The day Beth Greene graduated from college, she should have had both her parents in the stands cheering. Her daddy would have had one of those air horns and her mama would have cried. Beth didn’t have either. She had her brother and sister and her sister’s sweetheart of a boyfriend, and she tried to tell herself it was enough — it was more than some — but before she walked across the stage, Beth looked toward her little family and had to swipe away the tears that fell down her cheeks.
When Beth was a little girl, she was always smiling. She rarely had bad days and when she did, they were remedied by a hug from her mother or lemon candy from her dad’s office. Things changed after her mother’s death when she was a teenager, then again after her father’s death halfway through college. One night she sat with her sister, Maggie, and looked down at her hands through the tears that blurred her vision. “I just feel lost.” Maggie just squeezed her hand and gave her a soft smile, and Beth knew that she hadn’t understood. Maggie had never been lost in her entire life; she knew exactly where she was and where she was going.
After the ceremony Beth found her family and they passed around hugs and congratulations and easy smiles that Beth wasn’t sure what to do with anymore, but she loved the warmth that settled in her chest as she hugged her brother, Shawn. She waved to her friends that graduated with her, and spoke to a few of them, promising summer activities that she wasn’t sure she would follow through with. Beth took pictures and smiled and laughed at Glenn’s corny jokes and did all the things she was supposed to do.
The drive from Atlanta to Senoia wasn’t long, just over an hour. It was a straight shot on the interstate, but the Greene family never took the interstate. Beth watched as neighborhoods turned into rolling farmland. Cows and horses dotted the pastures. Little duck ponds sat at the bottoms of hills. Beth drove her car with all of the belongings from her dorm room, while the rest were in the truck with Shawn. Maggie sent Beth to the store to get a few things for dinner while the three of them went ahead. Beth wasn’t supposed to know about the surprise dinner with family friends, but Shawn accidentally let it slip earlier that day.
Beth pushed her shopping cart down the aisle tossing in the random things on Maggie’s bogus list. The shelves at the store were tall. She was not. She stretched up to grab a box from the top shelf, but her fingers barely grazed it. She turned to get the kid at the checkout counter, but she jumped when she was met with a wall of flannel and black leather. The man took the box and handed it to her. Beth barely had time to look up at him and say, “Thank you.” before he took a step back and walked away without a word. His longish brown hair was lank and the sleeves of his flannel shirt had been cut — or ripped — off. The back of his vest had angel wing patches and one underneath that spelled out “ANGELS OF CHAOS”. She didn’t get a great look at his face, but what she did see was sharp, almost birdlike. Everything about him screamed at her to be grateful and let it go. Beth was never good at following instructions, so she looked for him in the store, but never caught another glimpse of him.
It was hot. The thick, sticky air almost choked Beth as she walked out into the afternoon sun after an early shift in the diner. A watery mirage was cast on the road ahead, and cicadas screamed in the distance. Beth pushed the sleeves of her t-shirt up to the tops of her shoulders and pushed back a few stray pieces of hair that fell into her face before rummaging around her bag for her keys. She unlocked her door and tossed the bag in before she collapsed in the driver’s seat. She put her keys into the ignition and turned, but the car didn’t even sputter. It had been giving her a bit of trouble in the past few months, but she thought she had time before it was bad enough to take to a real mechanic, rather than Shawn’s quick fixes. “Goddamnit.” She got out of the car and slammed the door. She leaned against the car for a minute and took a breath in the overwhelming heat.
Beth looked both ways and trotted across the street and half way down the block until she came to the garage that was owned by old Mr. Carey. The faded blue and silver Carey’s Auto sign was the same as ever, but underneath was a new sign painted in the same blue on a silver aluminum sign that said ‘Auto and Motorcycle Repair.’ The garage was open, and Beth could make out a figure inside leaning under the open hood of an older model car, and a couple of guys sat around the garage. She could feel the eyes on her as she walked up to the guy with his head under the hood. “Um, hi.” The man stood up and eyed Beth with his sharp gaze. His work shirt read, ‘Daryl’. He looked over her, but never quite reached her eyes. She smiled up at him when she recognized him. “Hey, you helped me-”
His eyes snapped up to hers. “Sorry, wasn’t me.”
