A Breath of Hope
Daryl yawns in the doorway of Beth's bedroom, watching her change Judy out of her soggy diaper and pink butterfly pajamas. "Are you sure there's nothin' in the other direction? South a here?"
"I know you're hoping to run into them, Daryl, but the only baby place I can think of is up toward Stockbridge. It's a small row of stores outside the main part of town, so it should still have some supplies left."
Daryl had gone on a short run the day before to a nursery school not too far from the farm. He didn't find as much baby food and formula as he was hoping for, but he did bring back a decent amount of diapers, as well as a car seat and two Pack N Plays for Lil Ass-kicker. He was also able to fill up the tank of the Hyundai from several cars left abandoned in the small parking lot.
"Can't you just draw me a map? I don't like the idea of draggin' you two all over," he says around the thumbnail between his teeth.
"I don't know the street names, just the landmarks where to turn and stuff, so I have to go with you. We'll be fine. Won't we, princess?" Beth pulls Judy up by her wrists to wobble on her baby bow legs, blowing cool air in her face to make her laugh.
"But what if they finally get here and we're not around," he says tiredly, exhausted after keeping watch through most of the night after hearing a strange noise outside around two a.m.
"We'll leave a note on the door telling 'em we went on a run."
"Fine," he agrees unhappily. "Just let me catch a coupla hours sleep before we go."
Three hours later, Beth buckles Judy into her car seat while Daryl tacks his note to the front door of the big farm house. She walks up behind him to inspect his handiwork and reads:
RICK - WENT ON A RUN - BE BACK SOON. D. B. L.A.K.
PS – IF YOU DONT KNOW RICK – FUCK OFF!
"Nice," she says dryly. "Well, the princess is in her chariot, ready to go."
"Chariot, huh? I suppose that makes this her castle then." Daryl nods his head back toward the big farmhouse as they walk to the car.
"Yes, it is," she responds brightly. "Too bad we don't have a moat surrounding it filled with hungry alligators."
Daryl stops just before getting into the driver's seat and looks at Beth over the roof of the car. "Shit, we wouldn't even need gators, just a deep enough trench all the way 'round."
"That would take a looong time to build."
"Yeah… but it could be done," Daryl says pensively, wheels spinning and gears turning inside his head, already devising a plan for the possibility of this medieval defense mechanism. "Hell, it just might work," he says more to himself as he gets behind the wheel of the Hyundai.
An hour after leaving the corner deli and more bad memories created there, the dour mood still weighs heavily on the trio as they walk along the country road. Coming around a bend, Maggie spots an old black Toyota parked in front of a turnoff leading into a private lane.
"Wanna try it?" she asks Rick.
"Sure, what have we got to lose?" he says halfheartedly, shrugging off his backpack. Pulling out a flathead screwdriver and small pair of tweezers that he'd taken from Mark Roberts' house, he opens the unlocked car door and sits behind the wheel. He reaches under the seat in search of keys, not surprised at all to come up empty. Tools in hand, he works the ignition delicately, feeling for the right click and precise tumble. After about 90 seconds, with sweat dripping down his forehead inside the sweltering car, Rick turns the ignition and the Toyota comes to life. He watches the red line on the gas gauge move slowly from left to right, finally stopping at just over half a tank. Leaning back in the seat, he closes his eyes as blessed relief washes away the last vestiges of the grimness he's carried for the last hour.
"Yes!" Carl throws his heavy pack into the backseat and climbs in next to it. "Let's go home!"
Rick pops the trunk and Maggie lays their two packs inside. She climbs into the front passenger seat and gives him a million dollar smile. "Nice job, sheriff."
He smiles at her warmly while Jon Bon Jovi wisely asks, 'Who says you can't go home?' from the CD player mounted inside the old dashboard.
Maggie looks out the window with a mix of emotions as they drive down the long dirt lane that leads to her old home. She's happy to be back, but heartbroken that her father never will be. She looks anxiously around as they get closer to the house, hoping to see a sign that Beth has indeed come back to the farm. "Do you see anything?"
"Yeah. That fence has been repaired recently." Rick points to a small section of fencing where a few pieces of natural brown wood disrupt the run of smooth white lines. "I don't remember that being there before."
"It wasn't," Maggie says excitedly. "They're here!"
"Or someone else is here. Don't jump to conclusions, honey, you may be disappointed. Let me check it out first."
He drives around the house once, checking for any sign of trouble before parking by the front porch. "Stay here a minute."
"Rick, I'm coming with you. This is my house!"
