"Do you think things will ever get back to how they were?"
"Yeah. Not sure when, but one day."
Clementine wakes up to the smell of bacon.
Her eyes slowly edge open as she regains consciousness after her normal eight hours of sleep. From her bedroom, she can hear the birds chirping outside, her neighbor's noisy car starting up as they prepare to leave for work. Mostly, though, she hears her mother laughing as her father sings a song she doesn't know the name of downstairs in the kitchen.
It's not a bad way to wake up.
She stretches her arms up high, hearing a few bones crack and sighing in contentment. Clementine slips on the slippers laid down beside her bed and heads downstairs, scratching her hair and scowling as her fingers get caught in the many tangles.
When she enters the kitchen area, her parents smile at her and wish her a good morning at the same time. She takes a seat at the kitchen table and her father, after flipping over a pancake, promptly heads over the refrigerator to poor her a glass of juice.
"Morning, princess. Your feast awaits."
Clementine giggles and takes a sip of her juice, her eyes moving to gaze at the television where a cartoon is playing. Her mother takes a seat behind her and gathers her hair in one of her hands, using the other to begin brushing through with a comb to get rid of the knots that come from Clementine's awful bed hair.
She lets out a hiss as her mother forcefully yanks the brush through a particularly rough patch of tangles. "You got my hair, alright." Her mother laughs, patting Clementine's hair in apology.
On the television, the animated sea creatures are interrupted by a commercial break. Commercial breaks are the most uninteresting and unnecessary things in the world, she thinks. Why not just go to the store and check out the items they're selling there? But halfway through a commercial for a fruit slicer, the ad is interrupted by a news announcement.
"Chaos broke out in downtown Atlanta when a man attacked a group of passengers on a bus… The man allegedly killed three passengers by tearing out their throats with his teeth and was shot down by police after refusing arrest…"
Pictures of the crime scene and of the man in question replace the anchorwoman. The man had dark skin and a beard, but all Clementine noticed was the blood staining his face. His teeth were bared in a bloody snarl as he reached out toward a police officer who had her gun aimed at his head.
Her attention was taken away from the television when she heard a plate being set in front of her on the table. But when she gazed down, she nearly threw up as she saw what looked like a beating heart instead of the bacon and pancakes she had seen her dad cooking.
"Dad…? What is this?" Clementine's voice rose several pitches in panic as she pushed the plate hard enough that it fell of the table, crashing onto the floor. Still, all she could hear thumping in her ears was the heart beating, or was it her own?
A snarl interrupted her thoughts. When Clementine turned around, she looked straight into the eyes of a monster that had hijacked her mother's face.
Her mother's eyes were pale, paler than was humanly possible. In fact, everything about her seemed muted, except for the vibrant red that stained her suddenly-sharper teeth.
Clementine gasps and attempts to get up to run, but screams as her mother's hands in her hair tighten their grip and pull her back down. "DAD! DAD!" She screams in terror, desperately trying to fight her way out of the monster's grasp. "HELP ME! DAD!"
But when she looks in front of her, she sees just another horrible creature. His face is covered in grime and the eyes she had inherited from him are blank and unrecognizable.
Clementine sobs as her father growls and as her mother's teeth get closer and closer to her bared neck. There's nothing to do, she's going to die, oh god, what was happening, what was happening-
And then she wakes up.
Clementine lets out a short scream as she shoots up to a sitting position, covering her mouth right after and looking around to see if anyone around her had woken up. From her spot on the floor, where she had been given a blanket and told to sleep a few hours earlier, she could see Carlos snoring away in a chair a few feet away, his face contorted into a pained expression and his broken fingers held in a poorly constructed splint; Nick lying down beside the chair and also fast asleep; and Kenny and Sarita sleeping next to each other to her other side. Carver had taken Rebecca to his own room, much to her and Alvin's fear and anger. Alvin himself had been whisked away by some of Carver's men at the same time, and had not been seen since. Clementine hoped they were both okay. Alvin had given her bandages and a juice box, and Rebecca had grown on her over the five day trip. And the fact that Rebecca reminded her so much of Christa certainly helped as well.
