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This Time Around

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Screaming. High-pitched, desperate screaming, piercing the air and echoing all around, bouncing off the trees like rubber balls, ricocheting and growing louder with every thud of her boots on the dry, cracked ground. Or, was that her imagination? Her heartbeat thrummed in her head as she sucked in breaths to try and propel herself forwards, her chest burning with every gasp and her feet aching after each rapid step. She scolded herself for every single excuse she’d thought up to stop herself from going to the gym, or for a jog, or to the tennis courts. She really wished she wasn’t so inclined to sitting inside and gaming or reading. If she’d known she’d need such stamina to save herself from the jaws of another human being, she’d have jumped on a treadmill occasionally.

Twigs broke under her boots as branches snapped at her sweat covered face but still, she pushed on, further into the woods, away from the screaming. The snarling had grown quiet as the inferno in her lungs grew hotter, her breath became labored and she stumbled, her hands shooting out and grabbing at a nearby tree. Bark and dirt filled her mouth and obscured her view. She blinked, only to find her vision blurred by mud. It took a few precious seconds for her to realize that she’d fallen before she quickly hauled her body upright and carried on along her jagged path through the woods.

She thought there had to have been at least ten people behind her when she had flown off into the tree line from the highway, all terrified with eyes bulging and hearts hammering. Now, her surroundings had fallen quiet and it occurred to her that she was wandering alone in the thick darkness, meandering between trees with no weapons or idea where she was headed. She stopped in her tracks, leaning against a trunk and trying to catch her breath. Her ears strained to hear the slightest sounds around her so she could sprint off at any hint of danger. Her hands found the straps of her back pack, tugging it from her shoulder and swinging it around to her front. Inside, she selected a torch and quickly flicked the switch. A bright, beam of light shot through the velvet dark, illuminating her surroundings and proving that she was now alone. She swallowed hard and gradually edged around the trunk, shining the torch between the surrounding trees and listening, above the sound of her own breathing for the slightest snap of a twig of a distant groan.

She was walking the highway after being unable to drive any further. The city saw thousands upon thousands of people flee when the chaos hit and spread like a wildfire. She watched from a distant hill as the roads filled up with panicked, angry refugees that were offering each other money and all manner of expensive and luxury items for passage out of the highly populated area that had fast become a death trap.

After losing her companion shortly after fleeing into the woods, she was forced to shake off the shock of what she had witnessed. Her best friends throat ripped out in a split second, a river of crimson blood flooding over his bright, white clothing, the contrast somehow making the horrendous scene even more macabre. With no time to cry, no breaks in which to grieve, she raced off with blurry eyes into the night with her friend’s assailant hot on her heels, snarling and snapping its jaws until the sound was gradually replaced by the terrified screams of others, dotted about in the trees around her.

She kept walking until her heels ached and her knees grew weary and her stomach grumbled so loudly, she wrapped her hands around it to muffle the sound. Knowing she had to get some rest, she chose the sturdiest looking tree she could find and began to climb, her hands gripping the harsh bark and heaving her weary body up the structure until she was perched on a thick branch that was wider than her own body. She settled against the trunk. The contents of her backpack dug into her spine but she cared little for anything except being able to rest someplace that meant she wasn’t about to be consumed by what once was somebody’s son or daughter, somebody’s husband or wife. Now, just a ravenous, monstrous shell of what they were.

When she awoke, light shone through the trees, a slither hitting her face and heating up one cheek. She blinked and shook her head before leaning over the edge of the branch and checking it was clear to climb down. Finding nothing, she was soon ambling back over the leafy ground in search of some semblance of shelter.


 

Carol watched as her young daughter gently plucked at the fabric of her doll. Such delicate fingers poised over the cloth face of an effigy she’d become attached to ever since she was a baby. She was a quiet child, even more so since they’d arrived at the camp. She’d seen things no one of her age should have, the same things that other children across the world had now seen. Not to mention the violence she’d witnessed before the turn. Violence at the hands of her own father. Carol’s heart hurt for her and not only the memories she would have to carry, but the new, even more brutal things she was unavoidably going to have to endure in her bleak and uncertain future.

