Within hours of leaving Jane behind, Clementine had come to regret her decision. In retrospect, she could understand Jane’s point, although that certainly did not excuse her actions. But at the time, standing there desperately clutching AJ, relief at finding him alive warring with sorrow and confusion, she had been unable to see anything other than her own despair and anger. She had just killed her oldest friend, the last person in what remained of this Godforsaken world who really knew anything about what she’d been through. Only to find out she had essentially been duped. Clementine had never felt a betrayal quite as sharp as she did when Jane had made her confession. And that’s really what it boiled down to.
Clementine was hurting deeply, and in her pain she had distanced herself from the last remaining person who could help her. Now, with a clearer head, she could concede that in leaving Jane, she had only been seeking to isolate herself from anymore hurt. Like a turtle that pulls itself into its shell to avoid injury. But in doing so, she had most likely damned both herself and AJ to a slow death out in the snow. What was she thinking? She was 11 years old, all alone in the middle of winter with a days old baby. What was she supposed to feed him? How would she keep him warm? She didn’t even have any diapers. What would she do when his cries inevitably drew walkers? Or worse, people? How could she expect to protect him when she was struggling so hard to even protect herself?
She thought about stopping. Turning around and going back the way she came. Maybe she could catch up with Jane. She was still mad as hell, and pretty sure she could never really trust Jane ever again, or anyone else for that matter, but dammit she needed help. Now was not the time to strike out on her own. One look behind her had tossed that idea out the window. The wind had all but covered her tracks already, and she’d been so intent on getting as far away from Jane as possible that she hadn’t been paying attention to where she was going. She didn’t have the first clue which direction she’d come from. Rookie mistake. She was better than that now, she couldn’t afford to do stupid shit like that anymore. She’d gotten enough people killed by being stupid already, she wasn’t going to add AJ to the list. No, they were on their own, and she would just have to find a way herself.
She wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she turned her back literally and figuratively on Jane, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge her increasingly desperate pleas for Clementine to stay. (And she knows, without a doubt, that she will continue to hear those desperate pleas in her dreams for the rest of her life.) She felt like she’d been walking forever, but between the cold, her emotional turmoil, and lugging a baby around with a bum shoulder, she was sure her sense of time was severely skewed by fatigue. The snow and cloud coverage made it hard to guess the time of day. She had been shot at night, hadn’t she? Her memories of the last day were muddled and hazy, but surely she wasn’t unconscious for too long afterwards. It was still early morning, right?
Great. Just great. I have no idea where am I, or where I’m going, and now I can’t even tell how long till nightfall. Fantastic job, Clementine. You’re really on a roll today.
Regardless of direction or time, she couldn’t ignore the biting wind or frigid cold. She would have to find some shelter soon. Kicking herself once again for storming off instead of thinking things through, she hastily turned toward a group of snow-covered trees, hoping a small reprieve from the wind would give her a chance to weigh her options clearly. Leaning her back against the biggest tree, she hunched her shoulders around AJ to block as much of the wind as possible, wincing slightly as the movement pulled at her aggravated wound. She really hoped she wasn’t still bleeding. She was so cold now she wouldn’t be able to feel it if she was. All she really wanted was to sit down, but she didn’t trust her shoulder at this point. If she went down she might not be able to get back up with AJ’s extra weight. Resigning herself to standing, she looked around, taking stock of her surroundings.
“Okay, we need shelter. I’ll worry about fire and food and whatever afterwards. We won’t survive the night exposed out here. Shelter first.”
At first her search turned up nothing but snow and trees. With a growing sense of panic she realized that she had somehow lost the road she had originally been following. How could she have been so careless? This is the kind of thoughtless, juvenile shit that got Omid killed… No . She wouldn’t go down that road again. Not now. This was not the time.
Focus. Focus . You can’t afford to think about that right now. Just take a deep breath and pull yourself together!
The air was biting cold and stung her throat, but several deep breaths or it succeeded in temporarily calming her frazzled nerves. A second look around proved much more promising as she spotted what appeared to be a small path leading off through the trees, just barely visible under the snow. A hiking trail, perhaps? Regardless, it was her best bet at this point. Satisfied that she now at least had a clear direction, Clementine took a moment to steel herself for what would most likely be a long walk.
AJ’s being awful quiet, better make sure he’s okay before I head out.
Looking down at the child held securely in her arms, Clementine carefully pulled the edge of the blanket away from his face with the tip of her finger.
“Hey little guy, you doin’ okay there?” she said softly.
