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beth writing 30 days without

FIC: The Walking Dead - Solitaire - (T) - Daryl/Beth

Title: Solitaire
Characters: Beth, Daryl
Relationship: Daryl/Beth, Bethyl
Rating: T (for language) and (situations – attempted rape, not graphic)
Words: 9500
Summary: Primarily a Beth story. After Beth is separated from Daryl at the end of "Alone", she is determined to reunite with her prison 'family', but first she has to survive.


Solitaire


“Oh,” she said softly. The single sound was the barest exhalation of breath in the silence surrounding them. The pen in her hand froze mid-sentence and her heart began to pound as she realized exactly what his lack of words meant.

Half hidden in shadows cast by the candle’s glow, he looked at her from under the shaggy fringe of his hair, eyes saying what his voice could not. That simple expression warmed her with its intensity and promise. Wordlessly, the unspoken barrier that had separated them had begun to crumble.
There are still good people, Daryl Dixon, she thought. You’re good people if you ever let yourself believe. The breathless space that stretched so easily between them was suddenly full of a sense of belonging. It was a comfort she had only hoped for in recent days. And though she refused to admit that the rest of their friends and family might well be dead, she knew without doubt, in that moment, that she and Daryl would be okay together. For the first time since the prison, since her father had been brutally murdered, she felt her spirits soar. Maybe they could stay here for a while, like he said.

She was about to suggest precisely that when an icy chill ran up her spine. The ominous metallic clatter of Daryl’s ‘zombie alarm’, the collection of tin cans and trash strung across the front porch, caused every muscle to tense, her hand automatically finding the knife at her waist. Beth’s reaction was mirrored in that of her companion until they heard the intruder on the porch bark.

Daryl visibly relaxed as he reached across the table for a jar of pig’s feet. Cranking off the top he almost smiled as he said “I’m gonna give that mutt one more chance.”

Beth settled back in her chair, eyes half closed as she imagined him coaxing the stray inside with a jar of pickled pig’s feet and having the dog turn its nose up at the offering. The image made her smile.

“Beth!”

She sat bolt upright. Something was wrong. She could tell from the tone in his voice. Reaching for his crossbow, she was halfway to the kitchen door when he called again.

“Beth”

And now she could hear them, hear the low guttural growl of a pack of hunting walkers. As she rounded the doorframe to the front hallway, she saw him, back against the door pressing his entire weight against it, the hands of the dead clawing around its edges in their mindless effort to gain entry. He waved his hand and she tossed the crossbow. He caught it deftly as he shouted for her to run.

“Get out. Pry open a window. Get your shit.”

“I won’t leave you!” she shouted back above the increasing clamor of the dead.

“Go!” he shouted again as he led the walkers away to give her time to hobble to safety. “Go out to the road. I’ll meet you.”

That was the last she heard as he was drowned out by the horde. She had grabbed her pack, managed to pull a board off one window, just enough space for her to squeeze through, and ran as best she could on her swollen ankle. Fear for his safety driving her more than fear for herself. She reached the road and was about to turn to see if he had followed her when she was blinded by the headlights of a vehicle not five yards in front of her. It had been hidden by the shadowed tree line near the edge of the road. Raising her hand to shield her eyes, she tried to get a better look at who might be behind the lights, when strong arms encircled her from the rear, pulling both her arms to her sides and pinning them. The image of a walker’s teeth tearing into her flesh filled her with primal terror. She slammed her head backwards and was gratified to hear a low curse as she connected with her target.

“Lemme go,” she commanded. “We’re people. Like you. Not walkers.”

The arms wrapped around her were incredibly tenacious. She wanted to call Daryl for help, but knew he had his hands full with the herd of dead that had entered the funeral home. She had to do this herself. Beth slammed her head backwards a second time, was rewarded with another grunt and a muffled curse. Stomping hard on the foot behind her she ground the heel of her boot into his instep. The grip never lessened.

“Little bitch,” said a rough voice in her ear. “You’re not getting away that easy. Get the stuff. Knock her out now.” The last words were directed away from her.

Before she could smash her head into her assailant’s face a third time, a rag was shoved over her mouth and nose. It was damp and reeked - a sharp chemical smell that seemed so familiar, she thought as she lost consciousness sagging limply in the arms of her captor.

***

Beth’s head pounded. The vehicle’s shock absorbers had long ago stopped absorbing shock, and the rear of the car moaned with each bump and dip in the road’s surface. She had regained consciousness in the back seat of a car, blindfolded and gagged; her wrists and ankles tightly bound. For a moment she was disoriented then panic surged through her as she realized how totally helpless she was. No walker had ever left her feeling so vulnerable. Her heart pounded wildly with fear as she struggled to focus on the heated argument between her assailants. There appeared to be only two men in the car with her and she prayed that there were no others waiting at the end of their drive.

“We had a deal.” The first speaker’s voice was nasal and high pitched with anger.

She wriggled her wrists, testing the bonds that held her, looking for any weakness. The voices continued, unaware she was awake and listening.

“I told you I’d clear ‘em out of your little house a horrors,” the second man said in a low, coarse tone. A smoker’s voice, she thought.

“You should have just let her keep running like we talked about. She would have been long gone by now. But no, you decided you needed her.” There was a long silence.

“She could barely walk.” The second man said. “She’d’a never have escaped. ‘Sides, I can think of a few things I could use her for.”

