When Daryl awoke it was to bright sunlight filtering through a large clean window, a steady and irritating beeping sound and an ache throughout his entire body. His throat was dry and scratchy like he'd swallowed sandpaper and his eyes burned with the bright light. As his eyes adjusted to his surroundings, he realised he was propped up in a hospital bed, clean sheets, fluffed pillows and all. He needed to piss something awful and then realised in a panic that his body was going ahead and doing it without his say so! He was mortified to think he was about to piss this nice clean bed, threw the sheet back to reveal that he was only dressed in a backless hospital gown and then was horrified again when he saw the thin plastic tube snaking out from underneath it. Someone had touched his junk while he was asleep, what else had they done to him? Still, the realisation that he didn't need to move to relieve himself was some small consolation. He pulled the sheet back up over himself hurriedly but then peered under the gown to inspect himself. His shoulder and the side of his chest were covered in bandages, a further tube was protruding from between his ribs and he had an IV in at the elbow attached to three different bags of fluid.
He'd expected a ward, not that he'd really expected to wake up at all. The local medical centre only had wards, at least as far as he remembered, two rooms of eight, a men's one and a women's. When he'd broken his arm they hadn't had a children's ward so he'd had to stay in with the men until he got his surgery in the morning. He shuddered at the memory, most of them had been old, and in his young mind he had been certain they were all there because they were dying. They musta taken him all the way down to Atlanta for him to get his own room, and one with a window too. He couldn't see much out of it, nothing but sky, but that was okay. It was nice. Better than looking out over the parking lot like the ward had when he was a kid, better than the lumpy bed with the unwashed sheets that was awaiting him at home. He was about to be bored as all hell, he was sure, but until then he'd appreciate small mercies like this.
The novelty, it turned out, only lasted as long as the morphine did. He drifted back to sleep again and woke up in agony, each breath felt like he had shards of glass in his lungs, the rise and fall of his chest sparked pain with every minute movement. Something was not right, he hadn't felt like that before. In a panic he called out hoping someone would hear him. "Nurse! Nurse!"
His voice was rough and unused but someone heard him anyway. A young African-American nurse entered a room and gave him a big smile. "It's good to see you awake Mr Dixon."
"Somethin's wrong," he said. "Hurt's so much."
She nodded and patted his arm. He was in so much pain he was too disoriented to flinch. "Here," she said, picking up a little button on a line and placing it in his bandaged hand. "This controls the morphine, if you need it just click this here You can't overdose so click away." She gave it a couple of clicks for him and after a few seconds he could start to feel the pain subside slightly. "And this one," she found him a big button with a little outline of a nurse in an old-fashioned apron and cap on it. "You need anything you can call us on that." She hung it over the bed railing and he realised that it had been there all along. He nodded, cheeks glowing hot with embarrassment, not only was he a pussy, he was an idiot too!
The nurse, whose name badge read Irma, seemed to sense what he was thinking, because she gave him another one of those smiles. "It's okay, a lot of people are out of it when they first wake up, and you've been through a hell of a week." She offered him a cup and he drank greedily, only now realising how thirsty he was.
"A week?" he muttered.
"Mm hm, you were brought in on Saturday, it's Thursday now."
"Shit!" he cursed and then remembered he was in polite company, "'m sorry."
"You're lucky to be here Mr Dixon. Your fractured ribs punctured a lung. If those officers hadn't given you CPR you might've drowned in your own blood. Surgeons have repaired your lung and your ribs and replaced the damage to your scapula…"
"Your shoulder blade. The bullet shattered it so they've had to replace it. I'm sure they'll tell you all about it when they do their rounds tomorrow."
"Replace it? I don' remember havin' a spare."
She laughed, but he didn't find it very amusing. "They've made you one, out of titanium. There's more than a few pins in your ribs too, holding you all together while you heal. They'll probably come out eventually, but you won't get through an airport scanner without beeping again."
