Finally, I'm able to get the last chapter of this story to you. It's been a harrowing time. I have had two surgical procedures in the last month, and have been preparing to move a thousand miles away, which happens about two weeks from now. Things have been tough.
I want to thank some people who have been invaluable as I've written this: Therm and ResidentGoth foremost among them. There are so many others... GoneRandom, Designation, Surplus Imagination... so many talented writers who have been generous enough to listen to my ideas and talk about them with me. Thank you.
And thank you all for reading. I will be preparing a long fic for the summer, once I'm settled into my new life. And now to see how Judith fares in her new life. Enjoy.
Judith hunched low over her tinder, and struck the flintstone against the steel.
The forest was dark all around her campsite. Nighttime fell so damned fast—like a curtain.
Without her even realizing it, some twelve hours had slipped by since Daryl died.
And her steel set off a little spark—but the damned fire just wouldn't light. So she tried again. And again. It wasn't working. Judy let out a breath. Struck at it as hard as she could—angry. Clumsy. Her hand slipped, and the steel landed on the ground.
She jumped up. Felt the tears stinging in her eyes. Spun around, clutching the flintstone tight in her hand. Made to throw it into the bushes. Stopped herself at the last moment.
She kicked the dirt, and dropped back down to the ground.
The coastal forest was cold at night. The fog worked into everything—so that the world around her was a blank, dark canvas. It all seemed different than it had in the morning—when Daryl was still with her.
But there was nothing to be done but to keep on going. Keep on trying to light that fire. So she leaned in close over her little pile of tinder, again—straining to see what she was doing in the pitch black. Made another try at it.
The sparks flew, and the thing began to smolder. She leaned in and blew on it—too much.
The fire died. She'd killed it. There was nothing left but a thin ribbon of smoke, winding its way into the sky.
She kept murmuring to herself as she tried again. Swearing under her breath. And the spark just wouldn't go. She got nothing.
It was too goddamned damp out. The stuff wasn't going to flare up without a fight.
And she knew that Daryl kept a little bag of wood shavings and dried bark in his rucksack—the one she'd thrown halfway over the cliffside. So she didn't have any of what was in there. She forgot to go and get the thing, when she left.
She just left.
And she'd forgotten most of their other things on that goddamned beach. The tent. Their bedrolls. All she had was her own bag, their guns, and his crossbow.
Judith hadn't been thinking of anything but getting away, then. Just as far as she could get—didn't give a solitary shit where she ended up.
Only that it was east. Away from the coast.
So she'd worked a path down the overgrown highway—almost indistinguishable from the waterlogged fenlands that grew around it. And Judy didn't pay attention to any of it. Just forced her way through the marsh grass and tangled briars.
She must've put twenty miles behind her before it got dark—so dark she just couldn't see where she was going, anymore. She'd had no choice but to stop for the night.
It was around then—when she stopped walking—that she started to become aware of a strange, strangling sensation in her throat. As she tried to light her fire, that tightness swelled—throttled her, like a hand grabbing at her neck and squeezing.
And now, with the fire dead in front of her, that feeling got so bad she doubled over—gagging against it. But her throat wouldn't clear.
She breathed hard, then. Clenched her fists, and counted to ten. Tried one more time with the flintsone. This time, the tinder lit. Started to smolder, softly. The smoke blew up into her face. She gently fanned the flames, a moment, until they started to swell.
When the fire came to life, she leaned back. Muttered to herself.
And Judith curled into her knees, then. Buried her face against them, looking down at her shoes. The firelight caught the chain of her mama's necklace—hanging on her belt loop. Made it glow.
And she sat there. Didn't know what to do with herself, now. Now that she wasn't headed down the highway. Now that she wasn't struggling with the fire. Now that she out here, in the dark, alone.
She could hardly comprehend what happened. In her mind, she felt like Daryl had to be close by. Like she'd hear his footfalls in the trees if she listened for them.
So she closed her eyes, a moment, and tried to hear the grumbling tenor of his breath. The sound of his boots shifting on the leaves. Listened and listened and tried to conjure it up the way she could hear it in her mind.
But there was nothing. No one. Silence.
So she burrowed closer into herself, and listened to the wind pull at the pine branches. She didn't sleep. Just sat there until the sun started to rise.
Thirteen years passed, and Judith was thirty years old. She'd been on her own as long as she'd ever been with Daryl.
One September afternoon, she perched up on a high branch of a maple tree—circled by a wreath of autumn leaves that filtered the sun. Everything was rich, dark greens, tinged with oranges and reds and bright yellows.
She had an old, college-ruled notebook with her, way up on that branch. Spent a long time flipping through the pages. They were older than she was—and a bit yellowed around the edges—but they still got the job done. Were fine for writing. So for the last couple weeks, she'd filled the whole book with stories.
And now, it was ready.
She paused on one page—skimmed a passage, near the beginning:
That little boy gave me four bullets. And I always thought—well—I thought that it meant I had four more for that little .22 than I'd have had otherwise. Even back then, I thought that might change things. That it'd be important, later. And it was. It was.
