Disclaimer: If it's recognizable, it isn't mine.
Whatever lightness had fallen over camp the previous morning, it was gone by the time the sun rose the next day. No one seemed to sleep at all that night, too distraught and on edge to even think about closing their eyes. Anna spent most of the night following the walker infiltration sitting in silence around a low burning fire with Dale, Jim and Jacqui, none of them either daring to speak or even knowing what to say. Their casualties were numerous and the unspoken question lingered in the air: How could they have let this happen?
Admittedly, it was a wonder they had managed to go so long without an incident. With the infected drawn in large part to the city, the surrounding area remained relatively clear – until the previous night, at least. Though there was always someone keeping watch atop the RV and they'd hung a series of cans and bottles around the perimeter to forewarn them of any approaching threats, there was no denying that every single person in camp had let their guard down at least a fraction. Camp life had spoiled them all, had let them get comfortable enough to forget that the wolf was always at their door, howling and scratching and waiting to break it down. Forgetting, comfort – those were dangerous things. Those were what got people killed.
When the sun finally began to peek over the treetops on the eastern edge of camp, the group set to work. It was decided early on to bury the ones they lost and burn the rest and so they began the gut-wrenching task of separating their own from the monsters. The men tasked themselves with destroying the brains of the ones who had been bitten but not yet turned, something Anna certainly did not envy them for. Lori, Miranda and Carol kept the children occupied while the rest of them tended to the bodies of their former campers, carefully wrapping them before loading them into the back of Daryl's old pickup.
"We can't just leave Amy like that," Anna heard Shane mutter to the group that had congregated around him. He was a few feet away from where Jacqui and Anna were wrapping up the body of Mr. Bickling, an elderly man who kept mostly to himself but was always up for a game of backgammon, even though his set was missing a handful of pieces. "We need to deal with it, same as the others."
"He's right," Jacqui whispered to her as they tied off the tarp at Mr. Bickling's feet. "Lord knows Andrea's hurting but she has to let Amy go sooner rather than later."
Anna frowned but said nothing, grabbing her end of the body and helping Jacqui hoist him into the bed of the truck. It wasn't that she necessarily disagreed with Jacqui or Shane but she certainly couldn't fault Andrea for dealing with her grief in whatever way she knew how. It was easy to label as right or wrong when you were on the outside looking in, when it wasn't your loved one lost, but being the one to grieve was a different story entirely. Could Anna really say she would have handled it differently if it had been her own sister instead of Amy?
"I'm going to take a break real quick," she told Jacqui, already turning to make her way over to the fire.
Jacqui called out a response but Anna barely heard it. She plucked a clean mug from the tray next to Carol and filled it with instant coffee from the pot over the fire before making her way to where Andrea sat, her knees folded under her as she pushed Amy's hair back from her forehead.
"If you're here to tell me what I need to do," Andrea snapped without tearing her eyes from her sister. "Don't waste your breath."
"What if I brought coffee?" Anna replied as she knelt down and held the mug out to her.
Andrea regarded her from the corner of her eye for a moment but didn't bother taking the mug from her outstretched hand – not that Anna could say she blamed her. It was a fruitless gesture and Anna couldn't even say for certain why she'd offered it, knowing coffee was likely the furthest thing from Andrea's mind. For a heartbeat they sat in silence and when it was broken, it was by Andrea.
"I'm going to do it," she whispered, almost more to herself than to anyone else. "Just not yet."
"I know," Anna assured her. There were a thousand things she wanted to say to Andrea but she knew none of them would help to heal the gaping wound in her chest. "And if you need me, I'm here."
Andrea said nothing and Anna rocked back onto her heels as she stood to leave. Her heart felt as though it was made of glass, each step giving it a violent rattle as a new crack broke out somewhere on the surface. There was a dull ache that radiated down to her fingertips, a throbbing that started in her chest and grew just a little deeper every minute. Seeing Andrea and Amy brought back all the feelings of losing Alex that lingered just beneath the surface, always ready and waiting for something to drag them back up for air. She wiped roughly at her eyes even though no tears had fallen, willing herself to keep her composure. It was what Alex would have wanted.
