The Red House by Cora Rochester

Rating: T for language

Word Count: 2198

Notes: This is a non-zombie AU

...

The red house was a fucking dump, wood grain showing through faded wood siding and white paint cracking and peeling off the window frames in thick, leaded chips. It was one of those big old houses that had started falling apart in a shit neighborhood and been split up into a handful of apartments, rented out cheap, no questions asked. The front of the house faced onto the main road, a pulsating neon sign in the smeared up window, "TATTOO" spelled out in red block capitals. Cigarette butts and probably a couple of roaches littered the stress-fractured sidewalk, most densely ringed around a beat-up folding chair, nylon threads unraveling wildly in the seat. And the back of the house, where a spindly looking set up stairs led up to their second floor apartment, wasn't any better. A yellow patch of grass, littered with gravel, led out to the narrow alleyway where he'd parked his truck, his brother's bike haphazardly parked half on the lawn, half on the asphalt. Half hidden in the shadow of the wooden stairs, he could see a crooked looking doorway leading into yet another awkwardly sized apartment, judging by worn welcome mat and flower pots scattered along the cement pad outside the door.

"Home sweet home, baby brother!" Merle crowed, slapping Daryl on the back, hard, as he shoved past with a thirty rack under his arm. Whistling a tone deaf rendition of what appeared to be a Guns & Roses song, Merle stomped on up the stairs, wrestling a warm can of beer out of the box. Turning, Daryl looked back at his truck, what little shit they owned haphazardly piled up and needing to be hauled up that shaky looking set of stairs. He'd done this often enough to know Merle considered carrying that case of beers up the stairs his contribution to the moving process.

"Catch!"

Daryl barely had time to jerk around and duck before a can landed with a loud thud at his feet. "Gotta move fast, Darylina!" Merle laughed, a reedy, asthmatic sound. "Guess you're gonna hafta wait on that beer!" And then he disappeared into the dark apartment, slamming the door with a decisive rattle. Barely noon and Merle was already singlehandedly working on a buzz.

Biting back a blue streak, Daryl bent over and picked up the can, grateful it hadn't cracked open and sprayed everywhere. Normally he didn't give too much of a shit about what Merle got up to, but he was pissed about having to move into town in the first place. He'd been just fine living out from town a ways, right by the woods and no neighbors in sight. Looking down the alley, he could see dirty looking house after dirty looking house, beat up cars cluttering up both sides of the road. Everyone's yard was the same sickly yellow-brown, dried out in the early summer heat. Whole alley smelled a little funky, with everyone's garbage baking in the cans lined up along the curb.

Nah, this wasn't what he wanted at all. But Merle had friends living in town, and they were saying college kids, rich kids going to that private bullshit liberal arts college in town, were all for buying every kind of pill they could get their hands onto. So Merle had pulled up the stakes and dragged his circus all the way into town, giving up the cabin he and Daryl had been living in for going on a year in the hopes of making some money peddling pills to college douchebags. The only upside, if you could even call it that, was that Daryl was a little closer to the highway department job he'd been working at for nearly 6 months. Wasn't full time or anything, but he was happy to have a little bit of work and have some cash on hand for smokes and beer and maybe picking up a movie if he wanted to. But giving up the job and the cabin in one fell swoop would've really pissed him off. So, at least it was only losing one of the two this time around.

Instead up lifting up any of the hastily packed cardboard boxes from the truck bed, he just sort of poked around at them, trying to figure out where he'd tossed his Zippo. The thing had disappeared while he was packing, and he was awful sick of the Bic he'd picked up at the gas station. Had the fucking Zippo for more than ten years, shine worn away from his always thumbing it, all scratched up and a little dented from that one time Merle had thrown it out the window while Daryl was driving. No matter what happened to the goddamned thing, it always turned back up, still working, just a little more dinged up.

He finally found it at the bottom of a box of balled up underwear and wife beaters and mismatched thermal socks. Daryl had just lit up a cigarette when he heard a door opening up behind him. Merle, probably looking for something. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell his brother to fuck off when a soft, female voice with a delicate Georgian accent came from somewhere behind his right shoulder.

"Hey there."

Turning around, he was surprised to see a pretty looking girl, a girl with blond hair and a delicate, china doll face. She had on a grey tank top and jeans shorts with lace trimmed pockets poking out from under the fraying hem, and a whole jewelry store's worth of bracelets on her right wrist. She had a thin body, all soft white lines, and he found himself struggling to guess how old she was. Eighteen? Maybe twenty-one? There was something sweet about her porcelain doll face, about the friendly smile she wore on her pale pink lips that made him think she had to be young.

"Hey," he finally managed to mumble, looking at her baby blue eyes for just a second before dropping his gaze again.

"Are you the one that's just moving in?" she asked.

"Yeah," he answered. He took another drag, letting his eyes flicker briefly over the braid peeking out of her ponytail, and the orange toenail polish that clashed with her pink rubber flip flops. "Me'n my brother."

She stepped a little closer, her nice smile widening just a bit as she held out her hand. "I'm Beth," she said. "I live under you, back of the tattoo parlor."