Clementine sighs and rubs her eyes, ignoring the tears that were swept away. It was stupid that she was still having nightmares like that. For many, many nights she would dream of her old, normal life, with parents that were alive and her old house and functioning technology. The dreams felt so real, even when they turned into nightmares at the end. She shivers as she remembers one of the more vivid nightmares, which had taken place at the motor inn before everything turned to shit. Lee had been coloring with her when she suddenly looked up and saw he had been shot right between the eyes, falling down on top of her in a dead heap. Clementine had screamed and screamed until Christa wrapped her in her arms and told her repeatedly that it had just been a dream.
The girl doesn't bother to lay back down and attempt to enter unconsciousness once more. She doesn't get the chance to, because she is interrupted by a whisper behind her.
"Clem? Are you awake?" Clementine jumps about five feet in the air before she registers that the voice belongs to Sarah.
She sighs and nods, but doesn't turn around to face the older girl. "Yeah, I am."
"What happened? I thought I heard something. Did you have a bad dream?"
Clementine finally turns around to look at her. Sarah's hair is messy, sticking up in certain places and a little greasy. Her clothes are wrinkled and her eyes are red with eyebags underneath. Clementine feels like she's staring into a mirror at that moment. "Yeah, I did. I'm used to them, though. It's okay. Just go back to sleep."
Sarah bites her lip and Clementine belatedly notices that she's not wearing her glasses. She looks different without them, kind of older-looking. Or maybe it's the expression on her face that gives her a more mature appearance. "I…I kind of can't."
The younger girl furrows her eyebrows and gestures for her to continue. Sarah twirls a strand of hair between her fingers nervously and shifts so her knees are pressed up against her chest. "Well…it's just…. I kind of used to get nightmares, too. I still do. And sometimes I can't breathe really easily. Dad says it's normal, and maybe it is now, but back before everything went bad, I would be like this all the time. And the only way I could go back to sleep was if my dad was there to comfort me. But…" She sneaks a quick look at her father, who makes pained noises as he shifts around uncomfortably in his sleep.
"I just can't stop remembering…" Sarah's voice trembles as she wraps her arms around her knees, beginning to rock back and forth. Clementine scoots closer to her in alarm at the sudden shift in her tone, unsure of what to do or say. "I can't stop thinking about what Carver did to him, back at the ski resort. He hurt him and when I told him to stop, he didn't stop! Why didn't he stop?!" The fifteen year old chokes back a sob and hides her face in her knees, unable to continue speaking.
Clementine lifts an arm out to comfort her, flashing back to when Lee attempted to do the same thing to her back in Savannah, when he had told her that they had no time to search for her parents. It stings to recall because that was one of the last moments she had with Lee before she went and ran away and got him bitten. She cautiously lays an arm around Sarah's shoulders and brings her in for a hug, pressing the older girl's head against her collarbone. She feels Sarah's tears running down her neck but doesn't pull away until her sobs have died down.
For a long while, they just sit there curled up around each other in the dark, no words said between them. At least until Clementine opens her mouth to speak. "I dream about before."
Sarah sniffles and wipes her nose against the sleeve of her sweater. "What do you mean?"
The younger girl sighs and shrugs her shoulders a bit. "Before, you know, walkers. Or lurkers, that's what you guys call them, right? Sometimes I do dream about after that, but when times were good, or at least better than they are now."
Sarah moves away from Clementine's shoulder, moving so she's sitting criss-crossed in front of her. Her eyes are red from crying, but there's now an interested glint as she rests her head on her hands. "You never really told us about what happened to you before. I mean," She backtracks hurriedly."Unless you don't want to tell. I'm okay with that. I'm sorry, I just-"
Clementine interrupts her before she can freak out even more, "No, no, it's okay. It's just sad to remember sometimes. But I guess it's time for me to talk about it. You helped me a lot when I was bitten by that dog. You deserve to know."
