Chapter 1: Salt and Iron
The world was quieter than it had ever been, and beneath Storybrooke General in the basement of the psychiatric ward, little Belle French lay curled on her side, hugging her knees to her chest and whispering what few prayers she knew under her breath. Sweat trickled across her back beneath her hospital gown and down the back of her scalp. The air conditioner had cut off a day or two before (had it only been that long ago?), and the summer heat was sweltering beyond her muggy barred window. It was easier to breathe past the stuffy air and ignore the dull churning of her stomach if she was laying down.
It was also easier to listen.
Ear to the floor, Belle had stayed in almost the same position for an entire week as she listened to the world outside end. Noises like monsters roaring and buildings toppling shook the earth beneath her, and sirens wailed outside, deep and thunderous against the darkening sky. Thousands of feet pounded on the ceiling above as people ran back and forth. She could always hear nurses shouting for help (“We need more blood!” “I need a new IV!” “Restrain him!”), and for nearly three days straight, she recognized the voice of Dr. Whale above the rest, yelling commands at his staff over the moans of pain and sickness.
But the sound that consistently never stopped, no matter time or day, against the grain of the chaos from above, was the dull thud. At first it had only been once every few hours. Then once an hour. It increased, like an irregular heartbeat against Belle’s ceiling. It always preceded a noisy crash or a collection of screams, but those dull thuds continued, always into the night, waking Belle every few minutes to scramble against the floor and hug herself tighter.
Each time a body hit the floor above, it shook the walls of her cell.
Her nurse would not answer her questions since the chaos on the ground level had begun. In fact, she never even spoke to Belle, simply opened the grate of her door long enough to slip her meal tray inside and then promptly shut it. Not that she could even think about food, but in hindsight, she wished she’d made herself eat the protein gruel, to take the medicine on the napkin with the glass of water, because when the nurse didn’t come inside to force her, she knew things had gotten worse.
A week went by, and no one came to let Belle out to take a shower or to use the bathroom. She tried to ignore the needs of her body for as long as she could, the stink of her own breath and the stickiness of her hair and face making her sick. In the end, she was reduced to the corner of her cell to relieve herself and crying into her elbow in shameful disarray.
The food rotted after she’d picked off what little she could salvage, and there was no way for Belle to open the grate to push it back out, so she pulled the neck of her gown up over her nose and mouth, even though the trapped heat of her cell already made it difficult to get air. That was the last day she’d heard noise.
Waking up to silence was unnerving; not knowing what woke her up was frightening. Even beyond her window, the sirens had stopped. There were no crashes, no screams, nothing. It had come and gone in a week and a half, but something was still so very, very wrong. Belle stayed curled up even after she’d awoken, too scared to move and simply listened.
For hours, only quiet met her ears, until a soft scraping noise became clear just outside her door. Belle slowly lifted her head up, her eyes falling on the grate. It had been ripped off at some point when she’d been asleep, metal hinges and all, and just outside the hall the fluorescent lights flickered noisily. Belle watched and waited as the scraping grew louder until a pair of dirty feet dragged by, the gait heavy and labored. Whoever it was, they were hurt.
The lighting in the hallway continued to cut in and out, and Belle suddenly realized that her door was open, cracked enough to allow a sliver of light into her darkened cell, the flickering bulbs blinking. Her heart was pounding in her chest so hard that it hurt, but... no, she couldn’t stay there waiting for someone to find her. Because no one would find her. No one was coming for her, no one remembered her.
With that hard truth pressing against the back of her mind, Belle slowly collected herself up off the floor and onto shaky legs. Her muscles were weak and tired, and her mind felt both extremely foggy and undeniably clear at the same time from the abrupt break in her medication, but she steadied her balance and put her hand to the door. In too many years to remember, Belle had never opened the door by herself of her own accord. It was heavy, and she took a moment to inspect why: someone had tried to break the door down (how had she slept through that?). The uneven hinges shrieked as she pulled with her body weight enough to slip through out into the dimly lit hall.
The first thing she saw was a gourney, broken and collapsed haphazardly in the middle of the hallway. Slumped on top was her nurse, the blonde’s neck twisted unnaturally, her head hanging off the side and blood pooled on the cement beneath her. Her fingernails had been ripped off, and Belle saw the grating to her door just a few feet away. She had tried to free Belle, then, before...
Her hand went to her mouth, the metallic scent of the dried pool of blood hitting her like a wave. The snapping of the fluorescent lighting above was the only noise, that and the continued scraping, and the movement out of the corner of Belle’s eye shot through her heart when she realized she wasn’t alone.
It was the man with the mop, or so she’d come to think of him. No one had ever told her his name. She only remembered him from the handful of times he’d been in the hallway when she was carted to and from her showers. He was limping down the hall now, away from her, his massive form cutting a huge shadow.
“E-Excuse me,” her voice was scratchy and rough from disuse, and she hadn’t realized she’d started to cry. When she swallowed, there was that familiar, painful knot in her throat, and fear and confusion began clawing inside her, hot and unpleasant that left only a raspy whimper, “Please... please, help me.”
At the sound of her voice, the man stopped, and it was only then Belle could hear his wheezing breath against the buzzing of the lights overhead. When he turned to face her, the ravaged hole of his neck, discolored and mangled, gaped as he gasped for breath, his eyes wide and yellowed.
Belle wished she hadn’t said anything. She was almost sure her mind was playing tricks- she’d suffered nightmares before her incarceration-they’d obviously gotten worse, the only explanation for the increase in her medication. As the man stumbled closer, faster, his hands beginning to flex and grasp in front of him, Belle had to believe this was all in her mind, that this was just another hallucination, just another bad dream.
Self preservation, however, was always a strong instinct in Belle, and when the man launched himself forward, Belle threw herself down and slammed her feet against the gourney. It wedged against the wall, trapping the man for a few moments. Having rolled it away, Belle was able to ignore the sticky patch of dark blood on the floor she was sitting on as her eyes lighted on what had fallen beneath the gourney.
Her nurse must have grabbed the crowbar and attempted to open her door, and Belle made the split second decision in grabbing it just as the man took notice of the same dead woman atop the gourney. Belle gripped the crowbar with both hands so tightly her arms shook, her heels scraping against the floor as she scrambled away. The man bent over the nurse, and Belle wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, fumbling in a frenzy, until she heard a sickening wet sound that had her stomach heaving. So engrossed and rabid, he didn’t seem to realize Belle was even there.
Move. Go, now, a voice whispered inside her diseased mind.
Pulling the crowbar tight against her body, Belle pressed her back against the wall and inched around the gourney, which trembled under the weight of the man’s enormity. It only took her two more steps before she broke into a clumsy run, and Belle didn’t look back until she was down the hall and around the corner, past the nurse’s station.
The foyer of the ward was in ruin, the desk in shambles and shards of glass scattered everywhere. Papers carpeted the floor, cabinets were overturned, and it was as if a horrible gale had hit the hospital. Being careful where she stepped, she toed across the room until she reached the stairs.
The world above was even worse.
From her dim memories of being brought to the hospital, Belle remembered the sterile smell of linoleum and alcohol, of painful white paint and starched aprons. What she was met with was a destruction, a building that was a remnant of war. Benches and chairs were overturned, glass walls and doors cracked or broken. The lights had been killed, at least at this end of the hospital, but Belle could smell the sour odor of rot and the heat of the summer and knew the electricity was probably out through the rest of the building.
As she walked down the deserted hallways, Belle could taste death. It was heavy, like salt and metal and mildew, sticking to the walls and floors. She pulled the neckline of her hospital gown above her nose and mouth again as she shuffled through papers and broken syringes, wandering in search of anyone, and Belle listened harder than she ever had, but heard not a soul.
Dried blood caked parts of the floors and walls, and the heat made it almost unbearable. She felt sweat trickle down the back of her neck, tickling along her spine and when she finally saw the first bit of natural light washing through plate glass windows of the hallway, tears filled her eyes to see sunshine. What met her beyond that was horror of another kind.
The streets beyond the hospital were torn apart. Buildings seemed condemned, crumbling, sidewalks broken and cars overturned. She could see light poles that had fallen and electrical wires blowing in the breeze. Whatever disaster had befallen them, it had hit irrevocably.
Following the windows until she met the main lobby, which was just as overturned and dismantled as the rest of the hospital, Belle was startled to find the sliding glass doors of the hospital closed, but the panes completely shattered, glass littering the floor. Aside from the breeze, everything was so still, so eerily quiet that she felt goosebumps prickle her skin.
Stepping through the broken door and out into the daylight was painful, having gone so long without it, and she tried to shield her face against the sun with her hand. Stumbling down the drive, she threw her whole arm up to block her face, keeping the crowbar tucked beneath her arm, panting under her breath until she could slump against the portechasche. Her head swam in dizziness, and for a long moment the only thing she could do was close her eyes and breathe through her mouth. Her empty stomach churned, and she wanted so badly to vomit but knew nothing would come up from days without eating.
Blinking against the harsh sun, Belle’s eyes adjusted better and the silent, abandoned street stretched out to either side of her. Struggling to her feet, she walked wearily out through the parking lot, trying to swallow the knot in her dry, cracked throat. She still felt off balance, and, squinting against the sun’s glare of the blacktop street that shimmered in the heat, Belle sucked in a breath when she saw movement. People, two or three silhouettes all the way down the street, walking towards her. Falling to her knees and slowly slumping on the curb, Belle put her cheek to the cement. It was searing against her skin, but there were people here.
They would see her.
They would help her.
Dimly behind the growing throb in her head, Belle could hear a growling, low and deep, and a gurgling, wet sound that could’ve been a cough, but she was too tired to lift her head, too weak to open her eyes. Whoever it was, they were getting closer, and she hoped that they could help her, could see that she was unwell. She hardly had the presence of mind to speak, and their shuffling steps grew closer. With a sigh, Belle, rolled onto her back, her eyes blearily gazed up into the sky as she began to drift away.
A dark, shadowed face floated into her line of vision against the harsh, hot view of the clouds, and Belle blinked slowly. The face was distorted, flesh bubbling and puckered and discolored in places with crooked, rotted teeth and cataract covered eyes that rolled back and forth like baby blue marbles. Dr. Whale’s tie was gone, and a chunk of his hair had been pulled out at his temple, leaving a bloody patch that streaked down the side of his face and neck, and Belle wished she could remember how to move her lips to ask if he was alright as he leaned over her, his hands pawing roughly at her hospital gown. Too hard, too harsh, and the touch was enough to startle her awake.
It wasn’t Dr. Whale.
“No- no-” Belle cried, gasping as she shoved herself back over the curb and into the street. His blunt nails scraped over the thick tights that coated her legs as she scrambled backward from him, whimpering cries breaking in her throat each time she tried to push herself up, but her legs and arms weren’t working and she couldn’t move fast enough. Suddenly, Dr. Whale threw himself on her, and Belle was too scared to even scream. She wrestled beneath him enough to twist her way out, but he caught her foot and she stared in horror as he bit down viciously on her hospital slipper.
He was trying to eat her.
“Stop!” Belle cried, begging as she tried to pull at her leg. She could feel his teeth tearing through the rubber sole, and when he didn’t respond, Belle slammed her other foot against his head with all the adrenaline she could muster, sending him reeling back. She scraped her heels across the pavement to push herself up but her back came into contact with something solid and strong.
“Caught a pretty boy, duckling!” A bright voice sang from behind her, and whoever she’d ran into suddenly stepped over and around her. He was tall, slender, and well built in dark jeans, a sweat soaked, long sleeved shirt and boots. He twirled the brush-axe in his hand as he practically sashayed to the disoriented doctor struggling to stand. With a hum of satisfaction, the man took his axe in both hands and slammed the hooked sling blade down, brandishing through Dr. Whale’s neck and opening his head like a rotten pumpkin, spilling it across the sidewalk.
Belle stared in horror as the dark black blood pooled across the cement, seeping into the grass. The man tapped the brush-axe on the bottom of his boot, knocking some of the residue away with a manic smile as he looked down at Belle, still laying in the street. “Name’s Jefferson, if you want to thank me. And you should, seeing as how he would’ve licked your bones clean, little duck,” the man said brightly, a giggle on the edge of his voice like he was sharing a joke. With two long strides, he knelt down in front of her, axe tilted across his shoulders as he reached out to cup her chin too ungently, his blue eyes meeting hers with malicious relish. “But then again, maybe you shouldn’t thank me yet. Let’s save you for the living to gobble up.”
Chapter 2: Gone
It turned out that Belle did have something in her stomach after all, and she emptied it promptly into the street as the man named Jefferson nudged the decaying body of Dr. Whale off the curb. She was left dry heaving with hot tears stinging her eyes, wiping her mouth on the sleeve of her gown forlornly that was already filthy to begin with.
“Oh, pretty duck, I’m sorry,” the man crooned, stepping over the dead man to kneel at her side. Belle shoved herself away from him, flinching violently, and the man startled at her response, blue eyes widening.“Hey- it’s okay-”
“You killed him!” Belle cried, her voice more shrill than she’d ever heard it. Her shoulder hit the front bumper of a yellow bug parked on the curb, trapping her between the man with the axe and the dead body. Pointing a finger to the twisted body crumbled only feet away, she began to shake uncontrollably. “You k-killed-”
“No, duck, no,” Jefferson shook his head, leaning on his brush axe’s handle. He crouched more comfortably, elbows on his thighs and inclining his head toward her morosely. “He was already gone.”
Looking up into his face, Jefferson didn’t seem like he was dangerous. In fact, he looked the opposite; he looked incredibly sad, as if he hadn’t just shattered someone’s skull and dashed them across the sidewalk. His blue eyes had red rings about the edges, and she could make out lines around his mouth. She did not think them the product of laughter. With a deep breath, his shoulders drooping under the weight of some unspoken burden, he tapped long, slender fingers on his knee, asking as if an afterthought, “You’re not bitten are you?”
Belle blinked dumbly, trying to steady her voice and her breathing. “Bit-? No. No, I’m... not.”
“No bites? Scrapes? Scratches?” Jefferson frowned, lifting some of her hair to peer around at her neck. The gesture, so very person and close, upset her, making her jump, and it brought a wan smile to his face. “Alright. We’ll get to that later, then.”
Ruffling her nose in distaste, Belle opened her mouth to inform him that no they would not, but a gurgling groan coming from around the corner of the hospital jolted them both into action. Glancing up and over his shoulder to check the street both ways, he held out his hand to her, standing up and whispering, “We need to get out of sight. Come on.”
Belle stared up at his hand blankly, her brow furrowed hard before looking into his face. She had lost the ability to tell a falsehood from a truth, but she could still read sincerity, at least. Even so, he’d just killed someone, right in front of her, though the man had attacked her. A confusing tumult of distressing things to consider, and it made her stomach heave all over again. Choking on the foul taste in her mouth, Belle blurted the only fact she had at her disposal.
“I don’t know you.”
With an impatient sigh, Jefferson dropped his hand, frowning. “You want to take your chance on your own? Because I’m sure they’d love to have you,” he said, gesturing with his axe down the street. Belle looked over her shoulder, squinting around the yellow volkswagen’s tire against the glare of the sunlight to see stumbling, shuffling people, a dozen or so, making their way slowly towards them.
They were like Dr. Whale, she could see. Something was wrong with them, some sort of sickness or accident, but she wasn’t so keen to stay and find out their side of the story, either. Looking back up, Belle took Jefferson’s awaiting, outstretched hand and let him pull her to her feet, stumbling a step and landing into his chest. It was a shock to her senses, touching another person after so long of no physical contact with another person, and Belle gasped at being so close, even for a just a moment. Hands on both her arms, he steadied her with a slight smile, “Easy now, duck.”
Belle let him pull her along like a child, her crowbar brushing the ground as she followed him across the street and into an alleyway between two buildings. She tightened her hand around it, swallowing hard and trying to keep up with him. “Whe-Where are you taking me?”
Past the sound of her own huffing, Belle thought she heard him mutter something, but she couldn’t be sure, her mind trying to keep up with the pace with which they weaved between the alleys of buildings before they came to a short, stout little structure a few streets beyond the hospital. Jefferson stopped, glancing up and down the sides of the one story building before he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a key, unlocking the door and ushering Belle quickly inside. The bright light of the day had blinded her to the darkness within, and she stood, for a moment, seeing red rings and shapes before her.
After yanking down the blinds, Jefferson moved from behind her, and while Belle willed away her disorientation, she heard him rummage in the dark. As her vision adjusted, she saw they were in a very cluttered, heavily crowded work room with a makeshift desk in the corner. Shelves lined the walls full of trinkets, valuables, and collectibles. There was no rhyme or reason for the things within the room, and Belle felt as though she’d stumbled into an indoor junkyard.
“Prop the chair under the doorknob,” he said quickly, walking past her.
Kneeling in front of a large chest, Jefferson had thrown the top off and began to rummage quick through the contents before he produced several small white boxes, stacking them beside his knee. After doing as he told her, Belle peered at them quizzically, but didn’t ask any questions when he pulled a duffel bag stuffed on the bottom of one of the shelves and began to fill it with the boxes.
“Where are we?”
“This place belongs to an...acquaintance,” Jefferson muttered, his thoughts trained on his task. “It’s safe for now, but we can’t stay.” He moved with nervous energy and tension, pacing around the small, cramped room. Belle thought he was making an awfully lot of noise, rummaging through drawers and knocking over stacks of books. He grabbed a small white plastic box from underneath the desk, stuffing it into the bag that was already nearing full, but even in the dimness, Belle glimpsed the red cross on the lid. He glanced sideways at her, loosening the scarf tied about his neck with two fingers.
“So!” Jefferson huffed briskly, heaving the bag up over his shoulder. “Been in the hospital long?”
Belle frowned, her face pinching in confusion. “Y-Yes...long.”
“Um-” She squeezed her eyes shut, imagining the groupings of scratches in the corner of her tiny cell. Ten, twenty, thirty...they began to blur once she was in the hundreds, so she shook her head and said, “About two years.”
Jefferson paused, mid-step, staring at her for a moment. He tried blinking away his surprise before it could show, but Belle knew sincerity in a gesture when she saw it. “Oh.”
“What happened?” Belle asked, rubbing the back of her head and gesturing with her other hand to the window, to the desolated world beyond. A dull sting tingled on her hands, and she glanced down to see the skin on the heels of her palms rubbed raw from trying to get away from the doctor, red from the sweltering pavement. “Everything is... gone.”
“Yeah,” Jefferson drew the word out, working his jaw in thought. He shrugged with one shoulder. “That tends to happen when the world falls apart.”
Belle was on the very breath of asking another question before a gentle crash came from behind the store, just on the outside of the nearest wall, startling both of them. He took her hand and whispered, “Come on, we need to move.”
Jefferson led her through the front of the shop that was just as cluttered as the back. She could see there were windows boarded up at the front, as well as a door that was secured with a giant bookshelf and a heavy chest. They’d permitted no light to enter the little shop, whoever had been here. Jefferson moved aside a second, slimmer shelf from a third door just enough to wedge the door open about a foot. He helped Belle step through, following before he pulled it shut behind them.
The noises from around the other side of the building were growing closer and louder. Jefferson put a finger to his lips to signal for quiet before he took her hand again and bolted. They ran along the length of the shop and down a secluded sidewalk littered with trash and debris, keeping as low as possible.
Stumbling like a fawn still finding the use of its legs, Belle could tell she was slowing him down to the point of frustration, but he kept a tight grip on her hand and tugged her every time she stumbled. Behind her, Belle thought she could hear some kind of noise, but it was far away, like the distant roar of thunder yet teeming with movement. It distracted her so much that she didn’t notice Jefferson had gone off the path of the sidewalk when he came to the edge of the street that hugged the forest. Belle followed obediently, sparing one final glance behind her at the destroyed streets, the fallen phone lines and crumbling buildings, crashed cars, and littered belongings of hundreds of people who had simply seemed to vanish.
Remembering how she’d wished for more than such a little town’s provincial life, Belle felt her heart squeeze painfully at the realization that she had gotten exactly what she’d wished for.
Chapter 3: Cabin in the Woods
Only once they’d been walking a good ten minutes through the woods did Jefferson let go of her hand and slow his running to a more relaxed pace. He held his bush axe at the top beneath the blade, letting the handle skim along the forest floor. Belle watched him warily out of the corner of her eye, trying to convince herself that she’d made the right choice in following the man with the bright blue maniacal eyes and anxious smile.