Although he’d appeared to be sleeping, AJ perked up at the sound of Clementine’s voice, blinking sleepily a few times before fixing his eyes on hers. Recognition lit his face into a bright smile and he gurgled happily at her, squirming slightly in the confines of the blanket. At the sight of his happy little face, Clementine couldn’t help but smile back. After all, AJ had beaten all the odds just by being born healthy in all this, let alone surviving the danger of the last few days. She didn’t know why, but something about the way he looked at her, completely trusting and totally unaware of just how vulnerable he really was, rejuvenated Clementine. Made her want to push further, fight harder, and keep going for his sake. She wonders if maybe this was how Lee had felt about her.
Tucking the blanket back gently, and readjusting AJ in her arms in an attempt to spare her abused shoulder, Clementine set off toward the path that would hopefully lead them to some kind of shelter.
The walk had indeed been long, but several grueling hours of fighting the wind rewarded Clementine with the sight of a small cabin a short ways off from the trail. A welcome sight that had her sighing in relief. With the sun just barely visible over the tops of the distant mountains, she had started to get worried. By the look of it, no one had so much as opened the door since the world fell apart. Maybe she’d finally catch a break and find something useful inside. Something edible and not rotten, would be nice. She supposed hoping for baby formula was a bit much. At this point, she’d just settle for four walls and a roof. AJ had become increasingly fussy as the hour had grown late. He was hungry, she knew, but for the life of her she didn’t know what to do about it. Cautiously she turned from the path she’d been walking and approached the cabin, watchful for any signs of inhabitance, living or otherwise. When she was close enough, she eased onto her tiptoes and peered into the nearest window. In the dying light she couldn’t make out much, other than the outline of furniture. After several seconds passed with no sign of movement inside, Clementine moved toward the door. As a last precaution, she shifted AJ into her good arm, and banged on the wall beside the door, wincing as her shoulder protested, hoping to entice any walkers inside to show themselves before she entered.
Unfortunately, AJ startled at the noise and began crying in earnest. Cursing under her breath, Clementine tried unsuccessfully to settle AJ and listen for noise inside the cabin at the same time. When a reasonable amount of time passed with no walkers being drawn by the racket AJ was making, she twisted the doorknob, only slightly surprised when it swung open with a creak. Drawing her pistol from the waistband of her pants, she readied herself to enter the cabin. Passing through the doorway revealed a ransacked interior that may have once been quite homey, but Clementine paid little attention to such things as she quickly and efficiently checked the small space for hostiles. All the while trying and failing to calm a frantically crying AJ. When she was satisfied that the cabin was empty, she laid AJ on a slightly worn couch, tucking him between a couple of small pillows to ensure he didn’t roll onto the floor in his fit. Much to her frustration, putting him down only seemed to agitate him further, turning his cries into outright screams. Slipping slightly into panic, she knelt down next to the couch and lightly rubbed his stomach in what she hoped was a soothing motion.
“AJ! Please calm down! What’s wrong?! I know you’re hungry but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. Shhhhhhhhhh. It‘s okay. It‘s okay.”
Her voice and touch calmed his cries slightly, but she could tell he was on the verge of another fit. Deciding to take advantage of this temporary lull, she slowly rose to her feet, speaking calmly to AJ as she backed away.
“I have to see if there’s anything we can eat in here, okay? I’ll be right back, I’m not going far. See, I’m right here, you can still see me.”
AJ’s response was to scrunch up his face into a frown that promised yet more tears to come.
This is gonna be a long night.
By the time she had barricaded the door and windows and thoroughly searched the entire cabin, Clementine was nearing the end of her patience. AJ had been crying non stop for nearly an hour as she went about her tasks, absolutely refusing any and all attempts on her part to calm him. The fact that her search for food had turned up a whole lot of nothing was just the icing on the cake. The lone bright spot in this whole miserable situation was the small pile of wood next to the fireplace in the main room. She managed to scrounge up a few old books that would make decent kindling and half a box of matches as well, so at least they wouldn’t freeze to death.
Not that it’ll matter much if AJ doesn’t shut up. Every walker within 100 miles can probably hear him.
Guilt immediately washed over her at that thought. AJ was just a baby. A baby who was hungry, scared, and cold. He didn’t know any other way to express himself. Hell, Clementine felt like laying down and crying herself at this point. She could relate.
Just suck it up and deal with it. You’re the adult in this situation. So start acting like it.