A shout of surprise cut through Anna's thoughts like a knife, wrenching her back to the present. She honed in on Jacqui's frantic cries. "A walker got him! A walker bit Jim!"
Time seemed to come to a screeching halt as everyone stopped what they were doing. Shovels and pickaxes fell to the ground as everyone rushed to crowd around Jim, Anna among them. Jacqui backed away with wide eyes that did nothing to hide her terror.
"I'm okay," Jim insisted, though the pleading tone of his voice was unmistakable. "I'm okay."
Murmurs broke out amongst the group as Jim's eyes darted across their faces. His chest heaved as the sounds grew louder and the fear seemed to fill him up to the brim.
"Hey, easy…" Shane tried to reason as he approached, hands in front of him in a non-threatening display.
"Show it to us," Daryl demanded and Jim's dark eyes flew to his as the panic slowly crept up the back of his neck. He spun around and grabbed a discarded shovel, wielding it in front of him the same way he had done the previous day when confronted about his odd behavior. He had hardly more than a breath to react before T-Dog was grabbing him from behind. The shovel clattered to the ground and Daryl yanked up the hem of Jim's t-shirt. Just over his ribs was an angry wound, the telltale mark they'd all come to recognize as a kiss of death. Fresh blood still dripped from each individual tooth mark and the skin around it was already discolored and dying.
"I'm okay," Jim repeated and his words were a sharp tug on the frayed strings of Anna's heart. "I'm okay."
Shane ran a hand down his face as he cast a glance toward Rick, who sighed.
"Jim, why don't you come over here?" He suggested, gesturing to the back of the RV. "Take a seat in the shade and rest for a bit."
Jim blinked at him a moment before nodding and shuffling over to the RV, murmuring to himself as he went.
"I say we put a pickaxe in his head and be done with it," Daryl spat as soon as Jim was out of earshot. Shane rounded on him with a look of disbelief.
"Is that what you'd want if it were you?"
"Hell yeah, and I'd thank you while you did it."
Shane opened his mouth to respond but Dale cut him off before he had a chance. "I hate to say it – and I never thought I would – but maybe Daryl's right."
Rick practically gaped at him. "Jim's not a monster, Dale. He's not some rabid dog."
"I'm not suggesting-"
"He's sick. He's a sick man," he turned to Anna and his eyes were pleading. "Is there anything you can do?"
"Man, she's a doctor not a damn miracle worker," Daryl snapped with a roll of his eyes.
Anna looked back and forth between the two of them for a moment, feeling very much like she was stuck between a rock and a hard place. She understood Rick's position. Jim was their friend and he needed help but that wasn't to say that a large part of her didn't agree with Daryl as well. She didn't think she could ever condone driving a pickaxe through the skull of a living man for any reason other than self-defense but she wasn't entirely unconvinced that ending his suffering wasn't the best option.
"He's right," she sighed. "If we couldn't cure this when we had a hospital and all the medical technology on God's green earth then there's definitely not much I could do out here. I could try to make him more comfortable, treat the symptoms as best I can, but-"
"Well what if we could get him help? I heard the CDC was working on a cure. What if it's still up and running?"
"That's a stretch right there," Shane added.
Anna nodded. "I guess it's possible that the CDC could still be operational but I wouldn't call it plausible."
"Why?" Rick pressed, his voice bordering on desperate. "If there's any government left, any structure at all, then wouldn't they protect the CDC at all costs? I think it's our best shot. Shelter, protection, rescue, possibly a cure-"
"Look man, I know you want all those things," Shane tried to reason. "I do too; we all do. But if they exist then they're at the army base – Fort Benning."
"Fort Benning?" Lori repeated with wide eyes. "That's a hundred miles in the opposite direction."
"Right, but it's away from the hot zone. If that place is operational then it'll be heavily armed – I'm talking guns, rations, manpower. We'd be safe there."
Rick shook his head. "The military were on the front lines of this thing; they got overrun. We've all seen that."
"They took over our hospital when things first started to get bad," Anna added, not bothering to hide the note of panic that colored her voice at the thought of facing the military again. "It turned into chaos; they were shooting anything that moved, infected or not."