“Where are we going?” she finally asked, unable to bear the silence. The forest was still green, disgustingly humid, and it all felt too close. With the quiet pressing in like a rising flood, she felt suffocated.
“Somewhere safe,” Jefferson muttered, narrowing his eyes at the road ahead. Half glancing at her, he cleared his throat and said, “There’s a group. We’re not many, but we’re your best chance.”
Impatient, Belle grabbed his sleeve and yanked at him, albeit weakly. “Best chance for what?”
Jefferson skidded to a stop, turning and frowning at her. “To stay alive, little duck.”
Letting her hand fall back to her side, she shook her head again. “I don’t understand what’s happened-is the whole town like that? Just gone? Where are the police?”
“Duckling, the whole world is like that,” Jefferson admonished, as if on the verge of a giggle, but something in her face held him back from outright mocking her. He took her hand up again, and when she tried to pull away he simply held on tighter, resuming their walk with a quicker, more businesslike pace. “You see, some people in charge were tampering with things they shouldn’t have been. I suppose that’s what happens when people get a taste for power, but either way they made a mistake. A very, very big mistake that they couldn’t fix, couldn’t stop, and then they let it out and it went everywhere. Now you have people who are sick. Think of it as a very nasty cold that makes you so delusional you don’t know who you are or who anyone else is.”
“I’ve had that before,” Belle said quietly, remembering cold stone walls and a fever so high it nearly burned through her skin.
“Not the same thing,” Jefferson paused, and then gave a hollow laugh. “Unless you thought of eating people.”
“I...no, that didn’t happen.”
“Right, well, this cold makes you want to eat people. And you will, if you catch it,” Jefferson tilted his head to both shoulders, and Belle heard the crack of bones. She felt it through their hands where he gripped her so tightly. They approached a fork in the road that split the path deeper into the woods, the fork itself separated by two overturned trees. “But don’t worry, the only way to catch it is if they get you. Bite you, scratch you, that kind of thing,” he swung around, giving her a playful leer. “No kissing these princes and princesses awake.”
“The whole town, then...” Belle trailed off, her hand going limp in Jefferson’s. She racked her addled mind as fervently as she could, and she felt close to being choked at the vague memories of before her incarceration. Memories of a sleepy little town, of children running to catch the school bus, a chiming clock tower, a busy diner.
Jefferson dropped the back and his axe on one of the fallen tree trunks at the fork before turning to her. He reached up and touched her face, his other hand cupping her elbow, framing his words gently. “I know it’s frightening. Confusing and surreal. But you have-” he shut his eyes tightly, forcing the words out. “-you have to keep your head. No one will be able to save you but yourself unless you keep your head, little duck.”
Tilting her face curiously, Belle shifted her weight from foot to foot, asking, “Why do you care? Why are you even bothering to help me?”
Jefferson opened his eyes, surprised at her before his handsome face melted into a smile. “I’ve always had a thing for damsels in distress.”
Belle swallowed thickly, realizing he’d been wiping tears from her cheeks, tears she hadn’t even known she was crying. Sniffling and looking away, she said, “My dad-”
A sudden rustle in the thick underbrush had Belle jumping, and Jefferson pushing her behind his back, swiping up his axe just in time to see a long legged blonde step up out of the ditch that ran parallel to the road. As quick as he’d been to defend, he was pacing forward. He caught the woman by the arm, helping her step up onto level ground. Belle sank down on weak legs beside the bag, shifting uncomfortably on the tree trunk, unsure of how many more surprises her heart could take.
“As much as I could,” the woman said, showing him a black gym bag. She wore jeans and knee high boots that looked more suitable for combat than a walk in the woods. Her buttery blonde hair was slung back in a ponytail, and her white tank top was nearly soaked through with sweat. She unzipped the bag to reveal bulk tanks, bright red with yellow spouts on the end. Belle counted two, and she had a third in her other hand. “The station’s almost completely dry now,” she muttered, standing up and brushing her hands on her jeans, shaking her head. “I had to syphon from some of the abandoned cars.”
“Follow the map I gave you?” Jefferson asked, and from the woman’s smirk, Belle realized that it was some kind of little joke between them. She watched the easy look Jefferson wore, his admiration and fondness seeping through the lines of his face, and the quirky little laugh the woman produced before her eyes caught her.
The smile disappeared.
Like snow melting, the mirth was gone and the woman’s face was hard as steel, marching to where Belle sat. “Who the hell are you?” she demanded, and before Belle could reply, the woman had pulled a gun out, a long revolver that gleamed in the dying sunlight. Belle fell back off her perch on the tree and landed in a pile of dead leaves, sprawled gracelessly on the forest floor.
“Emma, stop,” Jefferson’s hand was on the woman’s arm, tugging her back. “You can’t-”
“How many times have I told you, Jefferson, do not pull on a woman holding a weapon,” Emma ground out between her teeth, her blue eyes as hard as steel, not letting go of Belle.
“I brought her here,” Jefferson growled. Emma swung around, tilting the barrel of her revolver up into the air, eyes narrowed into dangerous slits. Belle sat motionless, gripping the crowbar against her chest, watching as Emma stepped uncomfortably close to him. Jefferson hardly blinked in protest, taking a deep breath. “She needs help, doesn’t have anyone. I couldn’t just leave her.”
“That is exactly what you do,” Emma replied scathingly, but she shoved her gun into a holster on her hip that Belle hadn’t noticed before. “This was not your call to make. It never is. We can’t take one of the townspeop-”
“She’s not one of them!” Jefferson barked, startling Emma into silence. Jefferson glanced between her and Belle before walking to the overturned girl and helping her up.
“Then where is she from?” Emma asked slowly, standing uncertainly in the middle of the road, shifting her weight from foot to foot.
“The hospital,” Belle answered, her annoyance over the fact the woman wouldn’t acknowledge her causing her to glare. She sat uneasily on the tree again, her weakness catching up with her as her adrenaline melted away. “I was in the downstairs ward.”
Emma frowned. “But everything happened a week ago.”
“All the more reason she needs help,” Jefferson muttered, squeezing Belle’s shoulder reassuringly. He straightened, turning to Emma with a patient look. “I know they’ll see reason.”
“It’s not up to them,” Emma said, but with less conviction than before. She watched Belle anxiously, like she was waiting for her to snap. Perhaps she was. “It’s up to Mr. Gold, and you think he’ll be okay with taking in another person?”
Jefferson hesitated, swallowing. “...ah...well...”
Emma rubbed her face tiredly, muttering, “You never think anything through. This isn’t our call!”
“Well, what’s done is done,” Jefferson muttered, wiping his hands on his jeans. “I can’t just send her back into town!”
Emma ran both hands along the top of her head, pacing from side to side before rolling her neck. “Fine,” she muttered, turning to face Jefferson. “But if he- oh, shit-”
Jefferson’s face went completely pale, and both suddenly bolted back to Belle, jumping over the side of the fallen tree for cover. Jefferson tugged Belle down so they were hidden behind the tree trunk, half in the dirt and skin scraping the bark. Emma rolled onto her side, hunched over the black bag Jefferson had brought with him from town. She had her pistol in her hand, peering over the top.
“What is it? What’s going on?” Belle whispered, shifting herself closer to Jefferson. He put a finger to his lips, ear to the tree as they waited. It took a moment, but soon Belle could hear what they had seen. Snapping branches and crunching leaves, disruption in the underbrush from not far off.
“Walkers,” Jefferson murmured, grabbing for his bush axe. Belle gripped the crowbar in her hands tighter, even though she knew it would serve her no purpose. It wasn’t a weapon, but it was stable, something solid that gave her some little comfort. The last person she’d known had touched it, and as morbid as it was to think on it, it made her feel a little safer.
“Not just,” Emma hissed, never letting her eyes stray from the road. “It’s a herd.”
“Damn,” Jefferson frowned, the heel of his boot scraping across dead leaves and dusty as he sat up. He looked across Belle at Emma, whispering, “How many?”
Emma waved a hand, shaking her head, mouthing, “Too many.”
Jefferson frowned hard, his eyes turning a steely blue before he grabbed Belle’s shoulder and led her a few feet away on hands and knees, hissing in her ear, “Listen, you have to run,” at her soft noise of indignation, Jefferson shook his head, pushing her on as they stood up, crouching through the trees, whispering, “You have to run-the cabin we’re in is two miles into the woods, follow along the road and keep it on your left shoulder. You’ll see the barricade.”
Belle turned, her knees trembling under her as she faced him. “What about you and her?” Beyond his arm, she could see far into the distance a teeming forest, figures moving between the trees. Her heart began to vigorously pound against her chest, and a cold sweat broke out on her skin.
“We’ll be fine,” Jefferson whispered, both hands on her shoulders. He stared resolutely into her face. It was a horrible idea, not even thought through enough to be a plan, but she could see he was struggling between a rock and a hard place to make the decision. “But I can’t protect you and fight off a group like this.”
“But you- you took care of the other one just fine,” Belle whispered, her voice barely a whimper.
“One is easy,” Jefferson muttered, his voice filling with venom. “But when they’re excited and in a frenzy, it’s trickier. We might have to run, or climb, or take risks. I can’t let you get in the middle of that. We’ve done this before, but you haven’t. Just keep in line with the road, you’ll find the cabin. Knock on the door and ask for Ruby, tell her that Emma and I sent you-”
“Jeff!” Emma hissed, standing up with her back to a tree.
The walkers were gaining feet by the moment, and Belle could even make out some of their ravaged faces.
“Go!” Jefferson pushed her gently in the direction, and Belle gave one last look over her shoulder to see the long legged man stride back to the blonde. He swept up his axe from the floor, launching himself over the tree trunk. Belle turned away before she could see the carnage, but heard the sickening crunch of metal connecting with bone.
Running was agonizing, and moving quickly made her dizzy, yet Belle kept at it. She didn’t look back, not once, and did as Jefferson told her, keeping the road over her left shoulder. But the forest was a sea of green, and she could’ve sworn that running for only a few moments felt like hours. She didn’t know when it had gotten so dark, but soon she could hardly see her hands in front of her, and movement of any kind was a limited option at best. She was forced to stumble through the dark, pawing at trees and attempting to avoid roots. She didn’t know how much time had actually passed, but tripping into the third tree brought her to a stop.
And she was no closer to finding the cabin.
A sudden snapping branch behind her jolted Belle from her sleepy daze, and her feet lit beneath her quickly. She spun around, ducking behind a tree and pressing her back against the trunk. Holding her breath, she could hear it- a stumbling, uneven gait, like the rhythm that Dr. Whale had stepped with trying to catch her in front of the hospital. Gripping her crowbar tight, Belle took a deep breath, praying as hard as she could that the steps would fade.
Instead, they got closer.
The last bit of adrenaline seemed to be running its course, but it wouldn’t be enough to fight off someone should they attack her. She turned the crowbar quickly in her hands, observing the crooked end with a sharp eye. As the footsteps approached, she counted her heart beats.
After three counts, swinging with the last bit of strength she could muster, Belle threw herself into a pitch, coming around the tree. The bar whistled through the air, but her target had heard her before she’d been able to swing and caught it in a black leather gloved hand, inches away from his head. A metallic click cut through the quiet, and Belle realized that she was face to bloodless face with the end of another gun’s barrel.
A slender man in the shadows bared his teeth, ripping the crowbar from her trembling fingers single-handedly. He stepped forward, limping over the dead leaves of the forest floor to reveal a slight silhouette cut against fading moonlight, and quietly leveled the gun to her chest, narrowing his eyes. “I saw the world end, dearie,” he growled, tilting his head to the side. “It’ll take more than a slip of a girl like you to end me.”
Chapter 4: Easily Expendable
“I- I wasn’t-” Belle shook her head, her words catching in a cotton-dry mouth, but before she could explain herself the man hauled her up against the tree, crowbar wedged beneath her breasts, pinning her against the tree with his knee between her legs and nearly knocking the breath from her.
“No, you weren’t,” he muttered, and swept his gaze over her quickly in the dark. He pocketed his gun, his hand running along her neck beneath her hair. She squirmed against his touch, whimpering until he snapped, “Were you bit?”
Thinking of how Jefferson had demanded the same curious question of her and with understanding fresh in her addled mind, Belle whispered, “No-no, I wasn’t.”
He abruptly leaned away, jerking the crowbar back with narrowed eyes. Though his gun was concealed, she didn’t doubt he would use the iron against her in a moment. Belle rubbed under her chest, wincing where she could feel bruises already forming, and looked up hesitantly at what she could make out of him in the dark. “Do you know Jefferson?”
The man grew incredibly still, save for an unnervingly calm tilt to his head, his profile half in shadow from his shoulder length hair. His eyes were narrowed to black slits, fingers tightening in his gloves. At the horrible silence, Belle hurried to explain, “H-He found me, and Emma... they said there was a herd, made me run to find a house.”
Minutes seemed to tick by as he stood watching her, and she swore she could hear his mind at work until he finally asked, “Did they tell you where it was?”
Belle gave a half hearted shrug and mumbled, “Just told me to run until I found it...on the right side of the road.”
“You don’t look well,” the man said suspiciously, but his stance relaxed. When he shifted his weight onto a cane she didn’t remember him holding before, leaning into a sliver of moonlight cutting through the trees. His hand shook as it fell to the side of his good leg, holding the crow bar loosely, almost innocent. “Are you sick?”
“Here and there,” she admitted, leaning her back against the tree. She gave herself a bit of a hard knock against the bark and winced. Thinking about her painfully empty stomach and dry throat hurt, and her dizziness was beginning to swallow her whole. “Not catching, though. I’m Belle.”
“I don’t care.”
Belle gulped, but her honesty didn’t seem to encourage him or dissuade his suspicion. How did one prove their innocence in such a situation? She could feel him watching her, the same wary feeling she got whenever a nurse looked in on her through her door. He was hesitating, and his lips were pressed into a tight, grim line. Whatever he was on the verge of saying, though, dissipated under a building hum, like a wasps’ nest yet to be disturbed.
Belle’s eyes narrowed, and she saw the man’s silhouette cut his profile at the turn of his head toward the road.
“Come here-quickly,” he hissed, holding out his hand. When Belle hesitated to take it, he grabbed her her by the wrist, pulling her roughly to stumble up behind him. She couldn’t see anything in that brief scuffle, but when he shoved her forward, the ground beneath her feet giving way and sliding her several feet through mud and dead leaves, she shrieked in surprise. Having never been rough handled, the force alone was a shock. She rolled, landing hard, and she heard a grunt and a muffled thump behind her before a heavy, hot weight covered her back.
The press of soft leather against her lips and nose swept her senses, and Belle breathed in gusts against his gloved hand as he smothered her into the ditch. She could feel his chest vibrate against her back when he growled, “Shut your mouth. I’m not dying because of you.”
The moaning seemed to be right on top of them, but the ample cover of leaves and dirt offered a damp, humid camouflage. Belle felt the man begin to relax as the creatures passed by them overhead on the road, and in turn found a queer comfort in that. So it’s stillness and quiet, she thought in a rush of relief, her pulse aching in her temples. A loud groan and a sudden rustle drew their attention, startling both Belle and her protector. The man crouched up over her back, pulling himself up with his cane enough to see that mere yards away, one of the dead ones had lost its balance and fallen, sliding into the ditch and landing mere yards from where they lay.
With one quick push, the man was on his feet and stepped around Belle, who lay still until he pulled her chin up to face him, a breath away. His eyes were black, up so close, and his nose was long and crooked. He put a finger to his lips, and at Belle’s hesitant nod, he turned away with a quicker stride than she could’ve thought possible for a man with a limp to possess.
The dead one hadn’t noticed them until the man was almost toe to toe, as if dancing, and just before he could reach with mottled, grubby hands, there was a shining catch of light in the darkness. His cane, Belle realized. He cracked it across the dead one’s face with the shiny handle, dropping him like a bag of stones. She stared for only a moment longer as her rescuer straddled the creature, before turning her face down, closing her eyes as tightly as she could and covering her ears to the sounds of crunching bone and the wet smack of blood.
When the short scuffle quieted, Belle peeked her eyes open one at a time, but as her sight adjusted in the near darkness, she found herself staring up the pointed end of a blade.
“Stay down,” the voice hissed, and Belle closed her eyes tightly, pressing her cheek against the ground. She almost wished they would just kill her. Running and fighting and trying to breathe fresh air was more than she could take, because every time she opened her eyes, there was someone else looming over her, ready to hurt her again. Then again, she’d come this far...
“Put it away,” the man snapped, limping back towards them through the dead leaves. He reached down, taking Belle by the arm, and hoisted her up. Off balance and clumsy, they nearly fell over, but another hand reached out to steady her.
In the darkness, it was hard to make out anything detailed, but she knew at once that it was a woman. When she let go of Belle, she turned towards the man, asking, “You okay?”
“Fine,” he muttered, his hand still on Belle’s arm, sliding down to circle her wrist. “But we need to get out of here before we’re pressed.”
“The woods are busy tonight,” the woman said, hiking quietly up the side of the ravine. Turning, she held out her hand to help, and the man led Belle forward.
With a thick gulp, she reached up and the woman helped her climb the side, and then offered her hand to the man, who took it gratefully, his weakened leg hampering him from scaling the slippery slope alone. Once stable upon the edge of the ditch, the woman slid her sword into a sheath across her back.
“You with Mr. Gold?"
Belle flinched at being addressed so abruptly. Outside her cell, everyone’s voices were so grating and harsh. A fierce sting of sadness over her nurse burned cold in her chest, something she didn’t know she had even been carrying. The nurse’s voice had been low, quiet, and nice to hear. It was the only voice she could remember.
Blinking rapidly in the dark, she turned the name over in her mind and glanced at the man beside her. Mr. Gold? It sounded like the name of some bad weasely villain in a child’s cartoon.
“I suppose I am,” Belle said, the words coming out thickly through her dried, cracked lips.
“Good, we can use another set of hands.” With a business like manner that startled Belle, the woman stepped into her space and took her hand, giving a firm shake. “I’m Lan.”
“Oh,” Belle swallowed, managing to squeeze her fingers back quickly. The woman-no, girl, appeared the same height as her. She had slender hands that were tough with callouses, and short dark hair cropped at her jaw. Though she’d been blunt, she wasn’t unpleasant, and it was a relief to not feel at the end of a sharp point. “Belle.”
“Introductions later,” Mr. Gold snapped, holding the crowbar back out to Belle with a hunted look. She was surprised, thinking he wouldn’t trust her, a stranger, with a weapon, but took it gratefully without any comment. “We shouldn’t be out this late.”
“I should be going,” Lan said, taking a deep breath and sharing a firm nod with Mr. Gold. “I have a run.”
Belle watched Lan run back through the trench where they’d fallen, her sword slapping against her back until she was a blur in the darkness. Mr. Gold cleared his throat, and Belle turned back, hurrying up to his side as he made quick work of limping through the dead leaves.
“Is she... part of your group?”
“Yes,” Mr. Gold sniffed, his voice lowering to a quiet murmur. “Useful and... proficient. She’s no personal connections or agenda but to keep herself alive. A good soldier, and one that won’t be easily expendable.”
Belle frowned, thinking it an odd choice of words. He spoke of war, but then, from all that she’d seen, perhaps that’s what they were in the middle of. Holding the crowbar with both hands like her memories of all her father’s favorite baseball players walking up to bat, she asked, “Where is she going?”
He glanced over his shoulder, too quick for her to catch had she not been watching him. “To herd. When they get too deep in the woods, we pull them back out to keep them as far away as we can by distraction. Lan will take a fog horn, or a turn on Mr. Madden’s motorbike, and the noise attracts them. She leads them closer to town, and loops back around. Once they catch the scent of the people in town, they forget about us.”
“We’re alive,” Mr. Gold murmured, his voice dripping with disdain. “Flesh and bone and blood and all the filling in between. Smells different from their own kind.”
“That’s...clever,” Belle managed, swallowing thickly. “Clever and obscene. Not to mention dangerous. What does she have to protect herself?”
“I believe she was pointing it in your face,” Gold chuckled darkly, before suddenly stopping and turning her with a hand on her shoulder. “Here on, you go blind.”
