1. Shades of Grey
"Glenn!" Daryl yelled, his temper at a boil. If that little shit thought he could get out of guard duty because he was nursing a hangover he had another thing coming. He rounded the corner of the cell block and saw Carol coming from the cell Maggie and the boy shared, her face troubled.
"He in there?" Daryl snarled, starting to push past her.
"Daryl, stop!" Carol said, grabbing his arm as he tried to enter the cell. As her small callused hand closed over his bicep he felt a frisson of some sharp awareness pass through him and it slammed him to a halt. His head slowly turned to look down at her hand and then up to meet her eyes, his look half between surprise and a warning. Instead of immediately releasing him, he saw real worry mar her crystal blue gaze. He tilted his head at her.
Carol turned her head to look back into the room and as Daryl followed her sight line he saw that Hershel was seated on the lower bunk talking softly to Glenn. Maggie crouched beside him, her hand on Glenn's sweaty pale forehead.
"Hershel thinks it's his appendix." Carol said in a low voice. He felt her hand tremble against his arm and felt a sickening bubble of guilt roil his gut. He reached his right hand up to cover hers and she took a quick breath. Glenn was like a brother to them both. When Maggie had announced yesterday that she was pregnant with their first child, the young man's celebrations last night had gotten a bit exuberant, and when he hadn't shown up for his shift on watch this afternoon Daryl had come looking for him.
"What do you need?" Daryl asked her, knowing that they were dangerously short on most types of supplies and equipment. Caring for the larger group including the refugees from Woodbury had put a severe strain on all of their resources, from water, food and housing to issues like sanitation and medical care.
Carol released his arm, but instead of letting her pull her hand away, he shifted his fingers around her palm so he was holding it tightly and then laced his fingers through hers in what he hoped was a comforting way. He hadn't held hands like this with anyone since he was 8; since his mother had died.
"Everything," Carol said ruefully, her worry for Glenn letting her ignore the anomaly of his hand grasping hers, feeling only the comfort of another human being's touch.
"I'll go on a run—just give me the list." Daryl said, relieved to have some task, some practical action to accomplish instead of waiting, worrying.
"No." Carol said, looking in at Hershel's face—he seemed to have aged another ten years since this morning—his eyes red rimmed, his face white bordered with purplish red; he looked bruised, beaten down by this newest hell. "I'm going with you."
To bring back the oxygen tanks, the surgical equipment, they had to take a vehicle big enough to hold them, so the chopper was out. Daryl loaded supplies and weapons into the back of the light green Hyundai that had served them so well since Shane had found it on the highway near the Green farm what seemed like a lifetime ago.
While supervising the cleaning and refitting of the office spaces in the prison for habitation, Maggie had come across a tri-county telephone directory. They had been using the yellow pages in it as a sort of shopping guide for the scavenging parties who went out on regular runs.
Michonne and three of the new people, Karen, Tyreese and Sasha were on the road now, checking out a town about three hours away where a hunting supply megastore had been located. In all likelihood it had been stripped clean of weapons, but there was a chance that some of the heavier equipment, including bullet making molds and other munitions manufacturing machinery might still be there. They had taken one of the Army trucks left during the Governor's raid.
Daryl and Carol were headed in the opposite direction, south, to a town they hadn't hit before, Senoia, where there were several private medical practices and two Vet clinics in addition to a small hospital listed. With the other party already out there they normally wouldn't have sent out a second team. Leaving the prison with fewer defenders was never in the plans, but the emergency made it necessary. Both Beth and Maggie had wanted to come, but Daryl had privately felt he had enough to worry about with Carol along and didn't want to be responsible for the lives of one or both of Hershel's girls.
It wasn't that he didn't think they could handle themselves—all of the women had proven time and time again how capable they were at protecting themselves and defending the others—but he knew his attention would be focused on one of them more than the others; the one he didn't want ever leaving the safety of the prison walls and fortifications if he could help it, but the one who knew best what they needed to save Glenn's life.