Her dirty blonde hair glistened in the sun and her skin, still so young and flawless, had yet to display the pallid gray that some of the others had. Her freckles were still noticeable and each one reminded Carol of the times when she’d cradle the girl in her arms, counting the subtle dots across her nose and smiling to herself.

“Mom?” Sophia squeaked from the waters edge.

The quarry boasted a deep, teal body of water that provided the camp with a means to wash clothes, bodies and was a much-needed source of drinking water once boiled of its impurities. The blazing sunshine, intense temperatures and picturesque view from the top made it the ideal place to set up and stay for a while and most of the camps population had no designs on moving anywhere.

“Yes, sweetheart?” Carol cooed back.

“There’s a woman up there.”

The small girls tiny finger extended, pointing out a lone figure stood, buckled over at the top of the quarry. A red backpack was hanging from the woman’s shoulders and she used the front of her black T-shirt to wipe sweat from her forehead, exposing a pale stomach. Carol squinted and slowly got to her feet, shielding her eyes from the sun in order to gain a better view. Her brow furrowed and her heart began to race in her chest.

“Shane!” She suddenly shouted, her voice thrown around the quarry and traveling up the hill to the main camp. “Come on, Sophia. Come with me. We have to go and get Shane.”


 

She had been at the camp for three days before she summoned up the courage to talk to anyone. An introvert by nature and traumatized by her experience, she chose to retreat into her tent and sleep while others went about their daily tasks. She ate alone, sat alone and read her books alone. Carol was the woman that first approached her at the top of the quarry, flanked by a group of four men. She didn’t remember the names of any of them at the time, only Carol’s as she backed away like a frightened deer. Coaxed along to the camp on the promise of food and a tent, she hadn’t breathed a word then and still hadn’t as she sat, hugging her legs and peering up at everyone on the third evening.

She flinched when a man crouched down in front of her and offered her a square, metal camping bowl of food. She didn’t care what it was, her stomach protested loudly at its emptiness and she slowly took the bowl from his hands. Carol had been the one to make sure she ate, it was always Carol. Nice, non-threatening, motherly Carol. Now, it was this man with his sunken eyes, dark, military haircut and thin lips.

“How you doin’?” The man asked.

She half shrugged, not able to manage much more for fear of having to get into a conversation.

“I don’t know if you remember, but I’m Shane. Over there…” He pointed to a man dressed in a sheriff’s uniform. “…That’s Rick. Then ya got T-Dog next to him and then Glenn. That’s just some of us. You’ve been pretty quiet; just thought I’d let you know who people are. You need anything, just ask anyone, OK?”

She nodded a thanks and leaned forwards, taking a small sniff of her food. Some kind of meat stew, laden with herbs. It was the most amazing thing to grace her nostrils in four days.

“You got a name?” Shane asked.

“J-Jess.” She uttered through chapped, cracked lips.

“Well, Jess. I know you’re scared n’ all. We all are. But you’re safe here.” He assured her.

“OK. T-Thank you.” She stammered, picking up a spoon from the bowl and beginning to stir her food.

When Shane left her, she hungrily demolished the stew and picked up her journal from beside her. She knew she’d soon run out of ink for her pen and resigned herself to the fact that she would at some point, need to ask someone to fetch her a new one from one of the supply runs they seemed to frequently go on. As she scribbled, jeering from the other side of the camp caught her attention and she glanced up to see two more men emerge from the trees, one was carrying a crossbow, his sleeveless arms shiny in the light as he approached the glow of the fire with a string of squirrels hoisted over his shoulder. He wore a leather vest and his expression was sour, despite the cheering and jokes being cracked by his companion. The other man was visibly older, bald  and also wore a leather vest, he swung a dead opossum by his side as he walked, soon throwing down in front of the fire with a dusty thud and laughing.

