A Breath of Hope
As their shadows grow longer with the descending sun, they look for shelter in a neighborhood off of Cove Road. The street is lined on either side with colonial and bi-level homes, mostly identical except for the colors. Even the trendy, if overgrown, landscaping is very similar from lawn to lawn.
They bypass the first three homes due to the offensive odors emanating from the broken windows. The fourth house is a beige bi-level with hunter green shutters encasing dirty but undamaged windows on the second floor, and board-covered windows on the ground level. It looked like the homeowner did a decent job of securing his house before leaving to go God knows where. Perhaps he just set out in search of answers.
The name on the useless mailbox reads 'Roberts' and the welcome sign on the porch seems inviting despite the boarded up window flanking the front door. Finding the door locked, they follow a stone path around to the driveway and double garage doors. After checking the fenced in back yard, Rick and Maggie have their pistols trained at the bottom of the first bay door while Carl grips the handle and pulls it up a few inches. With no sudden movement on the other side, he lifts it all the way up on its thankfully greased tracks until it is hovering just below the ceiling. They enter the two car garage, now filled with remnants of an age gone by.
The fading sunlight shines into the bay revealing a riding lawn mower, an array of rakes and shovels and other gardening tools, two adult bicycles and two smaller kid sized bikes along with a large bin filled with baseball bats, gloves, tennis rackets and an assortment of balls.
They walk past a dried up oil stain on the floor. Probably from an SUV or minivan, which is what this family would have needed, Rick imagines, from the looks of all the sports equipment on the other side of the garage.
Despite his exhaustion, his cop instincts take over and Rick can't help but wonder why there isn't a second car in the driveway. Why didn't this family leave together in one car? Did Mr. Roberts send his wife and kids to a shelter while he stayed behind to defend their home? Did one car run out of fuel forcing them to ditch it on the side of the road somewhere like millions of other unfortunate beings?
Whatever their story, he can't help them now and he just wishes he could stop worrying about all this shit for a little while. One day to block it all out for blissful ignorance. He's so fucking tired.
From the corner of his eye, he catches Carl take a quick glance at the baseball equipment and then continue on to the door leading into the house.
It breaks Rick's heart that he can't give his son the same carefree childhood that he'd had growing up. Carl loved playing baseball back in King County but now it's as if he doesn't even remember that a bat was used for something other than a weapon. These days, instead of shooting harmless monsters to outscore his friends in a mindless video game, he's had to learn to shoot the real thing to save his very life. The hardness now present in the eyes of his fourteen year old son is just one more thing eating away at his weary soul.
Carl slowly opens the door on creaky hinges and listens for movement on the other side. Hearing nothing but his father's arduous breathing behind him, Carl opens the door all the way and takes a step into a dark hallway.
"Hang on, Carl." Rick stops him from proceeding further into the darkness. He switches on a slim black flashlight that he'd found sitting on a tool chest when they first entered the garage and steps around his son to take the lead. The beam of light cuts into the darkness and they resume walking stealthily down the short hallway into a large family room.
There are boards nailed in front of the windows, doubly enforcing security with those nailed on the outside of the house, permitting only faint light to seep through the cracks. The flashlight beam also reveals two large pieces of plywood covering sliding doors on the back wall and a loveseat that is pushed up against the wood. The gloomy darkness creates a subterranean feel to the room but Rick is impressed with the measures that this guy had taken to fortify his home. They check a laundry room on the right side of the hall and a small bathroom off of the large den, where they are happy to find another flashlight and a bottle of bug spray.
After clearing the first level, the waning sunlight from the second story windows invites them up the steps to a landing by the front door, and then up again to the second floor which contains a decent sized kitchen, a dining room/living room combination and three bedrooms and a bath down a hallway to the right.
~ / ~
Maggie is the first to reach the top floor. She steps into the kitchen with her arms locked, gun ready to fire, although she doubts the need for it with the complete stillness of the house. Walking across the linoleum floor toward the dining room, she spots a wall calendar with a picture of a pretty beach and a lot of notes written in the small squares below it. Apparently Jenny and Matt Roberts kept their parents very busy seventeen months ago. She thinks back to what would have been on her own calendar before The Turn. Having just graduated from college with a business degree, she had been job hunting while helping her father run the farm and assisting with the occasional four legged patient. Though he had retired from his practice a few years before, people still brought their sick animals to his door and he could never turn them away. God, she misses those days.
While Rick and Carl clear the bedrooms, Maggie opens the pale blue curtains in the living room to gain more light, and cracks the windows a few inches to release some of the stale air that's been trapped inside for all these months. From this vantage point she looks out across the neighborhood for any signs of life - the actual living or the reanimated used-to-be's. Except for the miscellaneous pieces of trash blowing around like tumbleweeds in this modern day ghost town, it appears pretty quiet. She hopes it stays that way.