"See?" Rick gestured to her with a sweep of his arm, his eyes wide and more than a little bit pleading. "And we all know what they did to the city, to all those innocent civilians trying to get to the supposed refugee center. The CDC is our best choice and Jim's only chance."
"Man, this is bullshit," Daryl scoffed before Shane had a chance to respond. His fingers opened and closed around the handle of the pickaxe in his hand. "Y'all go looking for aspirin if that's what you need to do but someone here needs to have some balls and take care of the damn problem."
The whole thing played out in hardly more than a heartbeat. Daryl spun on his heel as he raised his pickaxe, swinging it in a wide arc as he rounded on Jim. Shane rushed to position himself between them as Rick raised his revolver, drawing back the hammer as he placed the barrel against Daryl's head, his finger hovering over the trigger. When he spoke, every syllable was thick with the implication of his words.
"We don't kill the living."
"Funny," Daryl grumbled, dropping his pickaxe to the ground and turning to face Rick. "Coming from the man with a gun to my head."
Rick lowered his revolver and Daryl stormed off, muttering as he went. Lori stood beside Anna with her hand over her heart, both of their chests heaving as they struggled to process everything that was going on.
"We should get him somewhere safe," Rick said finally and Shane nodded as he moved to help Jim to his feet.
"I'll go with you," Anna offered, still willing her racing heart to slow to a normal pace. "I can clean and bandage that wound. It's not much but maybe it'll buy us some more time."
Rick nodded and they set off behind Shane and Jim, charting a course for the inside of the RV.
Anna spent the better part of the remainder of the afternoon in the RV tending to Jim. She cleaned and bandaged the bite wound the best she could but still the infection worsened. Anna wasn't foolish enough to think that she would be able to stop it but she did hope she could at least delay the progression a little. His fever had broken one hundred degrees only half an hour ago and a thick layer of sweat coated every inch of his skin. Anna didn't miss his incoherent mumbles or the seemingly absentminded requests he'd made and she knew Jim had begun experiencing hallucinations before he'd confessed it aloud. Thus far they were few and far between, though Anna knew they wouldn't stay that way for long. He was also drifting in and out of consciousness but for the moment, thankfully, he slept.
Anna let her head fall back against the wall behind her with a sigh. She was so on edge her hands practically shook, her heart pounding away wildly behind her breastbone even when she wasn't doing anything. It killed her to know that Jim, her patient and her friend, was suffering so intensely and there was virtually nothing she could do about it. She could dab away at his brow, keep his bite clean and dry, make sure he had a basin nearby for when the nausea hit – but for what? Even if she could slow the progression, that only meant delaying the inevitable. How many patients had she seen on life support well past their time, their families unable to let go? It may have been life but only on a technicality. It wasn't something Anna would have wished for anyone, least of all a friend.
"Hey," Glenn's voice came from the doorway and when Anna looked up she could see him peeking his head in. "How's he doing?"
"Not great," she replied with a frown. "He's having some hallucinations and his temp keeps rising. I wish I had a stethoscope or BP cuff so I could check his vitals properly but for now at least he seems relatively stable."
Glenn nodded solemnly as he stepped fully into the room.
"Why don't you go outside and get some air?" He offered. "You've been in here half the day. I can sit with him for a while."
Anna tried not to seem too eager but she practically jumped to her feet at the suggestion. "You're sure?" She asked a bit anxiously, itching to stretch her legs.
"Yeah, go on," Glenn waved her off with a grin. "I'll yell for you if anything happens."
"You're the best," she called as she worked her way up the tiny hallway and out the RV door. Behind her, she could have sworn she heard Glenn say, "Yeah, I know."
The warm evening air was a welcome kiss to her skin when she stepped out into the golden glow. Lori, Carol and the children had congregated around the small fire along with a few others and they passed around a can of baked beans while T-Dog worked on dinner. Rick and Shane stood off to the side with Daryl nearby, cleaning dried blood from his arrows. Anna shoved her hands in her pockets as she walked, her pace slow as she relished the opportunity to get out of the RV and clear her head. Every little sound seemed to make her jump, wearing on her already frazzled nerves. She felt like she was walking a tightrope and any tiny misstep could send her spiraling to the ground.