“No, I’m pretty sure-”
“It was not me.” Daryl enunciated each word, and leaned a little closer to Beth as he did so. “You got a car I can fix?”
Beth crossed her arms and nodded. “My car is parked in front of the diner down the street, it won’t start. My brother has been keeping it going for me this year, but I think I need professional help.”
He picked up an old stained rag and wiped his hands. “I’ll take a look. Go wait by your car, and I’ll take my truck out there.” It wasn’t a polite question, but Beth liked that. She’d spent her whole life around nice, polite folks, but Daryl said what he needed to say and turned away from her. Beth watched his back for a moment then turned to head out of the garage.
It didn’t take Daryl long to make it out to the diner. He pulled his tow truck next to the car and hopped down. After tinkering around under her hood for a moment he pulled his head out. “It’s overheated. Looks like it might be the radiator.”
Beth nodded and gazed at him. She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes to match his. “Why did you lie about helping me? All you did was reach something off a shelf.”
He spit on the concrete, and Beth swore she heard it sizzle. “You need to let that go.” He grabbed a gallon of water from the truck and poured about half of it into a tank in her car. “I can bring my tools to you and fix this on my own time.”
“Oh you don’t have to do that, I can just leave it at the garage.”
Daryl shook his head and crossed his arm. “Not a big deal. Works better for me actually.” He turned and hopped back into his truck to move it around so he could get the chain and hook her car up and pull it onto the tow truck.
Beth just stood on the sidewalk and watched. “Oh, okay, then.” Beth climbed up into the passenger side of the truck and put her seatbelt on. Daryl didn’t bother. “I’m Beth, by the way.” He just nodded, but didn’t give an introduction of his own. Beth suppressed a grin and said, “You’re Daryl.” He cut a glance over to her, but didn’t otherwise respond. She smiled anyway and looked ahead. “Nice to meet you Daryl.”
His full name was Daryl Dixon. She saw it on some paper work he’d handed her that morning when he showed up. Beth couldn’t help watching him work. She wasn’t sure most other people would find him conventionally attractive. His mouth was thin, his hair was messy and a little lank, and his eyes were small and a little wide set, but they were wary and all-seeing, and his sharp cheekbones were fascinating. He was a collection of angles and edges sharp enough to cut. Not to mention he had the kind of muscles you really only get from hard labor, and those muscles were covered in tattoos. One that held Beth’s attention was an angel holding a machine gun on his left bicep. She connected it to the patches on his vest that lay across the seat of his motorcycle.
Beth spent her morning peeking through her curtains at him, blushing every time she did. It was stupid to get worked up over a man like that — a little older, silent, probably into something that went way over her head — but she just shrugged and continued to look, because nothing would come of that anyway. Beth wasn’t stupid or desperate enough to do anything other than look. Talking to him wasn’t even a fully formed idea until she was standing next to him with a few sandwiches and bottles of water. “Need a break?” He didn’t say anything, but he stood up and stretched before he followed Beth up to the porch steps. He drank half his bottle of water before he took the offered sandwich. “Hope you like ham and cheese.”
He nodded. “Thanks.” They ate in silence for a while, but it wasn’t awkward. Beth didn’t mind how little he spoke, and she didn’t feel the need to fill the empty space the way she did with other people. They were just quiet together until Daryl spoke. “The other day when I lied about helping you, I wasn’t tryin’ to make you feel crazy. Those guys in the garage can’t know I’m helpin’ pretty girls in the grocery store, especially when they were sayin’ some foul shit about you right before you walked in.”
Beth’s wide eyes settled on his narrow ones and noticed they were almost the same color as her own. “You talking about me like that?” He didn’t respond, he just held her gaze until she nodded. “So, I guess all that has to do with those patches and that bike.”
Dary looked down with the barest hint of a rueful grin and drank the last half of his water bottle. “I should get back to work.”
It took Daryl a week to fix Beth’s car. He only came out when neither of them had work, so progress was made in short spurts. Beth didn’t mind. She sat outside with him and talked while he mostly just listened with a nod here and a one or two word response there. Sometimes in the evening Beth convinced Daryl to take a break and sit on the porch with her and watch the sunset. He never said much, but sometimes she caught him looking at her, and that was just as good.
