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A Light at the End of the Tunnel

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The day was not starting well at all, in Rick’s opinion. He was more than a little perturbed, to be honest. That old adage of waking up on the wrong side of the bed was true, he thought. This morning was living testament to that. And it was Monday to boot. Didn’t Monday mornings always start badly? Not the way he wanted to start his week, that was for sure.

Buttoning the last button on his uniform shirt and grabbing his hat, he glanced at the counter, making sure he had everything he needed before heading to the station. Satisfied, he placed the hat on his head and walked through the door, making sure it was locked behind him before walking to his car. He hoped the day would be quiet, his shift uneventful. Heaving a deep sigh, he opened the car door and slid in, ready to start his day whether he wanted to or not.

Pulling out of his driveway and heading towards the station, Rick tried—unsuccessfully—to steer his thoughts away from last night’s fiasco. Well, fiasco in his mind. The evening had still gone well, just not as he’d planned. He was curious, though, if not a little bothered, about the events of the previous night. And if he was honest, he was a bit disappointed. He, Shane, and Abraham had met for their weekly pool game at the Tipsy Cow, name notwithstanding, the best sports bar in town. Of course, maybe it was the best because it lay somewhere between a total dive where trouble was waiting and a high-class establishment requiring a tie and jacket. And the pool table couldn’t be beat.

Turning right on Mapleton, Rick replayed the events of the previous evening in his mind. Or rather, the ‘non-events’ as he now thought of them. Yes, he was disappointed. Disappointed in one Daryl Dixon. Letting out a huff of frustration, Rick tightened his grip on the steering wheel and tried to relax his jaw, which he realized was tightening by the minute, forcing his teeth to grind together in a most uncomfortable manner. Damn Dixon anyway.

But then, a little niggle of doubt forced its way into his thoughts and he realized that he might have been partly to blame. While he and the others had known Daryl since high school, they had run in different circles. Rick had always been part of the popular crowd, as had his friends, while Dixon…had not. In fact, Daryl Dixon didn’t even seem to have a circle. He was a loner, helped along by the fact that his last name was synonymous with the plague—as in stay away.

A decade and a half ago, as a student, Rick hadn’t questioned that fact. He just went along with the prevailing attitude that seemed to permeate the school and town and, he had realized recently, he never once examined the situation, never once probed deeper instead of just accepting what everyone saw on the surface—a surly young man who was often dirty and bruised, who wore his unsociability as a shield. Looking back, Rick now recognized that the young man’s aloofness may have been directed inward rather than outward. A form of protection and even self-preservation rather than targeting anyone else. Of course, it took a near catastrophe to open his eyes to that possibility.

Six months ago his skills as a deputy with the King County Sheriff’s Department were put to the test when a four-year-old boy disappeared without a trace. Snatched from his mother’s side at a park while her back was turned. And then nothing. No indication of what might have happened or who might be involved. With the clock ticking, it was a race against time to find the child…find him alive. He, Shane, and Abraham led the search teams, but all to no avail. Everything led to a dead end.

Televised pleas from the parents and the Sheriff turned up nothing. As days turned into a week, the case seemed to come to a standstill, with all the tips coming in leading nowhere. And that might have been that if one Daryl Dixon hadn’t walked into the station, offering his services. Shane and Abraham, remembering ‘Dirty Dixon’ from high school, just scoffed. But, as Rick recalled, he did not. Over his nearly fifteen years on the force, the Dixon name turned up regularly. But it was always Merle Dixon, not Daryl. Unlike his older brother, Daryl had a clean slate. Never in trouble with the law. Kept to himself and minded his own business. In fact, he seemed to have become even more antisocial as the years passed.

But there he was, offering to use his hunting and tracking skills to search the woods and surrounding areas for any trace of what might have happened. To search for a child he didn’t know and to which he had no obligation. At the time, time had been of the essence and so, even though Shane and Abraham and some others had objected, Rick talked the Sheriff into giving Dixon the authority to lead yet another search. And lo and behold, he’d led them to the boy, being held in a remote hunting cabin by his father, estranged at the time from the mother. Even though the others had begrudgingly acknowledged Dixon’s success, they’d also made excuses for why—in their opinion—he’d done nothing extraordinary.

“We’d have found him eventually.” Shane.

“It was his father. He wouldn’t have hurt him.” Abraham.

But that incident opened Rick’s eyes to one Daryl Dixon. Made him see the man in a different light. What the others seemed to be missing was the fact that this man, who had been shunned all his life and who continued to lead an isolated existence, still spurned by his own community, had come into the station of his own volition and offered to help do what they, the Sheriff and deputies of King County, could not—find a four-year-old boy. Looking back, Rick realized how very difficult that must have been for a man who was basically a recluse. Dixon had nothing to prove to anyone. He could have continued with his solitary existence. But he didn’t. He knew he could do something to help and so he did. That, in Rick’s estimation, took a lot of courage. It also showed that he had a heart; he just didn’t want others to know it. In helping to find the boy, Daryl Dixon opened himself up to the public…a public that despised him. It was a truly selfless act, in Rick’s view.

And so, from that point forward he was determined to get to know Daryl Dixon. To look beneath the surface of what everyone else saw and come to understand the man underneath. And over time, what he came to see was a man who was completely misunderstood, who wasn’t at all what people perceived him to be. He was, in Rick’s opinion, a victim of the prevailing attitude of their town. A victim of his family’s reputation. But that didn’t define who Daryl Dixon was.

