"Hey, sleepy heads, wake up for lunch.” I hear Grace say, shaking my shoulder.
“Hmm?” I ask, my eyes snapping open.
I strech out my arms when I feel hair. I look up and see Wes smiling down at me. I smile back and get up.
“It’s sandwiches for lunch.” Grace says, answering my question before I even asked.
We both get up and follow grace out to the kitchen. I stiffen up when I see Carl and Gen. Wes wraps an arm around me.
He whispers, “Don’t let them see you broken. Be strong, smile beautiful.”
I take his advice and put on a small smile, leaning into him as we walk to the line that formed around the counter. Peanut butter and an assortment of jellies flank plates of hamburger buns. Styrofoam cups hold water. We all grab a paper plate and fill up the seats around the table.
“Catch anything?” Gen asks Daryl.
“Few snow rabbits, and a fox.” he says.
“I found a couple more blankets on my trip into town.” Glenn pipes up.
I look down at my watch on boredom. I see the date and scoff.
“It’s December 16th.” I announce.
“Almost christmas.” Grace adds.
“It’s almost christmas Lottie!” Todd exclaims.
I nod, my eyes wide, looking out at the christmas lights that light up the houses in this particular suburb. It’s a Tuesday in Ohio. December 16th, a soft blanket of snow covers lawns, just a few inches. It came in the afternoon when school was still in.
“Mommy! Will we be out of school tomorrow?” I ask from the backseat with todd.
“Hmm, I don’t know.” she says, playful doubt laced in her responce.
A smile graces her features as colorful lights reflect from her eyes as she intertwines her fingers with Kit’s as he drives slowly. I wish for love like that one day. Holidays equal hope. Sometimes that gleeful hope gets sucked away in tragic times when nothing seems to budge the sad or lonely that sinks a person’s soul down. I wish no one has to go through that.
“Look at that one!” Todd exclaims, snapping me out of my inner thoughts.
He points at a corner house.
“Whoa.” I exhale as my eyes feast upon the mass quanity of lights.
This house is the mega motherload of christmas lights. A few santas and reindeer on the roof, an entire gingerbread village in the lawn and the trees were dressed in old timey christmas lights.
“Slow down!” Todd yells to Kit.
He does. I roll down the window and hear ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ softly floating around the house. It wraps around me like a warm blanket. On the attached garage is ‘NINE DAYS LEFT’ in red and green lights, blinking to a heart beat no one else can hear.
“Dad can we get hot chocolate after this?” Todd asks.
“Sure kid,” Kit responds.
He takes a U-turn out of the bright and cheerful neighborhood and onto the dark highway heading back to the rest of the city. All the warmth from the suburb is gone. I shiver at the dark highway. The highway could be a representation of the sad people everywhere this happy holiday season.
“Charlie? Sugar, what would you like on your hot chocolate?” Kit asks.
I hadn’t realized that we were at the drive through for drinks.
“Just mini marshmallows please.” I reply in a small voice, where as Todd was basically squealing like a pig for his sugary drink.
“Quiet down Todd.” mom gently snaps at todd.
He lowers his volume, but not his excitment.
“Ow!” he yelps, retracting quickly away from his scolding hot beverage.
Mom, Kit, and I laugh at his foolish mistake. Even things you love can harm you with the same passion and leave you on your butt.
“Charlotte? Did you hear what we were saying?” Grace asks beside me, squeezing my arm gently.
“Almost christmas.” I murmur, my eyes never leaving the plate in front of me, a half eaten sandwich laying on it, one side oozing the purple hue of artificial blackberry jam.
“That’s what we were talking about two minutes ago.” she breaks to me.
“Well, what are we talking about now?” I ask.
“Daryl said he saw footsprints in the snow earlier today while he was out hunting. They seem to be fresh and a man’s.” she informs me.
“If we find him, will we talk him in?” I ask, turning to Rick at the head of the table.
“If he passes the three questions, then yes. If he doesn’t...” he trails off, his jaw clenched.
I understand. If he doesn’t pass the three questions, we might take him out with a head shot.
“Charlotte, how about you and I go on dish duty today huh?” Wes asks from across the table.
I mumble an okay and excuse myself to my room. I shut and lock my door, grabbing my backpack and fishing through the contents and grimacing sadly at what I was looking for. It’s a picture of just todd, mom, and I.
Kit was somewhere that day, so we decided just us three would be fine. The date was scrawled on the back. It was late august when we took it. I let my eyes roam the vast white plain, tall dark trees with low hanging branches due to ice around each one. I feel my hand that has the picture tremble as I try to force down tears. I have cried enough over the past day.
My other hand clenches into a fist. On the count of ten, I will be okay.
1, 2, big breath in.
