Chapter I: In the Pines.
“Little girl, little girl, don’t lie to me.”
Clementine thought, This is it.
She thought, This can’t be it.
It wasn’t the first time those two perfectly opposed concepts had struck her back-to-back in the past two years, but now they beat in her head like a drum. Maybe that was only natural, all things considered. In her current circumstances - lost in the woods, surrounded on all sides, and with her arm torn open and the world trying to swim away from her with every step - the first half of the thought sounded especially loud in her head. Clementine was sure she had been in worse positions, but she really couldn’t remember when.
Willing her body to keep going, willing the world to stay with her, Clementine thought, This can’t be it. It can’t be.
Then, like clockwork, But it is.
At least the routine strum of those two thoughts was something to focus on. Better them than the walkers. Better them than the current state of her left arm. The wound was just minutes in the making, but already here Clementine was in a state of woozy borderline delirium, with the world swimming and fogging before her eyes thanks to lost blood. Beyond that, Christ did it hurt. It felt like her nerves were on fire from wrist to elbow, and every tug of her blood-soaked sleeve against the jagged shreds of her arm sent a stabbing electric jolt through her.
At least it had been a dog and not a walker. Small comfort, but at least there was that.
Clementine thought, This is it. You can’t just keep doing this.
Then, in a bid to squash that voice at least for the time, Wouldn’t be the first time. Just have to keep moving. Keep walking, keep moving forward. Just need to find help, or supplies. Maybe a first aid kit. She added to that, if just to keep her focus from slipping to the husky groans behind her ( god they’re everywhere, how can they be everywhere in the middle of nowhere ), This isn’t it. I can do this. I’ve done it before. Just another hurdle. I can -
Something heavy, wet, and shambling smashed into her. Clementine intuited the cold, damp soil of the ground rising up to greet her, left side first. This was followed promptly by a shredding lance of pain from her arm all the way up to her shoulder, driving the air from her lungs in a sharp gasp of a cry. The walker was upon her at once, and Clementine only just had the wherewithal to brace her good arm against its chest before the rotting, yammering maw could clamp down on her. She tried to raise her left arm to use as further leverage, but she could still barely feel it, let alone use it. Left without any better alternative, Clementine pushed herself backwards in a frantic daze, trying to slip out from under the corpse above her...and felt rock rise up behind her back.
That was when panic finally started to set in.
Not here, she thought, the words more a blur of motion in Clementine’s head as she threw all of her remaining strength into fending off the monster practically sitting in her lap. It was barely enough. The walker was close enough, now, that she would have been able to see into the cracked, decaying cavity of its skull were her vision not still swimmy. Not here, not now, please God no. At least give me time to find Christa. At least give me a little while longer. Not-
What happened next happened in the space of mere instants. One second, the walker’s head was there, gnashing and snarling at her; the next, it was gone, and Clementine took hazy note of the sight of it rolling down the gentle incline of the forest floor in her periphery. The remainder of it slackened above her, its unkillable strength leaving it in an instant, and Clementine lurched - almost flew - into a sitting position for how easily she was able to shove it off of her with her bracing arm. The shock of it widened Clementine’s eyes in more ways than one; as she snapped her head up, immediately searching, the world around her lazily swam back into clarity just in time to give her a good visual on her rescuer.
Or rather rescuers. Above her stood a pair of men, one using a crossbow to pick off walkers a yard or so away and the other maybe just a foot out of her reach. As Clem blinked away the shock of the rescue, the one nearest to her - by far the younger of the two, slim and mousy-haired - bent and extended his hand.
“Can you walk, kid?” He had an urgent tone to his voice and the question was blunt and clipped, but Clem intuited no hostility from him even as her eyes fell on the bloody machete dangling from his right hand and she thought, So that did it.
“Yeah,” she said, sensing the woozy daze of her own voice. “I...I think-”
“No time, Luke,” the older man cut in, lowering his crossbow and glancing back. He was shorter than his companion, stockier and more square. “I’m out. Grab her and let’s get the hell out of here.”
