Disclaimer: I own nothing related to the Walking Dead. No copyright infringement intended.
Author's Note: Thanks for the great reviews, favorites and alerts for chapter one! Follow me on tumblr, deadbeatpillowcases is my url over there. And on twitter, Missus_Monster. My best gal, lifelesslyndsey, has made a fantastic bit of art for Graveyard Train (the first piece of art that will develop with the story), and there's a link for that on my profile.
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She made it several miles through the woods before she ran across the first walker. The pack was heavy on her back, a tied up pup tent was awkward hanging from her shoulder and the knife was gripped with white-knuckle tightness in her hand. Beth froze when she spotted it and her heart began hammering in her chest when it picked up her living scent. The corpse shambled toward her and Beth remembered Shane yelling "It has to be the brain!" when she was within striking distance.
The knife sunk too easily into a hollow eye socket, scraped bone and pierced the brain. It felt like stabbing a sponge, and Beth dropped to her knees beside it and vomited on the leafy ground. Two sides of her mind were warring. The recently discovered, independent voice was telling here that she'd just saved her own life and killed a monster. Put what was once a living being out of its misery. The other side was the one that'd been hardwired to revere the sanctity of human life and creation, and was screaming that she'd just killed a man. It was something that would take time to overcome, she knew, but that didn't make it any easier.
Beth wiped the blade on her faded jeans and used the hem of her shirt to get the blood off her hand. Squinting up through the trees, Beth saw that the sun was setting. The woods were steadily getting darker and she'd been gone for hours. She knew they'd look for her and Beth hoped that she was deep enough in the woods that they wouldn't find her. Maybe she'd go back when the thought of speaking to them, looking at their lying, righteous faces didn't make her want to both cry and set something on fire.
She went on for another mile or so, at Beth's best estimation, ducking under branches, trying to move quietly, as the forest was taken over by shadows. It took a little while to find a piece of even ground between trees, but she made quick work of setting up her pup tent with the help of the flashlight Beth was holding between her teeth.
Not wanting to build a fire- and not even sure she could- just in case the light would attract more walkers, Beth sat just inside the tent, boots digging into the bone dry dirt. Her pack was between her knees and she pushed passed the neatly folded extra pair of jeans, a few loose cotton tops, under-things, to the food she'd packed at the bottom.
Jerky settled heavy in her stomach, along with a few dried apricots. Beth knew that she'd have to ration herself until she found another way of getting food. She didn't have any money, and didn't know what good it would do if she did. Maybe she could trade something? Beth didn't have much of value, other than the gold chain and pendant that hung around her neck, but those had been from her momma. That was a very last resort. She took a few sips of water, from one of the two large bottles she'd stuffed into the side pockets of her pack, then withdrew into the tent.
After making sure the zipper was pulled all of the way down, Beth settled into her sleeping bag. Laying there in the dark, every sound was a walker- every rustle was someone from the house. She fumbled around for the flashlight and clicked it on, folding it into her arms so that the white spot spilled onto the nylon of the tent wall behind her. Only a few minutes later, Beth was fast asleep.
When Daryl stepped out of his tent the next morning with a pack filled only with essentials and his crossbow, he found another packed bag waiting outside. He could get by for two weeks on what Maggie'd left for him, easy, and he didn't think it would take nearly that long to find the girl. At least, he hoped not. But like he said the night before, you never knew, especially in this world. He'd only packed one change of clothes and spare bolts- the rest was assorted weaponry and clean socks. If there was one thing Daryl believed in, it was clean socks. He may let his pants get so filthy they could probably stand and walk on their own when he was done with them, but clean feet was a whole different game.
He set out just as the sky was turning orange, and something in Daryl's very soul relaxed when he was surrounded by nothing but the quiet of the trees. This was where he belonged, and he'd always known it. From that first time getting lost when he was twelve and after, when he found himself skipping school more and more to explore and learn the land he'd wandered. Daryl had always felt more at ease roaming Wolfpen Ridge and Blood Mountain, the two that were practically in his backyard back in old Union county, than the loud, harsh world. And he probably would have disappeared into those very mountains that he knew like the back of his hand when all of this shit started, if it hadn't been for Merle. There was no way he could just leave his brother to face this new world alone.
