Playing With Fire

Chapter Thirty-Six


I’d never been the type to have nightmares. Not when I was a kid. Not when I was older and my daddy would slap me around. Not even after the war. Never been afraid of anythin’ enough for a nightmare. Sittin’ there, though, I prayed to whatever the hell god there was that this was just a nightmare. That I’d wake up and none of this would be real. That she’d still be alive, shootin’ some sorta smartass comment at me or rollin’ her eyes in that way she always did whenever I said somethin’ she didn’t like. This wasn’t any nightmare, though. Somewhere deep down I knew that, which made everythin’ that much worse.

Even now, she was still the most damn beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I still couldn’t believe a woman like that would pick me over everyone else. She was so still, though. So quiet. The opposite of everythin’ she’d been when she was alive. Just a few hours ago she’d been in my arms. Every time I looked at her now, it felt like somethin’ ice cold had been plunged into my chest and was squeezin’ my heart. Felt like each breath took about a hundred times the effort it usually did.

It played out in my head over and over again. I saw her smilin’ at me as she walked out of the cellblock door, tellin’ me not to wait up. I heard Carol’s voice screamin’ from behind the sheet metal, I saw Harlow lyin’ in the pool of red blood and heard her voice tellin’ me she’d stay if she could. Then I played out a thousand different scenarios, wonderin’ if there was somethin’ I could’ve done. If I could’ve stopped this. I should’ve been with her. It should’ve been me with her up there, watchin’ her. Keepin’ her safe like I was supposed to. This was my fault.

I didn’t hear the footsteps comin’ up behind me, didn’t even know someone was there until I felt them sit down next to me.

“I’m sorry, Merle. I’m so sorry.”

I recognized Charlie’s quiet voice, but didn’t say a word back. Sorry didn’t change the fact that my Harlow was gone for good. Sorry didn’t do a god damn thing. Someone was suddenly on my other side and I knew without havin’ to look that it was Daryl.

“We need to bury her, Merle. Have a funeral. Put her to rest.” He said.

I closed my eyes shut tight, tryin’ not to think about her buried under the cold, hard earth. That wasn’t puttin’ her to rest. I didn’t know what that was, but it wasn’t the place someone like Harlow should be restin’. Under the ground. It made me feel like breakin’ apart all over again. I couldn’t watch that happen. I opened my eyes and looked at Harlow. All my life I’d heard that bad things happen to good people, and I’d never really believed it until now. Maybe I was a bad person, but Harlow wasn’t. I was the one that deserved to die like that. Not her.

I felt Charlie gently touch my arm before her fingers were curling over mine. “I know there’s nothing anyone can say to make this alright, but I’m glad you had her.” She was sayin’. “Even if it wasn’t for as long as you wanted. I’ve never seen you that happy. I’m glad you got to have that for a little while.”

That was just it, though. For a little while. When I really thought about it, the time I had with Harlow didn’t even come close to long enough. We were just gettin’ started.

“She shouldn’t have died.” I heard myself say. “Should be me lyin’ there instead.” I tugged my hand out of Charlie’s grasp and leaned forward.

I felt my breath silently hitch in my chest as my fingers touched Harlow’s cold skin. I ran my hand over her cheek as gently as I could, tryin’ not to think about how this would be the last time I would ever touch her. The last time I would ever see her. I felt a sudden pang in my chest. The last time I would ever see her…I didn’t even have a picture of her. I suddenly felt a sick feelin’, wonderin’ if I would forget what she looked like one day. If the color of her eyes, the length of her hair, her smile would just one day be gone from my memory. I swallowed hard, forcin’ the bad thought back before I stood up. I gave her one long last look before turnin’ and headin’ back towards the prison. Every step I took away from her felt heavier than the last.

I passed by four or five of the others on my way through the field, but I didn’t look at ‘em. Even when I felt all their eyes starin’ at me. No doubt full of all sorts of pity. That was the last thing I wanted to see. I headed inside the prison and went straight to my cell. Just mine now. Since Harlow wouldn’t be there anymore to share it with me.