She and Sarah exchange small smiles before Clementine starts her story. "My mom and dad, they left to Savannah a few days before everything and left me with Sandra, my babysitter. Sandra… I was up in my treehouse when she answered the door and got bitten by some random walker. I hid there until one day, a man showed up and decided to take care of me. His name was Lee… he…" Clementine cleared her throat and laughed a little. "Well, we left to this farm, that's where we met Kenny and his family, but we had to leave the next day because something bad happened. We met up with a group in his family's old drugstore, and we all lived together in a motel a few blocks away for a few months.
One day, these guys found the motel and told us they lived on a farm a couple of minutes away. We were running out of food and they wanted to trade gas for food, so most of us went to go check it out. But then… They were bad. They were really bad and we lost two members of our group."
Sarah interrupts her quietly, "What did they do?"
Clementine shudders and shakes her head. "I don't think you want to know. But after that, things got really bad in the group. This woman in our group, Lilly, her dad died at the farm and she got really upset at Lee and Kenny afterwards. Someone was stealing from our supplies apparently, too, and giving them to these bandits. Eventually, the bandits attacked us and we had to leave the motel for good. Lilly was mad; she blamed this other lady in our group, Carley, and Ben, and we were outside in the dark and she just… She shoots Carley and Lee decides to leave her behind."
"Woah…" Sarah whispers in shock.
The eleven year old nods sadly. "And when we got back on the road, it turned out that Kenny's son, Duck, got bit during the bandit attack. We found a train and we decided to take it to Savannah to find a boat and maybe even my parents. We met this nice man named Chuck, but eventually we had to stop the train because Duck was really, really sick. Lee told me he was going to…put Duck out of his misery. Katjaa - Duck's mom - said she was going to say goodbye to him, but then she shot herself and…God, poor Kenny, he lost everyone in the same day." Clementine can't help but glance over to where Kenny is still laying sound asleep next to Sarita. His face twitches and his mouth is set in a frown. She wonders if he has nightmares, too. He sure has a lot of material to dream about.
"We went back on the train and Lee decided to teach me to take care of myself so I didn't end up like Duck. He's the reason why I keep my hair short. He taught me how to shoot a gun." Clem smiles briefly. "We met up with these two people, Christa and Omid, and they helped us keep going until we finally reached Savannah.
It wasn't a good place… Filled with walkers and just…people who lost it after everything went bad. I was so upset with Lee when he told me that we didn't have enough time to go look for my parents. We had found a boat, but we couldn't go find my parents? I was so stupid. I had been talking to this man on my walkie talkie for months. He told me that he knew where my parents were and he would help me find them. Lee and Christa found out and they told me this guy was bad, but I didn't believe them, so I ran away."
Clementine's eyes started to sting despite how hard she was trying not to show emotion at the moment. She clenched her fists and looked down into her lap. "Lee got bit trying to get me back. When he found me, he had chopped off his arm to buy himself more time. But…it didn't work. I had to… I had to…" She shakes her head and doesn't look at Sarah, doesn't look at her shaking fists, because all she can see is Lee's pale face as she aims the gun between his eyes. "I had to put him out of his misery before he turned. And I left."
Sarah doesn't say anything after Clementine finishes. She takes Clementine's hand and intertwines their fingers in comfort. Clementine knows that Sarah finds it hard to communicate and to empathize with others, so the fact that Sarah read her well enough to know that she needed comfort brings a smile to her face despite how heavy her heart feels.
"I met up with Christa and Omid later… We were together for a few months. Christa was going to have a baby and it seemed like everything was going to be okay. But then I made another mistake and…Omid died. Christa never forgave me for it. She tried not to blame me for it, but the way she acted around me… I knew she would never forgive me. And she lost the baby. And eventually, we got attacked and separated and I ended up here. And that's it, really."