It didn't take him too long to pick up the girl's trail. At first it looked like the girl had all the grace of a fucking blind elephant, but the further he went in, the smaller her clear path became. Daryl could tell that she would be one to quickly adapt, and for the first time wondered why the Greene family kept her so sheltered. Sure, Daryl didn't have a problem picking out her direction, but a tracker any less honed than he was would have found it near impossible to stay with her.
Everywhere she'd taken a rest, or a piss, or for anything, he would stop too. Daryl was impressed with the distance she'd covered. He guessed it was damn near eight miles when he ran across a walker she must've put down. It was so rotted that it was hard to tell, but it looked like she'd taken it out quick, right through the eye socket. Daryl nudged the body with his boot, bit down on his thumbnail. The girl, Beth, she was good. Instinctive.
Daryl moved on.
When she woke up again it was to something clawing its way through her tent. Grimy, bony fingers with cracked and broken nails were steadily ripping a bigger and bigger hole through the nylon and Beth shot up, slow in her still sleep-addled mind. She scrambled for her knife, sending the flashlight flying and pushed herself back against the opposite wall of the tent. Hands there too, frantically trying to grab her through the tent and Beth screamed. Loud and raw, and she knew she had to get out or these things would tear her apart.
Heart pounding furiously somewhere in her throat, Beth tried to get her head straight. There was one in front of her, and one behind. The walker at the door had ripped a big enough hole that Beth could see its head, snarling and snapping, and she knew she'd have to take that one out first. The smooth wooden handle of her knife was heavy in her hand and Beth rushed the walker and kicked as hard as she could through the door of the tent.
It went down and Beth ripped the hole it'd started the rest of the way down and slid through it, striding passed the walker that was still trying to figure out how to get to its feet. When she rounded the tent, the other walker was still pushing against the nylon wall and Beth had to choke down bile as she rammed her knife through the crown of its head. The handle jerked out of her hand as the walker went down, and by that time the first was up again and coming for her. A flash of panic washed everything in gray and Beth shook herself hard. There wasn't time for that. She swallowed her yellow belly, put a boot to the twice-dead walkers face and pulled her blade free just in time to swing around and stab the still moving one in the face. Using her body weight, Beth pushed the walker to the ground and she followed it, bringing her blade down again and again, sending blood arcing, until the walker stopped twitching.
Beth felt the bile trying to push its way up again, but she shoved it back down. This was life now, and these weren't men. She sat up, knees still digging into the walkers gut, and she could feel the flesh giving underneath her. Blood was dripping down her face, and Beth wiped it away from her mouth with the hem of her shirt. She had no idea what would happen if she were to swallow the blood of the dead. Pushing up, Beth's knees pulled free of the walker with a sick, wet schloop sound and her jeans were covered in near black blood.
That didn't matter, though. She had to move. The tent would have to be left behind, and Beth could see how that'd been unwise. This time, it'd only been two- next time, it could be ten, and then she would be dead. She still wasn't completely clear on how she'd managed to take down two, except for the fact that she'd always been able to keep a mostly level head in emergency situation. Like when Bobby Fenway had fallen from the top of the slide when they'd been in fourth grade, Beth had been the only kid not running around screaming their head off. She'd calmly gotten a teacher, and poor Bobby had been rushed to the hospital with a broken collar bone and a shattered arm. That situation was worlds away from what she found herself in now, but Beth couldn't help but wonder where little Bobby Fenway was now- he'd moved away to Florida when they were in middle school. Beth thought that he was most likely dead now, and then automatically berated herself for thinking that way. But why not? She asked herself. Everyone was dead now.
Beth packed what little she'd gotten out, rolled her sleeping bag up and strapped it to her pack. She would just leave the tent. Maybe someone wandering through could use it. She ate a few more pieces of dried fruit, but it did little to ease the twisting of her stomach. Briefly she considered washing off with some of her water, but dashed the idea. She couldn't waste it. Surely she'd come across a stream or something in the next few days, she'd wash up then.
Slumping under the weight of her pack, Beth continued to head west, moving as quietly as she was able. Part of her wanted to turn around and go home. She was still tired, she was filthy, and hungry. Beth wanted a shower and her comfortable bed. But along with comforting thoughts of home, came the fear that she'd be shoved back into the dark. Kept away from the world, maybe under lock and key this time. If she went back now, she'd look like a stupid little girl who'd thrown a tantrum and run away from home. No, she couldn't. Going back to cooking and cleaning, smiling in the face of lies that it would all be okay, Beth thought that she just might kill herself. She hitched her pack higher on her shoulders, and kept moving.
