Hello hello hello, my friends! I'm ready to go live with this, finally, and I couldn't be more excited. It didn't really feel right not to have a project on the burner, you know? This dark little story takes place post season 2. You do not need to have read Little Janie Reed or The Blood Done Signed my Name to follow this, but it is set in the same universe and I'm building on the backstory I established in those fics.
I'd like to shout out to Designation and Surplus Imagination, whose brain-storming prowess helped to create what I lay before you! Go read their fics, because they are fantastic.
The rest, I think, will be self explanatory as we move along.
But one more thing, in the spirit of fair disclosure: I may or may not kill characters in this story. I know some people dislike that sort of thing, so I want to be upfront by saying that absolutely no one is safe. And after that, I'd like to add one hearty, cheerful (and possibly incongruous) word: Enjoy!
Carol stared at the wall.
She was lying on her side in an unfamiliar bed—a stranger's bed, abandoned until she'd taken it up the night before. It rested in an abandoned room. An abandoned house. A nameless town.
The sun hadn't risen, yet. The light was steel grey, filtered through the dirty glass of the bedroom window. It cast the shadows of the bare tree branches across the walls. Across the bedsheets, and her hands.
She woke when it was still dark. She wasn't sure how long she'd been awake, but it couldn't have been very long.
And she just lay there—still. Silent. Her breath was shallow. As if she wasn't really there at all.
Her mind was with Sophia.
Every morning the knowledge of what happened settled in slowly as she came to herself. It crept in as she shook off that sleepy fog. When she was asleep, she didn't know it. And when she woke each day, she had to reassemble everything—sort the pieces, thread them together, and accept their reality before she could get up and start the day.
It always took an effort. Her mind was still pushing against it, as if it would stop being true one morning, and she would wake up and discover that this—all of this—had never really happened.
But this morning, Sophia was still dead. That was her first thought when she opened her eyes and saw the wall in front of her. As if the words were gouged into the plaster.
And she watched the cold light swell over the paint. Over a cobweb near the ceiling. It was late December, as far as any of them could guess, and the mornings had gone still and noiseless with the cold. No one else was awake, yet. The other rooms around her were silent. The only sound came from old beams in the ceiling. They creaked and groaned as if the house was alive—trying to stretch out its limbs and shift in place.
Yesterday, they'd settled into this shabby, decaying mansion—a winding, painted lady Victorian with many rooms and hallways spanning out from the central staircase. It was like a rabbit warren, or a maze.
An excellent place to hide.
In the next room, Daryl leaned on the side of a window frame, buttoning his shirt.
It was early. The sun had only just started to rise in the sky, and everything was washed in a pale light. It moved over the faded wallpaper at his shoulder, bringing out its muted colors.
None of the others knew it, but he'd been in this house before.
They'd been wandering all over North Georgia for months. Maybe it was bound to happen eventually. They'd moved on and on, and suddenly—yesterday—he realized they were heading straight for his hometown.
He didn't tell them, of course. But he led them to the safest place to hide. The old mansion on the hill, off in the rural roads on the edge of town—near the borders of the forest.
It wasn't that far from the dead end road where he'd grown up. An easy walk on the streets, and even shorter if you cut through the woods.
He looked out the window, down into the backyard below. Once he'd stood in that yard with his brother, over twenty years ago, when he and Merle were both just kids. They'd looped around through the woods, and approached the house from the back. Scaled the tall, wrought-iron fence with its heavy black paint and rusty posts. They were hammered into tangled shapes that looked like vines.
And when Daryl landed on the grass in that yard and got a first good look at the house, his face instantly lit up with pure delight.
It was like something out of a story.
For one, it was huge. Tall and old and rambling, with elaborate wooden details carved under all the windows. There was a tower rising high above the slate roof. And right away, he knew he wanted to climb up that tower really, really bad. Wanted to find out how far you could see from the very top.
And the house was just battered—really old and poorly maintained, with peeling paint. And that only made it better.
And inside, there'd be room after room for the two of them to explore.
Merle was watching him—taking in the look on his face. He smiled. Merle was seventeen years old, out of juvie for a week, now, and glad to be back home. He'd gotten taller while he was away, and Daryl was really struck by how grown up he was starting to seem.
Merle clapped him on the shoulder.
"See, little brother?" he said, "I told you this place was fucking amazing, didn't I?"
Daryl nodded. It was true. He did.