3, 4, I stand up and put the picture back where it will be safe.
5, 6, I go back to the window with a cream colored blanket draped around my shoulders and exhale.
7, 8, I push my glasses up right and stare out the window.
9, 10, I spot a figure not too far, laying down in the snow.
“Grace!” I call, standing up and hurrying to the door, racing down the stairs.
“What?” she asks, checking me over for any injuries.
“Where is Daryl?” I ask urgently.
She points to the patio. I jog through the living room, the cream blanket flowing behind me like a majestic cape. I fling open the door and see Bob, Maggie, Glenn, Sasha, Daryl, and Rick sitting around the massive oak table in the corner.
“The man is outside!” I say to the group.
They all flurry to the door, grabbing weapons and coats and jackets. I get a blast of winter air as Glenn yanks open the large solid main doors to the outside. My ears pick up a voice.
“Help.” I barely hear.
The team dashes out. The doors slam shut and wes stands beside grace and I. I briskly walk over to the window and peer between the shutters on the outside of the window. Glenn and Daryl drape his arms across their shoulders and drag him to the house. Maggie comes in ahead of them.
“Help me get a fire going in the wood stove downstairs in the basement for water.” she calls behind us urgently.
I throw my blanket to the ground and help Grace get the things we need. I get the biggest pot in the kitchen and she pumps water into pitchers so we can carry it down easily. I rush down the basement steps, too focused on this dire need to look around the vast space of the basement.
The wood stove is huge, two individual chambers for wood and eight burners, basically two regular stove mashed together with wood heating and not gas or electricity.
“Put that on the left part of the stove.” Maggie instructs as she starts a small fire with kindle.
I nod and slide it onto the four burners on the left side. She blows at the small, growing flames and sticks a few logs in. I pass grace on the stairs and help fill up two more lemon colored pitchers full of water.
Wes comes down the stairs, his cheeks red from running and lifting and carrying. He drops the split wood by the small pile already created.
“Thank you all. Now go upstairs and help michonne get a room ready for him.” she tells us.
We all nod. I’m trailing behind the two as we quickly go up the stairs to the west wing. the third door on the left is open and I see glenn rush out. I step into the room and stay by the door. A flurry of white catches my eye. Michonne throws the covers of the bed at the foot.
“Charlie, hand me your knife.” Daryl insists.
I give it to him and he cleanly slices the man’s wet clothes. Only his coat and multiple layers of shirts plop to the ground in a wet heap at his limp feet. Rick works at getting his belt off.
“Y’all down stairs. Watch ass kicker.” Daryl calls behind his shoulder, shielding the man from us.
I lead the duo this time to the kitchen. I freeze when I see what’s going on in the kitchen. Carl has Gen onto of one of the counters and they’re making out. Ouch.
“God damn! This is a kitchen last time I checked not a bedroom!” Wes exclaims from behind me.
My eyes are stuck on the cream tiles, once white, but now cream with a fine layer of dust. I glance up, watching carl and gen scurry somewhere else to make out. His hair, the hair I used to run my fingers through, was messed up and his lips, the ones I used to press mine against, were swollen from someone else’s. This is so hard. Why love someone anyways? All it does is knock the life out of you, and trust me, that doesn’t get back up.
“Come on. My room this time.” Gen whispers in my ear as we stumble up the steps to the second floor.
My hand is clasped on her waist. My heart beats double as she opens her door, the adults too busy with the stranger to notice us. I smirk and back her into the wall beside her door, I slam my lips on hers and work my hands slowly up her waist.
Once my hands find her curves, I suddenly get the thought, What would charlotte do? Would she slap me and run off? Blush and allow me to touch her? Maybe later down the path. Gen begins to walk forwards, me walking backwards to her bed in the corner of the room. I land softly on her bed and slide my tongue in her mouth as she straddles me, groaning softly as she tugs at my hair.
Her lips move down my jaw and to my neck. I shift my hands and begin to tug at the hem of her grey sweater. She sucks on the sensitive skin on my neck and I surpress a moan building in my throat. I flip us over and pull her sweater off. I bite my lip at the sight of her in her pale pink bra. Her nails scrape against my scalp. The other hand is trying to unbuckle my belt, dangerously close to the throbbing ache in my pants. I trail a line of kisses from her neck and start on her collar bone-
“Carl!” I hear dad bark.
I jump, startled. Gen snatches her discarded sweater and moves behind me out of dad’s view.
“What dad?” I snap.
“Don’t you use that tone at me.” he snarls back.
“Gen, you are on wach duty and you son, are watching your baby sister.” he says, changing the subject.
I get up and he grabs my arm.
He looks me in the eye and says in a low voice, “We are talking later. You understand?”
