Playing With Fire

Chapter Seven


It was one of the longest nights I'd been through in a while. I didn't sleep well, getting up every couple of hours to check on the man clinging to life in the tiny bathroom. Every time I pulled open the door, I was afraid his body had finally given up on him and he was gone. He was tougher than most people, though, because every time I placed a hand on his chest I could still feel the faint beat of his heart as it struggled to keep him alive.

When the sun finally began to rise and the living room was filled with the faint yellowish glow of sunlight, I started getting ready to move Merle out. I ransacked the rest of the house, taking anything of use that had been left behind. Then, I had carefully pulled my truck up to the house and parked it just a few feet off from the front porch. The less distance I had to carry him, the better. He had been in and out of consciousness all morning. His fever was still blazing through his skin and though I got him to down a few sips of water, he wouldn't even take a bite of the cold, canned pasta I had opened for breakfast. I needed to find him some antibiotics and fast. I hurried. It didn't take me long to pack the truck and finally I was ready to try and get Merle on his feet.

"Okay, everything's good to go. We just gotta-" I stopped mid-sentence as I pushed open the bathroom door, my eyes growing wide as I eyed Merle. With the small, deadly looking pistol in his bandaged hand. "What are you doing with that?" I asked cautiously. I thought for a second he hadn't heard me, but then he started shaking his head.

"No use." He grunted. "Just gonna stay here and wait."

I slowly made my way closer to the tub, kneeling down on the floor. "Wait for what?" I asked quietly. I could tell by the glazed look in his eyes that he was out of it. I needed to get the gun out of his hand before he did something stupid. Christ, I didn't even know he had one on him! I should've fucking checked him for weapons. Idiot.

"Wait for Daryl." He answered. "Been thinkin' a bullet might make a fine last meal. Then I can just take a long nap. Wait for Daryl."

My pulse jumped as I realized what he meant to do. It wasn't gonna happen. I wouldn't let it. Whoever the hell Daryl was, Merle could wait for him here. Alive. I quickly reached out and tugged the pistol from his weak grasp. I shrank back, waiting for him to lash out at me, but he barely moved. Like I thought, he was pretty out of it. I wasn't even sure if any of this seemed real to him. "We're not waiting around here. We're going. I'm gonna find you help, but you need to stand up and try to walk. I'll help you." I didn't wait for him to respond and got to my feet, leaning over him. I grasped him firmly under the arms and pulled. Jesus, it was like trying to lift a ton of bricks. "Okay, Merle, you need to try to help me here. I can't carry you all by my god damn self." I said with gritted teeth. "Stand up." After a few seconds, he finally started to move, using the side of the tub to lift himself with his good hand. I helped him as best I could and finally, he was on his feet, though leaning heavily against the tiled wall. And fuck, that was the easy part. Now I had to somehow get him from the house to the truck. "You have to walk. Lean against me. It's not far."

I wrapped my arm tightly around his waist as he slung his arm over my shoulder. I carefully helped him out of the tub and onto the ground. "Fuck, woman. You're god damn small. How you expect to help me get anywhere?" He mumbled, using the wall to hold himself up as we left the bathroom and headed out the gaping front door. Once we were outside, I felt almost the full weight of him crushing against me and I thought my knees might give out. It was only a few feet away now. So close. So god damn close, I reminded myself. I managed to help him down the busted porch steps and finally, I was pushing him into the truck. Once I made sure he was all the way inside, I slammed the passenger side door and he slumped against the window.

I was panting heavily and my hair stuck to my skin as I tried to catch my breath. I hoped like hell we found help soon because I wasn't sure how many more times I would be able to move him like that. At least not without killing myself in the process. I shook my head, hopping into the driver's side of the truck. I gave Merle a worried glance before revving the engine and tearing out of the yard, towards the deserted road.

We drove for hours on the back country roads of Georgia. I was hyper aware of Merle's rattling breath as he struggled to keep pulling air in and out of his lungs. I realized how crazy this was. That I was risking my life to try and save someone who I didn't even know, and who hadn't given off even remotely the nicest impression during the moments he was awake. It wasn't that I had been lonely for other people, or missing human contact. No, I don't think that was it at all. I think what it came down to was that I suddenly had a purpose. Because before I had taken on trying to save a dying man, what the hell had I been doing? Nothing. Running from place to place, making my way south just because I didn't have anywhere else to go or anything else to do. Nothing. And now, I had something. At least it felt that way.

It was dark before I even had time to wonder how the day had passed so quickly. How the hell was there nothing around here? Where were all the towns? Where did the people that live out here get their groceries? Their supplies? Their freaking medicine? I hadn't seen one sign pointing me in the right direction of a town. I needed a pharmacy or a doctor's office. Some place where they kept antibiotics. Hell, even a veterinarian clinic would have done at this point. But no, there was nothing. Just farmland. Enough to make me feel sick to my stomach as rolling hill after rolling hill and golden pasture after golden pasture flew by us.