“What would y’all do without us, huh?!” He cried with a voice louder than any of the others Jess had heard so far. From his body language and his attitude, she could tell this one was going to be trouble.

Jess saw Shane get to his feet and whisper to the man to keep the noise down, but he was met with nothing but a snarl. The man with the squirrels was already stalking over in the direction of Jess’s tent, suddenly veering off and slamming the dead animals onto a makeshift table and propping his crossbow against the structure at his feet.

“Merle, get ya ugly ass over here. I’ma get to skinnin’ these.” He announced.

Jess retreated back into her tent in an attempt to stay out of the sightline of both men, judging them both to be the kind of people she would have steered well clear of before she found herself running through the woods for her life.


 

In the time it had taken for Carol to persuade Jess to emerge from her tent and meet some of the others, her presence at the camp was now being noticed by just about everyone. She had briefly conversed with the younger members of the group; Carl, who was Rick and Lori’s son and Sophia, Carol and Ed’s daughter. Children were altogether less intimidating and energy draining than adults could be to Jess, especially in such a setting, where noise and rigorous activity needed to be kept to a minimum, as were the rules.

There were two other girls of Jess’s age which she deliberately steered clear of without hesitation, Sarah and Jodie. Initially met with outwardly false smiles and raised eyebrows, the transparency of the two females that peered back at her was evident and enough to make sure she knew her place was not with them. Her history with female friends not being one to shout about, other women never seemed to take to her due to her obscure and nerdy interests and quiet nature. Constantly a source of ridicule at high schools she'd attended, she kept herself to herself and spent her free time at comic book stores and conventions with her handful of close, male friends she would undoubtedly make eventually. All of which were now dead.

The loud man from the previous night, who’s name she had learned was Merle, had already proved that her suspicions about him being trouble were correct. Jess always knew to trust her gut; it hadn’t let her down yet. Walking past her as she hurried along behind Carol, he slowly looked her up and down, running his tongue along his bottom lip and rubbing his chin. Beside him, was the other man in the leather vest, his younger brother; Daryl.

“Aint she a meaty one? Lil’ more cushin’ for the pushin’, huh, Daryl?” He sneered.

His brother merely glanced up and caught Jess’s eye as she passed, his blue irises flashing before her. She had never seen such icy blue eyes before.

“Shut up, Merle” She heard him mutter in response.


 

Since arriving at the camp, Jess hadn’t seen any of the dead ones. She figured she’d wandered so far up the mountain, that hardly anyone alive, let alone dead would be likely to follow her. She noticed that they had coined the name ‘Walkers’ by those around her and felt safe in the knowledge that no one had seen one enter the camp for weeks due to the surrounding makeshift alarms comprised of tin cans and other noisy materials. Whispers around the campfire had indicated that the city was full of them and they were now starting to run out of food and disperse into the surrounding areas.

Sat in her usual spot just inside her tent, she jotted down what she thought was the date at the top of the next page of her journal, although she couldn’t be sure if it was correct or not. Giggling in the distance caused her to look up, where she clocked the unmistakable sight of Sarah and Jodie making fun of her from across the clearing. Jess couldn’t help but lift an eyebrow in disgust at the typical nature of their body language. Hands deliberately blocking mouths as they spoke, eyes intermittently locking on her and childish giggling that she expected from the likes of Sophia or Carl, but not from two women in their twenties. She shook her head and sighed, turning her attention back to finishing the date on the page when her eyes lowered further, to the extra flesh around her middle, her thicker thighs than the other girls, even her fingers. Bigger, softer. She flattened her hand on the page and sighed. Then, screaming rang out across the camp.

Everyone seemed to move simultaneously, grabbing at everything that could be used as a weapon. Jess froze to the spot until she saw Carol making her way towards the children with several others and whisking them away. Curiosity fueled her to move and find out how high the threat was, knowing she needed to keep a safe distance but still get close enough to see what the fuss was about.

