Been kickin’ up sparks, we’re settin’ flames free,
the windows are locked now, so what’ll it be:
a house on fire or a rising sea?
- Arcade Fire, “Windowsill”
Once, when Beth was a little girl, she swam to the bottom of the duck pond on the farm.
She leapt off the dock and forced herself down with strong kicks and cupped hands, spinning onto her back and opening her eyes to look upwards through the green water, sunlight slanting through the weeds and algae. It looked like she was inside a marble.
She remembers hearing muffled shouts, remembers the explosion of bubbles beside her as Shawn jumped in, hauling her roughly under her armpits to the surface, where Maggie stood on the dock, yelling and red-faced. She remembers Mama and Daddy running across the field, drawn by Maggie’s shouts, remembers Mama holding her close, remembers everyone so angry at her, remembers the spanking and the grounding she got.
They thought she’d gone under too long and passed out. They thought she’d needed rescuing. She hadn’t, but no one would listen.
Beth remembers sitting up that night in her bedroom while everyone else ate supper without her, sitting on her sore bottom and rubbing at her salt-chapped cheeks, thinking about how she’d only wanted to see what the world looked like from down there, that she was a strong swimmer and could hold her breath a long time, that she could have shot herself back up to the surface any time she wanted.
Her eyes open on a water-stained drop ceiling. Figures crowd around her, blurry pillars of white and blue with dark pits for eyes and wide gaping mouths, hands that pluck at her body.
It’s the strangest thing, surfacing from unconsciousness.
“Beth, it’s Dr. Edwards. Can you hear me, Beth?”
The sound is garbled, indistinct, like a poorly tuned radio in another room. Like someone speaking to her through a long cardboard tube.
She opens her eyes again, tries to speak, but can’t. Something about it won’t work. She moves her lips, or commands them to move, but they don’t. There’s something in the way, between her teeth, down her throat. She frowns, moans, tries to touch her face but can’t do that either.
“It’s all right, take it easy. You’re okay. You’re safe. You’re in the hospital.”
No. Not that. Anything but that.
The figures around the bed shift back and forth, watching her. They remind her of a horror movie Shawn made her watch, once, about alien abduction. She shuts her eyes again.
“ - fine, sedate her for now, keep her calm. She needs to rest before we can further assess the damage - ”
Beth tries to move, tries to sit up, but her body feels so heavy, so impossibly heavy, like she’s being weighed down, like she’s being pulled back under.
It’s good. It’s okay.
She liked it there, at the bottom of the duck pond, in that quiet, green marble world. She doesn’t care if she never comes back up.
Beth wakes again. Things are clearer this time. More crisp and distinct. More like reality.
She swallows dryly and blinks at the peeled paint flakes that have been swept carelessly against the grungy baseboard across from the bed. The room is lit by soft evening light, and beyond the door there are voices talking, gurney wheels creaking, doors opening and closing.
She blinks, shifts, finds she can move her arms. Her muscles are weak and they ache with the effort, but she can.
A throat is cleared, and Beth becomes aware of another person in the room. She turns her head to see him standing at the foot of the bed.
“Ugh,” she croaks, glaring at him. “What happened?”
He just stares at her for a moment, that measuring gaze, sad and resigned and cowardly as ever.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asks her.
Beth frowns, trying to recall. It’s a fog. She remembers the hospital, of course, knows where she is. She remembers the weeks spent in servitude, and Noah, and the horrible cops. The things they made her do. Dawn’s head games, and the escape attempt, and the new patients coming in. Carol.
“Where -- where is she?” she whispers, her voice painfully hoarse. “The woman with the concussion? She was brought in a few days ago --”
Dr. Edwards’s expression flattens.
“You’ve been in a medically induced coma for five weeks,” he says slowly. “You were shot point blank in the head. We had no way of knowing how bad the brain damage was without MRI or CT equipment, but we were able to repair your skull fracture and keep the swelling down. You were hanging on by a thread for a long time, but you hung on.”
Beth blinks at him. Hung on, like she had any say in it.
“Your injury was fascinating, actually,” he says ruefully, rubbing at the back of his neck. “The bullet entered your forehead on an upward trajectory. It exited through the top of your skull without grazing your brain. It caused concussion and significant swelling and bleeding, of course, but that’s what the coma was for. To give you time to recover.”