But he was already taking something from his pocket, letting it unwrinkle from his hand like a dark snake. “Just because you’re coming with me doesn’t mean I trust you, dear,” he murmured, taking what felt like silk and pulling it up over her eyes. Leaning forward, Belle could smell leather and sweat near his neck, and she gasped when he pulled the blindfold tight, catching some of her hair as he secured it behind her head. “Nothing personal.”
It made sense enough, she supposed. It was all unbelievable, if she tried to think about it, but applying her shrewd perception to the surface of it all helped her take everything in. Though her stomach was cramping terribly, and she was beginning to feel dizzy from the adrenaline, she knew she had to be agreeable if she was going to depend on anyone. “Of course,” she said in a small voice. “But how will I-?”
Without a word, she felt his hand encase her own, and they were walking again. Holding her iron bar with white knuckles in her other hand, and gripping the warm, dry palm of her strange savior, Belle allowed herself to be led into the dark. Whether to safety or slaughter, she supposed she would find out soon enough.
Chapter 5: Left
There was the chink of metal and a rustling of leaves which lay so deep that they almost came up to Belle’s knees, making it hard for her to maneuver beneath the chain-link fence and barbed wire. The only way she knew it was by the familiar sound when Mr. Gold pulled it back, but when he urged her to duck, a stray strand of hair caught in the wire and made her yelp, yanking her back against the fence.
Mr. Gold grunted, and as Belle reached back to touch her hair, he batted her hands away, muttering, “Stop, you’re making it worse.”
After a few heavy moments of silence, he let out a long, pained sigh of annoyance, growling, “This nest is all tangles, you know that?”
“I don’t have a brush,” Belle whispered, feeling ridiculous as she strained her neck backwards, bending so that she wouldn’t pull her own hair out. The blindfold kept her in darkness, and she could only imagine what they looked like as Mr. Gold worked her hair out of the wire with careful fingers.
“Yeah, I can see that.”
She felt her lock of hair loosen when Mr. Gold was able to untangle the knot, and he gave her a gentle push at the small of her back to move her out of his way. She heard a rustle of leaves and the creak of the chain link fence again as he maneuvered it back into place, then felt his hand take her elbow once more. There was a steep incline shortly after the fence that had Belle feeling light headed and sweaty, and she knew she’d begun to lag when Mr. Gold finally had to stop to let her breathe.
“How much farther?” she whispered, trying not to pant. Behind her eyelids, she could make out red pinpoints, and a dull, throbbing ache had begun at the back of her head.
“Not long at all now. You can see th- well, I can see it,” Mr. Gold snorted, but he took her arm back and continued their trek.
Her heart started to beat hard in her chest, almost painfully in her fear. She’d allowed a complete stranger to blindfold her and take her into the woods, by herself, no less. With the quiet density of the forest pressing in from all around, it was easy to forget those terrifying, ravaged faces, the inhuman gurgling and moaning, and all the blood. It was like a bad dream, and now that she was awake she felt the same heavy sickness in the pit of her belly whenever she did have bad dreams.
Lan had seen her with him, though. Perhaps if he were to do something heinous to her, she would tell someone, though in such a situation, Belle didn’t think it would do any good if she didn’t live that long. But he had fought for her so far. If there was truly something dark he planned to do to her, would he really have gone through so much trouble to keep her alive?
Stumbling with the last ounce of her strength, Mr. Gold brought them to a sudden stop that almost buckled her knees.
The rustle of leaves died off and she heard hardwood under his step, followed by a heavy series of knocks that sounded loud as gunshots to her ear. A door, Belle realized, when she heard the old familiar sound of swinging hinges.
“Where’s Em-who is that?”
There was a pause before Gold muttered something she couldn’t hear.
“Right,” came the answer, though it sounded anything but assured. Another moment, and Belle was prodded and ushered up tricky wooden steps that her feet almost didn’t make and into a cool room, a shock to all her senses. The door shut behind her louder than she expected, and she startled at the noise. When the blindfold was taken off as roughly as it was put on, harsh lights hurt her eyes, prickling sharp pain above her nose, and a sudden queasiness overcame her. The room swirled, and before she could make anything out, she saw black again.
There were a few times she could manage to open her eyes, though she couldn’t make out the shapes or movement. It was loud, though she didn’t exactly hear the voices, only the pressure of the cacophony of noise. Mostly, she was distantly aware of being touched everywhere, of freezing cold and then a humid dampness. Years, days, hours, minutes-time didn’t seem to move or stand still, but when she opened her eyes next, she was cognizant of having been in the same position for a very long while. Wriggling her toes and fingers experimentally, she tried to stretch and felt more dizziness as the muscles in her legs and back began to scream.
Staring at her surroundings, Belle found herself laying on top of a camping cot, zipped up in a sleeping bag. For a moment she couldn’t move, and her heart began to ache in its rapid beating at the idea that they’d tied her down. But no-she was only tucked very tightly in blankets beneath the sleeping bag. With an appropriate amount of wiggling, she loosened her arms and pushed herself to sit up, blinking in the darkness.
It was a bedroom, and Belle could only make out vague shadows of what it looked like from a small hurricane lamp beside her cot. There were two large windows, but they were boarded up neatly so that not even a sliver of light could get in or out. Boxes and crates lined the walls. There were at least five other cots wedged in the room, with blankets and sleeping bags littering the floor around the one actual bed, but Belle was otherwise alone.
Putting her hand to her forehead, she still felt incredibly light-headed, so she didn’t chance standing up, but she was startled to find herself wearing different clothes. Her feet were bare, and her ratty hospital garb was gone. The shirt she wore was soft, and she felt for what seemed the first time in years, shorts on her own legs. Before she could push the blankets and sleeping bag away to further investigate, the door quietly opened, and Belle froze in fear.
A young girl tip toed into the room, not having noticed Belle was sitting up awake. She balanced a tray on her arm as she shut the door, and when she turned around, her marble blue eyes widened in surprise, just on the verge of gasping. But no sound came out.
“You’re awake.” She let the breath out, and a hesitant smile found its way on her face, though it was only a gesture to find some courage, Belle thought. She walked up to the cot and set the tray upon the bed beside her, not seeming to notice that Belle wasn’t smiling back-or perhaps she didn’t care. On the tray there was a small bowl of beans, some bread, a bottle of water, and a dark piece of fruit-a plum or a peach, maybe.
“We’re trying to eat the things that will go bad first,” the girl explained, seeing Belle eyeing the tray. She sat down on the bed, putting her feet up at the end of Belle’s cot and pushing the tray closer to her. She was young, probably just out of high school, with milky chocolate hair pulled back in a short ponytail and rosy cheeks. Her jean shorts were frayed, and her soft lavender cotton shirt was worn thin, but she was so fresh and pretty that Belle couldn’t stop staring at her. “Eat. You must be hungry.”
The aroma of the plain ranch beans made Belle’s stomach gurgle painfully, and she nodded, pulling the tray to her lap before swooping down and spooning beans on the bread and eating it with vigor. The girl seemed pleased, pulling her legs up beneath her and crossing them, waiting patiently as Belle ate it all. When the spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl, she set that aside and gulped the water, her mouth still bone dry and her throat aching. It left her nearly breathless, but the fruit was also tempting.
When had she last had fresh fruit? The hospital only ever served them the canned, cold things in the sugary sauce. She brought the fruit to her mouth and nose, inhaling the fuzzy skin and her eyes watered at the sweetness of it before she took a wet bite.
As she sat back against the wall, eating the fruit and nursing the bottle of water, the girl took the tray back and quirked her lips. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Belle admitted, licking juice off the side of her hand before she realized that she’d done it, and that it was probably rude. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve eaten.”
“You don’t have to go hungry here. That’s one thing we won’t allow,” the girl said, and though she smiled with kindness, Belle felt like she was immovable on the subject. Something in her, some bit of iron that Belle envied told her she wouldn’t be challenged about it. She held out her hand, and Belle took it awkwardly with the hand that wasn’t sticky from the fruit. “I’m Dawn.”
“B-...Belle.” Looking towards the boarded up window again, she tilted her head in thought. “How long have I been asleep?”
“About two hours,” Dawn said, squinting at the door she’d come through with distaste. “I kept telling them you’d want to eat, but they said not to wake you up. I don’t know how you slept through it all.”
“It seems quiet now,” Belle offered, only just then realizing that they were both whispering.
Nodding, Dawn looked down at the tray, playing with Belle’s discarded spoon in her bowl. “We have to be quiet at night. It’s a rule.”
“Because we could attract attention,” Dawn said, looking at Belle with those same wide blue eyes. She stared at her for a moment before she blinked in realization that Belle perhaps didn’t know what she was talking about. “We found out that they move more at night. Faster, for longer distances. Jefferson thinks it’s because during the day the heat makes them sluggish, but it’s cooler at night.”
“That makes sense,” Belle said, sucking a ropey bit of fruit skin between her teeth. She thought it over. If whatever was out there used to be human, still in human form, they were susceptible to the same things. Though, the longer she thought about it, the more uncomfortable she became, and shook her head. “I met him-Jefferson,” Belle said suddenly, unscrewing the cap off the water bottle and taking another deep drink. It was almost gone. “Him and Emma and Lan and Mr. Gold.”
“Shh,” Dawn put a finger to her lips, glancing at the door. Belle strained to hear, and if she held her breath she thought she could hear the quiet murmur of voices somewhere beyond the bedroom door. Dawn seemed to be listening for something, and when she didn’t hear it, she was pleased and turned back to Belle, nodding warily. “Emma was the town sheriff. She tried to get as many people out as she could.”
“She seems very capable,” Belle said quietly, reduced to nibbling the feathery meat of the peach around the pit. When she was done, she leaned up and dropped it in the bowl on the tray. “She rescued me.”
“She does that a lot.”
“Did she rescue everyone?”
“No.” Dawn looked up, surprised by the question. She settled down on the bed, propping her head up on her elbow and curling her legs up behind her. “Most of everyone else is gone. We’re just who’s left.”
“Oh,” Belle swallowed, seeing how the poor girl gulped thickly, tucking her chin to her chest. ‘Gone’ was a clever word. There were a lot of things that were gone. Gone was the sadness of death without the finality. “I didn’t mean to-”
“It’s okay. I mean, it’s not, but it’ll have to be, right?” she asked, looking up with pleading blue eyes, and Belle realized she was asking permission. Whatever had happened to this poor girl, she wanted to be able to get up from it, and that made Belle’s stomach churn.
She wasn’t the person to ask that of. She didn’t know this girl, or these people. What could she say? She wanted to thank her for what she’d done for her, for the food and the clothes, and the place to sleep, but with her head still feeling like it was full of cotton, words were tricky. Before she’d come to Storybrooke, she would have been able to weave compassion and comfort into something philosophical that might make Dawn feel better. In that moment, she could only muster honesty.
“Not always.” Belle didn’t like the look of sadness on someone so young, but she couldn’t lie to her, either. So young and pretty, and green, green, green. Who had she lost? Her parents? Siblings? They’d all lost someone, she said. How many lives attributed to such deep, dark circles? She didn’t want to think about it.
Belle, for the first time, wondered after her own father, and felt a sick drop in her stomach that it had taken her so long to realize that he could have been gone, too. Or if he was alive, where was he? Could he have loaded up his truck and gotten out of town? That seemed like something Moe French would do. He wouldn’t have stayed to protect his shop that wasn’t worth the interest he had yet to pay on the loans he’d taken out to acquire it. He wasn’t a coward, not really, but he knew a lost cause when he saw one.
But that left a doubt in Belle’s mind. Would he have left her, his own daughter, behind? Would he have left her to rot beneath the hospital, only to save himself?
“There are some things you should probably know,” Dawn finally said, falling back onto the bed with a heavy sigh to stare up at the dark ceiling. Belle sat up a little more, grateful for the change in conversation. Dawn held up her hands, ticking her fingers off one by one. “There are a lot of rules. The first one is don’t wander off. Seriously,” she turned her head to look at Belle, narrowing her eyes. “Don’t do it. If something happens, they won’t go back to look for you or to save you.”
“Why not?” Belle had no intention of wandering off, at least not yet. She still felt ill, and weak, and even if she wanted to, she had no idea where to begin, or where she would wander off to, except to look for her father, if he was still alive to look for.
“We don’t endanger the group. If you get bit or scratched or taken, that’s it. No second chances,” Dawn blew out a puff of air, turning back to look up at the ceiling. “If Emma, Mr. Gold, or Granny-”
“Mrs. Lucas,” Dawn waved a hand. “Granny’s just a nickname. They’re in charge. This is Mr. Gold’s cabin, so under his roof, it’s his rules. Emma calls the shots whenever we go out, on a raid or into the woods. If any of those three tell you to do something, do it. Emma’s okay, she’s not too hard on anyone. Mr. Gold is a different story,” Dawn made a face. “Avoid him, honestly. Granny’s alright, so long as you don’t get on her bad side.”
“Oh hey,” Dawn sat up again, smiling. “How do you like your clothes? Your hair?”
“What?” Belle reached up to touch her hair, and that’s when she realized why she felt so different. Why she didn’t feel as hot, or heavy as she did before. Against her cheek, a gentle strand of hair fell and brushed her neck, and when she reached up, she felt that, though damp, her hair had been completely cut, leaving her limp brown curls to fall half-heartedly at her shoulders.
“You...” Dawn’s eyes widened, staring at Belle, seeming to realize what had happened. “You haven’t noticed?”
“You cut my hair?” Belle knew her voice was shrill and climbing louder, but she couldn’t seem to stop it. They’d taken her hair and her clothes. They’d seen and touched her, put their hands on her, and Belle startled up off the cot, knocking over the weather lamp in her haste and stumbling into the wall, banging her shoulder in the process.
“It- it’s a rule, I’m sorry, I thou-”
“Why?” Her fists were clenched at her sides, and she was digging her teeth together to keep her voice in a trembled whisper. She knew she was glaring at the girl, knew it wasn’t her fault, but she couldn’t stop this irrational anger broiling under her skin. They hadn’t even asked her, hadn’t even spoken to her. They’d taken her against her will and took what was left to leave nothing of her old self behind.
Dawn was clearly unsettled, and wary if not frightened, but Belle realized she wouldn’t get a straight answer out of the doe-eyed thing, so she turned on her heel and threw the bedroom door open with a loud slam that seemed to rattle the house.
The voices that had come from down the hall immediately fell silent.
Her anger cooled to sub-zero halfway down the hall, and the dizziness she’d felt before began to slowly come back. By the time she stepped into the dimly lit front of the house, she had to lean against the doorframe to stand.
The front room had more cots, a sofa and a loveseat that must have seen better days in the fifties, and more hurricane lamps to light the room, though there was an overhead ceiling fan light and a fireplace that would’ve provided better light. They were the same lights that she’d seen when she’d first come in, that had disoriented her so badly.
Nearest to her and the fireplace, Jefferson sat in an armchair with a young girl curled up on his lap, who was fast asleep. In the floor, beside his leg, Emma was sitting up with her back to the chair, a young boy also asleep against her side.
Lan was farthest away, sitting with her knees up to her chest on a cot, leaning back against the wall and watching Belle with interest. Just in front of the cot, Mr. Gold sat near the fire in a rocking chair, his hands laced over his stomach and looking as if he’d begun to fall asleep.
On the couch, a young woman with long, dark hair and a wide red painted mouth turned to look at her, sitting beside a well built blonde haired man. Behind the couch, an older woman-Granny, Mrs. Lucas, Belle assumed, looked at her over the tops of her glasses.
“Well,” the old woman finally said, a smirk that was neither kind nor aggressive playing on her mouth. “Look who’s up.”
“How are you feeling?” Emma asked in a soft voice.
“You... you cut my hair.” The words were lame in her mouth, her conviction gone. In place of her anger, there was only a hot shame that threatened her eyes with tears. When a few of them laughed, they fell, skimming her cheeks and staining the pale heather grey of her t-shirt.
“A brush wasn’t getting through that,” the dark haired girl said with a smack of her lips. She was chewing gum. “You’re lucky I could salvage what you still have.”
“You did this?” Belle asked, stepping around the couch to look at the girl who flipped her own long hair over her shoulder. It was dark, sleek, and straight like silk. “Did you change my clothes too?”
“You smelled, and I didn’t want to do it any more than you,” the girl answered, narrowing her dark eyes up at Belle. “You should be thanking me.”
“You weren’t well,” Emma said gently, still retaining her soft tone for the sleeping boy beneath her arm. “We only tried to take care of you.”
“I feel violated,” Belle answered tersely, and Emma’s face flickered as if she hadn’t considered that outcome.
A deeper voice, quiet, seemed to warm the lights in the lanterns, drawing attention away from Belle and into the shadowy corner near the fire. “They were doing what they were told,” Mr. Gold said, his palms resting atop the golden handle of his cane. His hair was a bit disheveled, and his clothes, remnants of what must have been a very fine suit, wrinkled and dusty, but he was very much awake now. “They washed and dressed you, and cut your hair because I told them to. As you will do what you’re told to do, when the time comes.”
He stood up, leaning heavily on his cane, and crossed the room in sock covered feet. He was careful of Emma’s long legs that lay in the floor, stepping over her and the boy to block the light and glower down at Belle. His features were sharper now that she could see them, dark eyes, a scruffy jaw, and an almost crooked nose. “If you do not appreciate our hospitality, dearie, you are more than welcome to leave.” He leaned forward, his teeth biting at his own words. “But you won’t find any peaches out in the woods, so I suggest you think twice about it. Do I make myself clear?”
Belle swallowed, resisting the urge to wipe away the cooling tear tracks on her cheeks, and nodded hesitantly. It was as if the entire room was collectively holding its breath.
“Delightful,” Mr. Gold muttered, and stepped around her. Everyone else in the room stared after him, but before Belle could apologize, for she was usually slower to anger, to irrationality, the man took her arm gently and whispered in her ear, “And do not ever slam doors in my house again.”
Chapter 6: A Real Go-Getter
When Belle awoke, it was to strong smells she’d long forgotten. The scent of bacon had her stomach gurgling enough to jolt her from a deep sleep, and a sharp, delightfully cool breeze that smelled like fresh fallen leaves ruffled her newly shorn hair against her neck. Blinking awake, she could hear the quiet rummagings and movements of life beyond the walls of the bedroom. The cot itself had given her a better night’s rest than she was used to, and as she looked around the dim room to find herself alone, hurried across the hall into the bathroom she remembered being shown the night before.
Locking the door was a foreign privilege she found herself shivering at, and she smiled as she turned the lock a few times just for the feel of the bolt turning. When she finally cast a look about the bathroom, she startled at her reflection, a pale waif of a girl with dark hair that had curled about her face in the night and matted in the back. Wincing, she leaned further over the sink, taking in bruised shadows beneath her sallow skin and almost translucent freckles that had once sprayed over her nose. The plain grey shirt and pair of shorts she’d been outfitted in were crumpled, but they felt so good compared to the hospital gown that all she could do was smile, seeing her legs under the yellowish white light. She brushed her hair with her fingers in an attempt to smooth it and splashed some cold water on her face, using the bathroom quickly while trying not to feel watched. There was usually someone watching, as she’d not been allowed to go to the bathroom alone while in the hospital. Now that she was alone, all she could feel were eyes on her.
By the time she stepped back out into the hall, she was awake and alert, but it still left her a little stunned to see the door of the cabin wide open when she came into the front room.
Coming out of the hall, she followed the sound of sizzling bacon to the connecting kitchen where Granny was standing over a skillet, hand on her hip and frowning at the cooking. At the dining table, the young girl and young boy were crouched over notebooks, and all seemed peaceful. Boards were taken down from the front windows, letting some of the meager, watery sunlight into the cabin.
Clearing her throat, Belle wrung her hands together and said softly, “Good morning.”
Granny whirled about, greasy spatula in hand, and appraised her over the top of her glasses. “Morning,” she greeted brusquely, sniffing. “Hungry?”
Belle nodded uncertainly, and the old woman pointed with the spatula to the counter. “Plates are there, silverware’s in the drawer. Get a glass of milk-we’re trying to drink it before it goes bad.”
She hurried to get her plate, and no sooner had she picked it up did the old woman slap eggs and toast on it, startling her. She spooned a handful of nearly black bacon on top of the eggs, and her mouth watered. “I don’t think I can eat all of this,” Belle winced.
“You’re skin and bones,” Granny said, giving her a long up and down sweep with her eyes before narrowing her gaze. “Try.”
