“Why do you grieve so uselessly? Every uncertainty is the result of a certainty. There is nothing in this world really to be lamented.”
-Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji.
“Don't, don't. Just please don't,” Daryl begged Rick from the passenger seat.
Rick looked up from the CD he was trying to jam in the car's player and gave Daryl a quizzical stare.
I'll be gone someday.
Stop, stop. Just please stop.
That familiar shuddering ache coursed through him, starting as a sharp stab of pain in the center of his chest and radiating outwards. He could see her, Beth, sitting on the porch of that moonshine shack with him, staring at him with those wild eyes, the ones that were brimming so full of passion and life that any second now they threatened to overflow and drown him—and maybe they had.
Six months, maybe a year, he wasn't sure anymore, had passed since that burning light in her eyes had been snuffed out in the span of heartbeat.
The sound had echoed through the cold sterile hallway as the clink of a metal shell bounced off the tiles. It was a noise that would forever echo in his brain.
There wasn't a fucking day that went by that he didn't think of that second, that horrific, vile sound, that torrent of noise that snapped forward out of a dark quiet void of nothingness to extinguish that fire, her fire. In that second, all the hope had been sucked out of the world in one shuddering, languishing breath. The sparrows chirping outside the windows had fallen silent, their wingbeats singing a hurried lament for Beth as the gunshot scattered them. Hope crumpled to the floor and thick red blood pooled as beginnings that never had the chance to begin were smothered under a thick layer of ash as the sound erupted.
Daryl had been trying. He had been trying for a long time, trying for her, because it's what she would have wanted. Helping Aaron bring in new people, trusting these people—that had all been for her, to prove to her and to himself that he could still feel the places her pale slender fingers had touched his soul. But after the wolf attack, after that run-in with that group of bikers, after all that looking for new people had turned up jack shit, after countless nights of lying awake on the mattress in the downstairs bedroom of Rick's house while Carol's snores drifted from the room down the hall as he considered that Beth might still be alive, hell might even be (he dared to think) curled up under the blanket next to him, her soft breaths falling across his chest in slow gentle waves as she slept, if only she hadn't been so good natured and trusting and wanting to save everyone. If only she would have just left that boy, Noah, just walked away from him and come to stand behind Daryl, wrap her thin arms around his chest from behind like she did one hot Georgia afternoon.
The CD was now blasting and Daryl felt like it was tearing him apart from the inside out. Each note was a tiny claw as sharp as his hunting knife, as sharp as Beth's knife which he still carried with him on his belt, ripping into his heart, his lungs, his veins, shredding the soft tissue and flesh to ribbons.
I know my singing annoys ya.
No, that couldn't be further from the truth. He'd give anything, sell his soul to the devil, walk through a fucking herd of walkers, to hear that sweet lilting voice again. The road in front of the car blurred. His head throbbed with an unbearable pain and he punched the off button with his fist.
“You ok, brother?” Rick asked. He had slowed the car and was watching Daryl carefully.
“Yeah. 's nothin'. Headache 's all,” he muttered, his eyes drifting over the fields where the first few tiny buds of spring flowers shivered in the brown grass that had yet to fully come back to life.
Beth had shivered like those little flowers once. During the weeks before they stumbled upon that cursed fucking funeral home, the weather had become cool and he and Beth were sleeping outside nearly every night without much more than a blanket of stars. He remembered the way she had so very nervously approached him one night like she thought he'd bite her hand off for trying to touch him. The leaves crunched as she scooted closer to him, carefully, in a measured way, like she thought she might break him. She laid her head on his shoulder for half a second before sitting up and shooting him a quick glance.
Is this ok?
Daryl had shifted and draped an arm around her shoulders and Beth dropped her head back down. Her fingers curled in the front of his shirt and slid under his jacket for warmth. When she was settled, he tilted his head down to look at her and grunted. She hummed in response and closed her eyes, a little smile pulling at the corners of her lips. His heart sped up and he couldn't help but smile for a few seconds himself. From then on out, that scene played out every single night they slept in the forest.
As the days went by, Daryl found himself looking forward to those nights more and more. They spent the daylight hours pushing through the trees, Beth walking just ahead of him. He stayed back so he could take in the sway of her hips, the way the sunlight filtered through the trees, dappling the back of her tattered gray sweater and her shinning blonde ponytail. Her fingers sometimes would trail in the tall grass, reaching to caress a flower as she hummed to herself. He waited for those rare times when she'd look over her shoulder at him and give him one of those sweet little smiles that made something in his gut flutter and squirm.
In those moments, when it was just the sound of their breathing, her humming, and his heart pounding, it truly felt like they were the only two people left in the world. How he wished that could have been the reality of it.