Easing down in front of the fireplace, Clementine closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm herself. When that didn’t work, she did it again. And again. Six breaths later, she gave up on being calm and set about the task of getting a fire going. An endeavor that proved much harder than it should’ve. Getting the wood in the fireplace and tearing up pages from the books she’d found was no issue, but the matches simply refused to light. Figures she’d find defective matches. That really was just her luck. The ninth time she attempted to strike a match against the side of the box, she realized the problem was not the matches, or the box. It was her hands. Why were they shaking so badly? And why did it take her so long to notice? Setting the matches aside, and spilling some across the floor in the process, Clementine lifted her hands up close to her face, squinting in the near darkness. Even in such poor lighting there was no mistaking their violent trembling. This definitely wasn’t normal. Maybe she was just tired. Yeah, that had to be it. She just needed to get this fire going, quiet AJ down, and then try and get both of them to sleep. Everything would be fine in the morning. Fighting down a rising sense of panic, she carefully retrieved the spilled matches and resumed her task. After five or six more failed attempts, she finally succeeded in striking a match properly. Leaning toward the fireplace, she cautiously reached the now lit match toward the kindling, while attempting to steady one hand with the other. She nearly cried in relief when the bits of paper caught fire. She watched the flame grow and spread for a time, finally finding some measure of calm from the sight, even with AJ still crying in the background. When she was satisfied the fire wouldn’t go out, she stood, refusing to acknowledge how unsteady her legs were, and walked over to the couch where she’d left her young charge.
Over an hour of crying his little lungs out had turned AJ’s face a deep red, now accentuated by the light of the still growing fire. The wetness around his eyes had trailed down his face and dampened the blanket in which he was wrapped. He kicked and squirmed ineffectually against his confinement, and despite the fact that he must’ve been exhausted, he continued to cry. The sight of him in such a state broke Clementine’s heart. Any anger or resentment that had built up in her towards him instantly abated. It was her fault he was so miserable. He was her responsibility now and she was failing him spectacularly. Swallowing her guilt for now, Clementine scooped AJ up in her arms and held him protectively to her chest. She momentarily worried her inexplicably shaking hands wouldn’t be able to hold him steady, but keeping him close to her body seemed to alleviate any potential problems. She bounced him lightly in her arms, murmuring calm words and hoping he would tire himself out soon. When several minutes passed with no improvement in AJ’s mood, Clementine felt herself slipping back into a panic that had been lingering on the edge of her consciousness since Kenny and Jane had first turned on each other. Fighting it with ever last ounce of her willpower that remained, she reached deep into her memories for any time she’d ever seen anyone interact with a crying baby. Her thoughts immediately turned to Christa, but there was no help to be found there. Christa’s little girl hadn’t lived long enough to need consoling. Slamming the door on that thought, Clementine tried to remember further back. Back to the old world. Those memories were getting harder and harder to dig up as time passed. She knew she had younger cousins once, but in that moment should couldn’t recall their faces or their names, let alone any interactions she had with them.
This is pointless. All I’m doing is depressing myself.
And just like that, a memory long forgotten resurfaced. Her mother lying in bed next to her. The hour was late and the room was dark. She remembered being afraid. Then her mother’s voice, as clear as the last time she’d heard it, singing. Her mother used to sing to her often when she was small. She’d nearly forgotten what her voice sounded like. Focusing on the memory, Clementine shifted AJ into a more relaxed position and started softly humming a tune from long ago. After a minute or so, AJ’s cries quieted slightly as he looked up at her, seemingly forgetting about his discontent for a moment. Encouraged by the first real positive result in trying to calm him, Clementine cleared her throat and began to sing. Her mouth was dry and her voice was a little rough, but AJ didn’t seem to mind. She just hoped she could remember the words to the song.
For the next hour or so, Clementine paced the length of the small main room, keeping close to the fireplace for warmth, rocking AJ gently and singing every song she could remember. By the time he finally, blessedly, fell asleep Clementine was almost dead on her feet. Her legs felt weak, her throat was so dry it almost hurt, and any little movement sent aching pains shooting through her shoulder. But it was worth it. In the wake of so much noise, the quiet of the night and the crackling of the fire was oddly surreal. All she wanted in that moment was to sleep, but now that AJ was calmed, she still had a few things to attend to before she could rest. As quietly and gently as she could manage, Clementine retrieved the small couch pillows and placed them on the floor a safe distance away from the fireplace. Kneeling down on one knee, she slowly laid AJ down between them, tucking the blanket in securely around him. When he didn’t wake after being put down, she breathed a sigh of relief and sat down heavily nearby. After a brief rest, and a moment spent tending the fire, Clementine set about dealing with the remaining issues yet to be addressed. Her thirst, and her shoulder. Reluctantly leaving the warmth of the fire, she made the short trek to the kitchen area to retrieve a few items she’d set aside earlier. A couple of pots, two candles, and some soft, surprisingly clean cloth she could use for bandages. After a quick trip outside to fill the pots with snow, she set them near the fire to melt, then settled herself a few feet from AJ’s sleeping form.