Just inside the tree line, Dale, owner of the groups RV and resident, straw hat lookout was busy beating the hell out of a single Walker with Rick and some of the others with blunt objects, bats and even a broom. Jess looked on in disbelief at the Walker that had eventually fallen to the floor and quietened, beside it, lay a deer with an arrow in its rear end and a myriad of bite marks taken out of its side. The small huddle of people exchanged glances, their chests all rising and falling.

“Never seen them this far up the mountain before” Dale commented.

“Well, they’re running out of food in the city” Carol remarked to the cluster of concerned and sweaty faces.

“Son of a bitch!” Came another, angry voice from further back. “That’s my deer!”

Daryl emerged from the bushes, crossbow in hand, sweat beaded on his chest and forehead, yet more dead squirrels thrown over his shoulder and ripped the crossbow bolt from the deer’s rump with one, swift movement.

“Look at it, all gnawed on by this filthy, disease-bearin’, motherless, poxy, bastard!”

With each new word, his boot collided with the Walkers body on the floor, Jess sidestepped slightly to gain herself a better view of him in his entirety through the bushes.

“Calm down, Son. That’s not helping” Dale scolded.

“And what do you know ‘bout it, ol’ man?! Why don’t you take that stupid hat and go back to ‘on golden pond’? I been trackin’ this deer for miles!”

As he finished his sentence, the Walker at his feet began to writhe and gnash its jaws. Jess felt her throat constrict at the thought of it not being dead and wondered just how the hell they were meant to be stopped if gunfire emitted too much noise.

“Oh my god” Glenn groaned as he resumed beating the corpse with a stick.

“C’mon, people! What the hell?!” Daryl exclaimed as he aimed at the Walkers head with his crossbow and pulled the trigger. A neon bolt embedded in its skull and instantly, the threat was eliminated. “It’s gotta be the brain. Don’t y’all know nothin’?”

Retrieving his bolt from between the Walkers eyes, he huffed and threw everyone an exasperated look. Before she could even think, Jess found herself face to face with him as he stormed through the brush, unexpectedly running into her. She quickly stepped back and tried to drop her gaze, but his stare was so intense that she found herself rooted to the spot while he paused to take in the view of her. She swallowed hard and finally managed to step aside and let him pass. When he did so without a word, she almost tried to blink the shock from her eyes as she turned on her heels and made her way back to her tent.

That night she braved sitting around the camp fire with everyone else at dinner, although she sat further back than the rest. Nibbling on strips of squirrel, Jess didn’t follow any conversations that were taking place. Opposite her, sat even further back than her in the shadows, was Daryl, who had just finished up licking excess meat from his fingers and was now watching her over the flames, his arms draped over his bent legs. She was aware his attention was firmly fixed on her and grew increasingly uncomfortable under his scrutiny. Why was he looking at her like that? Why was he looking at her at all?


 

After another two days, Jess was still finding it hard to settle in amongst the masses at the camp. Only speaking briefly to a handful of people, she decided that Carol was the easiest person to converse with, except Rick, who never seemed to give her a choice but to answer when he asked after her welfare. Her days were spent reading, writing or tagging along with Carol by the water and helping with the laundry. Her knowledge of certain historical periods meant she knew how to wash clothes without the aid of a washer dryer and was able to lend a hand in getting through the huge piles of dirty clothes that appeared in the crate at the start of each day.

Carol wasn’t shy about encouraging Jess to learn new skills and on one particular occasion, caused a great deal of anxiety when she handed her a knife and a pile of dead squirrels and told her to start skinning them. Before Jess could protest or express her ignorance on such a subject, Carol had vanished from sight, summoned by her aggressive and overbearing husband, Ed. Her hand shook as she looked down at her fingers clutching the knife, Daryl’s presence on a rock behind her niggling away in her mind. If anyone knew how to skin squirrels, it would be him. She turned her body slightly so as to block his view and began prodding one of the small animals with the sharp end of the knife.

