Rick and Michonne sat in silence in the pick-up truck as they followed Daryl on his motorcycle. Rick's face was taut and he seemed troubled.
"I never thanked you," Michonne finally spoke.
"For what?" Her voice had startled him and her statement confused him.
"For taking me in that day. When I first showed up at the gate."
"Well, if you hadn't had that baby formula…" Rick tried to keep the conversation light.
"You could've just taken the formula," she pointed out with a sideways glance at him. They drove quietly for a few minutes and then she stated, looking straight ahead, "The deal the Governor offered about me…you had to think about it. Consider it. You had to. I get it."
Rick's face clouded over, as if in remembered shame. "Yeah." He sighed. "I'm sorry. I came real close… I'm…sorry."
"But you didn't," she reminded him.
"It was Carl," Rick seemed to be thinking aloud. "He was the one who made the call. He said you belonged here, you were one of us."
"He's a good kid," Michonne said. "He's – "
"I've never seen him this mad," Rick continued, seeming to have not heard her. "Even with Lori. It's like he just…shut down."
Michonne realized that he was still upset about conversation he'd had with his son while they'd been packing up the truck back at the prison. More specifically, Carl's apparent perception that his father wasn't stepping up enough to protect their group.
"It's easy to forget that he's still a kid," she commented. "Adolescence is hard enough, but Carl has had walkers and losing his mom and delivering his sister thrown at him on top of everything else." Her eyes grew distant. "It's even harder on the parents…" Her voice sounded unusually melancholy as it grew softer.
"It was Carl, you know," Rick told her. "He made the call to let you in. Said you belonged here, that you were one of us."
Michonne smiled ever so slightly. "He takes after you more than you realize."
‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡ ‡
"Something smells good," Glenn said, walking into the dining area.
"Unusually good," Maggie added with a grin, glancing at Carol, who was toiling over a boiling pot and smoking skillet on the stove. They'd been surviving on catch-as-catch-can cold rations for so many days that the aroma of actual simmering food was almost an assault to the senses, it smelled so heavenly.
"I thought we could all do with a good, home-cooked meal…um, to keep our strength up," Carol replied, keeping her gaze on the stovetop. She'd almost let slip that she was preparing this feast because she wasn't sure whether or not they'd be able to all sit down to a hearty meal tomorrow, or ever again. Their future was so tenuous, so minute-to-minute, and she felt so helpless… Even if it was their Last Supper, she could at least fill everyone's tummies with something tasty for a change.
Glenn sat down at a table and said to Hershel, "One tower was pretty much destroyed, but as far as Maggie and I could tell, that was the only major structural damage."
"Other than that, there's nothing that can't eventually be repaired," Maggie agreed.
"So you think we might be able to stay here?" Beth's voice made everyone turn. She'd slipped into the room quietly, carrying Judith in her postal box-cum-cradle. "We might not have to leave?" She added hopefully, setting Judith down on the seat beside her.
"Sounds like a possibility," Hershel commented. He paused and then added, "Of course, a lot depends upon if Rick and the others, um…take care of the Governor and his crew." He tempered his words because despite everything that had happened, it still pained him to talk about killing another human, no matter how justified or necessary it was.
Allison entered the kitchen with Carl, who had reluctantly taken a break from guard duty. All had been quiet in the hours since the attack, so logic dictated that by now the Governor was either off re-grouping and re-plotting his strategy, or Rick, Daryl and Michonne had met up with him and taken care of business. In either case, Allison had convinced Carl that it was safe to leave his post and come in and eat dinner. Merle, on the other hand, had stationed himself at the gate, ready to open it as soon as their gang – or, more specifically, his brother - returned. "Can I help?" She asked Carol, looking over her shoulder at the pans on the stove.
"Nope, got it under control, thanks," Carol replied. "Should be ready in about five minutes, I'll let y'all know when you should grab your plates." She smiled thinly as she continued to stir. She didn't mind cooking, but she sure as heck wasn't going to play waitress. A few minutes later she announced, "Come and get it!" and everyone lined up and helped themselves to what turned out to be a mixture of breaded squirrel meat fried up with rice and diced tomatoes.
"Squirrel fricassee," Carol explained after everyone had re-seated themselves at various tables and began exclaiming about the delicious concoction she had prepared. "Merle gave me the recipe."