“Well,” Beth rasps, “glad to hear it was fascinating.” The faint smile drops from Dr. Edwards’s face, and he colours slightly.
“You’re a lucky young woman, Beth,” he says, remonstrative. “Incredibly lucky.”
Beth ignores that. “How did I get shot? What happened?”
Dr. Edwards hesitates, and fury rises up inside her, choking her.
“Tell me,” she hisses. “You tell me everything right the hell now, or I swear to God, I will - ”
“Your people came for you,” he interrupts her. “They kidnapped two officers to make a trade for you and the other woman. It went… It was fine, really, but Dawn… Well. Dawn was Dawn.”
Dr. Edwards tells her, then, about the deal, about the hallway, about Noah, about the scissors and the gun and the “redneck with a crossbow, of all things” shooting Dawn, about him carrying her away, not letting anyone else touch her.
Beth’s pulse pounds loud in her ears and she can barely process his words.
your people came for you
make a trade for you
she wanted Noah, wouldn’t let it go
you stabbed her
left you in a car in the parking lot
they had to run
everyone thought you were dead
he carried you out
cops found you, clearing the parking lot
we thought you were dead
everyone thought you were dead
Beth closes her eyes. They sting sharply and she feels faint, nauseated. Her body is trembling.
I know you look at me and you just see another dead girl.
“Stop,” she says, holding up a shaking hand. “Please stop.”
Dr. Edwards falls silent. He regards her for a long moment before clearing his throat again. It’s a nervous tic, and abruptly, Beth loathes it with an intensity that shakes her.
“You should rest,” he says. He turns to go, but he pauses at the door and looks back at her. “You really are very lucky, Beth,” he says, his eyes on hers. They drift above her sightline to stare at her forehead. He watches her a moment longer, then turns and leaves, shutting the door with a soft click.
Beth leans back against the stiff pillow and closes her eyes, listens to the roaring of blood in her ears.
everyone thought you were dead
they left you in a car
they left you
Outside, it rains. It pours in great sheets that slap against the window of her room, and it floods the streets of downtown Atlanta, sending corpses and debris floating past empty office buildings and restaurants.
Beth wonders if it would have been a record-breaking rain, if records were kept anymore. If there was anyone left to take the time to measure it.
She rests on her side, facing the window, watching the sun rise in the mornings and set in the evenings, burnishing the sky every shade of red and purple imaginable. One morning a few days after she wakes, she sees a flock of white birds against the lilac sky. She can’t tell from this distance what they are, can only see the light reflecting off their bright wings as they soar together as one.
It’s so beautiful it makes her heart ache.
She wishes she had someone to show it to, or a diary to tell about it.
Beth remembers one afternoon when she and Daryl were together. They’d happened upon a small pond, still and green, rimmed with bull rushes and peppered with lily pads. In the centre had stood a white crane balancing on one long, impossibly slim leg, its pointed beak tucked against its chest.
Daryl has raised his bow, but Beth had stilled him with a hand on his forearm. To her surprise, then and now, he lowered the bow with a tight exhale. They watched the bird for several minutes in breathless silence, then Daryl touched two fingers to her elbow, and they’d slipped back into the woods.
He carried you out.
Beth falls asleep gasping into her tear-soaked pillow, chest tight with grief and bewildered fear.
She wants to go home.
But there’s no such place. Not anymore. Not for a very long time, now.
It’s a week before she can sit up and eat on her own without assistance. It’s one more before she can stand, and another before she can get to the bathroom without someone walking beside her.
Eight weeks. It’s been eight weeks since the shooting she still can’t -- and probably won’t ever -- remember.
The first time Beth gets herself to the bathroom unaided, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the sink.
When the nurses and wards had helped her before, she hadn’t even noticed the mirror. Or it was blocked from her sight. She sees why, now.
Beth stares at her reflection. It’s her face. But it’s also not. Not at all.
The stitches have been removed from the wound on her cheekbone. It’s a scar now, still fresh and pink. She has the remnants of two black eyes, the bruised skin around her eyes faded to yellowish green. The stitches have been removed from the other cut on her forehead, too.
The rest of her head she can barely stand to look at. But she does.
