Mother Nature is a bitch. A loud, smelly, unforgiving bitch. It’s like she spent centuries waiting for the perfect moment to pounce and unleash herself on mankind’s chrome-coloured wonderland. Those industrial strongholds that fed on her and spat out black plumes of smog and poison in return. It’s like she suffered with purpose, like she was willing to bide her time before she slammed her fist down on a bright red button and came back to life with a vengeance.
Cities and motorways, power plants and even the tiniest villages. It all fell victim to her rage and then – after reeds and trees shot up like mushrooms in the suburbs, commercial zones, and business districts – she pulled the plug and grinned like a maniac.
There is nothing left except for drenched soil and planes of sludge. What once was green and undervalued has now turned to shit, and day by day, the rain makes room for mudslides and storm tides that rise and fall to wash away all the man-made brand marks that have been burned into Earth’s irritated skin.
So, yeah. Mother Nature is a bitch, but she’s free at last, mad and cruel in her reign and just as cold-hearted as the creatures that sought to keep her on her knees. And it’s not just this country. Before the power supply collapsed, the news were keen to inform people around the world that it was time to go home and pray for salvation – but of course, not everyone is made for a quick death. Some folks just can’t help themselves it seems.
“Where’re we headed again?” his boy asks for the third time this evening with his legs dangling from the edge of a long wooden bench.
Rick’s too tired to give him an answer that doesn’t sound like a sick fairy tale. He’s too tired to talk at all these days. The woman right next to him, however, is always up for playing charades.
“Tybee Island”, she says and her voice is a gentle surge of hope that almost fractures his steadfast disenchantment, “Rumour has it that the people there have managed to build a safe zone. Sounds good, huh?”
Carl has his mother’s smile. Sometimes, it’s painful to watch his lips curl upwards and sometimes, the sight is oddly refreshing. Tonight, it’s neither. Tonight, it’s probably just a knee-jerk reaction to post-apocalyptic grapevine. Rumour has it. In an effort not to roll his eyes like the cynic he is, Rick takes another bite of his piece of roasted Doberman.
They were lucky when they found the dog on their way to Jonesboro. Its left hind leg was stuck in a bear trap, probably laid out by some starved-out sadist. At first, Carl winced at the high-pitched howls and suggested to nurse it back to health, but in the end, Rick pulled out his hunting knife and put the poor thing out of its misery.
With raindrops drumming against the roof of the abandoned railway station they chose as their refuge for tonight, they continue to eat in silence while the bonfire at their feet dissolves into a faint, flickering flame. Outside, the crunching sound of a tree trunk self-destructing and falling apart rings throughout the darkness like a crash of rusty cymbals. The waiting hall is cluttered with trash and cobwebs, and it smells like death in here.
In the past, making camp under the open sky proved to be a challenge since Carl tends to talk in his sleep and is thus prone to attract monsters, so they douse the fire and bar the doors with all kinds of dusty furniture. They play a tough round of rock, paper, scissors to determine who’s going to take watch first. Fortunately, the woman right next to him isn’t a sore loser. With the sword she found in an antique shop in Jellico propped up against her leg, she’s ready to sit in the gloom and listen to the wind whip against the wafer-thin walls. Or to the tell-tale clamour of uninvited guests stomping through the lobby.
Yeah. It’s the people – the ones that are delirious with hunger and fear as well as the ones that use the end of the world as a means to justify their blood lust – who have become the biggest threat to what is left of the human race. Rick had to learn that the hard way back home in Cynthiana where most of his neighbours started killing each other over a bottle of water or a pack of raisins once the local government ran out of supplies and declared a state of emergency. They all left or died at some point. Except for her. Except for his friend. Except for the woman right next to him.
“Got you something”, she says to his son as she bends down to rummage through her backpack, “Found it up in Cartersville.”
He meets Carl’s questioning gaze with a shrug and has to clench his jaw to prevent himself from smiling when she comes up with a dark red can of Coke. He remembers that day. They were tearing through the skeleton of a Target store in search for food and maybe some ammo. She was two aisles away from him and her gasp launched him into a state of mild panic, so he dropped his box of oatmeal, hurried towards her, and let out an amused snort when she revealed her lucky find and made him promise to keep it a secret.
“You saved that for me?”
“Wow!” Carl beams as he lifts the tab in one swift motion; his grin grows wider by the second and there’s a familiar tangle of silent glee and utter gratitude that unfurls deep down in Rick’s belly, “Thank you, Michonne!”
Roughly a year ago, Carl came down with a cold. Rick was sure that he’d have to pick up his shovel again, but for some reason, she appeared on his doorstep and gave him some of the cough syrup she was stockpiling in her garage, effectively saving the boy’s life. He returned the favour two months later when he offered her his guest room after a gang of vagabonds broke into her house, urinated on her bed, and took all her belongings while she was out looking for batteries.
Ever since then it’s been the three of them raising nearby stores, keeping watch, and defending his house against hailstorms and hoodlums. He taught her how to shoot while she, a former emergency physician, showed him how to clean and stitch up a wound in under five minutes. At the same time, she became some sort of substitute mother to his son.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
The mix of sadness and worry in her tone snaps him out of his thoughts and the nails in his chest draw closer to his heart when he turns his head and catches the hitch in Carl’s breath. It takes him less than a second to get to the bottom of it, to see why the boy’s cheeks are suddenly wet with tears, and he’s horrified. He’s so fucking tired. He doesn’t want to deal with this right now.