It was almost dark outside when Beth stepped out and called to him. “Finish up and come inside.” He waved a hand in acknowledgement, but continued for another few minutes as she waited for him on the porch. “I mean it Daryl. It’s getting late.”
He stood up and wiped his hands. “Damn, girl. Anybody ever tell you how bossy you are?” He sauntered up the steps to stand next to her.
Beth smiled up at him. “Once or twice.” She nodded towards the house. “I made supper.”
He looked out over the dark field. “I should go.”
“You should come in and eat.” She headed inside, and waited at the door until he followed her in.
The house was quiet. Maggie lived with Glenn in Atlanta for the most part, and Shawn didn’t spend as many nights home as he used to. He had his rotation of girls he spent time with. He was usually home in time to get the chores done, so Beth couldn’t hold it against him. The farm was Beth’s thing anyhow. She switched her major to agricultural science when Maggie wouldn’t let her quit school and come home after she overheard Shawn talking about selling. The farm had been in their family for years, and her father had been so proud of the work he did there with the animals, that Beth could never let it go. So she took on running things and picked up shifts at the diner for supplemental income, until she could get the livestock back in order and Otis back to run the day to day chores.
It was mostly dark — Beth didn’t believe in keeping the lights on during the day — other than the kitchen and a few lamps Beth turned on as the evening drew close. She gestured to the table as she went around to the stove. Daryl stood kind of awkwardly before clearing his throat. “Can I help?”
Beth grinned over at him as she piled food on plates. “No, it’s okay, it’s all done. You want a beer, soda, milk, or water?”
“Uh, a beer would be good.” Beth brought the food and beers over to the table and sat on one end while Daryl sat next to her.
They ate quietly for a while like they usually did, but Beth spoke up. “Have you ever played ‘Never Have I Ever’?”
Daryl just glanced up at her before taking another bite of food. When he swallowed he responded. “Never needed no game to get lit before.”
Beth just smiled over at him, impressed that he even answered her. “Come on, it’ll be fun.” After explaining the rules she began. “I’ve never been on a motorcycle before.”
Daryl rolled his eyes and took a drink. “That was a cheap shot.” Beth just grinned. Daryl thought for a moment before saying, “I never been outside of Georgia before.”
“Really? Not even on vacation?”
He motioned for her to drink. “Never been on vacation.”
Beth took a drink. “Even camping?”
“That’s not a vacation. That’s just shit you gotta learn. Hunt. Fish. All that shit.”
Beth studied him for a minute and thought about what she could say — how she could ask questions that burned in her mind without actually asking them. “I’ve never been to prison.”
Daryl was quiet for a while and just looked at her. For the first time in his presence Beth felt the need to squirm in her seat. She looked down at her hands where they were now curled tight around the beer bottle in her hands. She looked up at him and tried to plaster on that smile that seemed to work for everyone else, but it fell when she saw his face. It wasn’t sad, or disappointed, it was just blank — wary. “That what you think of me?”
She sat quietly trying to get herself to hold his gaze, but she looked down again. “It just — I know what that vest means. And the tattoos.” She shook her head like she could shake off the sentiment of her words. “ It’s not a big deal.”
Daryl stood up and stalked toward the front door. “You couldn’t let it go.”
Beth followed him out into the yard. “Daryl — “
“Stop Beth. Just stop. You think you know anything about me? You don’t know shit. We’re not friends. I just fixed your car.” He put his vest on and swung his leg over his motorcycle. It roared to life, and grumbled as it idled. “Your car is finished. So there’s no reason for us to be around each other.” Dary let go of the break and took off into the night.
It was stupid for Beth to be upset after a week long friendship with some biker she barely knew. But when she worked a shift at the diner, she looked out the window every time she heard a motorcycle engine. Sometimes it was him. Sometimes it was someone else in a matching vest. When it was Daryl, she got a heavy, sinking feeling in her chest that reminded her of grief. It reminded her of remorse.
