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Doo Wah Diddy Diddy

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Saturday, July 13th

 

Somebody knocks on the powder room door, and Beth near about jumps out of her skin like one of those damn Looney Tunes characters, fumbling her hold on the little blue plastic stick and coming this close to dropping it in the toilet. 

No one would call it abrupt, the knock. Hell, it’s borderline tentative, and in almost any other context, it wouldn’t’ve fazed her much at all. But, context: the context is that Beth’s feeling mighty jumpy, and with damn good reason.

She must’ve made an involuntary sound of surprise, too—a shrill little yip, maybe, like somebody stuck her with a sewing needle—because when Carl speaks up from the other side of that door, he sounds bemused. Worried, too.

“Uh, Beth? You okay in there?”

Beth squeezes the plastic stick so hard her knuckles bleach white through her light summer tan. The plastic creaks; if she throttles it any harder, it’ll splinter. Wouldn’t be much of a tragedy if it did: she’s got another half a dozen of the things buried in her backpack.

“M’fine,” she tells Carl. She doesn’t sound very convincing, but she’s also struggling to breathe through a mounting anxiety attack, so she thinks she deserves an A for effort.

Beth hears Carl’s feet scuff on the hardwood floorboards that line the hallway outside the bathroom. He’s not shuffling back to the living room, though. Just fidgeting.  

“You sure?” he asks, distinctly awkward in his delivery. Probably afraid that she’s having lady problems, which, if only. “It’s just. You’ve been in there for a while. Was starting to worry that you fell in or somethin’.”

Beth tries to appreciate Carl’s attempt at levity. Really, she does, but her voice still comes out distinctly strained and unwelcoming when she says, “Nah, I’m fine. Think it was just somethin’ I ate.”

“Oh.” There’s a beat of silence as Carl very likely considers digging out the air freshener. “Uh. I think we’ve got Pepto-Bismol, if you want any.”

Only half listening to what Carl’s got to say, Beth turns the stick over in her hands, mouth going dry and coppery at what she sees.

“Uh, no,” she says distantly, dropping the used test into her plastic shopping bag along with the others. “No, thanks. I’m feeling better already.”

“Oh,” Carl says in tones of mild relief. “Okay, then. I’ll just, uh. Go check in on Judith, since you’re, uh. Busy.”

“Be right out,” Beth promises, and doesn’t relax even after she hears the scrape of Carl’s sneakers retreat and fade. She doesn’t think she could relax right now if her life depended on it.  

Beth plants her elbows on her bare knees and drops her head into her cupped hands, fingers plowing through her hair and inadvertently loosening her ponytail. She scrubs her palms roughly over her cheeks, then peers through her caged fingers at the clutter set up in a semicircle around her feet.

Plastic shopping bag with a drugstore logo printed on each side, listing to the left and stuffed to the brim with empty paperboard boxes and used tests. Her sky-blue backpack, zipper undone and insides gaping. Half-empty jug of water that she’s been guzzling from for the last hour in the rush to fill her bladder to maximum capacity.

She could keep drinking from that jug. Could use up the rest of those tests and hope and pray for a change. False positives are a thing.

Beth doesn’t think she’ll be that lucky, though. No, she really doesn’t think so, because she has peed on not one, not two, but five of those little plastic sticks so far, and they’re all telling her the same story.

Beth sits there for a second, digesting that, and then she does what anyone else would do: she slaps a hand over her mouth and screams.

Okay, it’s actually more of a thin shriek than a full-blown scream, and it’s muffled against her palm because otherwise she’d scare Carl and wake the baby. Still, letting it out makes her feel marginally better. Marginally.

Okay, fine. Five positive pregnancy tests that she had to take a bus to the next town over to acquire because she couldn’t risk anyone from school or church seeing her buy them, and then she peed on them in Rick Grimes’s bathroom because she couldn’t risk Maggie or her daddy seeing her use them. So, now what? Blood test at the Planned Parenthood, she guesses, and she’ll probably have to take another bus to get there, because no way in hell is she asking anyone for a ride so she can find out beyond a shadow of a doubt whether or not she’s been knocked up at the ripe old age of eighteen.

She’ll just have to deal with this on her own. And she will, because she’s got no other choice.

