Playing With Fire

Chapter Twenty-Four

Harlow

Three weeks. Three weeks and I was starting to believe more and more every day that asking for time in the first place had been so incredibly stupid. I sure as hell knew that there wasn’t enough time in the world to change the way I felt about Merle. Actually, it was sort of counteractive. The more time I spent keeping myself away from him, the more I wanted him. No matter how much often I told myself that this was what I needed right now, there was still this annoyingly persistent voice in the back of my head that kept telling me I was an idiot, and that I should just forget about being smart, forget about common sense, and just be with Merle. So far, that voice hadn’t won. Some days, though, it came pretty damn close.

I sighed, pushing around a lumpy pile of baked beans on my plate. Sooner or later, Merle was going to get tired of waiting around for me to make up mind, or whatever he thought I was doing. Or he’d just lose interest. Whichever happened to come first. Why was this so hard anyways? I know what I wanted…why was it so hard for me to just take a chance on something that might actually be a good thing?

“Not hungry?”

I glanced up to see the smiling face of Dr. Waters.

“I guess not.” I shrugged, returning her smile with a small one of my own. “Too much on my mind, I guess.”

She slid into the empty seat across from me, a cup of the town’s infamous bitter coffee between her hands. “You want to talk about it?”

“No, not really.” I admitted, shaking my head. “I’m not much of a ‘talking’ sorta person. More of ‘keep it bottled up until I explode’ type of person.” I offered her another small smile.

She let out a laugh. “Ah, one of those. Sounds like how my husband was.” I tried to hide my surprise at the mention of her husband. All this time in Woodbury, and she had never mentioned him once to me. I could tell by the slight tinge of sadness in her voice, though, and the wistful look in her eyes that she had lost him a while ago. I had lost all my family in the epidemic, but I still couldn’t imagine the kind of pain caused by losing a husband, someone meant to be your other half. “Anyways, the Governor’s putting on another fight tonight.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Again? That’s the third time this week.” I tried, but couldn’t keep the anger from my voice. He was lucky no one had died yet, although at least one person came pretty damn close every time.

Dr. Waters nodded slowly. “Again. The people like it, I guess.” She answered. “However, I know how much you hate it so I’m alright covering the clinic by myself this time. We don’t need two people for this. Usually nothing more serious than a couple of stitches anyways.”

“So far.” I muttered, rolling my eyes. I sighed and gave her a meaningful smile. “Thanks, though. I really do hate that shit.”

“Oh, I know. I’m not really much of a fan either.” She commented dryly. She drained the last of the coffee from her cup and stood up from the table. “Anyways, I better get back to the inventory at the clinic. You just stop by if you need anything.”

“I will.” I assured her. “Oh, hang on a second…who’s fighting tonight anyways? Just out of curiosity.” She had barely taken a step when I leaned across the table, for some reason suddenly having the urge to know.

“Crowley and Dixon, I think.” She said over her shoulder. “Lord help that man…Merle’s like an animal out there.” My face fell at the sound of his name. She gave me a small wave before turning and leaving me alone at my table.

Merle was fighting. Again. I gripped the edges of my seat hard. So far, he had stayed away from the fighting like I asked him to and I had been pretty damn relieved. So why do it again? Was he trying to get back at me for avoiding him? Or maybe he had finally decided he didn’t care anymore about what I liked and didn’t like. I felt a spark of anger ignite in the pit of my stomach. To my surprise, though, there was one person I was angrier at than Merle for agreeing to the pit again, and that was the Governor. The fights had been all his day anyways.

Before I could think about what I was really about to do, I stood up abruptly from my table, grabbing my plate of unfinished food and dumping it into the trash on my way out the door. I headed down the street, towards brick building in the center of town that was home to the Governor. I had only been there a few times, but every single time I had been invited by him. This would be the first time I had come on my own. A very small part of me was warning me not to confront him about anything, and just go cool down, but I fought it. I was doing this.

I climbed the narrow wooden staircase to his apartment, took a breath, and pounded on the door. Not even a full minute later, the door swung open. The Governor didn’t both to hide his surprise at seeing me standing on his doorstep.

“Harlow! Somethin’ you need? Now’s not exactly the best time.” He asked, stepping out into the hall.

“I wanted to talk to you…about the fights.” I said, holding his gaze even though I felt the urge to look away.

His thin lips turned down into a frown. “Now listen, I know you’re worried about the men in those fights and I appreciate that. However, I’ve told you before, they’re all perfectly safe. We’d step in before anything go out of hand.” He tried to assure me. I noticed he sounded rushed. He repositioned himself, pulling the door closed a little bit further and hiding the inside of his apartment from view. It made me suspicious almost instantly. He was hiding something.

I changed gears and decide to go with a different approach. I wanted to know what he was doing in there. “I know, I know. I just have a bad feeling about it. Maybe I could come in and we could talk about it?” I asked, trying to make my voice as pleasant as possible and hoping like hell it didn’t sound as fake to him as it did to me.