It was late. Beth didn’t usually work the night shift, but Amy called in sick so she filled in. The diner was mostly empty except for a couple in the back corner booth chatting over fries that had sat mostly untouched for over an hour. Every now and then one of them would laugh or speak a bit louder when they were excited. Beth wiped the counter, refilled their coffee and wiped the counter again. It was just her and the night crew for the kitchen, so every now and then, the line cook, Tyrese, would stick his head out to check on her. The radio behind the counter played a local oldies station that her parents used to listen to.
The bell above the door rang out as someone walked through the door. Beth’s heart skipped when Daryl walked in with a man in a vest that matched his own. TH shared a passing resemblance in their noses and jaw lines, but the other man was bulky and the sharpness in his eye carried malice, rather than the precise wariness that was in Daryl’s. She assumed this was the brother Daryl had told her about during one of their — apparently ill advised — porch step talks. Merle — that’s what Daryl called him. He jeered at Beth as they took seats at the counter. She ignored him and tried to catch Daryl’s eye as she walked over, but he kept them glued to his menu. She took two cups and the coffee pot over. “Coffee?”
Merle gave her a lecherous sneer. “I’ll take whatever you want to give me, Blondie.” Beth just rolled her eyes; she’d heard worse from boys on her college campus, but she thought back to weeks before when Daryl told her about the “foul shit”, and doubted this was the worst Merle Dixon could do. Beth took their order and busied herself by checking on the couple in the corner. When she came back to the counter, she found that Tyrese had brought their food and Merle was making his way to the restroom.
Beth took her opportunity to slide over to Daryl with her coffee pot. He barely glanced up at her as he spoke. “Thought you worked in the morning.” It sounded like an apology: like he was sorry to be taking up space that belonged to her.
“I’m covering for Amy.” Beth chewed on the inside of her cheek and tapped the glass coffee pot with her fingernail. It took a minute to work up the nerve to say anything else. She looked down at the gray and brown speckled countertop. When she looked up again, Daryl was watching her like she thought — hoped — he had been every time she turned around. Heat traveled from her cheeks to the base of her spine. He cocked his head to the side almost imperceptibly, making him look even more bird-like than he already did. Beth forced herself to hold his gaze. “Daryl…” Her hand inched across the counter and her index finger grazed one of his knuckles. It was barely a touch, but Beth felt the warmth and callouses and grooves of his skin. It didn’t make sense for her heart to pound the way it did. He was just a guy who fixed her car; she reminded herself they weren’t even friends. Daryl’s own finger twitched out towards her hand. If Beth had been able to tear her attention away, she would not have caught the tiny, sharp breath he took though his teeth — it was a hiss really — when he touched her for the first time, but she did catch it. She absorbed it and let it brand itself into her skin.
The men’s room door opened and they both retracted their hands and dropped their eyes. Beth poured coffee into half empty mugs and turned away. She went through the swinging doors that led to the kitchen and pressed her back against the wall. She squeezed her eyes shut and put a hand on her chest. When she opened them, Tyrese was standing close by. “You okay, Beth?” She didn’t know what to say, so she took a breath and nodded, then went out back to the dining room only to find Daryl and Merle gone.
Beth kicked the tangled sheets away from her legs and huffed as she flipped over onto her back. The central air conditioning in the farmhouse had worked over time that summer, and had frozen over. Shawn told her he found someone to fix it, but he couldn’t come out right away. Until he could, they were living with fans blowing around hot air. Beth grumbled and got out of bed. She pulled on an old t-shirt and a pair of athletic shorts. She bumbled down the stairs and grabbed her car keys and headed outside without bothering with shoes. It was well past midnight as Beth drove around the dark back roads of Senoia. The AC in the car cooled her skin. The sticky sweat that coated her body dried and the tendrils of hair that stuck to her neck released themselves. She turned up the radio and sang along as she sped through the rolling hills.
Beth’s lights cut through the dark onto a tableau of motorcycles and leather vests. If she had any sense — or at least some kind of self preservation instinct — she would have put the car in reverse and left them to handle their business, but she saw Daryl getting kicked in the side by heavy looking boots. She threw the car into park and jumped out. “Hey! What are you doing to him?” Beth surprised herself. Maggie was always the confrontational one.
Merle Dixon stopped kicking and turned to her. In the light of her car headlights, Beth saw the recognition flicker across his face. He turned his sneer back to his brother. “So it’s Blondie? She the one you’ve been sneaking around with, little brother?”
