A Breath of Hope
When they've finished siphoning all the gas they can carry in the four containers they'd brought with them, Daryl steers the truck around piles of assorted wood and back out through the gate at the entrance of the lumberyard. The sheets of plywood, 2x4's and 2x6's they'd collected rattle slightly against the top rail in the bed of the pickup as they bounce over a series of large potholes. It's not nearly enough to construct a barn, but it's a start, and Daryl is really looking forward to working on it as soon as the trench is finished. He'd already boarded up the car port so the horses could have some shelter from the rain, but a real barn would be ideal - and he knows he can build it. Truth be told, he wants to do it more for himself than the horses. He wants to impress the others, especially Carol, and show that he's more than just a redneck hunter with deadly aim. He knows he's proven himself time and again, earning their respect in the process, but this would be something he could really be proud of, something that would make Carol proud of him.
Twenty minutes later, Daryl makes a couple of turns off the main road and eventually pulls into the empty parking lot of a small row of stores. He parks in front of Goldman's Jewelers and the two men and the black lab get out, looking and listening for signs of danger before entering the shop. After peering through the plate glass window offering discounts on custom made jewelry next to the red and white sign that says 'Open', they enter the store stepping around a large dried blood stain on the light gray carpet near the entrance. Rick turns on his flashlight to illuminate the darker areas toward the back of the shop, Daryl ready to fire his crossbow at anything that dares to threaten them. After clearing the entire store including the storeroom off the back wall, Rick shines his flashlight into the slightly dusty glass display cases until he finds the selection of engagement and wedding rings.
"Do you even know what size she is?" Daryl asks, looking over his friend's shoulder at all the rings twinkling in the beam of light while Bailey sniffs around in the corners of the shop.
"No. I figure I'll just grab an assortment and let her pick the most comfortable. I really like this one though, maybe it'll fit." He points to a medium sized round cut diamond in a twisted band inlaid with a few small diamond chips on sale for $1950.00.
"Nice. Now, if we can find the key, you can get it out without getting broken glass all over it. Hang on." Daryl shines his own flashlight into the doorway of the storeroom. He enters the office area and searches through a desk until he finds several sets of small keys. He walks back into the shop and goes behind the counter, where the sales clerks used to peddle for commission in another lifetime. He steps to the case in front of Rick and inserts key after key until one finally turns, allowing him to slide the panel across, giving him access to all the dazzling contents inside. Like a professional, Daryl pulls out the display box holding the engagement ring that his friend is interested in, presented with eleven other rings of various shapes and sizes in the velvet case.
"That's the one." Rick pulls the ring out of its slot and holds it up to get a better look. It's pretty and elegant and he knows it will look perfect on Maggie's finger. Smiling in satisfaction, he puts it into the pocket of his jeans and removes the rest of the rings from their slots, dropping them into a plastic bag that Daryl had found by the cash register.
"Hold up." Daryl reaches beneath the counter and pulls out a small black velvet jewelry box, tossing it into the bag with the rings. "Now what about the wedding bands?"
"Grab those two cases there." Rick points to a selection of gold bands. "We'll need a bunch to choose from. I want them to match but it might be tough getting the right sizes for that. And just think, you'll have plenty to choose from when you and Carol decide to tie the knot."
"Don't start." Daryl warns, but secretly yearns for that day to come, finally letting himself dare to dream for something wonderful, something that might actually have a possibility of coming true in time.
"Sorry, man, I've been good all day! Can I just say that I'm really truly happy for you - for both of you. Sincerely."
"So, how 'bout a double wedding?" Rick can't hide the giddiness in his grin as he teases his brother.
"Knock it off," Daryl retorts with a glare that lacks any heat.
"Fine. So was there anything else we could use from the stockroom?" Rick returns to the task at hand, shining his light into the doorway set in the back wall.
"Dunno. I didn't really look past the desk."
Rick walks over to the dark room and sweeps his flashlight through the small musty office, spotting the desk that Daryl had mentioned along with several shelves lined with boxes of various sizes. The beam of the light glances over a large box on the bottom shelf and then radiates off of Bailey's black fur as she investigates something in the corner behind the shelf. "What'd you find, girl?" Rick nudges the dog to the side, aiming his flashlight into the space to reveal a bag of corn chips and an 18 oz. bottle of orange soda forgotten on a step stool. "Oh my God, Maggie's gonna love this more than the ring." He reaches down to pick up the bottle, trying to think of a place to hide it before their big date and deciding to give it to Carol to keep with the clothes he'd already given her to hold.
"Don't forget the chips." Daryl tells him from the doorway. "You see anything else?"
After picking up the chips, Rick grabs the few pens and pencils sticking out of a decorative can on the corner of the desk, knowing it will make Beth happy. He scans the rest of the room before answering, "That's it, let's go."
