Here it is: the end. I have a hard time believing it's really over. This story became a huge part of my life as I worked on it—a wonderful part of my life. I'll miss it.
It's about 100,000 words long—if it were a trade paperback, that'd be around 400 pages. That's quite a journey, and thank you so much for taking it with me. I can't thank you enough, really—the pleasure of writing this can only be rivaled by the pleasure of sharing it.
The title of this piece, "Down in the Willow Garden," is drawn from a 19th century Appalachian murder ballad. I think you might enjoy it—so look it up. The Kossoy sisters provide a beautifully pure, authentic version.
And I suppose I must say goodbye. Take care everyone, and stay in touch. Finally, one more time: Thank you.
In the early hours on the second morning, Carol found herself drifting out of a restless sleep.
Before she was aware of anything else, she was aware of the cold. Her fingers were a little numb from it, and the room had an uncomfortable draft. She didn't seem to have any blankets, so she tried to burrow into the mattress to shelter herself. The movement shook the sleep from her mind, and it struck her.
She was cold.
She realized what that meant, and opened her eyes.
Her head wasn't aching anymore. The sweat was dry on her skin.
The fever had broken in the night.
She let out a long, trembling breath. Relished the chill from the drafty windows as it flowed over her face.
There were tears in stinging her eyes. She hadn't realized how much—how desperately she'd wanted to live until that moment. But she wanted to live.
She wanted to live.
The sweaty bedsheets were tangled down around her waist. Carol had a dim memory of pulling them off some time before, when she couldn't bear the press of them on her skin any longer. There were voices in the room, when she did it. People trying to speak to her. She couldn't remember who they were, or what they said.
A sound broke through the morning quiet—broke Carol's concentration. A baby crying. Lori's baby. The sound echoed on the walls—muted and distant and far away. And it sounded wonderful to Carol. She wanted nothing more than to hear those cries. To smell the crispness in the air. To breathe.
Carol listened to the baby, and watched the faint, blue dawn creeping over the wall in front of her. Dim and strange—filtered through the only window that went unbroken when the walkers came. The rest were boarded up, now, to keep out the cold.
There were patterns of light on that wall—and she couldn't stop staring at them. The silhouettes of the tree branches, outlined in soft grey against the plaster. Those branches nodded with the wind outside, and the patterns swayed and danced on the wall, in turn.
Somewhere out on the porch, the windchimes were ringing.
Carol pushed herself up in the bed. Breathed in the cool air. Pulled on her bedsheets, and they didn't give. Something was holding them down.
Daryl. He was there beside her. Asleep in a chair, slouched over with his head pressed against the mattress. His left arm was sprawled out on the coverlet. And the light from outside moved over him. Made patterns on his sleeping face. On his hands—calloused, with dirt worked deep under the fingernails.
Carol watched him, and remembered. He'd been with her the last time she woke—her eyes fluttered open, and she saw him sitting there in that chair—watching her, silently. And he was still there, now. She had no idea how many hours passed by as she wandered through that feverish haze.
But that was over, now.
So she reached out for him. Touched his hair. Tried to wake him. And he shifted. Murmured something in his sleep, softly.
He was dreaming, again.
"Daryl," she whispered.
He didn't stir. So she reached over, and pulled on his hand.
He opened his eyes. Blearily raised his head at the sound of her voice.
She looked to him, and smiled.
Later that morning, Lori brought little baby Judy in to meet Carol.
There was an energy in the air. Everyone was feeling it. The whole house was alive with people talking and moving around.
They were excited about the baby. Excited about Carol. So when Lori carried her daughter into the room, everyone in the whole house followed after her.
When they came in, Daryl drifted away from Carol's bedside. Hung back a bit, in the doorway. Stood a ways behind all the others, watching Carol smile and coo at the bundle resting in her arm.
And the others all crowded around close. Glenn and Maggie, by the window. T-Dog and Hershel talking about something by the corner of the bed. Carl was right next to his mother, leaning on the mattress, chatting a mile a minute with Carol—telling her everything he'd noticed about his sister so far.
And Beth—Beth climbed right into bed with Carol. Was leaning over her good shoulder, with a hand on Carol's arm.
Only Rick held back. Stood at Daryl's side, by the doorway. They watched the rest, together.
Daryl couldn't stop looking at her bandages—the missing arm.
She seemed so delicate to him, lying there in that bed—slight and fragile, like a sparrow.
"Oh, just look at you," Carol said, smiling down at the baby.
"Those little feet."
Lori said something to Carol, then, and she laughed. She was smiling so brightly, cradling that little baby in her one arm. The sunlight streamed brilliantly through the window and spilled over her. In his mind, it glowed on her skin.
