The dark was no longer something I enjoyed. The bleak blackness was terrifying now that the world had gone to shit. I use to enjoy the night, the evenings spent cuddled on the couch with Lori once Carl had been put to bed, the late evening raids on crack houses where the dealers and buyers would have no idea we were coming. Those were my favourite nights, when we could sneak around, shaded by the night that cloaked us, capturing the men and women partaking in illegal activities. The silence meant every footstep was calculated, every precaution taken not to make a single sound. The pounding of my heart, the adrenaline in my veins, they were the only things I could hear and feel until the front door came down, finger on the trigger of my trusty Colt Python .357 Magnum, ready to take down anyone wanting to hurt us as we saved more people from dying from cheap, low-quality cocaine. Shane and I had worked together on multiple raids and after every successful night I’d return home to my wife and child, safely locked away in our home, tucked into bed. How times have changed.
Lori was gone and never in my 30+ years had I thought I would end up a single father. Carl had been distant for a while, cruel and lacking in the child-like innocence he would have had if the world hadn’t gone to hell, but my boy was slowly coming back to me, albeit with a sharper aim and a need for more responsibility. Then there was Judith, the little girl my wife had given birth to, who could be my best friends or mine. I would by lying if I said that I didn’t feel a deep pain, a stab of betrayal, every time I saw that little girl bundled up in the pink blanket Daryl had salvaged from the nursery he and Maggie had raided when we’d needed formula. I still loved Judith though, there was always the possibility that she was indeed mine, and she was still a part of Lori. Yes I loved Judith, but I would always be reminded of Shane’s betrayal, of Lori’s betrayal.
Daryl doted on Judith, always making runs for more formula, scribbling ‘Lil’ Asskicker’ along with some cartoon stars and hearts on whatever box we managed to scrounge together as a bed for her, rocking her to sleep, cooing at her and grinning like a damn fool when she reached up with one of her little, chubby hands to grasp at his surprisingly clean fingers. The man wasn’t known for his hygiene, but he always made a point of cleaning his hands before he picked up, fed, or played with Judith. Something about not wanting her to get sick from all the blood and dirt lodged under and on his chewed up nails. All she could do was gum at his fingers, and I’d feel sorry for him when she started teething in a few months. The tough redneck had a heart of gold, though he reserved such displays of affection for our group, shying away from any praise from the Woodbury group we’d rescued and slipping back into the gruff demeanour he was infamous for when the world had first fallen into chaos.
We tried not to light candles at night – not only would the light draw walkers in our direction but it was getting harder and harder to get our hands on matches and candles. The run Daryl and Glenn had been on this morning had not been very successful. They’d found half a packet of matches, 3 candles and a few cans of Spam along with a box of Jell-O. Thankfully Hershel’s farming experience has given us quite a varied vegetable garden, so we were able to mix the Spam with some green peas and boiled potatoes for dinner. It was almost like the Sunday roast Lori used to make, once Carol had cracked out the Jell-O for desert.
The inability to use candles, and the preserving of batteries that led to limited flashlight usage, made me uncomfortable. The dark was no longer something I enjoyed, no longer something I could find comfort in. The once peaceful silence was broken by the low groans of walkers outside the prison fences, the slight rattling of the metal and barbed wire as they pushed against it, not understanding why they couldn’t get to the fresh meat they so desperately craved. The dark also brought with it the memories. The little girl bending down for her beloved teddy bear, only to turn around and show me her mutilated face before she made a beeline for me, wanting nothing more than to rip into my flesh. There was the half-destroyed woman whose insides were spewed out over the grass embankment as she reached out for me while I stole her bicycle. Then Amy as she died in Andrea’s arms, Carl as he was gunned down by Otis when all he’d wanted to do was reach out and pet the deer, Daryl as he returned from his search for Sophia, bloody and battered, with walker ears around his neck. The moment he’d gone down, the sound of Andrea’s gunshot ringing through the quiet farmland, my heart had lurched. He’d come a long way from the rough, angry redneck I’d first encountered, swinging his crossbow at me, lunging at me as I’d told him of his brothers’ location back in the city.