Daryl sputtered out blood and shook his head. “No. I don’t know her.”
“Really? She was at the garage weeks ago, then the diner, then that boy showed up looking for you, now this. You expect all that to be a coincidence?” He screamed down at Daryl and gestured widely at Beth.
“It is.” Daryl’s voice was barely more than a gurgle of blood and tears.
Merle nodded slowly and stalked toward Beth. He spit at her bare feet, and she had to step back so it wouldn’t land on her. His hand sprang out like a snake strike to grab her arm, twisting it until she was turned around and her arm was behind her back. Beth couldn’t help but yelp at the pain. Merle’s breath was hot against her ear as he gripped her close to his body. “Okay, little brother. I guess you don’t care if I have a little time with her then.”
Beth squeezed her eyes shut as she tried to block out her imminent future of being violated by Merle. “Just let her go. She’s nobody.” Merle didn’t respond; he just pushed Beth down against the hood of her car. She tried to yank her arm away, but his bulk was too much. She focused on the sound of her breathing, the crickets chirping, and the shuffling sound behind them. She heard the click and footfalls before she understood what was going on. Daryl’s voice was very close now, and the gurgle was gone. It was replaced with a cool menacing demand. “Let her go. Now. Or I swear to god, I will fucking kill you.”
Merle turned, dragging Beth around with him. Daryl stood about a foot away with a pistol aimed at his brother’s head. Merle’s grip on Beth’s arm tightened. HIs heart pounded against her back. “You think having that gun makes you a man? You don’t have a fucking clue. You’re no better than hired pussy. You’re nothing. You’re–” Beth jammed her heel into his ankle where his boot was soft. Merle’s grip faltered and she pulled away just enough to turn and knee him in the groin. He doubled over and Beth ran behind Daryl, who still held his gun up. Merle stood up and sputtered. “You bitch. I’m going to kill you.” He stalked toward them, until the gunshot rang out and he slumped down into the dirt.
Daryl stood, still pointing the gun at a dead Merle. His whole body shook and the gun rattled in his hands. Beth moved around him. It felt like it took decades to make her way to stand in front of him. He didn’t look at her as she took the gun from his hands and tossed it aside. Daryl rushed forward to grab Merle’s body. He cradled his brother’s head in his lap as he sobbed over him. “Why did you do this?” Beth’s heart sank even further than it already had that night. Of course he blamed her for his brother’s death. “All you had to do was let her go.” Oh. “I woulda done anything you wanted, but you chose this.” He pressed his forehead against Merle’s and continued to cry as he chanted. “Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.”
Beth crouched down and put a hand on Daryl’s shoulder. “We should go. I can call Sheriff Grimes. He’ll help us.”
Daryl looked up at her; his eyes were wider than Beth had ever seen them, but she watched as they narrowed and he slowly came back to himself. He eased his brother back to the ground and stood up. “You hurt?” She shook her head and he looked around at the scene they found themselves in. “Go home. I’ll take care of this.”
“Go, Beth.” He looked down at Merle then back to her. “I’ll find you.”
Beth paced around her living room in the dark. She chewed her fingernails almost down to the skin. Every time she closed her eyes she saw Daryl leaning over Merle’s boody. She heard his cracked sobs. By sun up Shawn was already gone and Beth had called in sick to the diner. She went outside and collected eggs and fed chickens and turned out horses. She was back in the house with her hair wrapped in a towel when she heard the rumble of a motorcycle coming up the drive. Beth unwrapped her hair and went out on the porch to watch Daryl ride up. He wasn’t wearing his vest and he’d changed his clothes. She ran down the stairs as Daryl swung his leg over his bike. She almost — on impulse alone — threw her arms around him, but stopped short. They stood apart for a minute. His wary eyes searched her face. Beth opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again when her words caught in her throat. She bit the inside of her cheek. “You’re not wearing your vest.”
Daryl looked down at his chest, like it would be there if he looked again. “I, uh — I turned it in. I’m out.”
