Playing With Fire

Chapter Thirty-Five


The first gunshot rang out loud and clear, like a whip crackin’ across the sky. Every muscle in my body suddenly tensed up, the hairs on the back of my neck standin’ on end. I caught Daryl’s eye just as a second shot ripped through the air. It was him. Didn’t even have to think ‘bout it. He’d finally found us.

I dropped to the ground, military instinct kickin’ in, and crawled on my stomach to the SUV that was parked in the cement lot. Daryl made it there first, his back pressed against back tire. His knuckles were grippin’ his crossbow so tight, they was turnin’ white.

“Everybody down! Now!” I heard somebody yellin’ at the top of their lungs and saw Rick crouched behind a cement wall, wavin’ his arms towards the cellblock door. I followed his eyes and saw Hershel hobblin’ inside the doors with the kid and the blonde girl, the baby in her arms. I looked back at the sheriff and caught his eye. He nodded at me, pistol in his hands, and even from here I could see that dazed, confused look that had been in his eyes yesterday was suddenly gone. Good. Crazy wouldn’t help ya’ survive a firefight.

“Where the hell is Charlie?” I heard Daryl pantin’ from behind me, soundin’ like he was ‘bout to take some of Rick’s crazy for himself.

I tugged my gun from the waistband of my jeans, leanin’ around the front of the SUV just in time to see Charlie and her brother scramblin’ up the steps of one of the guard towers. I pressed my back against the side of the car again, lookin’ over at Daryl. “She’s fine, just saw her go up into the tower. Might be the safest place for her.” I said gruffly.

My own eyes were roamin’ all over the prison behind me, lookin’ for Harlow. Last thing I saw of her, she was helpin’ Carol drag a couple pieces of sheet metal up on the catwalk. Couldn’t see her, but figured she was safe. Probably had dove behind the sheet metal for cover after the first shot rang out.

“What now?” Daryl asked quietly.

I looked back at my baby brother and flipped the safety off my gun. I gave him a grin. “We fight back.” I kept my back against the car as I looked around the front end again, towards the woods. I could make out movement just beyond the tree line. Years and years of bein’ in the military had made it easy for me to pick out the bad guys. I held out my gun and shot a few round before duckin’ back behind the car. Somebody out there shot back and I heard the bullets lodgin’ themselves in the metal of the car. All of the sudden, though, it got real quiet real fast. It set me on edge. They were plannin’ somethin’ big out there. I just didn’t know what.

A loud, panicked cry was suddenly comin’ from behind us. I turned back around, my eyes sweepin’ the outside of the prison. I saw someone wavin’ from the catwalk, arm just barely visible over the sheet metal. I felt myself go cold. Harlow was up there. I could feel Daryl’s eyes on me, watchin’ me.

“Merle, don’t.” He said quietly. He reached out to grab my arm and hold me back, but I was already gone.

I sprinted out from behind the car, runnin’ across the wide open space to the catwalk. My blood was pumpin’ loud in my ears and I heard another couple of shots ring out, but it didn’t stop me. Not even when I felt one graze my shoulder, sendin’ a searin’ pain all up and down my arm. I kept goin’, takin’ the steps two at a time and ignorin’ the warm blood I felt soakin’ up the sleeve of my shirt. When I finally got up to the top of the platform, the first thing I saw was the blood. A puddle of it, Carol sittin’ right in the middle of it. Harlow clutched tightly to her. I thought my heart had stopped.

“No.” I said quietly. I dropped to the ground, behind the sheet metal. “No, no, no.” The words fell out of my mouth, one right after the other.

“I’m sorry.” Carol said in a shaky whisper.

I could hear the loud sounds of a battle suddenly breakin’ out again out in the prison yard, but I didn’t give a damn. I pushed Carol to the side and pulled Harlow into my arms. There was blood everywhere. Too much, I thought. Way too much. I pushed her hair out of her eyes. I could still her chest movin’ up and down, but barely. “Harlow.” I didn’t even recognize my own voice.

Her eyes blinked open and she looked up at me. “Hey, Dixon.” She said quietly. Her voice was quiet, a weird sort of calm.

“Jesus, Harlow. How the hell did this happen?” I asked. My eyes found her hand, pressed against her side. I didn’t have to be a doctor to know it was a bad spot to get hit. I’d been in enough battles to know. My heart felt heavy, like it was weighin’ me down and slowly crushin’ me. I would’ve done anythin’, givin’ anythin’, for it to be me instead of her.

