I sleep. I dream. I wake. I sing. I get out the hammer and start knocking in the wooden pegs that affix the meaning to the landscape, the inner life to the body, the names to the things. I float too much to wander, like you, in the real world.
– Richard Siken, “The Long and Short of It”
There's sand in his teeth and a splinter in the back of his neck, but it doesn't bother Daryl none; at least, not much. Not enough that he's planning on doing anything about it any time soon.
Daryl shifts where he lies, turning his head to press his skull more firmly into his pack and take the weight off the splinter he caught in the night. They slept side by side in a two-man dinghy they found beached just below the dune grass, a ragged tarp tied over it to at least partially protect them from the sand. Before turning in they ripped out the benches and used them to string their alarm system and with those out of the way the boat's just long enough for Daryl to stretch out to his full length.
The tarp might've kept the worst of the drift from them but Daryl's still covered in a fine layer of silt. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a sand mite crawling across his collarbone, but he lets it be. Shifts again, freezing when his boot taps against the hull of the boat.
If Beth heard him she doesn't give any indication. Stays exactly where she's been for the past hour, since before the sun started to rise: a corner of the tarp pulled back so she can push her head into the wind, short hair dancing around her face and flicking her cheekbones. She's angles and shadows and strong limbs resting simply against his and in his idle daydreaming he wishes they'd returned to the farm. Once. Just once. She wouldn't've had to come; he could've left her to work a vehicle needed fixing, slipped away and been back by nightfall.
Didn't need to know either. He could have made his way to her old bedroom and snagged a photo from its dusty frame and tucked it somewhere he wouldn't lose it, like the hidden pocket in his knife sheath. Could've kept it just for him.
But he couldn't have, and he knows it. Knows it like he knows that Beth might be coming up on her rag in a few days; she's been feeling that old cramping in her stomach and a lightness in her head, and she told him. No reason not to. Ain't no filter with him and Beth. When you've spent three summers side by side with a single person, day and night and the cracks in between, talking to them's no different than thinking in your own head.
If Daryl'd gotten that picture, he would've told her. Would've shown her. Cleaned up a mirror in whatever shit-hole they were staying in, stuck the picture in the corner and watched her watch herself. Remind herself how she's grown. He knows she needs it cause he forgets too. Looks at her sun-hardened cheeks and the muscles flat against her skin and barely sees a specter anymore of the full-faced cherub he met on her daddy's farm.
It ain't a bad thing, that change. But he thinks he'd like to look at it. Feel the quiet fascination of observing a patch of land change shape year after year just from existing in a world with wind and rain and sun. Growing older. Growing on, for no other reason than that's what it was made for.
He considers telling her now, what he's thinking about, but decides against it; his throat is dry from sleeping and he's not done watching her unawares yet. He'll tell her later, when they've gathered their things and begun a walk down the beach, shadows shrinking as the sun moves into place above their heads.
He sees her eyelashes flutter in the corner of his vision and she's turning and looking at him too. That part of her hasn't changed. There's a depth in her eyes that wasn't there before, yes, a resolve and a glint like sunlight off steel when she needs it; but when she looks at him they could be hundreds of miles back and years younger, sharing a rabbit he'd killed cause she hadn't quite learned how to do it yet.
“Been up long?” she asks. Her voice is rough like he imagines his would be if he spoke and without a word he hands her the water bottle leaning against the hull near his shoulder. She takes it and drinks, small measured gulps so they have enough to get back to the fresh water stream they passed a few miles back, then gives it over so he can do the same. Her eyes stay level on his face as she waits for his answer.
It might take time, but he'll answer her. Anything she asks. Anything she doesn't know she's asking. That's what it's meant to know each other.
“A bit,” he says, swiping with his wrist at a stray drop that rolled down his chin, licking it off his wrist before the wind carries it away. He grimaces when more sand crunches between his teeth as he swallows. “Could'a kept that tarp down. There's time to work on your tan later, y'know.”
Beth snorts, turning her eyes to the overcast sky. “They ain't never gonna crown me Miss Georgia Peach if I look like I lived in a basement the last ten years.”
“Who else they gonna give it to?”
Beth's face tightens. Not as much as it would have once, but it does. She rolls her shoulders, pushes her hair away from her forehead. Her smile is bitter now, and she doesn't meet his eyes. “That walker a few miles back looked like mighty fierce competition.”
“That ain't what I–“
She's looking at him again, and it's exactly like she used to; although where once it unnerved him—the constancy of her gaze when he felt like a nightmare of briars inside—now it simply is. Her steadfastness is the part of her he most had to grow into.
“What?” she asks softly.
“Didn't mean you'd win cause there's no one else.” He nudges her with his leg and she drops a hand to his ankle, stroking her thumb across his jeans. “Be fools not to choose you, 's all. Now or then.”
He sees her blush even beneath the dirt on her cheeks but she doesn't hide her smile. She squeezes his ankle and he tips his head, the corner of his mouth rising behind his dirty hair.
“We should get going,” she says.
He nods, pulling himself into a sitting position and biting back a groan at the hell of a crick he's got in his neck. He feels the bite of the splinter as he moves and he knows, knows Beth'll call him a moron later for waiting, but he doesn't feel like bringing it up now; he'll have her check it when they stop for a midday rest, see if she can get it out then.