The entry wound in her forehead is clean, tidy. It’s healed well, Beth supposes, for a bullet wound. It’s small and puckered, no bigger than a dime, and Beth wonders if maybe bangs would cover it. Her eyes shift up to the blonde duckling fuzz further up, and a lump forms in her throat.
They’d shaved her head. It had to be done. She understands. The exit wound at the top of her head had left a mess that had to be cleaned, mended, stapled shut. The staples are gone, now, but the ridge of scarring remains where her skin knit itself back together over her fractured skull. She reaches a trembling hand up to touch it, feels the rasp of short hair over bumpy flesh, an indentation where once there was only smooth bone, and she snatches her hand away.
Her dad had always cautioned her and Maggie against vanity, growing up. Told them it was the mark of a shallow character, that it indicated pride. But Beth has always loved her hair. Loved braiding it, winding it around and between her fingers, brushing the ends against her lips like a paintbrush while she wrote in her diary. She loved the long wavy cornsilk of it, just like Mama’s.
Now it’s gone and what’s left behind looks strange and wrong. If she’d decided herself to cut her hair off, that would have been different. But this feels like another gut-wrenching assault, another thing decided for her, stolen from her.
She grips the sink, squeezes her eyes shut as a wave of nausea rolls through her. It’s too much. It’s just too much.
I’m lucky, Beth thinks sternly. I’m so incredibly lucky.
Beth whispers it aloud to herself once, twice, and she starts to sob. She sobs and sobs, every fragile, healing wound pulsing with the force of her grief as it erupts out of her in noisy cries.
The mirror’s dingy glass shatters under her knuckles. She sees a splash of bright red on the white porcelain sink, but she feels nothing at all except her throat aching as she sobs.
A nurse comes, and another, and they’re holding her tight, and one of them slides a needle into her IV, and she tries to whisper her thanks but nothing comes out except more ragged sobs.
I’m so lucky, she thinks, as she sinks backwards into darkness.
I’m so fucking lucky.
The sun comes up the following morning, and with it, Beth rises.
She’s used to early mornings, having grown up on a farm. Sleeping late had been a foreign concept to the Greenes; so many things cry out for attention on a farm that sleeping in was never an option offered to her. Everyone’d had jobs to do.
For the first time in her entire life, Beth doesn’t have a job to do.
She sits in the windowsill in her room and thinks about all those nights at the prison when she’d be awake until daybreak walking Judith up and down the cellblock while the baby fussed. Beth humming as softly as she could so she wouldn’t wake their sleeping family, wouldn’t disturb the tremulous peace that fell over the prison at night.
She remembers Daryl in his perch, awake as often as she was, sitting up whittling bolts for his crossbow in the moonlight. She’d look up at him as she passed and he’d nod, and neither of them would speak. She remembers wondering if he ever slept -- only finding out later that he really almost didn’t.
Beth thinks about the way Judith’s soft, sweet-smelling little head felt pressed against her cheek, and the way her eyes would light up and she’d reach chubby hands out whenever she saw Beth coming to take her from Rick. She can’t think about what came later, what must have befallen the little girl. She just can’t.
Beth needs something to do. She needs something to be.
She’s sure that she must once have wanted to do things and be things, before the world fell apart. She used to dream of the future. She used to lie in the pasture and stare up at the sky and make grand plans.
It’s difficult to remember now what those plans were. And whatever they were, it’s likely they have no place in this world.
But she has to find something. She has to do something.
She has to try.
Officer Shepherd is in charge now.
“Things are different,” she tells Beth, sounding certain that she has found the way for this place to be right. She smiles confidently, tells Beth of her plans for Grady, of the part it will play in the rebuilding of the world.
Beth knows better than to believe in any of it.
But Officer Shepherd seems fair and kind, at least, no head games or random eruptions of violence. There’s none of that now. Or at least, there’s none of that yet.
Beth isn’t interested in seeing how it all plays out.
“Where did they go?” Beth asks her. “The people who came for me -- did they say where they were going?”
“They said they were headed east out of the city if anyone wanted to go with them,” Shepherd replies. “Something about heading to Virginia, some place with walls? Walkers attacked the fence around the hospital as they were leaving, so they left in a big hurry.” She laughs, shakes her head. “They’re kidding themselves. There’s no place safer than Grady. It’s the best place to be, considering.”