Maggie leaves her post to help the Grimes' down the hall. She stops in front of the first bedroom on the right and sees Carl inspecting the contents of a bookcase. The blue paint on the walls and dinosaur blanket on the bed tells her this must have been Matt's room. She lingers a moment and then continues on to the master bedroom. The raised blinds let in enough light for her to admire the pretty furniture among the burgundy and cream color scheme. The big king sized bed in the center of the room looks extremely inviting, even with its slightly dusty rumpled sheets – they've slept on much worse. But there is work to do so she cracks the windows and then heads toward the noise coming from the master bathroom. She finds Rick standing in front of an opened medicine cabinet, several small orange bottles lying in the sink in front of him and another in his hand that he is trying to pry open.
"Anything good?" Maggie asks, walking around him in the spacious bathroom to open the window for all the fresh air they can get.
"It would be if I could get the damn cap off," he grumbles, flexing his injured hand in between attempts to unscrew the childproof lid on a bottle of painkillers.
"Here, let me," Maggie returns to him with a palm open to receive the uncooperative bottle of pills prescribed to one Mark Roberts.
"Thanks," he puts the frustrating item in her hand.
"Here," Maggie places two capsules in his palm which he immediately tosses into his mouth. She hands him her water bottle to swallow them down. "Why don't you see if there's anything to eat in the kitchen while I finish going through these cabinets."
As Rick heads to the kitchen in search of nourishment, she finishes searching through the bathroom supplies. A few minutes later, she has a small stockpile of items to go along with the pain relief medications that Rick had already pulled out, including antibiotic cream, bandages, first aid tape and sunscreen. Though skin cancer was the least of their worries these days, she thought it may be useful for their own comfort if they have to walk the whole way back to the farm in the hot Georgia sun.
Wanting to wash her hands, she turns the handle on the faucet not knowing what to expect. If the house had utilized well water, they would be out of luck. Releasing the breath she didn't realize she had been holding, she pumps the liquid soap dispenser and washes her hands under the stream of city water cascading into the sink.
With the nights getting chillier, she opens the ottoman that sits at the end of the bed and pulls out a multicolored quilt. She shakes it out and then places it at the bottom of the bed, ready for use if the sheets are not enough.
When she is done in the bedroom, Maggie walks to the kitchen praying with every step that the boys found some decent food to fight the hunger pangs screaming for attention inside her body.
She enters the kitchen where Rick and Carl are sitting at the table sharing a box of expired granola bars and a large bottle of warm grape juice. There is an assortment of edible items on the countertop but none that look very appealing. She chooses the box of protein enriched corn flakes over the crackers, Vienna sausages, baked beans, ramen noodles, sardines and an enormous can of chocolate pudding. Taking a glass from the open cabinet above the worthless microwave, she pours herself some grape juice and takes a seat at the table.
"Why don't you go lay down before you pass out in your dinner," she tells Rick. "The bed looks comfortable and there's a fresh change of clothes on the chair for you," she adds, referring to the dark gray running pants and white tee shirt she'd found to fit his lean frame.
"Yeah, thanks." He sluggishly gets to his feet and limps out of the kitchen.
"He's gonna be alright, isn't he?" Carl asks her, all the lost innocence swimming toward the surface of his gaze.
"Sure…" She smiles for his benefit but it doesn't reach her eyes. "Eventually," she finishes more honestly, but even that doesn't sound very convincing to her own ears.
"Do you really think your sister will be at the farm with Daryl and Judy?" he probes, hope and skepticism at odds in his voice.
This time the smile does reach her eyes as she looks directly into his. "Yes, I do. I know my sister and that's exactly where she would go. Daryl will do as she says just to shut her up." Maggie adds, happy to get a smile out of her young friend.
"Yeah, he's not big on talking sometimes," the boy snickers. "I just hope Judy isn't giving him too much trouble," he adds in a more solemn tone.
"I'm sure your little sister is having a ball with Uncle Daryl at the farm," she grins, hoping to ease the worried look that he is trying so hard to hide.
"When do you think we'll get there?"
"Well I honestly think that will depend on whether or not we find a car. If we can't drive there, your dad will need a few days here to recuperate before we start walking again. On foot, it will take us several days to get there."
"It'll be cool to see the farm again," Carl says lightly as his hand automatically reaches down to cover his belly, feeling for the scar through his thin tee shirt. He remembers those days in Hershel's home, recovering from the gunshot wound that they never thought he would survive. "But it won't be the same without your dad," he utters, somber once again.
"No, it won't." Maggie gets up to put their empty glasses in the sink, silently wiping her damp eyes on her sleeve.
"It's okay. Come on, let's go check out the shed."