While she was waiting for drinkable water, Clementine decided she couldn’t put off the ugly business of checking her wound any longer. She figured she wasn’t bleeding anymore, or at least not a lot, otherwise she’d be dead by now. Although now that she thought about it, blood loss would be a plausible explanation for how drained she felt. Not to mention her still shaking hands. Fumbling with the zipper of her coat for a moment, she began the arduous task of trying to get to the wound. Removing her coat wasn’t too hard, but getting her left arm out of her shirts’ sleeves was more difficult than it had any right to be. A persistent stiffness had settled in her shoulder joint, making any movement slow and painful, and severely restricting her range of movement altogether. When she was finally free of her upper garments, she shivered briefly in the slight chill, and took a moment to dread having to put her clothes back on after this. But that was a problem for later. Reaching up to fix her hat that had been knocked askew in her struggle, Clementine turned her attention to her injury. The position of the wound was extremely awkward. She could just barely see the front, but examining the exit wound would be impossible without a mirror. Fortunately, there was a relatively intact one in the cabin’s small bathroom. The dressing that had been applied was stained all the way through with blood. Most of the stains were of a duller color and obviously dried, but there was more than enough fresh blood bleeding through the material to cause concern. She craned her neck to get a glimpse of her shoulder blade, but all she could really see was how much of the bandage back there was red. She wondered for a moment if removing the material was the best course of action. If her wound started bleeding badly, she wasn’t equipped to treat it properly. She doubted she’d even be able to reach her back at all. She didn’t even know if it had been sutured. Did Kenny and Jane even have anything they could’ve sewed her up with? Regardless, she couldn’t leave it like this. She’d just have to take her chances.
Keeping an eye on AJ and the fire, she carefully began unwrapping the bandage. The process went smoothly until she reached the final layer of material pressed against her skin. The area around both the entrance and exit wounds was covered in clumps of dried blood that adhered the bandage to her flesh. An experimental tug produced a searing pain and the realization that even if the wound had closed itself, pulling the bandage off would definitely reopen it. Thinking quickly, Clementine’s eyes traveled across the pots of melting snow by the fire. Perhaps the material would separate from her skin more easily if she wet down the dried blood. It was certainly worth a try. Checking the contents of the nearest pot revealed only partially melted snow, but more than enough for her purposes. Dabbing the corner of the clean cloth in the pot, she carefully wet the bandage, periodically attempting to pull it away from her skin bit by bit. The process was tedious and painful, but after several long minutes, she was successful in removing the bandage completely. The sight that met her was… actually not too terrible, all things considered. The entrance wound was relatively small, and had been hastily sutured, although she couldn’t tell with what. She’d definitely popped a stitch when she hit the ground during Kenny and Jane’s fight, but only one, leaving room for a small spot of blood to well up. Looked like the bleeding had mostly stopped already. This was good, she could work with this. As she ripped off a small section of cloth to apply pressure to the wound, she became aware of the unmistakable sensation of blood running down her back. It was then she realized she had momentarily forgotten about the exit wound.
She reached her right hand behind her and was immediately met with a warm, sticky substance, and quite a lot of it.
Shit shit shit.
Standing quickly, and nearly falling back down in the process, Clementine snatched up the cloth and one of the water pots and ran to the bathroom in the back of the cabin. Only to realize it was far too dark to see. With a frustrated growl she slapped a wad of cloth onto her steadily bleeding wound and held it there as best she could as she jogged back to the main room to retrieve the candles she’d forgotten in her haste. Deciding not to waste time and matches with her still shaky hands, she instead knelt down and stuck the candle near enough to the fire to light it. After a quick glance to ensure AJ was still sleeping, she returned to the bathroom, any traces of calm now completely lost. Now able to see at least somewhat, she began frantically arranging the few supplies she had to work with, becoming increasingly frustrated at her inability to keep her hands steady.
“Dammit! Why can’t I stop shaking?!”
Just barely managing to get things settled without spilling all the water, she removed the now soaked cloth from her wound and turned her back to the large wall mirror. Looking over her shoulder to assess the damage, she was unable to suppress a cringe at what she saw. The exit wound was easily three times the size of the entrance wound and had also been hastily stitched up. In the dim light she could make out two, maybe three popped stitches, enough to loosen the others partially. The result was a mess. The top of the wound was wide open and steadily pouring blood that had by this point reached the waistband of her pants. The edges of the wound were bright red, jagged, and swollen. From rough treatment or possible infection she didn’t know, but for now she chose to believe it was the former. Tentatively she reached a hand over her shoulder and attempted to push the open edges together, only to immediately retract her hand with a strangled cry. She’d barely touched it, but the pain had been agonizing. Turning away from the mirror Clementine squeezed her eyes shut and bit down on her lip hard in an attempt to once again stave off oncoming panic. When she tasted blood, she angrily scrubbed her hands down her face and forced herself to get back on track.