I could feel my eyes starting to get tired and even though I didn't want to stop, I had to. I had been doing nothing but driving for an entire day and the exhaustion was starting to swallow me whole. Merle had stopped muttering and mumbling as he swam in and out of awakeness hours ago, which worried me. He was quiet. I didn't like the feeling it gave me, like rocks piling in the pit of my stomach. I finally had to pull the truck over so I could shut my eyes, at least for a little while. Then we could keep going. I balled up my jacket to use a pillow and curled my legs up onto the seat next to me. I could feel the heat radiating off of Merle as I fell into a fitful sleep. His fever was getting worse.

I woke again just before dawn, a faint rosy hue in the sky as the sun prepared to rise. I hit the cab lights on so I could get a look at Merle. He was as pale as death, his skin damp with sweat. I prepared to change the bandage on his arm and almost gagged as I unwound the gauze and the horrible scent of the infection hit me. It was bad. Bad enough to where you wouldn't need any medical experience at all to tell this guy was in trouble. I shook my head as I quickly cleaned it as best I could and re-wrapped it.

"Hold on just a little longer." I murmured, pressing the back of my hand to his forehead. He didn't stir or fidget at my touch anymore, too weak to even feel it.

I turned the key in the ignition and pressed the gas pedal down as far as it could go. I had to find him help today or he wouldn't last much longer. Sooner or later, he would fade away completely. I gripped the steering wheel tightly as I kept my eyes peeled for any signs of civilization, the sun finally rising in the sky. Finally, though, I got my first taste of hope. Houses started popping up more and more instead of the farms and fields. They further I drove, the closer and closer together they would appear until soon, I was driving down what I was sure had once been a populated street. I could feel the hope growing and growing inside me as drove and finally, I was driving through a small, little town.

"Yes!" I slammed my palm against the wheel. This was what we needed. Towns had people, people needed medicine. There was a pharmacy here somewhere. There had to be. I slowed down as I scanned the weathered brick buildings lining the street. Walkers lingered here and there, but for once, they weren't my main concern. It didn't take long for me to pick out the faded, peeling sign plastered to a window, advertising seasonal flu shots. I combed the street, looking for a place to hide the truck since I couldn't take Merle inside with me. I spotted on alley to my right and swung inside, putting it into park. This would have to be good enough. I wouldn't be long anyways.

"Cross your fingers that this is it." I said quietly, more to myself than Merle. His eyes were still shut tightly and he seemed completely out of it. I gave him one last glance before hopping out of the truck, locking the doors behind me. I pulled my backpack out of the bed of the truck, shrugging it on. It was quiet, hardly any sounds aside from my own breathing. I took out my knife and held it tightly in my hand. Silence wasn't always a good thing. I knew there were still walkers out there, waiting. I stayed low to the ground as I edged my way around the corner and out of the alleyway. I pushed the door to the drugstore open and slipped in quietly.

It was a mess inside. Shelves were toppled, empty boxes and debris littered the floor. My heart sank. It looked the place had been ransacked about a thousand times over. I moved silently around the garbage in my path, making my towards the back of the store where I knew the pharmacy counter would be. The antibiotics would be kept in the back, not out on the shelves.

I carefully hopped up over the counter, dropping down silently on the other side. I could feel my hope plummeting. There was nothing. For the first time in a long time, I could feel panic stirring somewhere inside me. I rummaged through the empty cases and boxes on the shelves, pulled open drawers and cabinets, looked under counters and chairs. Nothing. Nothing was here.

"Fuck." I whispered, my voice cracking as the panic finally forced it's way through me and tears began to leak from the corners of my eyes. I sank down onto the floor, pressing my back up against a wall. I was watching the only plan I had fall to pieces. I betted everything I had on finding a pharmacy and getting him medicine. It was a damn good plan, but I forgot to factor in that the world is a fucking, horrible place and there were other people suffering too that had gotten here before me and now I didn't know what to do. The hot tears streamed down my face. How was I supposed to get back into that truck? How was I supposed to face that man knowing I had lost? That I had done everything I could and it still hadn't been enough? He was going to die and there was nothing I could do now. I couldn't save him.

It was the first time I had let myself cry in months and it didn't fit me. I hardly ever cried. When you grew up in a family of all men, you learned not to cry. Yet here I was. "Get it together, Harlow." I muttered to myself, wiping my cheeks with the sleeve of my shirt. I sniffed, waiting until the tears finally stopped. The hallowed pit in my stomach didn't go away, but at least I wasn't crying anymore. There was nothing I could do now except wait with him and do everything I could to make this easier for him. Which felt almost cruel of me. How do you make it more comfortable for someone to die?

I forced myself to my feet and picked up my backpack, it's lightness reminding me that I failed to do what I set out to do. I heaved one last sigh before heading back out towards the street. I pushed open the door a crack and squeezed through. Instantly, I felt a hand on my shoulder as I was dragged out onto the sidewalk and pushed against the side of the building.

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