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By Eddy Fettig

Horror / Drama

Chapter 1

"Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck...It's OK, I've got you. I've got you."

Jane stared down at the nail file on her lap as she ate a much-needed meal. That nail file certainly had come in handy, after all – it had helped save Clem's life, acting as a makeshift flint in a pinch. Jane had been quite pleased that Clementine had held onto the thing.

After gazing at the nail file's scuffed up surface, Jane took in a deep breath, preventing herself from starting to nod off. She couldn't appreciate the simple pleasure of the fire's heat after their arduous day of snow-bound hiking. Tensions were still palpable, even in this moment of relative solitude. Jane was at least relieved that everyone had managed to put their shitty pissing contests aside for all of two seconds to make sure a fire had gotten started. And they'd gotten some food spread around. Damn. Kenny could smack-talk a can of chili all he wanted, but it was really hitting the spot right then, especially after she'd helped Mike scout the area for walkers. Kenny, meanwhile, had found a dinged up truck or something, and it had immediately become his obsession of the hour, until Bonnie had convinced everyone to get warm for a bit and get some food into their bellies.

Jane only wished Clementine was eating. But the kid was still sleeping, recovering from her dunk into the icy water. Clem's shivering had at least calmed down. Even in her exhausted state, Clem peace. Asleep, the girl's face was neutral. She wasn't bitter, or upset, or conflicted. She didn't have that kind of grouchy glare that she often wore. She wasn't trying to make sense of all of this...shit...going on around her. She was simply asleep.

But Jane knew that when Clem woke up, the girl wouldn't need convincing to move forward. She wouldn't need to be pushed, or prodded, or guilt-tripped into carrying on despite another day with another set back.

Clementine's body twitched a bit in her sleep, her arms wrapped around her abdomen. Jane could hear a gurgling from Clem's position. She knew the sound of a hungry stomach pretty fucking well at this point. As she licked a third gob of chili from her fingers, she wondered what Clem would have to eat when she awoke. Fuck knew if anyone else had even thought to ration anything aside for the girl. Clem was tough, but it pissed Jane off that the child had with so much shit. This was a dog-eat-dog world now. Which side of that eating was Clem gonna be in the end?

Jane caught herself staring at Clementine, who was flopped across the hardwood floor. Jeez, not even in so much as a coat, since hers had been frozen up by the water. Were there seriously no blankets around? Shit, even a tarp could work.

Jane surveyed the house. Mike was standing at a table in the next room, within eyesight, taking into account the supplies they'd retrieved. Bonnie was across the table, working through her own can of food. They were having a hushed discussion with each other.

Kenny was munching down – rather spitefully – on his own can, dumping it into his gullet like a drink. He was sitting on the stairs, right above where he'd recently tied up that kid with the busted glasses. The boy was glumly staring at the floor. Jane felt like shit every time she looked at that kid. This was all her fault...if they'd just sent him on his way without making a fuss...

After one more glance at Clementine, on the floor, and AJ, in his makeshift bed, Jane set her half-emptied can down and approached the others with caution.

"Are we sure Clementine's warm enough?" Jane proposed skeptically. "She's just...sleeping on the floor here. Don't we have-?""She's gonna be fine," interrupted the gruff voice of the man on everyone's minds. Kenny added wistfully, "She'll pull through...She always does."

"Clem's got a bit of a lucky streak goin' for her," Mike remarked, not even looking up over his shoulder. Jane could hear the gentle rattling of the pill bottles he was sorting.

"Yea," Bonnie jumped with melancholy, setting her finished can on the table. "An' that luck's gon' run out, sooner or later..."

Yea, if people like you keep telling her what to do all the time...

