A Breath of Hope
Losing Rick today hurt as much as losing Merle last week. Daryl prayed to a God that he never truly trusted that Rick made it out of the prison alive. It killed him to leave his friend behind but Rick had made it clear to him on several occasions that if anything ever happened to him, Daryl had to keep his kids safe. It was an honor that he cherished, but one that he hoped never to have to fulfill.
Driving out of the prison was the hardest thing he'd ever done. The only comfort was the fact that he had seen Michonne driving her katana through the Governor's back and Maggie gaining ground on them with Carl right on her heels.
If they went out through the main gate, they could have made it he thought. The majority of the walkers were filing in on the other side, which made it difficult for him to navigate out of the prison himself.
When he finally cleared the prison and its new inhabitants, he made his way back around to the main entrance hoping to pick up the others. Looking through the fences he'd felt sick. Dead civilians spoiled the grounds, soon to be joining the ranks of walkers drifting about the prison yard. It looked like they had hit all of the Governor's people, but lost quite a few of their own as well, mostly those from Woodbury. The biggest loss however was Hershel. He was a tough son of bitch and Daryl was going to miss him terribly.
Looking around for his friends, his heart sank when he saw only death and destruction in front of them. Beth's soft crying had broken into his desolate thoughts. He was actually surprised that Little Asskicker hadn't been crying herself. She was sleeping peacefully in Beth's tight embrace, thankfully oblivious to everything that had happened to them.
"We gotta get outta here," he murmured sadly.
"The farm. We have to go back to the farm," she said, tears running down her cheeks. "It's the best place to go. Maggie will think so too. She'll bring Rick there. It's the last place we were all together before we spent the winter on the road. It was our last home before the prison. You know it will be clear of walkers by now," she pleaded.
"Alright, we'll check it out. I don't have any better ideas," he responded dejectedly.
~ / ~
Steering down the long dirt driveway leading back to the Greene family farm, they notice several fences down surrounding the shell of what's left of the burned out barn. The grass is overgrown, but it looks like the house is still standing from what he can see. Daryl takes one full lap around the house to check the perimeter, and then pulls the Hyundai up near the front porch and shifts it into park.
"Stay in the car," he tells Beth before getting out to retrieve his crossbow from the backseat where it was lying next to the stocked diaper bag that Beth had been smart enough to grab on her way out. He walks up the brick steps leading to the wide wraparound porch expecting to find a few railings broken or bent at the very least. He is amazed to see that the house looks untouched. With no living flesh inside to attract them, the wandering monstrosities must have bypassed the structure completely. He peers through a window looking into an empty sitting room, then slowly opens the unlocked front door.
With searching eyes and silent footsteps, the hunter goes from room to room checking every nook and cranny for any sign of trouble. After inspecting the entire house and finding it blessedly empty, he locates the linen closet upstairs and takes a thick blue and yellow afghan from the pile of blankets and sheets. Since they didn't have time to grab the Pack N Play, they were going to have to improvise. He takes the blanket through Hershel's old bedroom and into the adjoining master bath. After shaking it out to remove any unwanted dust, he lays the soft blanket in the bottom of the tub and stands up to inspect his handiwork. It would have been nice to have a baby monitor, but at least the absence of noise these days makes it easier to hear a crying baby, even in a house as large as this. The tiled floor and walls of the bathroom should also help with amplifying her cries.
Satisfied that his Little Asskicker will be comfortable here, he retraces his footsteps back out to the car.
Beth crosses the threshold with mixed feelings: Incredible relief at finding her house virtually untouched, and overwhelming sadness that her father will never set foot in their home again.
"It looks exactly as I remember it," she says softly, as though not to disturb the memories they had left behind.
"C'mon, bring Asskicker upstairs."
Her footsteps echo Daryl's as she follows him up the stairs and into her father's bedroom. She chokes back a sob and fights the tears when she sees his good watch along with a couple of small family pictures sitting forgotten in their dusty frames on the dresser.
Uncomfortable with emotional turmoil, Daryl looks everywhere but at her face, afraid his own grief will surface amid Hershel's personal belongings. "In here," he calls out walking into the bathroom.
Beth drags her watery eyes away from her father's things, takes a deep calming breath and marches into the bathroom on Daryl's orders.
After settling Judy to finish her nap in the bathtub, Beth and Daryl stroll through the house opening all the windows to air out the months of musty air trapped inside.