"A'right, let's see how the town looks. C'mon Bailey." He whistles a sharp note and the lab follows them back out to the truck.
~ / ~
The scorching sun beats down on Maggie's back, the sweat of hard labor pasting the green tank top to her heated skin as the day hits high noon. On her hands and knees in a large patch of dirt, spiders and mosquitos, she works tirelessly next to Sasha, Beth and Carl as they remove more sod to plant wheat next to their vegetable garden.
Tyreese keeps watch from the windmill after working on the trench all morning with nothing but a shovel and his two hands after the trencher sputtered and quit with no fuel left to galvanize it. He watches Michonne brush down the horses after she'd taken Flame out to check the snares that Daryl had set about the land. Her motions are fluid and meticulous as she runs the curry comb over the horse's coat, grooming him as Maggie had taught her. Ty glances over to the gardeners, now gathered around the water pump on the side of the house.
Maggie holds the bucket under the faucet while Carl pumps the handle voraciously to propel a flow of much needed water. "God, this is taking forever!" The sweaty teenager complains, still thirsty after chugging a bottle of Evian.
"Alright, grab the ladle." Grasping the half-full bucket of cool water, Maggie holds it for Carl to scoop a ladleful of refreshing liquid.
"It's not even that cold," he criticizes grumpily after sipping from the ladle.
"Well, maybe you're just not getting enough of it - try this." Maggie pitches the bucket toward Carl, dousing him square in the face with a wave of water. "Is that cold enough for you?" She laughs with Sasha and Beth as he sputters in surprise.
"Hey!" He coughs and laughs while shaking droplets from his hair. "Actually, yeah – that felt really good!" Carl knuckles his eyes and flattens his hands over his hair, brushing the dripping strands off of his face.
"Sorry, dude. I couldn't resist." She gives him a thousand watt smile along with her barely sincere apology.
"Oh, no need to apologize, Maggie." He gives her an equally sincere smile, dripping with charming sarcasm. "Just remember - payback is a bitch. So when you least expect it - expect it."
The twinkle in his blue eyes reminds her of his father. She enjoys this playful side of him, which they need to hang on to desperately in this era of too much pain and suffering.
~ / ~
Driving down Central Avenue in Stockbridge, compact houses with postage stamp sized yards give way to small businesses and restaurants, leading to an outdoor mall at the other end of town. Discarded papers and other assorted trash littering the main street kick up on the dusty wind as the truck rolls past. This end of town seems to be walker-free, but they can see a multitude of the reanimated beings drifting about the parking lot of the Sears department store by the mall.
They pass a useless bank, travel agency, and dry cleaners to search a bagel shop, pizza place and diner. Daryl keeps watch as Rick checks for anything viable from each location and coming up with very little in the way of food. Even the Rite Aid had been picked clean of its food and medicines, but he was able to stock up on detergents, soap, shampoo, and toothpaste as well as some books to go with the games they'd brought back from the house on Bailey Lane. He tosses the bags of supplies into the bed of the truck beneath the wood while Daryl gets behind the wheel after letting the dog jump into the back seat.
"Wait, just one more stop." Rick looks across the street diagonally to a McDonald's with its golden arches looming over the empty town.
"Where? We said we wouldn't go further than the Rite Aid with all those things hangin' out up there." Daryl nods his shaggy head toward the mall, arms draped over the steering wheel as he looks at his partner still standing outside the truck.
"I'll be quick." Rick closes the door and jogs in front of the vehicle toward those beckoning arches, hand on his holstered weapon as it taps against his thigh with every step.
"Shit. Wait up." Daryl yells through the open window and pulls the pickup in front of the fast food restaurant as Rick walks up to the glass door and peers inside, gun now in hand.
Rick opens the door and walks in slowly, quietly, listening for anything that disturbs the silence. There is a unpleasant odor of rotting food in the stagnant air, but no decomposing flesh. He walks up to the fixings bar and bags all the sugar, salt and pepper packets as well as a stack of napkins. Stepping behind the counter where orders were once taken, he grabs a sleeve of cups with the McDonald's logo brandishing the sides, along with a message that declared Taste Matters. Turning to his left, he finds a stack of Happy Meal boxes adorned with Shrek and his fairytale friends. He picks two flattened boxes and puts them in the bag with the rest of his booty. Satisfied with his findings – literally grinning like a loon as he pictures Maggie's reaction – he walks to the restrooms to collect any toilet paper that was hopefully left behind.
After finding two and half rolls in the men's room, he opens the ladies room door and notices a light flicker off from inside the large stall designated for handicapped women. He says nothing but shines his flashlight on the floor space that is visible beneath the stall doors, searching for a pair of feet. Seeing nothing, but certain that his eyes hadn't deceived him, he calls out in his best Officer Friendly voice, "Hello…"