All her life she'd lived on the farm and had never wandered this far into the forest. She'd had no idea that they were this big, and Beth liked it. Liked the quiet, the breathing room. And this area of the woods was completely silent, except for the crunch under her boots. No birds were singing, no squirrels were jumping from branch to branch. Normally the trees and brushes around her would be bursting with wildlife, but even that was gone this far in.
Beth walked all day, stopping every few hours to rest, take a sip of water, or eat sparingly from the supplies she'd packed. As the shadows began to grow around her again, Beth knew that she'd have to stop and find a way to sleep. Tomorrow she would be out of the trees, and she didn't know what she'd find then.
The further he went, the more Daryl began to admire this girl. She was obviously smart and he couldn't help but wonder, and not for the first time, why those people back at the farm felt the need to treat her as if she were some fragile china doll, the kind his momma used to collect before it all went up in flames. Beth could have been a valuable asset to them, keeping watch, planning. Maybe even looking for Sophia. Not that she could've helped find her, she'd already been dead by the time he'd taken that horse off into the woods.
But when he came across a ripped up pup tent and the two walkers bloody on the ground, Daryl nearly counted her for dead. Two walkers, maybe more before, in hand to hand, completely untrained? It was unlikely. She'd gotten these two, though, one of them barely had a face left and the other she'd gotten right through the top of its head. She knew to go for the brain, that was for sure, but Daryl had to remind himself that she'd been there at that barn the day before. No one could have missed the message Shane had been broadcasting. He was about to turn and head back for the farm, when he noticed that the only thing that was left was the tent. Rick said that she'd packed a bag before she left, and it was no where to be seen. Daryl stuck his head into the tent, and sure enough it was completely empty. No bedding, nothing.
He looked around the perimeter of the small clearing and saw a few bent branches and knew that somehow, she'd made it. Beth was still heading west, like she had been since she stepped into the woods. Daryl could barely believe it, but he kept moving. Just as complete darkness fell and Daryl decided to find somewhere to get a few hours of shut eye, he spotted a tan pack hanging from a low branch, very gently swaying back and forth. He stopped, staring up at it, and then looked higher.
Smart little girl, he thought to himself. Because there she was. Beth had climbed up that damn tree and had tied herself around the hips and legs to a thick, sturdy branch. Her arms were crossed over her middle and the girl was fast asleep.
It was the very thing Daryl had been planning to do and he decided that here was as good a place as any. He climbed the tree next to the one Beth was snoring in, hung his own stuff from a branch and lashed himself to the tree with a length of rope that he'd packed. He'd be up when first light came and he'd drag the girl back to what was left of her family.
But when he came to a few hours later, she was already gone. He guessed that she woke up, saw him, and took off. Daryl called himself an idiot for not just dragging her back in the dark, and weak for the few hours of sleep he'd stolen. He could have easily pushed on for several days, but he'd been luxuriant in the fact that he was surrounded by a comfortable environment and that he'd been right on her trail.
By the time he followed her trail out of the forest, he came out only a few miles from the spot they'd lost Sophia on the highway. She was nowhere to be seen and must've had at least a couple hours of a head start. As he stood there, in the middle of the deserted highway, Daryl wondered what in the hell he was supposed to do now. Just go back? Tell the Greene family that he was sorry, but their damn fool little girl was gone for good? Unless she decided to go back, that was, because Daryl had no doubt that she was still alive.
Something inside of him was slipping. Lines blurred and he felt like he did sliding down that embankment- hard falling, jarring his bones on the way, and he knew that it would end in pain. Daryl didn't want to go back empty handed. He didn't give two shits about gratitude, or being called a damn hero- he wanted it for himself. He couldn't save Sophia, and that gnawed at his gut, but this one- Beth, she was still alive.
He'd been so sure that Sophia was alive, too, when she'd been locked in that barn, but he'd seen the evidence of Beth's resourcefulness. She could survive until he found her, took her back with him, at least that long. He remembered what Maggie had told him, that Beth didn't know how much the world had changed.
It wasn't the walkers getting her that worried him. It was what the world had devolved into that would eat her alive.