"I know you'll get back as soon as you can," Hershel said quietly to Carol as they stood at the front of the car. "I believe it's chronic rather than acute which gives you a window-but know this, if it bursts before you return his chances of survival drop drastically."
Carol shook her head, her mouth set in a firm line, turned down at the edges into a determined frown. Infection, sepsis, was one of the biggest problems now that they had exhausted the local supply of antibiotics. People kept getting injured—accidents with weapons, childbirth complications, and even diseases like pneumonia—all of them were curable with the modern magical drugs first found in good old moldy bread. They were experimenting with synthesizing a crude form of penicillin, but it was inexact chemistry without the proper tools and if one thing in the multiple step process was wrong, it could kill instead of cure.
"How long do we have?"
"Best guess is 72 hours at the outside." Hershel said, and then his look briefly turned grim as he looked at someone approaching from behind her and then forcefully brightened, bucking up to one of determined optimism. Carol turned and saw Beth approaching, followed by Rick, holding Judith in his arms.
"How is he?" Carol asked. She'd looked in on Glenn as she carried her things from the cellblock out to the yard and he'd been sleeping fitfully, Maggie had been curled up beside him, quietly stroking his forehead with a cool cloth. If he'd have been awake he would've been smiling to have the woman he adored so close.
"Maggie's sitting with him. Fever's tapered off a little; he's stable." Beth said, her usual sunny demeanor subdued with worry. Her eyes, brimming with unshed tears, met Carol's and she rushed into the older woman's outstretched arms and they embraced.
Daryl came around the side of the car and saw the scene. Chewing on his lower lip, grimacing, he squinted at them. All of this emotion overwhelmed him, made him antsy, nervous as hell.
"You done huggin' it out? Need to get on the road." he said gruffly, and Beth pulled away from Carol, who looked at him reproachfully. Then she saw Daryl lift his right thumb to his mouth and start to gnaw on the nail, his eyes looking anywhere but at the women and she realized how worried he was as well. Giving one last squeeze to her young friend and roommate, Carol moved to embrace Hershel.
Rick in turn came to stand in front of Daryl, balancing his baby in his left arm and extending his right hand. Daryl stared down at it and then lowered his hand from his mouth to grasp it.
"Thank you." Rick said simply and Daryl's didn't shake his friend's hand so much as infuse the grip with quiet strength, lending all he had to the man who had already lost so much.
"S'what we do." Daryl said, repeating what he'd said to Rick about caring for Judith all those months ago. He looked at the baby girl, plump, bright, happy and a small smile warmed his features and without much forethought he leaned down and brushed a kiss onto her sweet-smelling head. Embarrassed, he released Rick's hand and stepped back, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking at the ground.
"Does seem like I'm always saving his sorry ass though, don't it?" Daryl groused, squinting up at his friend and the two men shared a grin, thinking of Atlanta, of Woodbury, how they'd worked together to rescue Glenn.
Carol was there then, grabbing Rick up into a fierce hug, kissing his scratchy bearded cheek and then taking one of Judith's pudgy little hands in hers she leaned down and kissed it as well.
"Take care of each other." Rick said to them both, nodding, "Come back safe."
Hershel and Beth, now holding Judith, stood there and watched the green car pass through the barrier gate as Rick opened it. Carol waved one last time and then they were out on the road, heading south.
Turning back around to face the front, Carol wiped the tears from her face and closed her eyes, leaning her head back on the head rest.
"You gonna sleep?" Daryl asked.
"Why? Are we talking now?" Carol asked, having already resigned herself to a long quiet trip with the taciturn man. They'd had an argument a few days ago over an incident with Tyreese and had been skirting a wide berth around each other since then.
Even at the best of times Daryl tended to only speak when he was questioned or if he had an important, often lifesaving remark to make. Idle chit chat was not in his wheel house and any more serious topic, says his feelings about the woman sitting next to him or why he'd beaten a man to a bloody pulp for trying to talk to her, was just as unlikely.
"Check out the bag in front of yer feet." he said, with a hint of a grin. Carol frowned, leaning forward and found an old paper grocery sack, repaired with duct tape to reinforce its loose integrity, sitting there.