Jane was getting pretty goddamn sick of watching people like Bonnie and Kenny trying to boss Clem. Like they were her parents. Age didn't fucking matter anymore. That glare Kenny had shot Jane when she'd let Clem have a sip of that rum? Bullshit. Who'd he think he was? And Bonnie telling Clem, 'Oh, you're light, you should go over the thin ice!' Ugh. Clementine probably shouldn't have listened to Bonnie. She shouldn't have tried to help Luke, when the poor guy was doomed. Agh, fuck...Luke. God damnit. Guy had spent his final hours limping around on a wounded leg, wondering why Jane kept her distance from him. Clem hadn't been the only one Jane had hurt by taking off like she did. She probably shouldn't have even come back...Urgh, but if she hadn't come back, where would Clementine be right now?

Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

Everything was supposed to be clearer in hindsight, but fuck...nothing was that simple anymore.

Even so, when the shit hit the fan? Clem tried. Clementine stepped up and made hard calls. And Jane was willing to be there on the sidelines, ready to yank the kid out of danger when things got hairy. That was the difference between people like her, and Clementine, and people like Bonnie and Mike – shit got done when it needed to. Maybe it didn't always work out, but better to try than wait for things to get worse.

After this thoughtful pause everyone had at Bonnie's input, Jane replied.

"Luck?" Jane carefully worded her counter-remark. "Clementine's not still alive because of luck..."

Bonnie's eyes were cold as the river she'd just emerged from. She stared Jane down head on from across the table.

"She might be doin' a bit better if ya hadn't convinced her to steal that boy's medicine."

Jane huffed air through her nose.Yea, or if you hadn't convinced her to try getting Luke out from that ice...

"I was trying to look out for you guys..." Jane explained, her tone lacking pep. Was there really any use with them anymore? "And so was Clementine."

"Good job on that one," Mike grumbled. "Got us all fucked over, instead. Especially that poor kid..." He nodded his head over to Arvo, tied up under the stairs.

Fuck...Kenny had really done a number to Arvo, hadn't he? The stink eye he was giving Jane when she looked his way...if looks could kill...

"I mean...-" Mike was shaking his head. "Isn't that how this whole mess got started?"

Jane decided to plead for a little support from Arvo and approached him slowly.

"I, uh-...Arvo, right?"

"Get away!" Arvo blew up at her.

"Yea, y-yea, OK!" Jane thrust up her hands to show she meant no harm, backpedaling her steps. "I...didn't mean for any of this to-"

"You...crazy!" Arvo hissed out through some strained blubbering. "You kill my friend...Steal medicine. Not...good person...Crazy...People crazy..."

Kenny scoffed with amusement from Jane's left, sitting on the stairs.

"Now there's somethin' the Russkie and I agree on."

Oh, whatever, Kenny. Fuck you, too. You're one to talk, you psychopath.

"Man, Kenny," Mike spat, "Would you stop callin' him that?"

"What? He is one."

"Come on, man..." Mike opted to let it go, shaking his head a bit as he assessed their canned goods.

"I didn't know this would happen," Jane sighed, feeling more defeated by the second, and ever impatient about all this arguing. "I did what I thought was best..."

"Just like Kenny is, huh?" Bonnie put in. She got a glare from the man she'd taken a jab at.

"Well, I didn't hurt the kid," Jane semi-lied, leaving Arvo alone and occupying the doorway between the parlor and what was probably supposed to be a dining room. She had pointed a gun to him and roughed him a little, but... "-...and I wasn't happy about doing it, either, but sometimes-"

"And that makes it all right to fuck him and sister over?" Mike retorted. "Didn't you have a sister? Don't you get what he's going through right now? And you're still gonna act like what you did is OK?"

Jane stilled her tongue for a moment, contemplating a careful response.

"I...wasn't thinking straight, it-"

"Do ya ever think straight?" said Bonnie. "'Cause it don't seem like you think 'bout nobody but yerself," Bonnie ranted on, her words dull like coals. "And you've got Clementine startin' to think that way, too...Like she can take care of herself. Like she don't need nobody."

"Clementine can take care of herself," Jane insisted. "She doesn't need anybody."