In those days, he was only just beginning to realize how very special she was. Now in hindsight, he had come to understand that she was it for him, the one, and there would never be another Beth.
The pain doesn't go away. You just make room for it.
Daryl had been making room for it all his life—not just pain, but disappointments, setbacks, failures, losses, regrets. All of them were stacked floor to ceiling in the dark spaces of his mind. He had been collecting them since before he could remember and filing them away on creaky, dusty shelves.
The last one, Beth's death, was the most difficult one. The immensity of it, the weight of it, it just didn't fucking fit, no matter where he tried to cram it and so he was stuck holding it, his arms aching more every second under the crush of it.
Gravel crunched beneath the tires as Rick pulled the car off the road. A cloud of dust coated the windows. Rick turned off the engine and looked at him.
“Hey, where'd ya go?” Rick asked.
“Huh?” Daryl mumbled.
As he snapped to, he realized he had taken Beth's knife off his belt and was stroking the bone hilt. Rick was waiting for a coherent answer, his harsh blue eyes darting between Daryl's face and Beth's knife.
“Thinkin' about her?” Rick questioned.
Daryl nodded slowly. His eyes traced over the bone handle of the knife. He wrapped his fingers around it and gave it a squeeze as if somehow he could absorb whatever energy she had saturated the knife with. Rick was waiting for him to talk. He could sense it. Those cold blue eyes were peeling away the outer layer of his skin.
He didn't know if he could, if he should. He hadn't talked to any of the group about Beth's death let alone his feelings for her. He wouldn't have been surprised though if at least some of the less dense ones had figured it out by the way he absolutely broke, fell to pieces, shattered as that gunshot rang out. Daryl didn't remember carrying her body out of the hospital or closing it in the trunk of a car since they didn't have time for a proper burial. The next thing he knew, he was curled up, alone, behind a tree somewhere outside of Atlanta, choking back sobs, his face covered in a salty wetness while the others sat somberly around a fire in the distance.
“Ya never did say what happened between the two of you out there,” Rick said.
“Not much to tell. We survived together, mostly livin' in the woods. Was teachin' her to track and use my crossbow.”
“I know you, Daryl and I get the feelin' there's more to it than that. Ya loved her, didn't ya?”
The question took him aback and he sucked in a breath, struggling to find the right words. Instead, a jumbled mess of them tumbled out.
“I mean as a sister, as family,” Rick corrected.
“Nah. Not like that. Different,” Daryl admitted.
“How? Ya mean like--”
Daryl cut him off, tucking the knife back in his belt. He shrugged and sighed, “Ain't matter now. Never got to tell her anyway.”
It does matter.
“Oh, so ya loved her.” Rick's mouth lifted into a half-smile, but the sadness that hung between the two of them stopped it from turning into a real grin.
“Was gonna tell her, but I couldn't fuckin' do it,” Daryl snapped. The pain was quickly changing element—liquid into fire. He punched at the door.
“Hey, I'm sure she knew. That's jus' the kind of girl she was, one of them intuitive types who could tell how ya were feelin' that day before you yourself had made up your mind,” Rick assured him.
“Not so sure she did,” Daryl grumbled.
He wasn't and the longer time went on, the more unsure he became. He was going to tell her that night in the kitchen of the funeral home. Well, maybe not tell her he was in love, but tell her that he felt something, the beginnings of something and ask her if she felt it too. The words wouldn't come though no matter how hard he tried. His lips were like a safe that he had long since lost the combination to.
He had memorized her face as she stared at him in the candlelight and whispered that breathless little, “oh.” Some nights, he took it out and asked Rick's question.
Did she know?
He would turn the memory over, taking in every inch of her face, carefully looking for signs as if it was a set of animal tracks winding through the woods.
All the signs are there. Ya just gotta know how to read 'em.
Yes, all the signs were there written in the soft skin of her face—that little furrow of the brow, that wide eyed stare, that slight cock of the head, that twitch at the corner of her lips as if her brain was trying to work out the proper expression—frown or smile, and that way her mouth had opened slightly, giving a tiny glimpse of her teeth. Hell if he could read them though. Over and over, Daryl reworked the clues, added and subtracted them from each other, made a list of possible explanations for each one until finally the whole thing had become so jumbled and tangled, he was more unsure than he had been that night.
During the time he spent searching for her, all he could think about was redoing that moment, telling her in a more obvious and less confusing way. He planned their reunion in his head more times than he could count. He pictured her being held somewhere, maybe locked in a room. He would break into the building where she was being kept with Rick at his side and the others too, Maggie, Glenn, Carol, Tyreese. They would sneak up on whatever bastard had taken her and blow his fucking brains out in one fell swoop. Before his body could even hit the floor, Daryl would be off, running through the building screaming her name, kicking in every door, and killing every sonofabitch that got in his way until he found where she was being held.