“She was on her way,” the nasal voice continued. “You should have let her keep going right on down the road. If that friend of hers got out alive he’s probably looking for her.”

Beth’s heart pounded when she heard these words. If Daryl got out alive he’ll find her. He had to.

“Well we’re gonna drive far and fast and hope to lose him,” the second man said. “Then I’m takin’ her back to your little spook house and you’re gonna keep her there for a while. Til I figure out what better to do with her. Other than the obvious.”

“You’re not going to hurt her.”

“Oh, no. I’m gonna have a little fun with her. And no one’s gonna stop me. She’s a pretty thing. As long as we have her…

“NO!”

“Look, I’ve been screwing your skinny little ass for months. You may enjoy it but I want some real tail. Don’t sit there sulkin’ like a jilted lover. You know I’m no queer. I was givin’ ya what ya wanted so’s you’d let me stay. I never promised to be your lover for the rest of my life. Not when there’s better. Now take the left fork up here near the railroad tracks and we can circle round. Her friend’s not gonna follow us back if he gets this far.”

Beth struggled in the enveloping blackness. An icy chill rippled up her spine and into her soul. I don’t think the good ones survive, Daryl said matter-of-factly in her head. She had tried so hard to convince Daryl that there were still good people. What if he had been right?

***

Beth was not giving up without a fight. She was slender, but she was strong, and she had survived eight months on the road after the farm had been overrun by walkers. During that time she had learned a lot about herself and those around her. The most important lesson was to never go down passively. So when her kidnappers opened the rear door of the car, expecting to find a docile, terrified girl, they found a twisting, struggling, she-cat. She was still terrified, but they were not going to know that. It took both of them to manhandle her into the funeral home, and upstairs to the bedroom. By the time they threw her on the bed, she had connected more than once with her head and her feet. She would have bitten them had she not been gagged.

“Is this really necessary?” The whiny-voiced one asked.

“If ya can’t stomach it, get the hell out.” Said his companion as he dragged her arms over her head and secured them to the headboard of the bed. The bed creaked as he leaned on it She heard the door to the room slam and knew she was alone with her assailant, the one with the coarse voice. Unable to see him because of the blindfold, his ominous presence was doubly threatening.

“Little bitch. Fightin’s not gonna save ya nothin’. Ya just pissed me off. Gonna make this that much more fun.”

Beth wrenched against her bonds with all her might, but the ropes only bit deeper into her bruised wrists. Terror surged through her gut, and she felt her arms and legs begin to tremble as adrenalin fueled her need to defend herself. Tears burned, and she was glad for the blindfold so he could not see - he would never see her cry. Her clenched teeth ground into the rag they had jammed in her mouth for a gag stifling the sob building in her throat. Then she felt his rough fingers slide under the tattered hem of her shirt, felt them hot against her skin as he ran his hand over her belly,

“Let’s see what ya got under all them rags.”

Beth felt the cold steel of a knife blade against her stomach, heard the rending sound as the fabric of her shirt was slit up to her neck and cool air brushed across her body. His coarse hands roughly grabbing her shocked her into action. Before he could go further she pulled both knees to her chest and kicked out with all her might. Her feet connected. She heard him grunt and felt his weight lift off the bed. He wheezed as he tried to catch his breath. It was only a brief respite. Within seconds his hands grabbed her ankles and she kicked out again with all her strength.

“Bitch,” he cursed, pinning her ankles to the bed with both hands.

Struggling to free her legs, she was startled by a crash as the door to the room was forcefully opened, slamming into the wall hard enough to make the window rattle.

“You’re not going to do this,” said the man with the nasal voice.

“Oh shut up you little fagot. I tole you ya sound just like a jilted lover.”

“Well you know what they say about jilted lovers…”

“Later, asshole. I got a different…”

The sound of the gunshot was deafening in the small bedroom. Something hot and wet splattered across Beth’s exposed skin seconds before her assailant’s dead weight fell across the bed and her lower body. Beth froze as the sound reverberated through the small area. Warm wetness pooled on her stomach and dribbled down her ribs to the bed. The sharp metallic tang of blood filled the air. She tried to buck the weight off her legs, and as she did his body was suddenly dragged off her. Her clothing was sticky with blood, and she tried to wriggle away from the source. She heard a loud thump as he was pulled off the bed and dumped on the ground. Grunting, the nasal voiced man dragged the body out of the room, muttering snatches of words she could barely understand, followed by a heart wrenching sob.

“It was good. We were good,” the whiny voice mumbled. “You ruined it. Made me do it. Made me shoot you. Now I have to take care of you. Burn the others.”

The voice moved down the hallway. The dragging the dead weight of the body muffled his words. Then Beth heard him at the door again. The drawers to the dresser slid open then shut, footsteps came nearer and she tensed, prepared to lash out. Something, soft and warm was draped over her naked torso. The knife slid between the ropes securing her wrists and severed her bonds.

“That’ll have to do for now.” Muttering he left the room, the door creaking behind him, then latching.