Daryl, able to see over her shoulder from his higher vantage point, furrowed his brow and threw his smoke away. He climbed down from the rock and approached her.

“Kinda shit show is that? Give it here.” He snapped, reaching for her knife. She stilled, wide eyed and tried to focus on what she should say.

She slowly looked sideways at him with the squirrel in her hand. She still gripped the knife and he beckoned with his fingers for her to pass it to him along with the dead animal. She gingerly handed him him both and stepped aside, letting him take up her spot. Before he set to work, he noticed her discomfort and awkward expression.

“She uh-she left before I could tell her I have no idea what I’m doing.” She said quickly.  

He grunted and turned his head to see Carol with Ed, who’s voice was raised and echoing around the quarry. Shane stood nearby, arms crossed, keeping a very close eye on the arguing couple. Ed’s arms were flailing in the air as Carol stood meekly in front of him. Daryl bit his bottom lip for a second and decided to leave them to it, getting involved in other people’s drama wasn’t something he made a habit of. He turned his attention back to Jess.

“What exactly do ya do around here?” He asked her.

It was a good question and one she didn’t have much of an answer to. Since she’d arrived, she slinked about in the shadows, folding her collectable superhero T-shirts that she happened to have bought on the day the world went awry and scribbling in her journal. She’d only recently started to lend a hand with the laundry but other than that, she could honestly say she’d been nothing but a leech.

“Um… I got a pretty loud scream. It’s like a…Walker alarm. Just haven’t used it yet.” She said with a small smile.

He huffed, unimpressed and figured she would be even more useless unless he showed her what to do with the knife and the squirrel.

“Pay attention.” He mumbled, motioning to the animal with the knife. “Gotta start right here, cut up to the tailbone”

As he spoke, he physically showed her what to do, pointing out each part and showing her exactly how to angle the knife in the process. Jess winced at the sound of the knife slicing through the flesh and tried to act as though the blood didn’t bother her. But she was never a good liar and her stomach flipped at the sight. Her face paled and she took a deep breath.

“Then, down each leg. Gotta make a flap of skin on each. Can grab it and yank it right off, cut as ya go.” He explained, focused on his task and missing Jess’s pained expression. He ripped the skin from the animal and tossed it aside before holding the bloodied knife out to her and finally noticing her pallid skin and sweaty forehead.

“R-right.” She stammered, slowly taking the knife from him.

“Practice. Make ya self useful.” He said, his tone now less antagonistic and more akin to someone with a helpful suggestion.

“Right. Yeah.” She mumbled, taking the knife back and dragging the back of her wrist across her forehead.

Relief washed over her when he finally departed, leaving her to her task. While it took her probably double the time it would have taken Daryl, she eventually finished it and cleaned up with a sense of pride and accomplishment welling in her chest.


 

 'I'm not entirely sure I’ll ever fit in with this group. I know I don’t really fit in anywhere else either, but no matter how hard I try, I always seem to get left behind. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been thinking a lot about mom and dad and my asshole brother who I miss so much. Seeing people that still have their families, I hope they know how lucky they are. I know I never really fit in with them either, but they were my blood.

 It’s a miracle I survived on my own, I see that even more now I’m around people with actual survival skills. There are fighters, hunters, people that are good with weapons, even people that think more strategically than me. I feel kind of useless. I’m slower and a liability compared to these people. A guy called Daryl had to teach me how to skin a squirrel today. I almost hurled on the table in front of him and I felt like an idiot at first but at least he took the time to show me instead of making fun of me. If I’m honest, I was really expecting the latter.'  

She closed the journal. Shoved it back in her bag and slung it over her shoulder. Then, she picked up the bunch of skinned squirrels and made her way to the top of the hill. The heat from the sun was starting to lessen and she was grateful for it, she wasn’t used to building up much of a sweat, so her new surroundings up in the sky, a top a mountain had been a shock to the system. People wandered about the camp and children played quietly as the fire in the middle started to intensify, ready to provide warmth from the sudden cold snap that came as soon as the sun vanished below the horizon.