I hesitated in the door frame before slowly takin’ a step inside. It was hard to believe that just this mornin’ she’d been in here and had no idea what was gonna happen when she stepped outside. No idea she wouldn’t be comin’ back here. I spotted one of her shirts lyin’ in a corner of the room and forced my eyes away from it. I sat on the bed and laid back against the pillows, lookin’ up at the ceiling.

When I closed my eyes, I tried to remember what it felt like to have her curled up against me. She was always so warm, like a god damn heater. Her hair always tickled my chin and no matter how many times I pushed it back, it always seemed to end up right back in the same spot. I swore I could smell her on the pillows. I took in a shaky breath. How long would it be before the smell wore off and I’d forget?

I heard a soft knock on the wall by the door and lifted my head to see who it was. I expected to see Charlie or Daryl there. Instead, though, I saw one of the farmer’s daughters. The little blonde one with the big blue eyes. Like a little doll. I laid my head back down, ignorin’ her.

“You don’t have to say anythin’.” She said quietly. “I know you don’t know me, but I wanted to tell you how sorry I was. I don’t really know what it’s like to love somebody like that, and then lose them…but I lost my momma a long time ago and if it’s anythin’ like that then I wouldn’t wish that sorta hurt on anyone.” She took a deep breath before goin’ on. “I think they’re fixin’ to have a funeral for her. You probably won’t go and I don’t blame ya’. I didn’t wanna go to my momma’s…it made it feel too permanent. I don’t like to think of good-bye as a forever. I guess really why I’m here is to tell ya’ I’ll say some nice words for you, and for her. You shouldn’t have to bear that burden all alone.”

It got real quiet real fast after that, but I didn’t hear her leave. I thought about what she said, about good-bye not bein’ a permanent thing. I didn’t believe in that either. I’d see my girl again…I just didn’t know when. I lifted myself up onto my elbows to see she was still standin’ there, quiet as a mouse. “Thanks.” I said, givin’ her a nod. She gave me a small smile before scamperin’ off, her footsteps fadin’ away after a minute.

I pulled myself back into a sittin’ position, swingin’ my legs over the side of the bed. A funeral for Harlow was the last place I’d wanna be right now. I’m sure to some people, that’d be taken as a damn insult. I had a feelin’, though, that she wouldn’t care. I wouldn’t do any good out there, surrounded by all those people…watchin’ me, pityin’ me, tryin’ to fill me up with their sympathy when I knew none of ‘em had any clue how I was feelin’. And if they did, well I still didn’t want a buncha eyes on me while I lived out the worst day of my entire life. And I’d lived a lotta years and seen a lotta bad days.

I heard the loud clangin’ of the cellblock door as it slammed shut, the sound echoin’ down the hall. I waited a few minutes, but didn’t hear anythin’ else. They must’ve been all headed down to pay their respects, or whatever they hell they planned on doin’. Before I could stop myself, I was standin’ up and headin’ down the empty hallway. Like I’d thought, there wasn’t another soul in sight. I slipped outta the cellblock door and back into the prison yard. I could see ‘em all at the edge of the field, by the guard tower. They were standin’ in a circle, no doubt talkin’ in hushed voices that I wouldn’t be able to hear. What would they say about her anyways? None of ‘em knew her. Not even close to the way that I did.

I leaned up against the wall and when I looked down at myself, I was almost shocked for a minute to see that dried, dark blood stained the front of my shirt and covered my hands. I swallowed hard, feelin’ myself crack again. It was her blood. I covered my face with my hand as I forced back the waterworks. I suddenly remembered now, that I’d gotten hit too. I lowered my hand and looked at my shoulder. My sleeve was red, but it didn’t look like it was bleedin’ anymore. I rolled up the sleeve and saw a deep cut where the bullet had grazed me. Just a couple of inches lower, from the right angle, it would’ve got me right in the chest. The thought suddenly crossed my mind that I wished it had. I wished it would’ve gone right through my heart and killed me so I didn’t have to stay here, alone, without her.

I heard a sound, suddenly makin’ its way over to me from where they were holdin’ the funeral. I had to strain my ears to really hear it, but I could tell it was singin’. I pushed myself off the wall and walked closer towards the field to get a better look without drawin’ any attention to myself. I saw the straw colored blonde hair first, in the center of the group. It was that lil’ Beth girl. It was her singin’.