Even so, it hurt him to look at her. Left an unsettled, sick feeling twisting deep in his chest.
She'd done it for him. It was all to save him.
And she had a bad bruise on her forehead, and a long, angry gash at the side of her face. She told them that Merle did that. Hit her head against his steering wheel.
Hershel stitched it up as well as he could, but it was bound to leave a scar.
What fucking doesn't.
Merle said that. He'd said it when Daryl stitched up his leg in the kitchen—only a few days ago. But he'd been wrong. That wound never had time to leave a scar.
It would never heal.
Daryl pushed the thoughts of his brother down deep into his gut, then. Tried to ignore them. Tried to leave them behind—like he'd left his daddy's house. Like he left his bedroom—barricaded and dark and shut away.
Judy started to cry, then, so Carol passed her back to her mama. And Daryl turned, and slipped out of the room—off into the hallway.
From that day forward, Merle haunted Daryl's dreams.
In those dreams, Daryl would move through the dark woods—through the deep shadows of the densest thickets. And Merle would be there. Sometimes Daryl couldn't see him, but he knew.
Sometimes he'd be watching from the bushes. Somewhere under the sheltering canopy of the close, draping pines.
Sometimes he followed Daryl, in those dreams. Spoke to him, as he looked for a way out of the woods. And if Daryl made it out of the forest and onto the open hills, Merle would try to call him back—back into the trees.
And sometimes, in those dreams, they'd be sitting on a footbridge, side by side, watching the creek flow along beneath them.
When he woke, Daryl tried to forget. Tried to hide his brother away. But Merle couldn't be contained. Death was nothing in the face of Merle's tenacious will. In all the ways that mattered, he was still there.
Sometimes Daryl thought of going back there—back to his daddy's house. Thought he might open up that bedroom door and do what he hadn't done before.
Because it wasn't right—leaving him there. Merle didn't belong in a cage.
But he never did it. Months passed, and he still couldn't face it—and with every passing day, the idea grew more and more awful in his mind. What Merle would be like, behind that door... he couldn't contemplate it.
And Daryl adamantly refused to send anyone else to do what he couldn't. Really, he didn't want anyone to know. He hid his cowardice, like all the other vulnerable parts inside him.
So Daryl left that task unfinished.
And for the rest of Daryl's life, he carried Merle with him. Heard his voice. Felt his presence. Met him in his dreams.
He transformed himself into a cage for his brother. Enfolded him within, and held him there, forever.
After three weeks passed by, Hershel took the final dressings from Carol's wound. Declared her healed. And with the bandages gone, she felt like she couldn't really hide from what happened, anymore. When Hershel threw that last set of wrappings away, Carol started the business of getting used to what was hidden underneath them.
She tried to keep up with all her old work, that day—didn't want to let anyone help her. Tried to wash dishes with an agonizing, awkward slowness. Eventually she just dropped a plate into the water and walked away. Headed for the stairs.
Carol retreated to her room. Stripped her clothes away, and stood naked in front of her bedroom mirror. Stared hard at the missing arm—the scars along the side of her shoulder.
That wasn't going to change. This was the way things were going to be for the rest of her life.
She sighed. Looked at herself a moment longer, and turned away.
And Carol took her robe from where it hung on her bedpost. Slipped into it as well as she could manage. Tried to tie the sash. Couldn't. So she wrapped the thing around herself, and went out the door. Headed straight to Daryl's room.
He was sitting on the edge of his bed. Didn't seem to be doing anything in particular—just thinking. He stood when she came in.
And she walked up to him. Pulled her robe aside, and showed him what had happened to her.
And Daryl—he pressed in close. Looked down at her missing arm. Reached for it.
He ran his fingers along the scars—the suture marks where Hershel folded the skin in on itself. Stared at them intently.
And the look on his face, as he saw those scars for the first time. She knew he'd never be able to forgive himself for this.
But really—she would never have done it differently, if she'd been given another chance. They were both alive. That's what mattered to her.
She looked to him, firmly. Spoke to him. Tried to make him understand.
"Daryl—I saved you."
He nodded. Looked down at the floor.
She reached out for him. Lifted his face to meet her eyes. Leaned in close.
"And you saved me."
He placed a hand just above her bare breast, then, and Carol realized he was trying to feel her heartbeat. His palm was warm against her skin. They were standing very close together, and she could feel his breath in the air—it moved on her face. She felt the warmth from his body, inches away.
And he leaned down, then, and kissed her collar bone. And then her neck. Very, very softly—a whisper against her skin.
She touched his cheek with her one hand, and spoke to him. Still felt she needed to explain.