Slowly Beth drew her knees up to her chest and rolled over on her side, clutching the cloth to her chest, shaking uncontrollably. She did not try to stop the tears or the wracking sobs. Tears were better than the empty numbness that threatened to engulf her. But she could not afford the luxury of wallowing in overwhelming emotions. She could not give in. She had to move, and she had to do it now if she hoped to escape and ever be re-united with Daryl and the rest of her family. With shaking hands she pulled the blindfold from her eyes and gag out of her mouth. Her lips were raw and tongue swollen from the coarse fabric that had been jammed into her mouth. Pushing herself into a sitting position, she began picking at the ropes that still bound her ankles. As the pressure of the ropes eased, the pain in her ankle throbbed in time to the frantic beating of her heart.

Pulling off the remains of her blouse, she used its remnants to wipe as much blood off her skin as she could, and shrugged into the oversized flannel shirt he had left her. Her hands continued to shake uncontrollably. Standing gingerly, her knees weak, she tested her ankle. Walking sent spikes of pain up her leg, but she forced herself to the door. Looking around, she knew she was in the bedroom at the top of the stairs, the one she had slept in the first night she and Daryl had been here. For one playful moment that night she had fancied herself as Goldilocks, testing all the bear’s beds. She had picked the one she pretended belonged to the Papa Bear. The clean white bedding of Papa Bear’s bed was now saturated with blood and a bloody trail stained the floor.

Taking a deep breath, she carefully opened the bedroom door and listened. She could hear no sounds from the ground floor. She hoped that meant no walkers, and no men. The main entrance was down the stairs, past the kitchen and to the right. The thought of running out into the woods with no weapon or food was terrifying, but staying here was even more frightening. She would rather take her chances with the walkers. If she was lucky, the kitchen would be empty and she could steal a knife and some supplies. She had barely reached the bottom of the stairs when he stepped behind her and placed a knife to her throat

***

Slowly Beth wrapped the oversized shirt around her, tying the excess fabric in a knot near her waist. Her knees wobbled and she continued to shake but not as violently. She fought the urge to simply sit down and give in as the adrenalin burned out of her muscles. Her assailant had pulled her into the kitchen where they now stood face to face, she with her back against the kitchen counter while he stood on the opposite side of the table. She watched him warily; shifting to make sure she kept the table between them. He was not tall, barely her height, thin, dressed in an oversized black suit jacket, pants and a white shirt that hung from his frame. He might have filled that suit once, but now he was gaunt and drawn, his skin sallow and unhealthy, his eyes sunken as though he had been ill for a long time - ill, perhaps but also disturbed.

“What do you want from me?” she asked, breaking the tense silence. She hated the way her voice quivered as she spoke.

“Not what he wanted.”

Beth shuddered, not wanting to think how close this man’s partner had come to raping her.

“I’m not that kind,” he added.

She didn’t give a crap what kind he was. It didn’t matter at all to her what he might or might not have planned. She knew she had to get out of this place, to run far and fast. She was not going to spend another night here. Every nerve in her body was screaming at her to go, and go now. .

Trying not to be too obvious, her eyes darted around the kitchen for a weapon, any weapon. She and Daryl had explored every corner of this room and she knew where the knives were stored, but he was too close to that drawer.

Beth needed to distract him, to keep him off guard. “Could I have some water?” Licking her parched lips she realized how truly thirsty she was.

He nodded. “Don’t try anything foolish.”

He never completely turned his back, as wary of her as she was of him. Pulling a jug of water from under a cupboard, he poured her a glass and set it on the table where she could reach it then nodded for her to pick it up. She gave no thought to whether it might be drugged or poisoned, but drank it down greedily then held out the glass for more. He refilled it a second time then capped the jug and returned it to its shelf.

“We didn’t mean no harm,” she said quietly, not wanting to antagonize him further. “I was hurt. We needed shelter. We weren’t going to take all of your supplies. Just a little.”

The man would not look her directly in the eye. Instead he stared at the ground near her feet, or over her shoulder. There was a rapid tick at the corner of his eye. “Don’t matter. You ruined everything. You made me kill him. Kill him.” A whimper started deep in the man’s chest and ended in a hiccupping sob. “He was here for me. And now he’s gone. Because of you.”

“It wasn’t our fault. We would have left if you’d asked, or we could have worked something out.”

“You’ll have to go back to your room.” His voice was flat, not menacing.

She did not respond.

“You need to go back to your room,” he repeated.

“I need to go to the bathroom first.” She stalled as she started to work her way around the table. She was not going to get locked in anywhere.

“Don’t move,” he warned.

“Seriously,” she said, “I need to pee. Then I’ll go back upstairs if that’s what you want. If you won’t let me use the bathroom, let me go outside.”

“NO.” he said so vehemently it startled her.

“You can’t keep me here forever.”

“Not forever.” He shifted his gaze, still not meeting her eye to eye and she felt her stomach clench with fear. Whatever he had planned, he was going to do it soon.

She continued to inch around the table forcing him to move to remain opposite her. When he bent down to put the water jug away she had seen what she needed. A heavy, cast iron skillet sat on top of the stove on the other side of the room. If she could get near it, she might get the chance to use it. Taking a larger step around the table, she now stood on the same side as her captor. He was undersized but in no way did he seem threatened by her. Beth had taken a second step when she saw his hand point in her direction. His knuckles were white so tightly were his fingers curled around the handle of a knife he held ready. There was a strange, hot gleam in his eyes.

“You can make amends,” he said. “You can help bring them in. He used to bring them in for me.”