The early evening sun warmed her at least and she was thankful even for the sticky summer air that caused her t-shirt to cling to her damp skin. Rogue strands of her dark hair that broke free from the braid over her shoulder stuck to her neck, though she didn't have the will to care. It was odd to think that only twenty-four hours before they had been gearing up for a fish fry, little else on their minds other than how happy they all were to have something besides squirrel to eat. She had laughed as she cleaned fish next to Carl and Sophia, the former marveling at how cool he thought it was and the latter doing her best to not let him see how squeamish it was making her. Anna's breath hitched as she remembered that it was Amy's birthday. Her heart broke all over again and she wrapped her arms around herself as she turned to look back at Andrea.
The blood seemed to freeze in her veins at the sight before her. Amy's hand was fisted in Andrea's hair, her face just out of reach of her sister's. Andrea was holding her at a safe distance, murmuring words Anna couldn't hear as Amy's mouth opened and closed slowly. Anna could do nothing but watch wordlessly, rooted to the spot as Andrea lifter her gun with her free hand, rested the barrel behind Amy's ear and squeezed the trigger.
She fell to the ground in a heap and Anna's heart did the same. Whatever duct tape and thread had been holding her together frayed and snapped, letting loose all the things she had been trying so desperately to hold inside. Her vision swam as she fought to blink back the tears long enough for her to get to some place where she wouldn't be seen.
She spun on her heel to make for her tent and collided straight into something solid. She could feel the water leak from her eyes as she stumbled back a step, two hands firmly gripping her upper arms to keep her from toppling over entirely. Her gaze shifted upward and she blinked up at Daryl who was barely visible through the tears that clouded her vision. He regarded her with an odd look, something caught halfway between concern and softness but unlike anything she had ever seen from him before. Fire burned in her cheeks and she tore free from his grasp to make a beeline for her tent. She yanked the flaps closed with a little more force than was necessary, not even making it to her cot before the tears started to flow freely.
Anna hugged her knees to her chest tightly as she sobbed, every ounce of pain and anger and regret turning to liquid and running down her cheeks. She sobbed for Amy, for Andrea, for Jim and Mr. Bickling and all the others they'd lost. But most of all she cried for Alex, the way she hadn't let herself do until then. For the first time since she'd left that camp outside of Atlanta, Anna let herself truly feel what it meant to lose her sister. She thought back to late night walks home down questionable city streets, laughing over something ridiculous with boxes of cheap Chinese takeout in their hands. She thought of graduations, of burnt popcorn during horror movie binges and a Christmas cactus when neither of them wanted to decorate a tree. She thought of her sister's arms wrapped around her at their mother's funeral – and then their dad's – while they both cried. She thought of the flickering hospital lights, of Baker at her feet, of the smell of rotting flesh. She thought of Clint, of the chaos at camp that night, and she swore she could hear Alex's voice as clear as if she were sitting right next to her. Go. Run. I'll be right behind.
Anna rested her cheek against her folded arms, her swollen eyes red and wet. The guilt poured over her as it had been longing to do, violent waves crashing around her and threatening to drag her below. There was a soft tapping on the flap of her tent.
"Anna?" Lori's voice floated through as she pulled the zipper down and crawled inside. "Daryl told me you were in here."
Anna wiped her nose roughly on her arm, willing herself to regain her composure. Lori scooted beside her and wrapped her arms around her tightly. She offered no sympathy, no words or encouragement, and for that Anna was grateful. Words were empty, hollow things. Action had always spoken louder to her than any words could and she was thankful just to have her friend there, something solid to hold onto when she felt like she was drowning.
How long they sat like that, Anna couldn't say. It felt like a lifetime passed before Lori finally spoke, her voice soft as she brushed Anna's hair back from her forehead for her.
"Dinner should be ready. You want to head out there and see what variation of squirrel we're having tonight?"