Gulping, Belle nodded and quickly took her place at the table before the old woman could put anything else on her plate. The milk sloshed over the rim of the glass, already wet with condensation, and both children watched Belle surreptitiously as she ate mouthfuls of egg wrapped in toast, concentrating hard on the mountain of food. It was hot and especially good, and Belle found she was more hungry than she realized.
“I’m Grace,” the young girl said, breaking Belle’s focus on her food. She looked up, blinking in confusion. The girl was at the head of the table with her back to the front door, dressed in a simple navy jumper and white blouse that had tears along the sleeves. Her blonde hair was trimmed short like a pixie, and Belle had the sense it wasn’t normally so, as the girl kept trying to tuck her bangs behind her ears frantically, but she gave a smile nonetheless. “What’s your name?”
Swallowing the food with a deep swig of milk, Belle wiped her mouth on the paper towel and cleared her throat. “Belle.”
“That’s a pretty name,” Grace said, tapping her pencil against the edge of her notebook.
“So is yours,” Belle glanced at the boy, who was eyeing her plate. She pushed it with the back of her hand toward the middle of the table. “Go on, take what you want.”
“He’s always hungry,” Grace said, but she was trying not to smile as she ducked her head back to her notebook.
“I miss breakfast,” the boy said with a sigh, taking two strips of Belle’s bacon with a shy smile. “Thanks. My name’s Henry.”
“Your Emma’s son?” When he nodded, she looked at Grace and asked, “And Jefferson’s daughter? Are they your parents?”
“They’re friends,” Grace said, her indifference sticking out like a cowlick.
“Friends,” Henry smirked at Belle, rolling his eyes. “Friends.”
“I hear an awful lot of talk for two children doing schoolwork,” Granny said from the stove, causing both children to go back to scribbling quickly in their notebooks.
Belle raised her eyebrows, tilting her head to look at Grace’s work, chewing one of the bacon strips. “There’s a world disaster, and she’s making you diagram sentences?”
“Nothing stops Granny,” Grace grumbled under her breath. “Especially not world disaster.”
“They won’t fall behind just because everyone’s gone off the deep end,” Granny nearly shouted, her boisterous voice carrying over the kitchen, and Belle wondered not for the first time that morning why the door was open, where everyone else was, and why they were allowed to be louder during the day. She of course didn’t ask any of those things, so long as the old woman wielded the spatula. “So you just leave them to their work and focus on eating.”
After a few more moments of finishing her eggs, Belle glanced around the otherwise empty cabin and asked, “Where is everyone else?”
“Earning their keep.” Pausing, the old woman glanced over her shoulder at a small rounded brown box wrapped with a black electrical cord and gestured with her free hand. “You might as well, too. Take that out to Mr. Gold and have him fix it. It broke this morning, and we need the news.”
Belle took her dishes to the sink, wrapping up what was left of the bacon in a napkin before picking up the box that turned out to be an extremely old radio. “I don’t think they even make these anymore,” she said doubtfully.
“I don’t need your lip,” Granny said, but Belle was already hurrying out the front door before she got into more trouble.
With a stomach full of hot breakfast, she felt heavy but deliciously warm, and the summer sunshine that cut through the woods was refreshing. Standing on the porch, Belle could see more green in the leaves than she’d noticed the day before, and the wind was pleasantly cool when it blew against her, freeing her short hair to flutter about her face.
The cabin was situated on just a bit of raised land and Belle thought that if it were to rain, the muddy undergrowth would be tricky to maneuver through on the slight incline. Near the bottom of the gentle slope, the girl with the long dark hair was helping the blond haired man repair a break in the chain linked fence. All around the perimeter, there was barbed wire at the top and bottom, too, and Belle admired how seamless it was. Neither paid her mind, for which she was grateful as she stepped out onto the lawn. Her bare toes sunk through the dead leaves and into cool wet mud that made her shiver delightfully.
Her thrill was short lived though, when a few voices broke her reverie with the sound of an agitated Emma saying, “I suck at knives, guys, can we just leave it?”
Following the voices, Belle walked out through the lawn and around the house to find a small group of people clustered a bit near the fence-the outside of it. Belle could see where they’d lifted up some of the chain to slip underneath it, and she wondered if it was where Mr. Gold had sneaked her through the night before.
Jefferson and Lan were standing on either side of Emma, with Lan wrenching a newly embedded knife from a tree and Jefferson holding Emma by the shoulders.
“You can do this, you’re just thinking too hard,” he told her encouragingly as Lan walked back to them. Belle could see past Lan that they’d constructed a crude dummy from a broom and a sack of flour, pinning it to the tree. Emma’s knife had gone into the tree-but only into the one two yards to the right of the target.
Back on the inside of the fence, Mr. Gold and Dawn were sitting beneath a tree, watching the practice session. Dawn sat like a mermaid on the ground with a large bowl of sugar snap peas in front of her, a smaller bowl where she dispensed of the shells as she freed them from their casing. Mr. Gold sat near her on an old wrought iron loveseat that was close to rusting, resting both hands atop his cane, his leg stretched out before him. If Belle forgot the world around them for just a moment, she could imagine Dawn to be his daughter, she looked so young. They sat in companionable silence as they watched Emma practice with the knives, and looked to just be enjoying the shade of the tree.
Belle cleared her throat politely, and held the radio up a bit when they saw her. “Granny said to bring you this. It’s broken.”
Mr. Gold’s face remained stoic as he set his cane down in the grass and held his hands out to take the radio. Belle handed it to him carefully, and once it was resting in his lap, Dawn patted the grass beside her. Belle joined her, and she moved the bowl of peas closer, showing her how to pop them from their pods. Picking a few up, she began the menial task with care, earning a sort of satisfaction whenever a dewy green orb popped out to roll into the bowl.
“Did you sleep alright?” Dawn asked after they found an easy rhythm to their work. Her fingers had callouses along the side of her middle fingers, roughened and white against her otherwise slender hands, with nails longer than what was casual. The ends of her French manicure had begun to chip away.
“Yes,” Belle said, pausing as she dropped a few of the pods into the spare bowl. “Thank you.” The sound of the knife embedding into the tree and the ground was an erratic pattern in the back of their minds, and Jefferson’s laugh was a good accompaniment to the music of the metal tinkering coming from the radio Mr. Gold worked to fix. Belle’s eyes strayed to the pod in her hand, recalling the sight of all the eggs and bacon in the kitchen, and she furrowed her brows in thought. “Where did you get so much food?”
“Granny loaded up most of it when the transmissions started warning about evacuations,” Dawn said, glancing sideways at Belle. She peeked over her shoulder at Mr. Gold before putting the pod between her teeth and scraping it out between her lips, munching on the peas she’d freed. “She brought most of it with her from their freezers.”
“But how did she get all of it?”
“From the diner.” At Belle’s blank stare, Dawn squinted at her in confusion and prompted, “Granny’s Diner?”
“Oh, she owns a diner?” Belle smiled briefly, imagining the old woman ordering her kitchen around like a general in charge of his army. It wasn’t difficult to picture, especially with the way she flung her spatula about.
“How do you not know about Granny’s Diner? It’s kind of a town institution,” Dawn said, her voice having dropped suspiciously.
Belle picked up more peas, shrugging her shoulders gently. Tingles worked their way up her arms, and she felt unpleasantly hot about her face. “I don’t really go to that part of town, I guess.”
“It’s on main street.”
“Right,” she paused, popping some peas into the bowl and clearing her throat. “Like I said, we haven’t lived here long.”
“Long enough for your father to sink himself into debt,” Mr. Gold murmured. Both girls turned to look at him as he sorted through the mess of wires coming out the back of the radio. He didn’t grace them with a glance or stop his ministrations. His hair fell in his face, but he ignored it, saying, “Probably more than what his rusty little tin of a flower business is worth.”
“How do you know that?” Belle asked, too stunned to feel resentment. Her breath rattled in her chest as she thought of how urgently her father had tried to live quietly, to keep their estrangement private. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Because, dearie, he took the loans from me,” Mr. Gold said, his teeth flashing in his impatience as he finally set her with a sharp, hawkish look. His eyes were nearly black, shadowed from the sun, and Belle realized her mouth was open. When she closed it and swallowed, her throat was bone dry. Gold held her gaze for a moment, his face at war between determination and suspicion until Belle dropped her eyes to his shoes in the grass. He resumed his work.
“How long have you lived here?” Dawn asked more gently, but any curiosity she had was gone. Now she just sounded concerned, and regarded Belle with wide blue eyes. A twinge of anger burned in her chest, this little girl who was already assuming things choosing to pity her when she didn’t even know the truth. It was the first time Belle realized no one there must have known that she was in the hospital.
“About five years,” Belle muttered quietly, tossing some empty pods into the bowl. She’d been squeezing them without realizing it, and the juice accompanied with sweat marked her palm with her own nail marks. “Maybe longer.”
“You don’t have to...be ashamed or feel like you have to lie,” Dawn whispered, leaning closer to Belle and away from Gold. She reached a hand out to touch Belle on the arm where her hair was raised, and tried to smile. “I’m sorry if I pushed you.”
“I’m not lying,” Belle said, her face hard from frowning.
“No, she’s not,” Mr. Gold hummed in agreement, and when they looked back at him he was smirking. Belle could see a flash from his mouth, a capped tooth, perhaps. His hair shielded his eyes again as he bound the wires back inside the radio, pressing the compartment shut. He fit the screws in nicely and began to work the screwdriver between deft fingers. “She’s just not telling you the entire truth.”
“You know, this was just a conversation just between us,” Dawn pointed out.
“Then I suggest next time you sit somewhere else, Miss Briar.”
Belle raised an eyebrow as the two regarded each other with equal measures of distaste before she shifted to cross her legs, picking up more sugar snaps and asking, “So Emma was sheriff and Granny owned a diner. What did you two do, before...this?”
Dawn turned to face Belle once more, moving so her back was at Gold. Clearly, he was not invited to their conversation any longer, and Belle didn’t mind that so much. Dawn leaned back on her hands, giving herself a break from the peas and said, “I’m a student. I graduated high school last May, and I’m getting ready for my first semester at college.”
Smiling fondly, Belle inclined her head towards her, asking, “Where?”
“I got accepted to Stanford,” she ducked her head shyly, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs. “Business major, like my mother. She really pushed me into it. I don’t think I would’ve done it on my own.”
“That’s an incredible achievement,” Belle marveled, imagining the California coast and the prestigious school. She dropped more peas into the bowl, watching Dawn with newfound appreciation. “Your mother must be terribly proud.”
“Yeah, she was.” When Belle looked up again, Dawn’s eyes were downcast, and she was watching the tips of her sneakers. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a pair of Converse, and Dawn’s were almost completely new, the bright yellow canvas hardly sporting a smudge. She took a deep breath, frowning, and said, “We’d been hearing places all over the country breaking out in disease, like the bird and swine flus. My mom was on the high school board here in Storybrooke, a real go-getter, and when people started getting sick here, she was out at a board meeting,” Dawn made a face that Belle thought was supposed to be a smile. “To talk about upping the health regulations at the school. Ironic, huh? She wouldn’t answer her phone. She never misses a call.”
Belle spared a brief glance toward Mr. Gold over Dawn’s shoulder, and though he was inspecting the speakers of the radio, she knew he was listening. He was making such a show of careful indifference that he couldn’t not be listening.
“I’d made dinner for us, and I kept waiting for her to call me back. She never did, and I...” she shrugged, finally looking up at Belle with a care-worn smile. “I don’t know. I still don’t know. She just never came home.”
“I’m so sorry,” Belle swallowed, curling her fingers around a sugar snap and forcing herself to think of which words to say. She had so many, so many words from books and poetry that she could heap on a young girl, on someone who was lost or needed comfort. But as the words came to her lips, her eyes drifted to Mr. Gold once more behind Dawn and found he was watching her with that same hawkish expression. Perhaps he could see the intention in her face, read the compassion in her eyes like the crinkled pages of a love note.
Whatever he found there, he didn’t like, and he shook his head once in a warning.
As nasty as he’d been, Belle bit her tongue on those comforting words. The tilt of his chin and the lines about his mouth were words that she could read, too; words of experience and grief, loss and defeat. He, just like the others, knew the pain of losing someone, it seemed.
The three of them turned to see the blond man and the long, dark haired woman striding across the lawn to them. Belle recognized his voice from the night before as the one who’d answered the door for Mr. Gold, and the woman had been the one to cut her hair and help her wash. Belle continued to free the sugar snaps into the bowl, wrinkling her nose.
“Yeah?” asked the girl, wiping her eyes quickly.
“There’s a trap that’s caught one of those things, and we need you to come with us to help,” he said, his blue eyes glancing quickly from Gold tinkering with the radio and Belle with the bowl of peas.
“David, I don’t...” Dawn swallowed visibly, her throat gulping. She looked pained, and squeezed her arms around her legs tighter. “Those things scare me.”
“You think we like it?” the woman asked, though without any true bite. Belle thought she sounded more tired than anything. “You’re the only one who can get up there without breaking a branch. You don’t even have to touch it, just cut the rope.”
“Why can’t you climb up, Ruby?” Dawn asked suddenly, glaring at her. “Last time I checked, both your legs and arms were working.”
“I’m working on the fence,” Ruby showed her teeth, bright white ivory keys that Belle imagined could draw blood easily. “And I did it last time. It’s your turn.”
Belle glanced up at David and Ruby, seeing their hardened faces and the darkness of their eyes. She could feel Dawn trembling beside her, and she wondered how many times she’d been asked to do what she feared. How many times had she been forced to do it, anyway? That loss of will under the pressure of what was expected of you made her heart ache. It brought back painful memories for Belle herself, the feel of blood on her hands and shouting ringing in her ears. Things she thought had been healed but had only been buried for winter.
“I’ll do it,” Belle said suddenly, realizing she’d decided it before she’d said the words, though she didn’t know when she had. Neither David nor Ruby looked pleased; in fact, they looked irritated, but Belle tossed the handful of peas into the bowl and stood up, shucking leaves off her shorts. She stood as tall as she could, keeping her eyes confidently on David and ignoring the blackening look of distaste from Ruby. “I can climb a tree and cut a rope.”
David narrowed his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest. “You don’t even know what you’re volunteering for.”
“Do you need help or not?” Belle asked, her own temper flaring briefly. What was wrong with these people? She expected at least a little more willingness to accept her aid, not so much suspicion. “If Dawn doesn’t want to do it, I will. I’ve seen those things. You said I don’t have to touch it-so just tell me what I need to do.”
Ruby snorted, taking a step back and tossing her hands carelessly in a gesture of dismissal before striding back to the fence.
“Are you okay with this, Gold?” David asked, looking past Belle and Dawn to the man with the radio in his lap.
Mr. Gold ignored them as he turned the radio on, the batteries bringing a crackling transmission through the dusty speakers. After a few moments of his knobby fingers twirling the dials, he caught the distorted sound of a news anchor’s static filled voice on the tail end of their report: “...has stopped all communication. Washington has gone dark, and the military has forgone rations and supervising sanctioned hospitals to go on the offensive. Centers for Disease Control have issued statements on drugs and shots to be administered, but there has been no success in curing those infected. As of now-”
The radio’s output began to snow with static. Mr. Gold tried to handle the dials, but nothing would bring the voice out of distortion, so he turned it off. Lan, Jefferson, and Emma had stopped their practice to draw nearer and listen, and with the static, everyone had gone pale.
“What does that mean?” Emma asked, worrying the handle of the hunting knife she held downward, looking from Jefferson to David. “What do we do?”
“I think it means Miss French should go with Mr. Nolan,” Mr. Gold said, his voice hoarse and slightly unbalanced, his eyes only reaching as high up as David’s knees. “It sounds as though we will need those traps for a little longer than we planned.”
Chapter 7: If It Were Dead
Before they left, Dawn gave Belle a pair of shoes, something she hadn’t quite missed in the upheaval of her small life. Being able to step on the ground-real ground, not tile or concrete but earth and soil-and feel it solidly beneath her was something she’d forgotten, but she took the pair of boots with gratefulness, the worn brown leather sturdy and broken in. They were a little big, but with the thick socks she’d been given, they suited her well, even if they only stopped at her ankles. Then again, watching Emma tromp through the woods with laces that went up nearly to her knees, Belle didn’t envy her.
Granny had stepped outside, and Belle looked quickly over at Dawn helping Henry and Grace with their school work (they’d moved onto mathematics, from what Belle could hear of their conversation). She shot a quick glance out the front window before crossing the room back to the table, pushing her shortened hair behind her ears.
“Hey, can I ask you for one other thing?”
Dawn looked up, the watery sunlight making her eyes look like blue pools. She stood up and stepped from the kids with Belle into the kitchen, folding her arms across her body. “What’s up?”
“When I got here last night, I had a-sort of a pry bar. Do you know what happened to it?” Belle drew her lip between her teeth, watching Dawn working to recall the night before. It only occurred to Belle that perhaps Dawn hadn’t even been in the room at the time, and she hoped she wouldn’t bring the question up to anyone now that she’d asked.
“Granny might have put it with the tools. Check the saddlebag on Jefferson’s bike,” Dawn whispered, hesitating as she gave Belle a look of reluctance. “What...what do you need it for?”
Belle thought idly of the way Jefferson had smashed Dr. Whale’s head across the sidewalk like rotten fruit, and the crunch Mr. Gold’s cane had made the night before in the ditch. She’d been sprawled on the ground, helpless in both situations, but that piece of metal had been between her hands. She hadn’t even thought to use it as a weapon, but now her hands felt empty without it.
“Just in case.”
Dawn nodded, her shoulders relaxing an inch, but just as Belle turned away, she reached out and touched Belle’s arm, gulping, and said, “Look... I mean it. Thank you for sticking up for me. No one really... does that.”
Belle squinted at her, licking her lips that felt as coarse as sandpaper. She seemed so small standing in the middle of the kitchen, more a girl than anything. She couldn’t imagine little Dawn facing one of those monsters and winning.
“They’re going to make you do it eventually, or find something else just as difficult,” Belle murmured, fighting with herself to make the words gentle yet firm. “It doesn’t sound like things are going to get better.”
“I know,” Dawn turned her face away, rubbing her cheek with the back of her sweater’s sleeve. She looked back up at Belle, taking a deeper breath and forced a twist of a smile. “But I still wanted to say thanks.”
Taking the dainty hand that held onto her arm, Belle couldn’t find a smile to give her, but squeezed her hand and whispered, “I won’t leave you without someone in your corner.”
Lan was waiting patiently just outside the front door when Belle came back outside, and she looked up placidly, blinking from underneath the sunlight. She stood evenly on both feet, planted and rooted to the earth, arms crossed over her chest where her sword’s sheath hung. Something about her, even though she stood in plain jeans and a dusty black shirt, intimidated Belle, though she couldn’t say it was an unpleasant feeling. It was comforting to know she was on the same side as her.
“I’m going with you and David,” she paused, glancing over Belle’s shoulder. She hesitated, before stepping back. “Come on.”
“Are we taking the bike?” she asked, hurrying down the slight slope behind Lan.
“No. It makes too much noise, and the trap isn’t that far awa-what are you doing?” Lan stopped suddenly when she saw Belle break away from following her, jogging quickly to the motorcycle parked near the tree on the opposite side of the house.
“Getting back what’s mine,” Belle huffed, crouching behind the bike to unlatch the buckles of the bag. Lan frowned in disapproval, but Belle set her with a determined look. “I found it, and I brought it with me. It’s mine.”
“This,” Belle yanked the crowbar from the bag with a grunt. To see people practicing with knives and other weapons made her self-conscious. She had never been a physical person, and certainly not big enough to hurt anyone with intention, let alone kill them. Having anything that could possibly help her defend herself gave her more certainty that she could do this, and, as she rounded the bike and followed Lan once more, the idea that she could earn her place in this group of people made her that much more determined.
Belle followed quickly, not wanting to slow anyone down, and when she glanced over her shoulder to see the cabin, she glimpsed Dawn in the window with Grace and Henry, and gave a slight wave before ducking under the chain link fence that David held for both of them.
The forest wasn’t as hot as it had been the night before, even with the sun leaking through the trees. Belle took in the orange and brown leaves and the musty green shade the canopy overhead provided, feeling like she was walking through a dream assaulted by color. She walked on the right side of David with Lan on the other, her eyes jumping from a rock to a tree to a bush and never staying settled. Every few moments, she glanced back at the cabin and was surprised at how well it disappeared from sight, how easily it blended in with the scenery.