Daryl frowned, he wasn't sure what that meant, but he didn't think airport anythings were something he would ever have to be concerned about.
"Fuck, so I'm like the Terminator?"
She laughed again, it took him a moment to realise she wasn't mocking him but genuinely found him funny, "You're getting that way, yes."
"Huh," Daryl snorted, "you know I cain't pay fer any a this, right?"
She nodded, and then she reached over to pick up a newspaper that was laying on the chair by the window.
Daryl stared at is as she opened it up and deposited it in his lap. The front page had a large picture of the girl he'd been looking for, wide-eyed and grinning, whole life ahead of her. Beside her though was a photo of him. It was his driving licence, prob'ly the only photo that'd ever been taken of him in his life. In it he looked young and angry, the way he'd always been when it was taken, hell, the way he still was most a the time. 'Local Hero Tracks Child Killer,' it read.
'When Jameston native Daryl Dixon heard about the tragic events last Friday night, he knew he had to help…' Well that were far from right, he grunted.
"It's a work a fiction," he said, wishing it weren't.
The nurse gave him that smile again, like she believed every word that was written, and then she tapped the side bar in the corner. 'The family of Ciara Just and The Atlanta Sun are spearheading a campaign to thank Mr Dixon for his selfless act by funding his medical bills for injuries sustained in the course of apprehending her murderer. If you would like to donate, please call…"
"Serious?" he said, looking up at her, looking for signs this was all some elaborate joke.
"Fiction or not, this is happening," she assured.
Daryl chewed at his thumbnail to hide his lip when it started to quiver. His eyes prickled and he cursed himself for bein' so pathetic. Some fucking hero you are! a voice said in his head and it sounded like Merle.
"Hey, has my brother been here?" he asked, getting his emotions under control.
The face the nurse pulled, he knew he had. "He was here on the Sunday, for a while. He made an impression, but he's not been back since."
"I'm sorry," he found himself apologisin', "I know he's an asshole."
"We don't pick our family," she said. "I'll call him now, let him know you're awake."
"Thank you," he said, and offered a weak attempt at a smile back.
The hospital had rung the number Merle had given but the line was still disconnected. Daryl had given them Bill's number at the bar and he'd promised to pass the message on and he was fairly sure he would have, but after a few days he stopped asking if Merle had called.
Daryl spent almost a week drifting in and out of sleep, completely alone. After a day or two a few books appeared on his bedside, left over by previous patients and delivered by well-meaning nurses. He started a Stephen King novel but was too tired and medicated to be able to concentrate. The staff were friendly enough but their visits brief. Randy, one of the nurses on the night shift had found out he liked bikes and spent an hour chatting with him about them, but Daryl felt like it was more out of pity than genuine interest and though he tried hard not to, he was fairly sure he came off as resentful and surly. What made matters worse, was that he was desperate to get out of there, he hated the lack of independence and only being able to view the outdoors from his window made him feel all caged in, but at the same time, the doctors and nurses, some of them at least, seemed to genuinely care about him. He wasn't sure how to feel about that.
And then one day Irma was back and changing the dressings on his chest when they were interrupted by a familiar bellowing in the corridor. "Hey, where's my little brother? Darlena, which one of these rooms you in? Darlena!"
They could hear the Head Nurse Petra outside, "Sir, if you don't quieten down, I'm going to have to ask you to leave. You can't be disturbing the other patients."
"Where's my brother?" Merle never had learned to moderate his voice.
"Merle, I'm in here." Daryl called, before his brother caused a further scene. "I'm sorry," he muttered to Irma.
The door to his room swung open and Merle staggered through. He stopped and stared at him and Irma for a moment before letting the door swing shut behind him and he dropped himself into a chair by the bed. Daryl could smell the cheap bourbon coming off him in waves.