The older girl squeezes Clementine's hand and looks her in the eye. "I'm… I don't know what to say…"
Clementine shakes her head and releases her hand from Sarah's grasp. "No, it's okay. Just talking about it made me feel better. I'm sorry you had to hear about all that."
Sarah looks up at the ceiling and then back at Clementine, sadness painted all over her face. "I can't… I can't believe the world is as bad as you said. My dad always told me that everything would pass and it would be all normal again eventually. And I believed him. I mean, I still do believe him. It can't get much worse than this, can it?"
Clementine stays silent, purses her lips and looks away. Sarah tentatively repeats herself, "Can it…?"
"Look, Sarah…" Clementine begins, glancing quickly at the still-asleep Carlos before continuing. "I believe that, too. Lee told me that one day, things will work out and go back to the way they used to be. But for now, we can't just…" She becomes frustrated as she struggles to find the right words. "We can't just act like kids and let ourselves believe that we'll always have some adult to look out for us. That's what got Duck killed. That's what could get both of us killed! You either learn to survive or you die!"
Clementine is breathing heavily as she reaches the end of her rant. When she looks at Sarah, the girl looks both shocked and upset at her outburst. Sarah sounds hurt as she asks, "Are you saying that I'm gonna…die?"
The younger girl opens her mouth but nothing comes out. She sighs and shakes her head. "No, no, I'm just… I'm just saying that you need to be taught how to live in this new world. Lee taught me and that's why I'm still here, even after he…well, you know. We can't play games anymore, we can't let ourselves get distracted by little kid things, we can't play make believe and pretend that everything is alright because it's not, at least right now. Maybe one day, yeah, you and I could act our age again, but right now, we can't."
Sarah looks down into her lap for what seems like ages. Clementine nervously wrings her hands together and looks back up at Carlos to make sure he hasn't woken up and heard her entire speech. She had promised him to leave Sarah alone, saying she was different. And she was, but was that an excuse to leave her completely defenseless?
"You're right." Sarah whispers, her eyes still downcast. "I know I need to learn all the stuff you know, but my dad doesn't want me to. He just wants to protect me, you know? He's always tried to protect me, even before there were lurkers. But…I'm just not built to take care of myself. That's not who I am."
Clementine shakes her head. "I'm sure you can-"
"No, no, you just don't understand," Sarah interrupts her before she can continue. "I'm not like you, Clementine. Teach me how to shoot, I can maybe do it, but beyond that, I'm hopeless. I've always been like this. The only thing I have left going for me is being a kid. People want to protect me."
The eleven year old gives her a doubtful look. "That's not going to work for much longer, you know that."
Sarah nods and looks up at her at last. "Yeah, I do. But I think, in the end, being a kid is worth it. You don't have to worry about what adults have to worry over, you can play and believe and enjoy whatever time you have left. You can have hope.Adults, they don't hope anymore. My dad, Luke, Rebecca, Nick, Alvin… they've given up on everything going back to normal. They've accepted that this is the way it's going to be forever and there's no changing that. But you and me, Clem," She grabs Clementine's hand and smiles at her shakily. "We're their only hope left. Did you see how close Luke got to you in just a few days? And your friend, Kenny, you guys meet up again and he's the happiest man I've ever seen! Us kids, we're all that's left of what used to be. We can't let go of that. We have to hold onto it."
Clementine looks at their hands and then up at Sarah, a thoughtful look on her face. "I never really thought about it like that."
Sarah gives her a small grin. "Me neither. I honestly don't even know where that came from."
They laugh quietly and lay down next to each other, hands still interlocked.
"I still want to teach you stuff, though. Carlos isn't always going to be there, or Luke, or, well, me." Clementine whispers, turning her head to face the older girl.
Sarah looks back at her, a glint in her eyes. "And I want to give you a makeover one day. I always loved playing dress-up. Rebecca would never let me play with her, though, and she was the only other girl."
Clementine chuckles and reaches up to pat her frizzy hair. "As long as you don't touch my hair, I'm fine with that. These clothes are really old anyway. They kind of smell."
