He never had his own car, but Merle was never in a state to do any real upkeep on their truck, his father wasn't either so Daryl had become familiar with the auto parts aisle in Walmart.
"Hey, how's it going?"
Daryl glances over at the person standing next to him. Sandals. He shrugs and looks up at the man. People don't just talk to you for no reason, Daryl doesn't know what this guy could want.
"I'm not too good at this stuff, think you could give me hand? I'll pay you."
He follows the man out to the parking lot.
The RV is old, probably older than Daryl but it's clean, body's in good shape.
"I'm Dale. Dale Horvath."
Daryl just nods at the RV. "What's wrong with it?"
It doesn't take long for him to get it started, and he's stuck listening to this guy go on about his dead wife and heading to his sister's farm.
"What about you son, you from around here?"
The word makes his hair stand up and his empty stomach drop. "My name's Daryl."
The guy keeps talking, makes him lunch on the hotplate he calls a kitchen. Daryl eats, it's more than he's had in one sitting in a few days so he takes his time. He's familiar enough with hunger to know what'll happen if he downs it all at once.
Dale pulls out a guitar and plays some song Daryl's never heard. The inside of the RV is full of tapestries and potted plants. "Think you might want to help me get this thing down that farm?"
His stomach is full and this place is comfortable. He likes the music.
"Can you teach me how to play that?"
Dale smiles and nods. "Gonna come with me?"
"Ain't gonna let you take off with this thing about to break down again. Need someone to save your ass."
Dale takes his time moving the old RV south.
They work on the motor.
Spend a few days learning a new song.
Dale talks a lot and Daryl's good at listening.
It's longest time in his life Daryl's ever felt comfortable.
They back the RV beneath a tree off the side of a long dirt driveway. He can see the barn close by and the house at the end of the drive. Dale hugs a girl that comes running out of the house. Daryl hears clipped conversation from the couple walking up.
"My brother. Alone. Family."
"Lazy. Hippie. Yes, family."
Daryl doesn't think anyone would change their mind for him. The woman is carrying a tray of lemonade.
He stays in the RV practicing the chords Dale's been teaching him. The girl is helping Dale string brightly colored Christmas lights from his awning to the tree.
"Your Aunt loved these."
Daryl stands at the door and sees the girl smile.
"You like 'em too old man." His tone is harsher than he means for it to be.
Dale just smiles at him, just like he's been doing since they met.
"Beth, this is Daryl Dixon."
He wonders what she must think about him, hair clipped short and uneven, faded bruises on his jaw. He leans against the small doorframe.
"Hello Mr. Dixon."
He huffs, but grunts out a hello anyway.
"He's been helping me keep this tin can on the road for the last couple weeks."
Her voice is soft, a little too high, "That's awful nice of you."
She was too young to notice the way he stiffened at her small compliment.
"I've been teaching him to play, he's a natural. Maybe you can sing a little something with him?"
Daryl catches the girl's eyes light up. His stomach knots up with nerves. "I ain't hanging around here long." He had sat down on the step and brought his thumbnail to his mouth. "Don't wanna play camp fire sing alongs."
"Beth's got a beautiful little voice. Gonna be good when she gets a little older."
She blushed. Daryl could feel it in his bones.
"Maybe after dinner, whatta you think, Daryl?" Dale smiled at his niece.
He drew a circle in the dirt with the toe of his boot, didn't see her doing the same thing.
When he looked up he hadn't meant to catch her eye, but their gazes locked. It was a fraction of a moment, but he held it before dipping his head in a small nod. "Alright."
She heard him.
He played songs her uncle had taught him, songs he had taught her too.
He was inside the RV, alone, messing around with the guitar while she and Dale set out dishes on the picnic table Daryl had dragged over.
There were burgers and hot dogs on the charcoal grill and more food being brought down from the house.
Everyone gathered up rocks after dinner and helped lay out a fire pit.
Daryl watches from the RV as Dale's sister wraps her arms around him. He turns away when he sees the man crying, grabs the guitar and goes out to sit on the picnic table.
He's playing bits and pieces of different songs.
He feels her looking at him.
" 'S that Neil Young?"
He nods but doesn't even look up at her.
"Why don't you start from the beginning?"
It takes him a minute, he sighs and drops his shoulders before nodding again and playing a riff that she's known most of her life.
He hears her sing. After the first few lines he actually listens. Her small voice pulls at him.
He plays that damn song over and over in his head all night.
He's still humming it when he leaves the next day, sitting in Hershel's truck waiting for Dale to bring him into the town. He closes his eyes when he catches the girl waving from the porch, pushes out a deep breath and freeze frames the picture in his mind.