Irma gave Merle a disapproving look and then finished taping the dressing down. Daryl pulled the sheets around himself as soon as she was done. "I'm going to leave you boys to it, but if you need anything just buzz." She placed the call buzzer beside his bed. He hadn't used it after the first day with the pain relief, determined to shuffle to the bathroom by himself and not cause a bother, there was only one reason she thought he'd need it now.
He just nodded in response, them both knowing full well he wouldn't use it.
Daryl waited for the door to close behind her before he spoke. "Nice of you to come visit. You'd better be feedin' Hunter okay."
"Fucking look at you," Merle said, ignoring Daryl's bitter sarcasm. If Daryl hadn't known any better, he would have said his brother looked guilty.
"I hope you didn't drive here like that," he responded.
"Nah, got here this morning. Been Downtown a little while."
He just shrugged at that.
"Well you rolled in here eventually, I guess I should be grateful you found the time." Daryl could've kicked himself, he'd meant to keep the peace but he was rapidly losing patience. Why'd he have to turn up drunk and embarrass him like that?
"I'm here ain't I? Baby brother, they said they'd done a number of you but shiiiiit."
"Shattered shoulder blade, five broken ribs, punctured lung and a cracked eye socket. Nice friends you have these days."
"Look brother, I didn't know he would do that to you! I barely knew the guy."
"No, you thought you'd just bring over a trigger-happy child molester and have a cook-out."
"If I'd a known he'd hurt little kids I wouldn't'a."
"You didn't think it strange that man like that were happy to sit on our piece a shit couch in front'a our piece a shit house. Where'd you meet them anyway?"
"I owe someone a favour. They had my back in prison and when I got out I told them I'd pay 'em back. It was gonna pay too. These friends a his wanted to meet me, make sure I was a good fit…"
"So it was some sort a interview? You auditioning ta be a muscle fer the Klan or summat? Fucking hell Merle, you shoulda stayed in prison!" Daryl turned away to face the window so Merle couldn't see how angry he was.
He expected Merle to get angry, slam his chair and storm out but he didn't. Instead he just sat there, slumped in the chair. Daryl could see his reflection in the window, he'd never seen him look so lost. It was hard to remember him being anything but angry or obnoxious.
"So when can we bust you outta here?" Merle asked when the silence had gone on for so long it had become uncomfortable.
"Dunno, soon I guess. Took the chest drain out this mornin'. They ain't gonna wanna be keeping me here any longer than they have'ta. It ain't like I'm claimin' it on some fancy insurance."
"Yeah, I read about that, my brother the hometown hero. You know you should make them pay out for emotional distress or some shit too."
Daryl turned then to glare at him.
"A'ight princess. I was only joking."
"Yeah well it ain't funny."
Merle nodded, like he was going to agree with him, but then a smirk came over him, "Mmm, saw that mama's picture in the paper. Wonder if she'd be interested in showin' her appreciation in another way? I did kinda help you find that girl's killer myself."
"Get the fuck outta here!" Daryl snapped.
"A'ight," he held his hands up in mock surrender, "I'd'a thought you'd be all for me tryin' ta broaden my horizons, especially as you seem all pally with The Help out here."
"She ain't The Help! She's doin' a goddamn important job, which is more than can be said fer either a us."
Despite all the nastiness already said, somehow that was the trigger, "A'ight, no need to get your panties in a bunch jus' 'cause I interrupted yer sponge-bath. Drove all the way t' Atlanta t' come an' see ya, ya ungrateful bitch, but I know when I'm not wanted. Don't expect me t' do it again!" Now he slammed his chair as he stood up, slammed the door on his way out of it, snarled at a nurse who got in his way as he marched down the corridor.
Daryl huffed and looked up at the ceiling, after a moment he saw Irma stick her head back round the door, "Everything okay?"
"Motherfucker had better be feeding my goddamn cat!"