Beth doesn’t know what to say to that, so she just stares at Shepherd until the other woman’s face colours and her eyes drop, and Shepherd mumbles some excuse and leaves.
Beth struggles to fall asleep that night. She stares at the water-stained ceiling and worries her bottom lip between her teeth until it’s chapped and raw.
They left this place. They made it that far. They might have made it out of the city. They might be somewhere out there, alive and together, or apart, but out there. Somewhere. It’s possible.
Until Beth sees their bodies with her own eyes, she has to believe that it’s possible.
Beth tries to remember. She tries so hard.
She wanders the hallways, pulling her IV pole beside her. She drags her fingers along the dingy walls, peers through darkened windows into rooms filled with unused wheelchairs and crutches, covered in dust and cobwebs in the gloom.
The memories must be there. After all, things happened to her. She did things. She lived. Her family came here, came for her. She saw them, spoke to them, touched them. It was real.
But it’s all gone, and she can’t seem to get it back.
Dr. Edwards explains that memory is like a recorded tape, that it’s possible for the recording to be interrupted and deleted, that it’s likely she’ll never remember the day she was shot. That it’s something she should try to accept.
It’s hard. She wants to understand what happened, but how can she understand if she doesn’t remember it?
She pushes into the corners of her mind, tries to pull the memories out by force. Tries to picture what’s been explained to her, and she can, but it’s not the same. Imagining what she’s been told is not the same as remembering it happening.
It’s not the same as knowing exactly what she felt when she stabbed a pair of scissors into Dawn’s shoulder.
The older memories are more important, of course. Home. The farm. The first time she rode her bike to the end of their winding red-dirt road. Holding Daddy’s thermos of hot coffee on her lap when he’d taken her out in the truck on vet calls before sunrise. The first time she’d held a newborn foal in her lap. The first time a horse had thrown her into a fence. The first real screaming fight she had with Maggie. The time she’d tried to pierce her bellybutton with a safety pin and Mama’d cried and cried because I brought you into this world so perfect, sweetheart, why would you do a thing like this?
All of it she still remembers, still carries with her.
The turn. The prison. The Governor. The sword and her dad on his knees. The woods. The stillhouse. Burning it down and running into the night with Daryl by her side.
Grady’s changed her, but she doesn’t need to remember everything. It’s probably best that she doesn’t. It’s the memories of the life she lived before Grady that matter, that are essential. That’s who she is, still, even if she’s the only one who knows it.
As for the things she’s done here, she’ll just have to put them away.
Maybe it’s a blessing, not remembering. Maybe all of it is a strange, backwards blessing. If the angle of Dawn’s gun had been even a degree lower, she would have been killed instantly. If they hadn’t put her body in that car, she would have been torn apart by walkers, gutted and devoured..
She’s lucky. For the first time since waking up from the coma, she feels it, believes it. She doesn’t feel gratitude or humility. She doesn’t want to rush out and thank the people who once held her captive for saving her life. It’s simply a fact -- she’s been impossibly lucky.
She’s not going to let it go to waste.
Beth gets better. It takes three more months, but she does.
During that time she finds that things have changed dramatically at Grady. Officer Shepherd is as good as her word. The “incident,” as everyone refers to the shooting, seems to have caused a shift. The officers don’t strut around barking abuse at the wards with impunity. There are no more rapes. There are no more invisible ledgers of debt and repayment. No more people brought in on gurneys with injuries suspiciously similar to what Beth’d had when she woke up at Grady.
Beth’s cast comes off. Her wounds heal. Her IV is removed. She puts on weight, her muscles growing strong again. Soon she is walking up and down the hallways of the hospital, shoulders back and chin held high, no mousey tip-toeing past doorways for her anymore. She starts jogging the hallways in the mornings, sneaking into the officers’ gym to use their weights. She takes extra portions at every meal, eating to her satisfaction for the first time since the prison fell. She doesn’t ask for any of it. She just takes what she needs.
If anyone notices, or cares, they don’t say a word.
Beth gets migraines. They inflict pain like nothing she’s ever experienced, wrapping her head in a vice and splitting it open like an overripe watermelon. The fluorescent lights are like needles in her eyes, and the pain gets so bad that she throws up until she’s exhausted, wrung out like a wet rag, collapsed on the bathroom floor, her gasps echoing painfully off the tile.