“Them?” she whispered, her eyes not leaving the knife as she inched towards the stove.

“The risen dead. I need to put them to rest. You can draw them in so I can put them to rest.”

She felt the blood drain from her face as he waved the knife in her direction.

“I can make it painless. A quick cut to the jugular. You won’t feel any pain. I need to collect your blood. It draws them better than any other lure.”

Beth did not respond, continuing to inch around the room.

“If you fight it will be harder.” The look on his face had turned manic, his lips twitched and his eyes gleamed, a thin line of spittle dribbled down his chin. “Please don’t fight.”

Beth lunged at the stove, grabbing the cast iron with both hands and putting all her strength behind one hard swing. He was startled by her sudden move. Instead of slashing at her with the knife, he froze, and in that second the metal impacted his skull with a sickening crunch. Teeth, bits of bone, blood and saliva splattered the room as he fell to the floor, crumpled in a heap, a puppet with no strings, the knife falling from his senseless fingers.

Beth stepped back, the skillet slipped from her hands as blood from his fractured jaw slowly pooled onto the floor. Her stomach threatened to turn itself inside. Remorse filled her as fear had moments earlier. She recovered the butcher knife he had been holding and carefully placed two fingers on his throat to feel for a pulse. There it was. His heart was still beating. He was still alive.

She needed to move fast while he was unconscious. Tearing through drawers she found a sack. Quickly she loaded the bag from the supplies in the cupboard - matches, canned food, and bottled water. She could not carry much. Hobbling to the front door she peered through the slats, making sure no walkers were on the other side, and slipped through the door. As she started across the yard, she realized his car was parked on the road. With a car she had a better chance. She emptied the sack into the back seat of the car, and then checked the front seat. No keys.

There was nothing else to it but to go back in search of the keys. Gripping the butcher knife firmly, she limped back to the house and slipped quietly into the kitchen. He was still unconscious on the floor. Carefully she searched all of his pockets until she found what she was looking for. Shoving the keys into her pocket, she loaded the sack with more food. Remembering a closet in the entry that held coats, she grabbed a hooded jacket, and warm coat, stuffing them into the sack. Near the door she picked up a hatchet from the wood pile.

Beth was just rounding the corner in search of gas cans when she heard the guttural vocalizations of the walkers. She dropped down behind the wood pile and watched as they shambled toward the funeral home. They could easily smell her from this distance but they seemed drawn to the side door of the building where something was hanging. They attacked voraciously. With a sick sensation in her gut, she realized he had been feeding them - attracting them so he could ‘put them to rest.’ That’s how he drew them to the front door the night she and Daryl were attacked. She had the sick feeling she knew who was being used as bait.

She was only fifty feet from the car but she froze, watching the inexorable advance of another group of six walkers - six too many for her to handle alone. But instead of moving towards the others and the carcass they were consuming these six pressed against the front door, pushing to get inside. Beth was slammed by overwhelming guilt. She had left him lying in a pool of blood. The smell was luring the walkers in. Exactly what he planned on doing with your blood, she reminded herself, but it was no excuse. She had as good as signed his death warrant.

Lowering her supplies to the ground, Beth hefted the hatchet. It was heavy and she would have to swing it two handed. The first blood curdling screams ripped through the sounds of the feeding walkers before she even got to her feet. She was too late. Oh god what have I done? she thought. She did not have time to consider it further. The last of the group of walkers had turned in her direction. Grabbing the sack Beth limped as fast as she could to the car, threw everything in the front seat, slammed the door and started the engine. Jamming the car into gear she took off down the road leaving the walkers in her wake.

***

Beth struggled to keep the car on the road. She was a farm girl born and bred and had spent more than her share of time on a tractor, but the car seemed awkward and difficult to control, pulling to the right as though determined to drive itself off the road. And she had no real idea where to go. The needle on the gas gauge dropped inexorably towards empty. She flew past several abandoned homes, but she was determined to put as much distance between herself and the funeral home as she possible. No one and nothing would follow her except memories. Memories of that place, both good and bad, were going to haunt her.

The sun was beginning to set and she still had not found shelter for the night. The thought of clearing a house, or any other structure, after dark, alone, was terrifying. She had no qualms about killing walkers, but she was just one person. As she drove she watched both sides of the road for any sign of driveway or gate. She had not passed anything in several miles. Intent on watching for any kind of shelter, she did not watch the road. In the long shadows of sunset she never saw the hole in the road until she hit it, hard, with the front tire of the car. She heard a disconcerting, metallic snap, followed by a grinding thumping noise. The right front corner of the car had tipped downward at an alarming angle. The god-awful noise was going to call in every walker for miles.

She had no choice but get off the road. Spotting what looked like a game trail on her left she eased the vehicle off onto the berm, then into the edge of the woods accompanied by the screaming moan of dying steel. The car came to a clattering, banging stop and she cut the engine. In the silence she sat, listening for any sounds around her. Slowly the soft calls of night birds resumed. There was an occasional rustle of leaves in the evening breeze, but she did not hear the heavy movements Daryl had taught her to listen for, the movements that indicated walkers. Only walkers and humans crashed through the woods, he had said. The things that belong here don’t make no loud noise less their lookin’ for a mate.

As the sun slowly set and a hush fell around her, she sat, numbly staring into the growing darkness. Her hands had finally stopped shaking. Her pounding heart approached a normal rhythm. With the darkness came the realization that she was completely alone, as she had never been before in her life.