"Ooh, and maybe we can dolls! It's been ages since I've seen a doll!"
"I never really liked playing with dolls, though. Drawing was more of my thing. Have you ever heard of leaf rubbing?"
When Clementine wakes up, there is no one beside her, even though she remembers laying her head down on Sarah's shoulder just before knocking out. She doesn't remember having any nightmares.
She panics as she sits up and scans the room. Nick, who's eating cereal out of a dirty bowl, is the only other person she sees.
"Well, finally you wake up." Nick comments dryly around a mouthful of Cheerios.
Clementine wrinkles her nose and raises an eyebrow in disgust. "I'm eleven years old and I have better manners than you."
"You're the wonder child, we get it."
She sighs and rolls her eyes. "Where is everyone, Nick?"
Nick shrugs and glances at the door. "They're probably all on shift, your asshole friend included. You and I start workin' in an hour, by the way."
"Do you know where Sarah is right now?" Nick shakes her head and turns his full attention back to his food. Clementine gathers all of the patience she has and grabs her hat off the floor as she walks out of the room.
Outside, she eyes Carver's compound and stays out of the way as people zoom by her carrying buckets and clothing and all sorts of stuff. Carver made sure all of his people had jobs to do, even children her and Sarah's age.
Speaking of Sarah, Clementine's eyes dart around as she searches for the older girl. She decides to head in the direction most people were going to, into a small trading post manned by a woman with short brown hair and tan skin.
Clementine jumps as a hand grabs her left forearm, but lets out a sigh of relief when she whirls around and sees Sarah's familiar face. "Clem!" Sarah exclaims, smiling as she pulls her to the side.
"Hey, Sarah." Clem says before she catches sight of something hidden behind Sarah's back. "What's that…?" She asks, confused.
Sarah grins and jumps slightly in excitement. "Phase one of your makeover!" She says as she reveals what she has found. Clementine takes hold of the object and holds it up in front of her. It's a jacket with a light blue background, but the main focus is clearly the rainbow stripes across the chest.
"I traded over one of my old shirts and got this for you!" Sarah reveals as Clementine continues to examine Sarah's gift.
"You didn't have to…" Clementine starts guiltily, already thinking of ways to repay her for this.
"No, no, it's okay, I said I wanted to give you a makeover, right? And how cute is this sweater?"
Clementine closes her eyes as she laughs, clutching the sweater close to her chest. "It's awesome. Thanks, Sarah."
Sarah stares at her expectedly. "Well, try it on!" She insists, readjusting her glasses as they slip down her nose a bit.
Clementine nods and shrugs on the jacket, zipping it up and spreading her arms out as she twirls around so Sarah can see the sweater from every angle. Sarah lets out an approving hum after Clementine comes to a stop, but then catches sight of a girl - something that starts with a B, Clementine recalls - glaring at the two of them from her seat behind the clothing table and stops.
"I should probably get back to work…" Sarah says guiltily, already walking back to the table.
Clementine grabs onto her wrist and stops her before she can get too far. "I'll give you something back, I promise. Maybe I can start training you when we're both off shift later?"
Sarah smiles and nods. "Yeah. That's good with me. I'll talk to you later, Clementine."
The eleven year old lets her go and watches as Sarah sits down next to the glowering girl, and then turns around to walk in the direction of the tool shop where her first shift starts in under a half hour. She runs a hand down her new sweater, feeling the comfortable puffy fabric under her fingertips, and can't help but picture a real rainbow in the bright blue, springtime sky.
She imagines herself on a swing set. Sarita and Kenny are seated on a bench in front of them, laughing over a joke Kenny told. Nick, Luke, and Carlos are playing a game of poker on a picnic bench to the side, and Luke is losing horribly. Rebecca and Alvin are seated on the grass, with an adorable newborn gurgling in Rebecca's arms. And Sarah is seated on the swing right beside her, their hands linked together as they push off the ground and swing, and swing, and swing.
Neither of them notice the dark clouds steadily beginning to loom over them. At least, not yet.