I watched her eyes, the color of the sky after a bad storm, flicker to my shoulder. “Merle, you’re hurt. You’re bleeding.” She said, her forehead creasin’ with worry. She tried to reach out to touch me, but suddenly grimaced and doubled over in pain, her eyes squeezin’ shut. I’d never felt so helpless in my entire life. I hated it. God, I hated it.

“Don’t you worry ‘bout me, sugar.” I told her, grabbin’ one of her hand and holdin’ it tightly. Her fingers felt limp in my grasp. “I’mma be just fine. We gotta get you inside, though. See if we can get Hershel to fix that up.” Somewhere in the back of my head, a voice was whisperin’ to me that it wouldn’t help. That he couldn’t do a damn thing.

“No.” Harlow shook her head. She took a breath, and it looked like it took all the damn effort in the entire world. “Don’t move me. Just…just stay here. Please.”

“Harlow, we gotta get you help. We gotta-“ I tried again.

She cut me off. “Already lost too much blood. Merle, I spent enough time riding in the back of ambulances to know a bad GSW when I see one.” She took another shallow breath and I thought I’d shatter into a thousand pieces when the first tear rolled out of the corner of her and slid down her cheek. “I’m not gonna be okay.”

I shook my head. “No, you’re gonna be fine.” I wiped the tears from under her eyes with the back of my hand. She was gonna be fine because she had to be. She had to make it through this one, or I wouldn’t…I couldn’t even think it. Nothin’ in me would let me accept that this was happenin’ even though it was all right in front of me. Her blood was everywhere, she felt suddenly small and weak in my arms and I was so used to her bein’ the strongest, most stubborn woman I’d ever met.

“No, I’m not. But it’s okay.” She said. Her fingers found my hand again and she squeezed it, though I barely felt it. “Just stay here with me.”

Her eyes looked up at me, pleadin’ with me. For me to stay or for me to just fuckin’ accept that this was real, I didn’t know. I nodded, though, leanin’ forward to brush my lips against her forehead before findin’ her lips. I held her close against me, tryin’ not to think. Tryin’ not to believe that this was the last time. I finally pulled away and she gave me a small smile. “I love you, princess. So fuckin’ much.” Now my voice was shakin’. I was strugglin’ to keep it together, to stay in one piece. God, so much. She had to know that. Before her, I didn’t even know what I was doin’. Didn’t understand the pointlessness I was livin’ with.

“I love you, too.” She said, grittin’ her teeth a little as she reached up and ran her hand down my cheek, over my jaw before she dropped her arm back to her side.

I pressed my lips to the top of her head. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, sugar. You know that?” I murmured into her hair.

“I know.” She answered and I heard myself laugh, despite the nightmarishness of everythin’ that was happenin’. “I just want you to know, that if it were up to me I would stay.” She swallowed hard and more tears were rollin’ down her cheeks.

“I know, sugar. It s’okay.” I muttered, even though I knew that was a lie. It was far from fuckin’ okay. I couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

“Don’t let me turn into one of those things, okay? Promise.” She suddenly said, lookin’ up at me. Her skin was a pale, chalky white color. I could feel her tremblin’ against me, the tears runnin’ freely from her eyes and slidin’ down her face.

I couldn’t remember ever cryin’ in my life. I know I probably had at some point, but I couldn’t remember a when or a why. Now, though, I felt it stirrin’ behind my eyes and I blinked it back. She didn’t need to see that. She didn’t need to see me break right now when she needed me. I shook my head. “I won’t. I promise.”

“Did I already tell you I love you?” She asked. Her words were comin’ out in pants now, her chest movin’ up and down too fast.

I gave her a smile, and it took up almost all the effort I had. “Sugar, you can say it all you want. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anythin’ in my damn life.”

I shifted her gently in my arms and leaned down to press my lips against hers, savorin’ the feelin’ so I would remember it later. So I would remember it when I wanted to feel it, but couldn’t. Her fingers gripped my shirt, her head against my chest. I brushed her hair back behind her ear, leanin’ back against the sheet metal. My heart wouldn’t stop poundin’. Every breath felt like an effort. I kept wonderin’ how much time there was and the only answer I could come up with was not enough.