Scrubbing my hands over my face I sighed as the rough bristles of my beard scratched my palms. Razor’s and shaving foam were surprisingly easy to find – not many people seemed to care about their appearance when the world had ended – but shaving was a pointless task. It would grow back, and I would need to shave all over again. It was just easier to let it do its own thing and simply trim away when it got too much with the pair of scissors that Lori had always carried in the emergency first aid kit in the back of the Hyundai.
It was my turn on watch tonight and the guard tower offered me a complete 360 view of the prison and its grounds, though it offered me no warmth whatsoever, especially as we were just emerging from winter. There was little furniture in the room save for built in desks all the way around and a lone chair, but Beth had dragged up a couple of mattresses one day when she’d been stationed up in the tower. They were placed on the desks, which were just wide enough to accommodate a single sized mattress, in order to keep them as clean as possible and so that whoever was on duty could lie down and still see out of the tower’s windows. I’d kicked off my boots about an hour ago, now fours hours into my eight-hour watch.
“Brought ya a blanket. Ya look fuckin’ cold.” The rough voice at the doorway dragged me from my thoughts. Turning my head I glanced in Daryl’s direction, the moon illuminating his sharp cheekbones and drawn face. The winter had been a hard one, even with the walls and fences protecting us. Daryl had given up his share of food on more than one occasion and it had taken some serious negotiation between us before he would even consider sharing my portion. Stubborn ass. Our resident hunter had eyes like a hawk, it was what made him so good at tracking animals, so it came as no surprise that he had noticed me from the yard rubbing my arms a few times over the past couple of hours in a desperate attempt to create some heat.
Tipping my head to the left I silently gestured for Daryl to enter, and the hunter crossed the room towards me, his trusty Stryker Strykezone 380 Crossbow hanging casually over his shoulder. Damn thing never left his sight. Reaching a hand out I took the slightly dirty blanket from him, not caring for the light layer of muck. Any warmth was greatly appreciated these days and laundry wasn’t the top of everyone’s priority list.
“No problem. Can’t ‘ave ya freezin’ to death.” He gave a slight shrug of his broad shoulders, moving his crossbow up and off his shoulder to rest on one of the mattresses beside us. Daryl had long since become accustomed to being around me, even relaxing a little in my presence. He shuffled a lot around others, a man who was never capable of being still longer than a minute or two, and on occasion I would catch him flinching whenever there was a loud noise. Having been on the force, and spotting the scars marking his back when he was recovering from Andrea’s bullet graze, it hadn’t taken much for me to piece together that the man at my side hadn’t had it easy as a kid. I felt a strange warmness at knowing he was comfortable enough around me to stay still for extended periods of time, that he allowed me to pat him on the back, grab his hand for help whenever I needed him.
“You’re cold yourself, get under here.” I lifted the side of the blanket, noting how Daryl’s arms were exposed from his flimsy sleeveless shirt and his leather vest. He hesitated for a moment, a split second reaction, before he toed off his battered boots, pulling himself up to sit on the mattress beside me before he took the edge of the blanket and wrapped it around himself. For a man who usually hated to be touched he had no problem sitting so close to me that our entire sides were pressed together – knee-to-knee, shoulder-to-shoulder.
The hunter shuffled under the somewhat small blanket for a moment, trying to get comfortable before he huffed in exasperation. A muscular arm crept around my waist, pulling us even closer together, making the small blanket cover Daryl by an extra inch. I didn’t comment on his arm around my waist, it was best not to given how skittish Daryl could become, but I loosened my hold on my edge of the blanket, letting Daryl take a little more. The man gave up his food for the others, the least I could do was give up some of the blanket for him.
