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Rules of Survival

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“After the first visible leaves appear, the cotyledon, the true leaves will emerge and the cucumbers get their nutrition from photosynthesis. The plant will start to grow vines and leaves, and as the vines become longer and stronger, you’ll need to loosely tie them to a some kind of a trellis.”

“Well, we’ve got those boards we used to fortify the prison before, will those work?”

“That should do it. We can also grow them right up against the fence, if need by. We’ll need to keep the vines off the ground to prevent disease and also to allow the cucumbers to hang straight. Now, you should never hand the cucumber plant when it’s wet -”

Hershel and Dad’s words blended together. They might as well have been cicadas for the noise they were making. Walkers were being drawn over to the sound. It wasn’t enough for a pile up, maybe around a dozen, but if they didn’t handle it quickly it could become a problem.

“Hey Dad,” Carl interrupted, secretly glad for an excuse to stop the cucumber talk for a minute. He was sick to death of these damn cucumbers, he’d been covered from nose to toes in dirt from tending to them for the past few weeks. And nothing was hardly growing yet. 

Dad turned toward him, looking actually annoyed. Like he’d been enjoying listen to Hershel talk. Yeah right. Carl knew better. He nodded over to the fence. “We’ve got a problem.”

“Hmm.” Dad looked further down the fence, where Glenn and Maggie were tending to the fences along with a couple former Woodbury people. He whistled to get their attention. Glenn looked over in their direction. “We’ve got another cluster down here.”

Glenn shielded his eyes in their direction and squinted. He’s probably wondering why we don’t just take care of it ourselves, Carl thought bitterly. There was no reason. Hershel was an invalid, but less than a dozen through a fence would be no problem for him and Dad. It was like taking out the trash.

But no. No, they weren’t allowed to do anything useful anymore. Apparently, anything that didn’t revolve around having manure and dirt caked under their fingernails was off limits.

“We’ll get that one next, then.” Glenn nodded, and Dad gave him a nod back, returning to Hershel’s lecture.

“Now, the squash is coming nicely, but I’m worried that…”

Carl set Judith carefully back in her crib, not wanting to wake her now that she’d settled down for sleep. He laid down in Dad’s cell, his entire body aching. But it wasn’t just the physical ache of fatigue and muscle cramps.

No, he was aching with boredom

When he was in fourth grade, there’d been this asshole who hogged the swings all of recess. So Carl had called him an asshole, because he was one. That had gotten him sent to the principle’s office, and his parents had grounded him for two weeks, taking away his gameboy and not letting him watch Tv or go on the family computer, or hang out with any of his friends. Two weeks was generally the rule of thumb for punishment in the Grimes household, because that was the longest amount of time it took for him to learn his lesson (also, if it was longer than that, his dad would forget and let him watch tv, which always pissed Mom off.)

So for the first two weeks of this, Carl hadn’t complained or sulked. Okay, he had a little at first, because he didn’t agree that he had done anything worth being punished, but he got over it quickly and just set about doing all these menial, laborious chores. “We’re going to be in charge of food now,” Dad had said, and Carl had just assumed he meant for right now

But then, two weeks had passed and Carl was still being woken up at six in the morning everyday to muck around in the soil. After a few more days, he’d asked, “When are we going to be done with all this farming?” and Dad had replied, “We’ll get a bit of a break in the winter when things stop growing but we’ll back to it next spring” and that’s when Carl realized Dad had finally lost it. 

The sound of Carol and Daryl’s voices drifted into Dad’s cell.

“…half of ‘em can’t shoot for shit. I could aim better with both my eyes closed.”

“And the ones that said they were trained?”

“That is the half that said they were trained. The other half can’t shoot at all.”

“Well, shit.” Carol sighed heavily. “I guess any of the ones that were useful were gunned down when the governor took out his own army.”

“Guess so. The only one who’s not useless is Karen, the one we rescued from that massacre. It’s gonna take a lot of work to get them into fighting shape.”

“If anyone can do it, it’s you pookie,” Carol said teasingly, and Daryl huffed in mock annoyance, before shuffling out of the cell block.

Carol poked her head into Dad’s cell. “Oh, hello.” She said, sounding surprised to see Carl there. “Just checking on little asskicker.”

“She’s sleeping.” 

“Of course she is, that’s her favorite hobby.” Carol smiled at him. Carl didn’t smile back, just rolled his eyes. “What’s the matter with you?”

“All the people who signed up for guard duty are really that bad?”

Carol’s smile slipped from her face. She shrugged. “I guess so. We can train them, it’s fine.” She watched his face. “You’re angry because you want to be able to pull guard duty.”