I nod and rip my arm from his grip, shuffling up to where Judy and Beth are.
“I’ll take her now.” I say.
She smiles at me and leaves, shutting the door behind her. I scoop up judy in my arms and pace around the edge of the room, trying to focus on something else besides the throbbing in pants.
For almost two hours, I spend time with Judy until she fell asleep. I smile at Gen as I walk out of Dad’s bedroom. I just put Judy down for a nap on the bed. She still babbles, and I hope one day we can hear her say her first word.
“He has warmed up now.” Glenn announces at lunch.
We all sat down with roasted rabbit with pickled onions on stale ham burger buns.
“Could he answer the questions?” Wes asks.
“No, could barely keep his eyes open.” Daryl mumbles, taking a swig of moonshine.
“We will keep an eye on him until he can stay awake and talk and eat.” Maggie says.
Grace asks, “Can we see him?”
Rick nods. Wes, Grace and I excuse ourselves and go upstairs. The door is cracked open. From the end of the hall I an hear the clear rackle of wood being burned. I quietly step into the stranger’s room and sit on the chair beside his bed. His steady, deep breathing reminds me that he’s asleep. His hair, which is medium brown when wet, has been pushed back. He has some stubble on his face, but other than that, no blemishes or scars.
He was young, late teens, twenty at the most. Grace and Wes stay for a few minutes, then they leave to wash lunch dishes. I remain in the chair beside him, some peace and quiet in this house. His hand, which is on top of the ugly beige comforter, twiches and I hear his steady breathing get quick.
It gets quicker and his hand moves rapidly, then clenches into a fist. I take his hand by the wrist and try to coax his fingers to uncurl. When they do, he settles back down into restful sleep and then opens his eyes.
“Who are you?” he asks, his golden brown eyes looking at me.
I begun to tell him my name when he cuts me off.
“Are you an angel? Am I in heaven?” he asks.
Wow, a charmer. He’s cute actually. A small smile grows on my face. I would’ve laughed, but my wall is half way up.
“No, I’m Charlotte. I spotted you outside and my group brought you in.” I explain.
“Are you hungry? Thirsty?” I ask.
I realize I’m still holding his hand. I blush and pull it away. He sits up and I see that he has no shirt on. The blush on my face burns hotter.
“Hungry. What’s cooking?” he asks.
“We roasted rabbit not too long ago.” I inform him.
He gets out of bed, thankfully in jeans and black wool socks on his feet. Damn he is tall. He then spots the shirt hanging on the hanger on the outside of the double door closet to the left side of the bed. He slips on the plain white t-shirt with a maroon plaid flannel over it unbuttoned. He looks at me.
“Can you show me where the food is?” he asks.
I nod and lead the way. I smile at the realization that he is still in socks. I turn on my heel at the top of the stairs.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
He smiles, “James. James Denton.”
I’m chest level with him when we are both standing. He puts his hand out for a hand shake. I tentivly shake it back and lead him the rest of the way to the kitchen. Rick pulled him aside for the questions, he passed and got a sandwich as a reward. After James ate, he walked back up to me.
“How old are you anyways?” I ask.
“Seventeen. My birthday was a couple months back,” he replies.
“Nice. I’m almost fifteen. My birthday is in January.” I inform him.
“So. Anyone family here?” he asks, leaning up against the wall beside the door frame.
“Mmm hmm. Daryl is my dad.” I explain.
He nods, “I can see the resemblence.”
I smile. He smiles because I smiled.
“You know what? You’re alright.” he says, nudging my shoulder.
“Ehh, you could be better.” I joke.
He scoffs, playfully offended. We both laugh. It gets silent.
“What?” I ask.
“It’s been so long since I’ve heard you laugh.” Beth confesses.
The others murmur agreements.
Maybe today is a new beginning.
ONE WEEK LATER
It’s December 23rd and everyone is in better moods. The food is enough, the lights seem brighter, and Bob cut down a young pine. The group then decorated the tree in the living room. Charlotte was too focused with James to see Carl and Gen.
Carl and I are stuck with dishes tonight. The sound of chatter in the living room is distant. I can’t believe it’s almost Charlotte’s birthday. She will be fifteen. Wes and I are planning on making something sweet for her. Sine the apocalypse, sweet things have been scarce.
I remember when I tried to bake a cake for Chase a few years back, I dozed off and the fire alarm went off. Our incident, which attracted firemen, was the talk of the neighbourhood. We always used to joke around after that.
“So, how’s Judith?” I ask, making small talk.
“Good. Almost said something today.” he says.
“So. I see James and Charlotte are good friends.” he says.
“You didn’t know?” I say.
“Didn’t know what?” he asks.
A smirk grows on my lips as I deliver the news, “They aren’t friends. They are a couple now.”