Playing With Fire

Chapter Twenty-One


My head was pounding. It felt like someone was using a jackhammer inside my skull. I groaned into my pillow before rolling over onto my back and forcing my eyes open. Sunlight filtered in through the room’s only window, although I couldn’t tell if it was early or late. My mouth felt dry, like I had been eating sand all night. Of course I hadn’t been, though. I’d been doing something much, much worse. Drinking whiskey with Merle Dixon.

“Oh god.” I groaned, burying my face in my hands as the events of the previous night slowly began to piece themselves back together in my head, like a giant, idiotic drunken puzzle. I remembered everything, although a small part of me was wishing I had drank just a little bit more. Because maybe then I wouldn’t remember that it had been me, not Merle, who had made the first move. ME. “I’m so stupid.” I muttered to myself. I let my hands fall back to my side as I stared up at the ceiling.

I couldn’t believe I kissed him. More like attacked him with my mouth. I was suddenly feeling mortified, more than I had in a very, very long time. Mortified to the point of where I didn’t think I could ever see or speak to Merle ever again. Granted, he had kissed me back but that just made it even more confusing. I didn’t know if that was a good thing, or a bad thing.

I slowly untangled my legs from the blankets and forced myself to sit up. I still had on the same clothes I had been wearing the night before, including my boots. I guess I hadn’t bothered to get changed after my little goodnight kiss. I didn’t remember too much after slamming the bedroom door in Merle’s face. I sighed, wondering what the hell he must have been thinking when I did that. He had probably been pretty pissed, not to mention confused as hell. After all, I had given him the epitome of mixed signals all in in a matter of five minutes. Even right now, the morning after, I wasn’t completely sure how I felt or how I was supposed to feel.

I swung my legs after the side of the bed, although I wanted nothing more than to stay buried underneath the covers forever or until I conveniently managed to forget that I had drunkenly decided to kiss a man I was supposed to detest. I gathered up a clean pair of clothes. A cold shower always helped my brain feel less foggy after a night of drinking. I paused before opening the bedroom door, wondering if I should have a plan for what to do in case I ran into Merle. The only plan I could come up with, though, was to run to the bathroom really fast and lock the door behind me. So that’s what I did. Fortunately, I made it without any awkward encounters.

I set my clothes in a heap on the closed toilet lid and looked at my reflection in the small mirror hung over the sink. My hair was a mess. I looked like an extremely hung-over version of the wicked witch of the west. I scowled at my reflection. “Why are you such an idiot?” I asked myself, shaking my head. I turned away from the mirror and shed my wrinkled, slept in clothes before stepping into the shower.

I had barely been underneath the spray of water for five minutes when there were three loud knocks on the bathroom door. I winced, the sudden noise intensifying pound in my head for a half a second. I pulled back the shower curtain and poked my head out. “Come back in five minutes!” I shouted. I waited a moment, but when they didn’t say anything, I shut the curtain.

What if it was Merle, though? I paused. If it had been him he probably would have said so after hearing my voice. Unless he was feeling embarrassed and mortified also. I highly doubted this, though, because it was Merle and he didn’t seem to ever feel those types of things. He just enjoyed inflicting them on other people. I finished my shower quickly, hoping to disappear before whoever it was returned to use the bathroom. I changed into my clean clothes and ran my fingers through my wet hair, combing out any knots. My head still hurt, but I felt a little less awful than I had before. I swung open the door then, and came face to face with the man I was so desperately trying to avoid.

“Mornin’, princess.” Merle grinned, leaning against the door jamb.

I felt my face flush an unavoidable shade of what I was sure was a very bright and obvious red. “You too, Dixon.” I said. I forced myself to meet his eyes instead of staring awkwardly at the floor and immediately regretted it. Suddenly now all I could think about when I looked at him was how it felt kissing and my back pressed up against the wall and his hands on my hips and now deep down I was wondering if a part of me had actually enjoyed it? No, that was impossible.

“Surprised to see ya’ made it outta bed. You were hittin’ that bottle pretty hard last night.” He smirked.

I grimaced. “Yeah, well, so were you. It was…not a good choice.” I said quietly. “Sorry to cut this short, but I actually have to go do this thing now that needs done so, I’ll um…I’ll see you.” I brushed past him without waiting for a response, heading straight for the stairs that would take me outside and put some space between the two of us. I felt his eyes on me until I had finally made it down the single flight of steps and was out of view. I was half expecting him to come after me or say something to stop me, but it never came. Maybe for once he actually sensed I wasn’t in the mood for infuriating conversation. Or rather having an infuriating conversation about something that happened between us last night that shouldn’t have.

The sunlight outside hurt my eyes, but I could tell it was still only the early hours of the morning. Now I faced the serious problem of finding something that needed to be done, because I had blatantly lied by telling Merle I had something to take care of. I headed in the direction of the clinic, knowing for certain that there had to be at least some use for me there.

Inside the small building, I found the town’s only physician, Dr. Waters, in the back room with a clipboard in hand. I knocked on the wall outside the open door, not wanting to startle her. She looked over her shoulder, smiling when she saw it was me. “Hi, Harlow. What can I do for you?”

I stepped into the room, taking note of the shelves filled with boxes of various medical supplies the town had somehow managed to get ahold of. “Just wondering if there’s anything I can help you out with today.”

“Not really. Just doing some inventory right now. The Governor wants a list of what we have and what we need, so they know what to look for next time they go out on a supply hunt.” She showed me the list on the clipboard.