"Somehow I can't picture Merle Dixon doing a Martha Stewart," Maggie commented. "But I have to admit that this is delicious."
Carl, who was sitting at a different table with Allison, Hershel and Beth, giggled.
"What's so funny?" Allison asked him.
He lowered his voice, hoping Carol wouldn't overhear him. "It's just that…" He was consumed by another quick bout of snorting laughter. He composed himself and continued. "I was there when Merle gave Carol the, um, recipe."
"And that's funny how?" Allison was confused.
"Well, I can't tell you because I know you don't like curse words."
Allison mentally rolled her eyes. "Oh for heaven's sake, permission granted if you need to use them for quoting purposes." She paused and then added quietly, "But I do appreciate you asking first."
Carl grinned and leaned forward, speaking conspiratorially. "Merle and I were on our way to guard duty up on the catwalk and we cut through the kitchen. Carol was boiling a big ol' pot of oatmeal and Merle took a look at it and kinda exploded. He said 'Goddamn, Mousy, all this good shit on the shelves and that's the best you can come up with? Horse feed?!' And she started to say that there was still some squirrel that hadn't been used, but everyone was sick of it and he said 'For Christ's sake there's hundreds of different things you can make with squirrel' and he started grabbing cans off the shelves. He said something about frying with the lard, and using the rice, and this and that, and then said something about he didn't know how the hell a housewife like her could be such a dumbass in the kitchen…" He started chuckling again at the memory.
"I guess he could've phrased it better, but I understand where he's coming from," Allison smiled. "I remember when I was a kid and my Daddy out of work for a while because he'd been hurt on the job…he got well enough to hunt before he could go back to climbing telephone poles, and we wouldn't have had meat if he hadn't gotten us some deer and rabbit. Mama had a hand-cranked meat grinder and she made all sorts of inventive dishes…I recall eating Hamburger Helper with ground venison instead of beef…"
"Merle said almost the same thing," Carl replied thoughtfully. "We were talking on guard duty, and he told me that lots of times his family had to hunt for their food."
Allison suddenly thought of that hot, humid night when she, Daryl and Andrea had been out searching the woods off the highway for Sophia. Andrea had asked him how he'd learned to hunt, and he'd replied brusquely, "Gotta eat." That seemed so long ago now. She'd barely known Daryl at the time, he was almost non-communicative back then…and Andrea was still part of their group. How quickly things changed these days, and how warped the concept of time seemed now… Back when she was working at the hospital, events that had happened to her five years ago in college seemed recent. Now five months in the past seemed like a lifetime ago.
"Can you watch Judith for a bit?" Beth's voice startled Allison from her reverie.
"Um, yeah, sure," Allison replied questioningly, not sure what Beth meant. She didn't have to wonder long.
The young blonde stood up, scooping up her empty dish. "If this meal was thanks to Merle's recipe, then he should at least have some before it's all gone. I'm going to take him a plate." She continued talking while scooping a portion of the fricassee onto the plate at the stove. "Lord knows he'll just go hungry otherwise…waiting out there for Daryl…" She turned and looked over her shoulder before leaving the room and told Allison, "I've already fed and changed her, so unless she starts fussing all you need to do is keep an eye on her." And before her father could so much as admonish her to be careful, she was off.
"Beth, Glenn can – " Allison began to call after her, but Hershel placed a hand on her forearm to stop her.
"Let her go," Hershel told her.
Allison was reluctant to articulate her concerns about what she'd perceived to be Beth's attraction to Merle. Maybe it was just a crush, but what bothered her a bit was Merle… He wasn't outright courting the girl, as far as she could tell, but there was just something about the way he acted around her, the way he talked about her… He had sarcastic or derogatory nicknames for just about every female she could think of, from Mousy (for Carol) to Love Bird (Maggie) to – well, not very flattering terms that described her tendency to hop from bed to bed with the frequency of a cheap AM radio for Andrea. But she'd only ever heard him refer to Beth as "Princess", and never in a nasty tone, which was the element that gave her pause. Whenever he called her that, he seemed sincere, almost reverent, which was totally out of character for Merle Dixon. Allison noted that even though she detected some level of respect in Merle's eyes when he called her "Gracie" – whether it was because he was engaged to his brother, or because she had had to help him onto a bedpan – but yet there was still an undertone of mocking. Of gently teasing her for her uptight and prissy (in his estimation) demeanor. And Beth seemed similarly taken with the gruff one-handed man; despite the fact that he'd brutalized her future brother-in-law, Allison had never heard Beth utter an unkind word about Merle. And none of the scenario that was forming in Allison's mind was right – Merle was so much older than Beth; she was just a kid, for heaven's sake! She was so innocent, he was so…so…so Merle. It just wasn't right.