Glancing out of the corner of her eye, Belle tugged her newly shorn hair behind her ear and asked, “So...you both lived in Storybrooke?”
David shot a look at her that was pure suspicion, but Lan simply nodded.
Thinking of the town made Belle wish she could remember the direction they’d come from the night before, but Mr. Gold had done his best to disorient her when he’d brought her to the cabin. She was anxious to return in the hopes she could find her father. Thinking about it more rationally in the bright light of day, there were a number of logical explanations why he may not have gone looking for her. Perhaps he’d been told they had evacuated the hospital inmates already? Or maybe they hadn’t allowed him to see her-though she couldn’t imagine things had gotten that bad.
They ducked beneath a large fallen tree that had lodged itself between some rocks, and that was when Belle heard the noise before they could even see the trap. Walking up from the small gorge, she could make out the nest hanging from a nearby tree. It was a net that had caught its prey and threw it up into the air at least twelve feet high, keeping it from other attackers. Or, Belle supposed, keeping it from other victims.
The noise, though-oh, the noise the thing made. Belle looked away, rubbing her forehead with the butt of her hand. It would have been easier if it was like the movies, where the monsters made hoarse, inhuman sounds, gurgling and groaning like animals, but it wasn’t at all like a movie. This thing was utterly human-it was coughing and sobbing, a wrenching, scrabbling wail that was confusion and rage and despair. Its cries broke into shrieking screams against the net when it caught their scent, and the bundle began to jerk wildly in desperation.
“Just cut the rope of the net,” Lan said, handing her a small sliver of silver with a smooth black handle. Belle frowned at it for a moment, before moving her thumb over a rounded button and pressing down. A spring caught to release a shiny blade about the length of her hand, and thin as a needle. “And don’t come down until we’ve finished it.” Belle met the woman’s eyes, and nodded slowly, swallowing as she folded the knife back in on itself and slipped it into her pocket.
“Don’t let it touch you,” David added, almost glaring with how pointed a look he gave her. He tilted his chin down, and Belle felt like she was being chastised before she’d completed the job. “Not even a scratch. Do it as fast as you can.”
“O-Okay,” she nodded, hooking the crooked edge of her crowbar onto the belt loop of her shorts, and approached the tree. Out of the entire ordeal, the tree itself was the biggest concern for her. She hadn’t climbed a tree since she was in elementary school, and as short as she was, she knew she was at a disadvantage. There was a small well just above her head where the main trunk branched off, but it was getting there that gave her pause.
Turning back, she rubbed the back of her head and asked, “Could you...help me start?”
David sighed shortly before nodding and stepping up. Hands on either side of her legs, he crouched and asked, “Ready?”
At Belle’s nod, he counted to three. She’d expected a slight boost, not to be thrown into the tree, and found herself hanging out of the well almost upside down, giving a great huff and spitting bits of bark.
“Are you okay?” Lan called, sounding farther away than she was.
Belle blew a leaf from her hair and wriggled her hips to press her knees against the thicker branches from the base of the trunk until she could stand, throwing her hair out of her face with another grunt. “Fine!” she called, muttering under her breath. “Just fine.”
Her legs were already scraped red, and she knew they’d be raw by the time she climbed to the top. Her ambition to please warded off the pain though, and she planted her foot up once more, putting her back against the opposite branch, and pulled herself up again, her crowbar slapping against her thigh as she went. It was graceless and utterly tactless, but she was certain she was making good time.
Concentrating more on where she put her feet rather than not looking down, she didn’t find the height very disconcerting. What was off-putting though was the attention she’d drawn to herself. The sudden movement in the tree had alerted the monster in the net, and it’s throaty, grunting wails were now directed at Belle. She could see pale forearms and long, spidery hands grasping through the holes of the net as she drew closer.
Trees as big as this one didn’t have any weaker branches until nearer the top, so when she finally reached the branch they’d hung the net from, she wasn’t afraid to test her weight, but Belle chose to proceed with caution anyway, holding onto the branch above her with one hand while she leaned forward with one foot. When it didn’t droop, she took another step, then slowly slid forward to straddle it.
With the utmost care, she began to lean forward until she was flat on her belly, then her chest, and wriggled forward on her arms. Pausing a few feet away, she slipped the blade from her back pocket and released the knife, leaning over the side to start sawing.
The net swung up from the force of the struggling ghoul, and one of the grasping hands flew towards Belle’s face, tearing a scream from her as she jumped back. The switchblade almost slipped through her hand, but Belle caught it before it could slide from her lap and fall the two stories below.
“Careful!” David shouted.
“I’m trying!” Belle snapped, this time putting the blade between her teeth and hooking her ankles together beneath the branch. When she tried to lean down again, the monster swung the net close, and Belle gritted her teeth against the blade, pushing away before it could grab ahold of her. Sitting back up, she took the knife from between her teeth, sighing noisily, “This would be a lot easier if it were dead.”
“It is,” Lan snorted, and Belle shot her an annoyed look.
What she needed was a way to hold the net away from her while she could cut the-
“Oh,” Belle sat back, smirking down at the monster who snarled up at her, and, leaning forward she reached down to her crowbar, untangling it from her belt loop. “I’ve got something you won’t like, I’m afraid.”
Holding the crooked end outward, Belle jabbed the bar into the net and pushed it away from her, giving her just enough room to cut the rope free. The blade was short and thin for such thick rope, but she worried her arm until it ached and her shoulder began to tingle, slicing the strands that slowly came apart for her. The monster wriggled off the bar twice, swinging towards her, but Belle had warning enough to pull back before it could reach her.
Until the third time, when the thing grabbed the bar and pulled.
Belle screamed, the force ripping her off balance from the branch, but as she was falling off the side, she kept her ankles locked together and hung on with the leverage her boots gave her, scrabbling with her weakened arm for the crowbar that slipped right through her fingers, catching on the net and hanging perilously from the webbing.
The switchblade, though, fell with a thud to the ground below.
“Shit, hang on!” Lan shouted, taking a running start and throwing herself up into the tree.
“I got it,” Belle growled, determined to finish what she’d started. She couldn’t kill the thing, but she could outsmart it. The blood was rushing to her head and roaring in her ears, but she kept her eyes on her slash in the rope as she began to swing herself closer. The monster rocked in her direction, its fingers reaching for her as it got closer. “That’s it,” Belle whispered to it, swatting away treebark that fell in her face as she swung herself up to hold onto the branch again. “Come on, you almost got me.”
The next swing took the net so close to her that Belle felt fingers brushing her hair, but it was also enough to snap the rope where she’d cut it and send the captured creature shrieking two stories down to a bone-breaking thud below.
David jumped back, since the net fell from an angle and closer to him, and the creature began thrashing in a rage at his feet. He pulled the double barrel shotgun from his shoulder with an automatic tug, stepping around the net.
Lan slid off the tree, holding her hand out. “David, don’t shoo-”
Shoving his boot on the monster’s chest, he threw his body’s full force into an overhanded swing that shattered the top of its head. Belle turned her face away before she could see it, but the sound was worse than anything else.
The resounding silence was deafening as she pulled herself right side up again, her arms and legs shaking in weakness. She scooted back from the branch with trembling hands, wiping her nose on the back of her arm. Her back came into contact with the trunk of the tree, and she leaned her head back gratefully, closing her eyes as the blood rushed in her ears and she could catch her breath once more.
“Can you get down?” Lan called finally, and Belle wiped the sweat from her forehead, nodding and regretting it when a wave of nausea overcame her.
“Yeah, just... give me a second.”
Belle kept her mind carefully blank as she focused on disentangling herself from the tree, sliding and stepping from branch to branch slowly until she slid down to sit in the well upon the trunk, her legs hanging from the side. She leaned her elbow against the bark, putting her cheek to her palm as she watched David untie the net and pull the creature from inside it.
Lan made her way from David’s side over to her, holding out the crowbar she’d retrieved from the tangled net. Belle took it with both hands, not trusting her shaking hand to not drop it. “You handled that pretty well,” Lan finally said as Belle wiped her mouth on the back of her sleeve.
“That was handling it well?” Belle asked, a mirthless little laugh worming its way from her chest as she picked pieces of bark and splinters from under her forearms. She’d rubbed the inside of her knees and wrists raw, and she still feeling dizzy from being upside down.
“I’ve seen people screw stuff up worse,” Lan admitted, sparing what was the briefest of smirks. While David pulled the body from the net behind them, she glanced over her shoulder before lowering her voice and said, “Thank you for doing it. For Dawn. She doesn’t handle this stuff well.”
“I don’t think anyone would,” Belle replied, a bit more snidely than she had intended. Drawing her lip between her teeth, she looked down at the tool in her hands, her scraped, dirty knuckles tightening over it. The forest’s quiet was pressing in around them, save for the muffled thudding that came from David overturning the body-a body that had wanted to harm her because it was in its infected nature to do so.
The idea of Dawn trying to dodge the nails and teeth and rage of such a creature made Belle’s stomach tighten. All it would have taken would have been one moment of indecision, and the girl may not have returned back with them. “I wanted to do it.”
“I know.” When Belle met her eyes again, Lan was looking down at her own hands, frowning. “I just worry about her. She’s all alone.”
Tilting her head curiously, Belle said, “So are you.”
“So are you,” she said, looking up at her and crossing her arms over her chest. “The way you used that thing was impressive, though. Mind if I borrow it sometime?”
She slipped down from her perch in the tree, tying her belt loop around the crooked end of the crowbar again. “I don’t think so,” she said not unkindly, looking at the woman who had seemed a warrior to her. She was still that, but now, Lan was someone who would depend on her-who needed her. “But I’d be willing to help you, whenever you need someone with a crowbar.”
The other woman tilted her head back, narrowing her eyes at Belle, but the slight sheen of admiration ringed by frustration she found there was satisfying. Belle stepped around her, kneeling down to pick up the switchblade from amongst the roots of the tree and handing it back to her.
Lan put her hand out against it, saying, “Keep it. You might need it again next time.”
Belle closed it against her hip and slipped it back into her pocket, finding herself resisting the urge to smile.
“We’re leaving,” David said roughly, striding away from the corpse. He threw the net over his shoulder, shrugging the shotgun across his back.
Frowning, Lan glanced at the body he’d left and said, “We need to burn it-where are you going?”
“I said leave it!” David snapped, not breaking stride. “The birds can finish it off.”
Both women stood in silence until his footsteps receded, before then Lan walked back over to the body with an air of defiance. Belle followed closely at her back, frowning over her shoulder and asking, “What is it?”
There wasn’t much to make out from the face where David had all but crushed it with the butt of the shotgun, save for earrings on both ears and a tangled mop of blonde hair. Belle wouldn’t let her eyes stray past the woman’s belt, bile rising in her throat when she saw the glittering gold ring on the body’s left hand.
Lan hesitated, glancing at Belle before shaking her head and shrugging. “Maybe he knew her.”
Chapter 8: The Deal
David was striding yards ahead of them, and not once pausing to look back. His shoulders were high and tight with tension that seemed to suppress the forest itself. His reaction to the corpse had left both women unnerved enough to not try to approach him about it, and Belle’s heart swelled in her throat whenever she thought about the torn look on his face. Maybe he knew her.
Did that ever happen? Belle could still feel the cold dread that had passed through her when she’d first seen Dr. Whale and not known what he was. The possibility that it could be worse, that she could see any one of the few people she loved and cared about ravaged by disease and out of their minds left her feeling hunted and afraid. If only there was a way for her to be sure her father was alive and safe, she wouldn’t feel as isolated.
Mr. Gold had known her, though, and her father. Perhaps he knew more than he had revealed the first time. Belle drew her lip between her teeth, wincing when the sunlight dripped through the forest’s canopy and hit her eyes. If she could get him alone, perhaps she could ask him, and if he knew, she could arrange to leave and find her father.
The idea made her shiver, and not in anticipation. Considering the fact she’d nearly been eaten ten minutes after she’d been on her own the first time, she wasn’t confident in herself to keep stay safe long enough to actually find Moe French. But he was her father, and he’d taken care of her as best he knew how when he could. For him, Belle had to try.
When David had gained another few yards, Belle said in a low voice, “I thought we had to be quiet.”
Lan looked up, her brown eyes wide. Belle wondered what train of thought she’d stolen her from.
“It’s just that Dawn said we weren’t allowed to make a lot of noise,” Belle said, nodding ahead of them as the cabin appeared between the trees. “But everyone is...outside and the door is open. Isn’t that unsafe?”
“Oh,” Lan blinked. She rubbed the back of her neck, squinting ahead of them. “During the day it’s a little easier to manage. The daylight makes it harder for them to move, somehow...Jefferson thinks it’s because they can’t see very well. Storybrooke makes enough noise to attract them away from us, too. It’s only more dangerous at night because it’s cooler and quieter, so any noise loud enough could lead them out here.”
“They’re so slow though, I’d think-”
“They seem slow,” Lan overrode her, shooting her a look that warned Belle she was treading on thin ice. She adjusted the strap of her sheath across her chest, her short black hair shielding her profile from Belle’s eyes when she turned to look out again. “And one or two isn’t a problem, but if you get a group of them together, a horde…there’s no way you can stand your ground against that. They get excited, and noise like guns and screaming only make it worse.”
With wide eyes and a hushed voice, Belle nodded quickly and said, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
They dropped back into silence as they came over the last stretch of forest before the trees thinned out around the cabin. David was waiting patiently by the outer perimeter of the fence, holding the chain-link back for them to duck under. Once inside, he knelt down to secure it, muttering, “Go ahead, I’ll finish.”
Lan gave Belle another look before turning on her heel and stalking off, back toward the direction of the dummies she and the others had been practicing with. Belle stood hesitant, watching the other woman walk away in a clear display of not wanting to be followed, only to be jolted when another voice broke the quiet. “How’d it go?”
Ruby stood a few feet above her on the slope of the hill, a strange mix of suspicion and curiosity twisting her features into concern. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and she had her hip popped to the side, long legs in skin-tight jeans rooting her to the ground. Belle couldn’t help but wonder idly what she did before their world dismantled itself, looking more like a model than a small-town girl, especially in a town like Storybrooke that was humble and meager in the extreme.
“It went fine,” David said, louder than called for as he stalked past both Belle and Ruby, heading towards the house. Both women watched him disappear inside, slamming the door behind him.
“Gold’s not going to like that,” Ruby said, and if Belle didn’t know better, she thought the girl was trying to joke with her.
Whether it was an olive branch or just sarcasm born of nervousness, the energy she’d lost climbing the tree and wrestling a corpse left her lacking in the enthusiasm to reach out. She unhooked the crowbar from her belt loop and trudged up the slope of the hill, saying nothing.
Belle was careful to open the door after David’s aggressive entrance, and she felt insecure when she found it had not gone unnoticed. Jefferson, Dawn, and the children sat at the table, worriedly looking off down the hall where David must have disappeared to, and Mr. Gold stood in front of the fore windows, a handful of nails between his lips and a hammer in one hand, glancing at Belle as she came inside.
Granny sat on the sofa, metallic parts to a shotgun arranged before her on an old cloth as she took the weapon apart to clean it, her glasses low on her nose. Belle swallowed and tucked her chin to her chest, shutting the door silently behind her.
A loud slam that seemed to come from beneath the house made them jump, instead.
Jefferson cocked his head with a mirthless smile, asking, “So how’d it go?”
“You’re shaking,” Dawn said, pushing her chair back from the table and hurrying to Belle’s side. She led her to the table and sat her down quickly, taking the crowbar from her hands and leaning it against the table. “Are you alright? Did someone get hurt?”
Granny made her way over to the table, the barrel of her gun opened and an oil cloth over her shoulder. “You be honest now, if someone-”
“No one got hurt,” Belle said quickly, hating how her voice wobbled. “At least… at least not like that.”
Mr. Gold fiddled with the hammer for a moment at his side, his dark eyes shadowed behind the fall of his hair. He’d been in the middle of re-boarding the windows for nighttime, she supposed, seeing the wooden panels he had arranged to lean against the wall. He pinched his nose for a moment, and everyone held their breath before he looked up, clearing his throat lightly, “Children, why don’t you go play outside while the sun is still up?”
Henry and Grace glanced at each other warily, glancing down at their school work before Henry looked back at Mr. Gold and asked, “Can we get the football?”
Blinking once, the pawnbroker looked the way David had disappeared. “Is it in the basement?”
Grace shrugged and hopped out of her seat, taking Henry’s hand and leading him outside. When the door shut, Gold glanced out the window before turning to look back at Belle, nodding. “Go on then, Miss French,” he said, taking up Henry’s chair at the table and leaving the empty one between them. He sat the hammer down and folded his hands in his lap, stretching out his leg. “Tell us exactly what happened.”
His calm demeanor settled some of her nerves, and Belle nodded, taking a deep breath, and retold the events of that early afternoon. When she spoke of almost falling from the tree, Dawn gasped, but Jefferson gave her a wide, toothy grin of pure admiration. Mr. Gold shot him the darkest kind of look, and he hid it quickly behind his hand. “That’s really all there is to tell,” she admitted, feeling as though she sat on pins and needles waiting for David to come back out.
“What did the body look like?” Jefferson asked, leaning both elbows on the table.
Belle winced. “Most of it was unrecognizable. She was well dres-”
“She?” Mr. Gold pointed, his fingers wavering in the air as he caught her words. His eyes were intense, like a hawk, narrowing at her as she nodded slowly. “How do you know it was a woman?”
“Her clothes,” Belle said, biting her lip as she recalled the ugly display. “And her hair. Her face was… her face was gone, but-oh, she had a ring on.” She held up her left hand, twittering her fingers quickly. “A wedding ring.”
Mr. Gold exchanged a look with Jefferson quickly, and Belle didn’t like the look of it one bit. It was Granny, standing behind Belle’s chair, who broke the quiet with a sorrowful whisper, “That was his wife.”
“Ex-wife,” Jefferson corrected.
“That doesn’t matter; he cared for her. They were family, at least once,” Dawn said softly, leaning on the back of Jefferson’s chair. Her voice was thick with tears and her blue eyes were filled with them. “And he had to do that to her. That’s awful.”
“I didn’t… I didn’t know, he didn’t say anything,” Belle whispered, crestfallen in the face of such impenetrable grief.
“It was a very public affair. Rumor is they divorced because they were both in love with other people,” Jefferson spoke gently, with no relish in relaying the news. He lifted one shoulder in a shrug, murmuring, “They stayed friends, from what I know.”
“That they did,” Granny said gruffly, turning away from the group at the table.
For some reason, seeing the old woman who seemed to be made of iron come apart made Belle feel more helpless than ever. She sat back in her chair, her chest feeling tighter than a bow string, and when she looked up, she nearly ate her own heart to find Mr. Gold glaring at her.
“Emma’s with him now at least,” Jefferson went on, not noticing the animosity at the table. “She’ll help him.”
Dawn retrieved a water bottle from one of the many packages that were stacked against the wall, setting it in front of Belle. “Where did he go?”
“The basement probably,” Mr. Gold finally tore his eyes from Belle, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms defiantly. “There’s an old punching bag down there. I’ve seen him at it before. Just leave him be and don’t bring up what happened. It’s the last thing he’ll want to talk about.”
Belle drew her bottom lip between her teeth, an idea forming in her head. She took the bottle of water and sipped on it, letting the quiet settle and the noise of Grace laughing at Henry outside leak in through the windows. Thinking about what had happened made her sad, more sadness than she could ever remember feeling, but it wasn’t something she could just not think about. And strangely, she didn’t wish to forget it. If anything, the moment solidified in her mind as an opportunity to help in a way these people needed.
Tentatively, as if touching the wing of a moth, Belle looked up again at Mr. Gold, thankful to see he appeared more pensive, and asked gently, “What was she like?”
Startled, he blinked at her, glancing again at Jefferson. The latter opened his mouth, pausing at a loss for words before the pawnbroker exhaled slowly with a helpless shake of his head. “Kind,” he decided, nodding down at the table in thought. “She was very kind. Intelligent, too. She wanted to go to Boston and become a lawyer.”
Jefferson dropped his face in both his hands, rubbing his eyes with his fingertips and muttering, “Maybe she would’ve been better off there.”
