Judith Grimes knew a lot about her dad.
She knew that he used to be something called a sheriff’s deputy, which Momma told her was somebody that caught bad guys, and she knew that her hat once belonged to him. She knew that he loved Johnny Cash because Momma played his records while they made dinner. He knew that he had a fluffy beard and wore shirts that were too big on Momma and that his eyes were blue as the summer sky. She knew that he was strong, and smart, and loyal, and that he’d loved her and Momma so, so very much.
And she also knew that he was still alive.
Uncle Daryl and Aunt Carol and Zeke didn’t think so. Aunt Maggie hadn’t before she’d left to travel with Georgie. It seemed that nobody else did.
But she knew, because >Momma knew. And Momma was never wrong.
“Do you remember him?” Momma would ask her sometimes, always looking so worried. “Do you remember how he used to swing you around and play hide and seek in the gardens with you? Do you remember how he’d read to you at night in funny voices?”
And Judith did. Some of them were vague memories, growing fuzzy at the edges, but she remembered her daddy and how he smiled the most when he was around her and Momma.
Sometimes she was scared that the memories would all go fuzzy one day and when her mother asked if she remembered, she'd have to lie. She didn't want to lie, especially to Momma, but even in her youthful innocence Judith knew that it would break her mother's heart if she started to forget about her dad. And Momma had already been heartbroken so many times.
It was easier to remember him because she had pictures- that’s what Negan told her. Framed up on the walls and on tables were pictures of daddy and Carl, of Aunt Maggie and even of herself when she was younger.
“I remember what he looks like,” Negan said from the floor of his cell as they bounced a tennis ball back and forth between them. “But it’s harder. Sometimes I forget things- how blue his eyes were. That look he used to give me- you do it sometimes, and it’s the funniest damn thing. Darn thing. Sorry, angel. Don’t tell your Momma I said that in front of you.”
“I won’t,” Judith promised. Momma didn’t really like her coming down here, anyway, but she allowed it. Judith didn't want to do anything to get that privilege revoked.
“Anyway,” Negan continued, “he used to give me the funniest stink-eye. You look so much like him.”
Judith blinked in surprise- people rarely told her that she looked like her dad. Usually they said that she looked like her brother or like her other Momma, the one that was with Carl. “I do?”
Negan smiled, but he still looked sad. “Yeah. Sometimes I catch little glimpses of him in you. And you’ve got his sense of style.” He nodded to her scuffed cowboy boots. “I swear your daddy only had one pair of shoes.”
“That’s what Momma says, too.”
“Well then it must be true.”
Judith worried at her lip, wanting to ask the question but worrying that it was rude.In the end, curiously won out, as it so often did.
“Were you and daddy friends?”
Negan frowned a little and rubbed his hand through his thick white beard. He looked like the drawings of Santa in her old picture books. “That’s a complicated question, angel. You know why I’m in here.”
“You hurt people.” She wasn’t scared, though- she’d been coming to visit Negan for years. He wasn’t scary. Not anymore, not like the stories people told about him.
“I did.” Negan turned the tennis ball over in his hands. “Your daddy was one of the people I hurt. I did a lot of bad things back when I was in charge. Most people would have killed me. Most people wanted to kill me. But your daddy didn’t. Not when it came down to it at the end. He spared my life and he kept me safe. For a long time, I wished he hadn’t.”
“Do you still wish that?”
Negan shook his head. “No. No, not anymore. Your dad- he showed me how wrong I was before. It took a long time for me to see it, but I get it now. So no, he and I weren’t friends, not when he was here.” Negan knew better than to imply that her father was dead. He’d learned quickly that saying anything like that would result in her marching right out the door. “But I think maybe if he was here now, things would be different. And he didn’t know it, but I always liked him.”
“Even though you hurt him?”
Negan’s face fell and he rolled the ball back between the bars with practice ease. “Sometimes we hurt the people we love. I used to do that a lot.”
“You loved him?”
“I did. I still do.” He smiled again, sly and mischievous like when he wanted her to sneak him an extra slice of apple when she brought him lunch. “Don’t tell your Momma. I’ll get embarrassed.”
“She probably already knows,” Judith said sagely. “She knows everything.”
That made Negan laugh, full and hearty. “You know what, Jude? I bet she does.”
“You remember what we practiced, right Jude?”
“Kick the knee out first and then go for the brain. I know, Momma.” Judith rolled her eyes. Momma could be so overprotective sometimes.
