Playing With Fire

Chapter Twenty-Three

Harlow

I could remember many times in my life in which I had given the cheek to someone who had tried to kiss me. Bad dates, co-workers with the wrong impression, friends who wanted more, guys at bars…but I never, ever recalled feeling so unsure about it. Merle had pretty much dropped it ten seconds after it happened, so nonchalant about it. Didn’t badger me, didn’t bring it up. It was like it had never even happened. I would have been overjoyed that he was so willing to forget about it in most circumstances, except for the fact that it was now going on nine days and I was the one who still couldn’t stop thinking about it.

I knew it had been a good idea not to let it happen…but I couldn’t control the part of me that had wanted it. That was still wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t turned my head at the last second. The idea of being just another name on a long list of woman was what kept me thinking straight, though. I didn’t want to be just another notch on Merle Dixon’s bedpost. And the fact that getting close to anyone these days was a bad idea. That’s exactly what it would come down to and was also how I reminded myself to keep a level head every time I saw him and wondered ‘what if’.

“Harlow.”

I jumped at the sound of another voice and whirled around to see Milton standing in the doorway. “Jesus, you scared the shit out of me.” I breathed, placing a hand on my racing heart. I went back to changing the white sheets on the hospital bed. Dr. Waters and I had finally discharged Richardson, which meant getting things ready for the Governor’s next unfortunate victim. Oops, patient. I meant patient.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I tried knocking several times, but you seemed to be too involved with your work.” He said quietly.

I laughed. “Making a bed isn’t exactly work, Milton. Just got a lot on my mind.” I admitted. I turned around to face him, perching on the foot of the bed.

He adjusted his glasses, fidgeting awkwardly from side to side. I wondered if it was just me who made him appear so nervous, or if he was this way with everyone. “Well, that’s sort of why I’m here actually. The Governor feels as if there’s been a lot on everyone’s mind lately. He’s providing some…entertainment tonight. He feels it will help ease the tension and anxiety around town.”

I narrowed my eyes, slightly suspicious at his use of the word ‘entertainment’. He said it so uncertainly. Like he wasn’t exactly sure what the correct word was. “Okay…” I said slowly. “By entertainment do you mean like a baseball game? A tennis match? Because I have no idea what else would exactly qualify as entertainment here.”

Milton averted his eyes to the floor. “It’s…well, you’ll just have to come and watch. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.” He said quickly.

Now I was more just a tinge suspicious. I knew it would be pointless to try and worm anymore details out of Milton. He was the Governor’s puppet. He’d or say anything that man wanted him to. It was sad, really. “Alright, fine. Where and when?” I asked, standing from the edge of the bed.

“Tonight, at eight o’clock. The lot where the vehicles are usually stored, at the end of town.”

“See you then, I guess.” I shrugged my shoulders. Milton nodded quickly before turning on his heel and leaving the room. I heard the sound of the clinic door swinging shut as he headed back outside.

The entire conversation had seemed off, as if Milton was holding something back. It sounded to me like he knew more about the Governor’s ‘entertainment’ than he was letting on, but that it was something he didn’t necessarily like. Of course I didn’t really expect anything as tame as a game of baseball. It was the Governor. If I knew one thing about him, it was to expect the unexpected. That nothing was off limits for him, no matter how wrong it might have seemed to anyone else. The walker pits, for example. And Richardson. I was sure both those things were tame compared to what else he was capable of. I guess I would actually have to go to find out, despite the bad feelings that were suddenly clinging to me like a shadow.

I finished cleaning up the patient room at the clinic before heading back to my room. I told myself it was because I wanted to put on a clean shirt before the night’s events, but really I was hoping to see Merle. I wanted to ask what he thought about the Governor’s so called night of entertainment. Anyone else could say what they wanted about Merle, but I knew from experience that his gut feeling always seemed to be right. Especially when it came to the Governor.

I ran my fingers through my hair as I climbed the rickety staircase to the second floor, combing my fingers through my hair in a half-hearted attempt to untangle any knots. I forced myself to stop, though, before I could admit that I suddenly seemed to care what Merle thought of my hair. I turned down the narrow hallway and stopped outside his closed door. It was quiet on the other side, which didn’t mean anything. I knew now that he had a habit of reading whenever he found himself with downtime. Yet another aspect of Merle that still surprised me no matter how many times I saw it with my own eyes.

I knocked loudly on the door and waited a minute. No answer. I knocked again. Still no answer. I waited another half a second, just in case he had been asleep, before giving up. Looked like I would have to wait until later to ask him about the Governor. By that time we would probably both know what the hell the so called entertainment was. I had been looking forward to some sort of snarky, smartass prediction, though.