“You can’t just stand here right now and have a meltdown! You’re bleeding you idiot! Get your shit together and do something about it!”
Clementine was beginning to think that getting her shit together just wasn’t worth the stress.
Two hours later saw a completely exhausted Clementine slowly trudge back to the main room and all but fall down in front of the fireplace, shivering from so much time spent away from its warmth. It had taken her forever to stop the bleeding from her shoulder blade. Straining her right arm awkwardly to keep pressure on it for the better part of two hours had left her good arm just as sore as her injured one, and had only made the trembling in her hands worse. Anything that made contact with the heated flesh around the stitches had produced an intense pain, making the job of treating the area that much more difficult. She’d done her best to clean the wound and tighten the remaining stitches, only barely managing to secure a fresh bandage afterwards. While she was at it, she’d changed the dressing on her arm as well. That at least seemed to be healing fine, despite her sloppy stitch job. Both injuries would no doubt leave some awful scars, but as long as she didn’t bleed to death she honestly didn’t care what it looked like.
She’d never been so tired in her entire life. Tired didn’t even begin to describe it. This was an entirely new kind of exhaustion. The kind that transcends physical affliction and roots itself down deep in the soul. Everything hurt, inside and out. She was at least relieved to see AJ still sleeping peacefully, completely oblivious to her turmoil. She really didn’t think she could deal with him crying right now. She felt herself teetering on the edge of something. She didn’t know what it was, and she’d prefer not to find out.
Reaching for the remaining pot of water that was by now completely melted, she set it aside to cool for a bit, and stoked the slowly dwindling fire. She took her time redressing herself, and couldn’t even muster up any frustration when her arms refused to cooperate. When the temperature of the water was no longer scalding, Clementine lifted the pot to her lips and eagerly drank her fill. Only just managing to slow her water consumption to prevent throwing it up again later. Been there, did not want to do that again. She briefly considered giving AJ some water. She didn’t want to wake him, but she didn’t want him to dehydrate either. She seemed to remember Christa saying something about water being bad for newborns during one of her and Omid’s many arguments about their impending baby. (Always one sided, Omid never actually argued.) Clementine couldn’t see how water could be bad for anything living, but she definitely didn’t want to make him sick. She decided to let him sleep for now, but she’d probably have to take a chance in the morning. He had to have something to drink. When her thirst was mostly sated, she simply sat staring at the fire. It took her a few moments to realize that she had completed everything that needed her attention. There was nothing left to do now but sleep. She felt like she’d been running non-stop since she woke up in the back of a car after being shot, and honestly, she wasn’t too sure how to handle this sudden lull. She was bone tired and wanted nothing more than to sleep, but she almost felt like she didn’t know how to sleep anymore. Instead of lying down like she wanted to, she continued to sit, staring down at her hands in her lap. They were still shaking. She wondered if they’d ever stop.
The quiet of the night permeated the small space, only made more stark by the slight crackling of the fire, and although she should have been grateful for the silence, she instead found it repulsive. The last time she’d sat in front of a fire like this she’d been with friends. Friends who were all dead or gone now. Every single one of them. And this wasn’t the first time she’d been in this situation. Twice now she’d been lucky enough to find a group of good, decent people who were willing to take in a little girl they didn’t know. And twice now she’d witnessed a group of good, decent people fall apart. Betrayal. Hurt. Conflicts. People who should’ve been banding together, instead choosing to tear each other apart. This world had a way of taking good people and turning them into something else entirely. It always started small. A difference of opinion, an argument. Then it escalated. The hurt festered and boiled beneath the surface until one day, an otherwise decent person snapped and shot a member of their own group in the face for no good reason. And it was all downhill from there. Or maybe two otherwise decent people decided to be immature dickheads and just kill each other instead of putting aside their differences and acting like the adults they supposedly were. What had Jane been thinking? Why was Kenny always such an emotional wreck who couldn’t control his anger? Why did this always, always happen?
Things should never have escalated to this point. Mistakes were made on all sides, but in light of the truth she wondered if her’s was the biggest mistake of all. Did she act too fast? Did she shoot Kenny unnecessarily? Could she have done more? Tried harder to stop the fight? On the other hand, if she had managed to stay between them, would Kenny have killed her in his rage unknowingly? Neither he nor Jane seemed to notice when she was thrown to the ground and reopened her recent gunshot wound. They paid her no mind as she laid there dazed, bleeding on the snow, so engrossed in their shared obsession with senselessly killing one another. She had watched them from her prone position for a moment, the full gravity of the situation sinking in. If her own life being endangered wasn’t enough to stop the fight, nothing would. The violence would continue until one, or both of them were dead.