"Aw, well, all right," Bonnie was quick to spit out. "I suppose she don't need you, then, neither..."

Jane sighed through her nose, looking up and away from Bonnie as she tried to figure out a reply. Bonnie beat her to it, though.

"Clem's just a child," Bonnie cited. "Now, I know maybe she don't act like it, but she is a little girl. She's young. She needs folks – good folks – lookin' out for her."

"So, she's a kid. So what?" Jane disagreed. "That doesn't fucking mean anything anymore. I'm sick of watching you people boss her arou-""Like you should have any kinda say in it," scoffed Kenny. "Like you have any idea how to raise a kid right. Any idea what's best for her..."

Jane snapped back, "And you do? Huh? Punching out defenseless teenagers? Bashing people's faces in and letting her watch? Is that what's best for her, Kenny?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," Kenny laughed with disbelief, "I forgot that robbing complete strangers at gunpoint is settin' such a good fuckin' example."

"Neither of you two...-!" Bonnie began, her tone gaining a dark ferocity. When Jane and Kenny glared right back at her, she practically shrunk in her seat. "Ya'll clearly care about Clem, but carin' ain't the same as doin' her good."

"You're gonna compare me to him?" said Jane, shoving out a frustrated hand in Kenny's direction.

Bonnie, with arms folded across her chest, shook her head a little.

"I don't like the kinds of ideas ya beenbeen plantin' in Clem's head, is what I'm sayin'."

"Excuse me?" Jane balked. "I've been...-!" She realized she was really starting to raise her voice, with two children trying to rest in the room behind her. She lowered her tone. "I've been helping her keep her head together through all the bullshit the rest of you have put her through."

"Is that so?" Kenny piped in with that eerie, calm rage of his. He had just checked in on AJ, who was sound asleep. He approached Jane from behind. "I seem to recall you up n' leaving us."

Jane's throat tightened at her own hypocrisy, her eyes avoiding the stares she was receiving.

Shit. This whole bit was being quickly flipped back on her, huh? She should've just kept her damn mouth shut. Why'd she even bother with these idiots? They were all just going to get themselves killed, anyway...She hadn't been stalking, she'd been...just...staying nearby. Just in case something happened to...them. Which it had, by the way, and she had been there when it had counted, so no, she hadn't abandoned anyone. In fact, she'd done something horrible, something she hadn't wanted to do, to protect them, so they could take their self-righteous...-

Fuck. Now she was starting to sound like Kenny in her own head. Was she losing it, too?

"Clem took it pretty hard when you took off," Mike recalled with a sigh, zipping up the duffel bag he'd just taken account of. "Barely said anything the whole time we were at that gift shop."

Jane huffed with dismissal, eager to avoid dwelling on the guilt. "I get it, OK? I'm an asshole. But I came back, didn't I?"

"And that's another thing," said Kenny, jabbing his index finger her way. "Why did you come back? Huh? We waited there for days – which, by the way, I knew was a shit idea –"

We get it, Kenny, you're a fucking Alpha Male.

"- and we make it half a day down the road, where you just happen to be nearby? Wanna explain that?"

"Yea, what, were you stalking us?" Mike was quick to conclude. "Waiting to take our stuff after shit went down?"

"What?" Jane grunted in disbelief. "Mike, why would I have helped you, then? I wasn't gonna steal your stuff."

"You wouldn't, huh?" Mike muttered with doubt, still dwelling on that notion. "How about I ask Arvo for his opinion on that?"

"I stole for you guys. I wouldn't steal from you. Not after you helped me get outta Carver's hellhole."

"'Course not!" Bonnie concluded, her tongue sharp with sarcasm. "Only thing you're interested in takin' from us is Clem."

Wh-?! That...-! That was...maybe extremely similar to what Jane had been...kind of hoping to do, but...she hadn't done it, or even tried.