"It's you and—"
He caught her lips, and she never finished saying it. He pressed a kiss onto her, firm and warm. Took her gently into his arms, and laid her down on his bed.
After that, four months went by like a dream.
For Daryl, the time passed strangely—it all seemed very slow and dizzyingly fast at the same time. The winter faded away, as it always did. Spring came. And somehow, Daryl found himself at the beginning of a new summer.
He'd never imagined they'd stay here in this place. But it looked like that was the plan. They were settling in for the long haul. The group had been discussing trying to figure out how to use some earth moving equipment. How to set up and maintain generators—how to test for water quality and what they could do about growing food.
They could fortify the place. Improve it. Get the electricity running. Make it a home. Build a life for each other, like Rick said all those ages and ages ago.
So Daryl realized he'd be in this town for a while. He'd fled, and fought, and struggled, and discovered countless new things… and still he ended up back here. His hometown. It seemed impossible—but there it was.
He wasn't sure how long they'd stay here—nothing was certain in this world. But for now, things seemed alright.
So Daryl kept himself busy. Spent much of his time hunting—getting used to the new crossbow he'd found for himself. It was a better model than his old one, really—much more expensive than anything he could have scrounged up for himself in his old life. But if he was honest, he didn't like it nearly as much as the one he'd lost.
And he spent days on end training Carl—who just kept on getting taller. Often, he took the kid out when he hunted. And it wasn't long before Carl joined the regular rotation for the supply runs.
And Daryl kept late-night watches with Rick, and went on those runs with Glenn and T-Dog and the others. He found himself enjoying their company more and more. And while he had trouble accepting it, at first—even realizing it—everyone else seemed to be enjoying the time they spent with him, too.
Back at the house, he looked after Carol as much as she would let him. Watched over her carefully as she learned to live with her injury. She never complained—not even once—but it slowed down every little thing she did. Made some things completely impossible. Basic things. Things she needed to do. He couldn't understand the methodical patience she seemed to have with it all. How she didn't lose it completely from sheer and utter frustration.
And he could tell how much the wound hurt her. She had phantom pains—like Merle said he had.
And so it hurt Daryl, too. He couldn't look at it, sometimes—her wound. The missing arm.
It was simply too painful.
And so while Daryl had many, many things that demanded his time, there were many more that weighed down on his spirit.
But even so—sometimes, when everything else was done—when he had time to be by himself, Daryl just walked around in the forest. The forest of his childhood. The one he'd shared with Merle—where he'd spent all those long days as a child. Where he found a peaceful shelter from their daddy's house.
Daryl would wander there, out underneath the fresh, green leaves, and open that shut door he'd hidden away inside—down deep in the back of his mind.
He'd walk through the trees, and think about his brother.
In the midst of Daryl's settled routine, Carol told him she was pregnant.
The pregnancy was a complete surprise to her—to both of them. And it was over just as suddenly as it came. After only a few short weeks, she miscarried. Spring had just started blooming on the trees when it happened.
It was her sixth lost baby, she said.
In the short time they knew about the pregnancy, he'd looked at her—at her body—with a sort of hushed awe. A sort of quiet wonder that he could be a part of something like that.
It seemed like magic.
But that wonder—that magic—they were tinged full through with a dizzying, giddy fear. Like when he was a kid, and he found himself too far up in the tree branches and had no idea how he'd managed to climb so high. He'd feel like he could fall any moment—though the air up in the treetops was fresh, and the view of the forest was beautiful.
And Carol had just turned forty-five, and so while neither of them said anything about it, they both knew it had probably been the last chance.
After she lost the baby, he listened to her cry most every night. She'd weep into his shoulder, and he'd hold her in their bed. And he wanted to say something that would help her feel better—but he didn't have any words.
Over time, he came to feel like her tears weren't just about the miscarriage—they were about everything. All of the many things she'd lost.
So a hollow sort of sadness filled the air between them. He spent night after night listening to her cry, and day after day thinking about all the things that might have been.
And then, one night, Carol's tears just faded away on their own. She slept beside him silently the whole night through.
And he saw her starting to change, after that. She started getting quiet.
She was thinking—hard. He could see it. It went on for days, and weeks. He'd catch her watching the budding leaves through the windows—staring out into the trees when she thought no one was looking.
And her face. Her expression—it began to look different to him. Harder. Colder. More resolute. Even the way she carried her body was different. Her back was straighter. People started taking notice when she came in and out of a room.
It suited her, somehow. On her face, that new severity was almost painfully beautiful. She looked like a saint in a painting to him. Regal and calm.
He was reminded of that night in the basement. Of how she looked, standing there, covered in her own blood—standing above the walkers she'd beaten to death with her bare hands. He remembered her fierce eyes, reflecting the moonlight cast through the narrow windows.