Merle grinned at him, and bolted across the lawn. And Daryl followed—past the old, stone well with its wooden cover and iron pump. He tried to keep up, but Merle was so much bigger than him that it was pretty much impossible.
Daryl's brother—he was so strong and fast and daring. He'd do just about anything. And on days like this, that was the best thing Daryl had to look forward to in his whole life.
Other times, it wasn't so good.
They rushed up onto the wrap-around porch in the late afternoon light. It was long and low on the horizon—warm and golden like the sunsets sometimes are in the autumn. The first hints of dusk were settling into the corners of things, and they hid carefully among those shadows as they moved around the porch. They didn't want to be seen skulking around there, on the off chance that there was anyone there to see them.
"Try a window," Merle said, "Most places, they forgot to latch all the windows."
So he did. The first one didn't go. So he tried a second. Still nothing.
He turned to his brother.
"You sure this place's empty?"
"Oh yeah," Merle said, scanning the porch for another way in, "These assholes only ever come for a few weeks in the summer."
Merle was pacing the porch while he said it—walking along the whole stretch, trying window after window. While he investigated, he talked to Daryl.
"Billy and me—we brought some of the girls here last April."
He stopped a moment, stood in place. Shook his head, smiling. Lost in the memory.
"Man, that Jenny Wilkins… the tits on her are enough to make you fucking cry."
And then Merle saw something that caught his attention. He shook the thought away, and waved to Daryl.
"Hey, bro—that little one way up over there. Gotta be a bathroom or somethin'. I bet you could fit in that."
So Merle hoisted him up, and Daryl saw his own face reflected in the glass. He lifted the screen without any trouble, and then the window slid right on open.
And he dropped into that bathroom, and rushed around through the hall to open the back door for his brother. They were in.
Everything was dim and shadowy, with the golden light pouring in through the windows. Some of them were stained glass, and they threw colors all over the paneled wood. Over the indistinct contours of the dropcloths that covered the furniture.
There were dust motes hanging in the air, floating around in the shafts of colored light.
A long hallway cut through the first floor, stretching from one end of the house to the other. The stairwell rose up in a graceful curve near the front door. Women's faces stared out blankly from the carved newel posts. Their hair wound around the stair rails in elaborate, hand-carved braids.
Daryl took it all in. Spoke in a hushed voice.
He stepped forward. The boards creaked under his feet, and the high ceiling towered above him.
"What—what do we do now?"
Merle wasted no time.
"C'mon!" he said, jumping forward, a smile on his face, "I'm gonna get ya!"
Daryl grinned, and darted away from him. And so they rushed towards the stairs—play-racing like they sometimes did. And of course, Merle caught up to Daryl even after giving him a considerable head start—Merle was almost grown up, now, and Daryl was really still a little kid.
And when his brother caught him, he scooped Daryl up by the waist, sideways, and carried him up the rest of the stairs that way. On the landing, he didn't put him down. Spun him around in a circle, and hoisted him up on one shoulder.
"Let's see what all's in here, bro," he said, rushing forward. Daryl hung onto his brother, and they barreled along down that hallway in the swelling dark.
And over two decades later, staring out into the growing light, Daryl smiled to himself, slightly. That hallway was just outside the bedroom door behind him. Seeing it again—being here—it brought a lot back to him.
And he felt a familiar pang, then. An unsettled worry, deep in his gut.
He wondered where his brother was. What he was doing there. If he was safe.
If everyone else was safe from him.
The day after they'd explored the house, Merle went out with Billy and the rest of his buddies. Got really high on something. Came home in a white rage, and beat Daryl unconscious. One of his eyes was swollen shut and he missed a week of school to make sure no one would find out.
But the day before all that—the day at the house.
That day was good.
Carol lay there in bed for a long time. The morning light grew around her, slow and steady.
She heard a noise in the room next door, through the thin walls. A movement.
Without thinking, she sat up in her bed and looked towards that sound, as if she would be able to see through the plaster. The mirror hanging there reflected her face back to her. And she looked at herself, sitting upright in bed, the sheets tangled around her waist.
A door opened in the hall and then closed again, softly. She heard quiet footfalls pass by her room, and head on down the stairs.
It was Daryl. He'd chosen the room next to hers. He always seemed to stay close—even when he went for days at a time so hard at work that he barely spoke to her. When they ate, he'd sit near her. And when they all gathered together in the evenings, he was usually right there—hanging back a bit, perhaps, but still by her side.