“I can do this. If you want.” I quickly offered. I knew firsthand that this was a time consuming job. I’d be stuck in this room for a while.

Dr. Waters raised her eyebrows. “You’re volunteering to do this for me? You trying to get out of doing something worse?” She asked curiously.

I shrugged my shoulders. “Something like that.”

She smiled slightly, shaking her head. “I won’t ask. Just drop the list off in my office when you’re done. I’ll be down the hall if you need anything.”

I nodded, waiting until she had left the room to exhale a sigh of relief. I had bought myself a little bit a time. This wouldn’t take forever, though, which meant I needed to decide eventually what I was going to say to Merle. Which also meant I needed to get a grip of what I was actually feeling. Unfortunately in a town this small, it would be impossible to avoid him forever, and I don’t think a part of me really wanted to do that anyways. A very small part of me.

By the end of the day, my head had finally stopped hurting. However, I felt dead on my feet as I dragged myself back to my room. Yet another reminder of why I had stopped drinking long before all of this. A bad hangover just wasn’t worth it after you passed your mid-twenties.

I had kept myself busy most of the day, although it wasn’t hard considering it always seemed there was something that needed to be done. Midafternoon, a little boy had fallen while trying to climb a tree and scraped his arm up pretty bad. I was busy for a little while stitching him up while simultaneously trying to calm down his mother. It reminded me of my old life, the good ole’ days when I was just a paramedic in Atlanta and not living in a glorified campground trying to escape zombies.

I still hadn’t seen Merle. I figured he had his own things to do most of the day, which was fine because I still hadn’t exactly figured out what I wanted to say or do about anything that had happened the night before.

When I got back to my room, I sank down in the wooden desk chair, enjoying being off my feet for the moment. I gently tugged my hair tie out, running my fingers through the tangled ends. Suddenly, someone was knocking at the door. I froze, having a pretty damn good feeling about who was on the other side.

“For Christ’s sake, Harlow, I just heard you go in there. Open the damn door.” I heard Merle’s raspy voice on the other side.

I sighed, although I knew perfectly well I couldn’t waste another day trying to avoid him. We lived literally ten feet away from each other and shared a bathroom. I pulled open the door and crossed my arms over my chest. “Yes?” I asked, perking an eyebrow.

“First of all, thought ya’ might want these.” Merle grunted before pushing a small pile of clothing into my arms. I realized it was my dirty clothes I had changed out of in the bathroom that morning. “You were in sucha god damn hurry to get away from me, you left ‘em behind.”

“Thanks.” I mumbled, tossing the pile into a corner of the room with the rest of my dirty clothes. When I turned back to face Merle, he was brushing past me into the room and sitting down at the foot of the bed. I sighed, knowing I wasn’t going to get him to leave until he said whatever it was he needed to say. I shut the door and sat back down on the desk chair. “So?”

“So? If I had to take a guess, I’d say you were avoidin’ me ‘cause of what happened last night…it was just a little bit of fun. Nothin’ to be ashamed of, sugar. I knew deep down you couldn’t resist me.” He smirked.

“Just a little bit of fun? Seriously?” I huffed. “Merle, I was out of line…I pretty much forced myself on you.” I felt my cheeks tinge pink as I remembered the way I had more than willing pressed myself up against him, slipped my hand underneath his shirt and felt the warmth of his bare skin with my hand.

“Is that how you remember it, ‘cause it seems then that you and I are remembering two completely different things.” He said, raising an eyebrow. He stretched his legs out on front of him, keeping his eyes on me. “Listen, sugar. It’s the end of the god damn world. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with two people tryin’ to have some fun, is there? Relax…don’t get so damn upset about somethin’ I clearly remember you enjoyin’.” He gave me a lopsided grin.

I rolled my eyes. I would never ever admit to that…regardless of whether or not it was true. “Don’t be so cocky, Dixon. That never would have happened if it hadn’t been for all that whiskey.” I muttered.

“That so?” He answered, a look of amusement in his eyes. “You ever stop believin’ that lie yer’ tellin’ yourself…my door’s just across the hall.”

“No chance in hell of that happening anytime soon.” I scowled.

Merle pushed himself up off the bed and was across the room in a single stride. He knelt down in front of the chair I was sitting in, placing a hand on my knee. I felt my breath hitch in my chest. “You always been so damn stubborn, woman?” He asked gruffly, giving my kneecap a squeeze.

“I’m not stubborn. I’m just not an idiot.” I retorted. I brushed his hand from my leg, afraid of what I’d let myself do if I didn’t stop it now. “You should go.”

He looked up at me and I averted my gaze. His eyes lingered a moment longer before he sighed, standing to his feet. “One of these days, yer’ gonna have to learn how to let go a little.” He murmured. I didn’t say anything as he pulled open the door and stepped into the hall. “I’m goin’ out again in the mornin’ to look for Daryl. Don’t expect you’ll be wantin’ to spend any sorta time with me now, but just in case you change yer’ mind…” He trailed off before shutting the door behind him with a snap.

I let out a sigh, uncurling myself from the chair and crossing the room to the bed. I fell down on the mattress and it creaked softly beneath my weight. I tried to ignore his words, which were still nagging at me. I wasn’t stubborn. I just was smart enough to tell the difference between a good situation and a bad one. I also knew it was a bad choice to get involved with Merle Dixon in any way, shape, or form. Yet I also couldn’t ignore the other half of me that for some reason, just didn’t seem to care.

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