, asking permission to explore inside someone else, and yet it's also like she's done it all her life. That thing that was missing inside her; possibly it's not so absent after all, because she can feel a stirring there, like long-inactive machinery flipped on and beginning to grind to rusty life.
She's aware that she might want more than he can give her.
She's aware that she's not fully cognizant of how much she even wants.
Daryl, she mouths against him, and he moans and opens wider, a tremor setting into his muscles as if they've been tensed for hours and he's nearly at the end of his strength. That's okay, she can carry this; she pushes herself deeper into his mouth and moves, and moves her body with it, shifting forward on the edge of the bed until she's clamped his middle with the high insides of her thighs, her crotch inches from the apex of his ribcage. The machinery is already running more smoothly when she tugs his bottom lip into her mouth and sucks it plump, her hands gliding down to his bare biceps and her nails outlining the curve of them—shit, he was always so strong, only now does she understand how much she loved that about him—and when his tongue thrusts abruptly into her in a burst of frightened confidence, she sighs and lowers her hand to cup herself, fingers pressing against where she went from feeling nothing in particular to feeling far too much, and that's when he wrenches himself apart from her and twists backward, staring with wide, shocked eyes down at what she's doing, every part of him quaking.
She stills. But she doesn't move her hand. This is too much, she whispers to herself, and the rest of her rolls her spine into a wave, languidly sensuous as her fingers press again and a spark leaps up to her chest.
Another thing she doesn't remember is when she last came.
Like she imagined he might, he's shaking his head now, mortification locking his features into a grimace—and she sees, or she's fairly positive she sees, that it's not that he doesn't want it. He's shaking with how much he wants it, whatever it is. But the fear is still shining in his eyes like tears, his lips quivering and his shoulders hunching, on his knees like a man imploring someone for mercy.
Or for the exact opposite.
For the first time since he got here, he speaks, and his voice sounds as old as he looks.
“You don't know.” He shakes his head again. “What happened after, what we did… You don't know what I’ve done, what I've… You don't know what I am. You don’t—”
“I don't give a fuck.” His eyes somehow widen even more—she's mildly surprised there's another level there to reach—and it hits her that he's probably never heard that word come out of her mouth, and that gives her a horrid, cold satisfaction. No one is who they were. “I want you.”
“Beth,” he breathes, and the way he says her name makes her certain that he hasn't said it in months.
And when she reaches for him and pulls him back in and arches her mouth over his, working him even more roughly than before, he goes to her with an eagerness that threatens to break her.
Behind her eyes, a hundred birds take to the air.
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
She doesn't remember this part at all.
Scooting back on the bed enough to see him as he stands, half light and half shadow in the path of the moon’s reflection. When she takes his zipper in her hand and begins to tug it down, she's looking not at it but at his face, the grimace still frozen there, the pain. He isn't meeting her eyes. His head is hanging low between his shoulders; he looks like a man preparing to be punished for something, but his hips are canting forward and his breath is coming faster as she slips her exploring fingers into his pants and tugs his shorts aside.
Has she touched a cock before? What does she remember about that? Is there anything familiar in the way his breath stutters when she finds him, when she skates her fingers up his length and hooks them around him to draw him out? Gazing at it jutting through his fly, rapt as she get a better hold on him; does she remember anything like his strained whine, or the way he twitches when she lightly squeezes him? Does she remember anything about how soft and silky the skin is, how it moves with her hand as she strokes him down to the open zipper and back up to just beneath the swollen, glistening head, or the way a droplet of clear fluid gathers at the tip and drips over her fingers as she carefully pulls back his foreskin?
The way he's shaking so hard, hands clenched at his sides as if he's afraid of what he might do with them if he let them go?
She gives him another stroke, another, and more of that clear fluid wells from his slit and slicks her fingers. Fascinated, she sweeps the tip of one over the top of the head, and the twitch in his hips is more of a spasm and his groan is closer to a low cry. And that's what kicks her into motion, makes her greedy; with her other hand she yanks down his jeans and shorts until he’s fully exposed, the thatch of dark hair surrounding him and his balls hanging heavy and full beneath the base of his cock, and he sways when she cups her hand beneath them and weighs them, inhaling when he jumps in her grip.
And the surge of heady, aching power that hums through her is like nothing she's ever felt before. Nothing in any life she's ever lived.
For a while she uses both hands to play with him, still with that faintly pleased fascination, watching what he does, how she makes him move, the noises she builds in him. How frantically he's working to stay upright, to stay where he is—letting her do what she wants with him, but that's all. And she'd like to do something about that, but for now she's withdrawing one hand and working absently at her own fly, getting it open and wriggling it down, gasping and briefly ceasing the rhythm of her strokes when her fingertip grazes her clit.