The basement door opened with a thud. Belle couldn’t discern from where it came from, and decided it would be a good idea to look for it later. A quiet step only revealed Emma, who came out from the hallway, surprised to find everyone congregated around the table. When she saw Belle, her blue-green eyes wavered, and her hands laced themselves together nervously in front of her.
“How is he?” Belle asked gently.
“I don’t know. He didn’t say much, just that he wanted to be alone,” Emma muttered. The sheriff looked utterly lost, and for the moment, more like a child not knowing what to do next. She wandered to the window between the table and the front porch of the cabin, looking out on Henry and Grace playing. Her mind was working to think hard about something. Finally, she turned back to them, but it was Mr. Gold she spoke to. “We need to get on the road.”
Jefferson squinted in confusion, looking up at Emma in disbelief. “What?”
“You need to find a place to light, missy,” Granny said, pointing at Emma with a hard look. “You need some rest.”
“Look, I know it’s scary, but we can’t be afraid to move if we want to keep ourselves safe,” Emma insisted, her defensive tone swaying close to stubbornness. She crossed her arms and leaned back against the window, tightening her jaw.
No one said anything for what felt like an eternity until Dawn scooted around the table, squeaking, “Let me go get Lan and Ruby.”
“I’ll do it,” Belle piped desperately, looking for a way out of the line of fire. She had no say in such a decision, and she doubted her opinion would be considered even if she did feel confident enough to voice it.
“I got it,” Dawn squeaked, throwing herself out the front door and letting it shut firmly behind her, just as desperate to make herself scarce as Belle was.
“It’s too dangerous, Emma. We know the area here. We have the advantage if we stay,” Granny said quietly from behind Belle’s chair. “God knows what’s out on the road, or what’s happening outside town. For all you now it could be fire and brimstone.”
“We have people out there, Miss Lucas,” Emma said softly, glancing at Gold, whose eyes remained fixed on the table and his face impassive. “People we love and care about. We can’t just hope they’ll be alright.”
“And what about the people we have here who need us?” Granny asked, everyone but the older woman shifting when Dawn, Lan, and Ruby came inside. “I have my granddaughter to think about. I can’t just go off hoping for the best.”
“Well you don’t have to go with us,” Mr. Gold growled, but so softly it was almost under his breath. It didn’t matter; everyone heard the words anyway, and he might as well have shouted them for the suddenly silence that fell over the room.
“Oh, I know what this is,” Granny glared at Mr. Gold, taking her glasses off to hang from her neck. She jerked the barrel of the shotgun shut with a loud snap, muttering, “This is about your derelict son, isn’t it?”
Emma dropped her arms, stepping next to Gold. “That’s not-”
The pawnbroker held up a hand to stay Emma, who was only glaring right back at Granny, her hands balled into fists at her side. “You should keep in mind that my son is Sheriff Swan’s loved one, just as he is mine,” Mr. Gold bit out, his voice careful and quiet as he turned his head toward the old woman. “And since it was the good sheriff who saved your mangey hides from being eaten alive in the streets, you would do well to show her more respect in my house.”
The old woman tossed the gun down on the table, startling both Belle and Jefferson nearly out of their chairs from the crash it made. “Respect won’t mean a damn thing soon enough,” she said, pushing her way past Dawn and Lan. “Especially if he’s dead.”
Everything happened too fast for Belle to understand what happened first. Lan threw an arm out to push Dawn back, as if anticipating Ruby lunging in front of her grandmother to protect her from Mr. Gold, who rose so quickly that he threw his chair back and his cane to the side, knocking Emma down. Jefferson barely had enough time to grab the man by the arms and keep him at bay, struggling with him while he snarled a vicious, “How dare you-!”
Belle pushed her chair back and went around the other side of the table, helping Emma up quickly and disentangling her legs from the overturned chair. The sheriff got up and elbowed herself between the parties, shouting, “That’s enough!”
Mr. Gold ripped his arms from Jefferson, pushing him off. His hair was ruffled, and his dark black dress shirt was skewed. His hands flexed at his sides and his eyes like burning coals before he turned on his heel to limp to the door. He slammed it on his way out, enough to rattle the light fixture over the kitchen table.
Granny let out a long, slow breath, but she dabbed her upper lip with the back of her hand where sweat had gathered. Belle couldn’t blame her for that; she’d be broken in a nervous sweat facing a wolf like Mr. Gold, too. The older woman left in the opposite direction, and a moment later, the basement door opened and slammed shut again.
No one moved for what felt like an eternity until Jefferson reached down and righted the overturned chair. Lan picked the shotgun up off the table with care, keeping her eyes down, and retreated to the sofa where Granny had been cleaning it. She took up a spare cloth and resumed the work.
By then, Belle finally felt as if she could breathe again. She wasn’t used to conflict, and she hated the pressure of it. Tension was high of course, but it made her anxious to see how easy it was for these people to go at each other’s throats. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mr. Gold’s cane had skidded halfway beneath the couch, and she quietly got out of the way to kneel down and fetch it.
“Whatever happens,” Ruby said, holding onto the back of the chair that had been overturned. “I want to go with you guys.”
Lan stopped what she was doing and turned to look at the leggy brunette with hard eyes. “You’d abandon your family like that?”
Ruby crossed her arms defiantly. “She doesn’t speak for me.”
“No, but she did just stick up for you against Gold,” Emma said quietly, if begrudgingly, ignoring the bottle of water Dawn tried to offer her. “To keep you safe.”
“You don’t agree with her, though,” Ruby pointed out.
“It doesn’t matter what I think, in the long run. But you should respect your family,” Emma whispered, putting the heel of her hand to her forehead and closing her eyes, as if she were getting a headache. Belle thought she may already have one.
“Look, if she wants to stay behind, that doesn’t mean I’m shackled down too, does it?” Ruby blinked hard, crossing her arms around her middle as if to hug herself. As angry as the words were, she only sounded scared. She wanted approval. “It’s about surviving. If I want to stay alive and I think to do that would be to go with you out on the road, shouldn’t I be allowed to make that choice for myself?”
The knot that had formed in Belle’s throat made her choke whenever she tried to breathe over the words flung back and forth across the kitchen. She grabbed the cane quickly and stood up, ignoring Dawn who tried to get her attention and hurried outside, closing the door quietly behind her.
The sun was getting lower behind the trees, and Belle wondered at the boards for the windows. They took them off during the day and put them back up at night, but she hoped the dispute hadn’t caused them forget about something so important. The porch was empty, save for a few dead leaves, and she noticed Henry and Grace reclining on the ground beneath a tree, pointing up at the sky and whispering conspiratorially. She turned away and walked off the porch, dropping down lightly as she rounded the house.
Mr. Gold was where she hoped to find him, sitting peacefully on the same wrought iron bench he’d occupied that morning, only this time he had nothing to preoccupy his hands. When he caught sight of her, he pursed his lips together in distaste, but Belle took a deep breath and grit her teeth. She didn’t know what she’d done to upset him, but she wasn’t going to let him intimidate her when she’d done nothing wrong.
“Here,” she handed him the cane, taking the seat beside him. He took it humbly, frowning with less determination and muttering his thanks. They sat in silence that was not altogether uncomfortable.
After a few minutes, they could hear a hammer and nail from inside the house, and they both began to relax. Closer than that, though, was the sound of Henry and Grace giggling from the front yard, and Belle shifted in her seat to see Mr. Gold easier. “I didn’t know Henry was your grandson.”
He rested his hands atop his cane that he planted between his feet, rolling his eyes lazily to the side. “I’m sure there’s a lot you don’t know, considering how you’ve been spending your time.”
Belle felt her heart freeze solid in her chest, and not even the gentle breeze that ruffled her short hair bothered her enough to blink. “How do you know...how I’ve been spending my time?”
“Because, dearie,” he said the word softly, but it was with so much mockery that Belle felt her insides shrivel. “I read the newspaper. Any dimwit in this town with half a brain would have remembered your story, but luckily for you, the sheep can’t hear anything over their own bleating.”
Belle stared at him, remaining stoic. When he met her eyes, his face flickered for a just a moment, falling into something more subdued. “My son went to your school,” he said finally, hesitating for a moment before he scoffed. “He dropped out after two semesters, but I remember when your father first moved you here, boasting about how bright you were.”
“He did?” Belle asked, flushing with embarrassment.
“I enjoyed listening to him on that topic well enough,” Mr. Gold said, twirling his cane between his palms to spin the handle. “I’m no stranger to a father’s pride, and my business is in details. It wasn’t hard for me to recall who you were. You were in a hospital gown, you’re the right age...hearing your name though, that was it. That’s when I remembered you.”
She had expected Jefferson to be the one to tell everyone where she’d come from, but apparently he had been more discreet. Mr. Gold glanced at her, pausing his hands as he took in her face not unkindly, and said, “I’m not going to tell them you were in the asylum, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s not my place.”
Belle’s shoulders dropped inches in relief. “Thank you, Mr. Gold,” she hesitated, trying to smile in her gratefulness. “I would rather not...get into all of that. They already think I’m a liability.” His slight smile, the twitch of the corner of his mouth, gave Belle enough bravery to keep her voice steady, arranging her thoughts in order. “Do you...know what happened to my dad?”
The silence crept between them just as the sun slithered down in the sky, and Belle began to feel cold in the absence of light and sound. Finally, Mr. Gold looked at her and said, “Tomorrow, Emma and I have to go into town to get David’s truck. If we’re going on to look for my son, we have to have more gasoline and another car,” he paused, turning more fully to look at her, and Belle felt a tingle low in her belly when his eyes found hers in the fading light of the day. “If you come along to help, we’ll look for your father."
A small smile grew, dimpling her face in a way that tickled; it felt so foreign. Belle held out her hand, and took Mr. Gold’s to shake, feeling him squeeze her fingers gently. His hand was warm around her own. “It’s a deal.”
Chapter 9: Trigger
Slowly filtering in more of the plot. There's a lot more emotion in this story than I originally thought...
That night, Belle kept more to herself once she followed Lan through the vegetable garden in the backyard, sometimes seeing Ruby checking the fence’s perimeter to make sure it was secure. With the assurance that she would be able to look for her father the next day, she lapsed into a quiet blankness and removed herself as much as she could. Four walls by oneself didn’t prepare anyone to acclimate with a group, and she felt rather jaded at dinner, listening to Emma and Jefferson speak to the children as if nothing was wrong.
Save for two hurricane lamps that were lowly lit in the den of the cabin, where everyone ate dinner, it was utterly dark and quiet enough to hear movement outside. Every so often, the rattling of the fence jolted Belle in her seat, and Dawn continuously glanced at the nearest window in concern.
It was too early for sleep, so the children retrieved coloring books and crayons and set to work in front of the fire. Lan sat on the cot pushed against the wall beneath the front windows, her crossed legs balancing her sword as she oiled it with a cloth. Emma, Ruby, and Jefferson played cards while Granny worked with a needle and thread on someone’s shirt. That left Belle, Mr. Gold, and Dawn to do dishes with Belle and the pawnbroker washing, and Dawn drying with a towel.
The hot water and frothy bubbles felt good against her skin, and Belle felt a quiet, studious relief in having a task that didn’t require much thought but was substantial in the way of helping. Mr. Gold seemed just as relaxed in the silence as she, with his sleeves rolled to his elbows that bumped hers every now and then. He had nice arms and nicer hands that were just a few shades darker than her own pale skin, lightly tanned from working under the summer sun, and Belle liked to watch the way the water sloshed up the insides of his wrists, the heat turning their palms pink and their fingertips wrinkled.
“How old are you?” Mr. Gold asked, finally breaking the silence and taking her off guard, his voice keyed low so that only Belle and perhaps Dawn could hear. They didn’t look at each other, nor did it break the rhythm of their washing. Considering his question, she was at first suspicious but figured it was mostly harmless. She’d also read enough romance novels and seen enough movies that the protagonist might give some witty retort about how a woman was never supposed to reveal her age, but Belle always thought that was rather silly. What did she have to fear about telling someone how old she was-especially now?
“Twenty-three,” Belle said, pausing for a moment to think. Mr. Gold looked at her when she stopped before she nodded, satisfied. “My birthday isn’t until November.”
Dawn startled, looking over at her with a furrowed brow. “Really?”
“Yes,” Belle answered, both she and Mr. Gold giving the other girl odd looks. She shifted her weight from foot to foot, glancing at Belle from beneath her lashes nervously. She looked for all the world a little doe who wanted to hop away and hide beneath some leaves, and Belle wondered not for the first time what the girl had seen to make her so scared.
“It’s just you seem so much older,” Dawn said, then blushed gesturing with the plate in her hand. “Not that I mean you look old or anything, you’re just-”
“Mature,” Mr. Gold suggested, a slight smile on his face, and when Dawn nodded in relief, he squeezed out his sponge, saying, “Yes, I was thinking so, too.”
Belle didn’t know whether to thank them or not for the strange compliment, but before she could really think on what to do, a loud thumping sound made her jump.
“So what did you do before the outbreak?” Dawn asked with a smile, putting the plate down to pick up a bowl next, drying it quickly. Her voice was pleasant and warm, less anxious now that she was assured to be in good graces with their landlord, and she drew Belle’s attention back once more.
“I was a student,” Belle said after a moment’s hesitation, all too aware of Mr. Gold’s presence, a knowing air rolling off of him in waves, but he said nothing that would give her away. Not that it was a lie, of course-it just wasn’t the whole truth. “I was studying library sciences.”
“Oh,” Dawn twisted her lips, and Belle knew she was trying hard to appear interested.
“It’s not very exciting,” Belle laughed, looking down at the spatula she was scrubbing egg off of. She shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve always loved books though, and being in that atmosphere of learning is inspiring to me.”
“I thought the library in Storybrooke had closed down,” Dawn said with a frown and tilting her head.
“It did, probably before you were born,” Mr. Gold said, not unkindly as he gave a little elbow grease to a cast iron-skillet.
“I wouldn’t work here in Storybrooke,” Belle said, her eyes drifting back to the pawnbroker’s forearms as he tackled his task with determined vigor. Bacon grease and grits sluiced off with every swipe, and she swallowed, looking back down at the spatula before setting it aside. “I didn’t want to live here very much in the first place.”
“Where would you go?” Dawn asked, tilting her head as she wiped the rim of the bowl.
“I always thought it would be nice to work in an archive, or a museum,” Belle confessed, smiling a little and trying to keep the sadness out of her voice. She hadn’t thought of the plans she’d made as a freshman in years, and it made her long for the days when she’d been able to read and read without consequence, to give herself to homework and coffee and allnighters in the study lounge with grilled cheese and headphones. Shrugging again, she said, “My big dream was the Library of Congress.”
“You would have to like history to live in that city,” Mr. Gold muttered, his voice going even quieter as he passed her the skillet to hand to Dawn to dry. His face was completely impassive, but he seemed removed from their conversation, thinking of something else. Belle wished to know what it was.
“I do,” she murmured, handing the skillet to Dawn. I did.
When Dawn reached for the hand, her other hand holding the bowl with the dishcloth slipped, and the bowl clattered to the floor, shattering in chunky pieces of white porcelain. The girl squeaked, dropping the skillet as well, and her hand flew to her mouth, looking up with big watery blue eyes. “Mr. Gold, I’m so-I’m so, so sorry, it was an ac-”
“Shut up,” Mr. Gold snarled, and Belle almost turned on him to defend Dawn, but he wasn’t even looking at the girl, instead staring at the far wall. They all went quiet before Belle heard it again-another louder thump against the outside of the cabin. It shook the entire wall, and Emma and Jefferson simultaneously dove for the hurricane lamps, killing the lights immediately. There was a lot of shuffling and muffled whispers across the room, and in the dark, Belle felt a hand on her back press her down into the floor. Her heart had already begun to pound, and she went down quietly, closing her eyes.
When she was on her soapy wet hands and knees, she opened her eyes and let her vision adjust to the shadows. The thumping was growing louder and more insistent, like birds flying into their windows, and Mr. Gold was crouched beside her, carefully laying his cane down on the floor. He put a finger to his lips, and Belle nodded. He crept forward awkwardly with his weakened leg, and she followed. There were thin strips of moonlight leaking through the boarded windows and the small peephole in the front door, but in the silence, Belle could hear how loud it was outside. It sounded like hundreds of people were on the porch, bumping into each other, and a steadily building low moan was creeping through the cabin walls.
Belle broke out in a cold sweat, and Dawn fidgeted until she was pressed to Belle’s side and clutching her hand. There was no way anyone could have gotten past the fence-she’d seen it when she’d come in from outside with Lan, and now it sounded like the undead were congregating on their porch, the shattered bowl having drawn more attention.
In the dark, Lan had withdrawn her sword and had her back pressed against the wall beside the front door. Mr. Gold sat back against the kitchen counter beside Belle, toeing off his shoes to move around quieter and with more ease, and Belle followed suit. They stayed quiet for a few moments before he turned his head to whisper against her ear, his lips almost tickling and his breath hot in her hair, “Do you still have your crowbar?”
Belle’s eyes flickered to the kitchen table where her weapon lay, and she nodded.
“Get it,” Mr. Gold whispered, before leaning up on his knees and getting back into a crouch. She watched him disappear into the shadows of the room before sitting up on her knees to get the crowbar. She bit down on her lip to hold in the sudden yelp of pain when she pressed down on a broken piece of porcelain, falling back with a muffled thump. Lan shot them both a look, and Dawn looked up at her in worry. Belle shook her head and leaned forward to pick the piece out of her skin, blood dripping down her leg.
They waited, holding their breaths until they were sure the sound had gone unnoticed. The undead were making enough noise of their own that Belle figured they must not have heard it.
Mr. Gold came back, his limp completely silent. He had a pistol in his hand with an extended barrel, and when he came up to the front door, bracing his shoulder against it, Lan slowly stood up to join him. He looked out the peephole, and out of the corner of her eye, Belle could see Jefferson and Emma pressed against the wall near the windows.
Pulling away from the door, Gold gestured to Emma, and she and Jefferson picked their way carefully through the living room until they were standing in a small group. Belle tugged Dawn with her, and they leaned close to Lan, all of them straining to hear Mr. Gold’s voice.
“There’s at least a dozen,” he rasped, his hand tight on the gun by his good leg. “Maybe more.”
“We’ve had more than that,” Lan muttered.
“Not on our doorstep,” Emma shot back, and Mr. Gold nodded once. The sheriff glanced over Belle’s head before whispering, “Back door. We can come around the house and take them out quietly before most of them notice.”
Mr. Gold pointed to the door and Emma, Jefferson, and Lan filed out, with him at the end. Belle grabbed his wrist, tugging him until he turned back to her, and she leaned forward, whispering, “I don’t know how to fight people-”
“You’re not going to,” Mr. Gold whispered back, his eyes hardening as he watched her face. He glanced back at Dawn. “You stay here, guard the door. Make sure no one goes in or out unless it’s us.”
With a reluctant nod, she let go of his wrist. Another loud thump against the side of the house jarred them both, and Belle gestured for Dawn to follow her. The backdoor was through the walk-in pantry and laundry room past the kitchen, and Belle followed Mr. Gold to catch the outer screen door before it could slam. She crouched down, and pressed her hand to the door, listening for noise.
There were no gunshots that she could hear, save for muffled groans and loud shuffling through the leaves. Dawn stayed near the pantry, several feet back from Belle, and they waited with baited breath, listening. She wondered where the others had gone, the kids, Granny-as soon as the lights went out, it had been hard to hear anything. She sat up enough to peek through the screen door, but it was too dark to really make much out besides trees.
A loud crunching against the leaves made Belle suddenly push herself to stand up, and she gestured at Dawn to get back. She held her crowbar between her hands, bracing herself just as the door was thrown open, and Jefferson barreled through, clicking his teeth in agitation. He pushed past Belle to go into the pantry, and came back with a toolbox.
“Is-is it okay?” she asked, confused when he didn’t say anything.
“Go get Ruby,” Jefferson growled, and Belle blanched, taking a step back. She had never seen him so angry, and his blue eyes flashed with a fever that she was glad wasn’t directed at her. “We’re dealing with this tonight.”
“I’ll do it,” Dawn whispered, running back through the house. Belle frowned, glancing between the two directions both Dawn and Jefferson had gone before she opened the back door and crept outside. He hadn’t been in a particular hurry, and he hadn’t been wielding his bush axe, so Belle felt it safe enough to walk towards the front door.