She had seen the look in Kenny’s one remaining eye as he pinned Jane to the ground, using his weight to shove a machete through her chest, and she knew. She knew he had finally been pushed too far. In that moment, lost in a rage that had been steadily building since the world first destroyed itself, Kenny was capable of anything. And Clementine had been afraid. Afraid of him, and afraid for him.
One of the most universally accepted truths about his new world is this; you don’t let someone you care about turn. You don’t let the people you love become monsters. But what makes a monster? Clementine had seen plenty of them in the last two years, but not all of them were the walking dead. Some of them were still breathing. And it is the living monsters that she has come to fear most. Was shooting Kenny before he committed cold blooded murder any different than shooting Lee before he turned? She didn’t know. She’d probably never know for sure. She thinks, perhaps, that maybe there is no right answer, but finds no comfort in such a thought.
How could everything have gone so wrong? She was beginning to think that groups of people trying to make it together just couldn’t work in this new world. Maybe going it alone was the only way to be sure that the inevitable knife in your back didn’t come from someone unexpected. Lilly. Bonnie. Mike. Kenny. Jane. If she never trusted anyone, she’d never have to worry about betrayal. If she never joined another group, she’s wouldn’t have to watch it fall apart from the inside. At this point, she didn’t think she had it in her anymore to do so. She’d rather die alone right here in the middle of nowhere than to bear witness to yet another group of people she cared about turning on each other. She always ended up alone in the end anyway, so really what was the point?
Lee would be ashamed of her right now. Her parents would be ashamed of her right now. They didn’t raise her to think this way. Lee didn’t bend over backwards trying to teach her to survive without giving up her humanity for her to act this way. But her parents were dead, and so was Lee. Now there was only her. What good did it do trying to live up to the expectations of the dead.
A slight noise to her right drew her attention to a still sleeping AJ, wrapped securely in a blanket. She wasn’t really alone this time. She had no one to depend on, that was true. Instead there was someone depending on her. AJ had really drawn the short end of the stick getting stuck with her. She, on the other hand, had been so lucky in the beginning. Lee stumbling into her backyard was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. He took her under his care just like she was his own. She never for one moment doubted that he loved her unconditionally. He protected her, taught her, and did his best to prepare her for what she would face in this new reality. Somehow he always seemed to walk the perfect balance between shielding her from some things, and being honest about others. She’d found it hard to believe he’d never had any children of his own before. Maybe he was just a natural. Or maybe he’d struggled just as hard as she was now, only she couldn’t see it back then because she hadn’t known what to look for.
Somehow she now found herself in Lee’s position, but the hard truth of it was, she wasn’t Lee. She wasn’t big and strong and smart like he was. She wasn’t good and kind like he was. She didn’t always know what to say and what to do. She didn’t have his calming presence. She couldn’t do this. She didn’t know how. She just wasn’t good enough. The only thing she’d ever been good at was getting people killed. Omid. Alvin. Sarah. Luke. Kenny. Even Lee himself. Probably Christa too. And Christa’s baby…
The memory of that awful night Christa had gone into labor springing to mind was the proverbial last straw for Clementine’s fragile mental state. The image of the fire began to blur as tears welled up in her eyes despite her attempts to hold them back. She’d been fighting this all day, but now she was tired. She didn’t have the strength to fight it anymore. Pulling her knees against her chest, Clementine buried her face in her arms and cried. Harder than she’d ever cried before. Now that the floodgates had opened there was no stopping the oncoming tide. Seconds ticked by like hours as her sorrow finally found an outlet. Her shoulders shook with the force of her sobs, intensifying the persistent ache from her wound, but the physical pain was barely noticeable in the face of the torment inside her. Still mindful of AJ even in such a state, she tried to keep her tortured sobs relatively quiet, so as not to wake him, but the effort required to hold back proved too much. Instead she roughly shoved the knuckles of her right hand into her mouth to muffle the noise. She cried until she had no tears left, dissolving into pitiful dry sobs afterwards. When she finally regained some semblance of control over herself, she was done. Letting it all out hadn’t made her feel any better. In fact, she felt worse. She hadn’t thought it was possible to be anymore tired than she already had been, but oh how wrong she was.
Uncurling herself from her hunched position, she caught sight of a splash of red on the back of her hand. In her anguish she’d apparently bit down into her own flesh leaving several angry teeth marks which now bled sluggishly. She stared at the slowing oozing liquid, watching its lazy trail down her hand, and felt nothing. Not pain, not sorrow, not guilt. Clementine had reached the end of her capacity to feel anything.