Dale gives him the guitar and a handful of twenties. Merle makes fun of him for it until he finds out Daryl can make some money playing at bars.
He never tells Merle about the farm. Never plays that song for him either.
He ends up back in that town a few years later. He's older now, doesn't have to sneak into a bar or wait for Merle to get him a beer. He doesn't hang around long. But he does park his truck at a familiar fence.
He sees the RV parked in the same spot. With the lights all strung up and the handmade fire pit a few feet away from a worn picnic table. Daryl presses his eyes closed, brings up the picture again, tries to ignore the memory of Dale's parting words.
"I have a bed here. You can stay."
"I got a family. My brother…"
"You could finish school. Get a job here. It might…"
"Merle's getting me in the mornin'. He's got stuff lined up."
The way Dale held his gaze still burns him, "Hershel said…"
"I never asked for you take me in, old man. I ain't stayin'."
Daryl stays there, chain smoking and watching the farm until the lights start to turn on. There is a silhouette that pulls at his eyes like a magnet. He's drawn to the second floor window and some part of him knows exactly who it is. He sees a man step out of the RV and wave, the tires kick up rocks as he peels away.
He can't just float through life. Not the way Merle does, doped up and rolling along with the tide. Everything feels like it crashing around him. The weight of the scars on his back and in his memory pulling him down, drowning him. Daryl's barely holding his head up, barely spitting the salt out of his mouth when Merle finally gets busted.
His body is shot to shit and he's goddamn tired. He's too beat up for his age and he's never been alone before, not really. Not like this.
The truck is gone, he's got Merle's old bike and he feels so exposed when he pulls up to the farm.
It's not the same.
There are weeds poking up at the fence. The lawn is overgrown. The house needs more than a little paint.
The barn is a burned out skeleton.
The RV is still there.
Daryl can feel bile rising up in his throat but he makes himself sit there until dark.
No lights turn on.
He pretends the wind is the only thing making his eyes burn as he speeds down the road.
There is a motel, it's right across from the bar, the rooms are cheap, but clean. He remembers from the last time he was here. Daryl parks Merle's bike and leaves the keys on the nightstand when he walks across the street and straight up to the bar.
"Gimme a whiskey."
"Ya alright man? Don't look too hot."
His glare must be answer enough because the drink immediately appears in front of him.
Daryl slams down two of them before he forces himself to ask.
"What happened to that farm? Out on 85?"
"You mean the Greene place?"
"Mmm. Hershel, right?"
The bartender shoots a glance across the room before leaning in. "Barn caught fire. Hershel lost his wife and kid. His leg too."
Daryl leans his elbows on his knees, pushes the heels of his palms hard enough into his eyes that he starts to see stars.
He ignores the thickness of his voice to ask about Dale.
"He was a helluva guy. Died about a year before the fire, cancer. It was quick though."
There is a flash of blonde beside him but he can't deal with being hit on. Doesn't have the energy to turn someone down or turn himself on.
His body moves on it's own, throwing money on the bar and crossing the empty road back to his room. The door slams into the wall, shaking the generic landscape painting hanging there. He grabs his keys and knocks the alarm clock to the floor.
The wind pricks at his eyes and he wishes he knew how to turn everything off. He wishes he could forget the image of the girl waving to him and her silhouette in the window. He thinks about the guitar. The one Dale gave him, the one Merle traded for crystal one night while Daryl was working.
He thinks about how good he slept on that table that turned into a bed in the RV.
A few hours later he's back at the farm.
It's well past midnight and everything around him is heavy with dew.
There is truck parked by the RV. A light is on and he thinks of Hershel. Awake and unable to stay in his own house, empty, but full of ghosts. He's so alone and empty that the leftover whiskey in stomach forces itself up his throat. He goes back to the motel.
Daryl parks the bike and flinches when his leg catches the tailpipe as he climbs off. He doesn't really think as he yanks up his pant leg and pushes his calf against it, imagining what it would be like to burn into nothingness.
The next morning is rough, almost impossible. He goes to the drugstore and forces himself to clean the burn on his leg. He showers with the bandaged leg outside of tub. The radio on the alarm clock blares on when he picks the thing up off the floor and plugs it back in. He finds a station and turns it down a little, the songs are familiar and he misses his guitar.
He misses more than just the guitar.
The commercial he's listening to ends and a Neil Young song starts playing. The first verse is still playing as Daryl's locking the door behind him.
J.R.'s Pawn is small. Mainly just old TV's and power tools but Daryl saw the guitar in the window as he drove past the day before.
He's got two hundred and the old Ovation is worth more than that. He's banking on the guy not knowing. He doesn't have to haggle much to walk out with the guitar, a soft case, and fifty bucks left in his pocket.