And Judy closed the book, a moment. Wasn't in any kind of hurry. Listened to the wind in the leaves, a bit, and then turned to where she had her bag—dangling by the straps off a nearby branch, with her crossbow at its side. She pulled out a fresh apple from one of the outside pockets, and took a bite.
As she chewed on it, she made to keep reading—but stopped short. Sensed a movement from the corner of her eye. A little shape on a nearby branch. She turned to it, and smiled.
"Hey—what're you lookin' at?"
A squirrel. It tilted its head. Stared at the apple in her hand.
"Oh, I see how it is."
She dropped the notebook down on her knee, and pulled the smallest knife from her belt. Cut a wedge from the apple. Held it out.
But the thing wouldn't come to take it. Shied back from her a moment, nervously. Watched her with those beady little sloe eyes.
"C'mon," she said, "Crossbow's way over there, see? I ain't gonna eat you. We're in an, uh… armistice, ok?"
It paused again—just a moment. Then it darted forward, and seized the wedge. Clutched it tight in its little hands and dove right on in. And Judith smiled. Watched it nibbling away as fast as it could—like it had never had anything to eat before its whole life.
"Yeah, you like that, don't you?"
And she turned back to the pages. Moved further along through the book, while she listened to the squirrel chewing away:
Daryl always tried to make sure I knew about my family. He seemed to think that was important. And so he told me stories about them—everything he could remember. But I think there was more to it than that. I think he did a lot of it for himself, really. He wanted me to know about them so I'd be a bit like them. So I'd remind him of the others. The ones who were long, long gone.
And so when I broke my ankle, Daryl gave me knitting needles. A book of instructions. Yarn. He thought he was just trying to keep me busy. But he chose those things for a reason—I know it.
A heavy breeze rushed through the leaves, and spilled over her face like water. Pulled at the pages in her hands, and at the grass at the foot of the maple.
And Judy didn't pay much attention to them, but there were some human bones on the ground, down there—below the tree. A few ribs, connected to part of a spinal column. Bleached by the sun and tangled over with weeds.
Judith kept reading on that tree branch much of the afternoon. Munched at the apple, slowly. Worked on the notebook—adding things in the margins, here and there. Memories she'd forgotten to include.
And then there were noises, down the road. Horse's hooves, and quiet voices.
People. It'd been at least a month since she'd run into anyone. She lived out in the deep woods, a lot of the time—until she needed something. But she'd been getting closer and closer to the places people lived, the last few days—was on the side of an old roadside, now.
They came into view. Two older women—in their sixties, at least. One riding a horse, the other leading it by the reigns. Keeping an eye out for debris on the road, as they pushed through the dead stalks of summer grass.
"How's Fiver?" that woman on the road said. Patted the horse's neck, and looked up to the rider.
That rider had long hair—white, and shot through with grey. Tied up neatly at her back. And looking at her closer, as they passed by, Judy realized she was even older than the woman on the road. In her seventies—maybe even her eighties.
Really, it was a miracle she'd lived so long. Out on the road like that, with just another woman to look after her…
And the elderly rider stroked the horse's mane, and smiled.
"He's not as tired as me."
And Judy stayed still. Sat and waited for them to pass by. Looked down into the branches below her. At the gnarled bark. She noticed an abandoned bird's nest, then—lined with some strands of human hair. A scrap of bloodstained flannel.
The women never noticed her, watching them from above like a bird. And when they were gone, she kept reading through her work:
Sometimes I wonder about what Daryl was thinking when he was out on the seashore—standing there in the surf, looking out at the waves. Maybe back to when he was kid—what it was like for him, then. It's always been hard for me to picture that world, and that life. Before the walkers. But I'll tell you everything he told me about what it was like—and then I'll leave it for you to figure out.
And when Judith was finished, she meant to wrap the notebook up in plastic and nestle it into a hollow. Or some old storefront. Somewhere close to where people went—just like she did with all the other countless notebooks she'd filled over the years.
Someone would find it, someday, and read it.
She was about to pop the thing back into her bag, when she heard a cry from down the road. One of those women—shouting.
Judy immediately scanned the distance. Looked for the mass of walkers she was instantly certain she would see.
But there wasn't anything. No mass of bodies, headed along the road. Herds were like hurricanes, or forest fires, or earthquakes. They could happen—but no one saw them much. Judith hadn't seen one in over ten years.
But every time she heard commotion, it was the first thing her mind jumped to.
And in any case, Judy knew she wasn't in much danger, up hidden on her treebranch—safe.
But those women. Whatever was happening, it was happening to them.
So she left what remained of that apple in the crook of the tree branch. Nodded to the squirrel—running around up in the branches above her head.
"Lucky day, little guy. All yours."
And she climbed down through the branches. Leapt onto the grass, and made her way to check out what was going on.
Judith moved briskly down the road—though it was so choked with grass, you could hardly tell it had ever been a road. Only a narrow path down the middle was worn down from some pretty frequent foot travel.
Judith drew the crossbow, silently—ready for any sign of trouble.
She didn't have to wait long.