He raises his arms and thrusts the tarp away irritably so he doesn't have to stoop. He senses Beth's humor but doesn't respond to it; focuses like she does on gathering their meagre belongings, makes sure the wind took care of the previous day's footprints before shouldering his crossbow and pack and taking her hand for balance as he steps out of the dinghy, holding hers as she does the same. They let go soon after but don't move far. Their knuckles brush as they walk. After a few minutes Beth digs around in her pack and produces a pair of granola bars. She hands one to Daryl and he grunts in thanks, sticking the wrapper in his jeans so they don't leave a trail and eating in small bites. He follows her progress without turning his head, narrowing his head at her tiny nibbles.
He started this a while ago, trying to see if, just once, she'd finish a meal before him. She doesn't know he's doing it, or at least he hasn't told her, but he's still failing miserably. How the hell can the girl still eat so slow? All this time on the road, most of it spent not knowing where their next meal is coming from, and she still picks at her meals like she's working through dessert after a full Christmas dinner.
She explained it to him long ago. Said, yeah, they don't know when their next meal will be. That's the point. She gets her hands on food and she knows it could be the last thing she ever eats. No matter how hungry she is, no matter the shit she's putting in her mouth, she ain't wasting a last chance like that.
The thought is noble of her, like so much is, but Daryl gets impatient and shoves the rest of the granola bar in his mouth, turning away from her to look at the sea.
It was a dumb-ass move to come here. She knew it, he knew it. Even less chance of stumbling on structures or supplies than the middle of the woods. No cover if they run into other people; a few seconds to scramble into the dune grass if they're lucky, and even then, their footprints would give them away in moments. No reason to be here. Less reason to be here than most other places.
Except Daryl's never seen the ocean. He told Beth, offhand, one of the stream of consciousness thoughts that found its way onto his tongue.
That was probably a year ago now; been half a year since she suggested changing course from anywhere to somewhere, just so he could see the sea.
He's seen it. Sees it. Slept with it pounding in his ears. He said to her as they fell asleep, he said: This is the only place in the world there won't never be silence. Electricity don't hum and trains don't rumble and even the woods go quiet as the death that stalks it, but every walker in the world couldn't stop the ocean. The whole planet could die except the two of them and they could still fall asleep to the sound of waves rolling up the beach.
Daryl twists his wrist and grips Beth's hand when it slips into his. He feels her looking at him but he keeps looking at the ocean and he feels tired. He's always tired; they both are, the way they live, the way they've lived long enough to lose count of the days, to debate between themselves even the number of winters. They've walked hundreds of miles the past few years, maybe thousands, zig-zagging across the state and probably straying beyond it a few times—never intentionally, and they always turned back before the ground beneath their feet felt too different, before the air started tasting strange—and what reprieves they've had have been short. Usually forced, by injury or illness or both.
They never stayed in one place for long. At first it was him pushing them on, pursued by the learned metabolism of a shark: the practicalities of survival engraved as an anxious vibration in his skin, in his bones, screaming him from sleep and pulling the two of them from their blankets and into the night.
Didn't take her long to see through that. He'd catch her looks as the sun rose after those interrupted rests. Could hear the words as if she said 'em aloud, even then:
We don't have to live like this. Nothing's chasing us, Daryl. Nothing's chasing us but you.
But things changed. He changed. She changed, on that long road. And as he started slowing down—feeling the ground solid beneath his feet and walls for once strong around him—a flame lit in her eyes. A spark and then a forest fire. And the girl who'd made a cage a home decided a backpack and her boots and his hands were enough.
It wasn't that more meant more to lose. More was beyond the circumference. She closed the circle with what her arms could hold and everything else was just that. Else. Beyond her vocabulary.
They stopped a few times, but her arms got restless, and she pulled them on. Hand over hand and now they're here, and tomorrow they'll be there, and maybe they'll never stop.
But now they're here.
Daryl stops walking and his hold on her hand stops her too. She doesn't look surprised when he meets her eyes. She doesn't look concerned. She looks steady.
She looks ready to walk 3,000 more miles to the Pacific just so he can say he's seen that too. Tasted that brine on his tongue. Lived a life beside her.
Beth. His little nomad.
“You're my house, girl.” His voice is rough, and once he might have been ashamed of that. But shame takes other people to sustain itself. He doesn't know other people anymore. He knows Beth, and she's no different from him than one patch of skin on his arm is from another. “You're all I fucking need.”
She blinks at him, eyes wide, lightly crinkled at the edges; crinkles that deepen as a small smile dances across her mouth and down her arm to where her hand squeezes his, rough with calluses and sand and then smooth, smooth where their bodies have grown to fit.
“You're all I need too, Daryl,” she says softly. “For the rest of our lives. Every bit of it.” She holds his gaze; longer, longer, and then her mouth twists into a different smile, a more playful one. She tugs at his hand. “C'mon, slowpoke. We got a long way left.”
Daryl's mouth twitches and he draws even with her. He lingers a moment as her eyes turn to the ocean. He watches her face as she observes the waves; knows from her expression, knows from her, that she sees more than he does. That where he saw a flat plane of grey she saw a horizon, maybe. A road to heaven, if she still believes in it. He should ask. She'd tell him.
“Never have I ever been alive,” she says softly. She leans into him and he leans too, resting his cheek on her head. “Not like this. Not like we've been.”
“Can't drink salt-water, girl,” he murmurs.
“Good thing you don't have to, then.”
“Think you're pretty smart, huh?”
“I know I'm smart.”
“Well. Y'are.” He nudges her with his shoulder. He lifts his head. He doesn't let go of her hand. “Lead the way. I'll follow.”
She does. And he does. And until the moon falls from the sky and the tides cease the change they bring, Daryl can believe, at last, in this: change, the tides, and them—those things, the precious few, that death is too gentle to touch.