So she stands up on numb legs that want to collapse underneath of her. Bends over to hitch her panties up. Flushes the toilet and shuts the lid. Smooths out the sundress she wore not as a concession to the steaming Georgia summer, but on account of the skirt made it easier for her to go to the toilet.

She should be shoving the plastic shopping bag into her backpack for later disposal in an anonymous dumpster. That’s what she should be doing. What she’s actually doing is squeezing her cheeks between her hands and swallowing back a hot surge of panicked tears.

It’s almost kind of funny, in a twisted sort of way. She only did it the once, but once is all it takes, right? That’s what people are always saying. It’s like every lecture her abstinence-only high school health teacher ever gave her made vivid reality. Well, those fundamentalist old bastards on the school board got what they wanted: Beth is never having sex again. Ever. The Greenes are Baptist, not Catholic, but life shut up in a nunnery’s starting to look mighty attractive from where she’s standing.  

Beth takes a shaky breath and drops her hands, stooping to gather up her things. She’s gotta get it together. There’s no point in loitering, and she’s being paid by the hour to sit Rick Grimes’s kids. Carl’s the best big brother a baby girl could ask for, but he’s not the one who’s getting paid to watch his little sister for the day—although, technically, Beth’s being paid to watch Judith and Carl, even though Carl’s convinced that he’s too old for a sitter.

Only it looks like Beth’s day with the Grimes kids is about to get cut short, because even though the powder room’s too far back from the front door for Beth to hear the click of the key in the lock, the distance’s not so great that she can’t hear the thud of boots on hardwood or the rumble of adult male voices.

The nape of Beth’s neck prickles, fine hairs standing on end. She was gathering up her backpack, but now she drops it right on top of her toes, and the shock of pain’s so bad that she can’t even make a noise, can only wheeze breathlessly through her teeth, mouth caught in a soundless shriek.

Shit. Shit. They weren’t supposed to get back until this evening—late afternoon at the earliest.

Okay. Okay. It’s fine. She’s fine. Her toes are throbbing like hell, but she’s fine. She can’t go out there looking like she’s been doing something wrong—and she isn’t, and she hasn’t, because she’s a consenting adult and she can consensually screw whoever she wants—so she’s gotta compose herself.

And that’s what she does. She stuffs the plastic shopping bag into her backpack, wrestling the zipper shut and slinging it over her shoulder. Smooths and tightens her ponytail. Studies herself in the mirror mounted over the sink and decides that her eyes don’t look too red. Practices a wobbly smile that will fool a grand total of no one ever.

She picks up her jug of water, snaps off the light switch, and eases the door open. 

Rick’s got his head bent to talk to Carl, but he glances up when he hears Beth’s wedge-heeled sandals tapping on the hardwood floor. Father and son are the only ones standing in front of the open doorway, but Beth knows it won’t stay that way for long. They wouldn’t’ve left the door open if someone else wasn’t gonna come through it.

Best not to think on that.

Beth adjusts her backpack and wanders closer, trying not to wince too obviously. “Hey, Mr. Grimes. You’re back early.”  

“Weren’t biting much today.” Rick smiles in a slow and easy way that Beth hasn’t seen much of since he lost Lori, and something about that just makes her feel even worse. “Daryl caught a couple’a trout, though. Don’t that just figure?”

Beth’s wavering smile freezes on her face at the name, but then Carl distracts Rick before he can dissect her expression.

“You’ll never get better than Daryl, Dad,” Carl says bluntly, then dodges his father’s playful swipe.

“Shouldn’t talk about your old man that way.”

“Why not? It’s true. Daryl was practically raised in the woods.”

“You old hens gossipin’ about me now?”

Daryl’s surly voice precedes his surly face, and then his bulky shoulders are blocking out the early afternoon sunlight streaming in through the front door. He tugs the door shut behind himself, string of stinking fish dangling from his closed fist. His eyes skitter over to Beth, stall, then skip away. And maybe his ears turn pink, or maybe it’s just sunburn, but regardless, he doesn’t acknowledge her presence.

The hand not holding onto her jug of water curls convulsively into a fist. Beth can’t get it to unclench, so she hides it behind her back where the others can’t see it. She’s fine. She’s gonna be just fine.

“Guess we are,” says Carl, and Daryl snorts.

“Don’t y’all got anythin’ better to do?”

