Disclaimer: I own nothing.
A/n: Beth centric. Slow-burning Bethyl.
. . .
How do we define death?
Does it begin clinically, when you lose your breath and a heart stops beating? Or when you close your eyes and let your thoughts float away, your mind going silent? Is it your soul loosing itself from Earth's gravity, drifting up toward the heavens and joining other souls? Does it hurt, dying, or does it feel like nothing at all, a gust of wind passing through and leaving someone?
Death. It's a word weighted down in darkness; heavy, mysterious, and unknown. To most people it's an unfathomable thing and otherworldly, something out of a fairytale. Unreal, but more sinister. Before, Beth liked to think death was just passing on. Sometimes suddenly, sometimes slowly, and always unexpectedly. There could be peace in it. Like falling asleep.
She used to sit with the animals Daddy put down, the ones without family. They lay on the table, small and quiet, while she stroked them gently, running her fingers through soft fur, giving them one last scratch under the chin.
Maggie thought it was creepy, maybe even a bit morbid, but Beth felt comfort in being the one to help them pass on and hoped they felt comfort from her too. Daddy said death wasn't anything to be afraid of, it's just the natural way of things and a ticket home to God.
Beth thinks it's different now. Now that she's seen it, up close and staring at her, spitting at her like a rabid dog. There's still mystery to it, but its presence is suffocating. It haunts her dreams, haunts her when she's not even sleeping. There's no comfort in the rotting jaws, only a vile, pungent stench. She doesn't know if there's any peace it in now or if there ever was.
Really she doesn't know what to think anymore, but it's all she thinks about anyway.
"Lock the doors. Otis and I are gonna go get some plywood to board up these windows." Daddy's voice is shaky, but calm and quiet like it always is. "You girls don't open the door for no one."
Maggie beings to protest, but Daddy silences her with a trembling hand. She's not as brave as Maggie though she wants to be. Beth wants to hang onto his pant leg like she had as a little girl, pleading with him not to leave her, not like Momma. Maggie's angry though. She'd go with him, to see what's out there, to protect him.
"Don't leave the house, lock the doors, don't you open them till we get back," he repeats, staring hard at them and leaving no room for arguing.
When they finally leave Patricia comes to her and lets her cry into her shirt. It all feels unreal, but the fear is overwhelming.
"Don't you worry, Bethy. They'll be back soon, they'll be okay," Patricia says over and over again. As her sister presses her head against her chest, Beth cries harder. Later, before she falls asleep, she'll think Patricia was trying to convince herself more than her, but she feels safer hearing the words all the same.
On the other side of the room, Maggie sits like a stone with her jaw set and eyes blazing. One of Otis' rifles rests on the ottoman in front of her. It's hard for her to open herself up so she appears tough, but her eyes flit to the front door every few minutes and Beth knows that she's worried too… and scared.
They jump at every small noise and sometimes imagine they hear the awful groaning they haven't yet become familiar with. Soon it will sound as normal to them as breathing.
But for now they wait.
It's just a sickness pulsing through their veins and burning them up with fever. Daddy tells them that it won't last long, that the best doctors and scientists in America are working fast to cure it. When they do, things will be right as rain again and Momma, Shawn, and the others will be sent out to get the medicine.
But till then they won't take any chances. It's not safe to venture outdoors not knowing who's infected and who's not. She thinks if people need help who aren't sick, they should help them, but Maggie says they can't trust anyone but themselves. Sick people get desperate, she says. They'll do anything to get in.
Beth feels sad for all those people, hurting and alone, being turned out of their homes. She wants to see Momma and Shawn, maybe she could sit with them awhile and put a cold washcloth across their foreheads.
She gets a kit together from the bathroom and is almost out the door before Maggie stops her and asks what the hell she thinks she's doing. They need somebody, Beth tells her, but Maggie doesn't listen and yanks the bucket from her hand, yelling now.
"You're so stupid, Beth! What did Daddy say? You can't go out there!" red blooms on her cheeks in blotchy patches and Beth pales, shrinking away at first before she feels the fury rise within her.
"Are they even being fed? You're just gonna let them suffer, how could you do that? They need us!"
Maggie is screaming at her now and starts to say something about no one being sick but then Daddy is there and she goes silent, her mouth turning down.
"Maggie, upstairs." The bucket crashes against the floor.
Beth watches her stomp up the stairs and hears a door slam loudly. She thinks she's won and picks up the bucket but then Daddy sits her down on the couch and tells her that under no circumstances is she to go outside to the barn. Momma and Shawn aren't in their right minds but they don't want to take the chance of passing the sickness on.
"I'm taking care of them, Beth, don't you worry. Just stay inside for me, please. In here, where you're safe and healthy. Promise me?"
She thinks he's hiding something from her, like maybe it's worse than he says, but she trusts him. And if it is worse… she doesn't want to think about that.
So she agrees, "Alright, Daddy, I promise."
Jimmy, Otis, and Daddy sit in the dining room and talk quietly with the doors closed. They take on the decision-making roles pretty quickly much to the annoyance of Maggie—Jimmy's still just a boy after all.
Patricia doesn't really mind because she's always been the more traditional one, taking care of her younger sisters when she was a teenager, getting married early, and then being homemaker to Otis. Some people fall into the roles the world picks out for them naturally.
It's not that easy for Maggie. She's got a rebellious spirit and had been the most troublesome when they were growing up—even more so than Shawn. She's unpredictable, nontraditional, and sometimes irrational, but convicted. Nobody control's her life but herself. If Beth's honest, she thinks she feels closest to Maggie, the one who has struggled to stand out and defy expectations.
Once Before, when they were much younger, when Maggie was 17, she went to the beauty salon with Patricia and came back with a matching haircut. Daddy made sure to tell her how beautiful her hair was, how beautiful just like Patricia's, and how if he didn't watch out, he'd have to walk her down the aisle next. Beth remembers walking in on her in the bathroom later that night, a pair of old scissors in one hand and a chunk of hair in the other, sawing away at it.
Too stricken to say anything, she had watched her older sister slump against the sink and stare at her reflection in the mirror with red eyes.
"I don't want to be like Patricia," her voice choked on the words, "I'm not like Patricia. I'm me. Why can't they just see me?"
It was the only time she had ever seen Maggie crack. It was the only time Maggie had ever confided in her, even if by accident. But Beth understood, too, what it was like to feel invisible and what it was like for everyone to expect certain things out of you.
Ever since then Beth made sure to see Maggie, even if Maggie still never saw her.
Daddy and Otis enter the living room looking like they've just decided something grave and important.
"We've got to go into town soon." Daddy starts, "We're running out of food."
Her stomach sinks. If they get sick... or robbed…
Maggie stands, "I'm going."
. . .
A/n: The title of this story was inspired by William Wordsworth's poem "The Solitary Reaper." Also, I don't have a Beta, if you'd like to Beta for me, PM me.
Thoughts, comments, criticisms: review.