Judith began fussing slightly in her carrier, squirming and uttering baby babble – not quite crying, more like a frustrated effort at trying to communicate.
"Carl," Hershel spoke, "if you're finished eating, why don't you walk your sister around a bit? She sounds like she wants to get out of that box and be up and about."
"Okay," Carl responded dutifully. He scooped up the baby and cradled her in his arms. She immediately snuggled against his chest and gurgled a happy series of pear-shaped vowel sounds. Carl hugged her a little tighter, smiled down at her and then looked at Hershel with a proud grin. "I think you're right – she wants to go for a walk with her big brother." He strolled off, cooing tiny noises to the bundle in his arms.
Hershel turned back to Allison. "I'm old and doddering, but I'm not blind and deaf. I see that Beth likes to hang around Merle, that she's taken by him."
"But that's not my concern," Allison interrupted. "It's, well, Merle… He's – "
"I know what Merle is. He's rough around the edges. Extremely rough," he added when he saw Allison's reaction to his statement. "But I also know his type. I've lived a long time and I've known men like him. He treats a lot of people, maybe most people, with disdain. With no respect. He's distrustful and doesn't get close to a lot of people. He's probably been with a lot of women, women whose names he doesn't remember or maybe even knew in the first place. And for better or worse, he has that skewed, old-school Southern male double standard lodged in his mind…a woman that gets around, who has sex with a lot of men is a 'whore' and is someone who doesn't deserve any respect. Never mind that he's a male who is doing the same exact thing. Again, it's that double-standard that so many men grew up with…" His eyes looked into the distance for a moment and he had a very slight smile when he continued. "I must confess that I was no saint before I settled down and married my Jo. And I think most of my hair turned white when Maggie was old enough to start dating. These young bucks showin' up on our doorstep, wanting to take her out for the evening. Well, I remember when I was 17, I was just one big huge walking hormone – there was no way in Hell I was going to let my daughter go out with a boy until she was at least thirty." His voice grew wistful. "That's probably part of why Maggie got so rebellious for a while. I was too strict. But I didn't learn my lesson, and I babied Beth even more. Where Maggie was always a rough and tumble tomboy, Beth was the one who liked frilly dresses and dolls and such. And I indulged her, protected her, probably over-protected her. As a father, you think that you'll always be there to watch over your children…you don't plan on ever growing old, or for walkers to take over the world."
Allison reached across the table and grasped Hershel's two hands in hers. The old man almost seemed to be thinking aloud rather than talking to her. Her touch caused him to visibly collect himself and look into her eyes.
"In the past world, before The Change, I would say someone like Merle is way too old and coarse and uneducated and just plain all too wrong for my Bethy. He certainly wouldn't be in my top 100 choices for possible suitors for my youngest daughter…before… all this. But I have to face up to the fact that I'm not going to be here forever. And while Beth has gotten stronger and more independent, she's still not cut out to go it alone. If something happens to me, I would rest easier in my grave knowing that someone like Merle Dixon was taking care of her. Protecting her. Respecting her and loving her like Daryl loves you. Merle is the type of man who puts certain women on a pedestal, and who places more value on family than anything else. So while I'm not going to encourage any sort of relationship between the two of them, I'm not going to discourage it, either. If it's meant to be, I won't do anything to prevent it from happening. And I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't interfere, either."
Allison was stunned by the man's confession. If that's what he wanted, then she guessed she wouldn't continue trying to run interference between Beth and Merle, but… Wow. As if things couldn't get any weirder in their daily life…
"Carl! Glenn! Come quick! Merle saw headlights comin' up the road!" Beth burst into the kitchen, yelling breathlessly.
Carl handed Judith off to Allison in a quick motion and ran off with Beth to the gate, with Glenn and Maggie following close behind them.