She doesn’t say a word about it to anyone.
After all, she’s strong. No one would have guessed it possible, but she survived. And she’s decided that she doesn’t want to stay in this place that stinks of watered-down bleach, of the rot that seeps up through the vents, of futility.
She almost died, but she didn’t. She made it.
Beth knows that someday, something will get her. It will. But then, that’s always been true, for everyone. Nothing about that has changed, walkers or no walkers.
Someday she will die. But today, she’s alive. And as long as she’s alive, she can still do something. She can still try. There’s a chance that she can find them. They might be alive, too, some of them, and if they are, they’re out there somewhere.
There’s a chance.
“You can’t keep me here,” Beth says one afternoon as she sits on the edge of her bed while Dr. Edwards shines his penlight in her eyes, monitoring her for signs of brain damage. He spares her a glance, but doesn’t reply, looking down.
“You can’t.” Her voice shakes, but she ducks her head to meet his eyes, forces him to look at her. “Not anymore. I’m leavin’, and I’m gonna find my family, and you can’t keep me here.”
“All right,” Dr. Edwards says then, holding his hands up in a placating gesture as though she’s pointing a gun at him. He slips the penlight back into the breast pocket of his dingy white coat. “We’re just trying to help you. You’ve been through an incredible amount of trauma. It’s a miracle you survived that gunshot. You need rest, rehab --”
“Can I walk?” Beth interrupts him.
Dr. Edwards blinks at her. “Well, yes, you can, obviously, but --”
“Can I run?”
“Then get out of my goddamn way.”
He just stares at her for a moment, and then he sighs, removing his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. “It’s very foolish of you, you know, to throw this kind of -- of gift away, to just walk out there into that -- that nightmare, to --”
“Out there isn’t the nightmare,” Beth interrupts him. “I spent a hell of a lot longer out there than you ever did, and believe me -- out there is nothin’ compared to this place. I’d rather deal with walkers than this. Now are you gonna let me go or not?”
“I can’t stop you,” he says. “We won’t stop you.”
Beth hops off the bed right in front of him, getting into his space for long enough that he takes a nervous step backwards. She eyes him, looks him up and down, sees the cowed expression on his face.
“I’m not throwing this gift away,” she says. “I’m grabbing onto it with both hands.”
She brushes past him and walks out of the room.
It’s easy. All Beth has to do is tell the wards what she wants and she gets it. A car, a rifle and a handgun, ammo, food and water, jerry cans full of precious gas for the car. A little spiral-bound notebook and three pens. Bandages and antiseptic solution. They provide all of it to her in wide-eyed silence.
They’re terrified of her, she realises.
She’s not exactly sure how to feel about that.
Beth asks Officer Shepherd for a road map of Atlanta and its hinterland. She’s never driven in the city before (she’s never driven before, period, aside from Daddy’s truck on the farm, but no one needs to know that) and she has to make some kind of plan for where she wants to go.
After spending days grilling every person in the hospital willing to talk to her about the day she was shot, and after examining the map she’s given so many times that it’s nearly burnt into the insides of her eyelids, Beth decides that they must have planned to accompany Noah home to Virginia.
She traces the route on the map, figures out the distance. It’s only a little over 500 miles. Beth chews her bottom lip as her fingertip passes through the Carolinas, up to Virginia. Doubt begins to nip at the borders of her plan.
What if there was nothing in Richmond when they arrived? What if they moved on? What if there’s no trace of them left there for her to follow?
What if they never went that way at all?
But it doesn’t matter, Beth realises. She can’t count on anybody for anything. They may be in Richmond when she arrives. They may be gone like squash vines in winter.
They may all be dead.
But that doesn’t change a thing about her plan. It doesn’t. She knows in her gut that there’s no other way for her but to leave this place and follow them. Come what will. That’s her row to hoe.
Beth gets her clothing back, but all of it is bloodstained, and it was filthy to begin with, anyway. She scrounges through the cache of personal items the officers and wards have collected from patients. She finds new jeans, a denim jacket, a long-sleeved t-shirt, warm socks. It’s all dirty and ill-fitting and smells of stale sweat, but they’re the first new clothes she’s had in months, so she hardly cares.