His room isn't as empty when he goes back in. He sits on the chair instead of the bed and tunes the guitar by ear. It's been a few years since he's played but his hands remember, they fumble a little here and there but he grins a little at how easily he corrects himself.
He plays that song and hums a little, wishing he could hear her voice in his ear like he used to.
The bar serves greasy burgers. It's the first thing he's eaten in two days. Slowly chewing and listening to people talking around him.
"Open mic tonight, if you're interested."
It takes Daryl a minute to realize the bar tender is talking to him.
He blinks at the guy. "Does it pay anything?" He mumbles through half chewed food.
"Nah, but if you're any good we'll book you. That pays. Need a full set though."
He swallows the last of the burger. "Alright."
He plays the song over and over again in his borrowed room.
He's got to sing it. He knows he's decent enough for an open mic. He's no where near good enough for her memory. The only time he tries his throat closes up on him halfway through the first chorus.
The bar is full when he goes back. There's some kid doing shitty stand up. No one laughs.
His leg is throbbing.
He walks up to the bar and the guy hands him a whiskey.
"I pegged you for an electric guy."
Daryl just shrugs. He's never met anyone's standards.
"You can go up next. Not a lot of people signed up tonight."
There is no stage, just a corner cleared out with a small drum kit and microphone.
Daryl drags a bar stool over and sits down.
He plucks at the strings and adjusts the tuning.
People look up when he starts to play, the song is familiar here, he can feel it in the crowd.
He makes it through two lines before his voice catches. He keeps playing, intent on picking back up at the chorus. Daryl can't look up when someone steps in front of him.
He hears the microphone pop as it's adjusted.
A voice that isn't his picks up the chorus.
It's rougher than he remembers, from more than just age, but he knows it immediately.
He keeps playing, staring at the blond hair in front of him, every minuscule movement has him entranced.
As he plays the last chords, people start to clap. Someone shouts out, "Yeah Beth!"
He's sure this is happening in his head.
They told him she was dead.
She's supposed to be dead.
He doesn't move when she turns around.
"I thought it was you last night. You bolted outta here before I could be sure."
There's a scar on her face that he doesn't remember. He can see a spot where her hair doesn't grow. Her eyeliner is smudged. She's stunningly beautiful. Daryl can finally catch his breath, but not the tear that slips down to his unshaven jaw.
She's still staring at him when the bar tender comes over.
"How'd you know that Beth always sings that, man?" The guy glances back and forth between them, "You two know each other?"
"Something like that." Beth's voice is a throaty whisper.
"Well, you sound good together. Next one's on me, man."
He claps Daryl on the shoulder and it snaps him out of his stupor. Beth sees him flinch at the innocent contact before he springs from his seat and packs away his guitar.
He's not looking at her when he finally says something.
"Why do you sing that?"
She can see the pull of his shoulders as he strains to hold himself together. "Makes me think of you. Of that summer." He doesn't see her look away, "I always thought you'd come back."
He hangs his head. "I can't stay here… it's… there's too many people."
"I can leave."
She says something to the bartender and leads him out to the parking lot, to the truck he saw parked by the RV. Hershel's old truck, the one Dale drove him off in. He slides in to the passenger side, both hands keep a white knuckled death grip on the guitar case.
Daryl waits for her to start the car before he forces himself to look away.
She pulls down the driveway and parks by the RV.
"I stay here. My sister and her husband are in the house with my dad."
Daryl follows her, he has hold his breath when he steps in.
"Why were you so surprised to see me? You had to know the farm was close."
"They said… Hershel lost his wife and kid in a fire…I thought…"
She sits at the table, watches his eyes dart around. The tapestries are still there, so are the plants. "You thought I was dead." Beth just looks at him. "I saved my dad, pulled him out when he was trying to get my mom and brother."
"That how you got…?" He motions at her face.
"Yeah, the smoke messed up my throat too. Changed my voice."
He can see a smile in her eyes.
"It was you, last night? Up by the fence?"
Daryl doesn't say anything, just nods.
"I saw the bike in the motel lot." Beth pulls a stray hair off her shoulder, "What happened to the truck you had a few years ago?"
He cocks his head at her.
"Uncle Dale told me. Said he saw you, even after he got sick he still thought you might come by and say hello."
"Never had a reason to. No one needed me, looked good, happy."
"I missed you."
Her voice is nothing but truth and it burns in his ears.
"You were just a kid."
"So were you."
"Nah, I never was. Didn't have that kinda life." He shakes his head, sets his jaw. "I ain't doing this. Not with you."
"Doing what, Daryl?"
"This." He motions between them.
She grabs his hand, "You learned that song for a reason. Same reason I sing it."
He just looks at her hand on his wrist.
"Are you gonna stay this time?"