Exhaustion, in the end, consumed her. Huddled in the back seat of the stolen car, she lay on her side, curled around the pain in her middle that went beyond the pangs of hunger. She felt as though she had been torn in two and the rent edges of her soul would never meet nor mend. She bit down on her lip, struggling to control the grief that pressed against her. She wanted to scream and rant and rave at the cruelty of a world that had taken so much from her.

The horror of the past days consumed her and hot tears flowed freely down her cheeks. She no longer pretended she did not cry. Who did she need to hide her tears from? “Oh, Daddy,” she whispered biting down on her knuckles to stifle the sound of her sobs. “I miss you so much.” She would forever be haunted by the last vision of her father as he was brutally murdered. Maybe Daryl was right. Maybe everyone she loved was gone.

She missed them all so much, but Daryl’s absence was a gnawing cavern of despair. She had taken comfort in his presence, in her own dawning awareness of him, and she had only begun to imagine what they might share. Some would certainly scoff at what they deemed her unrealistic and childish attraction to a man they saw as unfit for her. They would tell her he was too old, beneath her, too coarse and unsophisticated. But she had seen something in his eyes that last night they spent together. In the wordless look he had given her she had seen hope, and the realization that he thought of her as more than Hershel Greene’s youngest child.

Now he was gone. She might never know the fruit of that hope. All the optimism she had professed when he had doubted was suddenly gone with him.

****

Beth decided that first night to remain within a reasonable distance the funeral home. It was a risk. She was close enough to the road that she could be easily found and the thought of encountering more men like the two who had abducted her terrified her. But she also knew that Daryl would start looking for her there, at the funeral home and in the surrounding woodland. She was sure he would come. She just had to stay alive.

In the morning she forced herself to rise and take inventory of what she had. It was precious little, but would have to do. Daddy had taught her a lot about edible plants, and Daryl had taught them all the rudiments of trapping with snares. There was no one to provide for or protect her. She had to do this herself. She had to become Michonne, Carol and Maggie all rolled into one though she had professed to be none of them individually. She would need all of her strength of body and tenacity of spirit if she were to live long enough for Daryl to find her. She drew that fact into the core of her soul. Survival meant Daryl would not find a dead girl. She held his memory tightly in her heart, warmed and nurtured it, letting him twine around the blood and bone and nerve of her being. He was her reason for living. He was her light. She would find him or he would find her and they would both survive.

****

On day three she came up on a solitary walker staggering aimlessly through the dense undergrowth, hesitating when its ragged clothing caught on a twig or thorny runner. Grunting and howling each time it’s forward progress was impeded by a stem or branch. For a brief moment Beth hesitated. The walker had been a woman, with short dark hair and a slender build. Part of her wanted to know if the walker was Maggie, and she felt a sob building inside her as she considered the possibility. Gripping her knife, she knew, most especially if it was Maggie, this was something she had to do. It was a quick kill. In the eight months they had been without shelter after leaving the farm, she had learned to kill them fast otherwise, they would kill you.

There was one other thing they had all learned early on. From her pack she pulled out the oversized hooded jacket she had taken from the funeral home. Rolling the walker over, and trying not to look at its ravaged face, she used her knife to slit its belly from sternum to pelvis. The reek was overwhelming, and she gagged at the stench, but resolutely dipped the jacket in the walker’s entrails, soaking it with blood and bits of tissue. Stepping back she looked at the thoroughly saturated jacket and at the defiled remains of what had once been a young woman, not unlike Maggie, and she bent over in the bushes and vomited until her stomach was empty and all she had left were dry heaves.

When she stood her head was swimming, but her stomach had stopped revolting. Looking one more time at the corpse, she noticed the engagement ring on its finger, barely recognizable, covered with dried blood and filth. Someone had loved her. “I’m sorry,” Beth whispered, “For whoever you were and whoever you left behind.”

****

By day Beth prowled the wooded area around the car, setting snares, collecting what berries and edible plants she could to stretch her supply of canned goods as far as possible. She familiarized herself with the terrain, knowing she had a better chance of avoiding the walkers if she knew where she could find safe hiding places. Dividing her food stores she left caches near those sheltered places. If she was unable to safely return to the car she would have food. She used all the survival, tracking, and hunting skills Daryl had been able to teach her in their time alone together. As she struggled to meet the challenges of survival she could bury the bad memories, moving until she was hungry and exhausted. By night she curled up on the front seat of the car, huddled beneath her stink-coated jacket, and prayed for dreamless sleep.

Her prayers were rarely answered and her nights were haunted by nightmares, nightmares of her father rising as a walker. Of Daryl searching through the night for her and always being just out of his reach forever lost. Of Maggie and Glenn in a darkened pit crying for her help and she could not move because she was tied to a bed. Of the man who tried to rape her. She would awaken half strangled by the fear that consumed her, and she would lie awake until dawn, unable or unwilling to fall asleep, only to rise exhausted and begin the same day again.