I drifted across the hall to my own room, wondering where Merle was anyways. I shook my head. Why did I even care? It wasn’t my business. I didn’t need to know what he was doing. I was spending entire too much of my time thinking about that man, which I was certain was a bad, bad, bad thing. If I didn’t get a control on it now…I was going to get myself into trouble or just drive myself insane. Whichever happened to come first.

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It was the most people I’d seen gathered in one place since the Governor’s little picnic party a few weeks ago. People were clustered together in small groups of three or four, sitting on metal bleachers that had been pushed back against one of Woodbury’s many buildings. Bright spot lights were placed strategically around a center ring, reminding me of the lights I would sometimes see on a high school football field for a Friday night game. Only this definitely wasn’t going to be a football game.

I stood off to the side, watching as a few of the Governor’s men lit torches around the small center ring. The light glinted off the metal chains that hung limply from a few thick looking posts that also circled the small space. The bad feeling I had been harboring from early was suddenly magnified. I turned quickly and scanned the crowd, looking for Merle’s familiar, rugged face but I was met by only strangers.

“Looking forward to tonight’s event?” A charming southern drawl drifted from behind me. I turned around again to see the Governor had sidled up alongside me, looking pretty damn pleased with himself.

“What is this? What’s with the chains?” I asked immediately, nodding towards the posts.

“It’s all a part of the games. You’ll see in just a minute.” He answered me with one of his translucent smiles. He suddenly took me by the elbow and led me over to a front row spot on one of the sets of bleachers. “You’ll wanna get a good seat for this, trust me.”

“Actually, I was trying to find Merle.” I explained, brushing off his hand. I peered around again at the people standing next to me, but still no luck. The Governor suddenly chuckled, the sound making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I perked an eyebrow. “What?” I asked suspiciously.

“Oh I don’t think you’ll find Merle out here, but you’ll see him in just a minute.” He answered, his eyes finally meeting mine. “Relax, Harlow. This is all for the good of the town. The people need to have their spirits boosted once in a while.”

Before I could ask him to elaborate, he was suddenly walking off towards the center of the pit. I stared quizzically after him, wondering what the hell he had meant. I knew from what my gut was telling me, though, that it wasn’t good.

“Ladies and Gentleman!” The Governor’s voice boomed over the chatter of the crowd. Everyone instantly fell silent. It was almost eerie, the way everyone was so eager to hang onto this man’s every word. “I’ve arranged somethin’ pretty spectacular tonight, that I hope will become a Woodbury tradition. The rules are simple…fight until ya’ can’t fight anymore.” The corners of his mouth lifted in a small, barely there smile. “Let’s get started!” He turned and nodded at Milton, who was standing nervously off to the side. Milton disappeared around the side of the nearest building for a long minute. When he returned, my breath hitched.

Crowley and Richardson were behind him, dragging four chained walkers. The walkers stumbled after them stupidly, stretching out their long bony arms in a pathetic attempt to grab hold of one of the men. Both Crowley and Richardson were laughing at this. When they reached the middle of the arena, two more of the Governor’s men appeared to help them to secure the walkers to the posts surrounding the small circle. I instantly realized what it reminded me of…the lion’s den in a gladiator fight. That’s basically what this was going to be, only instead of worrying about lions, whoever was in the middle of that circle had to worry about four hungry walkers. I shuddered. It was barbaric.

The Governor was suddenly at my side once more. He must have caught the uneasy look on my face. “It’s perfectly safe, don’t you worry. We have men standin’ by in case anythin’ gets out of control.” He assured me.

I shook my head. “Safe? How is this safe?” I demanded, gesturing wildly towards the small arena. “You have walkers-“ The words suddenly died on my tongue as I saw Merle. He and Martinez had suddenly appeared, carefully making their way into the center of the arena. The walkers were like excited animals, sensing that their next meal was about to happen any second.

The Governor started to applaud and slowly, the rest of the crowd joined him. I looked around me incredulously as everyone started to cheer, realizing what was about to happen. Only instead of being horrified, like me, they were all excited.

I whirled back around to watch as Merle and Martinez both worked to get the crowd more and more excited. Martinez had pulled off his shirt at some point, while the metal of Merle’s fake ‘hand’ glinted dangerously in the bright spotlights. Merle’s eyes suddenly found mine. He held my gaze for a quick second before giving me one of his all too familiar smirks and turning away. If he noticed how worried I was, he didn’t react. Not even the slightest indication that he thought any of this was as messed up as I did.

I heard the loud ‘pop’ of a gun being fired. The sound, along with the yelling of the crowd, set the walkers off even more. They struggled against the chains, reaching and pawing the air in front of them as they tried to grab onto one of the men. All it would take was one wrong step, and someone would be walker meat. It would happen fast, and there wouldn’t be a damn thing anyone could do to stop it.