Lan and Emma were on the outside of the fence, kicking and pushing at a large pile of leaves while Jefferson worked at a sizeable piece of the fence that had been completely snapped in half. Staring harder, Belle realized that the pile was in fact, not leaves, but bodies, and she felt her stomach roll at the realization. Her ears started to ring by the time she reached the porch where Mr. Gold stood, arms crossed and leaning against one of the wooden beams as he watched. Belle came to stand beside him, feeling a wetness on the porch seep through her socks. She was too afraid to look down and see what it was.
“What do we do with them?” Belle asked, watching the two women kick at the bodies to get them more compactly stacked. She was glad that it was so dark she couldn’t make out any faces.
“Burn them, in the morning,” Mr. Gold muttered, frowning. “Not tonight, the light would attract too much attention and their smell can act as a cloaking agent,” he glanced at Belle, his eyes dark but he really only looked tired. “Everything can be a trigger, and smell is one of the strongest.”
“No one was hurt, were they?”
“Not yet,” Mr. Gold muttered cryptically, his eyes fixing on a point behind Belle. When she turned, Ruby was striding through the leaves, and the others looked up in time to see Jefferson charge at her.
“Jefferson, stop!” Emma ran to the fence, but the man in question was on the war path.
His hand went around the woman’s throat before she could back away, and Belle took a step to rush forward and help, but Mr. Gold grabbed her arm and kept her on the porch with him. When she looked up at him, he was watching the exchange, and for all she wanted to rip from his hold, she didn’t try to interfere. She was still a stranger to these people.
“You were supposed to check the fences-that’s your job,” Jefferson growled, stumbling in his anger. He didn’t seem to be hurting Ruby, but the girl was completely tense and wriggling against his hold.
“I did!” Ruby snapped, trying to shake him off.
“Then why were those pieces of shit in our yard, Ruby?” Jefferson was raising his voice almost enough for it to echo in the woods, but no one, not even Mr. Gold, tried to stop him. Belle wanted to step forward, to say she'd seen Ruby doing exactly what she said, but Mr. Gold's hand was still on her arm and Jefferson looked ready to embed his axe into anyone who tried to stop him from making his point.
The girl flashed her teeth, shoving at him in the chest until he broke his hold on her, and she shouted back, “I don’t know, but it was secure when I went in!”
“Guys, stop,” Emma finally got through the fence and pushed both of them apart, baring her teeth. “Mistakes happen-”
“Her carelessness could have killed Grace or Henry,” Jefferson shot back, venom in his words and fire in his eyes. Belle held her breath, and Ruby went completely pale, shaking her head.
“No, I swear,” she said, looking from Jefferson to Emma, pleadingly. “I swear, Emma, I didn’t-I didn’t do this. Everything was right when I left.”
“I don’t think she’s lying,” Lan said, so quietly yet so strongly that they all fell silent. She was knelt down by the fence, and when she stood up, she boasted a pair of wire cutters. Moving past the three in the yard, Lan walked up to the porch and held the tool up to Mr. Gold, who stared for a long moment before taking them from her. “These yours?”
Emma, Jefferson, and Ruby moved to the porch steps, too, until Mr. Gold shook his head. “No, they’re not.”
Belle narrowed her eyes at the fence, seeing for the first time that the fence wasn’t just broken but snipped in a perfect line. She shoved her hands in her pockets, frowning. “So someone cut a hole in the fence after we were inside?”
“No just that, they had to lead that group out here,” Emma muttered, putting her boot up on the step. She rubbed her face, exhaustion making her look even more drawn and pale than Belle first thought. “Someone went to a lot of trouble to piss us off. Or at least kill us all.”
After a moment of utter silence that seemed too loud, Belle shook her head, whispering, “But who would want to do that?”
Mr. Gold looked at Jefferson, who hadn’t said anything for a while. He and the pawnbroker exchanged a look that could have been an entire conversation before the younger man ran a hand through his hair, looking like he’d rather pull it out.
Chapter 10: Wanderlust
Sorry, in advance.
For all the anger that had been boiling the night before, nothing scared Belle more than Granny.
“If you don’t eat, I’ll shove it down your throat,” the old woman growled, glaring at Emma who was giving her the stink eye. Belle herself sat rooted to her chair, staring at her own plate of scrambled eggs and feeling ill. She knew Mrs. Lucas was exaggerating, was burning through her own fear by harnessing anger, but her own experience with restraints and force-feeding from her first year in the asylum held nothing but bad memories. She pushed her food around half-heartedly with her fork, swallowing down bile before taking a small bite, but she knew if she carried on at that pace, she would be left behind when the others went into town for Mr. Nolan’s truck.
“Are you okay?” Grace asked, her voice soft from Belle’s right. The girl was working through a bowl of cereal, her warm smiling eyes and honey hair cut short with a little bow to hold back her bangs making her seem for all the world even younger than she was. There was a softness and a kindness about her that was from her father and only made her seem sad.
Belle mustered a smile for her, whispering, “Yeah, I’m okay.”
“I don’t have time for this. I need to help Mr. Gold and David,” Emma said, flexing her hands at her sides before trying to step around the old woman. Instead, she just blocked her path before thrusting out a plate of bacon and eggs at her.
“No one’s going hungry. You won’t be worth a lick of good unless you take care of yourself, so start with the simple stuff,” Granny said. She and Emma glared at each other for a full minute before Emma took the plate and slammed it down on the kitchen table, making Dawn, Belle, and Grace collectively jump.
Lan smirked, though, biting into a strip of bacon. “She’s right, you know.”
Emma speared some of her eggs, narrowing her eyes across the table. “Thanks, peanut gallery.”
“Maybe if you got up earlier to eat with the others, you wouldn’t be pouting,” Granny went on, and Belle swore she could hear Emma grinding her teeth.
“Is my dad going with you?” Grace asked, spooning some cereal with cut strawberries, but not taking the bite yet.
“No, he stayed up and kept watch last night,” Lan said, finishing her bacon and wiping her mouth. “David’s going in his place.”
The young girl didn’t quite smile, but Belle could tell she was relieved. She couldn’t blame her, either. Knowing her own father was out there somewhere was enough to keep Belle up at night, but she wondered how many times Grace watched her father leave, not knowing if he’d come back.
“I wish I could help more,” Dawn said eventually, wincing when she glanced at Emma. The blonde had her mouth stuffed with eggs, giving Dawn the opportunity to rush on. “I just feel useless staying behind. I don’t even know how to shoot a gun.”
“Neither do I,” Belle said, swirling her milk in her glass.
“We should teach them,” Lan said, blinking across the table at Emma. “To shoot, and fight, and anything else they should know that they don’t. What if we get split up?”
“Look,” Emma paused, grabbing a napkin before she belched, making Grace snicker. The sheriff closed her eyes, gathering herself from a food-induced headrush before clearing her throat. “Sorry-look, I’m the last one who has a problem with everyone knowing how to defend and protect our group. If Belle and Dawn want to learn how to handle themselves, they should.”
“I do,” Dawn piped, nodding enthusiastically.
When Belle said nothing, Grace leaned forward and asked, “What about me?”
Emma’s blue-green eyes widened, and the silence that fell over the table was so dense Belle thought she could probably reach out and touch it. She ate more eggs, instead. Lan picked up a mug of coffee and put it to her lips, shrugging and saying, “It wouldn’t hurt.”
“That’s not for you to decide,” Emma said quickly, shooting her an angry look.
“Is it because I’m too young?” Grace asked, sounding hurt.
“Guns are dangerous, and sometimes even the people who handle them can make mistakes and get hurt,” Belle said suddenly, not realizing she was speaking until the words were already out. She felt her heart racing in her chest, but Emma seemed grateful for her contribution, so she swallowed down her nausea and turned to Grace, giving her a patient attempt at a smile. “Any stressful situation you might be in will make it more difficult to handle, too.”
“There’s still things she could learn,” Lan offered, and frowning under Emma’s dark look, clarified, “Like tracking, or outdoor survival skills. I could teach her that.”
“That wouldn’t be such a bad idea,” Emma admitted, looking down at her plate. Belle thought she looked like a grumpy child who had to come in out of the rain when all they wanted to do was play. “There’s some stuff I’d like to teach Henry, too. We’ll work on it, okay? After we ask your dad,” she added, her eyes widening for a moment with a little shudder.
Despite her rolling stomach, Belle was the first to finish her plate and took it to the sink to wash and dry. “I’m going to go help outside,” she said, and picked her crowbar up before anyone could try to stop her, slipping out the front door.
That was her first mistake, because the overwhelming stench that hit her had her falling to her knees, almost throwing up the entire meal she’d managed to choke down. Her eyes watered against the pungent smell of smoke and burning hair that mingled with the dead leaves and humidity of the woods. Blinking through the haze that was too far to see from the window in front of the dining table, Belle could make out the thick smoky cloud billowing up from the pile of undead from the night before where orange tongues of flame licked them black and grey. David stood with a cloth pressed to his nose and mouth as he squirted more lighter fluid upon the pyre, fanning the flames.
“Miss French,” Mr. Gold called, and it took Belle a moment to find him. Her eyes watered from the smoke, and she peered around until she found him on the other side of the fence near the opposite side of the house where Jefferson parked his motorcycle. All too willing to escape the smell of burning and decay, Belle scrambled off the porch, the jeans Aurora had loaned her pulling tight as she slid off the edge. She kept a tight hold on her crowbar while tugging the thin neckline of her shirt up over her nose and breathing through her mouth. Coming up to the fence, she found Mr. Gold with a bright orange paisley silk handkerchief pressed to his nose and mouth, holding up the chain link for her to scramble underneath and join him. He looked more a man than a shadow today, wearing nothing but a plain white button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and black trousers that were nearly threadbare, but he looked more rested, fresher than she could remember seeing him. Perhaps it had been his turn to use the shower, though he was beginning to sport a rather scruffy beard.
“Is that really necessary?” Belle asked, once they’d walked far enough away that they could uncover their faces. “I thought you said the fire would attract attention.”
“At night,” Mr. Gold said, tucking the pocket square in the left pocket of his trousers, leaning heavily on his cane as they walked at a slower pace. Belle didn’t know where they were going-in fact, she couldn’t tell any difference this far out in the woods. All the trees had the same half dead bark, all the leaves were mottled green and brown, dying under their boots. “In the day there’s more activity in Storybrooke, so the dead get drawn to them.”
“What do you mean by that?” Belle frowned, crossing her arms and looking up at him. He wouldn’t look at her, his silver streaked hair creating a curtain that separated them, so she pressed him. “You’ve said that before-Storybrooke. There are still people there-are they trapped?”
“Help me with this,” Mr. Gold said, changing the subject and gesturing with his cane to a car that was covered with a camouflage tarp. Belle would have missed it if he hadn’t made her pay attention. Frowning, she went to the passenger side and started folding it back to reveal a black Cadillac underneath. Mr. Gold balled the tarp up and popped the trunk, stuffing it in. When she joined him at the back, her eyebrows shot up to her hairline to find a first aid kit, canned foods, a spare tool box, an axe, several guns she couldn’t recognize, and and a duffle underneath.
“Are you planning on going somewhere?” she asked hesitantly as he took out two cherry red gasoline tanks. Her mouth twisted in a wry smile at the ancient car, adding, “In this thing?”
“It’s not like I had my choice of picking when the world came to an end,” Mr. Gold shot back, giving her an annoyed look.
“And are we driving this into town?”
“Just outside it,” Mr. Gold said, slamming the trunk down and showing her the keys. “Easier to carry back things we might need, and I can’t make the walk with my leg the way it is.”
That surprised Belle, and she supposed she should have thought about it before. The man walked with a cane, but it seemed as though one had to be able to run and climb to survive against what they faced. Since he was the one to bring it up though, Belle didn’t feel like it was too touchy a subject to venture on. He unlocked the doors and got behind the wheel, and she slipped into the passenger seat, the red interior hard on her eyes for the first few moments. She set her crowbar up against the bottom of the seat beside his cane. When he started the engine, she almost leapt right back out of the car, startling violently enough to upset him, too.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked, trying to glare at her but only managing to stare with wide eyes. She imagined his heart was racing just like her own.
“Sorry-I’m sorry, it’s just-” Belle wetted her lips, swallowing hard as she breathed through her nose. “I haven’t… it’s just loud.”
Mr. Gold watched her, his eyes narrowing. Belle glanced at him, her fingers digging into the cushion of her seat. “It’s been a few years since I’ve driven anywhere. It just...it’s loud.”
“You’re not going to get sick, are you?” he asked, looking more unsure to have her with him. For some reason, that bothered Belle more than the past two days combined. She frowned, turning to him and keeping her hands on the seat.
“I said I was going to help. We have a deal, remember?”
Chuckling with a laugh that crawled over her skin, Mr. Gold turned his face back to the windshield and threw the old car into gear before maneuvering quietly through the trees to the main road, nodding. “That we do.”
When they’d been driving for about two minutes, the pawnbroker hit the breaks, giving Belle only enough time to brace herself so she wouldn’t hit the windshield. Emma, David, and Lan filtered out from between the trees, traipsing down the slight slope of the hill from the cabin carrying tools, more empty jugs for gasoline, and Belle was quick to note the two blonds carrying guns.
“Should I sit in the back?” Belle asked quietly, flinching when David slammed the trunk of the car with more force than necessary.
Mr. Gold opened his mouth to speak, but the three others clambered into the back before he could say anything, Lan sitting in the middle and almost swallowed by the other two. Belle tightened her seat belt and ducked her head, her heart thumping in her chest hard enough to hurt. Her last experience dealing with the dead and David hadn’t been a good one, and she didn’t relish the idea of being cooped up with a man who was an emotional ticking time bomb.
The silence hurt her ears, and the bumpy ride over gravel and undergrowth made her jump. She had the urge to start a conversation, but nothing came to mind that would be relevant or useful for their mission, so Belle bit her lip and kept quiet. She didn’t want to be the cause of someone not paying attention either-out in the woods, she imagined it was easy to mistake a tree for a walker, and she didn’t think that getting stuck closer to town would be such a good idea.
Instead of heading for town, though, Mr. Gold swiveled the car with expertise and started heading towards the outskirts. No one mentioned it, though, so she assumed it was all understood protocol until he pulled the car up against the iron wrought fence of a cemetery.
Belle was unable to keep the noise in the back of her throat to herself, and when everyone turned their eyes to her, she felt a blush heat her face, stuttering, “The c-cemetery?”
“Well no one has a reason to be here,” Emma said bitterly from behind her seat, shoving open her door and climbing out of the car.
Staying rooted to the spot, Belle stared out the window at the sight while everyone else got out, though Lan paused to put her hand to her shoulder with a gentle squeeze before following suit. Fear gripped her like a cage pressing in tighter until she couldn’t breathe, and she suddenly felt claustrophobic, the weight of the gravestones and the hundreds of bodies without burial sites lining the fences on the inside, covered in white sheets making it hard to feel anything more than panic.
By the time Belle could calm her heart enough to open the door, David had a shotgun slung over his shoulder and was staring at the edge of town that was just around the bend of the road from the cemetery. Tying her belt loop around her crowbar, Belle sniffled and swallowed her tears, trying to ignore the overwhelming buzz of flies darting about the bloodied, stained sheets in the cemetery and took two of the gasoline jugs from Lan.
Everything has a reason, Belle thought morosely, blinking her swollen eyes free of tears. Even this. There must always be a reason. Get Mr. Nolan’s truck, look for dad, get out.
The walk into town was short, but it still left her sweaty and hot, the summer sun high above them. Belle kept close beside Lan, walking behind Emma and David with Mr. Gold behind them. The town was devoid of people, it seemed, save for the jumped cars and overturned houses and shops. Debris was everywhere, and if Belle hadn’t known better, she would have thought everyone would have simply disappeared altogether. Perhaps that would have been better, in the long run.
The warehouse near the marina that David led them to was devoid of people as well, but there were cars blocking the street and alleyways. As they picked their way through the shattered glass and debris, Belle saw cars that had been stripped of parts, some missing tires, others with busted windshields. Lan walked ahead with quiet steps, frowning as she peered into an old jalopy and a second-hand Honda civic. “Not much to pick from,” she said.
“Most people took their things with them,” David said, lugging the empty gasoline tank as he surveyed the cars. “Anything left over, the mayor had stripped for parts and supplies.”
“They took all the boats?” Belle asked, following Lan step for step. Inside the warehouse, it was mostly empty, save for some cargo and storage boxes. She scratched the back of her head. “Does the bay actually lead anywhere?”
“Just the Atlantic,” Mr. Gold murmured, leaning back against the jalopy and resting his leg. He had sweat soaking the sides of his face and his throat, and Belle had to blink beads out of her own eyes. “Though I think your chances out there would be a deal better than here.”
“I think this one’s good,” Lan said, waving a hand from a shiny green volvo parked near the back. She got out of the driver’s seat and pulled the lever to open the gas tank as David unrolled the hose he’d wrapped around one of the jugs.
“Which truck is Mr. Nolan’s?” Belle asked, looking down at the other end of the warehouse where more cars were clustered. It was like everyone abandoned their vehicles at the same time, but that didn’t make any sense. It seemed like that would be what would save someone, a way of transportation.
“I left it parked on the other end,” David called over his shoulder before going back to sucking air through the hose.
“An old red ford pick-up,” Mr. Gold muttered, watching Lan as they siphoned the gas. When Belle began to walk across the length of the warehouse, Gold did a double take, “Don’t wander off!”
“I’m just going to see if the truck is here,” Belle said, smiling gently. Her anxiety and need to move was building, mounting on the idea she could find her father soon. She could be with him again, in just a few hours. “I’m not even leaving the building.”
Mr. Gold’s eyes lingered on her for a moment, but before either could say anything, David was gagging on the gurgling gasoline that had erupted from the hose, leaving Lan snorting her laughter. Belle turned and began walking, but Gold growled, “Hold it right there, dearie.”
Pausing to give him time to catch up with her, Mr. Gold swung her around with a hand on her shoulder, glaring down. “What did I say before we left?”
Belle let out a sharp breath through her nose. “Don’t wander off.”
“And what are you doing?”
“I’m not wandering, I’m right he-”
“One moment,” Mr. Gold snapped, and his teeth clicked in a snarl that made Belle jump. His hand was on her wrist, and she couldn’t remember him grabbing her. “One moment is all it takes for anything to happen, and then you’re gone-do you understand?”
With her mouth bone dry, she nodded hesitantly, her voice a mere whisper, “Y-Yes, sir.”
“Good.” He let go of her, flexing his fingers before turning and limping towards the other side of the warehouse. Belle followed, her heart sitting heavily in her chest, but she tried to ignore that feeling. She wasn’t so immature that she couldn’t handle being chastised, but it pained her to know that the people she was working to earn the good graces of only saw her as a child. “That’s it, right there,” Gold said suddenly, stopping as Belle caught up to him. “The red Ford.”
It was wedged between the wall and a minivan, but it was accessible enough for someone slim to get the door open and get in. Belle didn’t think David would much care if they scratched the paint job. “This and gas, right?” she asked, feeling her spirits lighten more when Mr. Gold smiled a little too.
“Yeah, and another step toward us getting out,” he said with a more enthusiastic nod.
Belle walked forward, thinking she could wedge herself between the wall and the truck and slip in through the window if it was open, but when the toe of her boot connected with a glass bottle (a baby bottle, she would think later) and sent it skittering across the concrete floor, it sent a tingling shock up her whole body that slowed down what happened next.
A trigger off to her right snapped like a bow, and a snare that had been pinned to the wall beside her whipped up around Belle’s leg to catch raggedly at her knee. It hauled her back, upside down, and then up, up, and up. A hot, prickling pain broke out from atop her ankle to the apex of her thigh, burning her entire right leg as she swung through the air screaming, biting on her arm until blood welled in her mouth.
The line was connected though, because Belle had enough time to see the wire trip one of the cars before the alarm was set off, a blaring wail the echoed within the warehouse.
“What the hell did you do?” Lan vaulted over the hood of one of the cars, sprinting towards Belle.
“One of the Mayor’s bloody traps,” Mr. Gold snarled, limping quickly and throwing the hood of the minivan open, the source of the noise.
“Get me down!” Belle shrieked, kicking her free leg in a blind panic. The snare itself had set its teeth into the thick of her jeans and into the flesh above her knee. Hot, sticky blood was soaking the fabric through, and running up her leg. Raising up only dug the teeth into the muscles deeper, and she bit down on her knuckles again to keep from raising her voice when David and Lan hissed for her to be quiet.