Carol hadn't had a real friend in many years—she'd had too many secrets to keep for that. But her secrets died with her family. There was nothing left to hide.
There wasn't much left at all, really. Life was just a long string of days—days spent running from the dead, and searching for a home. For the last few months, they'd been moving from place to place with restless speed—they'd stay a night or two in some secure shelter that seemed deserted, and then they'd move on.
But no matter where they were, Daryl was always planning—preparing. He was always up before sunrise. He'd hunt and scout before anyone else was awake. Sometimes he didn't sleep at all, if he'd been keeping watch the night before.
More and more often, lately, he took Rick along with him. But not today.
Today, Rick would want to be with Lori.
At the thought of Lori, Carol dropped her gaze to the bedsheets, and her reflection in the mirror moved with her.
Yesterday had been horrible. She was reasonably certain Lori had nearly died.
When it happened, Carol was riding in the truck with T-Dog—leaning against the window, half asleep. They'd been on the road for a long time. The scenery was all pretty much the same—bare trees. Open fields. Abandoned cars. Sometimes there were shapes moving around inside those cars. Sometimes she could see the dead things' hands pressing against the windows as they drove on by.
She wasn't really interested in that sort of view. So she pulled her jacket over herself, like a blanket, and rested her head on one arm. And she felt T-Dog's eyes on her, sometimes, but he didn't say much as they moved on and on down the quiet, country roads.
She was almost asleep—her mind started to float and wander as the tires whispered along on the asphalt.
But then a car horn blared out somewhere in the caravan, cutting sharply through the haze.
She bolted upright, darting her head around, looking for approaching walkers. Other survivors. Something that wanted to kill them.
The rest of the cars were pulling over, then, and she still didn't know what was wrong. When T-Dog joined them, pulling over at the shoulder, she saw some of the others rushing for Rick's car.
And she jumped from the truck and followed along, pulling her jacket around her shoulders as she moved.
It was Lori.
Carol could only see a little as she approached—Lori's head, rolled to the side, and one of her arms hanging limply out of the open car door. Her dark hair swayed in the slow wind.
She bolted forward. Saw that Lori was slack in the front seat of the sedan, unconscious. There was foam running out of her mouth. Rick was leaning over her from the driver's seat, clutching at her shoulder, and shouting for Hershel. His eyes were wet and his face was flushed.
And Carol stepped backwards. Her hand floated up to her lips. She looked behind them, helplessly—down the row of cars—and she saw Hershel heading for them from the back of the caravan, Maggie at his side.
Carl pushed Carol aside—rushed straight for his mother. Climbed into the front with her and had her by the arm. Hershel was almost there at that point, and the boy was trying to cling too close. So Carol took him. Pulled him back by the shoulders so that Hershel could get to Lori.
And that little boy. When she pulled him away he gave her a cold glare that shot straight through her body.
It still left her unsettled, even a day later.
But in the moment, she pushed all thought of it aside. Drew him close against her despite how he stiffened in her arms. And she could feel the handgun on his belt, pressing against her leg.
Hershel reached Lori just as she started to stir—started to come back to herself. Murmured quietly that she felt alright. Pushed at Hershel's hands, trying to brush them away. He told her that he thought she'd had a seizure.
And in that moment, there was a sound in the woods at their backs. She spun around just in time to see something fall to the ground, a distance away in the trees.
A walker. And Daryl was standing at the guardrail, crossbow in hand. He'd shot it cleanly, and it was down.
He stepped over the rail to retrieve the arrow. And Carol watched him. Searched the winter trees for more dead. But there was nothing. There weren't even birds.
When she turned around again, Rick was standing next to Hershel, leaning over the open car door. Staring at Lori. Lori was staring back at him, cooly, one hand resting on her swollen, pregnant belly.
Hershel turned to Rick, then. Put a hand on his arm.
"We need to stop somewhere safe so we can properly treat her."
And Daryl spoke up, at that, climbing over the guardrail again and heading straight for his bike.
"Let me scout on ahead. I'll find a place."
He was only gone about a half hour. When he returned, he immediately led them to this house. And when they got there, they all stood on that tired, winding porch, looking for a way in.
"Try a window," Daryl said.
"Most places, people forget to latch all the windows."
And now, in the morning, Carol could feel the coolness of the winter air moving over her face. She pulled herself out of bed. Placed her left foot on the hardwood, then the right. Walked to the window.
The backyard was wide and empty. There were tall trees skirting the iron fence—oaks that must have been well over a hundred years old, planted there when the building was new. Beyond the fence, a sloping hill dropped down into a dense forest.