Thankfully Merle's anger often blew over like a bad storm and so when Daryl was released from hospital two days later, not only did he pick up the phone, proving he had paid both the electric and the phone bill, he drove Daryl's rusty truck all the way back down to Atlanta to pick him up. They sat in silence most of the way back, with Daryl resting his sore and still swollen head against the window, his arm wrapped tightly in a sling against his healing ribs.
He drifted in and out of sleep a little, although the truck rattled too much for him to get truly comfortable and Merle's terrible attempts to sing along to Metallica were not conducive to rest.
They pulled up to the house and Daryl noted that the couch had been moved up to the porch and the yard had been cleared of trash and glass. There was a new pane in the window too. But the front of the house was marred with black smudged graffiti, sprayed across the front door and the wall. There was a bucket of black water and a sponge by the door, Merle had made an attempt to get rid of it, but Daryl could still read the words, 'Snitchin N er Lover.' No prizes for guessing the word that Merle had scrubbed hardest at.
"I was tryin' t' get it off but then you called and I came t' get you," Merle said. "I might just paint over it, do the whole house, what d'ya think?"
"When did it happen?"
"Las' night. I woke up with it like this. I asked around but no one saw anythin'."
Daryl nodded, too weary and disappointed to speak. He trudged up the steps and entered the house. The rest of it was still a bit of a mess, but there were no dishes in the sink and there was food on the kitchen shelves. Hunter was waiting for him on the counter by the door and meowed at his arrival. "Hey girl," Daryl greeted, "Merle been lookin' after ya?"
She meowed again. She looked healthy enough, Daryl had to guess that was a yes.
"Thanks for this," he gestured lamely.
Merle shrugged, "I'll get it finished little brother, you just concentrate on healin' up. You wanna beer?" he asked, going to the fridge which was humming gently. The electric had been off so long that Daryl had almost forgotten it did that.
"Nah, I'll jus' gonna go t' bed. The drive home fuckin' hurt."
"Yeah okay," Merle seemed disappointed. "Oh, before I forget, a letter came for you yesterday, it's on the counter unless that mean little cat of yours has moved it."
Daryl found the letter, it was thick with lots of sheets of paper, the name and address was handwritten in slightly skewed capitals. He waved it in thanks and headed to bed. Hunter meowed at him, upset because he hadn't waited for her to hop onto his shoulder. "Sorry girl, you're gonna have to walk for a few weeks."
His room had been cleaned and the sheets were fresh, the bed made with army precision. There was a dark stain on the floor where his blood had worked its way into the cracks in the wood, but it was easily ignorable unless you were looking for it. He stripped off his sneakers and his jeans and crawled into bed. The slats were broken and gave under his back but he didn't care, it was good to be home. A minute later Hunter entered the room and hopped up to join him, snuggling into his neck on his good side, careful to avoid the bandages and sling.
He opened the envelope and read the top page, written in the same bold hand. 'Hey Daryl,' it started off, 'We hope you're recovering okay. It was a brave thing you did, going after that guy, and we appreciate the help. I have no idea if we would have caught him without you. Hope you don't think of this as prying, but Shane an I didn't notice a computer at your house and felt you should see this. It's the website they used to collect the donations and well, you'll see… Good luck with everything, and thanks again, Rick and Shane.'
Daryl looked through the rest of the sheets, they were print out of the website, the goal number was at the top of the first one and it was staggering. It was more money than he'd be able to make in a lifetime, and yet it was over half-achieved. He couldn't believe that people would actually want to spend their money to help him. The rest of the sheets were full of names of people who'd donated and the comments they'd left. Shane and Rick were at the top but they'd a brief message, 'Good luck in your recovery, and thank you' and had hidden their donation amount, but there were others from people he'd never met, 'Thank you for your selfless act, Brenda and Bob Higgens,' with a total beside, fifty dollars. 'Hoping you make a full recovery, Philippa,' a hundred dollars. "I'm sorry it's not much, but every little helps. Thank you for doing right by that little girl, and may God bless you, Carol and Sophia,' twenty dollars.