While Daryl adds gasoline to the generator out back, Beth checks the kitchen to take inventory of their stock. After throwing away the rotten fruit that had been left on the table, she finds enough food in the cabinets to last them a little while. Their biggest concern is going to be getting more formula for the baby. They will have to make a run within the week.
After losing to Carl in a heated marathon of Chinese checkers, Maggie leaves him in the living room with a Harry Potter book and his championship trophy - the enormous can of chocolate pudding.
She walks quietly down the hall to check on Rick, who is snoring softly in the big master bed. He is lying on his back, head on the pillow, hands folded on his stomach…dirty boots on the colorful quilt.
She looks down at the tattered clothes he must have been too exhausted to change out of. She wishes she could have gotten him out of the dirty garments first, but doesn't have the heart to wake him now. She does take the liberty of removing his worn out boots and once-white socks though, letting his poor tired feet enjoy some freedom. She thinks she hears an almost imperceptible "thank you" mumbled from the head of the bed.
Silently, she watches him sleep and thinks he looks quite a bit younger without the stress lines that were usually evident around his incredibly blue eyes. Even battered and beaten, his handsome face still fed the butterflies that came alive in her belly when she was this close to him.
She doesn't remember the exact moment when she started having these feelings toward her best friend. It was something that had built up gradually over the past few months. Each time she watched him give his son a well-deserved pat on the back, and rocked his daughter to sleep in his strong arms softly singing 'Do Wah Diddy'. Every time he laughed at awful red-neck jokes with Daryl, and fearlessly led all the people who looked to him as their leader - whether he wanted to or not. Watching him day in and day out, thinking of everyone else before himself and filling the shoes he was born to walk in. She loved him more and more with every breath.
Taking advantage of his semi-catatonic state, Maggie studies his face and takes in all of the scrapes, cuts and variety of discolored bruises decorating his sharp features, as well as the parts of his chest and arms that were bared to her. She suspects he has some bruised ribs, if not broken, by the way he was breathing earlier. He will be sore as hell for a few days but she didn't see anything that looked life-threatening. According to Rick, even the gunshot wound on his leg wasn't too bad; the bullet just took off a small chunk of flesh and continued on to find a more solid target. She wanted to clean and dress his wounds to help start the healing process, but she knew sleep was even more important for a worn out body to heal itself. So she would let him sleep - God knew he needed it.
Maggie's light green eyes were admiring his slightly hairy, well-toned chest when they glance back up to his neck. The image there stops her heart. When she sees the finger-shaped bruises, she realizes just how close she'd come to losing him. That was all it took for the dam behind her eyes to finally crumble and let the tears spill free that she had been holding in all day. With a fist between her teeth and an arm across her belly, hunched over she quietly cries for the home that they had lost and the family and friends that were missing. She weeps for the loss of the life they had worked so hard to build. She mourns for her father.
When her tears are spent and exhaustion is trying to settle itself comfortably into her bones, she goes into the master bathroom to splash water on her face. When she looks into the mirror above the sink, her swollen eyes reveal how filthy she had become from everything that had happened that day. Not wanting to go back to those unhappy thoughts, she decides to clean herself up for a fresh start.
While Rick sleeps, she gathers a few towels from the linen closet and some clothes from Mrs. Roberts' dresser - now full of hand-me-downs. She discards her filthy garments and grabs the small bar of soap and travel size shampoo she'd found under the sink. She steps into the shower hoping that the icy water will remove the worst of the dirt and grime, as well as the memory of all they had lost that day.
When she is clean enough - and can stand the cold water no longer - she towels her shoulder length brown hair to dry it as best she can and dresses in her new outfit, feeling fairly refreshed in a pair of black yoga pants and a soft cranberry V-neck tee shirt.
Letting Rick sleep for a few more minutes, Maggie goes out to the living room to check on Carl. She sees his gangly form splayed along the couch with Harry Potter forgotten across his stomach as he sleeps. Like his father, he also looks younger without the pressures of this cruel world etched into the planes of his face. She also notices the empty container that once held 112 oz. of chocolate pudding sitting on the coffee table next to the couch. She chuckles at the childishness of it and hopes his sweet victory doesn't cause him to wake up with a belly ache.
Maggie gently removes the book from under his loose grip and sets it on the table next to his flashlight and the empty pudding container. She finds an afghan on the back of a comfortable looking recliner and shakes the dust off before laying it over the boy.
Going back to the bedroom, Maggie is determined to tend to their leader whether he is awake or not. She needs to clean him up before she collapses into a bed of her own.