Shunning the attention that came with the successful end to the case—successful because of him—Daryl returned to his solitary life. Or attempted to return. This time, Rick wasn’t going to let him and made it his mission to draw the man out. To get to know him. It was a very slow process, with Daryl not seeming to trust anyone, let alone one of his former high school classmates who was now a deputy. But Rick was nothing if not persistent and he continued to try to pierce that seemingly impenetrable surface.

A chance meeting in the local sporting goods store was his first opportunity. Recently divorced from his high school sweetheart, Lori, Rick relished every opportunity he was given to spend with his son. Carl wanted to learn to fish, so of course Rick was going to teach him. Granted, he had to teach himself, first. Which is why he found himself in the local sporting goods store, wandering around hopelessly as he realized that watching how to fish and what was needed on YouTube and actually doing it were two very different things. There were so many reels and rods and poles and the stringy stuff—whatever it was—that he didn’t know what to do or what to buy.

And then, a soft voice was asking if he needed help. Grateful for anyone who knew more than he did about fishing—which would really be just about anyone—he’d swung around to find himself face-to-face with Daryl Dixon. Trying—unsuccessfully—to keep the grin from taking over his face, he nodded vigorously, pointing like an idiot to the rack of fishing poles next to him.

“I…uh…wanna take my son fishing.”

The other man had just stared at him, waiting for him to continue, his expression inscrutable.

“I…um…need the equipment, but I don’t know what to get. There’s so much to choose from.”

Without saying a word, Daryl began grabbing items off the shelves, handing them over to his former classmate.

“There. That oughta do ya’. The small pole is for your son, in case ya’ wasn’t sure.”

Staring at the other man, Rick was sure he detected a hint of sarcasm in his voice, but Daryl’s face revealed nothing. After an uncomfortable moment of silence, he nodded his thanks.

“I appreciate the help. Do you work here?”

The answer, when it came, was soft and low, hesitant almost.

“Nah. Just stopped in ta’ pick up some supplies.”

“Well, thank you.” Surveying the bounty in his arms, he smiled at the other man. “No telling what I would have shown up with if you hadn’t come along.”

A slight nod was the only response. And then Rick was hit with sudden inspiration.

“Say…you wouldn’t be willing to help me out, would you?” Seeing the other man preparing to—he was sure—refuse, he rushed on. “The thing is…I only see my boy every other weekend and he is really, really looking forward to me taking him fishing. Problem is, I know nothing about fishing, as you can probably tell. So…would you be willing to teach me how?”

“Like…we’d go fishing together and you could give me some pointers?”

Daryl just stood and stared at him, as if trying to decipher what was going on and what he was really trying to say. With a pang of regret, Rick realized that he couldn’t blame the other man after the way he’d always been treated in this town. Not wanting to let the moment go, though, he pushed forward.

“There’s beer in it for ya’.”

He actually had no idea if Daryl drank beer, but he looked like the type. If there was a type. And he hoped the offer of beer made his request just a little more enticing. He really wasn’t expecting an affirmative response. But then, to his complete and utter astonishment, the other man just inclined his head slightly and uttered one word. “Okay.”

And that had been the beginning of Rick trying to befriend Daryl Dixon. It was a painstakingly slow process, but over time the other man seemed to realize that Rick was being genuine. Gone was the high school jock who hung around with the popular crowd. In his place was an open and friendly deputy who seemed to genuinely want to get to know him for who he was. Who was willing to look beneath the surface of what everybody else saw. As a result, Daryl started to, slowly but surely, open up to the other man. Whether it was a quiet afternoon spent fishing by the lake, or watching sports on tv, Rick realized that they were inching their way towards friendship. He had begun to slowly peel away the layers that made up Daryl Dixon and he liked what he saw. Which was why he was so perturbed this morning.

After much discussion, he’d convinced Daryl to join them for pool the night before. It was obvious the other man still remembered his treatment at the hands of his classmates all those years before and was nervous, so it took some fast talking on Rick’s part. But he finally persuaded Daryl that the others had changed with the years and that he would enjoy himself if he joined them. He’d also read the riot act to Shane and Abraham, letting them know in no uncertain terms what would happen to them if they said so much as one rude or unkind word to Daryl. And then, after all of that, the other man had been a no-show. Rick didn’t know what to think. Did his nerves get the best of him? Had he just decided he didn’t want to come? He hadn’t even called to tell them he wasn’t coming; he just never showed. Not a word. Not a call. Nothing. He didn’t know what to think. Shane and Abraham did, though.

“Just like the Dixons. They don’t give a thought to anyone but themselves. No manners.” This was Shane.

“Maybe he got a better offer.” Abraham’s two-cents.

“Let’s play.” That was Rick’s response. “Let’s play pool.” And so they did. He didn’t understand it, but for some strange reason he was actually hurt that Daryl hadn’t even bothered to give him a call, letting him know he wouldn’t be there. Though he wouldn’t admit it, even to himself, he was hurt by the other man’s actions. He didn’t know why and didn’t fully comprehend it, but there it was. His feelings were hurt. As he joined the others at the pool table, Rick hardened himself to the feelings warring inside. Maybe he’d been wrong. Maybe he and Daryl weren’t friends after all. Maybe what he’d thought was a burgeoning friendship was nothing more than a duty on Daryl’s part.

And that was why Rick hated this particular Monday morning. His anger and confusion from the previous night were still churning inside him, a maelstrom of negative feelings. In fact, they were stronger, more potent than the night before. And dominant among them was the idea that Daryl Dixon could go to Hell.