The corner of Anna's mouth reached upward just a hair and she nodded, taking Lori's hand as they stood. Lori kept her fingers locked tightly around Anna's as they made their way toward the fire, leaving the tent and a sea of heartache behind them.
Nighttime found Anna tossing and turning on her cot, much the same way she had during her first night at camp when she was weighing the decision to go or stay. She was exhausted but couldn't will herself to sleep, her restless mind racing a mile a minute without an end in sight. Visions from the night before played out behind her closed eyelids. She had her pillow pressed firmly over her ears in an effort to block out the sounds of Andrea's muffled sleep talking from the next tent over, her dreams seemingly plagued by Amy.
They had buried her that evening after dinner, as Anna knew they would, along with their other fallen campers. Shane had announced the official decision to leave for the CDC shortly after, citing the importance of sticking together and stating that they would head out the following morning. It was a fool's errand in Anna's opinion, though she wouldn't voice the thought aloud. She had little hope that the CDC would be operational and even if it was, she doubted they had anything even remotely resembling a cure. Still, she favored that option over Fort Benning. She was certain she'd had her fill of military encounters to last her more than a lifetime.
Admittedly, she wasn't even confident Jim would survive the trek. His fever was climbing ever higher and his hallucinations had gotten worse; now he was delusional more often than not. She was grateful that Carol had offered to stay with him overnight. Anna was no stranger to seeing patients in pain but she hated the feeling of watching her friend suffer and being virtually helpless to stop it.
A soft sob came from Andrea's tent and Anna sighed as she realized she likely wouldn't be getting any sleep that night. As she swung her legs over the side of her cot and shrugged on a worn grey sweatshirt Glenn had picked up on one of his many runs into the city, she decided that was probably for the best; her dreams weren't likely to allow her much rest anyway.
The night air was cool on her skin, the gentle breeze a reminder that summer would soon be fading away into fall. The sky was clear with a handful of stars twinkling against their dark backdrop as the moon shone brightly from where it hung, nearly full. Anna padded over to the dead fire and the dirt shifted under her bare feet like sand. If she closed her eyes it almost felt as if she was at the beach, though the sound of ocean waves crashing against the shore was replaced by the soft rustling of the wind through the trees. She was surprised to find that she seemed to be the only one awake. Usually Shane or Dale were up well into the night for one reason or another, though she couldn't blame them for getting their rest in when they could; after the last twenty-four hours, they were all exhausted.
The voice was quiet, hardly a whisper on the breeze as he called over to her, but it still made Anna nearly jump out of her skin. She spun around to try and find the source of the voice but saw nothing until her gaze rose to the top of the RV.
"Jesus Christ," she hissed up at Daryl as she wrapped her arms around herself, partly to ward off the chill and partly to settle her nerves. "You scared the shit out of me."
"You taking a midnight stroll or something?" He called down to her. His legs dangled over the edge of the RV's roof as he leaned against the railing, his crossbow lying beside him and a rifle propped against the camper's chair behind him. She could see the faint glow of a lit cigarette between his fingers.
"Or something. I couldn't sleep," she blinked up at him for a moment before adding, "You care if I come up?"
Daryl shrugged. "If you want."
Anna knew that was as good an invitation as she could hope to get from him. She closed the gap between herself and the RV and made her way up the ladder as quietly as she could so as not to disturb Jim and Carol inside. Daryl didn't bother to look over at her when she took a seat beside him.
"You have another?"
Daryl quirked an eyebrow at her as he regarded her from the corner of his eye. A heartbeat passed before he held the cigarette out to her. "Didn't know you smoked."
"I don't," Anna insisted, taking a long drag before handing it back to him.
"Ain't good for you. Figured a doctor would know that."
She rolled her eyes. "Doctors and nurses are the worst hypocrites when it comes to health. Half the staff at the hospital I worked at spent their nights getting piss drunk, especially if they worked in the ED. I couldn't tell you how many conversations I heard between the nursing students about their rousing weekends spent dropping molly and making questionable decisions."
He scoffed as he passed her the cigarette again. "That your kinda scene?"
"Not even close," she protested. "My social life was pretty much at a standstill before all this happened. I worked, went home, sometimes hung out at the bar where my sister worked but that's about it."