We’d fallen into this comfortable friendship that sometimes boarded on something a little more. There were nights where Daryl’s insomnia kicked in and I’d often wake to find him lurking at my cell door, seeking company for the evening, a warm body to sleep next to. He would always sleep wedged between the wall and I, protected on both sides, an arm lazily slung around my waist to keep me in place. The trust he put in me on those nights was astounding given that the man hadn’t given a shit for anyone other than himself and his brother only a few months back. There were also the nights when the darkness plagued me, bringing forth the memories I couldn’t shake, and those were the nights that I would join Daryl on his perch or up in the guard tower if it was his turn to be on watch. I couldn’t count the number of times I’d fallen asleep leaning against him. Then there was the times we showered together, not only to conserve what little clean water we could gather from rain and other sources, but ‘cause the showers were located at the other end of the cell block and there was no telling if any walkers had managed to creep in undetected since the last person had bathed. We never called one another out on this behaviour, never spoke of it aloud, but there was a silent understanding between us. We both needed the comfort one another offered, the silent show of friendship and resilience, the reminder that we had one another’s back.
“Ya need ta get some sleep Grimes, ya look like shit.” Daryl muttered from beside me, his eyes focused on the ground around us, scouring the night for any shuffling walkers, any critters trying to breach the perimeter fence.
Making an exaggerated inhalation I suppressed my smile. “Least I don’t smell like shit.” I teased, bumping my shoulder against the redneck beside me.
The corner of his lips quirked upwards ever so slightly as he fought his own smile, his eyes remaining focused on the land around us. “Woulda showered this mornin’, but ya were out gather them damn peas for dinna from the vegetable patch, Farmer Carver. Wouldn’ta been able ta reach ma back.” Daryl leant in against me, his weight comfortable against my shoulder as his hand around my waist gave a playful squeeze.
“We could shower once my guard is over?” I suggested casually, suppressing my excitement at such a thing as I enjoyed the way Daryl now turned to look at me. In a world that had gone to shit, where every day was a constant battle, I found a piece of joy in watching the hunter fumble with his clothing, huffing and growling at the buttons on his shirt as he tried to desperately remove it before I used up all the water and the ration of soap we had with us. The months of lean eating and hefting that heavy crossbow had slimmed the man down and built up the corded muscles of his frame. There was a thrill now to watching the soapsuds as they tried to slide down his tanned, rough skin to the uneven tiled floor below. I had never been interested in watching how the soapsuds would slide down Shane’s body when we’d been cleaning up after a dirty or bloody call-out. It was only Daryl. Of course it was only Daryl.
“Yea we could, but only if ya get some sleep, Grimes. I ain’t gonna tell ya twice. Ya can even use me shoulder as your damn pillow again if ya please.” He bargained. It had become a habit of ours, bargaining with one another rather than arguing. Lori and I had fought a lot. Well, she’d yelled a lot and I’d taken it, not entirely sure how to react. We’d been taught on the force to be calm and rational at all times, to negotiate. Lori had never been interested in any negotiating.
Weighing up my options for a moment I pursed my lips together. “Who’s gonna keep watch though if I fall asleep on ya?” I mentioned the flaw in Daryl’s plan. The hunter was having none of it though and he used those muscles that the months on the run had given him to pull me down so my head was resting in his lap, my body covered as much as possible with the blanket shared between us.
“Shut ya mouth and sleep. I got this ya know I do. Always got ya back, Rick.” One of his large hands landed on my head, petting my hair. It was in need of a cut but the last time I’d tried to take scissors to it Daryl had flipped out, snatching the offending items from me in order to ‘preserve my messy mop.’ He told everyone that he found it amusing how I’d gone from a clean-cut deputy to a scruffy apocalyptic leader. I knew better though. My hunter enjoyed running his fingers though my hair at any opportunity he got.
As if on cue his fingers started to weave in my hair, his nails scratching at my scalp every so often. He knew by now that this was the only thing that kept the memories away, that managed to soothe me enough so that I could sleep. “I know ya do, Daryl. I appreciate it, I do. I’m grateful to have ya.”
Daryl’s dexterous fingers lingered on the back of my neck for a moment, flirting against the skin there. He wasn’t very good with emotions, struggling to accept compliments and praise, finding it awkward to express his feelings. Over time we’d learnt how to read one another, to understand the smallest pieces of body language. I could hear the smile in his voice though as he spoke again in that soft tone of his, where his voice took on a husky quality. My eyes closed with the weight of exhaustion and rare relaxation as his fingers resumed their path through my lightly matted mane. “Ya can show me just how grateful ya are when we get to them showers, Rick.”