Daryl walked out into the yard. Down the slate steps of the back porch and into the dormant, winter grass. He had his crossbow on his shoulder.
He walked along the perimeter, under the trees. Moving in circles. Pacing around as if he was thinking about something.
And she turned away. Went to kneel on the floor by the bed, like she had every morning since she was a child. Propped her arms up on the mattress.
And Carol prayed.
She paused. Breathed in and out.
Nothing came to her.
She thought and thought about what to say. The silence stretched out around her. She meant to keep her eyes closed, which is what you're really supposed to do when you pray, but somehow they just drifted open. The sunlight filtered over the brass headboard in front of her, and a shadow headboard stretched out behind it on the plaster.
She knelt there. Opened her mouth, closed it again.
This was getting harder and harder, lately. Even though there was a formula to these things that was supposed to make it easy. A way of speaking to the Almighty she'd been taught when she was a girl.
You thanked him before you did anything else. You counted your blessings. You never dove into petitions without acknowledging everything you'd been given. There was a way of doing things, and you had to do them right or you wouldn't be heard.
But now, she just didn't have the energy for all that. He'd hear or he wouldn't.
And still she knelt there, saying nothing. Thoughts rushed through her mind—the faces of her friends. She should pray for Lori—for Lori's baby. That was the most obvious thing.
And she should pray for the others—for the Greenes, who were still adjusting to this way of life. For Glenn and T-Dog, who'd been selfless—brave. She should pray for their protection, since they protected everybody else.
And inevitably, bravery and selflessness led her mind to Andrea. She remembered the raw terror in the fall air that night—she was just seconds away from being torn to pieces by those horrible things. And then Andrea came. Saved her. And she was screaming for Andrea to look out when that walker bore down on top of her.
And then Carol lost sight of her in the crowds of dead. She couldn't see, and had no way to find her or help her.
She should really pray for Andrea. Pray that she was still alive. That she wasn't all alone.
"Keep us all safe," she said.
That seemed to cover everything, really.
You weren't supposed to get restless while you prayed. But without thinking, she stood up. Started pacing the room in circles. Thinking.
And then she stopped in place.
"Lord… watch over Daryl."
She paused. Continued.
"Give him peace."
And she found herself back at the window. Looked down again, and saw that Daryl was gone.
She laid a hand on the glass.
"In Jesus' name," she whispered, "Amen."
When Daryl walked out into the large, open backyard of the painted lady, he looked up into the branches of the old oak trees. Saw a flock of sparrows, there. The little things were doing just fine for themselves, hopping from branch to branch, pecking around and chittering.
And the flock all took off at once. They moved off into the winter air, and he watched them fly away.
And beyond them, up in the house, he saw Carol's face in a bedroom window.
She was just turning away. He saw her profile, a moment, and her hand, pressed lightly against the glass.
And a bit later on, he saw her shape in the room, again—indistinct in the shadows, up above. She was pacing around. And somehow—he didn't know why—he felt worried for her, then. Couldn't express it, even in his mind.
He turned away. Looked deep into the forest beyond the iron fence. This town—his hometown—it had been carved out of that woods, long ago—and it was surrounded by it, still.
And like the walkers, that wilderness was hungry. Unstoppable. It devoured what men created. Chewed away at it all like it was nothing.
With no road crews and utility workers and land developers left, the forest would steadily overrun everything.
Things were changing. Daryl could sense it everywhere.
The yellowed, winter grass was thick and tall around the houses. No one had cut it all year. Windows would break, over time, and the wet would get into the homes. And they'd decay, and fall down.
The roads had debris from summer storms scattered around on them—fallen branches and other scraps. And in the spring, there would be potholes. Eventually, they wouldn't be able to get around by car anymore. Eventually, even Merle's bike wouldn't be able to pass through.
The woods would take it all back.
He started walking the length of the backyard. Thought about when he and Merle scaled the fence, and raced on through it, together.
After months and months—after finding himself pulled out of his old life and given something completely new. After all that, he found himself right back where he started.
And he knew he had to go back. Had to see the old house. He felt pulled there—couldn't explain it, just as he couldn't explain how he'd felt watching Carol up above.
And he almost walked to the front to get Merle's bike—his bike, now, really.
But instead, he scaled the iron fence—lightly—soundlessly—just as he had when he was ten. Headed into the woods. He knew the way by heart.
It was time to go home.