"You brought snacks?" she asked quizzically. They'd brought a bare minimum of survival rations, stored in a cooler in the back.
"Just open it." he said patiently. Sighing, Carol snagged the bag and it made a funny clack clank sound, so she unfolded the top and reached inside. It was filled with all sorts of CDs. The first one she pulled out was an older Garth Brooks greatest hits collection. She made a little sound of amused surprise, opened the jewel case and popped the disk into the stereo in the dash console. The sound of country guitars, violins and Brook's gravelly mellow voice filled the car. She adjusted the volume so it was background level and they continued to talk.
"God, I miss listening to recorded music..." Carol said. It just wasn't practical to use their limited power to run a CD or record player, and the noise also tended to attract walkers. The only time most of them got to listen was when they were in a vehicle that had a stereo system.
"Michonne took most a' the books on tape, but here's a coupla them in there too." Daryl told her, keeping his eyes on the road, but every once and awhile stealing a glance over at her. She dug around in the bag and pulled out 50 Shades of Grey and blushed to the roots of her short salt and pepper hair.
"What?" he asked, "no good?" he sounded so disappointed that she sighed and smiled.
"You've never heard of this book?" she asked him, wondering if he was winding her up.
"Don't go in much for chick lit." he drawled, "Have to admit it's got an interesting cover..." she looked at the vaguely S&M black and white photo and had to agree.
"Let's see what else we have, shall we?" she stuck the lady porn CD down between her seat and the center console and perused the rest of the bag.
"Mighta seen some Skynyrd in there..." he said hopefully—the southern rock group was one of his favorites. She raised it triumphantly and then paused in her sorting and looked over at him.
"Skynyrd next!" she laughed and then her voice softened, "This was a thoughtful thing to do, Daryl" she told him, "Thank you." Daryl nodded, hoping he'd been forgiven, at least a little, and reached over to turn up the volume a little so they could listen to the words and music and they settled into a companionable silence.
She could almost forget the urgent reason for the journey and imagine that they were heading out on a vacation road trip to some quiet country inn...
The third song was Brooks' bar anthem, "I Got Friends in Low Places," and she amused him by not only knowing all of the words, but singing along lustily and loudly. Then she was the one surprised as he joined her on the choruses; he actually seemed to be enjoying himself in a way she had seldom seen, just letting loose as they sped down the highway.
She was watching him, grinning at his attempt to sing more loudly than her, when he suddenly hit the brakes as they came around a curve and then punched the off button hard cutting off the music. She snapped her head up and gasped, putting her hands over her mouth to keep from screaming.
They were at the edge of a massive herd.
Daryl started to sweat. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea after all. Taking the main highway was the shortest route to the town, but he knew that they risked running in to greater groups of walkers as well. For whatever reason, the things had been congregating in larger and larger numbers, almost as if they had some sort of hive mentality in big groups. The build ups at the prison fences were causing bigger and bigger headaches and the possibility of their mass actually being able to push over and through the wire enclosure was very real.
"What do we do?" Carol whispered. Daryl let the vehicle roll to a full stop and then eased it into reverse, doing his best to avoid attracting the herd's attention. That many walkers could overturn the car and then they'd be dead as surely as if they tried wading out into them. He looked behind them and swore.
"Shit! Hang on, this ain't gonna be pretty." He bit out. The car's rear windows splashed red and black as he plowed into the walkers who had already started surrounding the vehicle. Gunning the engine he pushed it-Carol looked at the speedometer-he hit 30, 35, 40, 45 in reverse-bodies flying, the Hyundai rolling over them like speed bumps, crushing skulls and bones under the wheels. Something heavy hit under the passenger side, jerking the car sideways and Carol saw stars as her shoulder and head slammed against the side window, stunning her.
Daryl somehow kept control of the car and did a 180, heading back the way they'd come at over 60 mph until he saw a turn off onto a two lane dirt road he remembered seeing as they'd passed it earlier. He looked up in the rear view mirror and then to the parking back up camera and saw only a few walkers on the road, far behind them, so he took the turn off and went about a mile deeper into the Georgia back woods. He looked over at Carol to share a sigh of relief, but she was slumped to the side, her head resting on the window, her arms loose at her sides. He braked too quickly and the car jerked to a stop, making her loll forward, restrained by her shoulder harness, and then flop back against the seat.