She stirred against me. “Merle, you know you do just fine with one hand. In case I never told you.” She mumbled into my shirt.

I felt the laugh rumblin’ through my chest before I pressed my lips to her cold forehead again, breathin’ her in and tryin’ my damn hardest to keep it together. I wondered how I’d never noticed she smelled like vanilla. Suddenly, though, her fingers went slack against my shirt. I felt my stomach drop.

“Harlow?” I said quietly. I shifted her in my arms so I could see her face. Her eyes were closed. Her chest had stopped movin’. “No.” My voice broke with the one word. I shook her, but I knew it was no good. She wasn’t gonna wake up. I felt the crack that had started to form inside me suddenly break wide open. I was cryin’, the tears full force as I held her close, pressin’ my cheek to her hair. “Don’t go, sugar. God, don’t leave me.” I felt my shoulders shakin’, the sobs rackin’ my entire body and the hurt was unlike any pain I’d ever felt in my life. I didn’t care who was there to see. I didn’t care about a god damn thing anymore.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, but didn’t look up. “She’s gone, Merle.” I heard Daryl’s voice.

I looked up at him to see his eyes were full of pity for me. He looked weighted down. Nothin’ compared to how I was feelin’, though. No one would ever understand that. I laid her down gently on her back before I stood up, wipin’ my face on the back of my arm.

“I know she’s gone. Don’t you think I know that?” I said to him in a low voice. He opened his mouth to say somethin’ else, but I didn’t wanna hear it. I didn’t care what he had to say, what he wanted to tell me. She was gone. I turned and slammed my fist against the chain link fencin’. It rattled with each hit, shakin’ the entire catwalk.

“Merle! Stop it! Calm the fuck down!”

Daryl was yellin’ but I didn’t care. I kicked the sheet metal over and over again until my foot started to ache with pain. My knuckles were stingin’ and I knew I must’ve cut ‘em open. I closed my fist again, ready to let it fly when I suddenly felt Daryl’s hand on my arm, forcin’ it downwards.

“I’m sorry, Merle. I’m sorry.” He was sayin’ quietly. I looked up at him and he looked like he was hurtin’ for me.

I dropped to my knees, hangin’ my head as the sobs shuddered through my entire body. I felt the pain everywhere, radiatin’ up and down my arms and legs, but most of all I felt it in my chest. Like I wouldn’t ever be whole again. I picked up her lifeless body in my arms and tried not to think about how she’d never open her eyes again. I’d never see the gray color of those eyes. I’d never hear her laugh or see her smile. She’d never bicker with me, or argue, or roll her eyes at me, or cross her arms over her chest when she wanted to be stubborn as all hell.

“Merle…” Daryl said quietly.

The tears finally stopped. I felt suddenly strangely calm. “I need to do this alone.” I said. I gathered her up in my arms and stood to my feet. Her head rolled against my chest, her arms hung limply at her sides. I tried not to think about it as I brushed past Daryl and Carol, who were both watchin’ me solemnly.

It was quiet as I took the metal steps down to the cement, and headed towards the prison yard. I could see now that someone had drove a delivery truck right through the fence, makin’ a huge hole. Bodies of walkers were everywhere. None of ‘em were movin’, though. I passed Charlie, only a little bit aware as she reached out to touch my arm, but didn’t say a word. I shrugged her off, finally makin’ it out into the field. I crouched down and laid Harlow at my feet. I brushed her hair out of her face, runnin’ my hand over her cheek. She was still perfect. Still beautiful.

I took in a shaky breath, takin’ out my pistol. Her lips were still a little warm as I bent over her pressed my mouth against hers for the last time. The last time. I fought back a new wave of tears. “I love you, woman.” I said quietly.

I cleared my throat before standin’ up. I tried to stand tall as I pointed the gun at her head. I promised her I’d do this. I promised her I wouldn’t let her turn. I took in a deep breath as I looked down at her, my finger hoverin’ over the trigger. I didn’t know what else to say, but it felt like there was still a lot of words waitin’ to pour out of me.

“I’ll see you soon, sugar.” I finally said quietly. I held myself together as I pulled the trigger and the shot rang out loud and clear.

Then I fell back to my knees, my head in my hands. Lettin’ myself fall apart.

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