“Don’t get cocky now,” her mother warned, a teasing smile on her face. A walker- shambling and soft with rot, stumbled onto the path before them, and they both unsheathed their katanas. Judith looked up to her mother, who nodded encouragingly. “You’ve got this.”
She’d done this before, of course. Dozens of times, enough that her mother felt confident she could stand back and let her handle it.
She took out the walker with ease, sinking the long blade into its forehead and watching it go limp. With a brisk shake of her katana, most of the gore sloughed off and onto the piney forest floor. She'd seen her mother do the same thing more times than she could count, and it sparked a bit of giddy joy in Judith that it worked so well for her, too.
Together, they bagged a deer and two squirrels. Judith watched in awe as her mother slung the heady animal over her shoulders. For now she could only carry a couple rabbits at the most, but one day she’d be as strong as her mom.
When they got back, she sat with Daryl on the back porch, tarp spread over the gray wood as they gutted and cleaned the animals.
After dinner and a bath, she wandered into her bedroom to see a small box on her pillow, and she beamed- she knew that box. It was the one Momma always pulled out when she found something special for her on a run. With eager fingers, Judith tore the lid off and drew out the present inside.
It was a little figure no more than a few inches tall, its features vague, but she recognized it instantly, gasping with delight. Tan shirt, gun raised, and a hat just like her own- it was like a toy version of the photos of her father. Months ago, Tara had found a similar figure with a katana that she’d given Judith when she’d come to visit from Oceanside. That figure now sat proudly on the third shelf of her bookcase, a miniature version of herself.
If Judith felt a small twinge of sadness when she placed the new figurine next to her old one, father and daughter reunited at last, she didn’t understand why.
She shouldn’t have done it, and she knew that. Momma would be so angry if she knew, but what Negan had said about her father had stuck with her.
In one hand, she carried a basket containing a fresh roll, a pat of butter, and a slab of bacon. In the other, held delicately at the edges, was the photo of her father from the table in the living room. When her mother had stepped out to attend to the crops, she’d jimmied open the frame and stolen away with it.
I’m just borrowing it, she told herself. She’ll never know it’s gone.
“What’s that you’ve got there, angel?” Negan asked around a mouthful of bread and butter.
Judith held the photo close to her chest, suddenly anxious. Negan had never, never been anything but kind to her, but she also knew that Momma kept him in his cell for a reason. What if he wouldn’t give it back?
She looked over the picture one last time, the sight familiar and comforting. Blue shirt, long curling hair, his beard shorter than her freshest memories of him.
“You said you couldn’t remember what he looked like,” Judith explained, tentatively holding out the photo to the man behind the bars. “I borrowed this from home. Just borrowed. You can’t keep it. And you gotta hold it on the edges so it won’t smudge.”
There was a loon on Negan’s face- something strange that she couldn’t make sense of, like he was caught between joy and tears. He nodded vigorously at her instructions, one finger making an x over his heart. “Cross my heart and hope to die, Jude. I’ll give it right back.”
Negan held the photo as if it was made of glass, like his very breath could have sent it fluttering to pieces like ash. He was silent as he stared at it for a long, long time. Judith waited patiently across from him.
“I almost forgot he had that scar across his nose,” Negan whispered thickly. “And that the gray went all the way up to his temples even when his hair was that long.” She heard him sniffle- maybe the picture was dusty?- and she reached for it back. As Negan passed the relic back to her, she caught a glimpse of the tears on his cheeks.
She’d never seen him cry before.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled. “I didn’t mean to make you sad, I just thought that-”
“No! No, Jude, I-” Negan wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt and suddenly his smile was back. “I just miss him, that’s all. He used to come down here and talk to me all the time, just like you do.”
“I miss him, too,” she said quietly, and then perked up, “but he’s gonna come home one day.”
Negan drew back out of the light and another sniffle came out of the shadowy corner where he sat. “I wish I could believe that, Jude.”
Judith walked in tandem with her mother through the Kingdom streets, having to double her strides to keep up with longer legs. She was excited to see Henry- he always gave her piggy-back rides and let her visit the piglets.
Up ahead, she could see Carol and Ezekiel sitting close together on a bench, fingers intertwined on Carol’s lap. She couldn’t hear them, but she saw Ezekiel laugh and lean in to kiss Carol, who smiled and smiled.
Vague memories surfaced of her parents holding hands like that, of them lying together on the couch and reading while she played on the living room floor.
