The chalk dust smelled different in the evening.
Even with the stench of rotting flesh hanging in the air, the crumbly scent was still strong, Clementine noticed. Duck seemed oblivious to the disgusting odor that followed the survivors at the motel around with the vengeance of a restless ghost, but Clementine always knew it was there. Her friend easily immersed himself in the joys of post-dinner ration sidewalk art, doodling gory impressions of demolished Walkers in the fascinated style that one would assume a young boy like himself would undertake. Occasionally, he drew feasts of baked chicken and mashed potatoes, reminding Clementine of her stomach as it gnawed away at her from the inside. She hadn't had a decent meal in weeks, but she chose not to complain. Duck often grumbled about the incessant hunger that was consuming everyone to his father, and Clementine secretly disliked him for that. She saw that strained way that the adults walked and spoke—it was as if they could hardly stand to be alive anymore, and Clementine understood that feeling.
"Hey, Clem, what're you gonna draw tonight?" Duck asked her, sounding rather upbeat. Lee had scrounged up a chocolate bar from the pharmacy raid back in downtown Macon that he did with Duck's dad and had allowed her and Duck to share it. Of course, Duck had snapped the candy in two purposefully disproportionate halves and taken the larger piece, but Clementine had held her tongue. She didn't want to trouble Lee.
That small mental cue to the man made her smile and shuffle her knees from her kneeling position on the pavement, her white dress picking up a hint of dust with the seams of its skirt. "I'm going to draw Lee," she said quietly.
Duck frowned. He'd already begun this evening's masterpiece—a giant robot with three Walkers crammed between its steel jowls. Clementine noted the great detail Duck was putting in on the curly feminine hair resting on the scalp of one, matted with blood and rotting flesh. "You always draw Lee," he complained. "Can't you draw something else for once? Like awesome monsters or trucks or guns?"
Clementine looked away from the vibrant, crystal-blue eyes of her only peer in this apocalypse. "Lee is big and strong," she mumbled, "and he protects me. He's the best. I admire him."
"So?" Duck shrugged. "I think my dad is cool, but I don't make pictures of him on the sidewalk. Cement is for real works of art, like blood and guts! And lasers!" Grinning brashly, Duck took the piece of chalk he was using and pointed it at the sky, his expression shining with brazen confidence. His arm was dirty with the dust and dead foliage that littered the floor of the parking lot. "See, Clem? I'm a warrior! A superhero that can kill a million gazillion zombies in five seconds with his nuclear-powered laser cannon! Pew! Pew, pew pew!"
"You're shooting at the sky," Clementine deadpanned, pointing to the fluffy red clouds above them, floating in a carefree manner in the sunset-painted sky. "Walkers don't fly. A million gazillion is a lot, but they aren't birds."
"Maybe they will someday," Duck said, his voice strangely hopeful. "Maybe they can mutate.Wouldn't that be neat, Clem?"
Clementine didn't respond; she was too busy staying affixed to the light and silky wisps above her, realizing that the clouds were oblivious to the turmoil that existed on the planetary surface below. She wondered if they were benevolent but indifferent gods of sorts, ones that watched their subjects, but did not intervene if they were suffering. She wished they would, or that anyone would—there was no food, no water, and no sympathy. The only person she trusted with her heart and soul was Lee, and she was well aware that even he was a luxury. Life itself on this barren world was an opulence. Clementine was young, but she understood. Some days, she yearned to be Duck, naïve and blithe, as if this were merely a bad dream that could end at any minute. In a way, it was, but the ending was always death.
At eight years old, Clementine had never expected to have a deep insight to her surroundings—she was meant to play and grow, continue being childish and unreasonable. She didn't want to know about the Walkers and, every day, tried to pray them into oblivion, so she could see her parents again and go back to the way things were before.
The sky smiled down at her in a manner that was almost sadistic, down to her hunched, solemn form and the thin brown outline of Lee Everett that she'd made.
She knew, and it scared her.
"She's drawing you again."
"She was. Now she's puzzling about something."
Carley smiled and brushed lock of her shoulder-length brunette hair behind her pointed ear, sharpened at the tip as if she were an elf. "Clementine is a mystifying girl," she observed, her tone still pragmatic and staid, even though she was genuinely cheery. She folded her arms over her chest once more and leaned into the wooden railing of the motel's second floor balcony, her purple vest pushing into the splintering oak edifice. "But she's very intelligent for her age. You have to expect her to overthink things once in a while. She's eight, and she dwells as much as you do."