What was she doing here? What was the end goal? Why was she still fighting? To live? Why the hell would she want to do that. Why would anyone want to live anymore? She used to have an answer to that question, but in this moment when she needed it most, it eluded her. Everything that she’d been through, all the horrors she’d seen, all the awful things she’d done, and for what? She had nothing to show for it. Her family, her friends, everyone she’d ever known from before and after, they were all gone. Everything she’d ever thought about herself proved to be a falsehood. Caught up in the depravity of this new world, Clementine found she didn’t even know who she was anymore. She didn’t know what she was capable of. It scared her. She scared herself. And there was certainly no reason to think anything would change. The cycle would repeat itself over and over until there was nothing left of her. Or maybe, she’d already reached that point.
She was momentarily startled out of her depressive thoughts by a loud clanging directly behind her. She jumped slightly, but couldn’t bring herself to care overly much if someone or something had managed to sneak up on her. When nothing happened after a few seconds, Clementine turned slightly to peer over her shoulder, but there was nothing there. Shifting about to get a better look, she knocked her hand against something hard lying on the floor behind her. Looking down, she discovered the source of the earlier noise. Her gun had fallen to the floor from where it had been tucked in the back of her pants. No doubt she’d shifted it out of its place in her crying fit. She stared numbly at it for a while, which seemed to be all she was capable of doing lately. Without really thinking about it she reached out her bleeding, shaking hand and picked it up. The gun felt heavier than she remembered. As heavy as the first time she ever handled one, back when Lee was teaching her to shoot. Aim for the head, he’d said. And she did. He’d probably never imagined she’d end up using his lessons to end his own life. Or Kenny’s. That’s twice now she’d had to shoot a friend. Someone who she considered family. If she kept going this way, how many more would meet their end at her hand? And why was it always her?
That was the real question. Why her? She’d met so many good, honest people who were just trying to make it who met their end in the most horrible ways imaginable. She knew so many wonderful people from before who probably didn’t last more than a few days. So many people with so many good qualities, skills, talents, knowledge, goodness, compassion. People who deserved to make it, people who maybe could’ve made this ugly world something better with a little time. But they were all gone and she was still here. A little scrap of a girl who somehow always managed to do the wrong thing. The people she tried to save died. The right she tried to do turned out wrong. Who was she? Nobody. She’d lost count of the people that had died around her, for her, and because of her. Everything had led her to this moment, but now that she was here she found no reason to stay. Why was she still here? She couldn’t find a reason. Somewhere in the back of her mind she recognized how dangerous this thought process was, but she honestly just didn’t care.
Her grip on the gun had tighten imperceptibly while she was lost in her thoughts. The mild discomfort of the pistol grip digging into her palm brought her back to reality. Her eyes traveled around the small space; from the fire, to the old worn couch, to the small cracks of moonlight filtering around the furniture she had moved in front of the windows, to AJ, and finally back to the gun in her hand. Yes, she was treading on very dangerous ground now. But wasn’t the ground she’d been treading before just as dangerous? The path she was walking, what she was becoming… If she had to shoot Lee to stop him from becoming an actual monster, and she had to shoot Kenny to stop him from becoming a human monster, then was there really any other course of action she could take with herself? If she truly had no purpose here, if survival was the only goal, then she didn’t want to wait and see what she would become in the end. Without real conscious thought, Clementine slowly lifted the gun, watching its progress toward her head out of the corner of her eye. The weapon shook noticeably in her hand. She’d have to be careful. The last thing she wanted was to botch this up and severely injure herself. The whole point of a gun to the head was that it was quick and efficient. When she felt the cold metal of the barrel press against her temple she squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath, gathering the last of her nerve. As her finger began to tighten around the trigger a soft cry from a few feet away had her snapping her eyes open in a panic. AJ! She had forgotten about AJ.
Oh my God. What am I doing? I can’t just shoot myself and leave him here to starve to death! But… that means… If I’m really gonna do this, I’ll have to shoot him first…
She recoiled from the thought, shocked and sickened that such a thing had even entered her head at all. The sheer repulsiveness of her thoughts slammed her back to her senses. She looked around in a state of shock as if seeing her situation for the first time. The self-inflicted bite marks on her hand, the blood she hadn’t bothered to clean off, and the gun still hovering around her head with her finger on the trigger. In a panic she flung the weapon away from her, watching as it clanged against the floor and slide several feet to rest against the stone of the fireplace. The noise fully woke AJ from his half asleep state. He squirmed around slightly for a few seconds and then began to quietly cry. Instantly Clementine closed the short distance between them, picking him up off the floor and hugging him to her chest as tightly as she could without causing him discomfort. The movement reignited the ache in her shoulder and for once she welcomed the pain. Anything was better than the nothingness she had almost drowned in. Slumping down into a sitting position, she buried her face in the blanket covering AJ’s head and cried with him.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry, AJ.” she exclaimed, voice horse from anguish and tears. Barely able to speak through her rapidly clogging sinuses.