My stomach dropped as I watched Merle and Martinez begin to circle each other. I suddenly realized how much I didn’t want to watch Merle get hurt, how much I hated the idea of something bad happening to him. I wanted to run out into the middle of the circle of walkers, as they snapped their jaws dangerously, and grab Merle so I could drag him to safety. The fact that I cared so much made me angry for many, many reasons…but mostly because it meant finally coming to terms with something that was now blatantly obvious. I cared about what happened to Merle. I had feelings for him. Whether I wanted them or not, I had them. And now I had to stand here and watch as he got himself killed.

Martinez threw the first punch. Merle avoided it almost effortlessly, countering with a forceful kick that sent Martinez to the ground. I flinched instinctively as he fell flat on his back in the dirt, the nearest walker latching on to his jeans. Martinez kicked hard at the walker, finally desperately scrambling away and getting to his feet. Merle swung hard and hit him on the mouth, Martinez staggering backwards. He suddenly ran full speed at Merle, sending them both tumbling to the ground. I pressed the palm of my hand over my mouth, trying to stay calm as they each struggled to get the upper hand. Martinez had his knee digging into Merle’s chest, keeping him pinned to the ground as he slammed his fist down over, and over, and over again.

Everyone was cheering them on, the level of excitement almost matching the level of fear I felt as Martinez dragged Merle over to the nearest walker, leaving him just barely out of fingertips reach. I kept my hand clapped over my mouth, the fingers of my other hand curled into a tight fists, my fingernails digging painfully into the skin of my palm. I didn’t want to watch anymore, but I couldn’t turn away. My eyes were glued to the two of them as they wrestled. Finally, Merle shoved him backwards and stood to his feet. Blood matted his hair and was smeared down the side of his face. He swung at Martinez, hitting him hard in the jaw before lunging at him. Martinez was on the ground again in a split second as Merle aimed a kick at his ribs. Merle kneeled over him, raising his fist for a second time. Before he could hit him again, though, Martinez was suddenly holding both his palms at, his lips moving in what I could only guess was a surrender.

I breathed a sigh of relief I hadn’t realized I was holding, as I realized it was over. Merle staggered to his feet, placing his foot on Martinez’s chest as he raised both hands in the air. I uncurled my fist, looking at my palm to see little half-moon indentations from where my nails had been digging into my skin. My pulse was still pounding. I couldn’t look at the arena anymore, not without picturing how close Merle had been to that walker. Every from where I was standing, I could still see the blood trickling from a cut over his eyebrow. I turned abruptly, wanting to get away from the cheering crowd and, especially from the Governor, so I could get my head straight before coming face to face with Merle. I didn’t think I would be able to control the relief I felt if I got anywhere near him right now. I had barely taken a step when the Governor stopped me.

“Exciting, wasn’t it? Everyone seemed to love it.” He said, looking pretty damn pleased with himself as I reluctantly turned to face him. “I told you it would be fine, didn’t I?” I didn’t trust myself to answer, not without saying something I’d regret. The Governor continued when he realized I wasn’t going to respond. “Why don’t you head back to the clinic? I’ll see if I can find Dr. Waters, too. Probably not a bad idea to look over Dixon and Martinez, get ‘em both cleaned up. Dixon might need a stitch or two.” He said, as if this was a perfectly normally occurrence. As if giving someone stitches after a one on one battle in pit of walkers was normal.

I bit my tongue to stop myself from telling him to go to hell. “Sure. Send them over.” I finally managed to mutter. I didn’t wait for him to respond, instead pivoting on my heel and heading in the direction of the clinic.

I had to get my head together. I felt like a tornado of feelings. I was furious with the Governor, and Merle too. I couldn’t believe would agree to participate in something like that…it made me want to take a swing at him too. The only thing that was stopping me was the fact that I was so relieved he was okay. I swallowed hard, shaking my head. I had no idea how I would react when I was face to face with him. That scared me more than almost anything I had faced in the apocalypse so far.

I let myself into the clinic with my key, switching on the lights as I headed to the patient room. I headed to the cabinets and started rummaging through the contents for standard first aid supplies. I was busy arranging everything neatly on a metal tray stand next to the bed, when I heard him clear his throat.

I jumped slightly before straightening up and turning to look over my shoulder. Merle gave me a lopsided smile, as he leaned heavily against the door frame. I wondered how the hell anyone could manage to look so smug under that much dried blood.

I narrowed my eyes slightly. “Sit.” I instructed, nodding at the foot of the bed. I watched as he limped over, dropping down onto the white sheets.

Neither of us said a word as I went to work, first checking his pupils for signs of a concussion, before inspecting the cut on his forehead and deciding it wasn’t deep enough to need stitches. A bruise was already starting to form around his right eye, though, the skin swollen and red. I shook my head before beginning to clean away the dried blood with a wet washcloth. I could feel his eyes on my face the entire time. I hoped Dr. Waters and Martinez would show up soon because I couldn’t decide if I wanted to kill Merle, or if I wanted to kiss him.