"I've seen it, Jane," Bonnie went on. "We all have. Seen the way you two have yer lil' hushed chatter off to the side. Yer always pulling her away from us. Talkin' 'bout us. Tryin' to convince her to...what? Leave us behind? That yer plan?"

"Like she'd ever go along with that," Kenny dismissed the idea with a groan and a shake of his head. "Clementine's got too big a heart to just run off on folks." Yep, there was that glare again. As much as it pissed Jane off, she couldn't deny it was warranted. "See, she respects us. She respects other people. Least, she did, up until you showed up."

"Yea, but nobody respects her," Jane noted with some contempt.

"That ain't true," Kenny disagreed, swallowing down the last of his can of food. "I've seen that girl go from bein' a scared little thing to a survivor."

"You respect her? She tried her best to save your fucking girlfriend and you chewed her out.""Don't you dare talk about Sarita!""She was freezing to death and while I was trying to keep her alive, you were so caught up in child-beating that you clocked her in the face."

"God damn, man," Mike groaned. "Would you two shut up already? You've both done stupid shit these past coupla days – case closed. Can't we just get some rest here? It's fuckin' cold..."

Kenny wiped chili residue from his mustache and tossed his emptied can to the floor, getting up from the stairs he'd been sitting upon.

"Ya'll can rest."He made his way to the front door."I ain't restin' 'til I know AJ is safe – which ain't gonna happen here." With that, Kenny shut the front door behind him.

"Where's he think he's going?" Jane grumbled.

"I don't even care," Mike puffed, shaking his head. "Just glad we don't have to deal with him for a few minutes."

"Yea, no kiddin'," Bonnie sighed.

Jane lingered awkwardly in the hall – the space between the stairs, where Arvo was, and the table that Bonnie and Mike were occupying. The two at the table exchanged glances, then looked over to Jane, who had her hands latched around her arms.

"I...-" Jane sighed through her nose, staring down at the floor. "I don't know what we're gonna do about him."

Neither Bonnie nor Mike seemed to have anything to say to that.

"Look...Listen." They weren't paying attention to her. Jane cast a glance back at the two kids by the fire before entering the room with the table. "Bonnie. Mike. I've been through this. I've watched groups fall apart."

"We all have," Bonnie darkly reminded.

Jane had to peel her eyes away from Bonnie's bloodshot stare, aimlessly gazing at the supplies on the table.

"I am...trying here," Jane mumbled, her voice cracking just a bit.

"Sure you are," Mike mumbled disingenuously.

They were fucking ice-walling her. Fantastic. Urgh.

Dropping a sigh through her mouth, Jane shook her head and returned to her bench by the fire. Her head was reeling with frustration. With doubt. The only person who seemed to give a damn what she thought was, what? 12 years old? She was more goddamn mature than the rest of these people, as far as Jane was concerned.

After a minute or two of letting herself calm down by the fire, Jane watched Mike get up from the table, brandishing some of the medical supplies he'd just been sorting out. He didn't pay her any heed, heading straight for Arvo under the stairs. With Kenny finally gone for a few minutes, Mike could give the boy some treatment without getting his own head bit off.

Jane sighed to herself, glancing down at Clementine. When she gave herself a moment to think, she couldn't help but conclude that all the 'grown-ups' here had some kid they were trying to look out for. Kenny was trying to look after AJ, Mike was concerned about Arvo, and Bonnie was...well, doing that typical passive-aggressive bullshit with Jane in some bid over who Clementine's 'guardian' was.

As Jane watched Clementine stir a bit, she had to convince herself that if they were fighting for Clem's affections, than she was winning. It was the only way Jane could keep moving on through all of this shit.

"Let me take a look at you, man," Mike said to Arvo in the background, helping clean the boy's wounds. "Jesus...He coulda killed you. What the fuck is wrong with him?"

Clementine's eyes were open now, dilating to adjust to the dim lighting of the room.

"You're up," Jane greeted her gently.

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