Daryl nodded and they fell into a comfortable silence after that, each of them alternating puffs on the cigarette as they listened to the chorus a series of crickets and katydids sang for anyone awake to hear. Anna swung her legs back and forth as her nerves finally calmed.
"Probably a good thing you came up here," Daryl said finally, his gaze still fixed somewhere out in front of him. "The way you were acting earlier, seemed like you could use a smoke."
Anna frowned. She had almost forgotten that she'd run into Daryl earlier that day as she teetered on the edge of a breakdown. For a moment she considered telling him everything – how she felt about losing her sister and the series of events that led up to it – but that was a foolish thought, nothing more than the day's vulnerability clouding her head.
"Yeah," she said simply instead. "I did."
She took the final puff off the cigarette and snuffed it out against the roof. A heartbeat passed before Anna turned to regard him, pressing her cheek against the railing as she turned the butt over in her fingers. "Where'd you get this from anyway?"
Something tugged at the edge of his lips and Anna almost thought she was going to see a smile out of him. "Found it in Merle's stuff. Last one and it ain't my first pick but it's better than nothing."
She couldn't argue with that. Anna never thought she would say she was grateful to Merle Dixon for anything but damn if she wasn't glad he had that cigarette. She felt like she should respond but couldn't bring herself to actually do it. She opted instead to let her eyes flutter closed as she listened to the soft sounds around her. The nicotine calmed her just enough to make her almost forget why she'd left her tent in the first place.
When she opened her eyes again she saw Daryl leaning against the railing, his chin resting on one of his folded arms. He had dropped his usual scowl and wore a neutral expression instead, something that made him look almost soft in the pale glow of the moon. The breeze tugged a strand of hair free to blow across his forehead and Anna's fingers itched to brush it back, though whether that was from the odd serenity of the moment or something more, she had no desire to find out.
"If you don't mind me asking," she said, in part as a selfish ploy to distract herself. "What happened in Atlanta?"
She half expected some biting retort but Daryl shrugged instead. "We went to the department store. Door was chained shut like T-Dog said but Merle was gone, cut his damn hand off to get out of the cuffs. We followed his trail back down the other side of the roof, found some old Sterno cans and an iron steak weight he used to cauterize the stump. Looked like he headed down the fire escape and we lost the trail after that."
Anna blinked at him for a moment in mild surprise. "So, okay, let me make sure I have this straight. Your brother cut off his own hand and then cauterized the wound by himself with a steak weight?"
"Yeah well, Merle's a crazy bastard."
"And cocaine's a hell of a drug," she added. "Still that's badass, though a little unnecessary."
Daryl finally turned to look at her, one of his eyebrows raised in question.
"I'm just saying, he didn't have to cut off the whole hand. He could've just broken his wrist or cut off the thumb – or well, actually, probably just dislocated the thumb depending on the type of cuffs and how tight they were. Either way, he could've saved himself a hell of a lot of pain."
Daryl stared at her as she rambled and for a moment Anna worried that she'd said something to set him off yet again, but instead the corners of his mouth turned upward a fraction and a noise escaped him. It wasn't a laugh per se but it was the closest thing to it that Anna had ever heard come out of his mouth.
"Like I said," he repeated. "Crazy bastard."
Anna was certain that truer words had never been spoken. Merle reminded her a bit of one of the guys who used to frequent the strip club Alex worked at back in Atlanta. He was a rough-and-tough burly type, definitely a little sharp at the edges with a crass sense of humor, but Alex always got a kick out of him. She'd had to throw him out more than once for getting too handsy with the dancers but he was always back within a few days with a smile on his face and a brand new story about something insane that happened to him that would leave her sister in stitches.
"Alex would've gotten a kick out of that," Anna mused, more to herself than to Daryl. She eyed the cigarette butt in her hand for a moment before letting it fall to the ground. "You think he's still out there?"
"Hell yeah I do," Daryl insisted as he rose to his feet. "Ain't nobody out there that can kill Merle but Merle."
Anna laughed for the first time in what felt like ages and she could see the upturn in Daryl's mouth too as he retreated to the old camper's chair. She let her eyes fall closed again as the breeze rustled through her hair and sleep finally came to claim her.