"I know, I just want to make sure it's safe. Stay here with Carl." He tilts his head at the annoyed look on her face from the blatant excuse of his son's safety. He adds, "Please?"
"Fine – hurry up!" She tilts her head now at his irritated look. "Pleeease." She smiles with a little too much saccharine and earns a scowl for her troubles.
"Just stay here – both of you." Rick gets out of the vehicle and walks up to the porch, hand on the Python, looking around with every step he takes. Just before peering in through one of the windows, something catches his eye -a piece of paper tacked to the front door, its thin edges lifting in the breeze. He reads the note from his family and drops his chin to his chest as all the tension from the past four days leaves his body. We found them.
"What is it, Rick?" Maggie yells through the open car window.
He turns back toward the car with a huge grin on his face and an unexpected lump in his throat. "Come on up." He motions with his arm and turns back to the door to remove the note. He hands it to Maggie as she races to the porch and then goes to retrieve their packs from the trunk.
Carl looks over her shoulder at Daryl's block handwriting. "What do those letters mean?" he asks.
"Daryl, Beth, and Little Ass-Kicker," Rick informs his son with a chuckle as he comes back with the gear from the car.
"Awesome." Carl laughs at the mention of his sister's nickname and returns to the Toyota to grab his pack.
Walking into the house, the first thing Rick notices is the Pack N Play in the sitting room to the left of the foyer. He walks over and reaches inside the playpen, picking up his daughter's favorite little blanket. He holds the soft material close to his face, breathing in her scent. She's here. They're here. He looks at Maggie through glossy eyes, suddenly overcome with emotion. She hugs him tightly and he buries his face in her neck, wrapping his arms around her waist with the blanket still clutched in his fist. "She'll be here soon, honey," Maggie whispers against his ear, caressing the back of his neck as he holds onto her dearly.
Three hours later, they are sitting on the front porch in the waning sunlight when the Hyundai pulls up to the house. Beth is out the door before Daryl has his foot firmly on the brake, wrapping her sister in a fierce bear hug. There are tears of joy and tears of grief as they see each other for the first time since losing their father four days ago.
"Dada Dada Dada." Rick sees his little girl through the car window but can't open the back door until Daryl shifts into park, unlocking all the doors. The click of the lock release is music to his ears and he rips open the door to get his little girl out of the car seat and into his arms at last. He lifts her up with tears glistening in his eyes and squeezes her little body against him, kissing her downy hair and thanking God for this moment.
Daryl gets out of the driver's seat to be greeted by the black lab. "Well, who's this?" He kneels down to pet the animal.
"Her name's Bailey and she's the bravest dog in the whole world!" Carl says proudly. "She saved Dad's life when these two assholes tried to steal our stuff."
"Wow. You'll hafta tell me all about it over dinner." He tousles the boy's hair, delighted to be seeing him again.
"Thanks for saving Judy, Daryl." Carl gives the man what he hopes is a mature nod and turns to his father and baby sister, taking the little girl out of their father's arms.
Rick lets his son take the baby and then turns to Daryl. "Thanks, man." He extends his hand for a friendly shake. The other man clasps the hand offered, but they both know it's not enough.
Surprisingly, it's the reticent hunter that makes the first move, pulling Rick into a brotherly hug. "If you put me through that shit again, I'ma put an arrow in yer ass," he says in the sheriff's ear.
"It's good to see you too, brother." Rick chuckles as they clap each other on the back before ending the embrace.
As soon as Rick turns around, Maggie jumps into his arms, wraps her legs around his waist and kisses him soundly on the lips. "Thanks for getting us here."
"Mmm, I should be thanking you, Honey."
"Oh my God!" Beth shrieks at her sister's outlandish display of affection toward their leader.
"Woah, what's this?" Daryl says with a smile, a little more reserved than the young blonde.
"This," Rick says as he kisses his lover, "is how it is now." He looks adoringly into Maggie's eyes with his arms wrapped tightly around her back, supporting her full weight as their family looks on in wonder.
Carl shakes his head in amused exasperation. "That's what I've had to live with for the past three days."
Rick puts Maggie down and she turns to Carl. "Oh, you poor traumatized boy," she teases him. "Come here sweet girl." Maggie takes Judy from his arms and hugs her closely, kissing her chubby cheeks. "We missed you baby girl."
Judith holds a fist full of Maggie's hair while she laughs at the raspberries that the woman is blowing against her neck. Rick doesn't believe he's ever seen a more beautiful sight in his entire life.
Beth stops to give Carl a quick hug before walking into the house, causing the boy to hide his blushing face in the dog's fur. Rick catches his eye and winks at his hormonally tortured son before following the others inside.
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