It was during one of those sleepless nights the herd came. She could hear them crashing through the brush long before they got to the car. Their mindless grunting, growling moans filled the night air. She had crawled into the back seat, pulling the jacket over her, hoping they would not smell her. They crashed into her alarm wire. Strong enough to withstand an encounter with one or two walkers the thin cable was no match for the herd that descended on her. She shuddered as they bumped and jostled against the car stumbling toward whatever stimulus would finally bring them to a halt, moving in their endless quest for food. It brought back memories of another car, and another herd, and that endless night in a trunk with Daryl by her side and she wanted to cry out the anguish of her loneliness.

***

Weather was starting to turn. Beth could feel it in the sharp evening chill, could see her breath when she rose in the morning. The days were still warm and sunny, but autumn was fading and winter would follow. How would she survive the winter with only an abandoned car for shelter? She began to toy with the idea of returning to the funeral home. It would not be much warmer, but it would be four walls. The building was also big and if the walkers had not moved out on their own in search of food, she doubted she could clear the place alone.

Daddy always used to say that serendipity smiled on the unfortunate when they least expected but most needed it. Maybe it was serendipity. Maybe it was Daddy looking down on her from heaven and guiding her footsteps. Maybe, and she imagined Daryl subscribing to this theory, it was just plain dumb luck. Whatever it was, she stumbled upon a hunting cabin and she felt as if the heavens had opened up and led her to this spot.

Her constant search for food had taken her farther each day. The crude cabin was barely recognizable. Almost totally obscured by an overgrowth of ivy and kudzu, so thick it did not even look like a building. The structure was tiny, with one thick door and one solid, wood-shuttered window. Struggling with the overgrowth of weeds she had finally pulled the door open wide. If there had been any walkers inside, that noise alone would have roused them. But there was only silence. Knife drawn, she stepped inside cautiously. Dust and cobwebs coated the interior, and though she normally would have found that disgusting, it almost made her laugh. Clean hadn’t proven to be very safe either. There was a cot along one wall, a small wood stove, dry sink and hand pump. Against the wildest odds, a crossbow and a compound bow rested on nails above the door and window. She thanked the cabin’s owner again, for being a bow hunter not a rifleman.

An array of meat filled canning jars sat on the table, and on a small shelf on along the far wall. There had to be at least thirty quarts. The canner still stood on a small propane stove. Whoever had been here last was processing whatever he had killed, venison or turkey most likely. If she rationed it carefully it would greatly extend her meager supplies. She could only imagine what happened to the cabin’s owner. Was he interrupted by a walker? Maybe he got sick, died, then wandered out when he rose. Or, most likely he had gone outside for some reason and never returned. It didn’t matter. She said a silent thank you to whoever it was.

The cautious side of her reasoned that she should watch the cabin for a day or two to see if the owner returned, but the logical side convinced her that no one had been here to disturb the dust for a very long time. She made a quick trip to her closest cache to pick up whatever meager ration she had stored there, taking extra care to make sure nothing was following her as she returned. There were oil lamps and a gallon of lamp oil, at least one canister of propane with dry usable matches. She felt, for the first time in weeks, a sense of comfort.

The pump had to be primed. She had watched Daddy do that once. It had seemed easy when she was only ten and wasn’t running the pump handle. It proved to be much harder than she remembered. The handle squealed in protest, and she had to find oil, cooking oil would do, to grease the hinge and reduce the noise, then she pumped for what seemed forever. When the water finally started to flow it was rust colored, and smelled of sulfur, but after dumping several basins it began to run clear.

As night approached, she hung her walker-crusted jacket on a nail outside, closed the door and barred it, packed the cracks with old newspaper stored to start fires and risked lighting one of the lamps. In the soft glow, she filled a basin, stripped out of her clothing and used the cold water to wash the accumulated filth from her body. All she had for soap was a very old bottle of dish detergent. Dawn never smelled so good. She had no clean clothes, but that was okay. She shook out the bedding earlier, and even the wobbly cot was going to feel like a feather bed in a four star hotel. Dinner was the most delicious canned venison she ever remembered eating, even cold, straight out of the jar. Better even than pig’s feet. And she smiled a little at the thought.

She was tired, but bathing had cleared her head and she wasn’t ready to sleep. Hoping to find something to identify the cabin’s owner, Beth poked at the few items on the shelves. There was very little - a box of bolts for the crossbow, several tattered Penthouse magazines, chewing tobacco the mice had gnawed into, and way in the back a deck of cards. Now that she could use.

Playing solitaire was a good way to pass time. Before she began she counted the cards and came up short one card. Disappointed, she counted again with the same result. Turning the cards face up she sorted them into piles. But the missing card almost broke her heart – the jack of hearts, or as Daddy called it, the knave of hearts. And maybe that was just twisted irony. Because only one person could be the knave of hearts in her deck and she feared she would never see him again.

She lay down on the bed, dry eyed. But inside her heart was aching. Everything in this wretched world persisted in reminding her of all the people she had lost, but one person in particular.

****

As the days had turned into weeks, the aching numbness had begun to dull. She still had nightmares. Walkers still invaded the fragile security she had tried to create for herself. She continued to struggle. And each day she thought of Daryl and Maggie, Rick, Carl, Michonne, baby Judith, and all the rest wondering what had happened to them, where they had gone and why they had not found her. She had not given up hope, but it was becoming more fragile with each passing day.

She had been delighted to find the bows in the cabin only to realize how very difficult it was to actually use either of them. Daryl had made it look so easy, but she simply did not have the strength to arm the crossbow, or draw the compound. Still she tried every day. Each day she came closer to achieving her goal, as she moved into her second week at the cabin, she finally was able to arm the crossbow.