The following morning came and went without much incident. Daryl had nudged Anna awake less-than-gently with the toe of his boot just after sunrise and when she looked down, she saw that nearly everyone was already awake and working to pack up their little camp. By mid-morning there was hardly any evidence left that their group had been there at all, save for the remains of the fire and a note taped to the gutted Dodge that Rick had left for a man and his son who were supposedly going to follow him to Atlanta. Morales and Miranda decided not to accompany them to the CDC, opting instead to try and find their remaining family in Birmingham. It reminded Anna of a time not so long ago when she too was bound for Alabama with her sister at her side. The thought prodded at a tender place on her heart that wouldn't seem to go away and she had to make a conscious effort not to think on it. Just as she was convinced that nothing good could be found in Alabama, she tried to remind herself that nothing good could come from dwelling on the past.
She spent the ride to the CDC in the back of the RV with Jacqui and Jim, whose condition was steadily worsening. He was barely lucid anymore for longer than a few minutes and when he was, each one of the RV's movements seemed to be another devastating blow. He groaned and winced with every bump as though his bones were splintering beneath his skin. The cramps that wracked his body were so severe that she could actually see the muscles contracting and, through it all, there was virtually nothing she could do to help him. Jacqui spent her time dabbing at his forehead with a damp rag and whispering soothing words to her friend. Anna wasn't sure which of them benefitted from it more.
The RV came to a sudden stop, lurching forward with a hiss that sounded as though steam was pouring from somewhere beneath the hood. Jim let out a pained cry as all three of them were jostled by the stop and Anna found herself wishing that his lucidity would leave him altogether; at least then, he wouldn't have to feel the pain. Jacqui offered to see what was going on and as she stepped through the doorway to the front of the RV, Anna checked her watch and realized it was time to take Jim's temperature again. It was rising at such an alarming rate that Anna was certain it would overtake him before the CDC was even a silhouette on the horizon. She'd taken to checking it every half hour, though each time she was met with a similarly disheartening result.
"It's that damn radiator hose," Jim hissed through gritted teeth as Anna wiped the thermometer tip with an alcohol swab. "Told them we needed the one from the cube van."
Anna motioned for him to open his mouth and he complied, allowing her to slide the thermometer under his tongue. She flipped his wrist over as gently as she could and pressed two fingers against the pulse point, her eyes fixed on the second hand of her watch as she counted the faint but rapid beats. When the thermometer beeped, she withdrew it carefully and checked the result, unsurprised by what she saw.
"Hey, sorry to interrupt," Rick's voice came from the doorway and when Anna turned, she saw him leaning against the doorframe. "Can I pull you away for a minute?"
Anna turned back to Jim and he gave her a tiny nod of affirmation. She turned and followed Rick into the hallway where he spoke to her in a low voice.
"How's he doing?"
"Worse," she admitted. "His pulse is fast and weak, his temp is 106.2-"
"106?" Rick repeated, incredulous. "I thought 103 was bad."
"It is. He's half a degree away from hyperpyrexia. I was hoping to hold it off for as long as possible but his fever is climbing so fast that I can hardly keep up with it. Once he gets to that point…"
The end won't be far behind, she wanted to say. Rick seemed to catch her meaning and nodded solemnly.
"Can I talk to him for a minute?"
Anna shrugged. "You can try. He was lucid when we walked out here but that doesn't mean he still is."
Rick nodded to her in understanding and turned to head back into the bedroom, leaving Anna to make her way to the front of the RV. Everyone else seemed to have left their vehicles and congregated outside, with Dale and Glenn working on the busted radiator hose while the others milled about. There was a large, shady oak tree just off the side of the road and she could see what looked to be an old gas station further off in the distance. T-Dog and Shane had already hopped in the church van and were setting a course for the building, hoping to find a replacement radiator hose.