He'd find her shivering in some cold room. She'd be covered in cuts and scars from trying to fight back because she had grown strong and she was every bit as tough and brave as her sister. Relief would fall over her face and he'd share in that feeling himself. He'd throw his denim jacket around her shoulders and help her up and just hold her for however long she wanted before sweeping her off her feet and carrying her the hell out of there. He'd tell her everything—how he never stopped looking for her, never stopped thinking about her, and most importantly that he was in love with her and had been for months.
Daryl should have known it would never pan out like that. When had anything ever gone well in this world for him before or after the turn?
“Hey, hey,” Rick said calling him back from the void, “Ya gotta stay hopeful cause that's what she would want.”
How do you have hope when hope has been slain?
“Ya gotta have faith that she knew and even if ya don't you gotta try. Pretend until it's real because I need your head right out here. I need you. Those people back there need you,” Rick told him.
“Sorry, man. I jus'--” he reached for an excuse, but there was none. Everyone else had stopped talking about Beth months ago, probably stopped thinking about her too—even Maggie. He was the only one that still carried the burden and he carried it all alone now.
“I get it. I've been there. When we get back, let's grab a beer and we'll talk.”
Daryl nodded and Rick patted his shoulder before pulling back onto the road. Daryl tried to call his mind back from the darkness. He focused on every stupid, trivial thing he could think of. He made lists in his head of the items they were supposed to be out here looking for—some kind of grain that Eugene wanted them to grow, food, toothpaste, pop for Denise. Pop. What a weird thing to call soda, he grumbled to himself.
Beth probably would have been given a job helping Denise at the clinic. She didn't know nearly as much as her father, but she did have more medical knowledge that a lot of the other people in Alexandria and most of all, she was good natured and sweet. Her patients would have adored her.
Daryl's brain plunged off the cliff again into that deep pool that was Beth and he found himself imagining himself dropping by the clinic to say hello after he got back from a run, asking her how her day was and telling her about his.
Daryl didn't have too much time to think on it because Rick had pulled the car off the road again, this time at a promising looking building. He didn't have much time to think most of the rest of the day either between having their truck full of supplies stolen by a raving lunatic who called himself “Jesus”, chasing that said lunatic up and down the fucking road all day and finally beating his ass and taking him back in the car with them.
Daryl had been against it, but Rick had insisted. Daryl would have left the sonofabitch for dead if it was up to him, like they should have done with Noah. He grumbled and shoved the man away from him.
“I mean it. We're gonna have that beer and talk about her,” Rick said.
Daryl looked up and saw Rick staring at him in the rearview mirror, his blue eyes trying to pierce through Daryl's skull and pick apart his thoughts.
“Sure, man,” he muttered, “Think this is a mistake 's all,” he added, nudging the unconscious man again.
“You gotta quit sayin' stuff like that. You were right. When we first got here and I didn't want to bring in any more people and ya did, you were right. I see that now.”
“No, I wasn't. Who's gonna die this time? If we hadn't tried to save Noah back at that hospital, Beth would still be alive.”
“You don't know that and that wasn't your choice or mine, it was hers.”
“Whatever,” Daryl grumbled under his breath, giving Jesus another shove.
He knew Rick was right. No matter how much it pissed him off, the choice had been out of their hands.
After they had Jesus looked over by Denise, Daryl took watch over the unconscious man until around midnight when Sasha came to relieve him. He made his way back up the street, his hands in his pockets. The stars spilled out overhead and he remembered a night when he pointed out a few constellations to Beth so that if she ever got lost, she could find her way. Too bad all of that was for nothing. He should have just worked harder at making sure she didn't get lost in the first place.
The lights in the house were all off when he got in. He closed the door to his bedroom and kicked off his boots. He didn't bother to light a candle or take off his clothes. He flopped down on the left side of the bed—the same one he always slept on as if the right side was reserved for someone else, someone else who was never coming.
So you do still believe there's good people. What changed your mind?
That was bullshit. He punched the pillow next to him. Beth's face swam before him in the darkness. She looked crestfallen and sad, disappointed even.
What changed your mind?
Daryl fell into a restless sleep. He had never been a very deep sleeper, but things only got worse after her death. Scenes flickered through his head, part thought, part dream, part memory.
They were sitting by a campfire while she sung so quietly he could barely make out the lyrics of her song and even then it was an unfamiliar one. When she realized he was staring, she looked up at him and smiled.
“I love you,” she said.
I love you too.
The words wouldn't come out, as usual, and he felt the agony of failure. She smiled again anyways and kept singing.
Jus' keep singing.