Jess spotted Merle on the outskirts of the group. He sat with a tree stump in front of him and a large knife, dissecting meat and driving it onto skewers for cooking. Jess took a deep breath and made tracks towards him, passing the RV in the process, where Daryl sat on the roof, watching her. She kept her head up when passing Sarah and Jodie, Sarah brushing through her blonde hair with her fingers as they ambled along.

“Better get in quick before she eats every scrap. Girl definitely isn’t starving.” Jodie whispered to her friend.

The comment hit Jess’s chest like a bulldozer but outwardly, her reaction was minimal. She carried on walking and handed the squirrels to Merle wordlessly before turning on her heel and stalking off back to her tent. She could hear Merle chuckle to himself behind her but paid him no mind. He wasn’t the one that could stamp on her feelings so easily. It was other girls. Always other girls.

Daryl was noisily chewing on some beef jerky when he heard Jodie’s scathing comment and saw Jess hesitate as she walked, her head dropping and her shoulders slumping. Sarah and Jodie rounded the RV on their random path and as Daryl looked down at them, his eyes fell on a cup of water set down on the roof of the RV, near to the edge. The temptation proving too great to ignore. Dale must have left it there. Convenient. He kicked the cup, sending water flying over the edge and onto the heads of the two girls below.

“Hey! Watch it, Redneck!” Sarah shrieked as she flicked her hands out, ridding herself of any water droplets. Jodie merely stood there and seethed, her jaw clamped shut and her eyes narrowed up at Daryl. Her sweater was splattered with a dark and no doubt, cold stain.

“Sorry” He smirked.


 

Rudely awoken by a cooking pot being thrown against the side of her tent just before sunrise, Jess startled and considered herself lucky the foreign object that had collided with the canvas had missed her head by inches. She crawled out of her sleeping bag and poked her head out of the zipper to the sounds of Merle and T-dog shouting obscenities to each other and brawling in the middle of the clearing. Curse words were yelled and a plethora of racist remarks left Merle’s mouth as he swung another punch in T-dogs direction. Jess winced at the sound of some of his comments and thought herself grateful she’d been brought up in an accepting and open-minded family and didn’t have to endure the seething hatred Merle seemed to feel every time he set eyes on someone that didn’t share his skin color.

The two men wrestled on the ground, dust kicking up and clouding their air as more and more people filtered out from their tents to observe the spectacle. Jess could hear the moment T-dog’s fist collided with Merles face, a kind of sickening thud followed by a loud grunt and a roar as Merle launched himself up and ran at his assailant. Bowls and utensils flew through the air as they thundered through a nearby table and took out the peg of a tent in the process. The shelter sagged and Jess felt a stab of panic as they neared her. She stepped back in an attempt to put some space between her and the fight as Daryl shot out of nowhere and drove himself between them, taking a hard, right hook from Merle that made Jess jump with the loud crack that it made. But Daryl simply emitted a loud grunt and shook it off and she suspected that this was far from the first time he’d been punched in the face.

“Back up! C’mon! Back up, Man!” He instructed, hovering in front of his brother with his hands on his chest. Shane arrived seconds later, just in time to catch T-Dog and pull his hands behind his back in true cop style. Jess raised an eyebrow.

So much drama. She thought.

“Leave it. Just leave it. What the hell is wrong with you?!” Daryl was now hissing at Merle, who was desperately trying to skirt around him. But wherever Merle was, Daryl was firmly in front of him. “Let it go, Merle.”

She bit her lip as she witnessed Daryl manage to de-escalate his brothers rage and she knew that no one else in the entire group would have been able to handle him in quite the same way. His leather vest flapped at his sides in response to him shifting all his weight into his muscular arms in order to hold his brother still. With one leg placed in front of the other, he leaned forwards, a stable grip on each of Merle’s shoulders. Shane was busy dragging T-dog off and whispering in his ear when Glenn’s voice startled her, snapping her away from an image that had suddenly become a little easier to look at.