“I was actually just on my way out in a bit. Come down to the fight, though. We can talk afterwards, and you’ll have another chance to see it isn’t as dangerous as you think.” He answered, giving me one of his all too familiar charming smiles. There was a loud thud suddenly in the room behind him and he straightened up. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Before I could even say another word, he had disappeared back into the apartment and shut the door in my face. I was left staring wordlessly at the wooden door, wondering just what the hell was happening behind it. All sorts of thoughts were flying through my head. I had been suspicious about the man for such a long time, something always seeming just a little off with him…his behavior just now did nothing except add more fuel to the fire.

I took a step back from the door, chewing my lower lip and lost in thought. A very crazy, dangerous thought actually. One that involved me sneaking into the Governor’s apartment while he was gone and seeing what sort of secrets he was keeping behind closed doors. On a very long list of dumb things I had done in my life, this definitely would land near the very top. First of all, there was the matter of even getting into the apartment. Second of all, I had no idea what I would find. And lastly, probably worst of all, there was a damn good chance someone would catch me and I had pretty good idea what would happen to me then. Yet despite all of these very smart reasons not to do this, I knew I was going to.

I retreated from the building onto the streets of Woodbury. The sun was just beginning to set, which meant that the fight would be starting at any time now. Which also meant Merle would yet again be putting his life in danger. A part of me wanted to be there. Not to watch him fight, but just to make sure nothing happened to him. I knew he was tough and that he could hold his own, but I still didn’t trust that the Governor would do everything in his power to make sure no one got seriously hurt. Or killed. I especially didn’t trust him now that I had a damn good hunch he was hiding something. I was apprehensive about what I would find in his apartment, but some strange part of me was almost looking forward to it, hoping that I would find something that would prove he was the monster I thought he was.

So I waited until I know he would be gone. I sat on the bed in my room, legs tucked underneath me as I tried to distract myself by reading a few pages of a book I had found in the library. Instead, though, I just kept having to re-read the same page over and over again. My head was in other places, too busy playing out all the reasons why what I was going to do was a bad idea, all the reasons why I needed to do it, and then of course wondering why the hell Merle had agreed to another fight and if he would be okay.

Ironically, just as I was having that last thought, I heard the door to his room across the hall creak open before swinging shut again. I froze, the book still tight in my hands. As I listened to his heavy footsteps down the hall, I fought the urge to go after him. We had barely spoken, and after what had happened in the clinic, I wasn’t sure he even wanted to talk to me. What would I say to him anyways? ‘Look, I know I said I needed time but I really need you to not go do this fight because then I’ll be worried sick about you which is going to be really distracting while I try and break into the Governor’s apartment’. I knew for a damn fact that was a bad idea.

Instead, I listened as he stomped down the stairs in his heavy boots and out to the arena. It got incredibly quiet again after that. Most of the town was most likely already gathered together to watch the fight, cheering and yelling and having a good time, oblivious to how barbaric what they were watching actually was. I tossed the battered paperback novel to the floor, sliding off the edge of the bed and onto my feet. I only had a limited window of opportunity. With Merle heading to the fight, it was a safe bet that the Governor was already there along with everyone else.

I left my gun sitting on the desk, taking only my knife, a flashlight, and a handful of bobby pins…From experience, I knew that bobby pins were the ultimate tool when it came to picking locks. At least cheap locks. Hopefully the Governor hadn’t thought to invest in anything more high tech than that. I took a deep breath, trying not to think too hard about what I was setting out to do. I rallied myself into that ‘now or never’ mindset and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind me.

The streets outside were empty, not a soul in sight. I could just make out the bright lights at the edge of the town, lighting up the small circular arena. There was the muffled sound of yelling. My stomach started to twist into a knot as I thought about Merle and the battered and bruised shape he had been in the last time. Hopefully, that would be the worst of it. I didn’t think I could handle anything else.

I turned my back and headed in the opposite direction, keeping close to the buildings and trying to stay in the shadows. When I finally reached the Governor’s building, I pulled open the door and slipped inside. I hovered in the small landing next to the stairs, pressing myself close to the wall and straining my ears for any sounds coming from above me. It was silent. I swallowed hard and took the steps slowly and carefully until I finally made it to the top and was standing outside the wooden door to his apartment. I leaned up against it, pressing my ear to the dark colored wood. No voices, no footsteps, no sounds of any kind. The only thing I could really hear was the pounding of my heart and the shakiness of my breath.

I turned on my small flashlight and held it in between my teeth before digging a bobby pin out of my pocket. I crouched down and aimed the weak beam of light at the lock. ‘Here goes nothing’, I though, while simultaneously thanking god that my brother had taught me the art of picking locks when we were kids. Who know something that had gotten me into so much trouble then would become useful one day?

I struggled with the lock for what felt like an eternity, twisting and turning the bobby pin until finally I heard the beautiful, distinct ‘click’ of the door unlocking. I let out a long breath. No backing out now. I tucked the bobby pin back in my pocket and wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. Holding the flashlight in one hand, I reached out with the other and carefully turned the cold, brass knob and pushed. The door swung open quietly. I hesitated for a moment before taking a careful step over the threshold and into the dark apartment.