“So.” He finally said, breaking the silence. “Am I gonna live, Doc?” He grinned at me.

I rolled my eyes. “Unfortunately.” I muttered as I finished placing a bandage over the gash over his eyebrow. I felt suddenly fidgety under his watch. He was looking at me more intently than I ever remembered him doing before. I glanced down at his good hand, which was resting on his knee. I reached for it, taking it into both of mine as I gently ran my thumb over his swollen knuckles, covered in small cuts.

“Ya’ gonna tell me what’s goin’ on in the pretty head of yer’s, princess?” He asked gruffly.

I shook my head, clearing my thoughts as I reached for the wet cloth to clean the cuts on his hand. “Nothing.” I answered quietly. He tugged his hand out of my grip and I felt his fingertips on the side of my face as he tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. I automatically lifted my eyes to meet his. “Don’t do that.”

I raised his eyebrows, looking at me quizzically. “Why?”

It was such an honest question, I almost laughed. I shook my head instead, forcing myself out of the chair and to move across the room where I leaned back against the corner. “Because I’m pissed at you, Merle. Okay?” I heard myself say before I could stop it. “Do you have any fucking clue how horrible it was for me tonight, watching you almost kill yourself? Jesus Christ, why would you agree to do that anyways?” I demanded, crossing my arms over my chest.

“Last time I checked, you didn’t gave a shit ‘bout what I did. It ain’t makin’ any sense to me why you’d start carin’ now.”

I averted my eyes to the floor, staring at the white tiles. I didn’t fully know if I just didn’t have an answer for that, or if it was just that I didn’t want to give him an answer. “Just promise me you won’t do that anymore…It’s too damn hard for me to watch.” I finally said.

“I ain’t promisin’ you a damn thing until you start givin’ me some real answers.” Merle shot back. “Jesus, Harlow. How hard is it to just say whatever the hell ya’ wanna say? It ain’t fuckin’ easy tryin’ to guess what goes in inside yer’ damn head.”

The internal argument I was having with myself was ten times worse than trying to argue with Merle. Of course he didn’t get it. I couldn’t just tell him that watching him get the crap beat out of him had made me realize how much I cared about him. I couldn’t just tell him how hard it was for me to be in the same room as him right now, for a number of reasons. It was a bad, bad, bad idea because I knew, deep down, that getting involved with a man like him would only lead me to a broken heart. I’d been down that road too many times to do it again.

I hadn’t realized Merle had gotten up until he was standing directly in front of me. “Don’t, Merle. It’s a bad idea.” I heard myself say.

“What is?” He murmured.

“This.” I said, finally looking up at him. “Whatever this is with you and me. It has to stop.”

“The only god damn reason its bad idea is ‘cause you keep tellin’ yourself it is.” Merle argued. “Ain’t no other reason you’d be tryin’ so hard to hold back.”

“It’s a bad idea.” I said again quietly.

I suddenly felt his hand on the curve of my hip as he closed the small amount of space between us. “Why do you have to be so god damn stubborn, woman?” He grunted. I felt my body tense as he leaned in, ready to push him away. I felt his lips press against mine, and I suddenly let out an unexpected sigh of relief, like it was exactly what I had been waiting for. I curled my fingers around his shirt, pulling him even closer as our mouths moved together hungrily. For a second, I let myself stop caring about everything. It was hard to think straight when Merle’s hand was slowly sliding beneath the hem of my shirt, his fingertips tracing patterns against my skin. I wrapped my arms around his neck, my pulse pounding.

There was the sound of a door shutting, following by low voices. I forced myself to pull away, opening my eyes. We were both breathing rapidly, my face flushed and I’m sure bright as red as ever. The look he was giving me made my stomach flip flop. I reluctantly pushed my way past him to put some space between us. Just in time for Dr. Waters to peer around the door.

“Almost finished in here? I have Martinez.” She said, looking curiously between Merle and I.

I swallowed hard, trying to look normal. “Sure, just a minute.” I waited until she left the room before facing Merle.

There was a long moment of silence. I wrapped my arms around my middle. “Make sure you change the bandage at least twice a day, okay?” I finally said, motioning to the one over his brow.

“Harlow…” He said through gritted teeth, taking a step toward me.

“I just- I need some time to figure shit out.” I said. “I’m sorry.” I bit down anxiously on my lower lip before forcing myself to turn away and leave the room.

I didn’t acknowledge neither Martinez nor Dr. Waters on my way out, heading straight for my room across Woodbury. My head was in five different places at once. I knew now, for sure, how I felt. I cared about Merle, I wanted him. But I also knew it was still a bad idea. I had been on my own for such a long time now, the idea of having anyone was daunting. Especially someone like Merle who I had never ever picture myself falling for. I was better off alone. Ultimately, what it came down to was that attempting anything with Merle was dangerous. It was playing with fire.



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