He huffed a humorless laugh. “It’s just a club, Beth, not a street gang. I was really only involved for Merle.” His eyes squeezed shut as he said his brother’s name. Beth nodded to the steps and they went over to sit. Daryl lit a cigarette and Beth raked her fingers through her damp hair. They sat in the quiet for a long time. When Daryl tossed his second cigarette butt, he looked at Beth through the corner of his eye. “Are you okay?”
Beth nodded, not trusting herself to respond aloud. “What happened with everything?”
Daryl squinted at the sun as it rose higher above the ridge. “Club took care of it. Apparently he was becoming a liability” He crowed a bitter laugh. “My brother wasn’t good for anything except a hired fist if he was sober enough to do the job, which he never was. Merle’d do anything for his next hit — even rat out his club. He was on his way out, and he knew it. He was pissed and out of control. A couple of months ago he tried to get me to take off, but that’s not how it works, and we both knew that I wasn’t a kid he could just push around. When I took up with you, it was just one more thing that threatened his control.” Daryl lit a third cigarette and took a long drag. “Your brother came by to see if I could fix the AC and Merle caught on. He brought me out there on a bogus run. Tried to beat me into submission just like our old man used to.”
Beth swiped away the tears that had fallen down her cheeks. “I’m sorry.”
Daryl shrugged. “I loved my brother and hated him in the same breath. His death is on his hands.” He rested his head on his head against the railing and looked over at Beth with misty eyes. “I just feel a little lost now.” Beth reached for Daryl’s hand, but stopped before she did. Before she could drop it, Daryl took it into his own. They sat like that for a long time — palm against palm, fingers threaded together, heavy hearts pulsing into the skin of their wrists.
Beth poured sweet tea into tall glasses of ice and went to the porch. “You wanna come in?”
Daryl looked up from his spot on the steps. He lifted a half smoked cigarette. “It’s nice out anyway.”
Beth sat and smiled at him. “It’s ninety degrees.”
Daryl took the tea he was offered and took a sip. “Better than ninety-eight.” He took her hand with almost no hesitation. Even after that morning, when he first held her hand on the steps, Daryl was hesitant to touch Beth. It took him almost a week to take her hand again, then it didn’t become a regular occurrence when they were together until weeks after that. Sometimes when he came to the house, Beth would touch his arm, or let her fingertips graze across his shoulder blades as she walked past him. Each time, he was very tense for a moment until she smiled at him, or removed her hand. When Beth was a child, hugs were passed around liberally. Kisses on foreheads and cheeks were an almost daily occurrence. She knew that Daryl was different. He told her that his father was “the meanest son of a bitch you ever seen.” She hugged him then, for the first time since they’d met. At first his entire body was completely still, but Beth just pressed her cheek into his chest until he exhaled and sort of awkwardly wrapped his arms around her as well. While they watched the sun set, she just leaned against his shoulder. Beth lifted their joined hand and brought it up to her mouth slowly, letting Daryl remove his hand if he needed to. He just watched her — he was always watching her these days — with his sharp, narrow eyes as she pressed her lips to the tattooed and bruised back of his hand.
Beth just watched him as he watched her right back, letting her eyes search his face for any trace of fear or disappointment. Her heart pounded in her chest, like it did any time she touched him or looked at him or thought about him — especially when those thoughts usually pushed images of him in her bed, tangled in her sheets, whispering her name in the dark. She spoke barely above a whisper, but her eyes never left his. “I want you, and I think you want me too.” Daryl didn’t speak; he just lifted a single trembling finger and brushed it across the skin of her cheek. He trailed it down the side of her neck and across her collarbone. He leaned forward to press his forehead against hers and slid his hand up from her shoulder to the side of her neck again to touch the skin there — to feel her pulse jump under his hand. His nose brushed against hers and his eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks. Beth — emboldened by the pounding in her chest and the feeling of his breath so close to her mouth — lifted her chin to catch his lips with her own, and tugged him closer so she could press her chest against his. They sat on the porch, chest to chest as their hearts beat together and their hands found their way under shirts and into hair and the sound of their ragged breaths drowned out the screaming cicadas. When they finally pulled apart, Dary still didn’t speak, but his wary eyes watched her as she led him upstairs. And when they lay in her bed, whispering in the dark and chasing after each other’s lips and hands, they still watched.