“You alright?” He asked. If he’d been there the entire time, she had no idea after having completely missed his presence. “Thought you might have gotten hit in your tent.”

“It just missed my head.” Jess replied with a small smile. “Just.”

“Lucky.”

“Yeah. Just glad I wasn’t up and sat by the fire.” She expressed.

“You and me both. Those two have been gunning for one another for days now.” He told her.

She responded with a thin smile and turned her head back to where Daryl was now shoving Merle towards them. As they passed her tent, Daryl’s eyes managed to meet hers. He looked furious, unsettled. Uncomfortable. Taking it as her cue to make herself scarce, she climbed back into her tent.


 

It was almost a ritual now, everyone sat down to eat at the same time, like a giant, dysfunctional family. As far as altercations were concerned, everything was usually forgotten about in time for dinner, food being on the top of everyone’s list of priorities. It wasn’t surprising to Jess to see Merle and T-Dog sat in the same vicinity after such a violent fight, both of them seeming content enough with devouring their food than having any more fights. Merle had situated himself slightly further back than everyone else and made a few un-classy remarks under his breath that had so far been ignored by everyone. Jess heard every word but pretended she didn’t as she finished up her meal and made her way back to the cooking pot. Spooning the rest of the stew into a bowl, she dunked a plastic spoon into it and set off to find Daryl, who was the only one absent from the dinnertime ritual.

Sitting far away from the group, on a fallen tree on the edge of the woods, Daryl could hear both Jodie and Sarah making fun of Jess as she passed. Anger simmered in his chest and he grit his teeth at the sound of their incessant, immature and annoying giggling.  

“Here”

Jess’s voice cut through his thoughts and he peered up at her with suspicion. He threw the piece of bark he was picking at on the floor in front of him and locked his gaze on her.  

“You haven’t eaten. Your brother has. So, I took this before he noticed there was seconds.”

“Why?” He grunts.

She licked her lips and exhaled, her shoulders sagging.

“Saved us all from getting caught in the middle of a pretty nasty fight earlier.”

A grunt was all she received in response. Expecting him to react in any other way would have been futile, it was written all over his face that he was not in the mood to socialize.

“How’s your face?” She asked.

His right eye was beginning to swell and she knew that by morning it would be fully blackened. She wished she had a bag of frozen peas or an ice pack to offer, but figured it would only be met with a snappy remark or shrugged off anyway. But Jess wasn’t one to give up easily on something she believed in and in that moment, she believed that Daryl could use a distraction from his bad mood. Shoving away her doubts and shyness, she kept her eyes trained on him.

“Had worse.” He mumbled.

“You should eat, here.” She offed him the bowl again, telling him in no uncertain terms that she was not about to give up. After a small huff, he looked back up at her, slowly dropping his vision to the steaming bowl of food before eventually taking it from her.  

“Thanks.” He grumbled, taking hold of the spoon and shoveling stew into his mouth without any regard for manners or decorum. Jess sat next to him and ripped up a handful of grass from the ground, gradually picking through the blades and discarding them in the breeze.

“Actually, it’s you that deserves the thanks. You hunted the food and then showed me how to skin it instead of just doing it yourself or showing me up in front of the others. So, thanks.”

“Ain’t nothin’.” He dismissed with his mouth full of food.

“Don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. I’m Jessica.” She told him.

Why didn’t I just say ‘Jess’? No one calls me Jessica. What am I doing?!

“Jess. You can call me Jess.” She corrected.

He turned his head, quickly scanning her from head to toe and swallowing the contents of his mouth.

“Daryl.” He stated.  

“S’nice to meet you. I mean, as nice it can be, What, with corpses wandering around trying to eat us. That’s not exactly nice. But, there’s nothing like an apocalypse to bring out the best in people. But then again I guess some people are just crappy by nature.” She rambled.

He stared at her for a moment before shoving more food into his mouth. He was animalistic, almost feral somehow and he had an aura of unpredictability that made Jess nervous. Like a lion that appeared tame and calm but just below the surface lurked a danger that she didn’t want to see.