Lee Everett frowned. "She's a kid," he protested. "Clementine needs to have fun. Probably not as loosely as Duck, but she's too damn mature. I worry about her sometimes. Not about her survival, really—she can handle herself like a pro. She's just… too much of an adult."
"How can she afford not to be," Carley said, "in a situation like this?" She gestured to the motor inn around her, especially toward the forest that was right across the road, a veritable hotbed for Walkers. The fall season had made the leaves on the trees turn vibrant shades of every warm color imaginable, and the late hour matched them with the likening atmosphere above. When one could not sense the stench of bodies and decomposition, the sap from the nearby trees made venturing outside slightly pleasant—even on a night such as this one, where the presence of decaying Walkers killed by Lee and Kenny was evident in the smell.
"I guess you're right." Lee's profoundly low baritone stretched further than the small area that he and Carley were occupying with its comforting timbre. Standing beside Carley, he felt giant—tall, muscular, and with charcoal skin that revealed his rich heritage, compared to her petite frame and her milky white exterior. Carley was by far one of the tiniest women he'd ever met, and yet she had more personality as his late wife, who'd been close to Lee's height and one hundred and sixty pounds of curve. However, unlike the woman he'd foolishly married, Carley was levelheaded and sharply skilled in leadership, brought upon by years of field journalism. Lee was certain that if his wife had been in Carley's position in this international disaster, she would not have subsisted.
I hate her.
"I am right, and I know it," Carley said, mirthful. She watched Clementine break her train of thought, her concentration snapping her back to the present and her glazed eyes clearing from the reverie she'd been basking in. Picking up the chalk that she'd abandoned, Clementine went back to halfheartedly doodling her imitation of Lee on the lot, his head abnormally large as compared to the blue stick she'd sketched of his body, alluding to the denim jacket and jeans that he wore on a daily basis. "At least she and Duck are becoming good friends. Relationships are excellent to have right now."
Lee sighed and ran a hand through his short black hair, the cut lengthening due to the fact that he'd been neglect his style in favor of more important issues. "I agree, but Duck's an odd one," he said. "Kenny's a nice guy, and Kaatja is a wonderful woman, but I think a practicality gene was lost somewhere in him. Besides, trust is a shaky bond these days. Think about the characters at the St. Johns' dairy—proof that you can't invest faith in much anymore."
The vague remembrance of their cannibalistic neighbors forced a chilling volt to travel through Carley's fingers. "Desperate times calls for desperate measures," she said. She recalled the fear that had plagued her as she was left behind with Ben at the inn while the rest of the group took the invitation from the strangers who ran the farm. Her suspicions had been high, and she was right to be wary—the St. Johns had been insidious in their killing and consumption of other survivors, yet their judgment was not completely off-center—they were just as frenetic to stay alive as everyone else. The execution was poor, but endurance was valuable. It was only human nature to survive, after all, even if that meant hunting others to do so.
Glancing to the side, Carley studied Lee's dark, chiseled face as he contemplated her response, and tried to stave off the dread that mounted within her once more.
Lee turned to face her and smiled warmly, causing Carley's heart to skip a beat. "Hold still," he said amusingly, reaching over to her right shoulder. "There's a leaf stuck to you." Lee plucked the crumpled brown oak leaf that was attached to the long-sleeved cotton shirt that Carley wore under her vest. She hadn't even noticed its arrival—perhaps it had drifted in from the slight northward breeze that tickled her naked ear. As Lee drew his hand away, the leaf caught a shaft of sunlight, and Carley saw the sizeable veins that snaked their way through its body. Absently, Lee twirled the stem between his fingers.
"Thanks for having my back against that dangerous leaf," Carley laughed. Despite the fact that scarlet was rising on her cheeks and that Duck and Clementine were playing less than ten feet below, she found the entire situation humorous. She couldn't remember being this happy in a long time. "I would've died if not for your help."
"No problem," Lee smirked, playing along. "You've gotta be careful, you know. Trees are as violent as a Walker. I don't want you losing limbs. Kenny and Kaatja are out scouring for food and Lily is on watch with Ben, so I'm the only one you can turn to."