Finding it again when she joins it to the rapid circles her rubbing fingers are giving herself.
She doesn't remember any of this. Doesn't even remember remembering it. That might be why she keeps pushing forward, looking for something that triggers her recall, so it feels like a natural progression to lean forward and flick her tongue against the head, sealing her lips over it a second later and lapping up what's seeping out of him. She's dimly aware of her name grating out of him, once again the fear knotting up the edges of his voice, and beneath the fear something almost crazed, something that finally jumpstarts his hands and slaps them over the back of her head, forcing her to take him deeper as he thrusts shallowly and then less so between her lips. Maybe she should be fighting him but she's not; she's sinking her nails into the flesh over the knob of his hipbone and sucking, laving her tongue back and forth over the vein snaking up the underside of his shaft, and in the end he's so deep in her that her lips are brushing the coarse curls of his pubic hair and tears are leaking from the corners of her eyes.
She knows what he wants, what he's asking for, and she manages something like a nod and an mhmm and he begins to fuck her mouth.
And this is how she knows how much he's changed, how they both have: in the Before, he never would have done this in the way he's doing it, and in the Before she very much doubts she would have taken it like this. Because he's not going slow, not being gentle; he's fucking her, his cock colliding over and over with the back of her throat and making her gag and clutch at him, and her hair is wrapped so tight around his fingers that it stings. He's making her do it, taking her, grunting harsh curses as he does—at her, at the world outside this room, at everything, vicious and pained. And through it all she's still working her clit, smearing her juices over herself to make it easier, her hand cramping against the seam of her jeans and not caring. This isn't who she was but it's who she is now, and as she moans thickly around his shaft, in the corner of her blurred vision she sees the broken moon on the water and the scatter of shadowy wings rising and falling and rising again.
And it's so beautiful.
So suddenly she yelps and he yanks her head back, seizing his cock in his other hand and furiously jerking himself, hair hanging around a face lost to the shadows, snarling incoherent rage as he spatters hot come across her cheeks and mouth.
Her climax hits her like an afterthought. But Christ in heaven, it hits her so hard.
No. This has never happened to her.
He looms over her, panting, still gripping her by the hair as his cock goes soft in his hand and cooling semen drips from her chin. Her eyes are closed now. She's lying in the grass beside him, regaining her breath, watching the birds soaring carelessly above them. At some point, moving by inches, her hand finds his and their fingers intertwine.
He clings to her like a drowning man, once more crumples to the floor. Lays his brow against her knee. He's weeping again. It's hurtling through him like a freight train, relentless and ruthless. And, she senses, necessary.
He needs what it's carrying.
It’s all right. Wiping at her face with her shirt, her other hand easing over him. Covering him like she's got a gun and got his back. She needs him to understand, is the thing—she needs him to know that it was never going to be like they thought, even at the best times. She needs him to know that it doesn't matter who he was, and an addendum: it may not even matter who he is. That none of this is his fault. That there might not be any more good people, but there are people. And there's more to life than people.
It’s all right. I'm here. It's all right. I want it.
I want you.
Much later, everything else stripped away and her laid out under him, gazing up at him in the first cloudy gray of the sunrise as he lifts her thighs and spreads her, and his moan is like a wounded animal’s as he pushes into her.
This, she doesn't remember, because it was never there. Only now is she receiving it.
It was always supposed to special, her first time with someone. And it is, only not the way she expected, and not least because she can't truly be sure that's what this is. In that respect it fits perfectly into the pattern according to which her world has conformed itself. She hooks one arm over his neck and grips the headboard with the other and keens softly, and just as much as he was rough with her before, he’s gentle now, sliding out and in, going slow, though his breathing is heavy and labored and nearly rasping, and his eyes are as wet as she is.
It's possible that she should be looking more closely at him. And she will, when she sees his body in the proper light she’ll look all she can, but for now she's fixing her attention on the window, ignoring her own nakedness and the way her tits and thighs are quivering as he fucks her, the slight friction on her clit that might or might not be enough to get her off. She doesn't give a shit about that. She gives a shit about his girth and length inside her, the way he’s stretching her and making room for himself in her, reshaping and reordering her—and this, she did ask for. This, she did want.
She still has a measure of control. She can draw new lines.
She can make herself.
She's lying with him in the young light, holding onto him as he ascends and descends with her, groaning and crying with her, pain and pleasure with her, how ugly everything can be and how beautiful it still is with her, how sometimes it's all things all at once. How with him she can have it all. How they're both broken like the moonlight on the water, the thin sun on it now, but that brokenness doesn't mean they don't still shine.
The sun and moon and water and him and her. Such strange connections.
She breathes his name, and birds shatter the sky.
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.