“I can’t believe what I- I was- I… I don’t even know. I’m just so sorry. Please forgive me. I would never hurt you. Never. You have to know that. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Maybe it was the sound of her crying, the vibrations of her words in her chest against his face, or the gentle motion as she rocked him back and forth unconsciously, but by the time she got a hold of herself, she found that AJ had stopped crying long before she did. She shifted him slightly in her arms so she could see his face and was pleased to find that he didn’t seem overly agitated. She called his name softly without really thinking, her voice bringing his eyes to hers and suddenly, with a startling clarity, she knew. The answer that had so eluded her in her tortured thoughts earlier had been sitting literally right in front of her the entire time. AJ was her answer. Why was she still here. Why did it seem like events had been set up specifically to put her here, in this moment. Why should she still fight. Why should she stubbornly cling to her humanity with everything in her. AJ. She was here for him. She was here to take care of him. She was here to show him the way. And yeah maybe she wasn’t cut out for the responsibility but that was no excuse to shun it. She’d always given her all in everything she’d done, so why would she give anything less for what would most likely be the most important thing she’d ever do? If she could just ensure he survived his most vulnerable years, if she could instill a sense of goodness in him as well as strength, there was no telling what he might be able to do one day. But he wouldn’t be able to do anything if she gave up now.
This was her purpose. This was the justification for everyone who had died to get her here. Maybe this was the reason she was even born in the first place. Clementine had never believed anything more strongly in her life. At that moment, she made a vow. She would protect him, until he was old enough to protect himself. She would show him how to survive in this world without losing himself to it. And she would sacrifice whatever part of herself that was necessary to do so. Wherever she had to go, whatever she had to do, whatever came their way. She would never shy away from it again.
“I’m going to get you through this, AJ. I promise. Whatever it takes.”
Sometime later, Clementine awoke to the sensation of sunlight on her face. Blinking sleepily, she moved her face away from the small sliver of light, and took a moment to remember where she was. The memories of the last few days came flooding in, bringing her to full wakefulness. Lifting her head slightly, the first thing she noticed was that the fire had gone out at some point. Not surprising, but the cabin was still warm so it wasn’t much of an issue. Settling back down for now, she shifted her gaze to the sleeping boy by her side. She’d finally fell asleep last night laying in front of the fireplace on her good side, curled protectively around AJ. She hadn’t slept long, she knew. She was still tired, still sore, and still hungry. But her mind was blessedly clear. She could handle a sore body. Today was a new day, and there was a lot she had to accomplish if she and AJ were going to make it out here alone. Chief among her impending issues was food. She wasn’t too worried about herself, she’d gone longer without eating, but AJ was so little. He wouldn’t last long without something to eat. She had given him a bit of water last night after he woke up, even though she was nervous about doing so. So far it hadn’t seem to effect him negatively but she needed to find something more suitable soon. She didn’t know what she was going to do about it, but she knew she was going to get it done. For now, that would have to be enough.
Realizing it was pointless to waste anymore daylight, Clementine slowly uncurled herself from AJ and eased into a sitting position. Her entire body was stiff. Her abused muscles protested sharply as she tried to stretch out the kinks in her back and arms. She no doubt had a long walk ahead of her today, and it was most definitely going to suck. With that encouraging thought, Clementine pushed herself to her feet, pleased that she didn’t sway too badly in the process. Yawning loudly, she gently scrubbed sleep from her eyes with her now bandaged right hand. It took a few moments for her to notice that her hand wasn’t shaking against her face. Cautiously, she held both hands out in front of her. The trembling had stopped. She breathed a sigh of relief at the sight. Deciding to assess all of her physical issues before starting the day, she tentatively reached an arm inside her shirt and touched the dressings around her shoulder, first in the front, then the back. Some blood had definitely seeped through the material in the night, but she was relieved to feel only the rough, stiff texture of blood long dried. Deciding to forego changing the bandage for now, mostly because she’d run out of good material to use, she lightly stepped away from AJ and began picking through the cabin for anything that might prove useful on their journey.
Half an hour later, Clementine stepped outside the cabin into the morning light, an old backpack slug on her back, AJ held securely in her arms, and her pistol tucked back in its place. Taking a deep breath of crisp winter air, she stepped out onto the trail that had originally led her here the night before. She didn’t know what lay ahead of her, but for the first time in a long time she felt ready to face it.