“I almost forgot what it tastes like”, Carl sniffles, his pale fingers wrapped tightly around the can; he takes another sip and twists his face into a grimace that isn’t flogged by sorrow but by something strangely akin to elation.
“It’s all yours.”
“It’s really good.”
It’s probably stale, is what Rick wants to say, but the words are quick to bounce off his teeth. He took the role of the doom-monger when this whole thing started, always adamant about reminding Carl that this world isn’t made for children and that letting your guard down is just another euphemism for committing suicide. He did it because he felt like he had to. Because he’s always been kind of a pessimist – Lori liked to complain about that all the time – but right now he’s sick of it all and his eyes well up in a matter of seconds.
He doesn’t allow himself to cry, though. Instead he swallows around the weight in his throat and finds comfort in the sight of the two most important people in his life cuddled up together in a moment of peace.
He also takes the opportunity to look at her and revel in the gush of warmth that tickles his veins like sweet electricity. The tingle in his fingertips reminds him of a simpler time, a hot Tuesday afternoon in late July when he got home from the station and watched her conduct a swarm of moving guys on the other side of the street. She put down the weeping fig she was carrying and introduced herself with a firm handshake and a small grin that would haunt him for weeks to come.
Back in the day, he didn’t think too much about it. His wedding band couldn’t possibly stop him from admitting that there was a plethora of attractive women out there, and the mere act of appreciating the beauty of a friendly face didn’t make him a cheater. After all, he was somewhat happily married to the girl he’d gone to senior prom with.
There was, however, that one time when an argument drove Lori out of the house and back into her parents’ arms: for seven days, he loathed and savoured the silence that came with her absence. For seven days, he tried to come up with an explanation for Carl, who was on a one-week school trip in Louisville and had no idea that his mom and dad were once again at odds with each other. For seven days, he seethed and sulked and busied himself with work and reality TV. For seven days, he jerked off in the shower and every time he came, a snapshot of a pair of brown eyes – her eyes, not Lori’s – cut through a stream of half-assed fantasies and caused him to tremble with bliss until guilt and shame came crashing down on him like a bucketful of acid.
As a result, he stopped talking to her for a while, which didn’t seem to faze her since they barely had the chance to talk much after their first encounter. When he felt like he was finally done serving his sentence, the world was already in shambles and his duty to protect his son and estranged wife quickly outranked his need for a chit-chat with a stunning woman, who had converted her home into a weather-sealed fortress.
Dwelling on a past that was obviously a lot less innocent than initially thought won’t get him anywhere, so he blinks and jumps right back into the present. Right back into the waiting hall that is now filled with Carl’s trademark snoring. He’s resting on the left side of the bench, his head nestled in her lap and the empty can crinkling in his grip.
“I told him to go to sleep”, she explains, and rubs the boy’s shoulder before she turns to Rick with the slightest frown, “You should, too.”
“Nah, I’m good.”
His voice betrays him and she quirks a brow. She knows him too well, patting her thigh and telling him where to rest his head. With a grunt, he lays down and fails to keep his pulse from speeding up and thumping in his ears.
Turns out that eight months of forced co-parenting were enough for him to fall for her. Turns out that he isn’t surprised at all. The seed was planted before – long before the lights went out, long before he found himself digging a hole for Lori in the middle of the night, long before rapists and cannibals drummed them out of the city and left them fending for themselves on the road.
No, no. The seed was planted when he stood in his front yard, kicked at his lawnmower, and saw her walking down the street in a purple romper, bobbing her head to a song that was playing on her iPod and perfectly unaware of his helpless staring. It was planted when he ran into her at a crash site and realised that watching her save lives and bark orders at her subordinates turned him on like nothing else. It was planted when he caught her greeting the neighbour’s cat – a fat, mackerel tabby asshole that would take a dump on the hood of his car at least twice a week – with a formal bow.
“You’re scared”, she says softly, and he’s on the verge of bursting into tears because she’s right; she’s always right, “We don’t know if we made the right call until we get there.”
“But we gotta try. For Carl.”
They talked about this before. They fought about it. He didn’t want to leave and she was desperate to give him a reality check. Desperate to tell him that soon, they’d be out of food and medicine. That soon, people would break down his door and take away everything he had left in this world. In the end, he crumbled under her gaze, wrapped his arms around her, and buried his face in her neck. Three days later, they packed their belongings and headed for Lexington where they spent the night in the stockroom of a vandalised drug store. There, surrounded by bare storage racks and clumps of dirt, she told him about a man she had met in med school – a man she’d once wanted to marry and have babies with – and he tried to kiss away the grief that shook her voice and dulled the colour of her eyes.
It was all teeth and tongue, hectic and sloppy and short-lived and wonderful. She broke away and brought her lips to his forehead. He shuddered then and held her close while his heart raged and roared in his ribcage even though he knew that their timing wasn’t right.
“You think they’re gonna throw us a welcoming party?” he asks dryly and joins her in her quiet laughter because maybe things are going to change for the better once they made it to Tybee Island.
“Go to sleep”, she says whilst playing with his hair.
He can feel Carl’s drowsy muttering waft against the back of his head. The wind keeps howling and somewhere in the distance, another tree goes down with a thundering creak. He reaches up to lace their fingers together and pulls her hand to his mouth and then to his chest. His eyelids flutter close. Everything is fucked up, but she’s with him – right here, right next to him – so he knows that it’s going to be okay.