Her hand was soft, but she had callouses on her fingers and her grip was surprisingly firm. "Daryl," he offered, meeting her eyes again. They looked, for all the world, like the fucking sky on a summer day, a shade of blue he'd never seen before in his life.

The upstairs door slammed open, and Daryl dropped her hand like it was burning.

"Daryl! You see my lava lamp out there? Gotta get this place lookin' good tonight if we're gonna be entertainin'." Merle stepped out onto the stairs, beer in one hand and cigarette in the other. He let out a long, appreciative whistle when his eyes settled on the girl, ambling down the stairs. "Why, howdy, sweet cheeks. See you just met the lesser Dixon brother. Why don' you com'on over here and say hello to Merle." Daryl felt his stomach curl up as he watched his brother's lips twitch as he looked the girl up and down.

Beth, like most women, didn't look terribly impressed with Merle. But she stuck her hand out all the same, which Merle took after jamming his cigarette back between his lips. "Hi," she said as she shook Merle's hand. "I'm Beth Greene. I was just telling your brother that I live underneath you folks."

"Well isn't that just the cherry on the pie," Merle said. "We got ourselves the prettiest neighbor in the whole state'a Georgia." His eyes flickered over to Daryl, who was carefully looking at a space somewhere above Beth's left shoulder. "Ain't we just the lucky ones, there, boy?"

Daryl knew Merle was needling him. His brother always was fucking with him when it came to girls, knowing Daryl was more like to clam up than try to put his hand on anybody's ass. Merle never could figure out when was a good time to keep his mouth shut. So he just shot a glare in Merle's direction, crushing his cigarette into the side of his truck and tossing it into the street.

"I don't know about that," Beth finally said, her smile wry. "Anyway, it was good to meet you. I have to get going to work, but I hope you all get settled in nicely!" She gave them a little wave, taking off towards the alley way. Daryl tried not to stare at the way her ass looked in those shorts. He had a feeling his brother didn't feel the same sort of neighborly respect.

Both the brothers watched as she pulled away in a beat up brown and tan Ford Ranger, windows down and hair blowing in the wind, folk music just barely louder than the rumble of the engine.

"Looks like jailbait if I ever seen it. But it ain't no crime to look, now is it?" Merle said, setting his beer on the side of Daryl's truck. He started dragged clothes and books and magazines and all sorts of shit out of boxes, tossing it all around the truck bed. After opening up damn near every box, Merle finally pulled his fucking lava lamp free, the cord catching on one of Daryl's shirts and dragging it to the ground. "Now the party can start," he said, gathering up the cord and his beer, heading back towards the stairs.

Daryl didn't answer, just looked at the wrecked boxes and the piles of shit strewn around his truck bed. A few hours' worth of moving and unpacking stretched out in front of him, and then what? Getting drunk with Merle? Living in the city meant not being able to just slip off into the woods, crossbow on his shoulder, and spend the night out away from everything. Slipping away to something right outside where you parked your ass at night was easy. He knew the roads he could take, how many miles and how long it'd take, before he could be right back in the woods. But knowing that didn't change shit. Those woods were a whole fucking world away, now. This, this shitty red house and the shitty tattoo parlor and that pretty little girl that was going to get real sick of him and his dipshit brother real soon, this was his world now. And that's all there was to it.

The first night they were there, it just noise spilling out of the upstairs apartment, loud and obnoxious and just like Merle. Sitting out at the bottom of the stairs, having a smoke and staring at the chain link fence in front of him, Daryl thought, not for the first time, about how Merle's voice is always the one he could hear over everything else. Always the loudest. Always had to be the brashest son of a bitch in any given room, even when they were kids and Daryl would tag along after his older brother like his life depended on it. There was comfort in all that larger than life bullshit. Unsteady as it really was, nights like this felt steady. Like all that noise and the awful flush on the back of his neck would last forever. Merle would always be making noise, and Daryl would always be listening to it.

It wasn't too late, maybe eleven or so. This was nothing new for Daryl, and he knew the party was going to be stretching on until every last man and woman had passed out somewhere, snoring and farting and looking like every kind of fool known to man. Daryl knew he'd have to pick his way over sprawled out bodies at five in the morning, trying not to make too much noise on his way out the door to work.

After a few moments, he heard sound from behind him. Turning, he peered through the stairs, taking in the yard and the red siding, black looking except for where the streetlights hit it. The girl's apartment was all lit up now, yellowish light spilling through white curtains. It'd been dark in there when he'd come down the stairs, silent, like there wasn't even anybody in there. A fist formed in his gut, and he sucked down the last of his cigarette quickly, pinching down hard on the filter as he squinted at her wide-awake apartment.

Around the time he started to wonder if he should go on and apologize to her, knowing that he'd never get up the balls to actually go on and do it, a melody started spilling out from the apartment. Just muted guitar chords and a high, sweet voice singing words he couldn't quite make out. His cigarette long since spent, he stayed out for quite some time, just listening to songs he could barely hear.

...

Sorry, nothing much happens. I have another couple of thousand words written on this, but nothing that's ready for posting at the moment. Eventually, though, I'm going to finish it! (ha. ha. ha...)