She set it by the door. With one bolt ready to fire. It would do her no good if she were attacked by more than one walker, because she could never reload fast enough, but it would give her one shot. So she carried it with her when she went out to scavenge for food. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find edible plants and wild berries the birds being far more efficient than she. So she found herself ranging farther from the cabin each day.

Today had been particularly difficult. She had been forced to climb a tree to avoid a chance encounter with a pair of walkers. They grumbled and growled around the base, until a flock of wild turkeys distracted them. By then the sun was high in the sky and half the day had been wasted. A sudden storm a couple hours later had soaked her to the skin and the wind had turned sharply colder as the front moved through. Even the steady beat of the sun afterward was not enough to warm her. She had gone much farther than usual, with little to show for her efforts, and as she dragged herself back towards the cabin, she wanted nothing more than to lock the door behind her and forget the world outside existed. Maybe she was day dreaming, or maybe she had just become too accustomed to her daily routine, but she was almost to the door of the cabin when she heard their voices.

She froze in her tracks. Her heart skipped a beat when she realized she was listening to live human beings, but the feeling was quickly replaced with wariness. The voices were male, loud and coarse, tripping every defensive response in her body, her gut screaming at her to run and hide. Slipping quietly back into the underbrush, she fought the urge to flee and she waited to see who emerged.

There were two men, one large and heavily armed, his hair cut in a severe military style buzz, the other tall, lean and unkempt. They seemed to be arguing but she could only understand their tone and not their words from this distance. It did not matter. This place was no longer safe. As she retreated the way she had come she realized once again, that no haven ever stayed that way for long.

As soon as she was sure she was out of hearing range she began to run.

***

Three weeks had passed since the fall of Terminus. For the past two their small party had been scouring the wooded area surrounding the railhead travelling outward along the path most of them had taken on their journey to the end of the line. They hoped to find other survivors of the prison who had not yet arrived at Terminus or had never begun the journey. It was the one thing Daryl had requested - to be allowed to search. Although unspoken, most knew Daryl’s search was for Beth alone. He had every intention of going one way or the other, but several of his old and new comrades insisted on accompanying him. He protested, claiming they would slow him down, but Rick would not hear of it and Maggie and Glenn would not let him go alone. In two weeks they had not turned up a single living being.

They had investigated every lifeless vehicle, home, barn, and abandoned building along their route. No lead was too slight. And some were stumbled upon unexpectedly. Today’s finds had been accidental ones, first the cabin, now the car. Carefully covered by brush, the vehicle should have remained undetected. But the low angle of the late afternoon sun slipping through the thinning autumn canopy had caught the rear reflector at the perfect angle. Abraham signaled the search party to halt, then pointed both left and right indicating the three people behind him, Rosita, Tara and Joshua should circle the vehicle. Daryl, Glenn and Maggie had fanned out to their right following a fresh trail and were out of sight. Once his three team members were in place Abraham slowly approached the car, moving noiselessly, the spongy moss beneath his feet cushioning his steps.

Rifle at ready, he used its muzzle to spread the camouflaging branches just enough to see into the vehicle’s interior. The back seat looked like someone had raided a grocery store, or their grandmother’s pantry. Tinned food as well as glass mason jars carefully lined the floor. There appeared to be no one inside, but he was not fool enough to leave that to chance. Walkers had the knack of popping out of the strangest places. The front seat was covered with piles of discarded clothing, most of it filthy. The dash board had a layer of dirt thick enough to write in. Scraps of paper and other debris were scattered on the floor. And, Abraham grinned, on the passenger’s side, leaned against the seat, was what looked like the butt of a crossbow. Now that might make Daryl feel a bit more complete. He had been without his favorite weapon since he had arrived at Terminus and been disarmed.

Joshua, tall, lean and unkempt, had been pulled from boxcar B, and happily accepted Rick’s leadership. When he caught Abraham’s grin he asked, “What do you see?”

“Something I think our friend will be glad to get,” Abraham answered in a normal tone as he grabbed the front door handle and pulled. The door opened, complaining on hinges in dire need of grease. The powerful stench of rotten walker wafting out of the vehicle’s interior was enough to make his eyes water. As he reached for the crossbow, the pile of rags exploded outward, and he found himself eyeball to arrow with the business end of that crossbow.

“Whoa” Abraham said, taking one step backward, but not lowering his gun. “We’re not going to hurt you.” The figure before him was swathed from head to foot in rags crusted with what could only be dead walker guts. A large hood shadowed the face, but from the size and shape of the hands gripping the bow, Samuel assumed it was a woman, probably as scared of a strange male as she was of walkers.

“Hey Rosita, come here. I think I could use your touch.”

“Something you can’t handle?” Rosita asked coming cautiously closer.

Abraham ignored the barb, but the hooded figure glanced ever so slightly towards Rosita, shifted her balance to encompass both of her opponents, but never relaxed her aim.

“Stay calm,” Abraham said to the ragged figure. “Come into range where she can see you, Rosy. I want her to know we don’t mean to harm her.”

Abraham lowered his weapon as Rosita came and stood closer to him. “We’ve been searching the woods for human survivors - others that might be following the signs to Terminus.” Abraham kept his voice low and his tone neutral. “Are you alone?”