"Oh shit-no...no!" Daryl said fearfully and struggled with his seat belt release, panicked. He was about to pull out his buck knife and just cut the damn thing free when it gave way and he slid across the seat, gently putting his right hand on her upper chest and taking her wrist between the fingers of his left-breathing, pulse-yes, both! thank you Jesus. Bending over her he looked at her head, his fingers moving carefully along her skull and swore again when he felt a rapidly forming lump on her right forehead.
"Carol?" he said quietly, moving his hands over her face and neck, worried about whiplash or some other neck injury. When she didn't respond, he leaned close, his mouth almost touching her temple and whispered, "Don't do this to me, sweetheart..." and then she stirred, "Carol?" he asked again and this time she made a small moaning noise and tried to lift her left hand to her head, but it was blocked by his big body looming over hers. "Just stay still now," he soothed.
"What—what's...?" she asked, slitting open her eyes. The world seemed all spinney and out of focus. She looked out the front window and saw a solitary walker making its way across the road about 10 feet in front of them, shambling, its shoulders canted at a crazy angle, its head lolling off the lower shoulder, long, blackened red-blonde hair trailing down the side and back over the faded floral patterned blood splattered dress it wore.
"Wha—walkers!" she cried, panicking, suddenly thinking they were back in the middle of the herd and struggling against him, needing to run, get away, to not end up like...
"Carol! Stop—we're fine—you just got your melon scrambled a little, settle down!" Daryl put his hands on her shoulders, gently restraining her. She looked into his blue eyes and saw his concern, his sincerity and subsided, leaning back against the seat.
"Need flashlight—check my pupils..." she muttered, reaching up with her right hand, finding the goose egg forming on her forehead. "Could be concussion—oh shit!" and she hit the window button just barely in time to lean her head out and throw up, coughing pathetically with the force of it, the vomit splattering all down the outside of the car door. "Well, that sucked..." she muttered, returning to her position facing front.
He took the rag out of his back pocket and carefully wiped the residue of her sick off of her mouth and chin and then took the water bottle out of the cup holder and opened it, helping her hold it steady to take a swallow, which she then leaned back and spit out the window, rinsing the taste out of her mouth as best she could and then closing the window. She moaned again with the effort, her head feeling about 10 times its normal size.
He got the flash light out and checked her pupils—neither was blown, but the right one was slow to dilate and recover which, along with the nausea, worried him.
"You got us out of there." she praised him, "Thank you." she looked around, "How far off course are we?"
"Need to check a map, but we backtracked, 10 maybe 12 miles, and then east another couple."
"Can we still make it to Senoia tonight?"
"Think so, but I'd rather get there in the daylight, know what we're dealin' with that way." Arriving in the dark meant any of the town's residents, living or dead would hear them coming long before they could see them and thus have the advantage.
"So now what?" Carol asked, sounding defeated.
"We either find someplace to hole up or we pull off the road and hunker down in here for the night." He looked speculatively at the rapidly setting sun. "Only seen that one walker since we've been parked here, and the herd was headin' the other way-what's say we venture up the road a little ways and see what we can see in the way of shelter?" she started to nod in agreement, but gave a little cry when that made her head throb in agony.
"You gonna hurl again?" he asked, pushing the button zipping her window back down.
"No." she said indignantly, glaring at him, but the sharp movements of her head in his direction made the spinnies happen again and next thing she knew, she was losing the last of what had actually been a decent lunch for once. "Next time it's your turn for the pukey concussion, 'kay?" she said as she subsided back into her seat, cold beads of sweat on her forehead.
"Next time." Daryl agreed, placating her, helping her with the water again and then he rolled up her window and restarted the car so they could set off down the dirt road. The walker she'd spotted earlier had moved off of and was heading south, towards the herd, towards the town they were trying to get to. It was not a promising start.