Carley leaned forward to examine the leaf that had clung to her, and in the process, caught a strong trace of Lee's sweet but exhausted scent. The group washed four times a week in a stagnant creek in the forest, but constant perspiration did not bode well for anybody's hygiene—including Carley's. "It's a well-formed leaf," she remarked. "You should give it to Clementine. Doesn't she like to rub them?"
"Yeah, that's how she passes the time," Lee said. "When not putting up with Duck, of course. She said her teacher taught her how to do it."
Carley paused. "Lee," she started with some hesitation, worried that she was opening a can of worms that was better left alone. "Why do you take such good care of Clementine? Three months ago, she was a stranger to you. You happened upon her in a deserted house—you had absolutely no obligation to bring her along with you. Why, Lee?"
Instantly, a shadow fell over Lee's face, and Carley knew she'd made a mistake. "What, is there something wrong with Clementine?" He snapped. "Do you have a problem with her? She's my responsibility, Carley." He paused, his expression contorting with visible anger. "Next thing, I'm sure you'll be wondering if it was me that killed that senator."
"No, I didn't mean that at all," Carley said hastily. "I love Clementine. I want to know—why her? Would you have done it if you'd found any other child there? A young boy, perhaps, or an older girl? Someone else in general?"
The pair had not detected the storm clouds gathering above—Clementine's perceptual deities crowded the orange dome that sat in suspended animation, churning and rumbling with the hunger of rain and sparkling cracks of lightning. The sleeping sun was cloaked by the gloomy tempest, the last rays of light leaking through its silver lining. Without so much of a few growls of thunder as viable warning, droplets began to spit from the heavens, the first speck falling on the glassy clock of Lee's golden wristwatch.
Gradually, the rain heightened in speed, and a powerful downpour drenched all those outside in an enraged shower. Though neither of the two were facing the children playing below, Carley still heard Duck yelp loudly and scuttle madly to the shelter beneath the wobbly wooden terrace that she and Lee stood upon. She saw Lee's rage dissolve, evaporating from his clenched fists and soulful gaze and dripping off him like the water that dashed around him. He did not break eye contact with Carley, although she saw it was becoming painful for him to look at her.
"No, I wouldn't have," Lee said carefully, sounding very defeated, "because they would not have been Clementine."
"You love her," Carley translated, her voice almost obscured by the heavy noise of rain hitting the roof of the motel.
"Yes," Lee said, slowly. "I love her. She's… she's my daughter."
"Did you kill that senator?" Carley inquired. She was surprised at how little she sounded—so rare for her. She wasn't ever scared like this. But she was frightened this very minute, and not because of Lee.
She was frightened with him. That, to her, was very different.
"Does it matter?" Lee echoed her questioning tone.
Does it? "No," Carley said.
Taking one step forward, Lee enveloped Carley's soaked, pervaded form and pressed it against his. His brawny arms wrapped almost all the way around her as he buried his face into her sopping hair, trying as hard as he could not to crush her. Carley fell into him, as if melted by the rainwater that surrounded them, a watery curtain. Time stopped for only a moment, grace disappearing between the agitated, lonely killer and the woman he wasn't sure he loved. Carley, in this short minute, was conflicted. Every emotion surfaced and yet repressed itself, refusing to take off the mask and show themselves. She couldn't be disillusioned, she decided—but what else could she be in his arms? She couldn't breathe—so she couldn't help but think she was drowning.
Was Lee drowning with her?
Lee whispered his answer not at her, but into her. "So don't ask," he replied, his voice muffled by her hair.
Carley wished she were crying.
"Hey, what're you doing, Clementine?" Duck's shout was a clear bark into the misty squall, the veil of straight precipitation making him invisible to Clementine from his position under the second story balcony. The dampness invaded Clementine's curls and snuck its way into her baseball cap, the lavender brim now drooping and splotched with spots of dim purple. "It's raining, dummy. You're getting wet being out there."
Clementine barely heard him as she watched her illustration rinse away, swept by the pounding rain. Lee's colors faded and drained into the ground, dispersing and flowing into a puddle that was forming close by. The picture was gone, but she knew that the imprint was not, and she knew this from what sat in the middle of where the chalk Lee's head had been.
It was a perfect oak leaf, colored the prettiest shade of autumn brown.
Be scared with me.