The younger man, Luke, glanced at his companion, then back to Clementine. She could count four walkers down around them, removing the immediate threat, but more were closing in.
“Shit,” he muttered. “Alright.” He gave Clementine an apologetic look and added, “Sorry about this.”
Clem almost replied, but was cut off by the sensation of being scooped up and hauled off the ground. The sudden motion was enough to set her vision spinning again, and she closed her eyes against it as Luke started forward in a run that wasn’t quite a sprint, but almost. The urge to drift off, to just give up and pass out like her body so desperately wanted her to do, rose up and tempted her, but she fought it off.
Need to scope these people out, Clementine thought, organizing a to-do list in her head with the remainder of her consciousness and focusing on that to bring herself back. It worked, at least to a degree, and having her eyes closed helped. She’d had just about her fill of watching the world focus and unfocus. There’s got to be more of them. I need to stay awake, ask questions, get supplies if I can. Help would be better, but I’ll take what I can get. After that…
Clem paused. What did come after that? Her conscience told her that finding Christa came first, came before anything, but the greater part of her knew that doing so would be damn close to impossible. She had no way of knowing how far the river had taken her, nor any way of knowing how far and in which direction Christa had gone in the time they’d been separated. The thought of just leaving her in the wilderness, alone and God only knows where, made Clementine feel ill in ways that had nothing to do with lost blood, but what else could she do?
Keep on keeping on, Clem thought, a saying she’d taken from her dad long ago. The thought warmed and hurt her heart at the same time. It had been long enough that she could barely remember her parents’ voices, and yet that turn of phrase came to her effortlessly. At least I’m out of danger. I have time to take stock.
Clementine cracked her eyes open just enough to see the ever-continuing expanse of misty forest moving past her. It was mocking in a way that was almost perfect. It said: You’re not out of the woods yet.
By the time Clementine’s rescuers finally slowed to a stop, she could just make out bars of white daylight filtering through the leafy canopy above her. Even better, her vision had steadied some now that she’d (more or less) had the opportunity to rest. They were small hopes, but two years had long since taught Clem that small hopes were better than no hopes. Small hopes were what kept survivors surviving.
“I think we’re safe,” the older man called back from a yard or two ahead, one arm out against a tree as he caught his breath. “Least it looks like we lost ‘em.”
“Yeah,” Luke agreed, taking a few more steps to close the distance. Clementine saw his eyes shift as he said it, as if he wasn’t sure whether to believe his own words yet. Clem thought, Smart. “Yeah, I think we’re good.” He glanced down and their gazes met, insofar as they could when Clementine’s eyes were still drowsily half-lidded. “Hey, you doing alright?”
“Think so,” Clem said, the conversation dragging her back to the surface a little. She didn’t think her response was dishonest; she figured it was better than a hard yes, at least. Her circumstances had changed so quickly, she could still feel the greater part of her mind reeling. “I-I can walk, I think.”
“Really,” Luke said, his eyebrows going up a touch and his voice disbelieving. “Looked to me like you could barely crawl away from those lurkers back there. You’re in bad shape, kid.”
They continued on, walking this time rather than sprinting, and Clementine had time to think that, bad shape or no, she would still much rather be walking under her own power rather than trust a perfect stranger to carry her out. Still, the thought crossed her mind, You don’t even know if you’d make it, how dizzy you are. Besides, they saved you, and that’s better than you’ve had for a while.
“What are you doing out here, anyway?” the older man spoke up, glancing back at them over his shoulder. Something about the even keel of his voice put Clem’s nerves a little more at ease, but only a little. “Y’have people with you?”
Clementine considered her options and decided that dodging the truth, now, wouldn’t get her anywhere. Besides, she didn’t really have a reason to lie, at least about this. “Just my friend and I,” she said. “Christa. Some people attacked us.”