Carl shrugs. “Just beat the newest Grand Theft Auto, so I guess I don’t.”

“I feel like I shouldn’t be lettin’ you play that on principle,” Rick mutters. Carl smirks, and Daryl exhales hard through his nose. Beth immediately recognizes the sound for what it is: a laugh. She recognizes it because she’s had occasion to hear it a couple of times, herself.

Turns out Daryl’s ribs are ticklish. Who knew?

“If you really don’t got anythin’ better to do, then you can come help me scale an’ gut these things.” Daryl hefts the string of fish, and Carl groans theatrically.

“Do I have to?” Carl whines, and Beth bites back a grin, a miraculous kind of amusement percolating in her belly.

So before Rick or Daryl can get a word in, Beth pipes up with, “‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat.’” Carl stares at her, at once betrayed and uncomprehending, and she clarifies, “2 Thessalonians 3:10.”

Rick laughs under his breath, and even Daryl’s lips curl into a halfmoon smile. His eyes meet Beth’s, and he shares his amusement with her for all of half a second before looking away and clearing his throat.

Oh. Okay, then. Moment over.  

Daryl nudges Carl’s shoulder. “Y’heard the woman. Move your ass.”

“But—”

“Boy, y’know better’n to argue with a practicin' Baptist. G’on, get.”

But Carl darts out of Daryl’s reach—not to make a break for it, but to come up to Beth and peer into her face.

He’s got his daddy’s eyes, has Carl Grimes. Not just the color. The intelligence, too. The perceptiveness.

“You feeling any better?” Carl asks, and Beth’s been sitting for him for going on five years, and she loves him like her own little brother, but right now, she could shake him.

“Told you, m’fine,” she says, trying to brush it off even as Rick goes on alert.

“‘Feeling better’?” Rick looks Beth over like he could diagnose her just with his eyes, which, please, no. “Is somethin’ wrong, honey?”

Beth forces a smile. Rick’s looking at her, but so is Daryl, and the latter’s attention makes her skin itch like it’s broken out in hives. “Just had a little stomach ache, s’all. I’m better now.”

Rick frowns, unconvinced. “You could’a called off. I wouldn’t’ve minded any. Told you, the fish weren’t bitin’ much, anyways.”

Oh, Lord. Why must circumstances force her to lie to a man with a scarily competent bullshit detector?

“Really, it’s fine,” Beth insists, a little strained. She pats Carl’s shoulder. “G’on, go an’ help Mr. Dixon out with the fish.”

Carl scowls, probably annoyed with her for talking down to him like a child, and turns away with a huff. He storms into the kitchen, and Daryl follows him after sparing Beth one last cagey look. Then it’s just Beth and Rick.

There’s a distinctly awkward beat of silence, which is thankfully quickly broken when Rick fishes his wallet out of his pocket to pay Beth for her time.

“They were fine, same as always,” Beth reports unprompted as Rick counts out bills. “Carl played his videogames and I just put Judith down for a nap half an hour ago. She hasn’t made a peep since. You wanna go an’ check on her?”

“She’ll keep for another minute.” Rick tucks the folded bills into Beth’s waiting hand. “I trust you.”

Ouch. Rick’s salting Beth’s wounds and he doesn’t even know it, and the pain is somehow worse for his blissful ignorance.

But Beth’s pulled temporarily out of her sinkhole of guilt when she notices that the wad of cash in her hand feels thicker than it should. She fans out the bills and counts, then says, haltingly, “Uh, Mr. Grimes? I think there’s been a mistake. You paid me for the whole day.”

“Sure did.”

And just like that, Beth’s slipping back into her sinkhole. She shifts the jug of water into the crook of her arm and separates out the bills in a hurry, keeping half and then shoving the rest at Rick. “You can’t pay me for work I didn’t do.”

“Sure I can.” Rick takes a giant step back, hands raised defensively like he thinks Beth’s gonna throw the money at his face, which. She just might. “You’re savin’ up for school, ain’t you? Consider it my investment in the great young minds of tomorrow.”

Yeah. Funny. Beth doesn’t think her mind’s all that great, is the thing. If it was, she wouldn’t’ve gotten herself into this mess.

Beth sighs hard through her nose and folds her fingers around the cash. “You ain’t gonna change your mind about this, are you?”