Her knife is missing, and no one seems to know where it went. Shepherd has a couple of officers search the hospital for it, but it’s nowhere to be found. It’s a shame, but there’s nothing for it. Beth just counts it among the things lost along the way.
On the last night before she plans to leave, Beth steals a half-empty bottle of whiskey from Shepherd’s office and drinks it on the roof of the hospital. The stars shine down on her, rich and bright in the cloudless velvet sky.
She burns her torn, bloodstained jeans and the yellow golf shirt and her grey cardigan in a little heap, accelerated by several splashes of whiskey and a whole book of matches. She throws her dingy gown and scrubs on last, watches the material catch and incinerate in seconds, burning away to wisps of ash, to nothing.
Beth finishes the bottle and whips it as hard as she can into the sky, over the edge, listens as it lands with a satisfying shatter somewhere below.
She thrusts both hands up into the air, middle fingers raised, as she spins in silly drunken circles. She sings as loud as she can, until her throat is hoarse and hurting. Beth laughs, and she cries, and her heart feels like it will burst from joy at the change that is coming.
The next morning, Beth packs all of her supplies into a navy blue canvas backpack with Samantha T. written on the back in black felt pen. She pulls her boots on, buttons her jacket, runs her fingers through her short, wavy hair, and walks out of her hospital room for the last time.
Dr. Edwards is waiting in the hallway outside, leaning against the far wall. He stands up straight when she emerges from the room, and they stand there staring at each other for a moment.
“How are you feeling?” he asks.
“Good enough,” Beth replies carefully.
“Any headaches? Blurred vision?”
“No,” Beth lies, shaking her head. “I’m fine.”
Dr. Edwards nods, looks down, and Beth seizes her opportunity.
“Okay, well -- goodbye,” she says, heading for the stairwell.
“Beth,” he says. She stops, turns to look at him. He’s looking at her expectantly.
“Yeah?” she asks.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” Dr. Edwards asks, sounding incredulous. Beth looks at him, really looks at him, and sees no trace of irony there. He truly doesn’t understand her lack of gratitude, her determination to leave. Even after everything, he’d still rather stay.
“Thank you,” Beth says, then, and she means it. “Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for doing your job.”
His face falls, and he blinks at her a moment longer before turning abruptly away and disappearing down the corridor.
Officer Shepherd walks her down to the gates.
“You sure about this?” she asks, handing a set of keys to Beth when they reach the vehicle they’ve decided to spare her. To her delight, it’s an old blue Chevy truck that reminds her of Otis’s. The extra jerry cans of fuel are strapped down with bungee cords in the bed. “You can stay, you know. It’s not like it was before, and people here respect you. You could really do something here.”
“They’re scared of me,” Beth replies wryly, shrugging. “I don’t think that’s the same thing as respect. Anyway, I don’t know how much time I have, and I don’t know what I want to do with it, but I know for damn sure it ain’t this.”
Officer Shepherd nods, and lets it go. Beth looks over the other woman’s shoulder and sees it. The grey Cutlass from which they’d pulled her unconscious body. Shepherd is watching her, and she follows her gaze. She looks back at Beth.
“They didn’t want you to get eaten by biters. They put you there to keep you safe.”
“I know,” Beth replies softly, thinking of them, of Daryl and the others having to make that choice, of having no time for a burial, of doing her the decency of hiding her body where it wouldn’t be desecrated.
I don’t want to be gutted.
“They did keep me safe,” Beth says. “They didn’t really know it. But they did, after all.”
“Well,” Shepherd says, sticking a hand out. “Good luck.”
“You too.” Beth shakes her hand, gets into the truck, and tosses her backpack into the passenger seat. The truck starts with a grinding thunk, and Beth feels a moment’s trepidation, knowing they’ve probably given her the oldest, least reliable vehicle that they could spare.
Beth puts it into gear, easing onto the clutch, just the way Dad taught her the summer she turned 13 and he let her drive the truck around the pastures dropping hay off for the cattle for the first time. The truck rolls forward and Shepherd opens the gates to let her out.
Beth presses on the gas and feels a thrill of adrenaline jolt down her spine.
I’m leaving, she thinks. I’m finally leaving.
She drives away, and although she wonders briefly whether Dr. Edwards climbed all those stairs to stand on the roof and watch her leave, she doesn’t spare so much as a glance in the rearview mirror.