I felt numb for a second as I listened to the sound of her voice. I couldn’t understand what the words were from where I was standin’, but it didn’t matter. I felt myself staggerin’ backwards until my back hit the wall of the prison. I couldn’t explain why, but it was that sound that made me want to shatter all over again. I curled my hand into a tight fist and realized my arm was shakin’. Keep it together, Dixon. Keep it together. I repeated it in my head over and over again until I realized I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep shit together. She was dead.

I got the cellblock door open and dragged myself inside just as I felt myself crack. I let out a loud, strangled soundin’ yell that echoed off every wall. I aimed a kick at one of the chairs in the room, sendin’ it screechin’ across the concrete floor before it fell over and clattered to the ground and was still. My breathin’ was loud, my chest heavin’ and I felt the urge to break a part anythin’ and everythin’ I could find. Instead, I forced myself across the room and back down the narrow hallway until I was back in my own cell. I grabbed Harlow’s shirt from the floor and sat back down on the bed.

I buried my face into the soft, cotton fabric and I smelled her right away. It was how she always smelled, even though I never really realized it before. Like vanilla. I wiped my face with the back of my hand. I couldn’t even tell when I’d started cryin’ again, but I was. I wondered for a second what Harlow would say if she were here to see me like this. Probably tell me to man up, that cryin’ was for god damn sissies. I felt like almost smilin’, but didn’t have it in me.

“Man up, Dixon.” I said quietly to myself. Man up, man up, man up. I repeated it in my head over and over again until I felt calmer. I lost track of time. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been sittin’ there, starin’ at the floor and repeatin’ my mantra over and over again. Man up, man up, man up.

I heard footsteps. “Merle.” It was Charlie. ‘Course it was. Who the hell else would be checkin’ up on me? What? Did she think maybe I’d gotten over it in the past hour, that I was feelin’ better? “Mere, I just wanted to make sure-“

I cut her off right there. I didn’t need to hear anythin’ else. “You best get your ass outta this room in the next five seconds. I just lost the one good thing I had goin’ for me, and you’re standin’ there askin’ if I’m okay? Get the fuck out.” I spat the words at her and I heard Daryl mutterin’ somethin’ as he pulled her away. I didn’t need to hear anymore god damn apologies. I laid back down on the bed, Harlow’s shirt still clutched tight in my hand. Sorry wouldn’t bring her back. I closed my eyes, wonderin’ how the hell it was possible to go on livin’ with this sort of pain, with this constant achin’ in my chest.

Someway, somehow, I must’ve finally fallen asleep because the next thing I knew, it was dark. I heard the sound of quiet footsteps and picked myself up onto my elbow, pushin’ off the blankets. I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the only light comin’ from the moon which was shinin’ in through the windows out in the hall. My eyes finally landed on the figure in the door.

She was leanin’ with one shoulder against the doorway, dark hair hangin’ loose around her shoulders. She was wearin’ the black and white flannel shirt she had been the last time I’d seen her and the jeans with the hole in the knee, only now she was barefoot. She gave me an amused smile and crossed her arms over her chest.

“Hey, Dixon.”

“Hey yourself, princess.” I said in a hoarse whisper, wonderin’ if I was lookin’ at a ghost. But, nah she couldn’t be. Looked real enough to me. Then, like she wanted to prove it, she crossed the room and crawled onto the bed with me. She pushed me back down onto the pillows and curled herself next to me, like she always did. One arms was draped across my stomach, her head tucked in between my neck and shoulder. I felt her hair ticklin’ my jaw. She smelled like my Harlow. Vanilla. I took in a shaky breath. I wanted to touch her, but felt almost afraid to. Like if I did, she’d disappear.

I hesitated, but finally gave in. I wrapped my arm around her waist, pushin’ my hand up the back of her shirt to feel the warm skin underneath. I sighed, brushin’ my lips over the top of her head. I had a voice in the back of my head, though, reminin’ me that this wasn’t happenin’. Wasn’t ever gonna hold her like this again. “This ain’t real.”