Jess was by all accounts, a self-declared introvert that didn’t actively seek out social interaction and felt the need to withdraw from situations or people that sapped her energy. Daryl was obviously not like everyone else and she would have hazarded a guess at him also being introverted, which meant that they possibly had something in common. It was unheard of that she made a marked effort to talk to someone that appeared so outwardly hostile, but the end of the world had brought with it a new found attitude in Jess; Just try it. See what happens. It was a philosophy that had kept her alive so far.

“It’s cold tonight, huh? I mean, I have enough blankets and stuff but it still gets through. It’s like ever since the world went to shit the nights have gotten colder” She expressed.

He finished up his food and dropped the bowl on the ground between his bent knees.

“Ya always talk this much?” He asked.

She wasn’t expecting such a question and didn’t know if she should be offended or amused.

“Uh… yes? No? I’m not sure.”

And she wasn’t. Not anymore. Now everything had changed and apparently so had she. If someone had told her she’d be sat beside a violent redneck and attempting to make nice during the apocalypse, she’d have laughed in their face.

Remaining at his side for half an hour more, she’d refused to move partly out of defiance. She braided grass into patterns and watched Carl and Sophia play at the side of the group while Daryl smoked and sulked, about what, she wasn’t sure. But he hadn’t got up and left, nor did he ask her to leave and she took that a small success.


 

Since she was a child Jess always poured her deepest thoughts and feelings into a journal. Each entry left her feeling like she’d been cleansed and was ready for whatever the next day held. Sometimes, if she wasn’t in the mood to write huge paragraphs, she’d write, poetry, haiku’s or draw simple pictures in biro. Even with everything else destroyed and gone, Jess still made sure her journal was not neglected.

That night, in her tent. She opened up the thick, black leather-bound book and began writing.

'Daryl intrigues me. He has a brother that made himself known to me way before Daryl did. In fact, Merle leered at me as I walked by and told me I had ‘more cushin’ for the pushin’.” He’s vulgar and rude. I’m pretty sure he’s a raging racist too from what I’ve seen. I’m not sure Daryl is like that although there is a possibility. He just seems quieter, more thoughtful somehow. He’s kind of cute. In a dangerous kind of way. He broke up a fight between Merle and T-dog today. I have no shame in admitting I was impressed by his courage, even if he did get punched in the eye. I took him some food and tried to talk to him but he now just thinks I talk too much. I don’t think I said too much to him though, he’s just super quiet. Or did I? Oh god. I don’t know.

I’m not sure about everybody else. Rick seems like a nice guy; he’s checked in on me a few times. Shane too, although he’s a little… odd. I think there’s something going on between him and Rick’s wife. I keep catching them whispering to each other. But I shouldn’t make such assumptions. I could be very wrong. I like Carol, she’s the safest person to be around and I think I trust her, when she’s not with Ed. I don’t like him one, little bit. He’s a bad egg. I can tell. Rick’s kid, Carl is pretty cool. He sees a lot more than people give him credit for and he’s smart. He reminds me of me when I was his age.

I’m making an effort to stay away from Sarah and Jodie. They don’t like me and I don’t like them. My fat offends them. Good. I hope it makes their empty heads explode. It seems that no matter what happens in the world, those types of girls are everywhere. Like a disease or a bad smell that won’t go away. When they’re around, I just feel like I’m back in high school and I wouldn’t go back to high school if I was paid.

I could be in worse places. I could be dead. But I can’t shake this overwhelming urge to just be alone. I know it’s not safe and I know it’s not wise. I thought maybe if I talked to someone, tried to gain a friend, it’d help. So, I’m trying with Daryl. Out of everyone, I think he and I might be similar. What am I even talking about? The world ended and here I am, worrying about my social anxiety.

I should sleep. I rarely sleep more than a couple hours at a time now. I can’t stand the nightmares anymore.'