Luke and his companion exchanged a glance, and Clementine knew enough now to read what it meant: unease. She hadn’t noticed it before, when she’d been at her wobbliest, but now she finally picked up on an undercurrent of anxiety between the two men - maybe even fear. Clem thought, Well that’s interesting.
“These folks happen to mention what they were after?” the older of the two questioned her. Clementine gave him a little shake of her head.
“I think they just wanted food,” she said. “We were cooking some sort of weasel.”
“They attacked you for a weasel ?” Luke said. She could hear the disgust. “Jesus, that’s low.” He paused a moment, as if in thought. Then: “They didn’t mention any names? Weren’t searching for anybody?”
Clementine shook her head again. As she did so, a thought came to her with almost startling clarity: They’re being hunted. For whatever reason, somebody is after these people.
And for what reason...who knew.
“Well,” Luke said, breaking the moment’s silence. A touch of the nervousness had left his voice, but not quite all. “I’m Luke, and this here is Pete.”
“Hey,” the older man said, finally cracking a smile. It was enough to make her wonder if he’d ever been a grandfather, a thought which was followed by, Doubt it. Not quite old enough.
“Hey,” Clementine returned, feeling...well, if not quite perfectly at-ease, at least reassured. Maybe this was a good thing after all. “I’m Clementine.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Clementine,” Luke replied, smiling down at her. The look seemed to come more easily than it did to Pete. “Got any plans for what you’re gonna do next?”
Clementine thought about it, but it was one of those things that didn’t need much consideration. “I need to find my friend,” she said, in full awareness that she had no idea where to even start. Then she added, more testing, “But I need some supplies.”
“What you need is a doctor,” Pete cut in. “You’re better than you were, Clementine, but you still look mighty roughed-up.”
The image of the four-inch gash down her left forearm came back to her, as did a perfectly clear image of the bite marks that ran alongside it. Then the dog sprang into her mind and Clementine shut the door on that image, having absolutely no urge to relive the attack or what she’d done. She was about to have a major problem if she didn’t speak up now, in any case.
“Yeah, you could say that,” she hazarded, glancing up at Luke. “Could you put me down? I’d like to sit a minute.”
Another exchanged glance between Luke and Pete, but neither of them seemed to question it much. “Sure,” Luke said, stopping in time with his companion and lowering Clementine to the ground with her back propped against a tree. She could see that he still hadn’t noticed her arm, which was for the best. Scared people were hasty people. “Think we’re safe enough. You feeling okay?”
“Yeah. Better.” And that much was true. Her arm still hurt like the devil, but at least she had some clarity back. Clem figured she would need it, as she used her good hand to cradle the injured limb across her lap. “Okay, I didn’t want to scare you, but-”
And that was when Luke finally noticed. Clem saw it in him immediately - the shift on his features, from friendly to confused all the way to alarmed, and the impressively quick paling of his face - and wondered if speaking up was the right call after all. She thought: Well, here goes.
“Oh, fuck, ” Luke breathed, drawing back, his eyes flittering from Clementine’s arm to her eyes. “Oh, shit, you’re-”
“A dog,” Clem cut in hurriedly. She was trying to sound placating, but it came out desperate instead. “I swear it was a dog.”
“Ain’t seen no dogs out here, Clementine,” Pete responded, brow furrowed and mouth set in a frown. He stepped closer, appraising her and studying her wound (at a careful distance, Clem noted). “Swearing doesn’t make something so.”
“Come on, kid, we just saw you with those lurkers back there.” Still wide-eyed and pale-faced, Luke began to pace. “Fuck, fuck, fuck ...”
Perhaps absurdly given the circumstances, Clementine thought, Lurkers. They call them lurkers?