Harlow shifted in my arms, proppin’ herself up on both elbows as she looked down at me. Her eyes were as gray as ever. “Sure. If you want it to be.” She leaned forward and pressed her lips against mine, sighin’ against my mouth before pullin’ away.

“It’s my fault.” I said suddenly, before I could stop myself. “I should’ve been out there with ya’, protectin’ ya’.”

She shook her head. “Shh, stop. Just stop. It wasn’t your fault. It would have happened no matter what.” She gave me a sad smile. “I’m gonna miss you, Dixon.”

“I already miss you like hell, sugar.” I said, runnin’ my fingers over her shoulder, down her spine, and back up where I buried them in her dark hair.

She brushed her lips against my jaw. “Is that why you didn’t go to the funeral they had for me?”

I stiffened underneath her, my hand freezin’ in the middle of me brushin’ her hair outta her eyes. I realized she was laughin’ though and perked an eyebrow at her as she looked up at me. “I’m kidding, Merle.” She said. “Funerals creep me out, too.”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t stand there and watch them put you into the ground, Harlow.” I admitted.

Her expression softened. “I know. I’m sorry, Merle. I’m sorry I’m putting you through this.”

I wrapped my arms tighter around her, pullin’ her closer. “I’m sorry I couldn’t keep you alive, sugar.”

I felt her lips against my jaw. “Stop saying sorry.” She murmured. She laid her head back against my chest. “You know, we really got screwed over. We didn’t get nearly enough time. I was sort of looking forward to getting old with you…sitting on a porch in rocking chairs with our shotguns, shooting all the neighborhood zombie kids that won’t stay out of our yard.”

I laughed. “Ain’t that the truth, sugar.” The sound died quickly, though. In the grand scheme of things, the time we had together wasn’t nearly enough. It was a blip on the radar. There and gone before we knew what had even happened. “I wish ya’ could’ve stayed, though.” I finally said.

“Me too.” I heard her whisper before her lips were suddenly on mine, just as warm and soft as ever. I kissed her back hard, hopin’ that I wouldn’t ever forget what it felt like. Harlow pulled away first, her chin propped up on her arm which was still draped over my chest. “Don’t do anything stupid now that I’m gone, Dixon. Your brother still needs you around.”

“He doesn’t need me to take care of ‘em.” I muttered, tuggin’ on a strand of her hair.

She frowned. “Maybe not.” I felt her hand on my cheek as her lips found mine one more time. “But I need you to stay alive.”

My eyes flew open as I woke up with a gasp, sittin’ up right in the bed. I felt around the covers quickly, but no one else was there. It was just me. I felt the cold sweat tricklin’ down the back of my neck. I rubbed my hand over my face as I tried to catch my breath. ‘Course it was a dream. I’d known that the whole time, didn’t I? “God damn it, Harlow.” I said under my breath. It had felt pretty damn real, which made a shiver run down my spine. I waited another second until my pulse was back under control before shovin’ off the sheet I had twisted myself up in and standin’ up. I was still fully dressed, all the way down to my boots.

I grabbed the flashlight from the desk next to the bed, checkin’ to make sure it worked before movin’ silently out into the hall. It was dark. At least that was the one part of the dream that had actually been real. I must’ve been out for a while because the rest of the prison was silent as everyone slept. I moved quickly down the cement hallway, through the common area, and out into the cool night. I clicked the flashlight on and moved the beam around the prison yard. At some point while I was out, they must’ve fixed the fence. It was back in place, but looked like a temporary fix. Walkers trudged around outside the fence, makin’ all sort of sounds. I clicked the light back off, not wantin’ any extra attention as I made my way across the field.

I turned the beam back on for a second when I finally reached the small, fresh mound of dirt that marked where they buried Harlow. The light lit up the rickety lookin’ wooden cross that was doublin’ as a headstone. My fingers tightened, my knuckles turnin’ white. I crouched to the ground, turnin’ off the light before tossin’ it to the side. I felt sick, thinkin’ about her here. She had felt real as all hell in my dream, but here she was, six feet in the ground. I couldn’t think of why I’d come out here, why I’d felt the need to see this. I already knew she was gone. Was I lookin’ for some sort of closure? Because I knew without even thinkin’ ‘bout it that was a thing I wasn’t ever gonna have. Not for this.