There was no response to his question, just an unwavering crossbow aimed at his face. “Rosita?”

“There’s no reason for you to be afraid.” Rosita had slung her rifle over her shoulder, opening her empty hands towards the woman. “We have a safe place. Safe now. Winter’s coming. You don’t want to be out here alone do you?”

There was an almost imperceptible nod of her head in answer to the question.

“We really aren’t going to hurt you,” Rosita continued. “The place is warm and there’s food. You can come with us.”

Looking over the woman’s hooded head Abraham saw Maggie emerge from the woods. She was within hearing range of their exchange, and Maggie nodded once to let him know she had heard his words to the stranger. She held up three fingers. “Three questions,” she mouthed without speaking.

Abraham looked to Rosita, then to the woman in front of him. She had not moved. “Before you can join us, I have to ask you three questions,” he said. As he did he saw the woman’s posture shift. The bow dropped slightly and her hands seemed to tremble.

“Fourteen,” she said in a soft voice.

Abraham gave her a puzzled look.

“The number of walkers I’ve killed,” she said. “That’s the first question. How many walkers have you killed?”

Abraham had happened to glance in Maggie’s direction as the woman spoke. The look on Maggie’s face changed from cautious alertness, to surprise, to hope. She seemed to abandon all caution as she started in their direction.

“And the answer to the second question is one,” the hooded woman said. She was shifting now, from foot to foot and the bow had dropped. “You were going to ask how many humans I’ve killed.”

Abraham heard a strangled gasp from Maggie. She was coming around the end of the car, less than ten feet from them. “Why?” she asked loud enough for the stranger to hear.

The woman turned towards Maggie. Abraham heard a sharp intake of breath followed by what sounded like a sob. “Because he tried to kill me,” she answered. “Maggie?”

“Oh, God, Beth!” The two women leaped into each other’s arms, hugging each other fiercely. And Abraham could only watch as they sobbed hysterically, not with fright, but with absolute joy. “Oh, baby sister,” Maggie managed to gasp out, “I was scared I’d never see you again.”

****

Beth thought her heart would burst with the joy of finding her sister. She would not have run from these strange men when she saw them at the cabin earlier had she known Maggie was with them. It didn’t matter. She was here now.

Finally calming her sobs Beth asked, “Glenn?”

“He’s here.”

“The others? Rick, Carl, Michonne?

“All safe. And Sasha and Bob too.”

Beth started to cry again, tears of joy for a lost family found. For being found herself. She had never given up hope.

Maggie pushed the filthy hood away from Beth’s face to look at her, as though learning her face anew. “He’s here,” Maggie whispered. “He’s the reason we’re all here. Once Terminus was ours he wouldn’t rest until he came searching for you.”

“Daryl?” Beth was half afraid to ask. Half afraid of what her sister would say. The last time they were together, she was just a little sister, now she felt like so much more and she wondered how much her sister knew about what had happened.

“He told us how you’d been separated after escaping from the prison.” Maggie spoke softly so only Beth could hear. “How he chased the car but couldn’t find you. Losing you has been eating him up. Not knowing what happened to you has been destroying him little by little.”

Beth’s heart both broke and was uplifted by her sister’s words. Somehow, she knew that Maggie sensed the story she had not yet been told. Maggie was good like that. Good at reading the signs. And Daryl had been searching. Just as she knew he would. “Where is he?”

Maggie looked over her shoulder towards the edge of the clearing. Glenn had already broken through the underbrush and was heading towards them. He wrapped his arms around them both and hugged the Greene girls fiercely. Standing alone at the edge of the trees was the only other person Beth had longed to see - alive.

Beth’s heart began to pound, and her throat grew tight as she battled to control her sobs. A sudden, terrifying thought gripped her. She had spent the last days and weeks thinking of Daryl, wondering how she felt about him. She barely understood the emotional bond that had grown between them in the weeks they had spent together. What if he was equally uncertain? What if she had misunderstood what she had seen in his eyes? Easing out of Glenn’s embrace, Beth took a tentative step towards Daryl. He remained in place as though he were unable to move. So she moved for both of them. Closing the distance between them, she stopped an arm’s length away. The emotions playing across his face were almost more than she could bear. The anguish of having lost her battling the disbelief that she was standing before him. Beth wanted more than life to leap into Daryl’s embrace, to assure herself he was real. Instead she lowered the crossbow to the ground and said softly, “I made it.”

“Knew you could,” he said, his voice unsteady. “I never saw no dead girl when I looked at you.”

His eyes, which said so much when he could not, locked on her face. She stepped closer and hesitantly placed her hand on his chest. His heart was pounding so hard she could feel it through the layers of clothing. So loud she could almost hear its frantic rhythm. Cautiously, she wrapped her arms around him laying her head against his shoulder, her face nuzzled into the side of his. His own head bowed towards her and he buried his face in her neck. His arms hung limp at his sides so she held on tightly for both of them as his shoulders shuddered with one deep breath. Nothing else in the world mattered as she held him. For what seemed an eternity they remained locked together, until she pulled away to look into his face. Only then did he touch his fingers to her cheek to assure himself she was not a phantom inhabitant of some tormented dream.

“Is there someplace we’re callin’ home?” she asked.

He nodded. “Mhmm.”

That was enough answer for her.

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