The first thing she saw was the older woman on that horse—and the horse was skittish. Out of control. It was shying back on its hooves. Seemed close to throwing her.
Judith rushed forward, then. Made to grab the reigns. But stopped short. Saw something else.
The other woman—the one who was a bit younger. She was pinned in the muddy grass at the side of the road. And there was an old walker—just half a body. Must have gotten her by the legs. Hiding in the grass like it was, she wouldn't have seen it until it went for her.
And now it had her flat on her back. Sent the horse into a panic. And that woman cried out—kicking at the body as it pulled its way up over her.
Judy took careful aim, and sent a bolt through the walker's skull. It was close range. Easy enough to do. And after that, she dropped the crossbow. Made to calm the horse. Got it by the reigns.
"Shhh," she murmured, "C'mon… c'mon boy…"
The rider stroked its mane, then, and it started to settle. But she saw something. Her hand froze in place, and she shouted her friend's name:
Judy spun around. That other woman—Nina—was still stuck in the mud. Her pack was weighing her down, and with the dead walker's body sprawled over her, she couldn't get herself upright. And it was then that Judith realized there was another body in the grass. A fresh one—someone else that walker had taken down. A lone traveler, caught off his guard.
And his body was starting to move.
So Judy dropped the reigns, and went straight for the thing. He started to pull himself upright, and she planted a foot firmly on his chest. Pushed him down again.
And she climbed up over the thing—cold and blood-soaked and snarling. Got her knee firmly on its throat. And it struggled against her. Reached up and pulled at her hair. Part of it came loose from her braids, and spilled down over her shoulders.
And Judith chuckled at the walker, then. They were feisty when they were fresh—she'd almost forgotten. So she shook her head at him. Clucked her tongue.
"Woah. Simmer down there, buddy."
She rooted around, twisted to get at her knife. But his arms were in her way. It was easier to go for his belt, than hers. So she ended up grabbing at it—feeling around for what he had on there. And she got the hilt of his machete. Drew it. Forced the walker's head down with one hand. Aimed for the neck with the other, and sent the blade on home.
She hacked at it a couple times, until the head was off. Let out a low grunt, then stabbed the severed head through the eye.
And that was that.
Judith got up. Yanked the blade out, and shook the blood off. Poked at the body with her foot, a moment.
The woman on the ground rolled the body off herself, and propped herself up on her hands. Judy could hear the older woman coming up from behind—holding the horse by the reigns.
And Judith stuck the machete in the bark of a fallen tree. Turned away, and started putting her hair back up in its braids.
A voice broke the silence from behind her.
It was the woman on the ground—Nina. And Judith didn't answer right away. Took a second to look her over.
Then she nodded, once.
And Judy could see that Nina was staring at her. And thought of what she must look like to these women. Her holstered python—totally useless, now that the bullets were gone. Her clothes—patched and sewn and altered over the years—so much so she'd really made most of them herself. Her mama's necklace—which she'd taken to wearing around her neck, these days.
Her many, many scars.
But she shook it all off. To be honest, she didn't really care what they made of her. So she leaned over, and took Nina by the hand. Pulled her up from the ground, and patted her on the arm.
And then Judith smiled—a tight, close-lipped sort of thing. Without another word, she turned on her heels. Picked up her bag, and her crossbow. Slung them both over her shoulder, and wandered off into the trees.
That night, Judith sat at her fireside, alone, reading a book of poetry. She'd just made it to Tennyson's Ulysses:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone.
The wind in the trees sounded like the ocean waves. And so she thought of Daryl, then. Daryl—left lying out on the bluffs overhanging the shore. At rest on the outermost edge of this wide continent.
If she went back there—if she ever wanted to do such a thing—she'd find nothing left of him, by now. The animals would have come for his flesh. Parts of him must have been carried off by the sea birds. Off over the water. Out far. Far away.
And that was right. He'd want that. It was like the sky burials she'd read about in old textbooks. Like Ulysses on his final journey.
And she could almost hear his voice—way back when she was ten years old. Calling her to the bike, so they could ride away:
Yo, Judy—we're burnin' daylight!
That could've been a motto, for her and Daryl. He'd taught her to travel—always to keep moving. So it was how she'd always, always lived. And by now, she'd been everywhere. Up and down both coasts. She'd skirted the deserts. Stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon, once, and watched the sun rise. And lately, she'd found herself back in the close hills nestling around the Appalachian mountains.
And the nighttime… it felt different now—looking back to that first night without Daryl. The dark seemed so hollow, then. Not now. Not with the firelight warm on her face. On the locket hanging from her neck, and the scarf she'd wrapped up in, to ward away the autumn's nighttime chill.
Things were ok. She had everything she needed. She had her books. She had the world. She had herself.
And Judith would make notes around the margins of the book she was reading. Might fold some sheets of paper into the leaves, telling whoever might find the thing about what it all meant to her.
How it reminded her of Daryl.
She moved further down the page, then. Found another passage that jumped out. Underlined it in pencil, as she read:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all Experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
Judith's fire crackled against the night air. An owl cried out in the dark.
She turned the page, and read on.