I picked up a handful of the dirt, crumblin’ it in my fist before lettin’ it fall back out on the ground. I squeezed my eyes shut tight. “Jesus, Harlow.” My voice sounded shaky, even to me. “This ain’t fair. God, it ain’t fair.” I would’ve given anythin’ to bring her back. She belonged here with me.

I went rigid as I suddenly heard the loud crack of a twig. My eyes searched the space by the fence, wonderin’ if a walker had somehow managed to get through the fence. Probably wouldn’t have been too hard, shit looked like it’d been put back up in a hurry. I was ‘bout to chalk it up to an animal when I saw the blink of a flashlight. The light vanished before it blinked again.

“What the hell?” I muttered, eyebrows furrowin’ together.

I stook up from the ground and grabbed my own flashlight before movin’ silently towards the fence. The light popped back on again as I got closer and shut back off. I could see somebody standin’ on the other side. I felt around for my gun and realized, like a dumbass, I’d left it back in my cell. I gripped the flashlight tighter. Guess that would have to do. I moved closer and when I was about five feet away, I clicked my light back on and shined it towards the shadow on the other side. I felt my mouth fall open slightly.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” I said quietly. “That you, Blondie?”

Andrea blinked in the bright light. “Do you mind not shining that thing in my eyes, Dixon? And letting me in?”

I lowered the light but didn’t shut it off completely. Andrea shifted, lookin’ around her with a worried expression. “What the hell are you doin’ here? Where’d you come from?”

She rolled her eyes. “Where do you think, Merle? From Woodbury.” She suddenly froze, starin’ at the front of my shirt and I glanced down. I’d almost forgotten. I was still covered in blood. Her blood. “Holy shit. Merle, did you get hurt?” She asked, her voice soundin’ a little more frantic.

Like the flip of a switch, I suddenly felt burnin’ hot rage stemmin’ from somewhere deep inside of me. Woodbury. The Governor. He was the real reason my Harlow was gone. “Don’t act like you don’t know. Here for some more? Here to kill somebody else?” I hissed at her. “Get the hell outta here before I shoot you dead.” I threatened.

Her eyes widened. “Someone…Someone died?” She asked in a hush.

I titled my head at her. “She didn’t just die. She was killed.” I spat out. “By your precious Governor.”

“Who?” Andrea asked again. I didn’t answer, just stared at her long and hard and finally her face fell, her eyes dropped. “Oh my god…Harlow. Your-“

“Stop talkin’ and tell me why you’re here.” I asked again.

She opened her mouth, but thought better and closed it. She finally took a breath. “The Governor wants to have a meeting with Rick. He wants to come to a truce.”

“And you believe that bullshit? He don’t want no truce. He wants to kill every last one of us.” I shook my head. Men like that didn’t know peace. Better yet, they didn’t want it.

“Please, let me talk to Rick. I don’t want anyone else getting hurt.” She begged, her fingers curlin’ over the links in the fence.

“Little too late for that, don’t ya’ think.” I said coldly.

“Listen, I didn’t know he actually killed someone. He said he was just trying to scare you all a little. I just want this to stop. Let me in and let me talk to Rick.”

I studied her carefully. I knew she was probably tellin’ the truth. She wouldn’t spring a trap when there were people she cared about up in that prison. I sighed. “Fine, Blondie. Don’t make me regret this, though.”

She sighed in relief. “Thank you, Dixon.”

I nodded at her and motioned for her to head up to the gate where I could let her in. I walked there silently, my thoughts movin’ at a bout a hundred miles a minute. The Governor was to blame for all of this. If he hadn’t shown up, Harlow’d be alive. If Andrea could tell me where they were meetin’, if I could find out where he’d be…well I could shoot a bullet through his head before he even knew what hit ‘em. Killin’ him wouldn’t bring her back, but it’d feel good. It’d feel right. And I needed to feel somethin’ right now besides the hurt that threatened to take me over and pull me to pieces.

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