Merle and Daryl had different fathers.
Merle’s father was Daddy. Daddy taught him how to hunt, how to track, how to clean a gun, and how to chop down a tree so it didn’t fall right on top of ya. When Merle was five, Daddy let him sit on his lap and drive the car while Mama tsked about how dangerous it was.
Merle’s Daddy talked about honor and obligation and how lucky they were to be who they were. Merle’s Daddy told him stories about cowboys and bank robbers when he tucked him in at night. They were poor, but money wasn’t everything, and Daddy had an important job that only a few people could do. Not those other people, the ungrateful ones that hated them, but the ones who understood honor and what it took to be a man.
When Merle was nearly nine years old, Daddy told him that he was the man of the house, and that he should take care of his Mama. That there was a baby in her belly, and Merle needed to look out for both of them while Daddy was away. There were bad men, and it was Daddy’s job to fight bad men, so he had to go far away to fight them. Merle’s Daddy was a Hero.
Daryl’s father was different.
More than a year after Daddy left, a monster who stole his face came home from the war, and that was the person Daryl called their father.
Daryl’s father was loud and usually drunk and he shouted things into the night that made Merle’s skin crawl. The first time Merle tried to stand between him and his Mama – and Daddy had told him to take care of Mama – Daryl’s father hit him so hard his right eye swelled together and one of his back teeth was loose. Merle asked Mama if Daryl, still new and not even able to stand up yet, could move into his room. She said she thought that was a good idea.
Merle tried to teach Daryl everything their real Daddy had taught him, but it was hard. Daryl was a lot of work. He was needy and wanted attention all the time, and Merle sometimes just wanted to be left alone. It wasn’t supposed to be his job. It was Daddy’s job, but Daddy had let the monster steal his face. It was Mama’s job, but Mama just kept saying that Daddy would come back one day and it wasn’t a monster with his face, Daddy was just nervous. Then she drank and went to sleep while Merle took care of Daryl.
Merle tried hard, but he was just so tired all the time. And he was mad. Because all that stuff that he told Daryl at first, the things Daddy had told him about, it was believing those things that killed his daddy. That turned him into the monster that was always swinging his fists and hitting things and saying horrible things to his Mama.
They turned him into the monster that kept trying to get to Daryl.
Then Mama died, and Merle knew that the monster did it. If one of them died it should have been the man Daryl called Dad. Merle wouldn’t call him that. Merle’s Daddy was dead. Merle was the man of the house, no matter what that monster said. He was the man of the house until Daddy came home.
Being the man of the house when everybody else got to be a kid was hard, but Merle found something that let him rest sometimes. First, there was pot. It made all the knots twisted up inside him loosen just a little bit and he could sleep. Just rest.
Sometimes, Merle thought about never having to wake up, but he had Daryl to take care of. Every time he had to leave Daryl for a while, because people wouldn’t leave him alone and every little thing he did the damned cops had some kind of problem with, he had nightmares of the monster being alone with Daryl.
Sometimes, Daddy came to him in dreams and yelled at him for every time he wasn’t good enough. Every time Mama got hit. Every time Daryl missed school. Every time Merle tried to fight the monster and ended up on the floor bloody. Every time he failed a class or lost a fight. Every time he just didn’t measure up.
In juvie, he found something better than pot. It made the entire world feel okay for a while. He would be careful. Just a little, just every now and then, so he could rest. So all those damned thoughts in his brain would stop circling long enough for him to feel good for a while.
More than anything, Merle wanted to be the man his Daddy was when he was small. But he wouldn’t be no fool. He wouldn’t fall for all of honor and obligation bullshit. No, Merle just wanted to learn to fight better. To be bigger and stronger than anybody so that nobody could hurt him or Daryl again.
Daryl was older now. It was time he learned to fight for himself more, anyway. He could take of himself for a little while. Long enough for Merle to make through basic and then come back for him. He would have enough money to take care of them then, too.
When Merle joined the army, it was going to be the answer to everything. He just had to be careful about how many times he let himself relax. He had to stay away from the pills that put him to sleep and the pills that woke him up. And he couldn’t smoke pot for a while. That’s all.
When Daryl was nine, Merle told him that he was the man of the house, and that he had to take care of himself and be careful around the monster while he was away. He told him he was going to come back soon and take them both far away, and everything was going to be different.
But he didn’t come back. Not for a long time, and in all the ways that counted, not ever.
When Daryl was sixteen, he met the monster that had stolen his brother’s face. He was mean and usually high, and Merle’s brother was a prisoner deep inside his body that only came out to see Daryl every once in a while, and never came out when anyone else was around.
Daryl put up with the monster so he could see those brief glimpses of the big brother that he remembered. Because without his big brother, Daryl would be all alone in the world.