Aside from a few brief exchanges between Glenn and Dale beneath the RV's hood, no one uttered a word. The thick, humid air coupled with the looming weight of Jim's condition was a heavy burden on all of their shoulders, almost going so far as to physically weigh them down. Anna had treated thousands of patients and had lost her fair share but none of them had ever weighed on her the way Jim did. Maybe it was because he was her friend or because he was suffering and she couldn't do anything – or maybe both – but Anna found herself growing ever more discouraged with each moment that passed. It was as though the reaper was peering over her shoulder, counting the beats of Jim's heart in sync with her. Her actions felt empty and ineffective – which they were, she knew – but she still felt that she needed to try. Grim as the situation may have been, it wasn't in Anna's nature to sit idly by while a man died, regardless of whether or not he was her friend.
The RV door swung open and every set of eyes snapped to Rick as he descended the stairs to join them. He looked weary, as though he'd aged years in the brief span of time he'd spent with Jim.
"He wants to stay here," Rick declared, though it was evident he wasn't thrilled to do so.
"Yeah well," Dale mumbled as he peered around the side of the hood. "If we don't get this radiator hose fixed, I don't think we'll have much of a choice."
Rick shook his head. "No, he wants to stay here… by himself. He wants us to leave him here."
"To die?" Lori repeated, her eyes wide. Rick didn't have a chance to respond before Carol spoke.
"And he's lucid?"
"Seems to be, as far as I can tell."
"You'd know if he wasn't," Anna assured him.
Carol opened her mouth to speak again but this time Rick cut her off. "It's what he wants."
"You know," Dale said as he moved from his place beneath the hood to join the rest of the group. "Back at camp when I said Daryl might be right and you shut me down, you misunderstood. I could never agree with callously killing a man; I was just going to suggest we ask Jim what he wants." His eyes moved across each of their faces before coming back to rest on Rick again. "It seems like we have an answer."
The silence returned in full force, the reality of Jim's decision a heavy burden on all of their shoulders. It wasn't long before Shane and T-Dog returned with a makeshift radiator hose, not a perfect fit but one that Dale deemed to be good enough to get them to the CDC at least. He made quick work of replacing the busted hose while Rick relayed Jim's wishes to Shane before the two of them helped the sick man from the RV. Relocating Jim was a slow and painful process, though the shady oak tree they sat him under seemed as good a resting place as any.
Through it all, Anna couldn't ignore the bitter guilt that ate away at her from inside her chest. From a logical standpoint, she knew there was nothing she could have done to save Jim. Still, it was nearly impossible to hush the nagging voice at the back of her mind that kept whispering that she could have done more.
The rest of the group said their goodbyes and it wasn't long before Anna found herself crouched down in front of the dying man, trying to find the words to say. In the end, Jim beat her to it.
"It's okay," he assured her, the corners of his mouth lifting in a weak smile. "The CDC was a nice thought but I think we all knew I wasn't gonna be making it there. I'm going to be with my family. It'll be okay."
Anna managed a small smile in return and gave his hand a gentle squeeze before turning and making her way back toward the RV. At the back of her mind, she wondered who Jim was really trying to convince.
She was only a few paces away from the RV's door when a voice called out to her from the next car over, the familiar southern drawl now unmistakable.
"Hey Doc!" When she turned to face him, Shane's dark brown eyes seemed to bore right through her even from a hundred feet away. "Why don't you ride with me?"
Anna blinked at him for a moment before making her way over to the jet black Jeep. Her fingers closed around the grab bar and she swung herself into the passenger seat wordlessly. Shane cranked the engine and led the group back onto the road. He waited until Jim was hardly more than a shapeless blur in the distance before he spoke again.
"I think it's time we had ourselves a little chat, don't you?"
A/N: Guys! We're so close to the CDC! I'm so excited, I honestly can't even explain. But before we get there - What does Shane want to talk to Anna about? Let me know if you have any thoughts! I love to hear your theories and predictions for what's to come.
As always, a huge thank you to my wonderful beta-adjacent BouncingKappa who continuously hounded me (rightfully) when I literally only had a handful of paragraphs left for this chapter that I couldn't bring myself to write. Sometimes I need a swift kick in the ass, you know? And of course a huge thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, followed and favorited! It truly does bring me an immeasurable amount of joy to get those notification emails.