Daryl put the papers down, it was too much. He didn't deserve it, he hadn't been there in time to save her and nothing he could do would bring her back. He threw the papers aside, unable to read any more. It had to just be some big joke, there was no way strangers were giving him money, just because of a stupid newspaper article where they used an awful photo of him that made him look about twelve. One day another letter would come and it would be even fatter than this one and it would detail just how much money he owed the hospital and he would have to spend the rest of his life working it off and still never get out of debt.
He closed his eyes and tried to rest, but he could feel the letter on the bed beside him and he found himself picking it back up again and flicking through and, good Lord some crazy lady had paid his entire ambulance fee!
He read the comments until the light from the window started to dim and he fell asleep. He awoke to the sound of crashing glass at the front of the house, his first thought was that Merle had gotten drunk again and smashed something, but when he padded into the living room, he saw flames licking at the porch beneath the newly fixed window.
"Shit! Merle! The house is on fire!"
Merle stumbled out of his room in just his boxers, his face contorted in sleepy confusion. "What the fuck!" he exclaimed as he woke up fully. "Shit, little brother, we have'ta go!"
"Hold on," Daryl ducked back into his room to look for Hunter. She wasn't on the bed, and come to think of it, she hadn't been snuggled in her usual spot when he'd woken up. He got down to his knees but she wasn't under the bed either.
"Daryl," Merle appeared in the doorway.
"I can't find Hunter."
"She's probably out already. Now come on!"
Daryl nodded, he was probably right. The old cat was no good at catching anything anymore, but she still liked to try and often slipped out of his bedroom window to prowl around in the dark. Ignoring the feeling of dread, he followed his brother out of the front door.
He froze when in his rush to escape he ran headlong into something dangling over the porch. His blood ran cold when he realised what it was. Hunter had been stung up by her neck, her little head held tightly in a noose that had been looped through one of the porch rafters so that she hung limply right in front of the door. And just in case there had been any doubt about who had done it, an arrow had been driven through her leg.
"Noo!" he yelled and grabbed her, lifting her up and releasing the pressure on her neck. She was still warm, it had only just happened, maybe he wasn't too late. "Merle! Get me a knife! I need to cut her down."
Merle appeared in the doorway behind him but he was hefting a bucket of water. He flung it at the roaring flames, they hissed as the cold water hit but it didn't seem to have much of an impact.
"Merle, a knife, now!"
"We need to put out the fire!" Merle protested. "The house is about to burn down!"
"Fuck the house, get me a knife!"
Merle dashed back inside, but this time when he returned with a full bucket, he had a kitchen knife too which he handed to Daryl. Daryl rested Hunter's little body over his shoulder and sawed through the rope. As soon as she was free, he sank to the top step and cradled her little body in his lap. Behind him Merle sloshed another bucket of water at the fire and cursed when it didn't go out. Daryl had no idea what to do, he tried rubbing her belly, forcing breaths into her little mouth but nothing worked. Her neck was rubbed raw by the rope and her head lolled at an awkward angle. He'd seen the same thing with rabbits caught in snares, the rope had snapped her neck. He buried his face in her soft fur and soaked it with silent tears.
Eventually, he no longer felt the intense heat burning at his back and then the step creaked and Merle sat down beside him. He was covered in soot, no doubt they both were, but Daryl didn't care. He wouldn't have cared if the whole house had gone up in smoke and taken him with it. He expected Merle to lay inta him, tell him what an idiot he was for just sitting there while the flames licked at his backside but he didn't. They sat in silence, too wrung out to talk, while smoke rose from the charred end of the porch.
"I told'ya," Merle said long after their asses had gone numb from the hardwood, "ain't no use in helpin' folk, there'll always be someone t' take more than you're prepared t' give."
Daryl swallowed thickly, the smoke in his battered lungs making him want to cough, "Doesn't matter now, I ain't got nothin' left."
"You got me, little brother," Merle patted him on the shoulder, "You'll always have me."