Her face had much the same look, then. The same fire. The same strength.
Carol. She was full of hidden depths he'd only begun to understand. And he loved her for it.
He loved her.
One morning that May, Carol found herself standing in the door to her old bedroom.
She'd long since moved into one of the larger rooms with Daryl. In the painted lady, there were so many empty spaces they'd essentially had their pick.
Thinking of all those empty rooms, Carol decided to give the house a good airing, that morning. Unused spaces got stale and musty, and she didn't like the idea of that. A place people lived shouldn't be that way. A home should be clean.
So she woke very early, and had been moving all around the house, opening doors and windows and letting the sun and wind stream in.
And when she reached her old bedroom, she just stood there. Looked around. She hadn't been here for months—so it felt strange to see it. Like moving back in time.
All her notes were still on the vanity table. Rosalie's journals were there, too. She hadn't thought much about those books in a good, long while. If she was honest, she hadn't thought of Rosalie much, either.
So she gathered everything up. Put the journals away in a drawer. One by one—because she only had one hand, and couldn't do it any other way.
And her hand brushed something as she tucked that final journal away. There was something in the drawer—way back in the corner. And then she remembered.
It was the holster Daryl gave her that past December. And the .38 special was there right behind it, with the ammunition.
She reached out and touched the buckle of that holster. The leather belt. The hand-punched holes Daryl put there for her, all those months ago.
Carol looked at them and thought, as the summer air poured over her from the open window.
Hours later, Daryl woke to find that Carol wasn't in their bed. He could tell from the light that he'd slept later than usual. He looked over, and saw that her boots were gone from their place by the door. She was already up—had left the room so quietly she managed not to wake him.
He went downstairs to look for her, and immediately saw her standing in the front parlor. He paused at the end of the staircase—by those strange, newel post carvings.
Two women. One face intact. The other, shot away. Obliterated. And he stood between them, there, a moment—between the one that was destroyed, and the one that remained.
He walked into the front parlor, and went to Carol, standing there. She was at the piano. The lid was still up from the time she'd last played it— months ago, before she lost her arm. The keys were coated with dust.
She leaned in, over the bench. Reached out with her one hand. Hit middle C, and listened to the tone ring out in the morning quiet.
Then she closed the lid for the last time.
He came to her. She looked up. Smiled one of her small, close-lipped smiles. And her face. It was so firm. She met his gaze—steady and cool.
And he found himself missing the old softness, a little. Mourned it, like he mourned his brother.
And yet he was struck by it all over again. She was even more beautiful than she'd been before.
It was in her eyes.
She shifted. Stepped towards him. And he noticed it—she was wearing the .38 special. His daddy's revolver. The one Daddy pointed at him when he was just eight years old. Merle fought Daddy off, then—took that savage beating to save Daryl's life. Their daddy could easily have killed Merle, hitting him over the head with the side of the handgun like he did.
They'd both been lucky that day.
What Merle did that time, when Daryl was a kid… it was a lot like what Carol did for him all those years later.
Daryl looked Carol over. She had a hunting knife hanging from her belt. He didn't know where she'd gotten it from, or how long she'd had it.
But he could see exactly what she had in mind. What she wanted him to do.
Carol nodded down to the holster on her hip. And when she spoke, it was with direct, terse kind of forcefulness.
"Teach me," she said.
And before he knew what he was doing, he pulled her in with both hands, and kissed her—hard and deep.
And when he drew away, he saw it. Saw it in her face. She was going to be alright.
She was going to be just fine.
While Carol stood with Daryl beside that piano, she felt the future was uncertain.
He'd teach her to use that weapon. They'd fight the danger that surrounded them on all sides. They'd live, and try, and do their best.
And as they stood there, she noticed that something seemed to catch Daryl's eye. One of the paintings on the wall, behind the piano.
An ocean landscape. The sand beach, and the rocks, and the water in waves that filtered the sunrise with greens and pure, clean blues. He stared into that perfect world, surrounded by its golden frame.
And Carol looked to him, questioningly.
And he smiled a little—one of his awkward, crooked smiles. And he told her all about what he was thinking.
"I ain't never been nowhere. Ain't never seen nothing—but I always wanted to see the ocean. Ever since I was a little kid, really… but every damned time I try and do it, somethin' seems to get in the way..."
A heavy breeze picked up outside, and the summer air flowed through the house. All the way from the back porch, rushing through the open windows and around the wood paneling and over Daryl and Carol where they stood. And the sound of the wind in the forest leaves was like waves. Ocean waves.
"So maybe we'll go there," she said, laying her hand on his arm. Looked to him.
"Maybe we'll see it, someday."