“I’m telling you the truth,” she said aloud, trying for placation again and doing a much better job of it. “I wouldn’t lie about this.” She kept her eyes on Luke for a moment, thought, He’s not going to be much help, and instead moved her eyes to meet Pete’s gaze. “ Please. ”
The older man stared at her for a long, uneasy moment, giving Clementine just enough time to have the uncomfortable sense of being looked through . Then, finally, he took another step closer and said, “Alright, Clementine. Let’s have a look.”
Luke started. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, watch yourself.” Clem shifted her eyes to him just in time to lock gazes with him instead, and Luke seemed to suppress a wince. “Hey, don’t look at me like that. You’re the one who’s bit here.”
Clem opened her mouth to reply. Then Pete took her arm and moved the ragged sleeve of her striped sweater out of the way, sending a fresh jolt of pain through her and making her hiss out instead, “ Ow. ” Drawing in a breath, she switched her eyes from Luke to Pete again. “See?”
Pete regarded her torn arm, then looked up, eyes searching her face. It didn’t exactly give Clem comfort, but she didn’t look away. “Well,” he said, his tone audibly careful. “It looks mighty long to be a lurker bite, but it’s hard to tell for sure. Where’d this dog go?”
“I-I found it in a campsite by the river,” Clem said, once more fighting the urge to look away from that long, judging stare. “It attacked me for my food. I..." Unbidden, Clementine saw the image of the dog - Sam - struggling against the tent stakes she’d pushed him into in her struggle to get away. She shoved them aside before she could see the rest. “I killed it.”
“So, what?” Clementine saw Luke’s expression turn from passively panicked to actively incensed. In another circumstance, it might have been comical. “A dog bites you and you just kill it?”
“What would you have done?” Pete questioned, shooting Luke a pointed look. The younger man stumbled for a moment.
“I mean--shit, I don’t know. You just-” He seemed to deflate, going back to looking anxious and confused again. “You don’t kill dogs, man.”
Pete looked back. His eyes were serious again, all appraisal. “Clementine?”
Again, Clem met the gaze. Better that way, as difficult as it was. “Yes?”
“You telling us the truth?”
She didn’t even have to consider it. “I am.” Then, in spite of the pain she was in and in spite of her situation and her desperation, she added, “I swear I am.”
Pete regarded her for a while longer. Then his face finally softened and he stood. “Alright, Clementine. That’ll do for me.”
“Well, what else was she gonna say?” Luke protested. This prompted another pointed look from his companion.
“I have a good bullshit detector, Luke,” Pete responded, offering Clementine a hand up as he did so. She extended her own, mentally thanking him and whatever god happened to be listening. “That’s why you never beat me at poker.”
“Hey, you don’t always..." Luke paused, frowned, and crossed his arms. “Alright, fine. But how can you know?”
“Well, I sure as Hell know I ain’t gonna take a chance on leaving a little girl in the woods to die when we’ve got a doctor with us who can make a call.” Clem felt him tug her up to her feet, but her mind was already racing. A doctor. That was good. That was perfect. “We’ll have Carlos take a look at that bite.”
Luke looked down at Clementine, then back up at Pete. “Nick ain’t gonna like this. Not after what happened.”
Pete’s voice turned from pointed to hard. “You don’t have to remind me, boy.”
Clementine glanced up just long enough to see Luke’s expression turn from nervous to apologetic. “Right. Sorry, sir.”
The older man’s face softened again, and he patted Luke on the shoulder in a way that made Clementine wonder if they were family. Then Pete turned, motioning for both of them. “Come on.”
Luke followed him, and Clementine turned to see - finally - the break of the forest’s edge. Beyond it, she could see the sunset, but best of all she could see a wood cabin silhouetted against the yellow-orange light. Clem took two steps forward...and then the world started to swim again, much more suddenly and ferociously than before.
She had just enough time to think, Got up too fast. Then Clem’s surroundings finally blurred into obscurity and she heard herself hit the forest floor with a thunk.
Up ahead, she made out Luke’s voice. “Oh, shit-”
And then she was gone.