“Nope.” Yeah. She didn’t think so.

Beth sighs again, quieter this time. “Well, thanks,” she says morosely.

“Don’t go jumpin’ for joy or anythin’,” Rick says, eyebrows just about touching his hairline. He’s studying her face again, and Beth doesn’t know if it’s a cop thing or just a Rick Grimes thing, but she suddenly feels like a perp sweating under one of those hot white interrogation lamps. “You gotta leave in a hurry, or d’you wanna check in on Judith with me?”

Beth should choose Door Number One, but what if it’s a trap? She almost never leaves in a hurry, so will it look suspicious if she does? Either way, she’s still staring down the barrel of a thirty-minute car ride with Rick from here to the farm.

Guess she’s going with Door Number Two, then.

“Sure,” Beth says. “I can stay a bit.” And she follows Rick into the living room to look in on Judith in her portable folding crib. The crib’s painted eggshell white and the little mattress pad is a bright, sunny yellow, the overall effect being that of a spring daisy.

Beth drifts over to that spring daisy crib and braces her elbows on the railing, cash in one hand, jug of water still dangling from the other. The baby’s fast asleep, fist tucked against her chin, drool bubbling at the corner of her slack pink mouth.

Rick comes up beside Beth and mirrors her pose. His elbow nudges hers before he pulls it back into his own personal bubble, and Beth has to fight not to jump. She’s used to being close to Rick. She’d even sit in his lap when she was real little, if he could manage to wrestle her away from Lori. It’s not unfamiliarity that’s making her jumpy.

“Swear she never sleeps this easy when I’m the one who's lookin’ after her,” Rick says, whispering for Judith’s benefit, and Beth smiles weakly. Voices drift into the living room from the kitchen, their words indistinct. Drawers rattle. Carl laughs at something Daryl said or did.  

The PlayStation’s off but the TV’s still on, tuned into Cartoon Network. The volume’s turned down low to an indistinct hum. Mundane background noise, like the chatter drifting in from the kitchen. It should be peaceful, but it makes Beth's teeth ache like nails on a chalkboard.  

“You hydrated enough over there?” Rick asks, nodding at Beth’s jug of water.  

“Hydration’s important,” Beth says, watching Judith’s little foot curl and twitch in her sleep. “And anyway, I shouldn’t be drinkin’ anythin’ stronger’n this on account of my stomach ache. I mean, I feel better now, but I don’t wanna risk it.”  

“Right.” Beat of silence, and Beth can feel Rick working himself up to something. She wants to escape, but she can’t. Even if Rick wasn’t her ride home, her feet feel like they’ve been filled with lead.

“Beth.”

Here it comes.

“I know it’s none of my business, but we go back a ways—”

“Only back to when I was in diapers,” Beth says, turning her head to smile weakly at him, and he returns the smile briefly before his face gets serious again. Those eyes—Carl’s eyes in an older, thinner face—are the eyes of her family friend and the man who used to bring her M&M’s whenever he visited her daddy’s farm, but they’re also the eyes of a cop who’s seen his fair share of shit.

They’re the eyes of someone who recognizes a lie of omission when he doesn’t hear it.

“An’ I like to think I know you as well as I know my own kids. So I don’t think I’m wrong in guessin’ that something’s been botherin’ you. Something serious.”

There it is.

You can’t keep secrets from cops. Not from the good ones. Certainly not from Rick Grimes.

Beth tightens her grip on the water jug’s handle, smearing the condensation that’s gathered there.

She thinks on it. She thinks on Rick, and on how long he’s known her for. Thinks about how bleak things were for him right after he lost Lori, and about how he’s only just getting better now. Thinks about how crushingly disappointed he’d be in her if he knew what she did. Thinks about how he’d probably go after the best friend he’s ever had with a goddamn shotgun if he knew what Daryl did.

Thinks about that bus she has to catch to the Planned Parenthood.

Beth clenches her fist, crumpling the cash. The smell of money’s gonna cling to her fingers for hours after this.

“Beth?”

Beth presses her eyes shut.

“Mr. Grimes,” she says. “Could you, um. Could you please drive me to the Planned Parenthood?”

Rick inhales sharply.

A crash echoes in the kitchen, and the sound of something shattering is punctuated by a round of violent, impassioned swearing.

So.

There’s that.