“Well, yeah.” Carl huffed. Obviously. “I’m already trained. I’m not a shit shot, I’m a really good one! But I’m not allowed. It’s stupid. It’s been a month, I’ve learned my lesson -”

“Is that what you think this is?” Carol asked curiously. “Learning a lesson? You think you’re being punished for something?”

She wasn’t mocking him, but Carl still flushed at her words. It sounded stupid when she said it like that. “What else would it be?”

“Well,” Carol took a seat next to him on Dad’s cot. “I think your father is trying to teach you something, but I don’t think it’s punishment. When there were just a few of us here, we all needed to fight or we wouldn’t survive. Now that there’s more of us, not everyone has to fight. There’s other things to do - like farming for instance -”

“Yeah.” Carl agreed. “And the people who are shit shots should do that.”

“Teaching someone to shoot is easy,” Carol informed him. “Teaching someone not to shoot is a lot harder.”

Carl cocked his head, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you killed someone.” Carol said frankly.

Her words were like a punch in the gut. The shock quickly gave way to anger. “So have you.”

“Yes.” Carol admitted. “I have killed people, who were trying to kill me. The boy you shot was not trying to kill you.”

“Have you all been talking about this behind my back?” Carl demanded. “Does everyone know?”

“Just the council.” Sasha, Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, Maggie. Carl recited in his head. “Hershel told us when he was explaining why Rick had decided to stop going on runs and doing guard duty.”

“So you have been talking behind my back. Great.” 

“Hey, this isn’t just about you,” Carol corrected him sharply. “Your father is afraid of the path he was going down. The path he was leading you down. So he is trying to make it right. Respect his decision, you owe him that.”

“But what if we get soft?” Carl protested. “I’ve already stopped reaching for where my gun used to be when I hear something. That’s not a good thing. If one of those clusters breaks through, or if the governor comes back, or someone else attacks -”

“Then you would have to step back and let us and the new people we’ll have trained by then handle it.” Carol chuckled as Carl’s eyes narrowed in disgust. “Look, I’m not your father. While I think some time off is good for both of you, I don’t think this is going to last forever. There’s going to come a day when shit hits the fan and Rick won’t be able to help himself, he’ll have to get in the middle of it, because that’s who he is. He isn’t built for farming. Neither are you. Everyone knows that, but everyone also owes Rick so if he wants to plant vegetables, they’re gonna let him plant vegetables. We all know it won’t last. In the meantime, just…think of this like summer vacation. Learn a little patience. Do some self-reflecting. Think about the boy you killed.” She paused significantly. “His aunt is one of the survivors we brought in from Woodbury, did you know that?”

Carl’s stomach dropped to his boots. He felt cold fear creep in. “No, I didn’t.”

Carol looked at him with that alarming, icy, penetrating stare of hers. “And how does it make you feel, knowing that?”

“Like I want my gun back.” Carl admitted. Knowing someone who had a very good reason to want him dead made him feel threatened. Trapped, like an animal in here. Defenseless, without his weapon.

“Yeah.” Carol nodded, like she expected that answer. “Most people would’ve said it made them feel sorry.”

With that, she left him.

Carl heaved a sigh, laying back down on the cot. He knew what Carol was trying to say. He knew he should feel bad for shooting that guy. (Everyone who’s talked to him about it, Hershel, Dad, Carol, has called him a boy or a kid, but Carl didn’t see him that way. All he’d seen was a threat who was older, bigger, and taller than him.) What if he hadn’t shot him? He was bigger than Carl and Beth, and Hershel only had one leg. They couldn’t have restrained him. They would’ve had to let him go, and maybe he would’ve come back for vengeance, like Andrew had. Carl had been tasked with the responsibility of keeping Judith, Beth, and Hershel safe. And he’d done it. Simple.

According to the rules of survival, what he had done made sense. Carl and the people he needed to protect had survived, so they won. But the problem was everyone else was still trying to fit the old rules into this new world. In the old world, shooting someone while they tried to hand over their gun was immoral, illegal, dishonorable. 

Carol hadn’t said most people would’ve felt sorry. She had said most people would’ve said they felt sorry. The difference mattered. Everyone in his group had killed people, but they said they felt bad about it. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they were all like Carl on the inside, but no one wanted to say it.

Carl knew he was never going to fit into the old rules. And he didn’t think he wanted to. The old world was dead, and trying to cling to it would get you killed.

But, next time someone asked, he would say he felt sorry for killing that boy.

After all, the rules of survival were what mattered now.