“It’s a chain,” David said, running to the wall where the snare had been connected to its trigger. He knelt down, growling at the artwork of metal, “They welded it-I can’t cut through this, even if I had anything to cut through it with.”
Lan unsheathed her sword, her stony face going bloodless. “Gold, you have to disable the alarm, now.”
“I’m trying,” the Scotsman snapped, his hands turning black as he handled the battery connection beneath the hood. When nothing happened, he slammed his hands on the engine and let loose a rumbling, “Fuck!”
“You’re going to have every living and dead thing filling the bay up, Gold,” Lan warned, her voice breaking its usual calm level and turning shrill in her panic.
“Take the gas back to the cabin,” Mr. Gold said suddenly, turning on both Lan and David with near pitch black eyes. His lip was curled back from his teeth and he tore the minivan door open with white knuckles. “That’s what we came for.”
“Are you insane?” David stared at him before turning and looking flatly at Belle. “Absolutely not. Leave her, and let’s go.”
There was a moment’s hesitation in Mr. Gold’s face, and Belle thought he would agree.
“I wasn’t asking for your opinion, Nolan,” the pawnbroker finally said, falling back into the front seat and tossing the Cadillac keys at David. He used his fist and slammed into the compartment beneath the steering wheel, growling. “Take the gas and get a head start. I’ll get the alarm off and the girl down. We’ll take your truck and meet you on the road back.”
Belle felt the hot trickle of blood falling in her face, and she whimpered, struggling against gravity to wipe it away. Her crowbar slapped against her back from where it hung on her belt as she twisted, gasping to breathe, “I can’t feel my leg anymore!”
“Go!” Mr. Gold barked at the other two, leaning down beneath the steering wheel.
Lan was the first to move, running back to pick up the hose and the gas tanks, which she shoved at David’s chest. “Come on.”
David spared Belle one last begrudging glance before following Lan, both of them loping back down the length of the warehouse before disappearing around the jumble of cars. Belle gnawed on her knuckles for what felt like an eternity before the alarm cut off, and she opened her eyes to see Mr. Gold slam the minivan door shut. He braced both hands against the door, his shoulders and back tense, rising and falling as he breathed deeply. Then, he turned and looked at up at her, frowning. “A knife might be able to get through the snare.”
“I don’t think I can hold myself up that long,” Belle whimpered, the blood rushing in her ears making her entire head ache. The heavy breakfast she’d eaten was also threatening to come back up, and her entire body was throbbing.
“You don’t have a choice, darling,” he said, taking the hunting knife from his belt. He tossed it up, and Belle grappled to catch it, her fingers wrapping around the leather holster gratefully. “Just remember to fall on your back.”
Wrestling the holster off the knife, Belle shoved it between her teeth as something to bite down on and took a deep breath. Leaning up once more and whimpering when the snare tightened, she began to saw at the roped cable, huffing through her nose and digging her teeth into the leather of the holster.
At first, she’d mistook it to be the pounding in her head and her own groaning, but when she took a moment to breathe, releasing herself to swing back and forth, the noises she heard weren’t her own. From the closest end of the warehouse, shapes moved underneath the sunlight, bumping through the maze of stalled and parked cars. Blinking through sweat, Belle counted two, then five. And then a cluster, a herd of bodies that stumbled and staggered, bumping into cars and each other.
Belle kept the holster wedged between her teeth, though her mouth had gone dry. When she looked at Mr. Gold, he was staring at her, half in horror and half in determination. He lifted a hand to his face, one finger to his lips, signaling her silence as he slipped into the front seat of the truck, pulling the door shut and rolling the windows up by the cranks. They hadn’t seen him yet, and Belle slipped the knife back into the holster as carefully as she could before unhooking her crowbar from the loop of her belt with slow, concentrated movements.
Upside down or rightside up, they’d die if she aimed for the head, and Belle knew she had to buy Mr. Gold enough time to hotwire the truck. With a deep, steadying breath, she whistled as loud as she could through bloody, trembling fingers. The nearest runner to her stumbled through two rows of cars, barreling toward her with grasping hands that would at least reach her hair, had Ruby not cut it.
Throwing her free leg forward, Belle swung herself backward and used gravity to push herself forward, swinging the crowbar with everything she had. She clocked the dead man at its temple, turning her face away as it crunched and sloughed off the hooked tip like a wet cantaloupe.
When the blood hit her face that time, she knew it wasn’t her own. It had a heavy putrid smell, but she kept her mouth closed in case any got past her lips. Swinging in the air, though, was a mistake, and she felt the threads of the rope holding her up begin to slacken where she’d cut it, unraveling and snapping just before she fell towards the ground and the hungry swarm of bodies waiting beneath.
Chapter 11: Busted
Belle knew that she screamed, but she couldn’t hear it over the shrieking of tires on the concrete, and instead of falling into a frenzy of grappling walking dead, her back hit the empty bed of David Nolan’s truck with a resounding metallic clang when Mr. Gold slammed on the gas to catch her. She hadn’t even heard the truck start up, but she couldn’t hear anything over the moaning and groaning as the bodies began to bump against the sides of the red pick-up.
Scrambling towards the back window, Gold shoved it open, and Belle clambered through, thankful for the first time in her life for her slight, short stature. She was almost completely inside the cab when one of the undead caught her boot, making her scream and attempt to kick through the window.
Grinding his teeth, Gold threw up one hand to cover his ear before putting the butt of his pistol on Belle’s calf to steady his aim. He pulled the trigger without warning, and Belle felt the creature that had clutched her foot fall away, blood spraying against the back window, leaving her panting with her ears ringing painfully from the gunshot inside the truck’s cabin. She fell over the seat and into the floor when the pawnbroker slammed on the gas again and heaved the truck forward. It took her a lot of groping and grappling about the truck to right herself, and she shoved the back window shut before buckling her seatbelt when she saw what they had to do.
Mr. Gold grit his teeth hard, his gold tooth glinting against the light, and threw the truck forward, ramming the front bumper into the cars that blocked the exit. In any other situation, Belle would be screaming at him to stop, but with the growing horde at their back, she simply braced herself against the dashboard and held on when he threw it into reverse. The truck hit at least a dozen dead people behind them, and Belle could feel them under the tires when he threw the gear back and rammed the vehicle forward again, shoving the cars out of their way until the rusted pickup barreled through the other picked-apart cars. It skidded over the curb and took out a mailbox, but he righted it out of a fishtail and sped down the back street that hugged the woods.
Every nerve ending in her body was raw and sizzling, but Belle couldn’t think about what had just happened. She couldn’t process that she’d been in terrible danger, her life threatened, or that she was bleeding, shaking, and crying all at the same time. Past the aching pain in her temple, the only thing she could do was breathe, and that was hard enough.
Neither of them spoke as Gold drove along the outskirts of the town, the speedometer never going beneath seventy. Belle felt a weak voice in the back of her mind wishing he would slow down-what if something or someone jumped out in front of them?-but she couldn’t form the words. If she opened her mouth, she would vomit all over Mr. Nolan’s truck, so she just gripped the door handle and the bottom of the seat and watched dilapidated buildings and debris go by in a dull blur.
When he turned onto a street that had an old convenience store on the corner, he shouted a harsh, “Fuck!”
His foot hit the break, and Belle let out a scream on reflex when his arm went out to catch her from getting thrown against the dashboard. The truck’s tires squealed, and the vehicle itself spun at an angle when he threw the steering wheel around to dodge the road obstruction. It seemed to take forever yet only a moment before they were sitting side by side, panting and watching dust fly up off the road from the skid. He killed the engine and let his hands fall into his lap with a great sigh.
“What is that?” Belle croaked, her chest rising and falling in quick succession to catch her breath. It was the only thing keeping her upright, and as gruesome as the sight was in front of her, she couldn’t-could not look away.
Mr. Gold leaned his forearms against the steering wheel, staring forlornly ahead. “Storybrooke.”
It was a large, crude fence constructed of all manner of wood, brick, and tin. At the top, tufts of barbed wire were gleaming under the sunlight. At the base of the fence, there were long poles of wood that were carved into spikes at the tips to keep anyone or anything from trying to take it down, supported by bags of sand. Belle counted eleven dead people who had been impaled and were hanging, trapped, off the spikes, reaching arms out towards the truck.
Their noises, guttural, inhuman, insatiable, was the worst thing about them, Belle decided.
“I don’t understand,” she whispered, watching the bodies and avoiding the faces. She was afraid, she realized, of finding someone she knew-her father, or anyone else. The panic rising in her throat was too much to bear, and she suddenly and surprisingly wished that David Nolan was with them. His blunt force and aggressive attitude towards the dead people was comforting, if sometimes off-putting, and she couldn’t stand to look at them. Would she ever get to that point, that indifference? She shivered at the thought.
“When the Mayor took over Storybrooke, she enlisted a new law enforcement to make sure the core of the town couldn’t be contaminated,” Mr. Gold muttered, his back falling against the seat. He rubbed his face tiredly, his wrinkled, dusty dress shirt hanging off of him at an untidy and loose angle. Belle hadn’t seen how much he’d been sweating through it before until she was right beside him, and only remembered suddenly how nice she thought he’d looked that morning. “Now, no one goes in, and no one comes out.”
“I was able to get out,” Belle said weakly, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.
“The hospital isn’t within the bounds of the town’s zone anymore. When the outbreak hit, everyone went there, and it spread from the hospitals and clinics the fastest,” he leaned forward again, staring at the walkers with his chin in his hand and his elbow against the steering wheel. If she didn’t know better, he almost looked peaceful, and that bothered her more than she could say. “So there was a greater number of infected people in those areas. That’s why Jefferson hasn’t told anyone where he found you,” he said, finally turning to look at her.
Belle frowned, the pain in her temple going down to her jaw now, and felt something wet slide down the side of her face when she did. “Because they’d all wonder how I survived. And I’d have to tell them about the asylum.”
“That is my guess, yes.”
“I’m not unstable,” Belle blurted out suddenly, her own eyes widening at the words and, what was more, the urge to say them. She didn’t know why his opinion mattered so much to her, but she needed him-someone-to be able to trust her, for him to know she wasn’t a liability. The whole point of going with them today was to prove that much, but it seemed it was only ever Mr. Gold who saw her trying. Perhaps it was because he was the only one who knew her, who knew anything about her, but she needed him to trust her, at least about that. “I’m just...”
Mr. Gold watched her from the safety of the steering wheel, his eyes creasing about the edges. He didn’t say anything, didn’t ask her to go on, but she knew he wanted to know. If anyone could know her more, he was her first chance.
Of course, that trust would come at a price. Belle thought about her life before the hospital. A different world of fresh cut grass on a historical university, pages of crisp books to read, essays and lectures to write and annotate, and the occasional Friday night date to the zoo or the aquarium with a nice boy. It seemed more like a dream, when she thought about it as she was now-blood stained, injured, twitching and itching and reeking of sweat and death and dust.
“I was a year from getting my Master’s degree,” Belle whispered. She felt disconnected from herself, saying the words, but she hadn’t told anyone else in so long what had happened. It wasn’t hard like she thought it would be-just empty. An aching and cold hollowness sitting in her chest where her fear and pain usually pulsed, ugly and sharp. “I was with a study group in the university library and a kid… I think he was a math major. I’d seen him once buying frozen yogurt-” A sob was building low in her chest, and she took a deep breath, closing her eyes. “He came into the library with a gun. I don’t… it was so quiet. He was so quiet about it. One or two people were screaming, but it was such a regular-such a normal day that I just thought-I remember thinking that it was probably just some kids being stupid and loud in the library. And it took too long for anyone to hear them. No one was listening.”
Mr. Gold’s breath hitched beside her, and she bit on her lip hard. It helped dull the pain in her head.
“They tell you to hide in school, when you’re little, but people-people were just so scared,” Belle whispered, looking down at her hands crumpled in her lap. She opened her fingers, her palms streaked with dirt and blood. “We just tried to run. A lot of people fell down the stairs, or just fell over nothing rushing to the exits, and, um-” Sniffling, she closed her eyes again and saw the boy in the suit with the gun, crying like he was lost. “I don’t think he was wanting to hurt anyone. I don’t think he even understood what was going on at that point. He shot a girl beside me, but she didn’t...it was in the shoulder, and I couldn’t just leave her so I tried to take her with me but she was bleeding a lot-it was just everywhere, and it was all over us.”
Belle stopped, her chest too tight to speak anymore, and the pain in her head was becoming unbearable. She felt as if she were talking too much, anyway. When she looked up from her hands at Mr. Gold, he was staring out the window at the dead people with his own hands on the wheel like he was comprehending ramming the gate. When he finally looked at her, realizing she wasn’t going to continue her story, his eyes went wide and he whispered, “You’re bleeding.”
Mr. Gold unbuckled his seat belt and slid towards her. He touched her chin tenderly, just a brush of his fingertips to turn her face to the side, and he let out a low, muttered curse. “I’m so sorry.”
Eyes widening, Belle reached up to feel her face in a panic, whispering, “W-What? I’m not bitten- I’m not-”
“No, dearie-stop-it’s not that,” he said quickly, and her heart felt like it took a diving downward spiral before slowly working its way back up to her chest. She continued to feel her face, smearing the wetness on her cheek that she knew to be blood, trying to find the source. “It’s your ear. Must’ve busted when I shot the bastard on your leg earlier,” he muttered, leaning across her to get into the glove box. There were some napkins, and Belle swallowed thickly as he turned her face again and began mopping at the blood that was, indeed, dripping from her ear. She could feel it pooling on her shoulder and seeping through her clothes. It explained why her entire head was pulsing, at least.
“Oh.” After a moment watching his face so close to hers, she swallowed. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. It’s my fault,” Mr. Gold whispered, his eyes never meeting hers.
The sinking realization that he was probably ruminating over his own pity for her and her story struck her harder than any blow ever could, and she was more upset than she’d been before.
“It’s okay. I’m okay,” Belle sniffed hard, wiping at her nose with the back of her hand and feeling something wet and warm smear across her cheek when she did, undoing the meager work he and his napkins had accomplished. She avoided looking at a mirror and frowned down at her knees. “Let’s just find my father, and we’ll get the truck back to the cabin.”
Mr. Gold did meet her eyes then, and something miserable was there as well as frustrated. He winced, muttering, “Miss French, I have to tell you something.”
“Can it wait? We should probably get out of here as fast as possible,” she said, shoving open the door and swinging her feet out. She hooked her crowbar into her belt loop again, the ringing in her ear and the slight pain making her dizzy. “The sooner we get out of here, maybe Granny will have something to help this mess,” she paused, glancing down at where the snare had cut into her leg. The adrenaline from before had dulled it, but she was sure that would become a problem, too.
Slipping down out of the truck, Belle was dimly aware that Mr. Gold said her name. What she was more focused on, though, was the dust rising off the road, preceding a pair of stumbling creatures coming from around the end of the street. Then another set. Then a few more. Her throat began to dry as they poured out from the outer street. They were passing them, without notice, and Belle felt her chest constrict so tightly on a scream that she thought she might finally pass out.
“Miss French,” Mr. Gold’s voice came from inside the truck, pitched low and almost trembling. “Miss French, get back in the truck slowly, please.”
Listening to him and his perilously calm voice helped, and Belle felt with her hands against the paint job broiling under the sunshine to find the edge of the door. She tried sliding back up onto the seat, but forgot about her crowbar, which banged loudly against the metal frame, drawing the dead’s attention. Several of their faces turned toward her, rolling and cracking and snapping, and Belle went still as a deer in headlights before they started pitching forward in a frenzied horde toward them.
Mr. Gold suddenly grabbed her by the shoulders and hauled her backward across the seat, her feet scrabbling to find purchase on the worn leather. One of the creatures lost momentum from running and slammed into the passenger side door, nearly taking it off in its attempt to grab at her legs. Unthinkingly Belle screamed and shoved herself back against Mr. Gold with the heels of her boots until he opened the driver’s door, spilling them both out. He shoved her in front of him toward the convenience store whose sign had fallen off, grabbing his cane and tossing his rifle at her, growling, “Get inside!”
“What about you?” Belle cried, backing up quickly with her hands gripping the gun just as he swung his cane and clipped one of the dead across the face. Belle felt a shudder rock through her as she heard some of its teeth scatter into the bed of the truck. As soon as he got the creature down, he was hopping up onto the sidewalk with her and shoving her forward, ripping open the store’s door and toppling them both inside. With a furious swipe of his arm, he turned the deadbolt on the door before he took the rifle from Belle and slammed the stock down hard enough to break the handle off. Immediately, shoving and banging came from the other side, animalistic growls and shrieks making tears spring to Belle’s eyes.
The other windows were boarded up, so it was hard to see where she was going as Mr. Gold turned her around and pushed her through the store, past overturned aisles and raided shelves.
Using his cane, Mr. Gold flipped up the barrier for them to get behind the counter, but a sudden movement in the shadows made Belle scream, clammy hands gripping her arms and a sharp snapping coming near her face. She threw her hands up, cupping the dead man at the neck to keep his teeth from taking off her nose.
“Look down!” Mr. Gold shouted, suddenly throwing his left arm around Belle from behind and yanking her to the side just as he threw his handgun up, catching the creature in the mouth. She shut her eyes as the silencer went off, and something heavy and wet hit the ground. A warm spray hit her in the face, and she whimpered until Mr. Gold whispered, “Don’t open your eyes or your mouth. Hold onto me and walk forward-take a step, you have to step over him, love-there’s a good girl, now just walk forward and let me lead you, hold onto me-”
Belle’s breath caught a few times, but she had to press her lips together, sweat, blood, and mucus running down her face as she huffed through her nose and clutched with biting nails on the pawnbroker’s arm. He had her walk in front, his left arm wrapped securely around her shoulders like a safety bar on a carnival ride. They went into a room that Belle sensed was darker than the last, and he shut a door firmly behind them. Then, she heard a long creak before he gripped her hand, loosening his arm, and whispered near her ear, “We’re going down some stairs. Take your time-we’re safe now.”
Nodding jerkily, Belle held onto his hand with both of hers and toed her way down the stairs, counting nine total before coming to solid ground.
“Wait here,” Mr. Gold said, and she listened as he went back up, followed by another long creak before he joined her again. He threw down his rifle and his cane before his hands found her arms and led her across the room, muttering, “Hold on. I’m going to wash your face off-you’ve got that bastard’s blood all over you.”
A whimper broke between her lips, but Belle tried to breathe through it. Her mouth felt full of cotton, and she desperately wanted to open her eyes. She heard a faucet chugging to life and the sound of a metal bowl filling. Then, Mr. Gold cupped the back of her head and said, “Lean over, you need to dunk your face in.”
With his hand guiding her, she bent over and submerged her entire face, sloshing her head back and forth quickly before yanking back with a loud, ragged gasp. Some of her hair was plastered to her face, and she scrubbed her dirty hands over her eyes, loud, broken, breathless sobs making her gag on much colder air than outside. Mr. Gold suddenly fought her, trying to keep her hands away, growling, “You have blood on your hands-stop-I said stop!”
Without warning, he shoved her face back into the bowl, and it was all she could do to not inhale the water. He yanked her back, slinging her short, wet hair to slap against her neck. Sobbing like a child, Belle drank in air as he came up behind her and pushed her hands into the water too, scrubbing at her hands and nails until it hurt. By the time he was done, Belle was coughing from crying so hard, and turned away from him, falling on her hands and knees and vomiting across the floor. Her stomach was mostly empty, so not much came up, but she continued to gag pathetically, salt stinging her eyes as she finally opened them, catching her mouth with the back of her hand and shaking so violently she was seeing double.
“Hey,” Mr. Gold knelt beside her and drew her against his chest with one arm, hands that had killed moments before cradling her, letting her shake and gag and cry against his chest. She couldn’t imagine what was wrong with her-she couldn’t stop moving or gasping. She couldn’t simply fall still. His voice rumbled deep in his chest, though, one arm almost painfully tight across her back and the other smoothing her short, curly wet hair back from her face. “Breathe, Belle. You’re safe, now, dearie. Just breathe for me. You’re in shock, love, but it’s going to pass, I promise-just breathe.”
Curling her fingers into his sodden dress shirt, Belle closed her eyes, feeling the thump of his heart, and let the ringing in her ear drown out everything else.