It was eerie, being in the place where the Governor lived while he wasn’t there. Who knew what the hell I would find…but hopefully I would find something. I shut the door quietly behind me and moved further into the kitchen. At first glance, everything looked extremely normal. There was a shirt tossed over one of the kitchen chairs, an empty glass sitting on the counter by a bottle of scotch, and framed photograph of his family on a wooden table by the door.

I picked it up carefully and examined the smiling man in the photo, a pretty woman and a little girl surrounding him. He looked the same, but completely different. It was his eyes. Now when he smiled there was nothing there, in this picture though, there was life and happiness. He had had a family once and had lost them, like so many other people. Like me. At that moment, a part of me wanted to turn around and leave. Maybe he was the way he was because he had lost everything. There was still a part of me, though, that was insistent he was hiding something darker.

I forced myself to keep looking, although I hadn’t the slightest clue what it was I was really looking for. The kitchen, the bathroom, and even the bedroom were all clear. Not a damn thing that made it seem like the Governor was even remotely a bad person. I was starting to feel defeated, and more than a little bit antsy. I wasn’t sure how long exactly I’d been snooping around but it couldn’t be too long now before the fight ended and the Governor came home. I walked back down the narrow hall into the kitchen, and that’s when I saw the door. Somehow I had missed it earlier, but there it was. A plain, wooden door next to a tall cabinet with glass windows. My pulse sped up again and the hairs on the back of my neck suddenly began to stand on end. My gut was warning me that there was something behind that door.

I crossed the room and grasped the knob in my hand. It was locked, which did nothing but solidify my hunch that there was something behind there not meant to be seen. I quickly pulled another bobby pin from my pocket and twisted it in the lock until it clicked open. I straightened up, my heart now hammering away furiously behind my ribcage. Holding my flashlight tightly, I pulled the door open and stepped inside the dark room.

At first, I didn’t see anything. It was pitch black, no windows. My tiny flashlight could only do so much but I turned the beam towards the wall next to the door. Aquariums full of murky, green colored water…and-and something else. I stepped closer and held the flashlight tight in my hand. Human heads. Dozens and dozens of human heads. My stomach heaved and I clapped a hand over my mouth. A heavy chill washed over me and I felt my limbs freeze as I stared wordlessly at the rows of severed heads displayed on the shelf, like some sort of sick trophy collection.

“Jesus…” The word fell from my lips, muffled behind my hand. Who were these people? Enemies? My stomach was still churning as I took a step backwards to take in the full wall. I nearly jumped out of my skin, though, when a low, animalistic sounding snarl came from behind me. I whirled around, the flashlight beam bouncing off the walls until I finally managed to steady it on tiny cage, built into the wall.

“Holy shit…” I breathed, kneeling to the floor. Behind the metal bars of the cage was a walker, a small girl probably no older than nine or ten. She growled at me, trying to reach her bony arms through the cage. I fell back onto my hands, my head swimming. I suddenly thought back to the photograph on the table…the little girl next to the Governor. But no, it couldn’t be….Could it?

I swallowed hard and turned my flashlight beam towards the walker girl. Despite her decaying body, she was dressed in clean clothes. There was even a bow in her hair. This was his daughter. It had to be. Why else would he bother keeping her alive? Dressing her up and brushing her hair like she was still a living, breathing person?

I forced myself to my feet. I needed fresh air. I needed to get the hell out of here. Not just out of this creepy apartment with the severed heads and the dead daughter, but out of Woodbury. I had proven myself right, that the Governor was not at all the man he claimed he was. That there was something very, very wrong about him. I just hadn’t realized how wrong. I turned and fled the room, careful to lock the door behind me and doing the same with the front door, shutting it quietly. I took the steps two at a time, racing to the bottom until I was bursting through the door and was outside, breathing in the cool, Georgia air.

I didn’t realize I was shaking until my fingers were fumbling trying to switch the flashlight off. I had seen a lot of horrible, messed up things in my life, before and after the apocalypse, but what I had just seen hiding in the Governor’s apartment was by far the worst. It made me sick to think the people in the town called him their leader. He was toying with all of them. I know for sure I wasn’t going to let myself be one of them anymore.

The streets were still empty, which meant the fight was still going on. Probably not for much longer, though. I hurried down the paved sidewalk to my building and didn’t stop until I was safely inside my room with the door shut tightly behind me. I sank down onto the bed, staring at the wall in disbelief. I still couldn’t get the image of those severed heads out of my mind, or the little walker girl growling and snarling behind the bars of her cage, a big bow in what was left of her ratty hair.

I desperately wanted to talk to Merle. He was still the only person in this town that I trusted. He would know what to do, how to get out of here. I hoped beyond hope he had made it through the fight alive and in one piece. I was rocked by how much I needed him at that moment. More than I fully wanted to admit. I knew, though, that I wanted him to come with me.

Whatever happened, where ever I ended up, I wanted Merle to be there too. I just hoped he’d feel the same. I began to prepare myself for the worst, though. Regardless of what he said, regardless of whether or not he wanted to leave, I knew I needed to get out of Woodbury. Tonight.



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