Momma had loved her father like that once- had been happy and gotten to kiss him and hold his hand. She could vaguely recall holding her father’s hand, her mother’s in the other and them swinging her off her feet between them.
Sometimes she didn’t think it was fair that Henry had his mom and his dad, but she never said so. She had to wonder if Momma ever felt the same way.
Later that night when they returned to Alexandria and Momma was tucking her into bed, she asked.
"Are you ever mad that daddy got lost?"
Her mother looked up at her, seeming startled by the question. "Am I mad at him?"
"No, are you mad that he's not here but other people are?"
Her mother bit her lip and ran a hand through her long dreadlocks, sweeping them over one shoulder. She was getting that look that Judith always felt bad about causing- all sad and tired. "Sometimes," she answered quietly, sinking down to sit on the edge of Judith's bed. "Sometimes I look at all the people around us who are so happy, all the people who still have their husbands or their wives, kids who still have their fathers, and I think that should be us." She smoothed a hand from the top of Judith's head down the back of her neck, playing with the braid there. "Are you mad?"
Judith frowned down at her bedspread. "Sometimes I am," she confessed. "Sometimes I think it's not fair that Henry has a mom and a dad. But I don't want anything to happen to Carol and Zeke! I just..." she felt angry, mournful tears bubble up and spill down her cheeks. "I just wish he was here. I'm scared that he'll be gone so long that I'll start forgetting him, and I don-t- I don't wanna-" she hiccuped pitifully, and then Momma's arms were around her, holding her close and safe, and Judith cried into her neck.
"I know, baby girl," her mother whispered, and Judith could feel the warmth of tears against her skin.
"I miss him. I don't know why he's not here. If he's out there some-somewhere...why can't he be here?" Judith sniffled in her mother's arms, trying to burrow closer.
"I don't know, Jude. I wish I did. I miss him, too. I miss him so much." When Momma pulled back to look at her and wipe her tears away with her thumbs, there were wet streaks down her own cheeks. Judith reached up, mirroring her mother's actions, and wiped them away only for fresh tears to spill. "But I know he's out there. And if I know anything in this world, Jude, it's that he's fighting like hell to get back here to us."
Something was going on, but nobody would tell her what.
There had been a strange noise from the sky earlier, like wind but louder and more rhythmic. Rosita, Yumiko, and Magna had left to check it out what felt like hours ago, and all around her, adults whispered things she didn’t understand. There were so many people in the streets and up on the walls with guns, it was making her nervous.
Her mother shook her head and insisted that she keep reading the book she’d been assigned in school, but there was a troubled furrow between her brows.
“Some people are just a little nervous, Jude. That’s all. It’s probably nothing.”
She may not have liked reading Huckleberry Finn, but Judith could read between the lines here- everyone thought bad people were coming.
She had just turned to page fifty-seven when she heard clamoring and shouting near the gates. From her place on the front porch steps, her mother sprang into action.
“Get in the house, Judith. Lock the doors.”
The clamor was getting closer, getting louder. Huck Finn fell to the ground, her place lost.
“Judith, I need you to listen to me, sweetheart, I need you to go inside and stay there, can you do that for me? Judith?”
Her mother was trying to usher her inside, her back turned to the small crowd making their way toward their house.
A man broke free of the throng of their friends and neighbors, charging toward their porch. His hair was long and streaked with silver, there looked to be bruises purpling on his arms beneath his loose t-shirt, and his beard was even whiter than she remembered it, but she knew the man stumbling toward her.
Judith ducked beneath her mother’s arms and raced down the front steps, meeting the man halfway across the lawn.
He was crying, but his eyes were blue like they were in photos and there was the scar across his nose that Negan had almost forgotten. Time had changed them both, but there wasn't a doubt in Judith's mind- her father had finally come home.
Her father sank to his knees in the lawn, sweeping Judith into his arms for the first time in over six years. He was shaking, crying openly into her hair as he kissed her cheek, the top of her head.
She wasn’t scared in the least when she felt her feet leave the ground- her daddy had her.
Behind her, she could hear Momma crying out, felt her cling to the man she’d been waiting to see for so long.
“Rick,” she breathed out, her voice trembling and thick with tears. She kept saying it over and over, like she was trying to make up for years of not being able to say it enough. “Rick.”
Her father pressed wet, teary kisses to them both, his shaking hands unable to draw them close enough. In a voice that Judith still remembered, he spoke.
“I found you.”